FOR THOSE ORPHANED LATE IN LIFE – AN UNSEASONABLE XMAS BLOG

In the age of Instagram and Facebook, when people are constantly  ‘updating their status’,  and keeping family and friends ‘in the loop’ about the smallest detail of their everyday lives, a Xmas  blog  looking back and reflecting on the year’s events, both personal and political, must seem  either redundant or an act of self indulgence, along with too many mince pies.

Yet annual stock taking is still  perhaps too necessary  a business to be left to the professional commentariat  or to  business people with  their overwhelming interest in seeing a return on their  investment of time and energy  in the form of  ‘quick hits’ or ‘results’.  Once we take  financial accountancy out of the moral equation  we discover that ‘benchmarks’, ‘gauges’, ‘ litmus tests’, ‘yard sticks’, ‘barometers’, ’milestones’   and all the other pseudo- material tropes for conjuring  measures of progress  out of  an increasingly de-materialised economy, are  indeed hollow  metaphors for   the absence of any real advance,  and designed to impart some kind of  momentum to the    chaotic synchronicity we have learnt to call everyday life under advanced capitalism.

So however arbitrary a narrative frame a year is, (and for those on the sharp end of history it is always either  more or less than itself),  it may be still worth asking what 2017 has meant. And posing the question outside any calculus of  personal profit and loss. That means, in my case, I have to recognise but also discount the fact that having come into some money from my dad, who died aged 101 in November of last year, I am,  for the first, and no doubt last  time in my life in a position  to afford not to economise on the things I enjoy doing, like buying books, and sailing.  I know that nowadays inheritance  is as much about  the transfer of financialised assets as DNA,  but against that grain I want to consider   patrimony  as  still more about the emotional transference of  intangible legacy than a suitable subject for cost benefit analysis..

Is it still possible  to feel ‘orphaned’   about   losing a father  in late   middle age?  A Freudian would reply that it  all depends on whether one has successfully resolved, or at least survived  the Oedipal turmoil  through which desire is formed  and sexual orientation fixed. But this begs a wider and more social question. The  sense of  being without a moral compass or  a central   reference point , ( what parents or other authority  figures are supposed to provide by way of an ego Ideal according to classical psycho-analysis  ) , that sense  is  now part of a more pervasive existential  condition, which some have, quite mistakenly, called ‘post modern’, but which   is intrinsic to being at home in  Western   modernity itself. The emotional logic of advanced capitalism demands that we live In a  ‘society  without the father’[i]  , in which  pre-oedipal identifications flourish  within a ‘culture of narcissism’[ii] and provide an essential toolkit for the just- in- time  production of a marketable and all  consuming  self.  Within such a frame  we are all destined to become orphans sooner or later,  feeling  abandoned by whatever bedrock of certainty we took  on trust  ‘as gospel ‘ to tell us  how the world worked and what our place in it is to become.  The shift from  a strong inner-directed form of individualism, in which growing up is all about learning how to stand on one’s own feet, to a weak, de-centred form dependant on impression management and peer recognition exactly mirrors this process of orphanage and  the loss of familiar bearings it entails.

Paradoxically  Islam  provides the most  useful definition of this generic orphaned state. In the Koran the term is applied  to anyone or anything that is singular and alone.[iii]  At the same time, the fact that the Prophet was an orphan in the narrow sense means that abandoned children are according privileged status as object of community charity and support[iv] . In contrast in the  Western  tradition, the term ‘orphan’  has , since early modern times  been restricted  to a legal and institutional definition  within  the patriarchal order. Orphans are  sons who lose their fathers before they reach the age of  ’majority’, at the age of 14, 16, 18 or 21, depending on local  law and custom. Girls who lose their fathers at any age, or children of either sex  who lose their mothers, are much less likely to be  regarded as orphans, or to become the objects of special solicitude and charity. The root of this double standard lies in  pre-modern  customs of  impartible inheritance. In the normal course of events   the son, usually the eldest, took over the family farm or business  on his father’s death, but if the father died before the son was old enough to take on  these responsibilities, then special measures were required to safeguard his inheritance. This  tells us something about how patriarchy works but of course it has a generational  as well as  a gendered  dimension.  Within the moral economy of this  dispensation,  sons of whatever age  are supposed to remain at the disposal of their fathers will , even and especially when the latter are elderly and infirm.

