Saturday, June 17, 2006

6.17.06, Part 4: "Do Not Go Gentle," Uncanny Holidays

[If you’re bored or morose, sit down and enjoy. Grab a drink maybe, then sit back down. Which is to warn that this post is a bit long.]

[cont. from two days ago]

Again, the last seven lines of the poem:
. . .

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I think this is the point with the father reference, we have no background or context, so we are forced to “read” large. To the extent we desire some insight from this verbal puzzle, we must step back and view it through a larger philosophical, psychological framework and correspondingly larger semiotic field: even if the poem were written specifically to / for the poet’s father and the poet is presumed to be the speaker of the poem, the universality of a “father figure” would still give it the widest possible applicability. (Death and father figures — death and taxes = the two phrases are synonymous, as should be seen.) Not everyone has a father, a particular individual in time and space, having a unique name, etc., however every one of us grows up relating to or living “under” a father function. That is, the symbolic father becomes more important to our making of meaning than the biological father — I used the phrase the father figure above, but the phrase father function more accurately describes it (also, or paternal function). What we need is to investigate the father function through this poem — that’s the point where I think we’ll find some answers. This final part of the analysis, then, covers the father function and then answers “Why?” the father is introduced into the poem in the first place, or, as it were, in the last place.

“What happens if a certain lack has occurred in the formative function of the father?” A question from Jacques Lacan, Seminar III (230). Analytically speaking the answer concerns some form of psychosis but here I think we can read this question, too, more broadly and productively. Our main question, of which the latter question is just a piece, is what is the function of the father in society. (For my readers who know Lacan, I warn you now this is all basics and you might want just to skip the nom-du-père stuff.) First the idea of “lack” from above: in the Lacanian system lack is constitutively tied to desire, in fact, desire is lack. Anything we want, ever, suggests some lack that marks us (so we perceive). Elsewhere, more linguistically put, “[d]esire is a question” also, a wanting something done, something changed, a wanting to know (Fink’s Intro 100, see below). Humans constituted by lack is perhaps the most solid Lacanian idea.

Lacan’s question refers to a lack we will return to, but I want to note here that any apparent lack in the formative function of the father has to do with one individual. Clearly it’s the child, the poem’s speaker. Thomas’s speaker is the one whom the formative function has somehow effected, so as to make the speaker express his desire as either / both “Bless me” and “Curse me”; we as readers are left to figure out which and why. Plenitude in any relationship, even the individual’s to the external world, is always already a lie, however, Lacan’s question, vis-à-vis Thomas’s poem, presumes a specific lack. In other words, something's amiss between Mr. Cleaver and one of his fine sons (— n.b., the observation on plenitude might be another way of expressing and exposing the ideological nature of “happiness” and “fun” referred to earlier —).

The father function idea is not unique to Lacan, the phrase itself appears in Freud somewhere, but Lacan’s analysis of and expanded work on the concept provide us with more interpretive options. From the French phrasing, we’re given at least four ways to interpret what the Name-of-the-Father might mean. Since is more suggestive in French than in English, please pardon my French. As noted already the French for “name of the father” is “nom du père”; when you read the term generously, include puns and near homophones, you come up with the following options:

(1) “the name of the father” simply as a given father’s actual name, e.g. John Smith;

(2) “the name of the father” as the Law of society, the primary figure of Authority or Authority Itself, “the Man,” the Law Giver, or think the Architect in The Matrix, think Tony Soprano;

(3) “the noun (of the) ‘father’” since the word nom is both “name” and “noun” in French, so both the noun “father” and the father’s “person, place, or thing”;

(4) “the ‘No’ of the father” / “the father’s ‘No!’”, the father’s prohibition, since the words nom and non are pronounced the same in French.

We need to think all these possibilities simultaneously. (Scads of citations for this, so I won’t bother, but if anyone is genuinely interested see Bruce Fink’s Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis [Harvard University Press, 1997].)

Why say all this? Just intellectual masturbation, compensation for unhappy wood scale numbers, sublimation? On the contrary I think Lacan’s ideas on the father function, with the linguistic analysis, provide an excellent frame for understanding how we’re all tied in to the Father, even if we don’t have one, even if it’s a mother, even if it’s a cop, etc. Also because the tie is often tightened by a simple word. Thomas introduces all these potentially paradigmatic figures in the poem (5 x); then he reveals his “father”; so the poem can be summed up semantically with (a) immanent death, (b) failed exemplars, (c) the Father, and (d) an ambivalent plea, question, desire, lack. For me, the “answer” to the poem is that as death approaches the dying desire some recognition from the Father, from Authority, the System, in the largest possible sense. There is a lack of meaning, so, a desire for meaning, for sense, for peace perhaps. You might now say, “Well, duh,” and I wouldn’t blame you. It’s more subtle, though, because it’s not Peace of mind that is requested, the speaker just wants a response. It’s not “the meaning” nor any meaning, it’s just acknowledgment, recognition.

