A View of the Fathers: Can We Give Our Fathers the Gift of Personhood?

“You were to me the measure of all things.”
Franz Kafka

If mothers are the air we breathe but cannot see, the mirror that shows us everything but itself, what is a father?

Fathers are a field of vision. A scope of the possible (although not always desirable). While mothers seem to occupy the space closest to us, fathers are more like the horizon. Clear, defined, even untouchable?

I remember a quick line in neurologist Oliver Sacks’ autobiography where he mentions his father’s disappointment when the young Sacks published medical findings in a book (and would continue to do so throughout his life). Sacks’ father’s response was “it isn’t what doctors do.”

Ultimately, Sacks recognized that his father “hoped that his sons, whatever we did, would also earn good names for ourselves and not dishonour the name of Sacks.”

Again, this image of a father as a horizon comes to mind. Constant but unapproachable.

Equally, but without the same reconciliation, was Vincent van Gogh’s relationship with his father. Van Gogh’s elder brother Theo remonstrates Vincent for embittering his parents lives by leaving a career in the church.

Van Gogh’s response was essentially a verbal shrug:

Whenever one says something to father to which he has no reply, he comes out with a reproach of that sort and says, for example, ‘You will be the death of me,’ while he sits there perfectly calmly reading his newspaper and smoking his pipe. So I take such reproaches for what they are.”

From The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh’s contemporary, Paul Cezanne also had an exceedingly difficult relationship with his father and actually painted the unthinking, unfeeling figure Van Gogh referenced.

Cezanne's "The Artist's Father, Reading L'Événement", 1866."
Paul Cezanne’s “The Artist’s Father, Reading L’Événement,” 1866. The father is uneven, downcast with a shrouded gaze and little concern for his son. Cezanne notices his father, the father notices the paper. Source: The National Gallery.

But there is a large difference between an uncommunicative father and an unloving father. The former might be more of a form of protection than rejection.

I remember reading how poet Ted Hughes never asked his father directly about his experience fighting in the First World War. Not once, this massive, explosive drama just sat between them like an unfinished roast.

My mothers’ father only spoke of his experience in WWII seventy years after it happened and only a few years before he died. And even then it was more like quiet exhales of a long-held breath than an informative narrative.

Memory is not always one of the things we inherit. Sometimes it needs to be buried with the lifetime that formed it.

Rune stone, 1100-1150 Sweden
Rune stone, 1100-1150, Sweden. The carving reads ‘Lidsmod had this stone carved in memory of Julbjörn [his] father.’ Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

But as a child – regardless of age – ‘Why don’t you talk about the war’ is internalized as why don’t you talk to me about what affected you most?

It does seem odd that the people closest to us in the world do not share that world with us. But they cannot, they are our parents. Their job is to give us hope. Hope is extended forward through the ages while memory reaches back, affixed to the point that is our life.

What I have in common with my father is not that I am his daughter, but that we both have fathers. Fathers from similar gene pools.

Contemporary poet Rupi Kaur engineered beautiful language surrounding this unexpected connection with a father:

father. you always call to say nothing in particular. you ask what i’m doing or where I am when the silence stretches like a lifetime between us i scramble to find questions to keep the conversation going. what i long to say most is. i understand this world broke you. it has been so hard on your feet. i don’t blame you for not knowing how to remain soft with me. sometimes i stay up thinking of all the places you are hurting which you’ll never care to mention. i come from the same aching blood, from the same bone so desperate for attention i collapse in on myself. i am your daughter i know the small talk is the only way you know how to tell me you love me. cause it is the only way i know how to tell you.

From Milk and Honey

American poet Robert Lowell, who farmed his daily life for epistles of universality, echoed all the “places of hurt” Kaur imagined her father to embody. Lowell’s father, a deliberate, quiet, and aristocratic man, wore a mask his whole life.

