Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pictures, forms, families (2): going nuclear

My mother, father, brother and myself, c. 1955

One question raised by the exhibition is whether the concept family necessarily includes children. For me the answer is clearly yes. Even if there is only a couple they are the children of parents before them though, as an independent unit, they are primarily a couple not a family. As I imagine it however (imagine intuitively, not argue it) a family includes children. In fact the family is most itself at the moment when the latest child comes into the world. In other words it includes not simply children but infants.

The implication is that the family is most itself when it has the care of the most vulnerable stage of human life, the very beginning. It is therefore tied to responsibilities (for the adults) and utter reliance (for the newborn). It is as the line in The Waste Land, as suggested to Eliot by Vivienne, goes: What you get married for if you don't want children? Again, I have no wish to argue this: it is what my bones and viscera tell me.

The arguments about - and chiefly against - nuclear families that were raging in the sixties and seventies meant little to me. My whole apprehension of life was of the family endangered. Half my family were wiped out in the war, my mother and father were almost destroyed by it. I almost died at the age of two, and here we were in a new country where we knew no-one but ourselves. That is if we knew even ourselves.

If I felt this as apprehension, my parents knew it as experience. It was a miracle that families survived, that children survived, that any of the four of us was here at all. I think it made life uncomfortable. Psychologically the pressure was acute. I sometimes think it drove my mother to the edges of madness. As an adolescent I hated it. It was strangling, obsessive. The family absolutely had to be together on Sundays. There had to be family excursions. Even after I married my mother had to be everywhere, know everything, be a presence.

I now think that was because she had been so close to being an absence.

But the visceral feeling is not about pleasure or discomfort. It is the reality sense, not the value sense. However they may overlap, they are different. The madness lies is assuming they are exactly the same. The poetry, if it comes from anywhere, also emanates from this region.

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