Thursday, October 09, 2003
Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten. On that mystery and not on the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro- and microcosm, upon the void. Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood. Amor matris, subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life. Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?
-- James Joyce, Ulysses
I've meditated for a long time on this passage. There are times that I come dangerously close to making an idol of Fatherhood, and worshipping it. In this, I think I am only in tune with the times. My ancestors worshipped the empty space above the cherubic throne, and so it seems entirely fitting to me to worship an absence. And this is the age of fatherlessness.
The passage came to my mind again today, because yesterday my own legal fiction of fatherhood was completed, at least in the eyes of the State of New York. Yesterday was our court date to finalize the adoption of our son. By a judge's handshake, I am made the boy's father.
Adoption is a strange business. It is not an Jewish custom. The ancient Egyptians had adoption. If an Egyptian property-owner had no heirs, he might go into the slave market and purchase a young boy, and raise him as his son. Indeed, when the God of Israel says to Moses, "I will take you [Israel] to Myself as a nation, and I will be to you as a God. " (Exodus 6:7), the text is using the formula for an Egyptian adoption. God is, effectively, purchasing Israel in the slave markets of Egypt, and adopting them. Adoption was also a Roman custom, and worked similarly to the Egyptian variant: if you had no heirs, you could buy one in the slave market.
But it is not a custom in Israel. Nor, for that matter, is it a custom in Britain. All those wards in 18th and 19th century British literature - what are they all about? They are about the fact that title must pass through a line of blood. If you are the 23rd Baronet of Mortshire, you cannot pass your baronetcy to the street urchin you took in 30 years ago and raised as if he were your son; rather, if you have no legitimate descendants, the title will pass to the nearest heir through the line of your younger brother. Similarly in Israel: if a cohen (a priest) raises a boy as his son, the boy will not have the privileges nor the constraints of the priesthood.
There is, therefore, no real Jewish law on adoption. There is a general precept that one who provides for a child's education is owed the respect and obedience from the child (and the honor from the community) that is due to the child's father. But there is no notion that the law can create a simulacrum of the ties of blood. (I do want to be clear here: to raise another person's child as your own is considered an enormous mitzvah in Judaism, as well it should be. I'm just saying that, by Jewish lights, while you have done a very good deed, you have not, thereby, made the child your own.) The closest Judaism comes to a notion of adoption, or ceremonies attendant thereto, is the conversion ceremony, whereby an individual (including a child, or even an infant) is effectively adopted by the entire Jewish people (and by God), and is, in the eyes of the law, literally transformed into a Jew.
I'm of two minds about all this. On the one hand, I believe, absolutely, that little Moses is my son. He knows no other father (and no other mother but my wife). I have no other children, but if I did, I cannot imagine treating them differently. The notion that I am doing a deed of kindness to a stranger is not what I feel; I feel him, unequivocally, to be my own son.
And yet, I appreciate something about the fact that Judaism will not give me the power to make this a fact, rather than a fiction. It is no accident that, in Egypt and in Rome, adoption was linked to slavery. There is no more essential tie than that of blood, and no more terrible crime in slavery than the alienation of blood from blood, the sundering of parents and children. The power that the Egyptian or Roman slave owner had, to take a child, purchase him, and raise him to the level of himself is, in a way, god-like. It is a power that no man should have over another man. And there is a little part of me that worries about any law, however founded on our sovereign freedom, that would arrogate to itself the authority to create fathers and mothers of paper.
So I return to Joyce. Am I that different from other fathers? Are any of us more than legal fictions? Aeschylus has Apollo outrageously argue (as part of his defense of Orestes) that motherhood is a fiction; that wombs are but the soil, where fathers provide the seed that grows therein (and therefore matricide is really a garden-variety murder, not an incestuous killing). But he's arguing before a motherless judge, so perhaps it's understandable that such a lunatic assertion could be persuasive to her. To us, this is madness, and Joyce's formulation fitter. Mothers know. Fathers never can. Does that make us less? Perhaps. But perhaps it also makes us more.
Call me Buzz Lightyear: I know I am a fiction. And never has happier fiction walked the earth. Let God retain the power of making men and women, and of making mothers and fathers. For myself, I rest content that, at the end of God's afternoon of matchmaking, just before He breaks off work to play with His pet Leviathan, He takes a few moments to make matches of our own odd kind, joining lost children to their true fictive fathers and mothers.