Friday, August 22, 2008

An Ideal Husband - Review



It's not often that I have reviewed drama in these pages.  Some friends and I attended An Ideal Husband, a play from the pen of one of Ireland's favourite and most brilliant dramatists, Oscar Wilde some nights ago and it was so wonderful an experience  that I had to review it here.  It is directed with magnificent theatricality and verve by Wilde aficionado and expert Neil Bartlett. He teams up with his long-time collaborator, designer Rae Smith, to work with the Abbey for the first time.  Well, Rae Smith, take a bow.  The set and design are so wonderful that the audience is left in awe.  We might as well be in Victorian London at the time of the play's first performance - 1895.  It reminded me of the opening scene of the film Cyrano de Bergerac starring the inimitable Gérard Depardieu (1990) with its splendid and sumptuous opening scene.

I came across the following quotation from Wilde.  Unfortunately, the Internet site does not give its provenance.  However, the quotation is so good that its use here is entirely appropriate.   Wilde said: "I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being." This play does indeed share with us the audience a marvellous sense of what its author understands by what it means to be a human being.  Let me explain.

As soon as Wilde crops up in conversation, there are only three or perhaps four things that pop immediately into our minds, viz., (i) his absolute genius and his predilection for aphorisms - in short, his wit, (ii) his homosexuality or even pederasty, (iii) his wonderful plays and (iv) his famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.  We are not disappointed as regards aphorisms and wonderful lines in the present play, An Ideal Husband.  In this play Lord Goring has most of the wonderful lines.  Incidentally, the actor who plays him, Mark O'Halloran, steals the show with his wonderful and outstanding performance.  While the lead actor Simon Wilson, is by no means a bad actor, he is out-shone and out-classed by O'Halloran.  I'll quote a selection of the wonderful lines from this play here for your perusal:

  • Even you are not rich enough, Sir Robert, to buy back your past. No man is.

(Usually quoted as: No man is rich enough to buy back his own past.) Mrs Cheveley, Act I

  • I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself. Lord Goring, Act I.
  • Sooner or later we have all to pay for what we do.  Mrs Chevely, Act I.
  • I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about.  Lord Goring, Act I.
  • To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.  Lord Goring, Act III
  • I don't at all like knowing what people say of me behind my back. It makes me far too conceited.  Lord Goring, Act IV.

There are two quotations from the six aphorisms that I have quoted above that are particularly ad rem viz., "No man is rich enough to buy back his past" and "Sooner or later we have all to pay for what we do."  When Wilde wrote not alone these lines but the whole play he was most aware of their import.  As Neil Barlett points out in the programme for the current production, Wilde's life was in chaos in the year leading up to the glittering opening of his play on the London stage:

His marriage was on the rocks, and he was being blackmailed by the proprietor of the homosexual brothel of which he had been a regular client, over a letter written to his lover.  His relationship with that lover, the increasingly demanding and violent Lord Alfred Douglas, was so stormy and time consuming that in order to write the first act of the play he was forced to hire a private office whose address he kept secret...(Programme, 2)

Indeed, Wilde could see the writing on the wall.  He must have realised all too well that sooner than later he was going to have to pay for the choices he had taken in his past.  He himself had experienced being blackmailed and in this play we have that blackmailer supreme - Mrs Chevely - who is played superbly by the wonderful Derbhle Crotty.  She actually ends up using two letters for blackmail, not alone one.  Sir Robert Chiltern, played very well but not brilliantly, by Simon Wilson, is the same age Wilde was when he wrote the play, is married, meteorically successful and is faced head on with his impending downfall.  Like Wilde he was facing a high fall from grace.  Unfortunately, things did not work out as swimmingly for Wilde as they do for ChilternLord Goring is like a miniature Wilde with an arsenal of aphorisms and epigrams and is played with a veritable tour de force by Mark O'Halloran, beside whom even a very good actor pales somewhat in effect.

What struck me about this play, that while being looked on as a Society Comedy mainly, is very much more indeed.  It deals with big, universal and indeed contemporary themes:- corruption, especially in political circles, to name a prominent theme.  It also has a deep humanising theme namely the way we can set our heroes, indeed our very husbands up on pedestals and expect them to be super-heroes or super-humans.  This they very much are not.  Wilde insists, as all good drama does, that heroes do also have feet of clay.  That's why we need drama in our culture, especially the tragedy genre which paints the picture of the flawed hero.  Wilde manages, then, to include a deep, almost existential theme, if you forgive a philosophical anachronism on my part, of the fragility and flawed-ness of the hero into this Society Comedy.  Yes it sure is comedy, but it is comedy plus plus plus...

