Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Of Beauty and a Father's Love

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Of Beauty and a Father's Love

Article excerpt

He fathers forth whose beauty is past change: praise Him.

--Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty"

Like many academics, I am a bit of a pack rat. One of the things I have allowed to collect dust and still be lugged around is a box of old LPs from the sixties.

On the back of one of these faded jacket covers there is a photograph of a young pop/rock balladeer slumped in an evidently British stair well, back against the wall by the cast iron downspout. Beside him stands a tousled, smiling child of four or five years of age, hands folded together, almost as if in prayer, rested upon the singer's knee: a child and a father. It is a beautiful image and, in the context, entirely incongruous.

The singer is Phil Ochs, the album Pleasures of the Harbor (1967), and the liner notes beside the photograph are in the form of a poem weighty with the singer's ambivalence about returning home to Los Angeles:

   To face the unspoken unguarded thoughts of habitual hearts
   A vanguard of electricians, a village full of tarts
   Who say you must protest you must protest
      It is your diamond duty ...
   Ah but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty

Protest--in sharp, abrasive questioning of authority--was then the west-coast watchword that spread east. Its "missionaries" included Ochs's touring friends and fellow balladeers Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and T-Bone Burnett, each a kind of prophet against a culture they saw as too easily anesthetized by American Beauty, each singing against the grain of musical and cultural cliche, often raspy and nasal-toned in their resentment and disdain. In this one album Ochs, however, broke step; he paused to reconsider the prospect of beauty, of healing, and notably for my purposes, the persistence of a father's love. It wasn't to be for long, and it didn't set a trend. Ochs himself returned to rebellion rock, The Ringing of Revolution, musical settings of the poems of Mao Tse-tung and more to match. He took his own life in April 1976.

If any here remember that album, or others like it in the work of T-Bone Burnett (e.g., "The Power of Love," "Heffner and Disney," and "Trap Door") or Bob Dylan's memorable lament "I dreamt I saw St. Augustine" (John Wesley Harding) or the last song on Dylan's album New Morning (1970), "Father of Night, Father of Day," you might recall that there were strong notes of ambivalence regarding the love and wisdom of fathers in this musical movement, despite the dominant acrimony and intentional, conventional disdain. One of the most important of these motifs now seems to have been borne of a deep nostalgia, a yearning after spiritual fulfillment, an ache for a lost beauty paved over, even, and this is to the point of my remarks, a yearning for a love which somehow got lost through willed or unwilled absence of the fathers. There is a strong undertone of poignancy in this music that runs counter to the self-assertive mainstream drift of much of early twentieth century poetry and fiction.

Lost Beauty

Let us recollect: from certain Victorian and turn-of-the-century writers, such as Samuel Butler (The Way of All Flesh [1903]), whose entire life's work was motivated by hatred of his father and then, subsequently, his self-appointed surrogate fathers, on to James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist (1916) and Stephen Hero (1944), who extends his hatred to the Catholic Church and all paternity, fathers had become the representative enemy of freedom--political freedom, artistic freedom, and perhaps above all, sexual freedom. Death of the Father (Freud), the Death of God (Nietzsche) and the Death of the Author (Barthes) reflect a common and widely colloquialized impulse toward the rejection of any authority beyond the self. Intellectual formulations aside, fatherhood became unfashionable for many not very intellectual reasons. Among these are its implications regarding responsibility for others, a necessary exercise of sexual restraint, and--perhaps because of fatherhood's tacit contradiction of increasingly insistent denials that aging is inevitable--its signal that others will succeed us, that we too shall someday die. …

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