Difficulty, Toleranance, Love, Survival: Fathers and Sons In, Out, and At War

Untitled Document

"Murderer": A fitting final utterance to Art
Spiegelman’s novel, Maus.

All the brutality one expects in a poignant presentation of the Holocaust and
Nazi evil is present in this book, this "remarkable work" that Jules
Feiffer describes as "awesome in its conception and execution . . .
at one and the same time a novel, a documentary, a memoir, and a comic book."
As author/mouse protagonist Spiegelman departs from his father at the end of
Book I (subtitled "My Father Bleeds History")—briefcase in one
hand, cigarette in another, head down—he utters this depressing final
statement, "murderer." But he is not talking of the Nazis. His father
is the murderer, for Spiegelman has just learned that his father long ago, distracted
by grief and confusion over his wife’s suicide, destroyed the journals she had
kept of the war and Holocaust—journals she had intended to be a legacy
to her son.

Thus we end on a mighty ambivalence: the son exploding/apologizing, the father
exploding/apologizing, the father shaken at the son’s disrespect, the son pleading
for information, the son, mollified and leaving in peace but uttering alone,
again, and finally, the word, ". . . murderer."

Of all the powerful dimensions of this work—its compelling stories, its historical
sweep, its psychological layers—and of course all the issues of media, text,
poetics, and rhetoric—it is the father-son relationship that I connect to foremost
of all. Art’s relationship with his father is taut with mixed feelings: of annoyance,
respect, understanding, awe, contempt, despair, pride, grief, and more. In this
sense, the book is probably resonant to every child who had a father, or rather
every child who had a father who was present as the child grew into adulthood.
But there is something about the quality, or perhaps the actual content, of
the relationship—both aspects, the positive and negative—that reminds me of
my relationship with my father.

My father could be a difficult man, but reading a book like Maus makes
me look to the Depression, World War II, and all the other stresses of the twentieth
century as causes of that difficulty. And I should be honest: some of the difficulty
stems from my personality, with its inward ways, much like Spiegelman’s. For
I need but look at my brothers, Joe in particular, who has written most lovingly
and accurately of our father’s uniqueness. Take
a look at his touching and fun memoir here
. But there is something in Spiegelman’s
portrayal of his father that rings an eerie bell. The frugality, the directness,
the aggressive care of both men are striking. Nothing of hesitation or shyness
in either of these men. And yet at the same time, the shocking tenderness from
time to time. Can these qualities be attributed, somehow, to the effects of
living through the twenties, thirties, and forties and surviving despite it

Or is it just a matter of being in a family and taking what comes with the
territory? Maus raises questions of family dynamics of incredible and
deep resonance. Spiegelman interweaves tales of marital discord, parental scolding,
and typical family squabbles with episodes of unspeakable heroism, courage,
and good and bad fortune. Through it all there is one given: survival. On the
one hand there is an incredible closeness in this family (all families) that
allows the most extreme circumstances just to be. It all hangs out there—in
"dissolution," I’d call it: an agreement to look beyond the unresolved
matters in a way that is completely natural in families, as it is nowhere else.
On the other hand, there is the opposite of closeness and tolerance and acceptance,
for here are people so different, so uninvolved . . . just so very
different. Part of the magic of Maus is its portrayal of two "aliens"
sharing a space and entering into one another’s world. The father brings Art
into his past—not only the war, but also his youth and life, including
his early romances, his struggles to establish himself, his rhythms of life.
And the son attempts to bring the father into the writer’s/artist’s world he
inhabits. That’s something I never attempted with my father, and I’m not sure
I could, so I envy Spiegelman that expression and honesty.

