Conversations with Hemingway (6)

The War About God

7 AM Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The 20th century could be called The War About God, and that would be as close a clue to it as any.

Started rereading For Whom The Bell Tolls last night. What an achievement.

Papa, what do you know of the war against God? You certainly left enough clues scattered about in your writings.

It was there to be seen, if you had eyes. But it was harder to see it impartially in those days.

You, though, did. Or seemed to.

I was caught between the lines, as usual. Take Spain, since that’s what you’re reading about at the moment. The Republic was tied in with freedom from the church, because the church sided with the aristocrats from which its own top ranks came. In the minds of the people, somewhat confused with so many things, not only the Church had to go, but God and Mary and the saints, because their only allies, the Soviets, were militantly certain — or pretended to be — that all such things were superstitions of the past. These peasants wanted to be “modern” just like writers in New York, and they did the same thing — they jumped on the bandwagon, and for the same reason, because they didn’t want to have to stand alone. The peasants had the Soviets, and they had the Western liberals, and in both cases atheism, open or politely disguised, was taken for granted as the only belief possible for free men of goodwill.

And it was a lot deeper than that, as you showed by reflection — ricochet, really — in The Sun Also Rises and in True At First Light.

You caught that easily enough when Brett said not being a bitch was her substitute for God — but said it in a way that showed that she took it for granted that the idea of God was obsolete, suitable only to simple or ignorant people — and Jake quietly made it clear that he didn’t definitely agree. He didn’t really have a connection but he wanted it, he “wished he was a better Catholic.”

And yes, the meditation about whether we had souls, that you pick out of True At First Light, I agree that it showed confusion. But the point is, it showed confusion. It wasn’t just my confusion; it was common.

Somebody — can’t remember who — noticed that you were most at home, or felt most deeply about, Catholic countries: Italy, France, Spain, Cuba. How much did that ever occur to you?

Not at all. And there was the US, you know. Not a Catholic country, and so close in my heart that I could scarcely bear to live there sometimes.

You mustn’t make the same mistake as Spanish peasants! It wasn’t really about being Catholic; it was about a civilization having a different center of gravity. Now, these are sort of abstract thoughts, and I always distrusted great abstractions, but I felt that difference first in Spain when I went there in the 1920s, even more than in France. The French knew how to live, and we refugees from America could appreciate the contrast from our more driven society — but of course in the absence of that driving, we were left on our own, and either drove ourselves — and did very good working, regardless how well the work turned out — or did nothing, and fooled ourselves that we were going to work, soon.

But the French were if anything even less connected to the other side — as you usually put it — then the Americans or English. I’m talking about the Frenchmen we would see in Paris, you understand, not the peasants a hundred miles away. The French society, the self-important thinkers, the international set (to the extent that a Frenchman ever is international) had the same view of religion and the things of the spirit that the smart set anywhere did: It was superstition, charming or irritating or dangerous by turns, but superstition. There was no life in it, for them.

These are vast abstractions, as I’ve said. In my writing I would put it into tiny glimpses or thoughts — like Jake’s being relieved to deal with French mercenary service that reduced everything to a cash basis, without Spain’s individuality that always was there regardless.

Now, you might think this doesn’t have much to do with your War About God idea, but it does. I am showing you France as I saw it: mercenary, self regarding, incurably small minded in its daily ways, yet a breath of fresh air to Americans and English chiefly by its contrast to our own homeland’s relative philistine nature.

But Spain! Spain was far older than France, and it wasn’t tamed or mechanized as France was (and as England and the US were). In Spain, you could go into a culture, a way of being, so much older than Europe, so much purer. It’s the difference between a bull fight and a long-distance bicycle race. That’s why I put in the bit about the bicycle racers, for those who could catch it. Not that there was anything wrong with them as individuals or even as a product of their civilization, but Jake didn’t have any interest in them. Their life and cynical work (“the money could always be arranged”) were European, as Spain was not.

Now — to keep coming back to it — Spain didn’t have the war about God as part of its official culture. Nobody had ever worshiped the Goddess Of Reason there! And they aren’t likely to! At least, I hope not. It was only the cut-off intellectuals who tried to follow the intellectual life of Europe against their own contrary life who do that.

Let me go at it a different way. When Napoleon made the mistake of taking on Spain, there was a definite pro-French, pro-“modern” group who aided and abetted him. This was an earlier Spanish Civil War. That group and its descendents considered themselves more cultured, more civilized, more modern, more European, than their government or countrymen. They rejected the Church not as the peasants did, as rapacious landlords and officious busybodies and as irresponsible legislators — for the bishops and all did appear in all these roles to the people, day by day throughout life — but as theoretically obsolete, as abstractly wrong, as philosophically superstitious and backwards.

These franceses were Spain’s fifth column working for Napoleon. When they lost, by 1814, naturally reaction came with a vengeance. (And nobody embodies vengeance like the Spaniards!)

Still, there was always the liberal underground. In Spain it was always an anti-Catholic underground, for always the Church’s hand was against it. Even Leo XIII’s encyclical on social justice didn’t make any difference to the Spanish church. It thought it was part of the universal church, but it was Spanish first, last, and always.

So when they threw out the monarchy in 1923 and when they declared the Republic in 1931 the people who did it were motivated by a couple of ideas: They wanted to make Spain “modern” — which meant following the rest of Europe — in technology, in ideas, a government, in social justice. They failed at all of these, of course, because those things can be held up by a government but they can’t be advanced by anything but the people’s own energies — and where is the government that is going to liberate the people’s energies? It would have to curtail itself, and governments never do that.

No new government — not even a revolutionary new government — can change things overnight, even if it has the will. The only thing it can do is oppose change or welcome and channel it.

Until the generals rose against the Republic in July 1936, the government was about as ineffectual as usual. But the rebellion burst the bounds. People took things into their own hands — on both sides — and so the middle ground was destroyed. Everything went to extremes, as it always does when the bars are down. And then when the Western countries wouldn’t let the government buy arms or planes or anything it needed to protect itself, then in came Stalin’s boys, and before very long they were in charge, or as much “in charge” as anyone ever is in Spain.

And then God had to go out the window. It became that you were for the Republic or for the Church, and then for the Republic or for those who believed in God. And of course that was a weakness because not only did it make the Republic seem wicked, with its Soviet allies, and its official anti-Catholicism, and then its war on God — but the feelings of two thousand years of ancestors couldn’t be uprooted in a few years of indoctrination. That’s what I was showing when the boy started by quoting La Passionaria but ended by reciting the little his terror left him of the Hail Mary.

And there you were between the lines.

As usual. I hated fascism, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t see communism clearly enough. It’s just that Spain didn’t have anything else; not a friend in the world except Mexico and the International Brigades, which were also mostly communists except the Americans.

You’ve been going great, but I’m feeling a little worn out. More another time, I hope. Who ever said you weren’t capable of abstract thought, Papa?

Critics. Professors and what you in your day would call wannabes. They didn’t understand my methods, they didn’t approve of my subject matter, and they were threatened by my life. And all that was enough even without any ammunition I gave them by things I did or said or was supposed to have done or said.

Okay. More later.

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