As regards intrigue and bribery the dialogue between Sir Robert Chiltern and Mrs Chevely is choc a bloc with what could be reported in current newspapers:

MRS. CHEVELEY.
[In her most nonchalant manner.]

   My dear Sir Robert, you are a man of the world, and you have your price, I suppose. Everybody has nowadays. The drawback is that most people are so dreadfully expensive. I know I am. I hope you will be more reasonable in your terms.

...

MRS. CHEVELEY.

   It was a swindle, Sir Robert. Let us call things by their proper names. It makes everything simpler. And now I am going to sell you that letter, and the price I ask for it is your public support of the Argentine scheme. You made your own fortune out of one canal. You must help me and my friends to make our fortunes out of another!

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN.

   It is infamous, what you propose-infamous!

MRS. CHEVELEY.

   Oh, no! This is the game of life as we all have to play it, Sir Robert, sooner or later! ...

Sooner or later we have all to pay for what we do. You have to pay now. Before I leave you to-night, you have got to promise me to suppress your report, and to speak in the House in favour of this scheme.

How contemporary - probably a universal and age-old theme - all this sounds - everybody has a price.  There is refreshing honesty in "let's call things by their proper names."  This sort of honesty is important.  Let's forget all about euphemisms that cover over unpalatable truths.  When Wilde wrote the above dialogue all these words were wrung from personal painful experience.  And then how can we hear lines like the following without taking into account Wilde's own bitter experiences of life:

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN.
[Bitterly.]

   Men who every day do something of the same kind themselves. Men who, each one of them, have worse secrets in their own lives.

LORD GORING.

   That is the reason they are so pleased to find out other people's secrets. It distracts public attention from their own.

Victorian society, possibly the most sexually repressed society ever in cultural history, is the backdrop against which all of the lurid details of Wilde's complex life unfolded. 

I also loved the following piece of dialogue between Sir Robert Chiltern and Lord Arthur Goring for its insight into courage and weakness:

Weak? Oh, I am sick of hearing that phrase. Sick of using it about others. Weak? Do you really think, Arthur, that it is weakness that yields to temptation? I tell you that there are terrible temptations that it requires strength, strength and courage, to yield to. To stake all one's life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure, I care not-there is no weakness in that. There is a horrible, a terrible courage. I had that courage. I sat down the same afternoon and wrote Baron Arnheim the letter this woman now holds. He made three-quarters of a million over the transaction.

Or again, that traditional Shakespearean tragic flaw:

LORD GORING.

I can't tell you how at present. I have not the smallest idea. But every one has some weak point. There is some flaw in each one of us.

 

Lord Goring's encounters with Sir Robert and later with Lady Chiltern are wonderful exchanges about the morality of judging others and about the flawed nature of every human being:

LADY CHILTERN.
[Gravely.]

   I hope so. Why do you look at me so strangely, Lord Goring?

LORD GORING.

   Lady Chiltern, I have sometimes thought that . . . perhaps you are a little hard in some of your views on life. I think that . . . often you don't make sufficient allowances. In every nature there are elements of weakness, or worse than weakness.

 

Then Sir Robert's later encounter with his wife is also wonderfully deep and reflective:

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN.

   There was your mistake. There was your error. The error all women commit. Why can't you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals? We have all feet of clay, women as well as men; but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love. It is when we are wounded by our own hands, or by the hands of others, that love should come to cure us-else what use is love at all? All sins, except a sin against itself, Love should forgive. All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon. A man's love is like that. It is wider, larger, more human than a woman's. Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely. You made your false idol of me, and I had not the courage to come down, show you my wounds, tell you my weaknesses. I was afraid that I might lose your love, as I have lost it now. And so, last night you ruined my life for me-yes, ruined it! What this woman asked of me was nothing compared to what she offered to me. She offered security, peace, stability. The sin of my youth, that I had thought was buried, rose up in front of me, hideous, horrible, with its hands at my throat. I could have killed it for ever, sent it back into its tomb, destroyed its record, burned the one witness against me. You prevented me. No one but you, you know it. And now what is there before me but public disgrace, ruin, terrible shame, the mockery of the world, a lonely dishonoured life, a lonely dishonoured death, it may be, some day? Let women make no more ideals of men! let them not put them on alters and bow before them, or they may ruin other lives as completely as you-you whom I have so wildly loved-have ruined mine!

[He passes from the room. LADY CHILTERN rushes towards him, but the door is closed when she reaches it. Pale with anguish, bewildered, helpless, she sways like a plant in the water. Her hands, outstretched, stem to tremble in the air like blossoms in the mind. Then she flings herself down beside a sofa and buries her face. Her sobs are like the sobs of a child.]
[ACT DROP]

There is also much truth in the exchanges between Lord Goring and Lady Chiltern in the last Act:

LADY CHILTERN.