The depictions of the family ambivalences are not all as poignant and disturbing
as the heart-wrenching final word of Volume 1. Some of the narration is borderline
humorous. There is the episode when Art, at the conclusion of one interview
session can’t find his coat. We soon find that the father—who is a renowned
miser, (a stereotypical Jewish miser, Art fears)—has thrown out Art’s
coat. For the father has (1) bought himself a new coat, (2) decided that Art’s
coat was shabby, and (3) decided to give Art his old coat. Art is incredulous:
"Oh great, a Naugahyde windbreaker!" And here is a case where Spiegelman’s
artistic talent comes to the fore: for the depiction of Art/mouse in the puffy
jacket conveys the archetypal embarrassment every child has suffered at the
hands of parents who find ingenious ways to exert control and inflict humiliation.The
expression on Art’s face as he walks home, slouched in the puffy jacket (it
should be noted he is thirty years old at the time), is priceless, as is his
comment: "I just can’t believe it. . . ."

In the context of such disbelief and anger and frustration, Spiegelman tells
his father’s story. Compassion, awe, and tender love are thrown into the telling
in a way worthy of the complexity of family life and the suffering of a terrible
World War. In all, Maus is a "survivor’s tale" that takes
us into unexpected dimensions of just what survival is. In its seamless interweaving
of tales—further complicated by our own connections to them—we are
often, like Art himself, left incredulous, but we are grateful for the experience,
the honesty of it, the reality of it—all in a comic book about a family
of mice that escaped the exterminator.

The Way Beyond

Kenneth Burke’s “theory of comedy” is really more a theory of education and human relations than an analysis of a literary genre. According to the lessons of Burkean comedy, we should not take our troubles too seriously. Rather, we should use them as a means of self-improvement. Do not grieve your mistakes or discouragements, but cherish them for the way they enable possibilities of insight.

I take pleasure in the notions of mistakenness and trouble, when these aspects of human behavior prompt such eloquence as they did when Kenneth Burke wrote his great treatise on comedy, Attitudes Toward History. On page 41 of that miraculously human book, Burke writes, in ways that still make me shiver:

The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy.

Burke was talking there about the “poetic categories”—comedy, tragedy, satire, and the like—explaining how their resources, their methods, their potentialities offered strategic ways of understanding human motivation. Comedy in Burke always led to humility, the discounting of one’s grandeur. Comedy “keeps us in trim” by knocking us down a peg. Whereas in tragedy we get all elevated—”man in the cosmos” shaking his fists at the gods—comedy pulls things down to a human scale, portraying a mistaken, misdirected “man in society”—a comedy of errors, where the hero forever must find correction and chastening by the “truth” and all its complicated circumstances and largeness of perspective, ungraspable in this human realm, but best and most accurately approached with a compassionate smile.

Comedy teaches, first and foremost, the “discount”—stepping back from the intensity of an experience, a conclusion, an endpoint and realizing that maybe our calculations are not quite hermetically sound. Comedy warns us that our plans are like wishes made on the Monkey’s Paw. Or that our calculations are more like those of Dr. Octopus (Spider-Man II) than Einstein. We certainly have miscalculated. Comedy admonishes us not to abandon the project but rather to adjust our attitude. We must slog ahead through the muck of “man in society” but let us do it with the proper humility. Rather than deny the errors in some attempt to bolster our case, we should embrace those errors, own them, be thankful for them. Let us value error as the reading specialists do in a “miscue analysis”: Errors are our friends, for in seeing just where we go wrong, we have the hope of a greater precision the next time. As Burke puts it in his novel, “you should have lived twice, and smiled the second time. . . .” If there must be tragedy, error, and trouble, the trick is to not let it stop there–but to take the edge off (through the “discount”) and come back at it again, a second time, with a smile and a lesson learned (not in that order).

