Society and the soul, and you

“And I thought sitting up awake in the African night that I knew nothing about the soul at all. People were always talking about it and writing of it, but who knew about it? I did not know anyone who knew anything of it nor whether there was such a thing…. Once I had thought my own soul had been blown out of me when I was a boy and then that it had come back in again. But in those days I was very egotistical and I had heard so much talk about the soul and read so much about it that I assumed that I had one. Then I began to think if Miss Mary or G.C. or Ngui or Charo or I had been killed by the lion would our souls have flown off somewhere? I could not believe it and I thought that we would all just have been dead, deader than the lion perhaps, and no one was worrying about his soul….

“But what did this have to do with `In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning?’ Did Miss Mary and GC have souls? They had no religious beliefs as far as I knew. But if people had souls they must have them. Charo was a very devout Muhammadan so we must credit him with a soul. That left only Ngui and me and the lion.” (pp. 172-173)

This long quotation is from True at First Light, a posthumously published work of Ernest Hemingway that was extensively edited (put together, I gather, or rather, culled) by his son Patrick. And that’s what Papa thought, late in his life, about the soul: It couldn’t be proved, it probably didn’t exist, maybe it depended on whether one believed in it or not.

In this he reflected what his society believed, even despite his memory of his near-death experience in World War I. (“I had thought my own soul had been blown out of me when I was a boy and then that it had come back in again.”)

I feel so desperately sorry not only for Hemingway but for all who accepted such nonsense. Yet unquestioning belief in accepted theology was no longer an option either. When I asked my father, late in his life, if he believed in hell, he said. “you don’t know what to believe any more.” Similarly, Hemingway. Similarly, most of who had grown up after the first world war.

They lived in a society that could no longer take its traditional religions literally. (Indeed, it could scarcely understand the theology!) Therefore, that society drifted into the materialist nightmare from which it has not yet awakened. It was not yet able to figure out from personal and collective experience what the old religion had meant. Being unable to decode its meaning, it could not bring to it new understanding.

Carl Jung, late in his life, asked if he believed in God, replied decisively, “I do not believe.” Dramatic pause. “I know.” But anyone with even the slightest familiarity with Jung’s life work knows that what he had come to know was not the simplistic misunderstood theology that had blighted the life of his clergyman father. In other words, he did find his way, and in so doing helped us to find ours.

Our task, to the extent that we agree to undertake it, is to find out what the old religions were trying to teach us, and examine it in the light of personal experience, and translate it into terms that mean something to us. Then it becomes a matter of living it.


2 thoughts on “Society and the soul, and you

  1. Frank,

    I’m not so sure I agree with you. Here in the US, for example, quite a large proportion of the population takes its traditional religions literally. In fact, if the polls and election results are any indication, perhaps a majority do. But, the majority also appear to live quite materialistic, consumer-oriented lives.

    There are spiritual paths that accept atheism as a valid point of view–yoga and Buddhism, for example. When I read Hemingway, I feel he is closer to that type of approach to life, instead of simple materialistic hedonism. It seems to me that Hemingway is trying to say that it is how you live each moment, rather than what you claim you believe, that gives life meaning. That seems pretty spiritual to me.


  2. It seems to me that you are making my point for me, but seeing it differently. I agree that much of the population of the US take their religion literally and live materialistic lives. To me, this demonstrates how little their religion serves to orient them. And of course a spiritual path (as Buddhism) may nonetheless do without the concept of a deity, although I think this is truer in appearance than in reality. (I think that as usual words are confusing things.)

    My point, though, is that our society’s shared knowledge of the nature of the world does not go beyond the materialist fairy tale. Instead of knowledge, it has “beliefs” that are kept off in the corner when it comes time to lead “ordinary” life.

    I would never accuse Hemingway of living either as a hedonist or a materialist. Anyone reading his work can see that he was deeply spiritual in a sense that his society could not realize as spiritual. I was commenting on the degree to which even he accepted his society’s ideas. We’re all deeply and subconsciously influenced by the ideas of the society we live in. We have no choice about that. It is up to us to actively accept or reject them, and in order to reject them one needs some basis for doing so. Some cling to older beliefs, others feel their way toward new knowledge.

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