In Jewish culture  the patriarchal bond is complicated by a specific injunction on the son – to mourn the  father’s death  through an act of intercession  by  saying Kaddish once a week for a year in the local synagogue. In this way the son secures  the  father’s posterity- and   posthumous reputation within the faith  community, and indirectly avoids orphanage.

In my case the problem was that  my dad was a confirmed atheist. As far as I know  he never visited a synagogue since his Bar mitzvah. He had many Jewish friends, but never involved himself in Jewish  community affairs. He did read the Jewish Chronicle  every week, ,albeit   with a pained expression on his face, because he disapproved on its Zionist  politics and unconditional support for Israel. In his late 80.s he went through a brief ‘Judaic’ phase, changing his name back to Benzion, and he  went religiously to the same hotel in Tel Aviv  for his Summer holidays until he became too frail to travel. But to the end he was unrepentant about refusing the consolations of the Jewish faith, and continued to embrace the outsider  status celebrated by Groucho Marx who would never join a club – especially a golf club- which would have him as a member.

So  there was no question of  my saying  Kaddish on dad’s behalf, even if I had been equipped to do so, which I am not, since I was not brought up Jewish in either a cultural or religious sense, and don’t speak a word of Hebrew. Yet as a mitschling , who was actually baptised and confirmed as a reluctant goy by the Bishop of London ( you can read an account of this bizarre episode in my memoir Reading Room Only)   I was a fully qualified orphan, in the sense of being separated  at birth from a familial legacy  that offered a viable moral  or quasi –religious  perspective on  the world.

When at last I stood alone in the flat where I had grown up and dad had lived for over 70 years, but which was now deserted, stripped of all the things that had made it his home, I looked at the ghostly after image of the clocks, mirrors and prints on the walls, and realised that legacy makes orphans of us all. That sense of orphanage as rendering the familiar strange, of  somehow no longer quite belonging in the landscape of your own life  and being abandoned by what you have so far taken for granted, is well captured in a poem by Kayo  Chingonyi  which provided me with the  title for this piece:

 

What if the wind blowing through

The French doors of your childhood

Is the house’s way of saying goodbye

And when you call out, answering

Yourself, greeting the gone out of habit,

You hear, for the first time, the timbre

Of your voice, how someone else might[v].

My dad  had no time for what he would have regarded as such fanciful imaginings. He was a  materialist in both the popular and the philosophical sense of the word. He valued things for what they had cost him and what they might be worth if sold. He collected antique clocks, books  and wine, and was very knowledgeable about  all of them, but his enjoyment was not primarily aesthetic or intellectual.  These things were financial  assets and investments, which might stand him in good stead against the proverbial rainy day. They  were also proud  symbols of the security and success  he had achieved as a poor Jewish boys from the Gorbals, who had gone to Glasgow University ,  and embarked on a medical career, ending up as an ENT consultant in London, with rooms in Harley Street. This acquisitions  did not stop at clocks or  books. In his retirement, he used his pension nest egg to gamble on the stock exchange and finished up with a portfolio worth  twenty times his original stake. He bought a Rolls Royce which he referred to, without any irony,  as ‘the working man’s car’  whilst clinging tenaciously to the socialist beliefs he had inherited from his father who was a member of the ILP at the time of Red Clydeside.     He was most proud of the bibliographies he self published about the Thames, the Clyde and Delaware rivers, and never tired of telling me  how much money  he had made from   selling them to libraries  around the world.

At times my dad  reminded me of Art Spiegelman’s father as portrayed in Maus[vi]. Spiegelman Senior, had been in the camps, and lost everything. He got his life back in the USA, but even in the midst of relative affluence, he remained locked in  a constant struggle to ward off  the threat of imminent catastrophe  in the shape of hunger and destitution. The paradox  for poor  Jews of that generation, even those, like my dad,  not directly affected by the Holocaust, was that their  quest for material security, running your own business, owning your own home,  entering the professions,  accumulating capital assets, instead of providing a safeguard against  calamity, was precisely what made them such a target of anti-Semitic attack.