So the comic frame helps us redeem our troubles—even those that are not directly the result of our own mistakes. We take our lumps from others—and like Rocky getting pummeled by Apollo Creed, the comic frame says “ain’t so bad!” We learn to value our struggles in life as opportunities for growth. Burke presents the “comic frame” as a “method of study (man as eternal journeyman)”—one that leaves us with a “better personal possession” than mere wealth or material possessions. The comic frame opens us to the possibilities of education. Burke writes:

The comic frame, in making a man the student of himself, makes it possible for him to “transcend” occasions when he has been tricked or cheated, since he can readily put such discouragements in his “assets” column, under the head of “experience.” Thus we “win” by subtly changing the rules of the game—and by a mere trick of bookkeeping, like the accountants for big utility corporations, we make “assets” out of “liabilities.” (171)

Treating our liabilities as assets—that’s the type of “transcendence” that led to this blog entry. For I was thinking of all this lately, as I was involved in a troublesome “liability”—some committee work with a colleague that had gone bad, and left me with a conflict. There were disagreements, principled stands taken, and much anguish over the possibility of error and offense. After it was all over (at least most of it for me, personally), I found myself writing to an administrator who was deeply embroiled in the matter from another angle:

Will this thing end, and end well? When I think of all the work you are involved in [. . .,] I think we’ve got to move beyond these little blips, which often become great chasms. . . . But I do feel the best way beyond is directly through. God gives us both canyons and mules. The rim view is nice, but a little too unreal. The mule trip across–that’s process! Anyway, anyway. . . .

Thence came the transcendence! Ironically, I was talking of mules and process and plodding through the thicket as a way of getting “beyond.” In essence, I was arguing for anti-transcendence, when, in a moment of poetic inspiration, I was able to “rise above” the whole matter and write a poem. Transcendence in the service of anti-transcendence: Methinks I would have my cake and eat it too. . . . But that’s what poetry and comedy do: they let us inhabit our contradictions, and wherever there be liabilities, we’ll take those too, for they are part of us too, and add to our measure.

This poem is the result of my committee work, of my scholarship in Burke’s theory of comedy, of my need to make peace, of my weekly work with my pre-service teachers, who had me reading about the use of poetry writing in getting students to tap into their experience, of my colleagues who keep me sane, of my love of paradox, of the play of language, with the word “blip” leading to “chasm” leading to “canyon,” of my need to transcend with my clodhopper boots trudging on in the morass of things. . . . We must try to get our house in order down here; we must get the human scale of things tweaked just so, for just above this microcosm of detail and setback and tiny elegance is that macrocosm that we sometimes catch a glimpse of—that true “beyond” where God in his awesome ways is quietly, eternally trying to chasten and overcome us with glimpses of just what can be.

The Way Beyond
     by Angelo Bonadonna
     March 1, 2005

God gives us both canyons and mules.
The view from the rim–that’s beautiful
but that’s hubris, too
too beautiful
too transcendent
too detached
Is that the other side?
So close, so bridged by a mere glance?

God gives us both canyons and mules.
That’s me down there
the mule with its 40 acres
to there
through there

God gives us our place,
and our way out of it, too.
Though the forest be lost for the trees
the trees are all we have
so mark them well

And with bark and leaves
and sweat and toil
and this smelly mule
we may reach the rim
and bridge all with a glance,
collapse all in silent awe.

I’m Talkin’ Baseball . . .

Week after week this summer, I searched. Where were they hiding them? Those St. Louis Cardinals–where were the smoke and mirrors they used to win game after game? Then the playoffs started, and for two series, I searched on…. And still I couldn’t find them. Even now, I can’t find them. But no matter, for wherever they are, the Cardinals now know, as I always did, smoke and mirrors just don’t work in the playoffs.

The Issues, in the Candidates Own Words, Own Voices

Untitled Document

When I "googled" "No Child Left Behind" today, I serendipitously
"found" this site (it was listed first). Of course, the NPR site is
a frequent stop of mine, but usually for clips of Fresh Air, A Prairie Home
Companion, All Things Considered, Car Talk….


The page presents a chart of the issues listed below (in the order listed),
and presents two to four audio clips on the topic from each presidential candidate’s speeches:

  • Abortion
  • Immigration
  • Iraq
  • The Patriot Act
  • Energy Policy
  • Health Care
  • Homeland Security
  • College Costs
  • Gay Marriage
  • Environment
  • No Child Left Behind
  • Jobs

The stakes are high this election year, as they always are. I’m grateful for
this access to the information.

