In the Diaspora: Ethics of a father

Within Miller's corpus, no character appeared more often and indelibly than the hypocrite

By SAMUEL FREEDMAN
September 6, 2007 13:30
Freedman, Samuel, columnist 88

Freedman, samuel 88. (photo credit: )

 
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In the most pivotal moment of Arthur Miller's most famous play, a teenaged boy shows up unannounced in the Boston hotel room occupied by the salesman father he reveres, the character indelibly named Willy Loman. The son, Biff, is a high-school football star on the verge of flunking a math class and thereby dooming the mutual, filial dream of a sports scholarship to college. He has come to his father for help, advice, for some version of wisdom. Willy is in the middle of promising to drive straight back home to set the offending math teacher straight when a stirring from the bathroom interrupts. The salesman, it turns out, is not the sole occupant of the premises. His mistress is sharing it, and she is asking for the stockings Willy promised her, stockings supposedly intended for his wife. Beholding all this, Biff utters the words that condemn Willy and anticipate his suicide in the play's crescendo. "You fake!" Biff cries. "You phony little fake! You fake!" As Miller's stage directions specify, "Willy is left on the floor on his knees." Miller's harsh judgment on Willy echoes now in some disturbing and unexpected ways. As a devastating account by Susanna Andrews in Vanity Fair magazine shows, the playwright renowned for his moral vision, as both artist and activist, essentially abandoned a mentally disabled son for decades, leaving him in an overcrowded and miserable institution, not even mentioning the boy's existence in the autobiographyTimebends, as if a child with Down Syndrome were being airbrushed out of history like some discredited Bolshevik. MUCH DISCUSSION has already ensued in literary circles about these revelations and the seeming disparity between the values Miller espoused and the ones that, at least regarding his son Danny, he embodied. But there is a specifically Jewish context, too, for such ruminations, especially as the High Holy Days approach and tradition instructs us to take stock of our souls. If there were ever an archetype of the secular Jew, the cultural Jew, Arthur Miller might have been it. (Alright, maybe second to Irving Howe.) While he only overtly addressed Jewish history in one of his last plays, Broken Glass, he filled his dramas with Jewish characters and with a piercing application of Torah morality; Right and Wrong as warring forces inhabited Miller's stage, and the primary critical complaint about his work was its preachy, tendentious tone. Within the Miller corpus, no character appeared more often and indelibly than the hypocritical father. Besides Willy Loman, there was Joe Keller in All My Sons, who grows rich selling defective aircraft parts during World War II. There was Eddie Carbone in A View From the Bridge an adoptive father so venomously jealous of his niece's immigrant boyfriend that he maneuvers to have the rival deported. There was the dead father in The Price, an autocrat represented onstage by an empty chair in a cluttered attic, who emotionally warped both of his sons until they vied like Isaac and Esau. SO WHAT are we, and our Judaic heritage, to make of the ethics of a father who denies his own imperfect offspring? Does it matter that Miller's public stances and private acts stand now in such contradiction? Some of these questions would tax even the finest psychiatrist. Miller wrote his most withering portraits of failed fathers in the years before Danny was born. He seemingly had perspective on a father's role, on the need for moral consistency, well before he chose to abrogate exactly that standard. There are also mitigating arguments to be made in Miller's behalf. As Andrews herself points out in Vanity Fair, as of the early 1960s, when Danny Miller was born, many parents routinely sent children with Down Syndrome to institutions. Miller was, by all accounts, a fine father to his other three children. And Miller's plays, however inspired by real events, remain fictional inventions, not overt statements of principles. Still, to place a child in an institution is not tantamount to never visiting the child there, as was the case with Miller, or to obscuring virtually any public trace of that child's existence. (He did acknowledge Danny shortly before dying in 2005.) In Miller's art, meanwhile, he aspired to much more than entertainment. A playwright who takes on American capitalism and the McCarthy witch hunts, to say nothing of the Holocaust and the Depression, wants to be taken seriously as a social commentator. So, in the season of heshbon nefesh, in the time of the literal breast-beating of the al het, what is Arthur Miller's posthumous lesson to us? What does his example tell us about ourselves? "As the rabbis said, the mark of a person with moral mettle is 'his inside is like his outside,'" said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a prominent ethicist who is rector of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. "That is, the person he presents himself to be is what he really is. Given that Miller took a rather haughty moral stance in his writings, this revelation about how he treated his son really does call into question the veracity and authenticity of the moral vision he presents in his writings." Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the author of You Shall Be Holy among other works on Jewish ethics, framed the issue in terms of the dual meanings of shame. On one side was the shame Miller evidently felt at having produced a child with Down Syndrome. On the other, unutilized during Miller's lifetime, was the shame of having his own paternal behavior exposed. "One suspects that if Miller had known that the story of his son would one day come out," Rabbi Telushkin said, "he might have acted better, in the same way many of us would act in a more kindly, generous manner if we knew that our behavior will one day be publicized." In the most enduring speech from Death of a Salesman, Miller has Willy Loman's wife Linda say of him: "Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person." In the playwright's sometimes hamfisted manner, he was making sure no audience would forget to see Willy as a victim of the American marketplace, a man more sinned against than sinning. For those of us who admired Miller, who learned as much about ethics as about literature watching his work, Linda's valedictory cannot help but mean something different during the Days of Awe. The harsh light of scrutiny, that kind of attention, shines even on us, who think we can wield it at others without ever being captured in its glare.

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