Reading Alexander Waugh on Christopher Buckley , I thought about the strangely immoral project of weighing our parents—a thought I’ve had before :

Every memoir of childhood is necessarily overshadowed by parents, and I could find, were I to turn my mind that way, stories of my father’s drinking, his pretension, his bounce.

But my father, being dead, is not here either to be triumphed over by my telling of those stories or to defend himself against them. The death of parents leaves their honor in their children’s hands, and the cruel accuracies we might fling in anger against them while they are alive seem even more wrong to use against them once they are gone. “To the living, we owe respect; to the dead, only truth,” Voltaire once opined. It’s a good line: high-minded, confident, ­sententious in the way only enlightened French philosophes could manage with any aplomb. But it also feels exactly backward, particularly about those we knew and loved. To squabble with our vanished ­parents about how they lived their lives seems more than a metaphysical nullity. It is, in fact, a moral failing.

If love is true—that is to say, a true thing: a really existing object to which the universe itself must bend—then there remains a place for reticence, and secrets swallowed, and the dead allowed to keep their darkness to themselves.

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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