Shall I be ashamed to kill mother?
—Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers
Time: last year. Place: an undergraduate classroom, in the airy, well-wired precincts of Silicon Valley University. (Oops, I mean Sun-Kissed-Google-Apps-University.) I am avoiding the pedagogical business at hand—the class is my annual survey of 18th-century British literature, and it's as rockin' and rollin' as you might imagine, given the subject—in order to probe my students' reactions to a startling and (to me) disturbing article I have just read in the Harvard alumni magazine. The piece, by Craig Lambert, one of the magazine's editors, is entitled "Nonstop: Today's Superhero Undergraduates Do '3000 Things at 150 Percent.'"
As the breaking-newsfeed title suggests, the piece, on the face of it, is anecdotal and seemingly light-hearted—a collegiate Ripley's Believe It or Not! about the overscheduled lives of today's Harvard undergraduates. More than ever before, it would appear, these poised, high-achieving, fantastically disciplined students routinely juggle intense academic studies with what can only seem (at least to an older generation) a truly dizzy-making array of extracurricular activities: pre-professional internships, world-class athletics, social and political advocacy, start-up companies, volunteering for nonprofits, research assistantships, peer advising, musical and dramatic performances, podcasts and video-making, and countless other no doubt virtuous (and résumé-building) pursuits. The pace is so relentless, students say, some plan their packed daily schedules down to the minute—i.e., "shower: 7:15-7:20 a.m."; others confess to getting by on two or three hours of sleep a night. Over the past decade, it seems, the average Harvard undergraduate has morphed into a sort of lean, glossy, turbocharged superhamster: Look in the cage and all you see, where the treadmill should be, is a beautiful blur.
I am curious if my Stanford students' lives are likewise chockablock. Heads nod yes; deep sighs are expelled; their own lives are similarly crazy. They can barely keep up, they say—particularly given all the texting and tweeting and cellphoning they have to do from hour to hour too. Do they mind? Not hugely, it would seem. True, they are mildly intrigued by Lambert's suggestion that the "explosion of busyness" is a relatively recent historical phenomenon—and that, over the past 10 or 15 years, uncertain economic conditions, plus a new cultural emphasis on marketing oneself to employers, have led to ever more extracurricular add-ons. Yes, they allow: You do have to display your "well-roundedness" once you graduate. Thus the supersize CV's. You'll need, after all, to advertise a catalog of competencies: your diverse interests, original turn of mind, ability to work alone or in a team, time-management skills, enthusiasm, unflappability—not to mention your moral probity, generosity to those less fortunate, lovable "meet cute" quirkiness, and pleasure in the simple things of life, such as synchronized swimming, competitive dental flossing, and Antarctic exploration. "Yes, it can often be frenetic and with an eye toward résumés," one Harvard assistant dean of students observes, "but learning outside the classroom through extracurricular opportunities is a vital part of the undergraduate experience here."
Yet such references to the past—truly a foreign country to my students—ultimately leave them unimpressed. They laugh when I tell them that during my own somewhat damp Jurassic-era undergraduate years—spent at a tiny, obscure, formerly Methodist school in the rainy Pacific Northwest between 1971 and 1975—I never engaged in a single activity that might be described as "extracurricular" in the contemporary sense, not, that is, unless you count the little work-study job I had toiling away evenings in the sleepy campus library. What was I doing all day? Studying and going to class, to be sure. Reading books, listening to music, falling in love (or at least imagining it). Eating ramen noodles with peanut butter. But also, I confess, I did a lot of plain old sitting around—if not outright malingering. I've got a box of musty journals to prove it. After all, nobody even exercised in those days. Nor did polyester exist. Once you'd escaped high school and obligatory PE classes—goodbye hirsute Miss Davis; goodbye, ugly cotton middy blouse and gym shorts—you were done with that. We were all so countercultural back then—especially in the Pacific Northwest, where the early 1970s were still the late sixties. The 1860s.
The students now regard me with curiosity and vague apprehension. What planet is she from.
But I have another question for them. While Lambert, author of "Nonstop," admires the multitasking undergraduates Harvard attracts, he also worries about the intellectual and emotional costs of such all-consuming busyness. In a turn toward gravitas, he quotes the French film director Jean Renoir's observation that "the foundation of all civilization is loitering" and wonders aloud if "unstructured chunks of time" aren't necessary for creative thinking. And while careful to phrase his concerns ever so delicately—this is the Harvard alumni magazine, after all—he seems afraid that one reason today's students are so driven and compulsive is that they have been trained up to it since babyhood: From preschool on, they are accustomed to their parents pushing them ferociously to make use of every spare minute. Contemporary middle-class parents—often themselves highly accomplished professionals—"groom their children for high achievement," he suspects, "in ways that set in motion the culture of scheduled lives and nonstop activity." He quotes a former Harvard dean of student life:
This is the play-date generation. ... There was a time when children came home from school and just played randomly with their friends. Or hung around and got bored, and eventually that would lead you on to something. Kids don't get to do that now. Busy parents book them into things constantly—violin lessons, ballet lessons, swimming teams. The kids get the idea that someone will always be structuring their time for them.