   We have both been punished. I set him up too high.

LORD GORING.
[With deep feeling in his voice.]

   Do not for that reason set him down now too low. If he has fallen from his altar, do not thrust him into the mire. Failure to Robert would be the very mire of shame. Power is his passion. He would lose everything, even his power to feel love. Your husband's life is at this moment in your hands, your husband's love is in your hands. Don't mar both for him.

All in all this is a wonderful production of an equally wonderful play.  The Abbey, its directors and its cast are much to be praised.  The rest is silence, as they say.



Above I have uploaded a public domain picture of Oscar Wilde.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Quest For Father 3



In this post I won't have too much to add to the comprehensive survey I made of Seán Hamilton's character as delineated in Hugo Hamilton's first memoir The Speckled People.  In fact as the boy grows older he grows further and further away from his parents as is natural.  The second book The Sailor in the Wardrobe, the presence of father grows less large while that of his mother comes strongly to the fore.  However, I shall briefly skim this second memoir for any other possible insights into the father archetype

In all that I have written yesterday in my last post and in what I shall say in this I find that at least one of Friedrich Nietzsche's aphorisms can serve as a marvellous backdrop.  It goes thus: "What was silent in the father speaks in the son, and often I found the son the unveiled secret of the father." (Thus Spake Zarathustra, quoted in Reclaiming Father, op.cit., 103)

Quoting another German author, Hans Magnus Enzensberger on the frontispiece of The Sailor in the Wardrobe and this quotation reads: "Disconnectedness is our identity."  There is a lot of truth is this.  These two memoirs are about a youngster called Hugo trying to find his identity.  In his searching for it he has to get out from under the shadow of his father.  He has to break free from the weight of the past.  Both his father and mother had deep and troublesome experiences, but they were also very strong people so the young boy had to struggle hard to break that strong umbilical chord. 

On the burdens of the past, Hugo says this: 

These are things I need to forget, things I don't want to think about any more.  I want to have no past behind me, no conscience and no memory.  I want to get away from my home and my family and my history.  (ibid., 7)

Seán Hamilton, the man of Causes:

I have always been interested in what makes people take up causes; to have the feeling that they need to promote causes for the greater good of others; and why they should be so convinced that they themselves are a prophet or even theprophet

But my father will not let go.  He is angry and sad at the same time.  I can see his chin quivering.  He speaks as if my mother has become part of Irish history now...(ibid., 7)

My father is in the front room trying to write articles for the papers and thinking of new inventions that would make Ireland a better place... (ibid., 14)

Repeating Mistakes of the Past:

Once when his father had punished him physically we read:

My hand goes up to my ear and I see the look of anger in his eyes.  sadness, too, as if he can't help lashing out, as if it's not really him at all, but the countless lashes he got himself that have suddenly compelled him into this summary punishment in the hallway.  All the punishment in history passed on, lash by lash.  (ibid., 23)

It is all the punishment in history being passed on blow by blow, all the revenge and all the resentment going back for centuries, here in my bedroom.  Nobody can stop it.  My father is breathing so hard he cannot speak... (ibid., 219)

Seán later apologises to Hugo and says that he made a terrible mistake.   Here we have a very conflicted man acting out of his unconscious.  A conflicted person often acts thus, letting the primitive id go unchecked.

We are also told that at his uncle Gerald's funeral Seán's Aunty Eily reprimanded him for rearing his children so autocratically - "You'll turn them against you," she said. (ibid., 73) However, once again Seán admits to the adolescent Hugo that years later he said to Aunt Eily that she had been right and that he had turned his kids against him.

My father is telling me this himself.  He's admitting to me that he is wrong.  I want to run out of the room, because I can't bear to think of him like a small boy, with Aunt Emily putting her arms around him.  He has tears in his eyes, saying that she told him it is never too late.  He says that he hopes there is still some time for us to be friends.  He's worried that one of these days I'll leave the house and never come back.  (Ibid., 74)

Mental Health:

When mental health issues are unaccepted and covered up they become festering sores which many secrets can become.

