When A Parent Is Able To Share His Being And The Child – To Overcome Fear Of Otherness

The title emphasizes that this is the waltz of the father; the son is an obedient, dutiful participant less than overjoyed by what he is doing…
Kerry Michael Wood, 2010

In “My Papa’s Waltz” Roethke reminisces and confronts his father. Beneath their comic romp he feels an odd and ambivalent closeness to his drunken papa… This love dance, a kind of blood rite between father and son, shows suppressed terror combined with awe-inspired dependency… Old Otto, the florist, remains both, a mythical and a real father. Such a duality epitomizes the fear and love, closeness and distance that seem to have defined Roethke’s relationship with his father… Much of the poem’s success grows out of the tension and irony created by somewhat violent action of the waltz set against the steady cadence of the rhymed quatrains.
Peter Balakian, “Theodore Roethke’s Far Fields: The Evolution of His Poetry”, 1989, p. 62

My Papa’s Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The haul that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Theodore Roethke, 1942

Without identification with parents (with adulthood personified for the child by the parents) children will face many difficulties in becoming psychological adults and can be childish, narcissistic and immature their entire life. In our country today – in a time of un- and under-employment and austerity, over-working and over-worrying (or over- searching for work and again over-worrying) parents are not able to offer their psyches as a psychological “lab” for their children to learn what it means to be adults vis-à-vis the world. When there is no opportunity to teach children the adulthood without being moralizing, dogmatic and frustrated the growing deficit of adulthood develops in the society, with catastrophic consequences for democracy.

That’s why Roethke’s poem is exceptionally important pedagogical tool today when relationship between the father and son, depicted in the poem as condensed into one episode, often creates a negative reaction in many readers because the very mechanism of identification between children and their parents is close to be broken. Too many people just don’t grasp what is depicted in the poem which shows the perception of the father by his son as conducive for identification with the father as an otherness – the very basis for internalization of adulthood into the child’s psyche. The fact that the boy “tolerates” the father’s “monstrous” otherness and willingly goes through the ordeal of a “not too gentle” waltzing with the father, tells us that their relationship is not only psychologically healthy (without mutual alienation and animosity) but favorable for preparing the child for a (mature) adulthood.

Identification with otherness (with existential dissimilarity) is always difficult and often a tormenting process (immaturity in us makes us to want to live with people who reflect us, in a proto-totalitarian groups based on a collective identity) – it is very difficult to stop ourselves from taking a negative posture when we have an encounter with dissimilarity: from trying to prove that “we are better” than dissimilar object (our megalomaniacal drive) and to refrain from the blind reflex of our aggressive emotional projections onto such objects (our scapegoating drive). Especially difficult identification with otherness is when the objects to identify with are happen to be our parents – in this situation otherness comes “too close” to us which makes it for us barely possible to tolerate. As soon as the child’s growing feeling of identity starts to develop it interferes with its psychological need for a symbiosis with parents. Then all child’s resources of rivaling emotions and whole its narcissistic reservoir can become agitated and sometimes start to boil.

Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” is about the psychological power of a father who is able to express himself as he is in his adulthood in front of his son. We are not talking here about abusive – violent behavior, which will be exactly traumatization of child’s need to identify with adulthood. The point here is the difference between abusive behavior on part of the father and the necessity to be a genuine personality in all its otherness in relation to his son’s soul, the difference between child abuse and “clash” of two othernesses (perceived by the child and an immature father as psychologically incompatible). This poem is extraordinary in its ability to make this differentiation – the son in this poem (Roethke in his childhood) feels the otherness of his father as a monstrosity. Too many people never come to real identification with their parents during their childhood because they were afraid of the very difference between their own feelings and that of the adults. To be able to identify with adulthood the child had to be able to overcome this fear, to learn to trust the father without losing the feeling that he has a right to be different from him.

What Roethke-the child learns from his father during the episode of their waltzing is truth about the difficult conditions of life for adults creating in the father frustration (he even mentions how habitually hurt his father‘s hands are). He understands that adulthood for the father is at least as difficult as childhood is for him. And he observes and appreciates how his father is able to be cheerful in spite of everything, how he is able not give in to depressive, paranoid and aggressive reactions. Observing the condition of many people today moved by rivalry, belligerency, greed, competition for higher place in the social hierarchy, orientation on fight, wars, wanting to deprive those who need help, we can conclude that not too many people in their childhood were as happy as Roethke was with his own father.

In “My Papa’s Waltz” Roethke describes a kind of psychotherapeutic séance carried out by his father to pedagogically prepare him for a successful identification with paternal model as a precondition for meeting the adult world without the extremes of conformism or aggressive rebellion.

Father has to have the ability, time and interest to share with child his identity and his genuine reactions on the world, not to copy father’s personality, but exactly to identify not with him, but with adulthood in him. But the child (under the father’s pedagogic influence) has to develop the ability not to be afraid of the father’s otherness and not to be psychologically defensive with him (by “becoming bored”, alienated or full of negative reactions). Instead we see that many fathers are willing to fish with their sons and play video-games with them, while sons dream to possess the same gadget-toys their fathers consume. Both sides settle on a psychologically neutral territory – outside adulthood and inside an artificial childhood of a consumerist symbiosis with the world.

But in the real world Roethke’s poem reminds us about, the task of both, fathers and sons, is extremely difficult. Existential pedagogy of identification with the otherness through the abyss of age difference is controversial and full of moving shades and optical illusions of psychological abuse. In the first stanza – facts like “the whiskey on father’s breath which makes the small boy dizzy”, the presence of words like “death” and the very situation of the father and son’s waltzing; in the second stanza – romping together “until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf” and mother’s loud attempts to stop the madness; in the third stanza – because the drunken father was missing the steps the buckle of his belt was scrapping his little son’s ear (like Roethke delicately/jokingly says – “My right ear scraped a buckle”); in the fourth stanza – the father was beating time/rhythm with his extremely dirty palm on the son’s head who was clinging to the father’s shirt as a result of the awkward strain of the whole situation – all this creates a not too attractive and even an ambiguous picture of what was going on. But for the son-future poet the experiences like that became treasures of his life which made him able to write the poem about “their waltz” many years later. As Roethke-the boy took this experience to his night sleep – father “waltzed me off to bed/ still clinging to your shirt”, but also to his life of creativity. The images of this poem are that of a real love (a love for otherness) as a basis for (democratic – without literal imitation) identification with it.

The poem is about father-son mutuality – “your breath”, “we romped”, “waltzed me off”, “clinging to your shirt”. To recognize a common humanity in the “shockingly monstrous” otherness is the lesson of father to son and of Roethke’s poem to readers. This poem is among the inspirations which can save us in the beginning of 21st century where we pompously and blindly position ourselves for new wars, further destruction of the environment and conservative austerity policies for the majority of humans.