In the last years of his life, as his dementia grew slowly worse,  dad became increasingly obsessional about his will and what he would leave and to whom. He would sit in his favourite armchair and enumerate the objects around him in terms of their market value and to whom they would be  given after his days. At several points in this process he threatened to disinherit me, not for the first time, and leave all his money to his old Grammar school.  Fortunately for me he hired advice from an orthodox   Jewish lawyer who predictably told him that charity began at home and it was his duty to look after his family!

Dis-inheritance  is a primary instance of orphanage,  but the fact of material dispossession tends to  substitute itself for whatever emotional loss might  otherwise be entailed in the death of a progenitor. Anger trumps grief where the parent’s will cuts off the child from what is regarded as its entitlement. A second symbolic castration then, more painful in its effect than the first.

By the same token,  to materially benefit from a parent’s death   adds a special burden of guilt  to the already complicated work of mourning, especially in cases like mine, where the relationship was severely strained. My dad’s unearned income became my unearned income, something I could only justify as recompense for the emotional  damage I felt he had  inflicted on me as a child. And yet outside a court of law,  no such trade off is possible, and even putting a  figure  on it seems an all too mercenary quid pro quo.

There are other complications. Inheritance of half my father’s estate deprived me of using the plea of poverty to excuse my  small acts of meanness, but it also  undermined my capacity for generosity. For by definition generosity  involves going without something you want  in order to give to others what they need. Instead there is only philanthropy, a corrupt form of charity which costs the giver nothing,  and is merely a form of  virtue signalling.

The act of atonement accomplished by Kaddish  offers an altogether different principle of commensurability and exchange, one which belongs to a moral not a market economy. At least in Leon Wieseltier’s  re-consideration of its modern  meaning,  Kaddish offers a framework of reparation that  works both ways[vii]; it  addresses  the symbolic debt which one generation owes to another for having made its advent to the world possible, and  recognises that whatever gifts are passed on – a sense of humour, a way with words,  manual dexterity, physical beauty – do not entail any such thing. It is the giver who should be grateful.

Dad was also a  materialist in how he described and understood the world.  His memoir, which   takes the form of a series of letters to me, is full of intense graphic descriptions of  everyday  life in  the  Glasgow tenements. He vividly conveys  the sights, sounds, smells, the physical  intimacy  and promiscuity  of  growing up in the slum environment of the Gorbals. He is much less good on people or intimate relationships. His portraits of his parents, his brothers and sisters, and his friends, are curiously detached, even skeletal, as if  they did not much impinge on a sensibility overwhelmingly shaped by the material world.

In later  sections of the memoir, where he describes his adventures as a young  doctor in the Jewish Hospital in the East End of London, he brings a clinical gaze to bear on his surroundings. As a surgeon he was trained to view  the human body as a physical object, a system of biological functions which might go wrong   but  could be cured by medical intervention.  And he applies the same dispassionate perspective to his often acute observations of the foibles  of  staff and patients in the hospital. Yet he was  a compassionate doctor, who for example, pioneered the practice of allowing parents to stay with their children, so  that they could be with them as they came round after their operation.

I am not sure whether my dad’s  materialism  had any ideological    foundation . It was more pragmatic  than that. He  was very well read, but mainly in literature  rather than philosophy. He had a copy of Bernard Shaw’s  An Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, and  his politics remained grounded  in his early experiences of Socialist Sunday school, and accompanying his father to political meetings where he heard the heroes of the Left and labour movement speak: Jimmy Maxton, Keir Hardie and John Maclean. He  retained  a sentimental attachment  to this precocious political education  even as his circumstances changed and in his later years clung on to a deep  distaste for the Tories, despite (or because of ?) the fact that my mother became a Conservative councillor.

