The Old Man

It’s time to name it. 


Suppose I were to hire the services of a sort of literary detective. “Do what you do,” I say. “Analyze my blog and tell me what my mind is working on. Because I myself have no earthly idea.” So he pulls on his deerstalker hat and snatches up his magnifying glass. Two weeks later, he drops by my office with a folder, from which he takes his notes and some exhibits.


“Jim,” he says, “bad news. Have a look. You’ve got Daddy King in this one. Paul Auster’s “Portrait of an Invisible Man” from The Invention of Solitude, all about his father. Your own phrase “boy in this field.”  Also, “paternal figure,” in your post about Stand and Deliver. Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird — twice! Dop’s poem “Father, Child, Water.” Those dumb “Dad Tweets.” The orphaned Neoptolemus and the competition between his surrogate fathers in the play by Sophocles. Here’s your younger son, climbing on tree roots and then here, too, with his older brother’s arm around him. You’ve got Mac Sledge from Tender Mercies: the way he chokes out those words, “My daughter killed in an automobile accident.” Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, about a domineering father. The Tree of Life, ditto. Father substitutes: your dissertation adviser, the priest Father Mayfield, et al. Do I need to go on?”


“Er …”


“Look at this cloud showing the most frequently occurring words in Traces. You got ‘mother’ there near the top center. See? Now, can you figure out the word that’s missing? Conspicuous by its absence, obviously. You got something to hide, Jim, only it’s in plain sight. You got a bad case of father-fixation, son.”


Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 4.14.35 PM


Well, that’s a bit strong, but you get the picture. My love of teaching young people. My earnest if occasionally misguided efforts to be a good parent. Gravitating to art with a prominently recurring theme. The focus on moral and political issues such as racial justice, about which my own father felt strongly. Even my efforts to sort out exactly what forgiveness requires, because let’s face it: every child could waste the rest of his or her life nursing and rehearsing grievances. All these and other ideas in Traces could certainly be filed under the category FATHERHOOD.

Bernini, c. 1618


Difficult. Difficult to make all this overt. So much that one could say, so much that has been said. Let this Bernini statue to the left suffice to represent them. It’s my Aeneas, of course, the hero of Vergil’s epic poem, carrying his father Anchises (himself holding a statuette representing Troy’s ancestral gods) and leading his son Ascanius out of their burning city. Here we have together in one tableau male ancestors as guiding spirits, a pious grandfather, a dutiful son, and a grandson who represents their entire hope for the future. A company of men who have nothing left but each other.


But then there’s this, too. The Abraham and Isaac story that I learned in Sunday School. “As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’ ‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied. ‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ — Actually, son, you are the lamb. — Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ And the two of them went on together” (Genesis 22.6-8).



Chagall, Le Sacrifice d’Isaac, 1966



The other risk is — putting aside the immediate one of producing only banalities, compared with Genesis, the Aeneid, etc. — of unseemly confession. Here, for example, is my own father, in a portrait I have had framed recently. It’s destined for the wall of a new elementary school in my hometown. Next to it a plaque will read: “James Carswell Abbot, Sr. (1926-1997) was a native of Louisville and a Jefferson County lawyer, judge, banker, and civic leader whose devotion to the ideal of public service informed every aspect of his public life. He gave his ardent support to the public schools and worked effectively on their behalf, serving as chairman of the Jefferson County School Board for thirty-three years.”


All true. But there’s more, right? There’s always more.


Pronomos Vase, 400 BCE
Pronomos Vase, 400 BCE

In the tragedy Oedipus at Colonus, composed by Sophocles at the end of his very long life, the title character has been wandering from one city to another. He has long been in exile after discovering (in the events set out in Oedipus the King) that he had unwittingly murdered his own father and then married his mother. In this play, Oedipus’s daughter Antigone (also his half-sister, of course) has been escorting her blind father during these many years. Why do they wander? Oedipus is in possession of a prophecy about his death, in keeping with which he is searching for his own burial place, the one prophesied. He finds it at Colonus near Athens. At his death, witnessed only by King Theseus of Athens, Oedipus becomes a hero. A hero in the strict sense of the word: a “dead person who received cult honors and was expected in return to bring prosperity, especially in the form of fertility of plants and animals, to the community.”