The current dean of freshmen concurs: "Starting at an earlier age, students feel that their free time should be taken up with purposeful activities. There is less stumbling on things you love ... and more being steered toward pursuits." Some of my students begin to look downright uneasy; some are now listening hard.
Such parental involvement can be distasteful, even queasy-making. "Now," writes Lambert, parents "routinely 'help' with assignments, making teachers wonder whose work they are really grading. ... Once, college applicants typically wrote their own applications, including the essays; today, an army of high-paid consultants, coaches, and editors is available to orchestrate and massage the admissions effort." Nor do such parents give up their busybody ways, apparently, once their offspring lands a prized berth at some desired institute of higher learning. Lambert elaborates:
Parental engagement even in the lives of college-age children has expanded in ways that would have seemed bizarre in the recent past. (Some colleges have actually created a "dean of parents" position—whether identified as such or not—to deal with them.) The "helicopter parents" who hover over nearly every choice or action of their offspring have given way to "snowplow parents" who determinedly clear a path for their child and shove aside any obstacle they perceive in the way.
Now, as a professor I have had some experiences with "helicopter" parents, and were weather patterns on the West Coast slightly more rigorous, I'm sure I would have encountered "snowplow" parents as well. Indelibly etched on my brain, I tell the class, is a phone call I received one winter break from the aggrieved mother of a student to whom I had given a C-minus in a course that fall. The class had been a graduate course, a Ph.D. seminar, no less. The woman's daughter, a first-year Ph.D. student, had spoken nary a word in class, nor had she ever visited during office hours. Her seminar paper had been unimpressive: Indeed it was one of those for which the epithet "gobsmackingly incoherent" might seem to have been invented. Still, the mother lamented, her daughter was distraught; the poor child had done nothing over the break but cry and brood and wander by herself in the woods. I had ruined everybody's Christmas, apparently, so would I not redeem myself by allowing her daughter to rewrite her seminar paper for a higher grade? It was only fair.
While startled to get such a call, I confess to being cowed by this direct maternal assault and, against my academic better judgment, said OK. The student did rewrite the essay, and this time I gave it a B. Generous, I thought. (It was better but still largely incomprehensible.) Yet the ink was hardly dry when the mother called again: Why wasn't her cherished daughter receiving an A? She had rewritten the paper! Surely I realized ... etc. One was forced to feign the gruesome sounds of a fatal choking fit just to get off the phone.
Did such hands-on parental advocacy—I inquired—trouble my students? My caller obviously represented an extreme instance, but what did they think about the wider phenomenon? Having internalized images of themselves (if only unconsciously) as standard-bearers of parental ambition—or so Lambert's article had it—their peers at Harvard didn't seem particularly shocked or embarrassed by Ma and Pa's lobbying efforts on their behalf. According to one survey, only 5 to 6 percent of undergrads felt their parents had been "too involved" in the admission process. Once matriculated (there's an interesting word), most students saw frequent parental contact and advice-giving as normal: A third of Harvard undergraduates reported calling or messaging daily with a parent.
Yet here it was—just at this delicate punctum—that I found myself reduced (however briefly) to speechlessness. Blindsided. So how often do my students—mostly senior English majors, living in residential dorms—text or talk to their parents? Broad smiles all around. Embarrassed looks at one another. Whispers and some excited giggling. A lot. Well, how much exactly? A lot. But what's a lot? They can't believe I'm asking. Why do I want to know? I might as well be asking them how often they masturbate. And then it all comes tumbling out:
Oh, like, every day, sometimes more than once.
At least two or three times a day. (Group laughter.)
My father e-mails me jokes and stuff every day.
My mother would worry if I didn't call her every day. (Nodding heads.)
Well, we're always in touch—my parents live nearby so I go home weekends, too.
Finally, one student—a delightful young woman whom I know to be smart and levelheaded—confesses that she talks to her mother on the cellphone at least five, maybe six, even seven times a day: We're like best friends, so I call her whenever I get out of class. She wants to know about my professors, what was the exam, so I tell her what's going on and give her, you know, updates. Sometimes my grandmother's there, and I talk to her too.
