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When I asked for participants, Matt sent me a copy of Vampire Poet, his book of poems, and told me to take my pick. I homed right in on this one. As a huge fan of Hamlet how could I not choose a piece that begins, "Now Polonius?"
Famous Fathers in Literature
By Matt Posner
For the Exploration Project
December 8, 2007
Now Polonius, as you can see, was likely to give advice.
All his advice was very traditional and very honorable and in fact very silly.
His list of dos and don’ts was followed up by a ludicrous paradox as he declared,
“And this above all, to thine own self be true.”
Do what you don’t want, don’t do what you do want, and be true to yourself.
Polonius followed his own advice and was true to himself
What was true to himself was that, in pursuit of political advantage, allied to a treacherous and morally vacant king, he used his daughter to increase his royal access.
What was true to himself is that he spied on Prince Hamlet, whom he would have liked to either add to his family or remove from the line of succession.
Ultimately Polonius got his whole family killed, himself due to hiding behind the arras, and Ophelia due to her bad singing and a swan-dive with flower-petals into a Danish tarn, and Laertes ventilated with his own poison blade when he took over his father’s job as the king’s do-boy.
Polonius: Why day is day, night night, and time is time; Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
The worms waste no day, night, or time gnawing upon you, Polonius, nor the rest of us neither.
Now William Tell is a hero among fathers.
Lake Lucerne’s Uri Canton hunter bowman master of arms.
He would not bow his head before the Austrian governor’s hat and risked having that proud head posted high penetrated by a pike.
This was a risk because Gessler the Governor was a black-hearted man, and like all tyrants and also teachers, maintained status by people fearing consequences.
Tell’s gesture of defiance to Gessler won him much admiration, but Gessler was having none of it, and so William Tell had to shoot an apple off his son’s head.
We don’t have the son’s name; doesn’t matter, he was a boy.
What matters is that William Tell, Uri Canton archer armsman, kept one more arrow in hand.
William Tell: Gessler, this arrow was for your heart, if the boy was harmed.
Come now, heroic William, and Tell the truth: do not all fathers harm their sons?
Now Abraham is the example of what I mean. Tested by Hashem, what was he to do?
He took Yitzchack – that’s Isaac to you – up onto Mount Moriah where an altar was.
He tied Yitzchack down to the altar, and the son all unprotesting.
The son submitted to the will of his father, and would not some of our fathers appreciate such submission?
A young man in prime of life readied for sacrificial slaughter at the hands of white-bearded patriarch Avram does not resist, chas ve sholem! And tears were in the eyes of both.
Came then an angel to halt the sacrifice, and a ram was found tangled in some brush and was put on the altar and was slain instead.
God, Hashem, the Father, told Abraham, Avram, the patriarch, to kill Isaac, Yitzchak, the son.
Instead a ram was slaughtered, another father perhaps, after a fashion.
Avram: I don’t want to do this, but we must all submit to the will of Hashem.
I guess it was better for him when he thought he knew what the Father wanted?
Now Victor Frankenstein was a Swiss who wanted to be like God.
This was in the eighteenth century or so when all the literati celebrated men’s spiritual nature.
Why couldn’t a man being so suffused with spirit create a life form full of vitality?
Women could do it easily enough, so why not a man? But Victor didn’t impregnate himself.
Instead, he combined some body parts in a big cauldron in Geneva and did alchemy and whatever and the result was an enormous ugly dude named Adam.
Adam Frankenstein, or the Frankenstein monster, was so smart that he taught himself to read by looking through a knot-hole in a cabin and poring over the works of Milton.
He then tracked down Victor who had utterly repudiated him the second he made him.
Then began a dance of death as Adam the monster killed what Victor the father loved and Victor the father chased Adam the monster around trying to off him until they wound up somewhere near the North Pole.
Victor: How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
Seems like a lot of fathers feel that way, not just Victor.
Now Rabbi Isaac Saunders was known through his community as a tzaddik, a saint among men.
Accordingly, he never spoke to his son, Danny, except to ask him scriptural questions at public events.
Every day father saw son, and son father, but no small talk, no how are you, no events of the day.
What Reb Saunders asked, nu, Danny always knew the answer. And when Danny brought his less religious friend, Reuven Malter, HIM Reb Saunders talked to.
To his friend the father talks, but not to the son. Oy vey es mir, it’s meshugenah.
An explanation eventually became clear. The great man did indeed love his son and was indeed proud of him.
It’s only that Reb Saunders believe this way of raising a son would make that son also into a tzaddik, another saint walking upon the earth.
Instead, Danny quit being Chasidic and went off to study psychology at Columbia.
Danny Saunders: “Quietness has nuances and meanings, almost as if the silence is speaking to me.”
And I am asking, can the son by his silence speak also to the father?
Now Mr. Bennet had the benefit of five daughters, three of whom were very silly because they came out of his very silly wife.
Men who marry very silly wives make very silly decisions and must at one time have been themselves very silly.
So with such silly sisters and two smart ones, Mr. Bennet had to decide how to solve the silly and sad situation.
He settled for sitting in his library smoking his pipe rolling his eyes and making clucking noises with wry glances and remarks to his favorite daughter Elizabeth.
It is no wonder that she loved this somewhat absent father, for the gifts of sense and humor are great gifts he bestowed upon her, and a father at the desk, pipe in mouth, with his newspaper spread out before him, is an appealing figure.
Indeed one so swiftly becomes sick of the silly sisters and the silly Mrs. Bennet who is the silliest and least socially skilled, that Mr. Bennet’s own sad-sack silliness is obscured.
Mr. Bennet: “My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about.”
It would, I am sure, be comforting to a son to find his father always greater than himself.
Now O-konk-wo is from Um-u-o-fia in Nigeria. As he, a rough father, brutalized his sons,
So then the white father came from Europe to brutalize Nigeria,
And so the Holy Father came to protect the victims by changing their beliefs and ways entirely,
Which made O-konk-wo angry, who had beaten his son N-wo-ye for not being manly enough,
And who had sacrificed his adopted son, I-ke-me-fun-a, which maybe made N-wo-ye wonder at his character.
Your father kills your brother and then vaunts at you, and see whether you feel like planting yams all day.
O-konk-wo’s father was U-no-ka, a lazy layabout who was always borrowing money and playing a flute or something.
So O-konk-wo didn’t want to be like that, so he went the other way and became a proud, domineering rage-aholic,
So nervous by nature that, at a funeral, he accidentally shot and killed someone else’s son.
Okonkwo: “When did you become a shivering old woman, you, who are known in all the nine villages for your valor in war? How can a man who has killed five men in battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to their number? Okonkwo, you have become a woman indeed.”
Yes, he beat and killed boys, but he was good at growing yams.
And there are other fathers of whom one might speak.
But Lear is the greatest of all fallen fathers, and thus to end with him.
Lear’s protestations, with a few tweaks, speak to all whose folk have betrayed them withal.
- Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
- You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
- Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
- You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
- Vaunt couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
- Singe my bare head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
- Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world.
- Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once,
- That make ingrateful man!
- Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
- Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are mine own kin.
- I tax you not, elements, with unkindness;
- I never gave you kingdom, called you lov’d.
- You owe me no subscription; then let fall
- Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
- A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d child:--
- O! O! ‘tis foul!
Originally from Miami, Florida, Matt Posner is a New York City based novelist and special educator. Matt is the Dean of School of the Ages, America's Greatest Magic School. Matt's poetry, featured in this post, is part of his participation in The Exploration Project, New York's premiere avant-garde improvisational band. Talk to Matt at his facebook fan page "School of the Ages Series" and at his website http://schooloftheages.webs.