Hemingway’s Puzzlement About the Soul

My recurring theme is that our culture, by turning its back on its spiritual roots, has lost contact with the reality of spiritual (that is, non-physical) life. In so doing, it has lost contact with reality, for how can you understand the meaning of things if you systematically disregard a significant portion of what exists? And how can you know who you yourself are, if you systematically discard millennia of tradition and scripture designed to teach that aspect of things?

In reaction to our culture’s downgrading of spiritual knowledge, some have turned to fundamentalism: blind belief. But this won’t do either. If you don’t know, you don’t know, and neither blind belief nor blind disbelief substitute for knowledge. And our culture is not teaching that knowledge, because it has forgotten where to find it.

In short, materialist civilization is lost, and those who are fated to live in it are lost too, no matter how intelligent, no matter how insightful, unless and until they free themselves from this delusion. As an example, I offer a long quotation from Hemingway’s posthumously published True at First Light, which was pieced together by his son Patrick.

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…

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 Mohammedan so we must credit him with a soul. That left only Ngui and me and the lion.

(True at First Light, pp. 172-173)

Hemingway’s ponderings about the soul strike me as sincere and quietly troubled. Let’s itemize his puzzlement:

1. He didn’t know anything about the soul, didn’t know anyone who knew anything about it, or if it even existed.

2. He had thought that he had experienced his soul leaving his body (in his near-death experience during World War I) but as a grown man he now doubted it.

3. He couldn’t believe that people had souls that, when the person was killed, flew off somewhere.

4. He assumed—having no knowledge and knowing no way to attain that knowledge—that his wife and his friend GC had souls (if anyone had souls) because they were good people, even though they had no religious belief.

5. He assumed that Charo, as a devout Muslim, had a soul.

6. As he said wryly, that left “only Ngui and me and the lion.”

But the soul doesn’t “fly off somewhere,” and we all have souls, whether we are good or bad and whether we have religious belief or not. The soul may be defined as what is created when spirit enters into matter in a specific time and space—when we are born, in other words. And yes, in this sense even the lion has to have a soul. But our times don’t even remember the difference between spirit and soul!

The concepts illustrated by the guys upstairs (as in “A working model of minds on the other side”) might or might not have convinced him, but they would have given him something to chew on, something more tangible than blind faith or blind disbelief. But he had nothing like that available to him. In so many ways his troubled reflections illustrate the terrible burden our dying culture put on people in the 20th century, and continues to put on people today.

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