I'm stunned; I'm aghast; I'm going gaga. I must look fairly stricken too—Elektra keening over the corpse of Agamemnon—because now the whole class starts laughing at me, their strange unfathomable lady-professor, the one who doesn't own a television and obviously doesn't have any kids of her own. What a freak. "But when I was in school," I manage finally to gasp, "All we wanted to do was get away from our parents!" "We never called our parents!" "We despised our parents!" "In fact," I splutter—and this is the showstopper—"we only had one telephone in our whole dorm—in the hallway—for 50 people! If your parents called, you'd yell from your room, Tell them I'm not here!"
After this last outburst, the students too look aghast. Not to mention morally discomfited. No; these happy, busy, optimistic Stanford undergrads, so beautiful and good in their unisex T-shirts, hoodies, and J.Crew shorts; so smart, scrupulous, forward-looking, well-meaning, well-behaved, and utterly presentable—just the best and the nicest, really—simply cannot imagine the harsh and silent world I'm describing.
At the time, I wasn't sure why this conversation left me dumbfounded, but it did. It stayed with me for weeks, and I told numerous pals about it, marveling again at the bizarreness of contemporary undergraduate life. One said she talked to her mother five times a day! In the moment, the exchange had awakened in me a fairly dismal psychological sensation I'd sometimes felt in classes before (one hard to acknowledge, so out of step with official norms does it seem): namely, that teaching makes me feel lonely. Not all the time, but enough to notice. Lecturing before students, I will suddenly feel utterly bereft. A cloud goes over the sun. Though putatively in charge, I'm estranged from my charges—self-conscious, alone, in a tunnel, the object of attention (and somehow responsible for everything taking place) but unable to speak a language anyone understands. I feel sad and oppressed, smothered almost, slightly panicky. It's a sensation one might have in an anxiety dream—the sort in which you feel abandoned and overwhelmed and without something you desperately need. They've gone away and left me in charge of everything. At least in my own head, it's the sensation of orphanhood.
One rallies, of course. Professor Freakout soldiers on and the feeling dissipates. The business of the day returns. But the psychological cloud can remain for a while, like a miasma. By asking my students a lot of intrusive and impertinent questions, I concluded afterward, I'd obviously brought this grisly mood on myself. Their charming, fresh-faced, matter-of-fact responses—yes, they were just as busy as their Harvard counterparts, but, yes, they also managed to stay in (surprisingly) close touch with parents (i.e., they loved and were loved in return)—had somehow triggered my orphan-reflex. I had only myself to blame. I chastised myself for having temporarily forgotten that students today—not just those at Harvard or Stanford, of course—live in a new, exciting, exacting "24/7" world, one utterly unlike (mentalité-wise) the one I inhabited as an undergraduate. They seem reasonably content with their lot; in fact appear to take the endless "connectivity" for granted—the networking, blogging, Skyping, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds. And why shouldn't they? Have they ever known anything else? None of it made me happy, but neither was I particularly happy with myself.
Now, lest one wonder, I should say upfront I am not an orphan—or at least not in the official sense. At the time of writing, both my parents are still alive—in their mid-80s, but frail, beginning to fail. They don't live together. In fact, despite residing less than a mile apart, they haven't laid eyes on one another for almost 40 years. Not even by accident in the Rite Aid store. Don't ask. They've had five rancorous marriages between them. I haven't seen my father more than 10 or 12 times over the past decade. That my recurrent sense of psychic estrangement—not to say shock at my students' hooked-in, booked-up, seemingly bountiful lives—might be in some way connected with these Jolly Aged P's is a topic that would no doubt require a posse of shrinks to explore thoroughly. But even without reference to private psychodrama, I think I now at least half-grasp the reason why my students' overscheduled lives, so paradoxically conjoined (I felt) with intense bonds with parents, discombobulated me so thoroughly.
Unsurprisingly, orphanhood—that painful thing—has everything to do with the case. Orphanhood conceived, that is, in the broadest sense: as a metaphor for modern human experience, as symbol for unhappy consciousness, as emblem of that groundwork—that inaugural experience of metaphysical solitude—that Martin Heidegger deemed necessary for the act of philosophizing. About orphanhood conceived, in other words, as a condition for world-making—as both the sorrow and creative quintessence of life.
Now that's a bit of a mouthful, I realize, so let me explain it in simpler terms. If you teach the history of English and American literature (as I've done most of my life), it's safe to say you will end up, among other things, a state-of-the-art Orphan Expert. Not that it's that hard. You don't need to go back very far in literary history, after all, to find a plethora of orphaned or quasi-orphaned protagonists. At the outset of the play bearing his name, Hamlet, poor mite, might best be understood, after all, as a sort of half-orphan—indeed, a half-orphan with an unconscious wish to become a full-service orphan. If not downright matricidal, he seems aggrieved enough by his mother's perceived betrayals to wonder if hastening her demise might not make life at Elsinore Castle rather more enjoyable for everybody concerned.
