This week, we turn to Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story”, available here.
“Ethics demands an infinite movement, it demands disclosure. The aesthetic hero, then, can speak but will not.”
-S. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
On July 23, 1986, Andre Dubus pulled over onto the side of the road to help a couple of strangers, male and female, having car trouble. An oncoming car swerved and was about to hit them; Dubus pushed the woman out of the way and, as a result, was hit himself and remained confined to a wheelchair for final thirteen years of his life.
As we saw with O’Connor’s lupus and Hemingway’s notorious depression, infirmity gives certain writers a distinct proclivity and talent for writing about weakness; here Dubus excels. And the car accident is a great place to start for examining his stories because, despite his Hemingway-esque affinity for wounded male characters coping, Dubus’s theological vision allows him to go further, but only at a price.
Silence has its price; it’s the death of someone’s desire to be revealed, disclosed, justified by ethics. Elsewhere in Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard writes that a silent hero must “make his doubt into guilt.” If your daughter hits someone with a car and kills him, and you remain silent, you are condemned by ethics, and any desire you may have to explain yourself, to be understood, to have your doubts “formulated, sprawling on a pin” like the subject of a dissection, analyzed and justified – this desire is killed (Eliot). So the doubt becomes guilt because, internalized, it has no other movement to make.
The father in this story is the aesthetic hero, the one who shares the burden of another’s guilt and keeps it there, hidden. He makes no move to absolve his daughter, no move to tell her it’s alright (it’s not), and provides no verbal comfort – just shares her guilt and enters into the loneliness of the offender against ethics, against the universal need for self-disclosure.
It’s grace in practice in the most earthed and profound way.
Dubus’s achievement in the story isn’t to write about a father’s sacrificial love for a daughter – those scenarios are a dime a dozen – but the clarity with which he approaches the emotional mystery of that love, the way he sharpens and defines it.
First, he’s divorced. The story wouldn’t work if he had a wife, because then he’d have someone to share in the tragedy with – he would be disclosed, and one person at least would refrain from condemning him, would perhaps be complicit. Paul Zahl said that “The grace of God exists in its pure state in relation to singleness.” The father’s aloneness makes his absolute dependence necessary; he has no other option. As Abraham made no mention to his wife of the trip to sacrifice Isaac, the father here has no one to justify his decision; he’s the solitary transgressor of justice.
Second, the liturgy: he lives a regimented life, he feels the thrill of the Eucharist, he resonates with the Mass in a deep way, even when he’s thinking about baseball. Despite the distance between himself and Roman Catholicism, between himself and God, he knows he receives, every day, and this reception allows him to experience God like the tongue-tied man can dance as “a ceremony of love.” When the distance is too much, ceremony can instantiate unity, in some small way.
Finally, his daughter’s adulthood and sexuality provides the story’s crucial movement of creating distance between father and daughter, the same way Luke knows his distance from God. It’s not the probability she’s slept with people that bothers him, but it’s how easily he can observe that probability in her movement, her gestures. Growth is always divergent, and never is this clearer than in a daughter’s new, secret life from her father, something which defines her that is utterly incommunicable to him. It symbolizes the irreducible difference between two people, and it raises the question of what experience can bridge the divide, can allow for meaningful connection despite the “awful loneliness of the heart.” It’s the phenomenon of distance that points to the need for unity; when this cannot happen through shared experience (as it’s happening with his daughter and her friends), there must be a higher point of unity, a way toward shared life, and for Dubus this unity occurs through liturgy and shared suffering.
Sexuality is an important element in this story because it allows for this distance, and this distance (or ‘otherness’) brings the beauty of atonement to a point of absolute lucidity. Their shared cigarette is a liturgy; the rye whiskey is a liturgy; these things can bring them together and form solidarity when the daughter is choking on her words and the father is utterly at a loss for what to say – both are our “tongue-tied” man from earlier. Where the experience cannot be shared, when words are impossible and communication obliterated, they share what they can – the tobacco and rye – and these unite the disparate.
Soon words form, but there aren’t many words, because sharing thoughts doesn’t bridge the gap; language is mediated, and she just killed someone. Incommunicable. But he bridges the gap, he lights her cigarette, he pulls her through the movements of the dance, as God does him.
And now he goes further: he shares her guilt, enters into it, and again, his singleness is everything. He understands the desperation of grace, and he refracts it onto her. Because they’re so isolated, he in his singleness, she in her guilt, they can share in the absolute dependence upon grace – he can makes its movements purely. He cannot relate to her emotional life because she’s grown up, but he enters into her guilt, its lineaments now coterminous with his own.
After distilling the father’s movement toward atonement with his daughter, Dubus doesn’t have much work left to bring it around to God. The parallels come in a rush – his distraction in Mass, his sinfulness, his quirks and routine – God doesn’t share in this, at least not directly. There’s a gap, an “infinite distinction” (more Kierkegaard) which is irreducible, except by the unconditionality of love, its liturgical reception even when his mind is elsewhere, even when, emotionally, he feels abjectly isolated, as alone in his infirmity as his daughter was in her guilt.
Finally, the movement of atonement comes to its highest pitch in relation to the father’s betrayal of ethics. Ethics is rational, clear and defined, but the aesthetic is turbulent, unpredictable – “she woke what had flowed dormant in my blood since her birth.” Our aesthetic hero sacrifices himself, sacrifices ethics and justice, throws it all out on account of love. Luke Ripley’s arguments with God about whether or not he had done the right things raise the question of whether ethics can ever be suspended by love, and this cuts, in the most concrete way, to the struggle of faith – Jacob’s wrestling with God in the wilderness (the question of whether a deceiver can receive blessing), the question of love suspending ethics.
And it does, because love trumping truth is weakness to the world (“foolishness to the Greeks”), but it’s the one and only place where the gap can be bridged. The impossibility of communication is ever-present in the sphere of abstract truth, but in action united with emotion – i.e. fatherly love – something is communicated, and whatever it is fulfills the promise of the “awful solitude of the heart”, that is, the promise of solitude’s negation, that the difference, in some way, can annulled, and the disparate joined:
So, He says, you love her more than you love Me.
I love her more than I love truth.
Then you love in weakness, He says.
As You love me, I say, and I go with an apple or carrot out to the barn.