When we were small I can remember him going to the funeral of his cousin Gerald in Skibbereen.  My mother often made us pray for Onkel Gerald who was drinking too much and telling too many stories.  We were not told how he died, only that it was a tragedy.  Some time later we found out that he had taken his own life because his older brother had died in front of his eyes in a drowning accident and he never came to terms with that. (ibid., 72)

Needing to Win:

Seán had a need to win at all costs - probably related to his height and his disability - his limp.  He taught Hugo to play chess and often they played what Hugo terms polite chess until the young boy mastered all the moves.  Eventually Hugo became good at it, not quite as good as his father, but on one occasion he beat him.  Seán could not take this defeat and he upturned the chessboard in anger and rushed out of the room.  Once again the mother comes and explains to young Hugo why his father had done this.  The story is beautiful, if sad - a little boy with a limp went to fetch a jug of milk by the light of the moon, but he tripped and fell and spilled the milk - his disability was the cause.  And this is his mother's take on the father:

And now he's still trying to make up for it and put things right long after they've happened and cannot be changed anymore.  He's repairing history, my mother says, trying to pick up the moonlight from the street. (ibid., 135)

Anger:

Hugo tells a story from his father's student days at UCD.  Before a lecture one day an argument arose about Irish and British politics and in a fit of anger he father threw a chair across the room.  He then tells us that his mother says that this is called "the flying chair of lost arguments." (ibid., 175)  One day Hugo found himself almost doing the same, and then he realised "I had become like my father inside." (ibid., 176)

Inheriting the father's Guilt:

There is a smaller parallel father-son story in The Sailor in the Wardrobe and that is the relationship between his cousin Stefan and his father Onkel UlrichUlrich had seen a Nazi war assassination of innocent people and the nightmare used drive him demented for years afterwards until one day he had to let the secret out by telling his son.  The son then inherited his father's guilt and shame for saying nothing and indeed the collective shame of the German people.

So that's how Stefan inherited the history of his father and the nightmare of the forest massacre in the Ukraine.  (ibid., 211)

In fact, we learn that Stefan had knocked his father down in the garden with a blow of his fist.

Hurt:

I love what Hugo says about the whole world - whether it is Northern Ireland, Vietnam or any of our current wars.  He says succinctly: "It was a big hurt factory."  And then, his friend Packer's beautiful phrase "goodbye to the hurt mind."  This is a wonderful valediction as he leaves his old life of the harbour for third level education.  There is much wisdom and much sound healing in this advice. (ibid., 228-231)

 

Summary:

Life is essentially about coming to terms with who we are.  The project we call life is a journey.  Personal identity is not a given at all.  It is a task.  Indeed, we receive much genetically, but we also have to learn much by our interactions with others and indeed with our own inner self, if not selves, until we have unmasked all the impostors and somehow have integrated all into some overarching unity called Self. I have long been exploring the mystery of my life project, often enhanced, provoked and pained by sundry problems, big and small, along the way.  However, it has always been an interesting and exciting journey insofar as I have learned so much about what strengths and weaknesses I have personally inherited in my own family.  I have inherited both the strengths and weaknesses of my own father, just like Hugo did Sean's.

The hurt factory of life, this wonderful phrase that Hugo uses, is so true.  The task of psychotherapy in all its incarnations is in helping to decrease the occurrences of hurt.  We hurt one another practically in everything we do, especially when we are unconscious of how we are acting.  We must engage with our own inner demons.  We must embrace all our inner archetypes and unmask all impostors.  Knowing our own faults, especially our unconscious ones, will decrease our own capacity to do hurt to others and to those we love, and indeed reduce our capacity to hurt ourselves.  Self-exploration is never easy, but it is so worthwhile and so liberating.  No longer am I as an individual at the mercy of unconscious forces within my own psyche. 

Hugo Hamilton has courageously painted a thorough portrait of his father, warts and all.  It's neither black nor white.  It is all the shades of gray in between.  Let's not pigeon hole people by demonising them on the one hand or canonising them on the other, for such extremes, I think, do not really exist psychologically.  Jung maintained that we as human beings must look at ourselves as a whole unity, a colourful one at that, made up of all those colours, black and white and the many shades of gray in between.  When we integrate the darker parts of our self we stop projecting them onto others and so prevent much anger and possible hurt and destruction.

Freud's structural model of the psyche can be very helpful for us in this growth of self, as also can Jung's ideas of archetypes and of shadow.  I have already discussed the structural model in detail here: Structural Model.  In one post I said the following by way of describing this model:

The reasonable and reasoning Ego tries to control the primordial Id which is seething with impulses, desires and instincts.  It seeks to defend conscious awareness from these primitive feelings by various means like repression, denial and projection.  At one and the same time the Ego tries also to meet the demands, remonstrations and criticisms of the Superego which has internalised the values and standards of society mediated through the parents.  The Ego, then, works away to attempt to mediate or to fine a balance between these opposing aspects of the person.  In this way it strives to unify the processes of the psyche.  When the Ego fails in this task neurosis occurs.