And what is Milton's Paradise Lost if not one of Western culture's great parables of self-orphaning? Along with the Oresteia and the Oedipus plays, it's a sort of poetical primer on how to forfeit the love and care of one's Creator in a few outrageous, easy-to-follow steps. Satan's not really to blame for the mess: He's just a figment, the kid who sticks chewing gum on the table leg. Adam and Eve know perfectly well what they are doing when they eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They want to eat it. And when they are seen, misery-ridden, leaving life in the Garden behind ("They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,/ Through Eden took their solitary way"), they carry with them all the pathos of suddenly abandoned children. They have no mother, presumably, and their Father is dead to them. Worse yet, they are wise orphans; they recognize their own culpability in their loss. Cosmically amplifying their sorrow is the sickening, banal, no-way-back knowledge that they've brought their banishment on themselves. Daddy took the T-Bird away. But we should never have been driving it in the first place.
Yet for English speakers, it's in classic Anglo-American fiction—in the novel, say, from Daniel Defoe, Aphra Behn, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding to Dickens, Eliot, Twain, James, Woolf, Hemingway, and the rest—that the orphaned, or semi-orphaned, hero or heroine becomes a central, if not inescapable, fixture. Something about the new social and psychic world in which the realistic novel comes into being in the late 17th and early 18th centuries pushes the orphan to the foreground of the mix, makes of him or her a strikingly necessary figure, a kind of exemplary being. (By "orphan" I likewise include those characters—call them "pseudo-orphans"—who believe themselves to be orphans, but over the course of the narrative discover a mother or father or both.) So memorably have these "one of a kind" characters been drawn, we often know them by a single name or nickname: Moll, Tom, Fanny, Becky, Heathcliff, Jane, Pip, Oliver, Ishmael, Huck, Dorothea, Jude, Isabel, Milly, Lily, Lolly, Sula.
Even if you haven't read the books in which these invented beings appear, you've probably heard of them and their stories; may even have a rudimentary sense of what they are like as "people" (self-reliant, footloose, attractive, curious, quick-thinking, lucky, tricky, a mischief-maker, the proverbial black sheep ... and so on). Alarmingly enough, orphaned protagonists appear regularly in stories written explicitly for children: Witness Little Goody Two-Shoes, Pollyanna, Heidi, Little Orphan Annie, Kim, Mowgli, Bilbo, Frodo, Anne (of Green Gables), Dorothy (she of Toto and Auntie Em), Peter (as in Pan), Harry (as in Potter). And needless to say, these parentless juveniles are usually the heroes or heroines of the books in which they appear. They may be wounded or fey or uncanny (what do we make of the vacant circles that Little Orphan Annie has for eyes?), yet they are also resilient, charismatic, oddly powerful.
Thus the first of two big lit-crit hypotheses I'll advance here: More than love, sex, courtship, and marriage; more than inheritance, ambition, rivalry, or disgrace; more than hatred, betrayal, revenge, or death, orphanhood—the absence of the parent, the frightening yet galvanizing solitude of the child—may be the defining fixation of the novel as a genre, what one might call its primordial motive or matrix, the conditioning psychic reality out of which the form itself develops.
Now, even though I've made a talking point of it, what's important here is not merely the frequency with which orphaned heroes and heroines appear in fiction since the 18th century. Yes, from Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel onward, the phenomenon has inspired some brilliant commentary. In one of the most profound books on fiction ever written, Adultery in the Novel, Tony Tanner associates the orphan trope with the early novel's tendency toward diagetic instability—its ambiguous, unsettled "ongoingness" and resistance to closure:
The novel, in its origin, might almost be said to be a transgressive mode, inasmuch as it seemed to break, or mix, or adulterate the existing genre-expectations of the time. It is not for nothing that many of the protagonists of the early English novels are socially displaced or unplaced figures—orphans, prostitutes, adventurers, etc. They thus represent or incarnate a potentially disruptive or socially unstabilized energy that may threaten, directly or implicitly, the organization of society, whether by the indeterminacy of their origin, the uncertainty of the direction in which they will focus their unbonded energy, or their attitude toward the ties that hold society together and that they may choose to slight or break.
Like the Prostitute or Adventurer, the Orphan embodies the new genre's own picaresque "outlaw" dynamism.
Precisely because the 18th-century orphan-hero is usually untried, unprotected, disadvantaged (not to mention misinformed or uninformed about his or her parentage), he or she can function as a sort of textual free radical: as plot-catalyst and story-generator—a mixer-upper of things, whose search for a legitimate identity or place in the world of the fiction at once jump-starts the narrative and tends to shunt it away from didacticism and any predictable or programmatic unfolding of events.
