My Father and the Genre of SilenceEssays
Part 1 of The Genre of Silence, an essay.
My father died in 2011 and left behind him a rebuilt red Chevy Super Impala convertible 1968, a couple of houses, and about a half dozen shoeboxes full of several thousand photographs of the Central Cascade mountains. I hadn’t spoken with my father for five years before his death. Even before even though my dad had a lot to say and said it, his conversation was hardly intimate or even interactive. He delivered monologues that precluded any type of exchange. His talk was the superficial “How’s the weather,” sort of talk. His main line of conversation was to deliver very long monologues about his hikes in the Alpine Lake Wilderness area. If this sounds kind of boring and event abstract, it was. And he could not handle any sort of interruption. Although I quickly lost a sense of what river basin he was in, or which ridge line he was following, he told these stories with a kind of urgency. It was a bit like listening to a lab rat narrate his passage through a maze. Only at the end there wasn’t cheese, but rather my father’s attempt to describe the view from a remote mountain crag.
This ended up being a paradox. My father was haunted by the uncertainty of death. He was uncertain about when it would happen. He was confused about what might cause his death. He was confused about the result of his death. Your presence fails at your death, and you are as if you never were. All that remains are remains. Your existence is gone, and what is left is a pile of junk and rotting flesh. My father raised me as an atheist. His certainty about the total annihilation of death became less pronounced and more tentative the older he got and as he knew more people who had gone. Confronted with the reality of their nonexistence after their death, my father objected to unfair this was. Isn’t it a fundamental betrayal of existence if after you have existed, you do not? Surely existence couldn’t contain this contradiction?
I’ve tried to work on stories about my father’s life in the past. My parents divorced in the early 1980s. My father was married after that, divorced again, and even at one point went to prison. The events that would make up the story of someone’s life were not the things my dad talked about. I didn’t know he was going to prison, had been in prison, or that he had been released from prison. In fact, the narrative of his life is nearly impossible to piece together. I know a fragment here and a fragment there, but there is no sense of progression or beginning or ending. And it isn’t like when my dad was alive he was actually absent. He was happy to go on a hike. He was thrilled to narrate his latest excursion to an Alpine Lake in the back country. His absence did not entail his physical absence.
In looking through my father’s photographs I figured I could piece together some narrative or story, and yet aside from the handful of family albums prepared by my grandmother, my mom, and my Dad’s second wife –these albums had some context.
The boxes of photos, however, lacked not only people but they also lacked any sign of humanity aside from the obvious evidence that someone had taken the image. The implied humanity in the photos was the film and camera and that a human person who stood somewhere in the wilderness to expose the film.
In looking at them, a phrase came to me: “The Genre of Silence.” These photos told me nothing. Even as nature photographs, they were jammed into boxes without context. The images themselves were often blurry and of subjects like ‘blurry scrubs’, ‘pile of dark rocks in a black and white landscape taken with a color camera’, and so on. There was a happy accident here and there among the thousands of photographs, but taken as a massive pile of images they said nothing, and this saying nothing seemed a refusal to me, a gesture of silence.