In a way, Lowell’s confessional poetry sought to unmask this man:

Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting.
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
his last words to Mother were:
‘I feel awful.’

From Robert Lowell’s “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms”

In one of my favorite poetic endings, a dying man is overcome by soulful honesty.

Illustration "The Comfort of Being Read To" by Marilyn Yee. Featured in "The Comfort and Wonder of Being Read To."
“The Comfort of Being Read To” by Singaporean artist Marilyn Yee for The Examined Life.

The unmasking of fathers (or anyone for that matter) can be intentional or unintentional but its resulting affect is the person is seen as a human, not only a father. Our parents are so deeply connected to our self-identity, we rarely see them apart from how they affect us. Which means who we are integrates who they are, like it or not.

Author Dani Shapiro has an interesting story about this. When a chance DNA test revealed to Shapiro that her father was not her biological father, she wrote a stunning narrative on how we form our deepest notions of self:

If my father wasn’t my father, who was my father? If my father wasn’t my father, who was I?

Franz Kafka – as he usually did – put it more bluntly in a letter to his father:

I remember for instance, how we often undressed in the same bathing hut. There I was… for you were to me the measure of all things.

It is not unusual to deny our parents’ personhood. We are overly sensitive when they fail to do something we think is easy, or to understand precisely what we mean at all times. We even want to make them in our own image: teaching them technology, adjusting their political keel, buying them new clothes that “aren’t embarrassing” and worst, posting their bad behavior on social media as a way to affirm yes, indeed, it is bad behavior.

In denying a father the reality that he is a person separate from us, we deny his quirks might be because of us. I always imagined my parents fully-formed, complete humans. They were some granite and gneiss rocks against which I threw my little self in order to become stronger, brighter and better.

The author's husband and daughter.
My husband and daughter.

Then I became a parent and realized I am vulnerable, undone, and very much in flux. I never understood my parents as much as I do now (and in a very tiny way I hope my kids have kids so they can understand me.)

The moment you accept your parents as individual humans is a defining moment of life. We might never reach that paternal horizon but we can marvel at it. Let it surround us.

The author's father.
Me and Dad.

I remember the exact moment I learned my father was human and not fully formed. I learned to forgive and love his imperfections as much as I love his perfections.

Whether he stabilizes or inspires, communicates or withholds, the father is, above all, human. As we all are. We demand to be seen as individuals from almost the moment we are born. Can we give our father the same gift?

Social Isolation of Hunger

“A society that doesn't offer its members the chance to act selflessly isn't a society; it's just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own.”
Sebastian Junger

Hunger reduces a soul to a body, and a body to an immobile necessity-seeking thing. It is one of the most ruinous desires we can have as humans.

So what does the hungry man become in this vertiginous existence? He is more than impoverished; he is a human apart from human things.

As a community, how do we not simply protect and care for him, but understand him?

Kathe Kollwitz's "Worker Woman and Child" featured in Social Isolation of Hunger"
“Worker Woman with Sleeping Child” (Arbeiterfrau mit schlafendem Jungen) lithograph made by artist Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz was born in Russia in 1867, but lived and worked in Germany. Her work exemplified German Expressionism, art that focused on emotional purity rather than physical reality. This harrowing print is part of Kollwitz’ “Death” series, which depicted the secondhand victims of WWI. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst.
In his study of tribal networks and modern communities, Sebastian Junger defines community as the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. And this benevolence is not for mere morality, but because we have always done such a thing as a species.1

Two of the behaviors that set early humans apart were the systematic sharing of food and altruistic group defense. Other primates did very little of either, but, increasingly, hominids did, and those behaviors helped set them on an evolutionary path that produced the modern world. The earliest and most basic definition of community – of tribe – would be the group of people that you would both help feed, and help defend. A society that doesn’t offer its members the chance to act selflessly in these ways isn’t a society in any tribal sense of the word; it’s just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own.

