My Father’s Smell

It all began to quieten down the day I was able to accept my own body odour. It reminded me of my father, his smell, and all the confusion pertaining to the oddity that I have two mothers and three fathers (depending on how one counts). Smelling like my biological father had confused me for many years, had often made me recalcitrant and resentful. Mostly towards myself.

When I began to accept my body odour, I made a further step towards acceptance that my biography (in small) and story (in large) would forever be full of lacunae, holes, empty or blind spots, of untraceable beginnings. Accepting my smell made me accept that a major part of me and my personality is and will stay hidden from me. And this includes not only my individual biography, but the stories of my ancestors as well. To accept how I smell made me accept that I will be forever unknown to myself.

I will never find out who I am – at least not in the sense of where I come from and from whom I might have inherited what. And this although since childhood I was told that I resemble my biological grandfather on the paternal side, in gesture and posture. In fact, I knew him quite well in my early childhood, and only, after leaving one family for another, did I lose contact to him until I was 18 years old. After that, I met him more frequently again in my 20s, when the questions of personal identity were pressing business.

Looking at my grandfather was like looking through time onto a version of myself and how I might be 60 years in the future. The same gestures, the same appearance, and, frightingly, the same bitterness that I subsequently hoped to avoid by shunning him and inwardly appealing to my grandmother, his wife, a woman of grace and graciousness. Then, years later, long after her death, the time when I turned 35 or 36, I somehow felt how my grandfather took a seat inside me, with all his grumpiness, bitterness, and anger, beneath which I surmised to be a lot of guilt, pain, and shame. Somehow all this took a seat inside me, like a king long away from his kingdom on his day of return takes his seat on his throne, in this hall of emeralds and dignity, of gravitas and stories better not talked about.

But this was not the time I was able to accept my own smell. In fact, at this time I hardly smelt at all. When my grandfather took his seat inside me, it felt of being more on an abstract level, pertaining more to the realms of cognition, character, personhood, even soul, instead of the body. Grandfather was one of my first steps into this world, a step that took me about ten years to make.

Now I am much older. Still young, boyish, but older. The body odour to be accepted started to make itself felt several years ago. I tried to ignore it first, but it intensified over time. And inasmuch as I was able to accept this smell, insofar I began to forget my biological father, his image, his smell, his way of acting and of being around.

In a sense what happened seems like the opposite of what may occur when dear relatives pass away. When they do, there can be a brief moment in which you may feel as if some specific layer of your personality lifts off from you, so that for this short span of time you are allowed to watch and to recognize it to be the specific way how this relative influenced your life. What he was in your life. It shows as a specific character trait of yours. Then, quickly, this layer returns to your being, and you are “complete” again. Thus, you may see what this person’s influence, her gift of love, has been in your life.

In the case of my vanishing father it looked differently, quite the opposite. The more he entered my being and the more his specific layer became mine, the less I was able to recognize him in memory and inside me. I became my ancestor the moment I forgot that he was there.

This oblivion not only pertains to smell, sight, posture, or character, but also to stories, anecdotes, history. Inasmuch as I became him, he stopped being a figure in the story of what rather irritatingly is called “my life”. I never felt to have “my own life”, and still, even as I am now able to think in such terms, it doesn’t make much sense to me. It doesn’t, because neither can I separate myself from other people nor understand properly the distinction between “my life” and “the world”.

Where I finally arrived at was something like an endless present. History vanished, tales became harder to remember, and the emotion I used to have in my youth – that to feel as one person means to “stand” at the end of a two-weeks-tunnel of memory and remembered consciousness –, this feeling ceased as well.

But the crux seems to be this: inasmuch as I can now accept my own body odour, insofar the meaning of who I am and who I have been vanishes. And as many of the people who have been part of my youth, primarily my mothers, my fathers, my grandparents, should be gone by now, there is nobody left to ask about the stories of my coming-to-be.

As a teenager I had feared this moment. I feared no longer being able to ask somebody who I am. Where I come from, what has been involved, what the stories and the ancestors have been. Now, I feel rather tranquil. It means that I can open up to my tiny little nephew, hold him in my arms and cuddle my sister for the beauty they both are. It means that this little boy can impress me and fill me with joy in a way that wasn’t possible earlier, as envy towards my siblings and their kids had been mixed with sorrow and longing. (The loss of my own child is part of this.) But you cannot accompany a little nephew with sorrow and longing. It doesn’t feed him. He eats and needs to be nourished with hope and with love, both of which he evokes in me and from me.

I am not the only one who will never find out. But it seems like I am in an easier position than most other people with their plain biographies and stories (that only later in life fray out). Nobody knows who he is. Nobody will find out.

Can you ever find out who you are? Clinging to the stories of your life; the clarity of your origin due to your parents, heredity, ancestors; what you do and aspire; whether you immerse yourself in quests of salvation, healing, redemption, refinement, growth, enlightenment – all these endeavours to grasp who you are by nailing yourself onto the cross of something ultimate.

I am doubtful you will succeed this way. You will rather end in new stories, and the story of there not being a story (at the end) but (finally, finally) some ultimate ground, this is in itself a travesty of the stories as they were told in the past. As the concept of “your own life” and “you own inner core” would have been incomprehensible and inconceivable to former generations, likewise the idea of an eternity inside this world isn’t shared by most religions. In fact, redemption is not something inside this world – consolation, yes, at times, but not redemption.

Instead of being offered new stories, I guess the path leads somewhere entirely else. As I came to accept my own body odour, I came to accept that I don’t know and never will know who I am. And this unfathomableness of the self, of my self, of yours, is matched with the unfathomableness of the world. The world is too complex to be understood, and this is miraculously mirrored in the fact that I myself, my self, my person, perhaps even my soul, are unfathomable and unknowable too.

The unfathomableness of the self and the unknowability of the world mirror each other. Not knowing who you are and not knowing of what the world is made of, what it contains, this opens the world and makes its myriads of possibilities tangible. If you no longer need to know who you are, you can look around and find how huge this world can be. (As you don’t need to look constantly for the things in the world that reassure you that you still are who you are.) Selfknowledge, it seems, is not the best companion or even counsel when it comes to love. To be able to love. To be conquered by love. The true love, and not the fake one therapy tries to make you ready for and capable of.

Still, my skull is the angle from which I see the world. Still, the world has not conquered me. Still this may all turn out to be like the feverish dreams Parzifal endured until he finally was poised to meet the Holy Grail and to become himself again, through and in the grace from above. But I am happy now. For the first time in many years, I am happy.

 

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