A THANKSGIVING TRIBUTE TO MY LATE FATHER

This past Monday we celebrated Thanksgiving here in Canada, and for several days I’ve found my mind drifting to thoughts of my father, who died in late August. His loss is still fresh, and, of course, as is often the case, loss brings perspective. In my reflective mood, with the uncanny vividness of a hindsight sharpened by the finality of death, I realized how much I owed my father, how deeply and existentially, both literally and metaphorically, the fabric of his life has been woven into mine, how much of my own calling as a father, as well as a writer/artist/scholar, is bound up with him. My musing also evoked in my mind that hoary old debate about nature and nurture. The two seem, in the light of my own experience, an inextricable tangle, a hopelessly confused dialectic, no more likely to be resolved than the perennial question of the chicken and the egg and which came first. By dint of age and, I hope, growing wisdom, I’ve come to recognize many of my own personality traits and attitudes as stemming from him in a strange, alchemical fusion of genetics and upbringing, even though for the longest time in my life I couldn’t imagine how I could be more dissimilar.

 

My father was 89 years old and his passing was not unexpected. His had been a long life, one of unimaginable turbulence, for he had survived an unhappy childhood in Europe and the horrors of World War II. He had been ill for several months, during which time he lapsed into a state of anxiety and homesickness that rendered him a shadow of his former self.

 

Nonetheless, ripe though he was in years and dismaying as was his decline, he was deeply mourned by my siblings and myself, as well as his grandchildren, to whom he was a figure of golden benevolence, a kind of archetypal representative of fatherhood.

 

My father was a man for whom his Christian faith was the bedrock of life. The great Catholic mystic, St. John of the Cross, has a striking phrase that cuts right to the heart of the matter for those of us who profess to be followers of Christ. St. John of the Cross says that, “in the evening of our lives we will be judged on love”. There is a rich ambiguity about this brilliant summary of the essence of the Christian message. It means that the extent to which our lives have exemplified love will be the primary measure by which we will be weighed in the balance, once we “shuffle off this mortal coil,” to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s a harrowing thought, a sobering jolt to the self-regard that invests so many of us. Happily, this phrase also means that in the evening of our lives we will come before an infinitely merciful judge, one with a loving and intimate awareness of the weaknesses and foibles of the human condition.

 

My father, I can honestly say, was one of the finest and most honourable men I’ve ever known. Throughout his life he showed a selflessness that makes me convinced that, in such a final accounting based on love, he, of all people, would not have been found wanting. Generous and unreserved in his giving, I don’t believe there was a selfish bone in his body. And this was not just in a material sense. My father was magnanimous, “great-souled,” as this word means literally from its Latin roots. Always quick to forgive, he never harboured grudges. In this respect he was guileless and almost child-like. I mean this in a good way, the way that Jesus says in the gospel of Mark that, unless you become like a child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

 

My mother, frail as she is and with her mental faculties failing, summed up who my father was best and most beautifully, when she was told by my sister that her husband of 61 years had passed away. My sister explained to her that dad was now with God. Without missing a beat, in a moment of sublime, preternatural lucidity that burst through the dark fog of her Alzheimer’s, my mom immediately responded, “Dad’s always been with God.”

 

I loved my father.

Tom Clancy and the Primary Role of Story

Tom Clancy died a few days ago at the age of 66, untimely early by today’s longer-lived standards. As a bestselling author, he was, of course, a towering figure in popular culture. Many of his works made the transition to screen, the most memorable for me being The Hunt for Red October, featuring Sean Connery’s brilliant portrayal of Captain Ramius, the Soviet submarine commander.

 

The title of an obituary article by Robert Wiersema in Canada’s Globe and Mail sums him up quite perfectly: “Clancy knew that it was all about story.” While Wiersema asserts quite rightly that Clancy’s work is not high literature and even though he approaches it from a left of centre perspective that is the mirror opposite to what Clancy himself stood for, he recognizes that Clancy was a superb storyteller. It’s a magnanimous acknowledgement that, when it comes to fiction, mastery of the art of narrative is the card that trumps all. This goes all the way back to Aristotle, for whom plot was everything, followed in a quite secondary way by the development of character. For Aristotle, critical to plot was the logic of a beginning, middle, and end, in order to create a balanced fabric of story.

 

With the sea change of modernism, however, and all its corrosive questionings, coupled with the deeper journeys into the human psyche made by Freud, for example, story came to be devalued as an essential mark of good fiction. The literature of narrative languished, at least in the salons and in cultivated society. Figures like Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rider Haggard gave way to writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who turned their gaze inward and drew away from the Aristotelian model. This literary cultural shift came with a great impoverishment. In After Virtue, his landmark work of intellectual history, moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out that, from time immemorial in the West, story or narrative has played a critical role in providing a matrix within which a moral ethos and standards are transmitted across the generations. In a way, story is meant to hold a mirror to culture, while at the same time being vital to its vigour and  continuity.

 

Nonetheless, great storytelling endures, and it’s what the reading public instinctively gravitates towards, because we’re creatures who revel in the pattern and cohesion of a tale well told. Like the novels of Tom Clancy, the stories are not always artistically significant, but they do strike a chord. At times, though, even in our own day, just as in the past, there are writers who have achieved a sublime fusion of story and art. Think Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Or even other living masters of narrative like Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden, whose work is more likely to be read a century from now than some of the more dreary confections of “literary” fiction.