We may argue that Seán's Ego was very strong.  He had to be in control at all costs.  He became, as I stated in the immediately previous post, a "control freak."  There was too much going on in the primordial id and he spent all his energy keeping the lid on this "Pandora's box", this seething cauldron of primitive impulses and instincts.  However, just like trying to force the lid down on a boiling pot of water, the steam must needs force itself out.  Hence, we have those horrible explosions of anger as shown in Sean's outbursts and his "flying chair of lost arguments."  Seán had denied his own father, had denied his seeming "British-ness," his feebleness of mind as a result of a tragic accident, his loss of memory, his threatening of his son with a knife, his sad young death, the way the kids in the parish used to taunt him over his own disability and his father's having taken the "British Shilling."   All of this, unconsciously, forced him into a "false Irish-ness" or rather a "fanatical Irish-ness" rather than a true an authentic one.   It made him, also unconsciously, force all his fanaticism and causes onto his family.  Hence we have that wonderfully symbolic act, for us the readers that is, of hiding the picture of his father in the wardrobe.  Interestingly enough Hugo talks of his home becoming a wardrobe out of which he wished to escape.

Hugo's task then became that of liberating his grandfather from the wardrobe, in liberating himself from the wardrobe, in breaking the connections with his father and in establishing a relationship with the denied grandfather.  This is wonderfully healthy stuff for a young adolescent to set as his goal.  Now to repeat Nietzsche's aphorism with which I began this piece: "What was silent in the father speaks in the son, and often I found the son the unveiled secret of the father." (Thus Spake Zarathustra, quoted in Reclaiming Father, op.cit., 103)

Then, there is also the issue of taboo subjects and secrets - bad secrets [there are good ones, but I shan't digress about those here]. Seán's father had become "mad" through an unfortunate accident, his first cousin had committed suicide - yet, all of these things had to be hidden like the picture.  All good psychotherapy has at its roots the releasing of these taboos, the expression of secrets in a timely and authentic way.

Seán was a very talented and brilliant man, but very conflicted, at the mercy of his own unconscious actions - his anger, his corporal punishment of his children, his obsessive and compulsive habits, his causes and even his creativity which he had poured into those causes.

That needing to win at all costs, to be in control at all times - this is a terrible burden for anyone to carry.  None of us can be in control all the time.  Certainly, I feel and think that life is about learning to control the ego which wants to over-control things.  Life is gift and a wonderful gift which can only be controlled by skilled hands at the reins.  The ultimate victor in Life is Death.  Our seeking for control at all costs is a denial of Death  and dying in our lives.  Why?  Well, every losing is a little death which prepares us for the ultimate loss - our own death. Most psychologists tell us that the ultimate denial or the ultimate suppression is, in fact, death.

Hence, the greatest task or goal anyone of us can set ourselves is to get to know our real Self truly and authentically.  This means that we learn to make all our unconscious desires and forces and instincts conscious (Sigmund Freud), that we work for the integration of self (Anthony Storr); that we strive for individuation (Carl Gustave Jung); that we seek self-realization (Hindu Atman Jnana; Psychosynthesis: Roberto Assagioli); that life be guided by goals - teleology (Alfred Adler);  that we are on the search for meaning or logos in logotherapy (Viktor Frankl); or to quote two of Fromm's five basic needs: we are in a search for a Sense of Identity - to see ourselves as a unique person and part of a social group and for a frame of orientation - the need to understand the world and our place in it; or finally to quote that well-worn phrase from the wonderful Abraham Maslow that we are all on the journey to self-actualization.  Other psychologists have given this search for Self different names, but essentially they all mean the same thing, though they come at, as it were, from different directions.



Above I have uploaded a picture of my father on O'Connell Bridge from sometime in the 1950s.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Quest For Father 2



Hugo Hamilton's father, John Hamilton - a character sketch

Perusing both memoirs by Hugo Hamilton is interesting from the point of view of the character of his father, John Hamilton.  In short one could say on the evidence that he was very much a conflicted individual with many complexes.  Which of us is not indeed?  This is just an attempt to explore the quest for father as delineated in these two wonderful memoirs.

I shall take a thematic approach with this subject and outline what each memoir has to say on the character of Hugo's father - how this influenced his son and how he the father was in turn influenced by the absence of his own father in his own young life.

A. John Hamilton as portrayed in The Speckled People:

What makes both Hugo Hamilton's memoirs so powerful is that he manages a wonderful feat, that is, he is able to reconstruct or re-imagine his childhood and boyhood from a toddler's viewpoint, then from the viewpoint of a growing boy and finally in the second book from the point of view of an adolescent and young man.  Hugo is an excellent psychologist and a wonderful sketcher of real people.  His characters are all substantial.  They come alive under his descriptions of them.

