Reflection 74: Through His Eyes

March 9, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

I am in the second day of a workshop on dealing with death, a workshop I am drawn to attend. The leader asks us to tell about a funeral or memorial service that moved us particularly. A woman across the room says something in a small voice I cannot hear. Then I raise my hand as the leader turns toward me. I tell of my father’s funeral in Seattle 45 years ago. Colleagues read poems they said my father liked. One of them read Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold. I’d never heard it before or heard of it. It came as a revelation to me, as if I were looking through . . . at which point I choke up. Through . . . I gather myself and continue in quavering voice . . . my father’s eyes. Caught off-guard and completely undone by welling emotion, I can say no more. I sit listening to but not hearing the stories that follow. I am back in Seattle, as moved now as I was then when I was 30 years old. I see that, though I have processed his death many times, I never let him die. I can’t let him die. Much of what I do in the world today denies his death. Half his genes are in me. I am half-alive for him.


Later, I recall this dream:


I am in Cambridge, working at the observatory. There’s a small shopping center nearby on Huron Avenue where I am carrying my father’s head around the block to look in the windows. Crooked in my right arm, my father’s head is fully conscious, asking me about what he sees in the store windows. I tell him about each shop, then move to the next. I take the situation as entirely normal.


Later still, I  remember Clemens Benda telling me it is a classic Oedipal dream, one I am entirely comfortable with. I may have killed him off in that dream, but now I see he lives on in me (and my two brothers). Here we are, elder brother writing plays, younger poetry, while I am blogging away about consciousness of all things—as if it mattered. In our family, it does matter. Our father stood for the idea that language is not ruled by grammar but by the way people use it. We cannot help ourselves; we are his sons. No, it’s stronger than that. It is our filial duty to see the world through his eyes. As if we had any choice. We can’t help ourselves. His genes make us do it. His life. And his death.


Ah, consciousness, how it fooled me. I thought he was dead. I’ve always said he was. Until I choked at the thought of looking through his eyes. Suddenly the truth bursts out. I come home and read Dover Beach—that legacy, those funereal lines—to Carole. Yes, the dark vision. The eternal note of sadness. Turbid ebb and flow of human misery. The melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of pebbles drawn back, then flung up the shore. Again, and again:


Ah, love, let us be true

          To one another! for the world, which seems

          To lie before us like a land of dreams,

          So various, so beautiful, so new,

          Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

          Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

          And we are here as on a darkling plain

          Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

          Where ignorant armies clash by night.


So much for seeming consciousness. At best it’s a dream; at worst, a lie. What else could a man whose mother died giving birth to him believe? What else would his sons believe, seeing through his eyes?









2 Responses to “Reflection 74: Through His Eyes”

  1. tp said

    Professor Hall read three poems by Matthew Arnold in all that day; Dover Beach, The Buried Life, and one I have never seen in any anthology called The Future, which I remember liking best of the three. It’s the same kind of “What-can-we-rescue-through-our-necessary-pessimism” message, maybe a little more caressingly put because of a lot of dactyls. Anyway, if you google Matthew Arnold Future it’s the first thing to come up (yay Internet!) and I recommend doing so if you were inclined to take the time.

    I have Dad’s four-volume survey of English Literature in the Nineteenth Century that was part of his prep for PhD exams. Fair number of marginalia in the section on Arnold. Too bad I can’t read them but you know that handwriting.

    Ever wonder why, though he liked foreign travel, he was never interested in going to England, and never did? My guess is his PhD may have inoculated him against it, same way Sunday church and grace at meals inoculated him against organized religion.
    (He once told me he could see possibly joining something like a humanist society — but it clearly was no priority.)

    Anymore on this topic I’ll do in email and not burden your blog site.

  2. Steve Perrin said

    As always, TP, your memory is broader and more detailed than mine. I rely on a few emotionally-charged high points to color my reality. That service changed my life. Most details fly by too fast–like the trackside seen from a speeding train (remember trains?). –Steve

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