Yestrday night, Adam said, don’t be rude to me, Daddy.
This set me back on my heels. How had I been rude to him?
Well, parenting alternates between the pole of cuddling and the pole of yelling. Yelling is one of the great sounds in the bourgeois domestic lair. The enlightenment has, thankfully, softened our moeurs, so that the whipping routinely meted out to children in, say, the eighteenth century astonishes us. The raised hand, the belt, the paddle, these are the malevolent spirits that haunted the great rebels and novelists of the 19th century. Max Ernst’s picture of the Virgin Mary whaling the tar out of the little baby Jesus is not only a monument to surrealism, but holds a (mostly unacknowledged) place in the history of parenting in the twentieth century. Reading between the lines, Marcel was surely so punished by the father that he can never quite forgive as he traversess the thousand some pages of In search of lost time.
But yelling… Who among us doesn’t? In actual fact, I’m extremely suspicious of non-yellers. I figure that they are substituting coldness and silence for noise, and that is the devil’s substitute. And no, it is hard for me to imagine the person who can summon up sweet reason in an instant when discovering their angel scribbling with a pen on the dining room wall.
Of course, I yell with a guilty conscience. I’m never wholly into it – I’m always conscious of the yelling as a role. Among my talents, I lack the natural bellow – and I do have a smart mouth, which over the decades I think I’ve tamed. Sometimes, though, my tongue remembers its old tricks.Thus, when yelling, I’m always a bit histrionic. Adam has the three year old’s ability to zero in on the histrionic and the phony. What I want is, well, an acknowledgment of fault and sincere repentence – as in, okay, I will wear the clothes that you have laid out for me, instead of demanding to wear the dirty clothes I wore yesterday. What I get, though, is stubborness (I don’t want to!) and something halfway to a smile playing about his mouth, as though Daddy yelling was as one with Daddy hooting like a scary owl in the story of Angus, the lost dog.
Yelling is both an indispensible speech act – as in when Adam runs heedlessly down the sidewalk – and a cuyriously ineffectual one. Ineffectual on both sides – it makes me feel, as the yelller, as though I’m in a false position, and it makes Adam feel, as the yelled at, that the best way to get something you really want is yelling. Of course, I yell at him about his yelling…
Kafka, as usual, is all over this like white on rice. In The Judgment, the roles seem to be reversed. The protagonist’s father is decrepit and like a child – look, he’s even soiled his clothes! He needs to be tucked into bed and hushed. When, all of a sudden, he pops up and in an instant assumes his terrible authority. In Roman law, the father had the formal right to condemn his children to death. This is what the figure in The Judgment does. Kafka felt that the story was his first success. In his diary, in a passage emulously conned by every budding writer, he records the bliss of staying up all night writing it. Maybe it was because Kafka had now opened up one of his great themes, a theme perhaps central to his work. That is, the bourgeois order, the order of the yell, was centrally out of balance. The yell, that exercise of power, by its excess revealed an almost unbearable powerlessness.
This is a hard lesson to learn, people. I am not Josephine the Mouse singer, nor was I meant to be.