1.  John Hamilton's past:  Here is what Hugo, the young boy of say six years of age, knows about his father:

I know that my father comes from Cork and works as an engineer in Dublin and writes his name in Irish.  When he was small, Ireland was still under the British.  His father's family were all fishermen.  His father fell on deck one day and lost his memory and died not long after that in a hospital in Cork city.  But we never talk about that.  (Op. cit., 10)

From this, and also in light of the fact that I have read both memoirs fully, it can be deduced that John is a fanatical Gaeilgóir - that is, a man who refused to speak English because it was the language of the "oppressor"; insisted that Gaeilge or German be spoken at home - his wife was German.  I have long been interested in people who seek out causes and become fanatical in following them.  He refused to allow his children play or make friends with other children who only spoke English.  Indeed, Hugo was well into his late teens when he first heard his father speak English.  Later in the book he records that:

He [his father Seán] didn't emigrate or drink whiskey or start making up stories either.  Instead he changed his name and decided never to be homesick again.  He put on a pioneer pin and changed his name from Jack to Seán and studied engineering and spoke Irish as if his home town didn't exist, as if his own father didn't exist, as if all those who emigrated didn't exist.  (ibid., 37)

In psychological language we call all this denial.  Then the sentence "But we never talk about that" is an ominous one because it means that there is a secret or some truth being denied or unrecognised or suppressed or repressed even.  We learn that this man was somehow ashamed of his own father.  We are never really told why - rather we are left to make our own inferences.  His father had hidden away the photograph of his father, Hugo's grandfather, at the back of his wardrobe as well as all his service medals.  On the one hand there is great denial and repression here, but there is also an unwillingness to destroy the picture.  After all one would want to completely hate one's father to do that. 

The youngsters once went playing in the wardrobe where these things were hidden.  Unfortunately it fell over and they were trapped within it.  When Seán came home it was only he who was strong enough to lift the wardrobe and let the children out.  He rebuked his children thus, in Irish of course:

'Who gave you the right to look at my things?' he said, because he didn't want any of us to know that he had a father in the navy who could not speak Irish and once stood with the British in a war against the Germans, when his own country was still not free. (ibid., 14-15)

As a child, Seán had been taunted by the local lads about his father taking the "English shilling", about his dying on a British navy ship and his mother still being in receipt of a British pension.  Hugo talks about how any youngster in any family will inherit not just a forehead or a smile or a certain type of hair from their father but also "other things like sadness and hunger and hurt." (ibid., 37) 

However, I also get the sense that Seán's motivation in hiding the picture of his father is not just the repression and denial of his past.  Hugo admits that his father had another motivation:

There were things they didn't talk about.  She kept her secret and he buried his past as well.  He hid the picture of his own father in the wardrobe.  He didn't want to offend her, having photographs of a British sailor hanging in the house. But she had nothing against England.  (ibid., 41)

Perhaps this was a rationalisation he used as an excuse for his actions.

It's important, also, I feel to point out that Seán was born with a limp:

Onkel Ted told me once that my father had a limp when he was born.  So maybe his mother only made up the story about polio, because people were afraid of anyone who was deformed at birth and it was better to say you had a disease like anyone else.  Or maybe my father made it up himself because they were always laughing and limping after him on his way to school and saying that he had a father in the British navy. (Ibid., 164)

2. Use of Corporal Punishment:  Under this head I will be very careful indeed because corporal punishment was an acceptable part of family life before 1981 when it was banned from the school system here in Ireland.  Hugo gives an account of how his father hit his older brother Franz so hard on the back of the neck for walking on the wall in the garden that the boy fell and broke his nose.  The father was not being intentionally cruel.  This was probably the way he himself was brought up.  There are many instances of his good nature and generosity towards both wife and children in both books.  However, after each incident where he disciplines his children by corporal punishment Seán is full of remorse for what he has done. Hugo has a certain amount of respect for his father because he senses his father's guilt and remorse and says: 

I looked out the window and watched my father fill the wheelbarrow and bring it to another part of the garden, empty it and bring it back and start again.  I watched him digging and digging, until the mountain was gone.  I wanted to go down and tell him that my mother fixed Franz's nose with a story. (ibid., 31)

3.  Anger:  We also learn that Seán Hamilton is an angry man because he likes to slam doors from time to time.  Hugo reports that "he's the best at slamming doors because he makes the whole house shake." (ibid., 47)  He also inspired fear in his children.

