Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Armchair Emperor

When I walk out of the refuge of my room into the world, I see a place of torment, where creatures of prey perpetually thrust their claws into the quivering flesh of the doomed, defenseless children of light. I realize how constantly the tenderness of growing life is at the mercy of personal tyranny and I hate the tyranny of persons over each other.




A passage in a book on child abuse resonates deeply with my image, developed at an early age, of my father as a tyrannical bully:

A male patient described the following as a "typical event" to his psychoanalyst. The father entered the dining room where the table was set for the family meal. Beside each plate was a fresh piece of fruit--the dessert. The man made a complete round of the table, stopping at every chair to reach out and squeeze to a pulp every piece of fruit except his own. The older children and the intimidated mother, used to such happenings, said nothing. But the youngest, a five-year-old boy, cried when he saw the mangled banana at his plate. The father then turned on him viciously, demanding that he be quiet--how dare he make such a fuss about a banana?

The boy was left with a terrible confusion. What had happened? Who was to blame? Was father bad, or was the boy himself bad? Mother and the others had not reacted as he had--why did he make that fuss about the banana? The father, so confident of his greatness and rightness (like a character out of Dostoevsky), must be good and innocent. But how could that be?

I used to hide from my father when I was a little boy. When I grew older I always dodged him and hid from him, in my room, among my books, with my music, or with extravagant ideas. There was a lack of communication between me and my father, not only because of his physical and emotional differences, but because of differences in our needs which caused me to find secret selves. When my father was home and not at work, he ranted and raved and bullied, so that I sought out areas in myself where my father could not enter.

From his armchair my father ruled the world, or so it seemed. From my father's point of view, I was little more than a small thing whose moods and needs -- communication, affection, love -- were swept aside in the larger need to survive through hard, relentless work. My own experiences were negated by my father's stories of his struggling childhood, struggles that I could never hope to equal. I lived in relative luxury, whereas my father had lived on the edge. My moods, needs, personality changes, all, had no significance in this large Darwinian sweep. Without being conscious of it, my father was a pure Darwinian, the most vulgar kind who could speak only of the fittest and of their survival, at least in my perception of him. My father was capable of great rages, and they seemed to pre-exist, that the pretext for them was slight, and that, therefore, he carried around the rage merely waiting for an opportunity to let it roar.

I never knew what to expect. No matter what I did or, later, tried to achieve, my father retorted that little of it mattered, that it was foolishness compared with what had occurred to him in the great world. "You want to be a lawyer?" my father would say. "You? You could never practice law. You have to be tough to be a lawyer. You don't have what it takes." There was no opportunity to distinguish myself in the world as he had done. I had lost my self-confidence where my father was concerned, and in its place had developed a boundless sense of guilt. My father instilled in me such mistrust about any of my abilities that he left me no room for my own maneuvers. I came to fear success. I came to feel the more things I was successful in, the worse the final outcome would inevitably be.

My core image of myself, my aspiring self, as a growing plant, as an innocently evolving organism, has remained with me throughout adulthood. The struggle to maintain the incorruptible innocence of the unfolding flower, has always been threatened by what I saw as my father's false values of ingratiation. And yet, paradoxically, in none of my fantasies is the tyrant destroyed--the tyrant is always the "innocent," an incarnation of the good. In the end it is always I who am destroyed, crushed like a piece of fruit.

2 comments:

Jon Cox said...

Great Post! Very well said! :o)

Desambientado said...

Merry Christmas to you and yours... And a Happy New Year.

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