A flagrant example of such jump-starting occurs in Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722). Here it is precisely the eponymous heroine's putative orphanhood (she knows only that her mother, whom she presumes to be dead, was a thief and gave birth to her in Newgate Prison) that catalyzes, among other scandals, one of the novel's most titillating (if outlandish) episodes: Moll's shocking marriage-by-mistake to her own brother. (Only well into their marriage, after she and her brother have several children, will Moll realize that her chatty mother-in-law, his mother, is also her mother—long ago transported to America, but still alive and flourishing.) Defoe purports to moralize in Moll Flanders—in his Preface he describes his narrative as free of "Lewd Ideas" and "immodest Turns"—a work "from every part of which something may be learned, and some just and religious inference is drawn." Yet bizarrely, through some inscrutable narrative magic, the very mystery in which Moll's birth is shrouded triggers one of the novel's most perverse and sensational incidents. What on earth are we meant to "learn" from it? Don't ever get married, in case your spouse is really your long-lost brother or sister?
Yet Moll Flanders also illuminates a perhaps more profound aspect of the orphan narrative: its austere embedding of a certain hard-boiled psychological realism. Even when the hero or heroine recovers a lost parent, that person can shock or mortify. The "orphan mentality" can persist, alas, post-reunion. Thus Moll finds out that, yes, as she's been told, her mother is a raddled old Newgate jailbird, with the livid mark of the branding iron on her hand. Now, for most of us, such a revelation—even barring incestuous ramifications—would be disillusioning, to say the least. Imagine: After years of loneliness, of longing for a tender maternal embrace, you finally, miraculously, locate your birth mother: She turns out to be a convicted felon. A whore. A liar and check-kiter. A crystal-meth addict. No help there; she's way worse off than I am.
Freud famously described the "family romance" as the childhood fantasy that one's parents aren't, in actuality, one's real parents—that one was switched in the cradle, left in a basket on the doorstep, found under a cabbage leaf or the like, and that one's real father and mother are persons of great wealth, beauty, and high station, a king and queen, perhaps, who will someday return to reclaim you and love you in the way you deserve. He thought such fantasies especially likely to develop at the birth of a sibling, when anger at the parents—for introducing a presumably odious rival into the family circle—is at a height. Real parents are disparaged; imagined parents idealized. The scenario in Moll Flanders reads like a sendup of the Freudian romance: almost a spoof on it. It's not simply that the lost-and-found parent turns out to be disappointingly "trashy." She's quite shockingly trashy—sneaky, disingenuous, a terrible old crone with false teeth, sleazier than you even thought possible. But you're stuck with her, it seems, for life, unless you can find a way to write her back out of your story.
If one wanted to be fancy, one might dub this familial antiromance the "emotional drama of the post-Enlightenment child." Moll does not cease to be "orphaned" having rediscovered her mother; on the contrary, she abandons her (and the brother-husband), and resumes her solitary adventuring. And while she will re-encounter the brother later—indeed inherit the Virginia plantation he and the mother have established—Moll never sees her mother again. The maternal reappearance alters little or nothing in the heroine's inner world: Psychologically speaking, Moll is as alone at the end of the fiction as she was when she started. She's what you might call a self-orphaner, an orphan by default. Evasive, secretive, deeply intransigent—one of life's permanent orphans.
In the broad, even existential, sense of the term I deploy here, orphanhood is not necessarily reducible to orphanhood in the literal sense. At least metaphorically, virtually any character in the early realist novel might be said to be an orphan—including, paradoxically, many of those heroes and heroines who have a living parent (or two), or end up getting one, as Moll Flanders does. A feeling of intractable loneliness—of absolute moral or spiritual estrangement from the group—may be all that it takes. You don't need to have been abandoned by a parent in the conventional sense, in other words, to feel psychically bereft.
Indeed, from a certain angle—and thus my second big lit-crit hypothesis—the orphan trope may allegorize a far more disturbing emotional reality in early fiction: a generic insistence on the reactionary (and destructive) nature of parent/child ties. The more one reads, the more one confronts it: Whatever their status in a narrative (alive, dead, absent, present, lost, found), the parental figures in the early English novel are, in toto, so deeply and overwhelmingly flawed—so cruel, lost, ignorant, greedy, compromised, helpless, selfish, morally absent, or tragically oblivious to their children's needs—one would be better off without them. You might as well be an orphan.
Julia Kristeva remarks somewhere (my wording may not be exact) that "in every bourgeois family group there is one child who has a soul." And thus we meet them, in novel after novel: not only those who go literally motherless and fatherless, but also the children "with souls" who, for precisely that reason, will be persecuted by their foolish parents or parental stand-ins; ostracized, abused, made to submit to some hellish moral and spiritual reaming-out. Ruthlessly, imperviously, the realistic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries compulsively foreground this "orphaning" of the psyche; shape it into parable, and in so doing (I think) dramatize the painful birth of the modern subject—that radically deracinated being, vital yet alone, who goes undefined by kinship, caste, class, or visible membership in a group.