4.  Education/Indoctrination:  Later we read that: "So my father sits at the table and we sit opposite him and he tells us why we can't accept poppies from anyone.  First of all, he says, there was the British Empire.  He takes out a map of the world and points to all the pink bits that were owned by the British... We'll get our own badges and flags and songs.  On St Patrick's day, we get shamrock and green badges and tri-coloured jelly and ice cream." (ibid., 49)  And a little later we read: "My father says that all people who died in the Irish Famine are still talking.  They're whispering with dry lips and staring out with empty eyes.  he says you can't go anywhere in Ireland without hearing them." (ibid., 71)  Indoctrination is not a word I use lightly.  Hugo says later: "In our house, it's dangerous to sing a song or say what's inside your head.  You have to be careful or else my father will get up and switch you off like a radio."  Therefore, no other ideas bar father's ideas are allowed in the house.  In today's cliché Seán was a "control freak."

He also liked to be the person who knew all the answers.  For example, he "didn't like my mother reading books that he didn't read first himself." (Ibid., 200)

Hugo says that his father wanted them to have all the things they didn't have as children, and that all the things he could not do he was going to make his children do instead. (ibid., 89)  Hugo was a strong boy and he always liked pushing against his father:  "I like giving the wrong answer.  My father sits on the far side of the table in the breakfast room and says he's going to wait until I give the right answer, even if it takes all day." (ibid., 87).  This became a battle of wills as Hugo grew up.

5. Father's Sensitive Side: One might even call this his feminine side.  While Hugo had a bad attack of asthma:  "My father came up and stuck a piece of folded paper in the window to stop the rattling.  He put on the light for a minute to prove that there was no man coming through the wall, then he smiled and kissed the top of my head." (Ibid., 91)  Being a conflicted man, after punishing anyone of his children, he would say something like: "I love each one of you...You are like no other children in the world."  (ibid., 192)

There are, of course, some few times when we get a glimpse of the real Seán Hamilton.  On their way up to the Drachenfelz, while on a childhood family holiday to Germany we read:

We carried on for a while, but then he stopped again and sat down on a bench as if his legs couldn't carry him any more.  There wasn't far to go, but instead he started talking and telling us things that he had never told us before.  he said that it was not true that he had rescued my mother because it was the other way around.  If it wasn't for her he would have joined the priesthood like his brother Ted.  (Ibid., 216)

Another example of Seán's tender side is his care for his sick daughter Bríd:

When my father came home he knew what to do.  he sat on the bed and stroked her head.  he got her to swallow another spoon of medicine inside her neck, and even when we were going to bed he was still sitting there with her and asking her puzzles...  (Ibid., 244)

6. Creativity and Imagination: Seán Hamilton was firstly a teacher, then an engineer in the ESB involved in the rural electrification of Ireland.  he was also a linguist who spoke three languages fluently: English, Irish and German.  Not alone that but he wrote many articles for papers and magazines in Irish no doubt.  He was also very creative insofar as he was very good with his hands, able to make boxcars, desks and furniture.  He made many toys for his children to use as well.  Not alone that, but Seán was also a beekeeper. He was also a great reader of literature and had a wonderful liking for music both classical and Irish.  In short he was a highly cultured man.  Hugo gives a lovely account of one of their stays as a family in the Connemara Gaeltacht and how his father and mother were so happy together living in an ideal world surrounded by beautiful Irish words. (See 179-182)

7. Family Secrets and Mental Illness: Seán's father John Hamilton had fallen heavily on HMS Vivid and had lost his memory.  It was obvious that the poor man got badly brain damaged.  He had spent some time in hospital in Manchester.  Then when he was sent home he could barely remember his wife's name:

He remembered her face and her name, but then after a while he started forgetting that much, so that he could do nothing at times, only hold his head in his hands and say he wanted to go home.  He was a stranger in his own home.  And then he lost his mind altogether one day, because he took a knife in his hand.  My father was still a small child and he was crying so much that the noise went into the sailor's head like a nail into the wall, so he stood up and said he would kill him if he didn't stay quiet...He stood in front of his own picture in uniform, holding a kitchen knife in his hand and shouting, until Mary Frances had to stand in front of him, in front of the man she loved more than anyone else in the world and tell him to kill her first. (Ibid., 170)

I'd imagine young Seán was three or four years of age when this happened.  Now I can understand why he'd want to have the photograph hidden away.  His poor father had gone "mad."  The poor man died very shortly after this sad event over which he had absolutely no control.

8.  Avoidance and Denial: One can understand how avoidance and denial set in.  Hence we have Seán as father saying to his own son: "It's no good looking back...You should be looking forward.  You're like a blank piece of paper and you should only look forward."  All of this is of course avoidance and denial and goes in contradiction to all good sound psychological advice.  If we do not attempt to deal with the problems from our past, deny and avoid them at all costs, then we are setting ourselves up for stress of all sorts, not to mention the demons from the nightmares that strike us from time to time.

9. Philosophy of Life: "What matters," he said, "is that a small man was able to walk up to a big man and not be afraid."  There is a lot of truth in this.  Much has been written about the "control complex" with respect to small men.  Also Seán Hamilton had a limp.  It would seem that both of these "shortcomings" strengthened his character.

