Saturday, July 3, 2010

FATHER AND SON by Edmund Gosse

Gosse's Father and Son is a superb and sometimes quite beautiful book (the apex of its beauty comes in the exquisite 'rock pools' episode), but I finish it wishing that the author had gone further--not only by throwing Victorian filial duty to the wind and more harshly criticizing his insufferable pater, but also by showing us more and telling us less, dramatizing more and summarizing less. I wish the exquisitely descriptive Gosse of the 'rock pools' episode had been able to turn those powers upon the final confrontation between the two title characters, a crucial and climactic scene that Gosse buries in the Epilogue. This book is quite good, but the author remains too much the decorous Victorian to write the memoir I would like to read.

One rarely cited episode in the book that I find absolutely fascinating narrates the crime that midwifes the birth of Gosse's subjectivity. Using a workman's tool, the child Gosse deliberately punctures a pipe that feeds a garden fountain his father has built. When the crime is discovered, the elder Gosse immediately blames the workmen, and his guilty son sits in silence, his illusions of his father's omniscience shattered like thin glass. But within his silent self Gosse also notes a startling division of consciousness: "I had found a companion and confidant in myself. There was a secret in this world and it belonged to me and to a somebody who lived in the same body with me. There were two of us, and we could talk with one another." He writes further, implicitly (and with surely deliberate blasphemy) comparing this moment to the Annunciation of the Holy Spirit: "the sense of my individuality now suddenly descended upon me..." Let us stroke our fin de siecle Viennese beards and think about this for a moment. The process that brings to birth the son's self-consciousness, his subjectivity, his individuality, that part of himself that becomes the all-important standpoint from which he will oppose his father, is set in motion when the son damages his father's spurting pipe. The phallic symbolism is comically obvious: the son gives birth to himself by symbolically castrating his father and miraculously escaping paternal retribution in a way that reveals the father's limitations. The son sees that his symbolic act was merely the confirmation of an already existing reality, for the elder Gosse is already a castrated Uranus, a father-god whose powers are seriously limited. It's remarkable how much the scene resembles the dreams described by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams.