Excusing the Sins of the Father

What justifies parental neglect — or even abandonment — of a child? Severe mental illness? Desperate circumstances of poverty or war? Most would make allowances in these cases, though even in such horrific environments many parents have loved and cared for their children.

What about a child hurt or abandoned in pursuit of literary achievement?

In the July 22 2013 issue of The New Yorker, critic James Wood reviewed recent books by the now-adult children of Saul Bellow, John Cheever, William Styron, and Bernard Malamud, posing the question, “Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?” Wood’s answer is, amazingly, a categorical no.

“How, really,” Wood asks, “could the drama of paternity have competed with the drama of creativity?”

While the full callousness of that sentence sinks in, let’s consider the wider context. This is, after all, a long-standing challenge for those devoted to art, philosophy, or similar fields, the mastery of which clearly requires tremendous amounts of time and energy. For centuries a traditional solution has “worked,” more or less: Some underling handles domestic tasks, including the care of children. The “underlings” in question have pretty much always been either servants or wives, with an obvious societal conflation of the two. This was of course still true in the period Wood focuses on, which relegated wives to mere appendages in service to the “important” work of their artist-husbands. And of course many women-artists of the 50’s and 60’s were vilified if they even questioned commitment to parenting. This was, in part, what artists like Sylvia Plath struggled against, as seen in her plaint as a nineteen-year-old: “I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day — spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote. I want to be free” — or in the image of her maternal self as “…cow-heavy and floral/In my Victorian nightgown…”

But we can’t accuse Wood of sexism, as the inclusion of women in the “sacred devotion” quote above makes clear. He seems, however, not to have thought this through, since his very “feminism” could lead, for instance, to writer/writer households in which both muse-bespelled parents neglect, ignore, or otherwise damage their offspring. (I don’t mean that feminism has led to neglect of children; I’ll let the reactionaries harp on that one, while most parents in the real world continue to do their best with the actual conditions of contemporary life). And note that Wood’s support of female equality is based, of course, on the value of fairness to an oppressed group — even while he’s happy enough to write off another even more vulnerable group. This alerts us to the reality that his overall argument is, to a large degree, simply dismissive of children. I can’t help thinking of the Kenyan proverb that when elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.

“How, really, could the drama of paternity have competed with the drama of creativity?” My God — how could it not? Human beings are continually wounded, even destroyed, by wretched parenting; if you don’t see drama in that, you’re not looking very hard. And I can’t accept “justifications” based on a perceived superiority of art over living, breathing children, with their aching need for committed parents. (Wood, by the way, is hardly alone in his view of artist-fathers; writer Allan Massie begins a 2012 piece with “Writers often make poor fathers…,” as if this sweeping (and sexist) generalization is merely a fact we must resign ourselves to).

In fact, a true vision of the overwhelming importance of parenting is one of the crucial ideas that should guide a parent. A mother or father is the sun in the sky of childhood; that relationship shapes the child in myriad ways, especially in the parental love that allows a child to grow in acceptance of self. Holding up “the holy centrality of writing” over the potential cost to the child works blatantly against this. At one point Wood even states that “…their fathers had literary existences that were religiously absorbing, selfishly independent” — apparently unaware of the irony of posing “religious” and “selfish” as equivalents, since most religions, of course, value altruism, particularly when applied to those who are most vulnerable. Like, say, children.

And since Wood evokes the sacred, the religious element here is worth further examination. A strange reaction to Wood’s essay, on a Christian site called Mockingbird.com, begins with a relevant anecdote: Faulkner’s supposed response, when his daughter asked him to give up drinking, that “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.” But the unidentified writer goes on to make this astonishing (if only half-coherent) statement:

“God’s grace frees the writer/artist from having to justify himself enough for him to put down his pen/paintbrush and spend time loving his family. Likewise, God’s forgiveness allows the neglected children of narcissistic workaholics to accept their parents as human beings.

I include this bizarre argument as an example of just how awful justifications based on the “sacred” can be. As a spiritual person myself, I believe that spirituality should involve thinking as well as the more mysterious workings of faith. Appealing to the sacred can easily become, after all, a convenient way to fuzz things over with some kind of ethereal glow. In any case, when sacred reality is used to justify direct injury to human beings, we don’t have spirituality; such an argument is, by definition, anti-religious.

Consider another point. Does Wood’s justification of harmful parenting apply to any committed artists, thinkers, etc., or only to those whose work ends up being great? He never really says. The overwhelming majority, of course, fall far short of greatness, no matter how hard they try. So by Wood’s reasoning we’d find ourselves defending such damage to children on the basis of mildly successful or even indifferent work. Most of us, I think, would recoil from that, especially if we witnessed this kind of family anguish up close. But the alternative doesn’t make sense either. If Wood means that only great artists can be excused for bad parenting, then we’re excusing them exclusively on the basis of talent, which is to say, on the luck of the draw. It’s equivalent to asserting, for example, that morality doesn’t apply to good-looking people.