From Sebastian Junger’s Tribe

Junger’s identification of this communal connection based on physical nourishment and protection, is echoed by Erich Fromm’s sublime identification of the ways in which humans carry, express, and show love.

Of these many-splendored loves, the mutual admiration we share with our kin is imperative.

The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life.

From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving

Even Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius makes a case for communal cooperation against all odds. More than than 2,000 years ago the former Emperor and philosopher used remarkable similar language to Fromm:

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity.

Therefore, I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.

From Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

When there is a strong community based on having one’s basic needs attended, then those outside of that relationship are not only hungry, but apart. (They are also unable to participate in the reciprocal action of resource sharing.)

"Two Chatting Woman" by Kathe Kollwitz featured in "Social Isolation of Hunger."
Käthe Kollwitz’ “Two Chatting Women with Two Children (Zwei schwatzende Frauen mit zwei Kindern) 1930. Kollwitz’ art bore witness to the destitute: “I felt that I have no right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate. It is my duty to voice the sufferings of men, the never-ending sufferings heaped mountain high.” Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst.
Is there a more-poignant visual clarity for this concept than the last line in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a moment he called “the starving man and the last-scene”?

In these few lines, Rosasharn Joad, unable to feed her stillborn child, offers her full breast to a starving man. The novel concludes: “Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

An ancient communication between mother and child, is here between person and person.

No one will forget the dramatic symbolism of this bereaved mother tending to the dying man. Steinbeck’s long-time editor and great friend, Pascal Corvici questioned the ending’s suddenness, claiming there was no preamble to the scene. Steinbeck, however, defended its inclusion, “it is a survival symbol not a love symbol” and the ending remains unadulterated.2

If we collect these findings in our arms and hold them aloft – we ought to share our food with those in our community and understand that this action is the most basic of all human actions – it means this action not only creates a feeling of brotherhood within its members, but it also isolates those who are not included.

Perhaps more deeply than those who are included can ever possibly imagine.

It would mean feeling not only hunger – and all its bodily implications, but feeling unseen, and ultimately, unknown.

"The Mothers" by Kathe Kollwitz featured in "Social Isolation of Hunger."
“The Mothers (Die Mutter) from War (Krieg) from 1921-22 woodcut, published in 1923. Kollwitz’ War series showed the work focused on the vulnerable members of society, like widows, children and even the working class, as affected by social traumas, in particular WWI. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst.
Fromm identifies human separateness as our primary psychological necessity. Put simply, we have a need to be seen by others, to be recognized as part of the tribe. Even if we decide to leave the tribe, or live apart, or exist fully-unto ourselves as is possible with modern life, even if, we still need to belong to something.

Our sinews of self, stretched to some scaffolding that holds us up, some bone structure of being, cannot exist apart from that structure.

Kathe Kollwitz' "Self-Portrait" featured in Social Isolation of Hunger"
Käthe Kollwitz’ “Self-Portrait en Face” (Selbstbildnis en face) c.1904. Kollwitz was 37 when she made this lithograph and already established in Berlin. The face is unadorned heeding Kollwitz’ demand for simplicity in work and life. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst.
Imagine it might happen to you. Squeeze your sweet body cavity and imagine it hollow. The expanding chaos under the skin that only you can feel and cannot escape.

Imagine someone came to you in abundance with food for the body and soul.

I imagine someone sang your pain these lines from the indominable poet, activist, and mentor to many, Maya Angelou’s poem “Starvation”

Hurray! Hurry!
Come through the keyhole.
Don’t mind the rotting
sashes, pass into the windows.
Come, good news.
I’m holding my apron to
catch your plumpness.
The largest pot shines
with happiness. The slack
walls of my purse, pulsing
pudenda, await you with
a new bride’s longing.
The bread bin gapes and
the oven holds its cold breath.
Hurry up! Hurry down!
Good tidings. Don’t wait
out my misery. Do not play
coy with my longing.
Hunger has grown old and
ugly with me. We hate from
too much knowing. Come. […]

From Maya Angelou’s And Still I Rise

Imagine such fullness, warmth, connectedness.