The Syllabi Are Written, So Now It’s Time to Catch Up on Vacation…

Untitled Document


[Editor’s Note: I started this entry in mid-August,
just before school started. But at some point before I could finish it, responsibility
kicked in, and I actually went back and finished my syllabi… As the subject line states here, the syllabi are done, hooray!, so I begin to tidy up some left-over “vacation tasks”… :) ]

Here on the verge of a new semester, with "syllabi to go before I sleep,"
I find myself looking back, reflecting on my summer past, my vacation, my recovery
from the long haul of the tenure-trauma that wore me down so.

I’m thinking about Falling Water, a side trip on our "Baseball Vacation."
Falling Water fit–the principle of the fittedness of context, environment,
and structure being so key to Frank Lloyd Wright–Falling Water fit between
Cleveland, the game at Jacobs Field (with the highly entertaining between inning
commentary by a very drunk, or increasingly drunk, Paul Assenmacher), and the
game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. And now, as I’m writing and posting syllabi,
my computer falls to sleep, and starts cycling through all the pictures scattered
across its hard drive. There arises Falling

There are so many things to love about Falling Water. For one…just how many
years has it been since I last used the word, "cantilevered"? Our delightful
guide explained the cantilevered design with such thoroughnesss and "balance."
Our Guide: She was a young, Gen-X-er-aged woman, but really she belonged to
another generation. Her admiration for Wright, for the society that is preserving
the home, for museums and art and possibilities, all bespoke a centering in
some kind of timeless humanitarian possibility. In a word, she struck me as
a true-believer in the gentle, melioristic influences (and compulsions) of art
and ideas; she had no pretension, no judgment of the rest of the world. She
was self-aware and mildly wry, in that wincing way that is very sweet, for there
is only complexity in it, and no meanness. She kinda nodded to our baseball
vacation, with a genuine smile, but a half-apologetic disconnectedness or muted
puzzlement. But I digress…

Falling Water is a beautiful idea–the integration of architecture, nature,
functionality, human needs–but it’s also a lie and a contradiction.

For how can I reconcile the humanitarian principle that scales everything
to human needs and proportions (which is five foot seven, fine enough for me
and Wright, but a little tight for my tallish sons and daughter) with the elitist
of its many extremes? Egads, the thing was built in the worst
days of the Depression (for about $8,000–which leads me to think: I could have
two Falling Waters for about the expense of our recent bathroom remodeling,
but I digress…). And what do you need to situate this house? Land, lots of
it….and trees…and perhaps some public access roads (on the civic dime, of
course). Oh yes, a quarry, so you can "dig your own" shale (or whatever
the stone is). Oh, and one other thing: a waterfall to integrate around and

I mean: Isn’t there some rhetoric shouting out of all of Wright’s architecture?
Doesn’t Wright make a counter-statement to the architectures of the past? Yes,
he was an innovator, but more than that, he was a humanitarian innovator,
in a sense suggesting a kind of universalizing Way to Salvation: Build on these
principles, if you would have principled buildings… And on what principles
are the buildings built? Context, function, human proportion, integration, conservation…
But, spoilsport that I almost am (for I did not voice any objection
as I and my family marveled at the patent splendor), I must reflect at this
time: There is nothing universalizable about Falling Water (except for its shout
of privilege, privacy, and the life of an idea…)

I know I’m being unfair, but I’m talking about a feeling that Falling
Water evokes in me. I could never live there…and how could anyone?

As an idea, Falling Water is not only elegant, but timeless. The water flows
forever–is flowing now, presumably, as you read this. And I can hear it now,
and feel soothed by it, awash in the glow of many pleasant memories… The world
is better for it, and the life of its idea, across generations, and in all kinds
of circumstances, even a baseball vacation. But it’s a tour de force…beautiful…gaudy,
in its cleverness and elegance.