Conversations with Hemingway (12)

The Sun Also Rises

Monday, May 10, 2010

8 AM. Papa, as you probably know, I’m rereading The Sun Also Rises. Can we talk about your philosophy on pages 152 and 153, that I will copy in here?

“Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place, you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on.

“I thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave up something and got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid some way for everything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that I had a good time. You paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your money’s worth. The world was a good place to buy in. It seemed like a fine philosophy. In five years, I thought, it will seem just as silly as all the other fine philosophies I’ve had.

“Perhaps that wasn’t true, though. Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.”

And first, why Harris? What purpose does he serve? He’s friendly, he’s an avid fisherman too, he’s generous and grateful. But why is he there? To balance the upper-class English as shown in Mike and Brett?

Or — however you want to proceed.

You paid some way for anything that was any good. But, if you were willing to pay, you could get good value for your payment. I didn’t see much point in being a tragic figure or an accident, so I tried to turn to account anything that happened to me. First there was the mortar shell, the war wound. I parlayed that into a writing career, and a love story even if Agnes threw me over, and a lot of second-hand experience that was all the more concentrated because second-hand. I’m talking about the stories I heard in the hospital.

I’d paid in pain, and in illusions, and in a continuing disability that I had to consider, though I didn’t let it slow me down. My knee, I mean. And I paid my innocence, too.

Let’s do more later when you are more awake and are less interested in reading more. I’m not going away!

Well, the real obstacle is that I feel like quoting sentence after sentence of that passage and having you talk about it, and it seems stupid, like you annotating your own text.

But you don’t know which ideas are “yours” and which are put into your mind for other reasons — nor put in by whom. Your higher self? Me? The vice president in charge of delivering messages?

In other words, it doesn’t matter if it seems stupid, if I am strongly inclined to do it, I should do it.

Not “should” but anyway might look at it carefully.

All right. When we return, maybe we’ll do that.

8:40 PM. Okay.

You having finished the book and fulminated against the characters in it —

That’s about it.

Well, I know your feelings and your questions, and as you have learned, there is no use for tact here — no possibility of it — so that simplifies things.

Robert Cohn. What was so bad about him, and why did it matter that he was Jewish? What does that have to do with anything? I don’t understand your anti-Semitism, or Jake’s or Bill’s. And I don’t see what it means, that Jake and Bill like Mike, who is an obvious pig, despite anything he does.

You must remember, first last and always, Jacob loves Brett and he sees her go off with one man after another. Is it so strange that he would sympathize with Mike, who is in the same position?

What does Cohn being Jewish have to do with it?

They felt that he felt he was superior to them, and of course they resented it.

That isn’t good enough. Jake repeatedly says that Cohn was a nice boy and a nice man, though progressively less so. How did he show that he thought he was superior? Seems to me he just wanted to be liked.

Maybe they just disliked him, his Jewish mannerisms and everything that went with the package.

It doesn’t make sense to me. I can see if you wanted to portray an anti-Semitic narrator with whom you didn’t agree, but that isn’t it. Your writing shows that strain in it, in the same way you use the word “nigger” in writing and in your own letters.

Don’t judge me by the standards and the language of a later day.

Fair enough — but where are you now about your attitudes then?

How soon after you die do you expect that you will become in favor of slavery?

All right, touché. What we are is what we are. But — why?

Look, I had experiences with Jews, the same as I did with fairies and intellectuals and fascists and lefties, and experience forms your attitudes — well, over the ones you inherit, anyway.

So if you’re saying that you grew up in an anti-Semitic culture and your own experiences confirmed you in those attitudes, all right, I can understand that. We’re the product of our times and our place and our chosen attitudes. But then why weren’t you anti-Catholic?

That doesn’t seem to me to be the same kind of thing at all. It wasn’t ever a question of being Jewish in attitude or emotion or, let’s say, allegiance. You couldn’t choose to become Jewish, and anyway there weren’t any particularly Jewish traits I was ever attempted to imitate or acquire. Intelligence, maybe, but I had that. I sure didn’t need that kind of clannish attitude. Being Catholic was something you could do a personal level. It was the ceremony and the emotional intensity and the feeling of rightness. You said somewhere that most people in the West had been Catholic sometime in their past life, more so than many being Protestant. Well, Jewish was something different. You could be a WASP who became Catholic a lot easier — a lot less of a total change — than becoming Jewish.

So what was your intent about Cohn?

You mean, why did I make the villain of the piece somebody who wasn’t a villain at all?

Well, sort of, yes.

I don’t think I did. If you look closely at the book, it didn’t have any villains, just a bunch of cripples and a couple of relatively sound characters like Harris and Bill and the people of Spain.

Cohn was devastated to find that living with Brent Ashley — fucking her, to put it baldly — hadn’t meant anything to her. But wasn’t this the story of his first marriage? She left him while he was hesitating to leave her lest it destroy her. But when he found out it hadn’t meant anything to her [Brett], he couldn’t bring himself to leave her and be miserable on his own. He didn’t follow the code, you see! He didn’t have a stiff upper lip, and they despised him for it, and called it his Jewish suffering. And he wasn’t a coward, because he could defend himself physically, but he couldn’t act like a man, and they despised him for that too. He made them see how he was suffering and they hated him for it. He knew he was acting badly, but he couldn’t help himself. Maybe he had lost self-respect, trolling like a male dog after a bitch in heat. It didn’t make him any more pleasant.

And — again — his function in the story?

He was one form of cripple, the analogy to Brett. She was a cripple too. And she wasn’t very different from him. The only thing was, she was a woman, and women weren’t expected to act like a man, and men were.

I get so inpatient with her and her stupid crippled vocabulary and her lack of any form of self-control, and her icy habitual using of the men who were infatuated with her. And her drinking incessantly. Ridiculous to be so judgmental of someone who is only a character in a story, I know.

Not so ridiculous. It shows you took it seriously — and anyway there were plenty of real-life Brett Ashley’s. Nobody ever accused me of making up that type!

But you aren’t giving her much of a break. She is in love with Jake — or thinks she is, anyway. At any rate she is in love with somebody she can’t have, and that’s as close as she ever gets, maybe, from lust to love. And I said she had a hard background, including two bad marriages. Sure she drinks. What else does she have? Without lust and drink, what’s in it for her? Sightseeing? Using her 35 words to become a writer?

All right, she’s unhappy, but she doesn’t go off by herself to be unhappy any more than Robert Cohn does, and nobody blames her for it.

Don’t they? Ask the toreros who watch her take up with Romero. Ask Montoya.

I see. That’s another contrast, isn’t it? The healthy responses of the Spanish against the diseased responses of the English, Scottish, Americans, French, Greeks —

That’s it. In Spain, real values prevailed — at least, until a certain point in the festival!

And Jake cuts himself off from them by pimping her to Romero, because that’s what she wanted.

Yes he does. It’s an irretrievably irreversible step, and it costs him something infinitely precious to him.

Seems to me like Jake lost, Cohn lost, Brett lost — and gained, because at least for once she didn’t do what she wanted even if it would destroy someone — and Mike didn’t lose because he had not much farther to fall, and Bill didn’t lose because he wasn’t all that involved. But all of them are sort of unsound.

Wounded. There is more excuse for that “wounded hero” stuff here than in most places. You could say, if you wanted to be more charitable than you care to be at the moment, that they were all wounded by their lives — maybe even by their times. Jake wouldn’t have been wounded if he had been in a crash because of the war, but maybe the others wouldn’t have been what they became, either, if they had been raised in another civilization. Spain, for instance.

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