Now let’s return to the initial question: As a community, how do we not simply protect and care for the indigent man, but understand him?

It is not a question of systems, or policy or measures and I claim no insight into such things. But to the question of action from one human to another. Actions compounded to a lifetime. Actions as simple as a few bucks – more than expected, a warm or cold drink depending, a hand to the arm if appropriate, and a resounding message: I see you.

The Absolute Annihilation of Hunger

“The bread, the soup – those were my entire life. I was nothing but a body. Perhaps even less: a famished stomach. The stomach alone was measuring time.”
Elie Wiesel

Hunger reduces a soul to a body and a body to an immobile necessity-seeking thing. It is one of the most ruinous desires we can have as humans.

Or is it?

Surely appetite, or longing as hunger, is a motivator of human invention and adaptation. “One of the major pleasures in life is appetite,” wrote Laurie Lee, a literary master of memory and longing, “It is one of our major duties to preserve it.”

Appetite is the keenness of living; it is one of the senses that tells you that you are still curious to exist, that you still have an edge on your longings and want to bite into the world and taste its multitudinous flavours and juices. By appetite, of course, I don’t mean just the lust for food, but any condition of unsatisfied desire, any burning in the blood that proves you want more than you’ve got, and that you haven’t yet used up your life.

From Laurie Lee’s I Can’t Stay Long

Even poet Mary Oliver argued that “I am devoted to Nature too, and to consider Nature without this appetite – this other-creature-consuming appetite – is to look with shut eyes upon the miraculous interchange that makes things work, that causes one thing to nurture another.”1

Oliver’s and Lee’s take on appetite as a means of motivation and “keeping one’s expectations alive” is echoed in Ernest Hemingway’s journals of being a young writer in Paris. Although Hemingway called it “hunger;”

You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to go was the Luxembourg from the Place de L’Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were bell-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry. Later I thought Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way.

From Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast

"War (Krieg)," woodcut by Käthe Kollwitz. Featured in "Absolute Annihilation of Hunger."
“War (Krieg),” woodcut by Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist who lived from 1867–1945. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

For both writers, appetite/hunger is a generator of human striving and learning, most efficiently run when the desired object is in plain view (but denied). What is extraordinary, then, is that while appetite and object-based hunger might enlighten and even expand our knowing, extreme hunger does the exact opposite.

In the late 1920s, George Orwell slipped off the comfort of society and lived “down and out” in Paris and London. With a desire to live amongst the poor and write what he saw, Orwell provides us an authentic experience without sacrificing the observant mind of a journalist/writer.

You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyere cheese like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you; and you refrain, from pure funk.

From George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London

Orwell’s lines are reminiscent to Hemingway’s but lack the positive uplift. Perhaps because while Hemingway returned nightly to an apartment, a warming stove, and the generous aegis of friends like Gertrude Stein, Orwell lived the life of a truly impoverished: homeless, anonymous, and hopeless.2

"The Widow II" " woodcut by Käthe Kollwitz. Featured in "Absolute Annihilation of Hunger."
“The Widow II” (Die Witwe II) woodcut, 1922. Kollwitz’ work focused on the vulnerable members of society, like widows, children and even the working class, as affected by social traumas, in particular WWI. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Orwell’s point on the limiting nature of hunger is well-taken.

“When you are approaching poverty,” Orwell continues, “you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others… you discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future.”

Imagine being trapped not only in a body, a hungry body at that, but in the hideous, eternal present. An annihilated future means no agents of the future, like dreams, hope, even imagination — the comfort that comes from slices of abstract thought that brighten our mind’s daily log — simply do not exist.

What must it be like to exist as a person without hope, dreams, or any imagination?

