Friday, February 25, 2011

Zeno’s Conscience: My Father’s Death

Afterwards, at the funeral, I managed to remember my father weak and good as I had always known him from my infancy, and I convinced myself that the slap given me by a dying man hadn’t been intentional. I became good as gold, and my father’s memory accompanied me, growing sweeter all the time. It was like a delightful dream: now we were in perfect harmony, I had become the weaker and he the stronger.

I returned to the religion of my childhood and remained there for a long time. I imagined that my father heard me and I could tell him that the fault had been not mine but the doctor’s. The lie was of no importance because now he understood everything, and so did I. And for quite some time the conversation with my father went on, tender and secret like an illicit love, because with everyone I continued to laugh at all religious practices, while it is true—and I wish to confess it here—that into someone’s hands I daily and fervently commended my father’s spirit. True religion, indeed, is that which does not have to be avowed in order to provide the solace that at times—if only rarely—you cannot do without.

(All quotes from the book use the translation by William Weaver.)

It will be interesting to see what else qualifies as a “true religion” for Zeno over the course of the book. Besides cigarettes, that is. Zeno makes fun of the psychoanalysis but he continues to write about his life as instructed by his analyst. This section focuses mostly on the complex relationship he had with his father, but he questions how much to tell: “If I describe my father in over-scrupulous detail, it might turn out that, to achieve my own cure, it would have been necessary to analyze him first.”

In this section, one theme overlaying the father-son relationship centers on Zeno’s unrealized potential. He swears it is there…if only he could unlock it, such as at the time his mother dies: “My mother died before I was fifteen. I wrote some poems dedicated to her—hardly the same as weeping—and, in my sorrow, I was accompanied always by the feeling that at this moment a serious, industrious life was to begin for me. My grief itself hinted at a more intense life.” Part of Zeno’s anger at his father lingering at death’s doorstep lies in the fact he can’t “continue my efforts at self-improvement” until his father dies. Like the last cigarette that isn’t, there lies alleged potential to be exploited that is never realized. Most of the time Zeno believes his intent in improving should be enough to get credit for results.

Religion plays a key role for Zeno after both parents’ deaths. Similar to the feeling after the passing of his father (in the opening quote), he turns to religion to soften the blow (as well as realizing his potential): “At that time a still-active religious feeling attenuated and softened the terrible misfortune. My mother continued to live, though far from me, and she would derive satisfaction from the successes for which I was preparing myself.” The “religious feeling” deserts him at some point to resurface after the death of his father, although that resurfacing is suspect since earlier he wrote at his father’s death he no longer believed Heaven existed and he was finished with religion at age thirty. In recounting the evening before his father’s cerebral hemorrhage, Zeno describes his father’s “sudden religious inspiration” as the first symptom of his death. Not only is life a sickness, so is religion.

On almost every topic Zeno tends to contradict prior statements or paints two different pictures of how he feels. Even with such tendencies, he’s not exactly an unreliable narrator. Sometimes he hits the mark without intending to, or he uncovers one facet while exploring something else, such as this section where he evaluates his father’s attempt to pass on his knowledge: Zeno is happy that his father wants to pass on “the knowledge he thought he possessed, though I was convinced I could learn nothing from him.” Exactly—Zeno will learn nothing from him. And, as the opening quote details, his memory and recall tend to change over time.

On to the next section about his marriage…

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