I don’t mean to suggest that the parent-artist life is easy. I’m a creative writer myself, obsessed with my work, and I absolutely consider art a sacred pursuit. Since I’m also the father of three, that belief puts me through nine kinds of hell on a regular basis. But I also live in a world where children — God knows how many — are hurt, some of them terribly, on an equally regular basis. Yes, the artist’s work-life balance is hugely challenging. But when Wood concludes that “[p]erhaps the storyteller is especially ill suited for happy family life,” what I hear is an attempt to take artist-parents off the hook for the damage some inflict.

To me, though, the most harrowing part of the piece is Wood’s harshness toward Greg Bellow, son of novelist Saul, whose Saul Bellow’s Heart is, in Wood’s words, “a fake narrative of psychic closure.” (And Wood doesn’t even consider that the acceptance expressed by the other writers’ children may partly be an matter of making a virtue of a necessity).

When Greg was eight, his father announced he was divorcing Greg’s mother; anyone who knows children recognizes that this is a particularly vulnerable age for such a burden. Greg writes of the “sadness born of losing the parent who understood me best.” And even though he was supposed to see his father on a limited but regular basis, Saul was often lax about showing up, nor did he take any interest in Greg’s own children. Wood can’t believe that Greg “still displays an unconscious hostility toward his father’s writing” — but that’s hardly a surprising reaction on Greg’s part. Wood even brings up an early Bellow short story about a young father who “imagines the ‘curse’ of having a “dull son’ who disappoints him.” This is pouring salt into a wound. I don’t believe Wood meant it to hurt Greg Bellow. But then we often hurt each other based on elaborate justifications. And Wood’s emphasis on the huge difficulties writers face — an astute point which more people need to understand — illogically conflates the struggles of that life with some kind of pass when it comes to parental responsibility.

Equally surprising, Wood never even mentions one blazingly simple solution to the whole problem: If your sacred obsession requires so much of you — don’t have kids.

Art is a kind of Rilkean angel that visits the world, demanding immense, life-devouring devotion of those who serve it. But love and parental nurturance are sacred forces too, and in their absence innocent children are hurt, may well wither, grow bitter — or worse — and so add to all the great wrong and suffering in the world.

So what’s a writer to do? Find a way to make it work. Of course this double commitment will lead to conflicts and frustrations. But you can work harder, you can get creative with scheduling, you can fortify your heart with the good you’re working in your own family. I don’t think any genuine artist will ever be fully satisfied with the arrangement. But it’s long past time to reject justifications for neglect or abandonment. And it’s time to generally expect more of men, writers and otherwise.

The good news is that many male writers now exemplify the domestically-committed father, from Michael Chabon to Jason McBride to Dan Barden to Brian Gresko (with his female co-founder M.M. De Voe ) at PenParentis.org. Wood, on the other hand, despite admitting the relevant historical differences, seems to be stuck in the ‘50’s, a “golden age” built on the backs of children and wives, one dramatically out of step with changing gender roles today (which Adam Gopnik, with admirable civility and eloquence, pointed out during his podcast discussion with Wood). I can’t help thinking of V. S. Naipaul’s 2011 crackpot declaration that women writers are inferior because of their “sentimentality…[their] narrow view of the world.”

So is there something going on beneath the surface here? In his discussion with Gopnik, Wood makes what I consider a telling admission. As the conversation finishes, Gopnik, laughing, brings up the possibility of Wood’s and his own children writing about the two of them as fathers, saying that “hopefully” those portraits will be more positive. Wood replies, “My fear is almost the other way round, which is that I think — I hope — my children will write nice books about me — but I fear the cost will have been that we didn’t write good enough books.” Wood himself, we gather, is a loving father; after all, it’s a lot easier to justify shooting someone than to actually pull the trigger. But he seems almost to regret his good parenting because it dimmed his literary luster.

Gopnik, however, with a wonderful blend of urbanity and wisdom, replies, “Well, that’s baked into the cake.” Whether he means that it’s a matter of genetically-based ability or, more generally, that “some things just aren’t meant to be,” he’s suggested another glaring error in Wood’s argument: That artistic or intellectual greatness is, ultimately, a mysterious thing, and we can’t make our way to it through formulae, including the “selfish obsession” strategy Wood so confidently upholds.

Bellows, Cheever, Styron, Malamud: Those male artists’ “storm of assertion cleared a brutal path,” Wood writes, honest here, at least, about the brutality involved. “The history of that private destruction is briefly alluring, sometimes appalling,” he continues. “In two or three generations, that story will have faded from memory, outlived by what it enabled.”

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with sacrificing your child on the altar of art. No angel is coming to stay this Abraham’s hand. And Isaac’s young heart will be offered up. But that destruction will soon be forgotten, which makes it all right.

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