Witness, for example, the predicament of the eponymous heroine at the outset of Samuel Richardson's august and appalling masterwork, Clarissa. (Published in 1748, Clarissa, for those of you who haven't read it, is the greatest novel ever written in any language.) Now although the young and virtuous Clarissa Harlowe has grown up, presumably happily, at Harlowe-Place surrounded by her "friends"—i.e., both of her parents, two siblings, and several uncles—as the novel opens, she's just been "orphaned" in the emotional sense: profoundly, inexplicably, and shatteringly rejected. (Ironically, the word "friend" in the 18th century can not only mean someone outside the family circle whom one likes or loves, but also a member, simply, of one's immediate family circle.) When Clarissa refuses to marry the man of her father's choice, a rich and grasping Gollum-like creature named Solmes (one always imagines him with webbed feet), her "friends" morph abruptly, and nightmarishly, into domestic dungeon-masters. They revile Clarissa and threaten to disown her; they lock her up in her room for days and refuse to see her or read her letters; they forbid her contact with anyone who might help her; her father curses her. As they prepare to marry her off to Solmes "by force," she seems ever more like one of the victim-children in fairy tales, the designated family sacrifice.
Now Richardson critics over the past few decades have tended to skate past these terrifying opening scenes in order to concentrate on Clarissa's sufferings later at the hands of Lovelace, the charming sociopath and would-be rescuer who seduces her. Yes, Lovelace's depredations later are spectacular and obscene—he kidnaps her, drugs her, rapes her while she is drugged, and ultimately hounds her to death. Yet even before Lovelace enters the novel (or so I have always felt), Richardson has already saturated the novelistic mise-en-scène with an even more unnerving and absolute kind of horror. "Home" is the primordial horror-show in this novel—a place of dehumanization and soul-murder from which the child, to save herself, must somehow escape. Count the Harlowes, likewise, among the ghastliest fictional parents outside Greek tragedy—all the more so because they speak the language of sentimental bourgeois feeling. Even as they subject their daughter to unspeakable torments, they "love" Clarissa, they say; that is why she must be so brutally forced to obey.
Yet one finds these dire mamas and papas everywhere in early fiction—even comic fiction. They are omnipresent in works by Fielding, Smollett, Burney, Horace Walpole, Mary Shelley, and Ann Radcliffe. Even Jane Austen, arguably, offers an indictment of parents as harsh as that in the Gothic fiction of Shelley or Radcliffe. Witness the foolish, manipulative, greedy, or otherwise profoundly unsatisfactory mothers and fathers in Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion. Austen typically veils the inadequacy, even malice, of her fictional parent-figures by festooning them with comic trappings: We laugh at the absurd Mrs. Bennet, the whinging Mr. Woodhouse, even the monstrous Sir Walter Elliot—the vain, pomaded, rank-obsessed father of Anne Elliot, heroine of Persuasion. (Mothers are often long-dead in Austen, and as in many other works by women from the period, the heroine is obliged to live with a cold, oppressive, or dissociated father.)
In real life, having any of these narcissistic nongrown-ups for a parent would be a nightmare come true. They induce bewilderment and a sense of genetic incommensurability. How can Emma—brilliant, coruscating, kind—be the child of the dull, mewling, psychotically self-centered Mr. Woodhouse? Austen's heroines, in particular, are often especially changeling-like—sleek, witty, perceptive misfits, who appear oddly unintegrated into whatever (usually reduced) version of the family unit the novelist has devised for them.
What to do with the parents who fail us so abysmally? Perhaps the most drastic solution is to imagine a fictional world from which parents have simply been erased—psychically blanked out—absolutely, and long in advance of any narrative unfurling. Charlotte Brontë's books are a terrifying case in point. They project worlds in which estrangement, loss, and silence about the past seem the precondition for narrative itself. Brontë omits the "back story"—or provides only a fatally impoverished one. Neither of her best-known narrators, Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe, has a living father or mother: Jane's parents have died of typhus; of Lucy's we know nothing at all. Both heroines seem to emerge out of, and continually slip back into, an amorphous, staggering, irrevocable loneliness. One senses in their aphasia about the past some suppressed horror. Reading Lucy's glassy-eyed narrative, in particular, is like listening to someone who's had a head injury, or suffers from post-traumatic amnesia.
We quickly learn not to expect any answers; some submerged trauma is itself the given, the starting point. Crucial information will never be forthcoming. For these are orphan-tales, drawing us, ineluctably, into a domain of emptiness and pain. Yes, Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe may know their own names—first and last both. (Many fictional orphans don't.) But, affectively speaking, everything else has gone blank. The system crashed long ago. Not only have they no parent or guardian to point to, they seem to have no idea—emotionally, spiritually—what words like "mother" and "father" might mean.