10. HonestySeán has moments of regret and honesty and he admits he has made mistakes:

Sometimes he looks like he's tired of fighting and tired of making sacrifices all his life, and he is sad as he might as well not have bothered.  There is no point in keeping the waves back any more.  He says he made mistakes.  It's not easy to say that you lost, but he came to me one day and shook hands and says he wished he could start all over again because he would make different mistakes this time...(Ibid., 282)



Above I have uploaded a very old picture of my father with myself on the left and my brother Gerard on the right. The picture was taken in 1960 I think.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Quest for Father 1



It is indeed a truism to say that one can choose one's friends but one cannot choose one's family.  Another truism is that we are trained and educated to do most things in our lives while there is little or no training in parenting.  We learn to relate to others in a hit and miss fashion, by trial and error.  Likewise we learn to bring up our children for the most part without any courses of preparation.  It seems that in such personal matters we prefer to "play it by ear" as it were.  Granted, in these more sophisticated days, there are psychological "gurus" like Dr. Phil who even has his own show on TV and, needless to say, his own web page offering all kinds of practical advice to harassed parents and equally harassed children.  See this link here: Dr Phil.   Getting a handle on relationships has since the beginning of the twentieth century been an American preoccupation. The United States is the home of the now world-wide Self-Help and Popular Psychology movement.

In today's post I wish to explore a little the notion of the quest for father which a lot of us feel we need to make in life as part of our pursuit for our own identity.  Let me explain further.  This academic year I will be redefining myself at the age of fifty as I am going into resource education after twenty eight years of teaching academic subjects and will be starting out on a four year course to train as a psychotherapist. As one of my own favourite psychiatrists, Dr.Carl Jung has said, for the first half of our lives we set about achieving as much as we can and then we begin to question ourselves, what we have achieved and where we are going - essentially what is the meaning of life as we have made it for ourselves.  This quest is a quest for identity which can be broken down into smaller quests like - the quest for Mother, the quest for Father, the quest for Self, the quest for the Puer or Puella within us.  We find as we grow older that we have to begin to "parent" or "re-parent" ourselves, to nurture the little boy or the little girl within us.  The sentence before last contains in bolded italicised script what Carl Gustave Jung calls the archetypes which live within the collective unconscious.  I shan't attempt to define these terms here as they will distract from my main intention, namely an exploration of our individual quest for father.

I'll begin with a short quotation.  In a wonderful book entitled Reclaiming Father by Benig Mauger (Soul Connections, Dublin, 2004) we read these clear wise words:

As a Jungian psychotherapist, I see father as an archetypal masculine force, which, like the the archetypal feminine, is present in us all, and is not gender related.  My 'animus' therefore could be described as my inner man [Benig obviously is a woman - according to Jungian categories the man has a female soul element called the 'anima' while the woman has a male soul element called the 'animus'].  He will have been formed through my experience of my father, and to a lesser extent my brothers and all the males in my extended family.  My image of the masculine or the father will act as a soul model.  In this respect, the book looks in detail at the masculine spirit in women as well as men.  And since this masculine is handed down to us through our fathers, it is necessary to look at the formative influence a father has on his children.  (Op.cit., 10)

I will write a review of this book later in these posts.  What put this particular post "Quest for Father" to the front of my mind was my recent reading of the two memoirs by Hugo Hamilton, both of which I have reviewed recently in these pages.  Essentially both those memoirs were his attempt to come to terms with his relationship with his dead father.  Also at school I have dealt with young adults who have had and still have conflicted relationships with their father.  Often, I have found some few angry young men who railed openly against the absent father.  I remember one young lad saying to me: "If I met my father now I'd kill the fucker!" This father had abandoned his wife and son very early in the marriage.  Another boy who was adopted and who had caring adoptive parents still wondered did his parents love him and who his biological father was.  Over nearly thirty years in a classroom I find the numbers of pupils from broken homes growing.  Another boy, whose father is separated from his mother, told me simply, "I don't like my father!"  Then, there are boys who have lost their fathers to death.  This is so hard on them - grief is never easy.  Fathers can be absent in many ways - through death, through separation, through indifference, through alcoholism, through mental problems etc.

In the next post I'll attempt a character sketch of Hugo's father as delineated in his wonderful two memoirs.  I'll attempt also to analyse my own quest for the father archetype.  This double journey will be good for me as a writer and as a would-be psychotherapist or "soul healer" or "soul maker" to use John Keats wonderful phrase.  Alla prossima volta!



Above I have iploaded a picture of my father taken in 1930 when he was only seventeen.