You also could accuse me of merely listing off truisms about authority and hierarchy and patriarchy, etc., but that would be to ignore the poem’s particular insight. On top of the most memorable features, which are sonorous and rhythmic (to me), this poem offers a fresh look at how a “would-be” turn to / appeal to authority, in the form of the father function which keeps the balance and maintains the order of a chaotic world, becomes so important in the face of tragedy and death. Yes, it is implied that (a) some peace might be had in a father’s blessing, in a one-on-one reconciliation — but we should be realistic, this sword cuts both ways; and (b) the father might be off drunk, away on business, in a nursing home, too proud to respond, and / or senile and unable. (Cf. Tom Waits, “God’s Away on Business,” Blood Money, 2000; Elvis Costello, “God’s Comic,” Spike, 1989.)

What does it all mean? (I love it, the one really meaningless question.) Or more painfully to the point, is Thomas’s poem really a rallying cry to go spit in Death’s face when it’s time to go? In the real world the father function never works, but the speaker’s desire there is intact. In the end, the noun / name father stands in for authority writ large, for the Law, and it represents the final, utmost, desire / recognition or approbation that we seek (to the degree with identify with the speaker). Further, recognition counts more for us than approbation since we, with the speaker, don’t seem to care whether it’s a curse or a blessing, . . . could be just a nod, a smack across the cheek, a hug and pat on the shoulder.

We all want the paternal function to work, to the very end; we always haunt ourselves with the difference between the ideal and the real. And we’re haunted more in some respects when the paternal function remains in place and we as children are forced first to say that “dark is right” (l. 4) — not in a moral sense, but in the sense that even a craps game has rules. Lots of them in fact. Still, the rallying cry part might work: our cry may not to win a bet only, it could be win or lose, but we want the croupier to recognize it when place the bet. That is all we ask. It could be a little patch of voluntarism in a deterministic world, or “We make our own history, but do not make it as we please; we do not make it under self-selected circumstances , but with poems existing already, given and transmitted from the past. . . ” (what Marx might have said if he had stuck to poetry).


Slarry said...

WOW. I'm supposed to be asleep right now, but couldn't
qutie do it, without being restless, until I told you how masterful your writing is today. And how fitting,
that tomorror is fahter''s day.
Unlike some, you have, and continue to "write your own history" with eloquent and enlightening poems and words, that it gives one pause.
I place my winnings and bet on you-- always.

Happy mobility and Costco shopping,
Love -- Sheri

Frarella said...

Happy Father's Day Mr. Jones!

What's it all about? the conversation I shared with my father earlier this evening was all
about lacking and yet his fierce tears are manifested through an outlet so unusual that the paternal function is somewhat useless, or more reversed in our relationship now. I won't even try to pretend to hang with your intellectual ilk but it was a timely blog for this faithful reader. Much love bro!

Mr. Jones said...


you're the architect-cum-aesthete extraordinaire, don't pull that caveman shit on me...(on the father visit, too much, another time and place maybe). hope you got some sleep, i was in the laundry warzone past my desired time. preparing for Larry and Lefty.

-Mr. J

starvin' marvin said...

always leave them wanting more....what a gift you have, as i've expressed before, for teaching and engaging...god. i knew you were amazing from your instruction in class, but never had the fortune of reading your writing. unbelievable, son saeng nim. everytime i read your blogs, from "every-day posts" to "extra-jes(cheeb)us, i'm floored by your writing. i'm sure you're close family and friends already knew, but i want to THANK YOU for the gift of your blog address. TRULY. forgive my pathetic attempt to express gratitude. as you know, i was/am not comfortable with writing, except for jibberish, and even then....
i think i caught in a comment from before that you are a god-father. So, Happy Papi Day, Professor Jones!!! :)
p.s. after reading a comment or two, i am "officially" retiring the "piss & moan" name. it was meant to be obvious to you, but i think it must be getting old. ;)

Slarry said...

Hey Mr. Frankly:

Mr. Jones thinks you are a darn fine father, which I assume you must be, because I know what a true blue friend you are--- how could you not be our FAVORITE father!!!! You hunk a man you.

And Mr. Jones, you are the best god father anyone could ask for or want. And not in the Marlon Brando way. ( unless you've whacked someone lately ) : )
And definitely the best brother.

Happy stools and mobility-- Hey it's the sabbath, goob.


Slarry said...

SEATTLE; What a greeting !!!! And to be so graciously greeted by my favorite person ... it doesn't get much better then this.

So much more to say, but indeed the hour is late, especially for someone used to Mountain Time, Enough to say we had a delicious dinner with Mr. J --, the best Vietamese food ever- and yummy peanut sause.
It is so good to see him in his own surroundings, with his books, friends and his two loyal cat buddies.

Stepho has been looking at the Ikea catalog all day.

There are no words good enough, worthy enough, of how happy and grateful we are that we made this journey.

And now I can confirm, that Mr. Jones's beard is indeed growing in white.

We miss our 3 little furry pup= I hope someone is watching them. : ) More later.

Love to Spot__