So what—you may be wondering—has all this gloomy business to do with my frantic, ambitious, madly multi-tasking students? With helicopter Moms and Dads? With so-called Velcro parents? The ones who keep messaging 24/7? Surely I don't wish to link all the ultra-depressing things one encounters in literature—O, the horror, the horror, etc.—with the banal, addictive, anodyne back-and-forth of contemporary student life? Hello, you have 193 new messages. Checking for software updates. Your start-up disk is almost full. Hey, it's Mom. I was just wondering if you'd had time yet to. ...
Or do I?
My answer must be both circumspect and speculative. I don't wish, on the one hand, to sound like someone nostalgic for pain—a relic, a loneliness-junkie, a cheerleader for real-world orphanhood, or (when you get right down to it) a proponent of Orestes-style matricide or patricide. (Not usually, anyway.) On the other hand, I can't help but wonder if we haven't lost the thread when it comes to understanding part of what a "higher education" ideally should entail. Pious college officials yammer on about the need for students to develop something they (the officials) call "critical thinking" and thereby gain intellectual autonomy: a foothold on adulthood. But I'm wondering if it isn't time to reaffirm an idea that "critical thinking" begins at home, or better, with home—which is to say, that each of us at some point needs to think (dispassionately, daringly) about the "homes" from which we emerge and what we really think of them.
Do you owe your parents your obedience? Your deference? Your love? Your phone calls? The questions sound harsh because they are. But our Skype-ridden times may require a certain harshness.
Some of the primal myths of our culture—as the greatest artists and writers have always intuited—seem to authorize violence, real or emotional, between the human generations. Francisco Goya's sublime and horrific masterpiece, "Saturn Devouring His Son" (ca. 1819-23), depicts a shocking event in Greek mythology—the cannibalistic murder by the primeval Titan god Kronos (Saturn, in the Roman version) of one of his children. Having received a prophecy that he will be overthrown by one of his own offspring, Kronos devours each of his five children at birth. His wife Ops manages to save their sixth child, Zeus, only by hiding him away on Crete and feeding Kronos a stone in swaddling clothes in place of the newborn. Kronos is fooled and later, this same Zeus, father of the new Olympian gods, overthrows his father, as predicted.
An image to shock and awe, undoubtedly, but also one of the great paintings made in that period we call the Enlightenment: that revolutionary era (say, roughly, 1660-1820) during which—for better or for worse—Western culture began to shake off some of the more baleful and stultifying aspects of the Judeo-Christian past and reimagine itself as "modern."
The central insight of the period? It's so familiar to us, perhaps, that we have lost sight of its momentousness: that individual human beings are endowed with critical faculties and powers of moral discernment, and as a result, have a right, if not the obligation, to challenge oppressive, unjust, and degrading patterns of authority. Over the course of the 18th century and into the 19th, more and more educated men (and a few brave women) felt intellectually empowered enough to criticize previously sacrosanct "received ideas": traditional religious beliefs, established forms of government, accepted modes of social, legal, and economic organization, the conventional dynamics of family life, relations between men and women, adults and children—all those cognitive grids through which we customarily make sense of the world.
At its most potent, the critique was severe—world-changing. A host of Enlightenment freethinkers—Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Hume, Mary Wollstonecraft, Adam Smith—articulated it in passionate and various ways: that the venerable cognitive models human beings had mobilized over the centuries to explain "the nature of things" were often nothing more than self-reinforcing and barbaric "superstition." Taken for dogma, these man-made belief systems had produced a host of ills: savage religious and political strife, the commercial exploitation of the many by the few, the enslavement and genocidal killing of masses of people, the degradation of women, children, animals, and the natural world—century upon century, in fact, of unfathomable global suffering.
In his iconic essay of 1784, "What is Enlightenment?" Immanuel Kant put it thus:
Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!
Not that Kant imagined any cultural enlightenment to be easy or bloodless—especially given the seemingly intractable human proclivity for business as usual:
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance, nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.
I confess: I first read those words over 25 years ago, and they have never ceased to thrill me.
I understand the orphan-narratives of literature the same way I do Goya's painting and Kant's exhortation: as imaginative vehicles designed to shock us into "critical thinking" about those Titan figures we call our parents, and the larger psychosocial forces they so often (wittingly or unwittingly) represent. The intimate authority of parents is, after all, the first kind of authority most of us experience; the parental command the first utterance we recognize as that which must be obeyed. Pain and suffering, we soon learn, will result from our disobedience.
And soon enough, most of us become adept at shaping our wishes according to a system of superimposed demands. We learn as young children to control the way we eat, drink, and eliminate waste; we learn to clean our own bodies; we learn under what circumstances it is appropriate to yell or scream or cry, and when we must be silent. Later on, "adult" society will impose further, ever more complex demands. Thus we internalize all those second-order codes of behavior associated with the educational, political, religious, and economic domains within which we all attempt to function, with lesser or greater success.
