Hemingway on life

[Sunday, June 10, 2007]

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway near the end has this dialogue between Brett and Jake:

“You know it makes me feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch.”


“It’s sort of what we have instead of God.”

“Some people have God,” I said. “Quite a lot.”

“He never worked out very well with me.”

 In that dialogue — particularly in Brett’s first two sentences — is the key to everything that went smash in Western civilization.

— Dear Ernest —


I envy your life. Unlike me, you lived, and I just read. Yet at the end your life was insupportable.

Well you know when you have had a lot and much of it was very fine and you know that there is nothing ahead of you as satisfying — that you will never again be clean and whole and young — why not step through the doorway?

The family exit. [Which is how Hemingway referred to suicide.]

I didn’t talk too much about my out-of-body experience. [in World War I, on the Italian front.] I died before Bob Monroe’s experiences even began — the ones he remembered — and certainly long before anybody was talking about them. But why should I fear death after that? And why should I fear life?

More to the point, yet.

Your life is your undiscovered country. No one else will ever live it, and it wouldn’t be good for anybody if they did — but it was good that you did.

People imitated yours.

They imitated what they thought they could see — and not even all they could have seen, let alone what they did not see and were not smart enough or thoughtful enough to see. They saw sea-fishing and bullfight-studying, and physical enjoyments, but did they think about the reading and thinking and the passions and what was behind the passions? I became a Catholic. Did they think that was a sentimental gesture to Spain? Yet I was not a comfortable Catholic — can an American become a comfortable Catholic, I wonder? Did they think about that? No, imitation may be flattery, but it is more like counterfeiting. Who wants flattery from someone who would flatter?

Do you regret anything in your life?

Of course, but what good does it do except to shine light on who you are and where you are doing the regretting?

None. Well, maybe it helps steer your course.

Don’t believe it. Good resolutions — how many good resolutions do you suppose have ever been carried through in this world? On either side of this world, come to that. You don’t do what you resolve to do, you do what you mean to do, what you have to do because you are whatever you are. If you’re doing it, you see, you don’t need to make resolutions. If you aren’t, you aren’t going to keep them anyway.

Have you been used to create others in this past 45-plus years?[What I meant by this was, had his energy on the other side being used as a template for others coming in to this life, a process often misunderstood as reincarnation.]

That’s a long subject involving people catching contagion from my writing, and others from my publicity, and others from the qualities they infer. The short answer is yes; the longer answer is no. One Ernest Hemingway was enough and cannot be reproduced. But many of my qualities and characteristics are common enough, and here and here some people combine various threads and produce something more like me.

I understand. It is as though we are using a shorthand I received from the guys.

Well, have you not? It’s a good shorthand, meaningful and concise, useful.

The dialogue I quoted —

Yes. That is more the gist of the book in a way than the lines everyone always quotes. But they wouldn’t quote those lines because they don’t like the message. The people who understand them and approve of them mostly don’t read. Or if they do they don’t notice because it’s plain as day to them, as it was to you.

The rottenness of society was plain enough in the book, by contrast to the simplicity and cleanness of the same people in simpler surroundings. But the underlying cause of the rottenness wasn’t. It seemed like some vague result of the war.

Different people read different things into it. The war exploded an awful lot of hollow containers, platitudes, conceited complacent self-assurance. Naturally it affected most those with the shallowest roots — and of course Spain hadn’t been involved in the war, and Spain was Catholic in the way that France was rationalism, or was money. France was modern and it drew all the rottenness of people with too much money and not enough work to do — and France had also lost the war and didn’t acknowledge it, although they knew it well enough — so money and pleasure were hollow but were more important as something to sell than they had been as something to live. Again, we are talking about the cities, and about the upper classes. The poor and the peasants always bear the burden and always will, but their very helplessness keeps them closer to what is real. It stops them from racketing along and going off the rails. Of course it just as often sinks them into the mud beyond hope of ever seeing the stars.

Plus, perhaps, the peasants in France are still Catholic?

A Catholic Frenchman is Catholic and French in the way that you were Catholic and American. You can look at one side or the other and lose sight of the opposite pole.

Still they were Catholic and that surely differentiated them from the urban rich.

Distinctions look clearer with distance in time or space, and more so with distance in both. But broadly, yes.

In a way it is as if your book, and Fitzgerald’s and others gave people an excuse to give up.

That isn’t what you intended to say at first, but in any case our books succeeded because our editors correctly sensed that we were saying something that many others would have said if they could have, and therefore that we would succeed because we were speaking for our generation, who would support those who gave it a voice. Remember, in years we were still very young.

What impresses me is how much older you seem — as in your letters to Esquire in the 1930s — than I ever was.

We were forced, like hothouse flowers.

Forced by your war experiences?

More like your generation was forced by the 60s, except that we were doing things rather than spending years in college reading about things.

I don’t quite get that, but I’m getting tired. I can tell when the distractions start coming fast and furious.

When an old phase of civilization is abruptly replaced — when it ends with a bang instead of imperceptibly, little by little — it is a shock that brings some people to consciousness. Others, it may knock out, or anyway stun. But some are carried outside of the common dream and see as from outside looking in. You yourself are in that situation because of the life you lead and have led, that you are tempted to complain of or repent. It is being outside the dream that produces a full consciousness that forces you.

Yes. Thank you, I will pass this on.

Do you think you’re not living? Do you think your life is dull?

I get the point. I know this is a gift to me and from me.

Good. Don’t forget it.

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