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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, May 23, 2005


Had a good night's sleep thanks to half a Sleep Aid, and woke at around 7:45 (it's the Victoria Day holiday in Canada--5 out of 5 people polled in the street by the local paper did not know that the holiday is in celebration of Queen Victoria). I made coffee and keyed notes from True Believer and History of the Jews in Babylonia. While keying the latter I came across a reference I'd highlighted to Hillel the Elder: The Emergence of Classical Judaism by Nahum Glatzer. Neusner recommended this as a good summary of the "enormous" literature on Hillel the Great. I checked for it at the library--no dice, as usual--so went to abebooks.com to order it used. I bought a "very good +" copy from Bibliomania Bookshoppe in Montreal for US$8. So that's on its way.

In the midst of that I got an e-mail from Dad with the subject "availability". I'll quote it in full:

4, 5, 6...?


This was laconic even by Dad's e-mail standards (he's hardly laconic in person). It took me a moment to realize he was requesting drafts of chapters after 3, since I have sent him the first 3 to look at. Maybe I should take care of that while I'm thinking of it...

Done. I also just took a cup of tea up to Kimmie in her sewing room, where she's cutting out a pattern for a bolero jacket, listening to Mark Knopfler sing "Ticket to Heaven".

Last night I got another e-mail from Warren. I was surprised, since I hadn't even replied to his last e-mail of a few days ago. He was so struck by what he'd just read in Hillman's The Soul's Code that he had to write me. He quoted the passages that had particularly hit home. I had read them myself only a couple of days earlier. In chapter 3 Hillman discusses the supposed social problem of the absent father:

Rather than blaming fathers for their absenteeism...we need to ask where Dad might be when he's "not at home."...

[Father] is trapped in a construct called American fatherhood, a moral commandment to be the kind of good guy who likes Disneyland, and kids' food, gadgets, opinions, and wisecracks.

This bland model betrays his necessary angel, that image of whatever else he carries in his heart.... The man who has lost his angel becomes demonic; and the absence, the anger, and the paralysis on the couch are all symptoms of the soul in search of a lost call to something other and beyond.

This would seem to be in contrast with the ideas behind, for example, Guy Corneau's excellent book Absent Fathers, Lost Sons, which describes some of the characteristic problems experienced by boys growing up without the influence of a father. But I believe the two viewpoints are complementary. The key question might be not whether father is absent, but why. As Hillman points out, fathers have been absent from the beginning: in the army, navy, commercial trade, exploring, and so on. And Corneau admits that dead fathers don't seem to pose the same developmental challenge to sons (he thinks it might be because the widowed mother is much more likely to speak well of a dead husband than one who ran off with his secretary). Hillman is suggesting that if dad is following his own inner calling, is living his own authentic life, then he's doing what's right for his children, wherever he is.

Warren and I were both children of parents who divorced. And only belatedly, when we were already well into the first season of our TV series The Odyssey, did we fully and consciously connect with the fact that our show, about a comatose 10-year-old journeying through a dreamworld in search of his dead father, was about our own lives. Our hero, Jay Ziegler, unable to visit his dad in life because his father died when he was a baby, goes to the extreme of bashing himself (accidentally) into a coma in order to commune with his father.

Our show connected--and is still connecting, in places like Spain and Russia where it's now being shown--with a large audience. It speaks to people.

As I think about it now, it's really the same archetypal situation expressed at what could be called the climactic moment of the Christian story: Jesus, tortured on the cross, cries out, "Father, why have you forsaken me?" This moment of maximum stress in Jesus' career echoes down through the centuries and in our souls to this moment.

Speaking for myself, I have no complaints. I think my father has done pretty much what he wanted to do in his life. Therefore, I feel free to do what I want to do. He's an eccentric--and so am I. I wouldn't have it any other way. Enjoy those chapters, Dad.



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