Four years ago on this date my father died; in his memory I repost below a meditation on this written in August 2010 and which appears as the final chapter of Word Made Flesh under the title “The Origins of Tragedy.” The series about the In the Intersection report will continue tomorrow.
A few years ago, in a hospice center outside of Philadelphia, I watched my father die. Although he had been suffering from emphysema for several decades, it was not this that finally led to his death. For months, he had not had the desire nor the appetite to eat, except for the occasional hard candy and, more importantly, his daily allotment of blackberry brandy. This, coupled with increasingly large doses of morphine, dulled the pain that had begun with the necrosis of his intestinal tract, which had recently begun to perish of disuse. His gastrointestinal system was the first to fail, the others followed in short stead. This man, who stood in his prime at six-feet tall, could not have weighed more than 80 pounds at his death. I sat at his bedside alone, though he’d been unconscious upon my arrival the day before (the doctors having admitted that he was no longer “really there”), and watched as the life of the body seeped out in a final few breaths.
It is hard to say whether this slow starvation was entirely voluntary; I doubt it was, but perhaps it was also in its way a slow unconscious suicide. A few months earlier, my pregnant wife and I had visited him when he was still something of his mordant, witty self, a baseball or football game, which he always enjoyed, on the television; we expressed our hope that he’d still be alive to celebrate the birth of his first grandchild, and I suppose he seconded that hope in a way; but he died a month before Goldie was born. The love he would have undoubtedly borne for his granddaughter would not have been unlike the love he undoubtedly bore for his children, his friends, even his ex-wife, but it was finally not enough, weakened body perhaps not possessing the desire to continue on.
Many years before, in the 1970s, he had divorced my mother and since then, I believe, he had foregone the pleasures of romantic and sexual love, not unlike Beckett’s Krapp, and instead faced a series of darknesses, greatly alleviated by affection, pride in his children and certain other pleasures, but darkness was at the center of his days. The marriage had obviously not been a happy one, with the exception of the pleasure he took in my brother and myself; my mother suffered from alcoholism, clinical depression and other severe mental illnesses from about 1962 on, and she suffers so to this day. [NOTE: My mother died last year, in 2011, of stomach cancer.] Even then he had difficulty finding the appetite to eat, to fuel the beast of his body. He found a great deal of succor in music, in art, and in history as well, though his professional education was in electrical engineering and his parents’ background was stoutly working-class—his father was a self-employed electrician, his mother (who once tried to commit suicide) a cleaning woman at a local school, his step-brother mentally challenged (“retarded,” the medical community at the time would have it) and in and out of institutions before an early death in his twenties. He also during the last ten years of his life enjoyed bringing his experience to the classroom, teaching at the undergraduate electrical engineering lab at the University of Pennsylvania and enjoying the company of teachers and students considerably younger than himself. In all this, he was a peaceful man, despising violence and conflict, even anger, as futile and invariably destructive and vicious qualities.
The tragic consciousness is borne in experience, and this is merely a small part of my own. It should be said too that the origin of my own tragic consciousness is here, in my experience. True, it is fed by the great tragic thinkers and writers of the centuries, but they merely confirm and further inform my personal experience, and do not dictate it. All true philosophy, Schopenhauer noted, is rooted in the personal, as it must be.
The same is true of the tragic aesthetic. In a sense, I value and hope to create the art which would lend my father (and others like him, for being human he was not alone) comfort in his darkness, to somehow render the contemplation of it a valuable rather than a valueless knowledge. I do not fool myself that this has any particular meaning for politics or appeals to those who seek self-satisfaction and self-aggrandizement through their work or merely desire to entertain and be entertained. My father was also a participant in culture, in society, as aware in his own way, I think, of the torsions of culture and its effect on him as Schopenhauer’s or Adorno’s awareness was meaningful to themselves, even if he may have found these philosophers beyond his ken (though Beckett and O’Neill, I know from personal experience, were both great pleasures to him).
Simplistic and pious hope to him was puerile; his experience taught him that it was foolish. Love and desire, he also knew, were fraught with both ecstasy and the greatest suffering. He was a deeply cynical and pessimistic man, but this cynicism and pessimism were based in his own life. He held no hope for progressive politics, the revelations of Hiroshima and Auschwitz fresh in his mind—John Hersey’s book on the former had a prominent place on his bookshelf; these two events are still within living memory, if not for much longer, but for Americans all history is ancient, and increasingly irrelevant, history—despite having voted for Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace in 1948, for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, and finally John F. Kennedy in 1960, after which he did not participate in elections. His only hope lay in his children, I believe, of whom he was quite proud.
Not a day goes by since his death that I do not think of him in that last room, on that last bed, but not only there; I also think of him as time extends into the past from that last room, to his experience which is so much a part of my own. With the exploration of my own tragic consciousness, informed by experience, I hope to do some honor to his memory, and to those who may share some of that same consciousness (for as I said before, my father being human was not alone). I don’t imagine that many dramatists or artists care to speak to people like him, to acknowledge his recognitions, which is why you would rarely find him in the theatre. So be it. The work of Schopenhauer, Adorno, Bataille, Beckett, Barker, Kane and so many others radiate toward, rather than away from, that personal experience, not only my own but also that of my father. I am fully cognizant that I am a mere conduit between one generation and another. I am also selfish; I shamelessly use them all to contemplate his life as well as that of my own, fuelling my writing with my father’s memory, finding hope in what he may have recognized as utter hopelessness. It is inescapable, for I see him always in the love of my wife’s and daughters’ eyes.