Upon the report confirming her father’s death, Antigone cries out (Theodoridis, tr.):


There’s misery even in the loss of misery.
The misery I felt when I had the poor man in my arms is no more. That misery I loved!
Oh father!
Oh, my darling father!
You’re clothed now in the eternal darkness of the world below.
Never, father! Never will I, never will either of us stop loving you!



He did…



…he did what pleased him.



What was it?



He died in a foreign land, a thing that pleased him.
His bed will always be under a cool shade.
He has not left this world unmourned!
Unmourned, my father!
Oh, father! Tears flood my eyes and I don’t know how to soften the pain.
Ah, father! You wanted to die in a foreign land, alone, forsaken!
Oh father!


“A foreign land, alone, forsaken.” And that’s it, isn’t it? I think that for the time being, this is what I want to draw your attention to concerning fatherhood. There is this aspect of being a father, difficult for us fathers to accept, of coming from or belonging to or being destined for or simply being a foreign land. It begins at the very beginning: we stand by and observe one person, a woman, somehow become two people, a mother and her child. Home is created in the very instant that the child’s cry fills the room. All else — yes, yes, including the father — is necessarily not-home. Within this new family, therefore, the father is familiar but must also represent that which is alien, from Latin alienus: belonging to someone or somewhere else, foreign, unrelated, unfriendly, strange, unsuitable, incongruous, inadequate, inconsistent with, different from.


Doubt me? Put is this way then. Can you imagine what Sarah would have said if God had told her to “take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” She’d have told Yahweh where he could put that suggestion, right? Not in a million years, not under the threat of being cast into the pit of Hell would she had let the Old Man make her cut her own son’s throat.


In the case of my father, he certainly seemed to me to belong to that wider world where dragons dwell. When he came home in the evening, he always brought with him the acrid smell of slightly singed tropical-weight wool. There was that infamous Saturday night in June 1970, to take one notorious example:


From "Three Summer Nights" by L. H. Abbot
From “Three Summer Nights” by L. H. Abbot


Knowing how to think about all this is not straightforward. After all, there comes a time when each of us, too, must venture out into dragon territory. We need some advice on that. Let’s stay with the Bible for a moment longer. Here’s how Job puts it (28:20-24):


Where then does wisdom come from?
Where does understanding dwell?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing,
concealed even from the birds in the sky.
Destruction and Death say,
“Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.”
God understands the way to it
and he alone knows where it dwells,
for he views the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.


Precisely. Job cries out to God. He seeks to understand. He needs wisdom. Why is this happening to me? How can my life have changed so utterly in the blink of an eye? How can I bear up under this unbearable grief? Where will I find the courage and constancy to live on? What after all is the point of all this? And here is what he gets in response: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (38:4)


Sigh. Admittedly, it’s not an easy assignment. To manage somehow to be both familiar and alien. To belong both to the world-out-there and to the-home-in-here. So it’s understandable perhaps that the Old Man flubs it. It’s understandable that he forgets this essential truth:


It’s not about you, Old Man. To be a father is to be a father. To escort your children on the beginning of their journeys and then, having shared with them any wisdom (however provisional) that they consent to receive, to let them go on alone. Your story ends where theirs truly begins, Old Man. Theirs can begin only when you have the sense to — metaphorically, at any rate, just metaphorically — die (Kline, tr.):


Here, alas, I lost my father, Anchises,
my comfort in every trouble and misfortune, I, who’d
been driven by so many ocean storms: here you left me,
weary, best of fathers, saved from so many dangers in vain!
Helenus, the seer, did not prophesy this grief of mine,
when he warned me of many horrors, nor did grim Celaeno.
This was my last trouble, this the end of my long journey:
leaving there, the god drove me to your shores.’
So our ancestor Aeneas, as all listened to one man,
recounted divine fate, and described his journey.


And your hope, your greatest ambition has to be that you will have been a “comfort in every trouble and misfortune,” that your children will speak in the voice of Antigone, saying “Never, father! Never will I, never will either of us stop loving you!”

2 thoughts on “The Old Man

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