I have suggested that  orphan status should  not be confined to children who  lose their parents at an early age, but rather comprises an involuntary part of the human condition. One aspect of this is what Freud called the ‘family romance’.  This centres on a common phantasy amongst children that they have been  abandoned or taken away from  their’ real’ family , who are  fabulously  wealthy, powerful  or exotic  and instead  adopted by  the miserable wretches who claim to be their parents  and insist on them brushing their teeth and going to bed at  7.   This fictional orphanhood  allows the child  to unconsciously hold on to an idealised version of their parents as heroic figures  by splitting them  off  from their negative feelings . The dream of the orphan is always to be miraculously  rescued    and restored  to  the status quo ante. And in the family romance this project is accomplished with the return  of the   repressed  figures of primary narcissistic identification. This plot  can be found in numerous myths, folk tales and legends , and , its has been argued , lies at the origins of the classical  European  bildungsroman.[viii]

The fact that orphanhood  has such deep and universal roots  does not mean that it  necessarily creates a bond of affinity or even sympathy between those who might ( or might not) choose to be consciously recognised as   such.  When my adopted son, Stephen died of alcoholism at the age of 33, he left behind two sons, then aged 13 and 15. The eldest  resolutely refused to mourn or claim the sympathy that goes with orphan status; instead he  dropped out of school and adopted a delinquent role –  he became the bad boy of the family whilst his younger brother,  better able to experience his loss, went from strength to strength. However both cut themselves off from Stephen’s side of the family, I rarely saw them,  and in that way my grandsons indirectly achieved  a shared , if partial, do -it- yourself orphanhood. Much to my surprise they both turned up at dad’s funeral, perhaps it was easier for them to experience parental loss at one remove.  Yet it has subsequently become clear that the experience of losing a father at such radically different points in the life course,  far from bringing us closer, has only accentuated  the gulf of circumstance that separate our respective  generations.

There is a political dimension to this. Generation Rent may well feel that they have been disinherited, if not by their families, on  whom they so often remain dependent,  then  by the so called nanny state which has  abandoned them to market forces and dashed their great expectations of making a better life.  It is possible that  these  reluctant  ‘ orphans’, many of whom are forced to go on living with their parents  until their late twenties or thirties,  will find a home from home in a progressive  political movement, and some are already involved in Momentum.   That, at least, is some cause for hope as we face forward into  2018.

However that is only one side of the story. As this country’s  umbilical ties to the EU  are systematically cut by those who see in that relation not a source of  support or symbiotic  identity  but a shameful  failure to stand on our own feet, perhaps it is worth considering whether it is time to integrate the orphan into an altogether different model of solidarity.

Such a model is indicated if not spelt out by Ai Wei Wei in his shattering film Human Flows. The millions of refugees  and economic migrants, whose predicaments are here so graphically portrayed, are orphans in every possible sense, many having lost their parents in the most traumatic of circumstances ,  often being cast adrift from their moorings by the  storm tides of globalisation and war,   and who  now find themselves washed up on the ever more unwelcoming shores of a   far from promised land.  Rather than being treated as  objects of charitable pity in the countless Xmas appeals which have been launched in their name, it might be more to the point to recognise in their displacement  an allegory of our own more benign version,  and welcome them accordingly into our own  homes from home.

To return to my  starting point, while a week may be a long time in politics, a year can seem like an eternity to people whose life chances, and even survival, depend on the decisions or indecisions of politicians and bureaucrats.  So  to end on my usual unseasonable note,  having spend 2017  attending  to  business in settling my late  father’s affairs  as well as  my own  account with that now unfamiliar past, I am   looking forward  with  some  trepidation   to what I fear will be an unhappy and not altogether new year  for all too many  in this not very green and increasingly unpleasant land. But in the meantime Merrie  Xmas!

[i] See Alexander Mitscherlich Society with the Father Harper 1992

[ii] See Christopher Lasch  The Culture of Narcissism Simon and Schuster 1979

[iii] There is a textual  trace of this in the typographical use of the  term: orphan refers to a single word or part of a word at the beginning of a column or line. Thanks to Patrick Ainley for drawing my attrention to this.

[iv] See  John Boswell   The Kindness of Strangers : the abandonment of children from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance University of Chicago Press 1998

[v] See Kayo Chingonyi  Kumukanda  Chatto and Windus 2017

[vi] Art Spiegelman Maus Vol 1 and 2 Penguin 1978

[vii] Leon Wieseltier  Kaddish Picador 2008

[viii] See Marthe Roberts The Origins of the Novel Methuen 1968