“The stomach alone is measuring time,” writes Elie Wiesel in his horrifyingly true story of imprisonment in Auschwitz. Wiesel witnesses the limits of human suffering and humanity and, years later, was able to instruct the world on the nature of hunger and deprivation.

A few days after my visit, the dentist’s office was shut down. He had been thrown into prison and was about to be hanged. It appeared that he had been dealing in the prisoners’ gold teeth for his own benefit. I felt no pity for him. In fact, I was pleased with what was happening to him: my gold crown was safe. I could be useful to me one day, to buy something, some bread or even time to live. At that moment in time, all that mattered to me was my daily bowl of soup, my crust of stale bread. The bread, the soup – those were my entire life. I was nothing but a body. Perhaps even less: a famished stomach. The stomach alone was measuring time.

From Elie Wiesel’s Night

The all-encompassing nature of extreme hunger is even more evident when Wiesel discusses Auschwitz’s liberation: “Our first act as free men was to throw ourselves onto the provisions. That’s all we thought about. No thought of revenge, or of parents. Only of bread.”

"Woman Entrusts Herself to Death" lithograph by Käthe Kollwitz. Featured in "Absolute Annihilation of Hunger."
“Woman Entrusts Herself to Death” lithograph, 1934. Kollwitz was born in Russia but lived and worked in Germany and her work exemplifies German Expressionism, art that focused on emotional purity rather than physical reality. This harrowing print is part of Kollwitz’ “Death” series, which depicted the secondhand victims of WWI. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

“You’ve got to have something to eat…,” echoed singer Billie Holiday beautifully, who was scratching a barely sustainable living in Manhattan around the same time that Wiesel was forced into the form of a walking corpse.

I’ve been told that nobody sings the word ‘hunger’ like I do. Or the word ‘love.’ Maybe I remember what those words are all about. Maybe I’m proud enough to want to remember Baltimore and Welfare Island, the Catholic institution and the Jefferson Market Court, the sheriff in front of our place in Harlem and the towns from coast to coast where I got my lumps and my scars, Philly and Alderson, Hollywood and San Francisco – every damn bit of it.

All the Cadillacs and minks in the world – and I’ve had a few – can’t make it up or make me forget it. All I’ve learned in all those places from all those people is wrapped in those two words. You’ve got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave.

Everything I am and everything I want out of life goes smack back to that.

From Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues

Holiday’s extraordinary life only stretched forty-four years, which suggests a literal meaning of Orwell’s “future annihilation.”

"Frontal Crouching Woman with Crossed Hands" lithograph by Käthe Kollwitz. Featured in "Absolute Annihilation of Hunger."
“Frontal Crouching Woman with Crossed Hands” (Hockende Frau von vorne mit übereinander gelegten Händen), 1921. The lack of atmosphere in these prints suggests the totality and isolating nature of the individuals’ pain and suffering. Learn more. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

What about the heart-crushing lines in David Wojnarowicz’s tender, sharp memoir where he suggests that in poverty he was at least able to sell his body as a means to sustain himself, whereas the individuals in extreme poverty couldn’t even do that.

There were times in my teens when I was living on the streets and selling my body to anyone interested. I hung around a neighborhood that was so crowded with homeless people that I can’t even remember what the architecture of the blocks looked like. Whereas I could at least spread my legs and gain a roof over my head, all those people down in those streets had reached the point where the commodity of their bodies and souls meant nothing more to anyone but themselves.

From David Wojnarowicz’s “In the Shadow of the American Dream” in Close to the Knives

If hunger subverts our intellect, renders our body a worthless commodity, destroys any temporary flight from our corporal self, then what remains?

Certainly not time; Wiesel showed us that.

Love, empathy, compassion? A person is not a person when he’s hungry, noted Orwell: “You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.”

Remember Holiday: “Everything I am goes back to that…”

So, what does he become in this vertiginous existence? He is more than impoverished; he is a human deprived. And how do we not simply protect and care for him, how do we understand him?