Yet might it not be the case that true advances in human culture—the real leaps in collective understanding—typically result from some maverick individual action—some fundamental disobedience on the part of the individual subject? Such maverick actions often disturb—precisely because they need to get our attention. We have to be jolted out of complacency. The greatest artists invariably disrupt and disturb in this way. Like many of the novelists I've been describing, Goya gives us a shocking scene of intergenerational violence—but he does so, precisely, I wager, to force us to confront some of the deepest and hardest feelings we have—about parental authority and its rightful scope, about family violence, about the power of the old over the young, about the role of paternalism in society and government, about whether or not, indeed, those people we designate as "fathers" (priests, doctors, political leaders, scientists) or "mothers" (nurturers, apple-pie makers, self-sacrificing soccer moms, iPhone FaceTime partners, Mama Grizzlies, Tiger Mothers) really Know Best, about whether it is incumbent upon us to exert ourselves against them.
You don't have to be a professor, I think, to see Goya as a radical naysayer—a human being horrified by a certain bestial and soul-destroying kind of parental authority. The focus in the "Saturn" painting is on paternal despotism; but elsewhere in Goya's oeuvre we find, too, a frightful bevy of murderous mothers—notably in Los Caprichos (1799), a suite of fantasy-engravings depicting monstrous witches, crones, goats, and owls engaged in child-torture of different sorts. The questions Goya raises remain awful and unremitting, more than 200 years later. Is the rule of life eat or be eaten, even if what you consume is your own child? (One of the most terrible things about "Saturn Devouring His Son" is surely the fact that the headless, half-eaten "child" has the proportions not of a newborn infant, but of an adult human being.) Should we resist our creator's authority? When and how and why? Or should we let ourselves be murdered in his name? When and how and why?
Such questions lie at the heart of great literature too. What the early novel dramatizes, it seems to me, is nothing less than a radical transformation in human consciousness—the formation of a new idea. For better or worse, the ferocious, liberating notion embedded in the early novel is that parents are there to be fooled and defied (especially in matters of love, sex, and erotic fulfillment); that even the most venerated traditions exist to be broken with; that creative power is rightly vested in the individual rather than groups, in the young rather than the old; that thought is free. The assertion of individual rights ineluctably begins, symbolically and every other way, with the primal rebellion of the child against parent.
So where are we today? Are we in the midst of some countertransformation? A rolling back of the Enlightenment parent-child story? Are we returning to an older model of belief—to a more authoritarian and "elder centric" world? The deferential-child model has dominated most of human history, after all. Maybe the extraordinary Enlightenment break with the age-old commandment—honor thy father and thy mother—was temporary, an aberration, a blip on the screen.
My own view remains predictably twisty, fraught, and disloyal. Parents, in my opinion, have to be finessed, thought around, even as we love them: They are so colossally wrong about so many important things. And even when they are not, paradoxically, even when they are 100 percent right, the imperative remains the same: To live an "adult" life, a meaningful life, it is necessary, I would argue, to engage in a kind of symbolic self-orphaning. The process will be different for every person. I have my own inspirational cast of characters in this regard, a set of willful, heroic self-orphaners, past and present, whom I continue to revere: Mozart, the musical child prodigy who successfully rebelled against his insanely grasping and narcissistic father (Leopold Mozart), who for years shopped him around the courts of Europe as a sort of family cash cow; Sigmund Freud, who, by way of unflinching self-analysis, discovered that it was possible to love and hate something or someone at one and the same time (mothers and fathers included) and that such painfully "mixed emotion" was also inescapably human; Virginia Woolf, who in spite of childhood loss, mental illness, and an acute sense of the sex-prejudice she saw everywhere around her, not only forged a life as a great modernist writer, but made her life an incorrigibly honest and vulnerable one.
In a journal entry from 1928 collected in A Writer's Diary, Woolf wrote the following (long after his death) about her brilliant, troubled, well-meaning, tyrannical, depressive, enormously distinguished father—Sir Leslie Stephen, model for Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse and one of the great English "men of letters" of the 19th century:
Father's birthday. He would have been 96, 96, yes, today; and could have been 96, like other people one had known: but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books—inconceivable. ...
The sentimental pathology of the American middle-class family—not to mention the mind-warping digitalization of everyday life—usually militates against such ruthless candor. But what the Life of the Orphan teaches—has taught me at least—is that it is indeed the self-conscious abrogation of one's inheritance, the "making strange" of received ideas, the cultivation of a willingness to defy, debunk, or just plain old disappoint one's parents, that is the absolute precondition, now more than ever, for intellectual and emotional freedom.