Conversations with Hemingway (13)

Papa’s code 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

7:45 AM. Papa, my friend Christel asks an interesting question. Did it occur to Jake (or to you) that a man might have ways to sexually satisfy a woman other than normal intercourse?

Think about it, and you will see that in this case he could satisfy her, but she couldn’t satisfy him, and over time it could only lead to humiliation and resentment, even though it was nobody’s fault. Jake wasn’t impotent, he was mutilated, and had no way to relieve the pressure — and so she couldn’t help him. If he had had his testicles removed or destroyed it would have made him less of a man sexually but it would have been easier to bear, in the way that a forgotten state of mind is easier to bear in memory from a different state of mind than from the same state of mind. In other words, he wouldn’t then have felt the urgency so much as remembered it, which is sort of abstract.

And anyway there was Brett.

Oh yes. Brett was not made to sacrifice what she saw as her needs to anything.

A satisfying answer. Had you thought this out at the time?

I didn’t need to. I knew of men it had happened to. It isn’t that they would talk about it, but you had your imagination, and that was enough.

All right. So, did you have a particular way you wanted to go, today?

Let’s stay with that section you read out into your machine yesterday. (And wouldn’t that have made my life easier! If it hadn’t come with all the things that come with it.) There was a reason you were moved to do that. It was my credo.

Is that one reason you killed yourself ultimately, papa? You’d run out of ways to buy anything?

No, we’ve talked about that. There isn’t any need to get metaphysical about it. It isn’t like I cut anything short. I could have continued to exist, hating every day of it and lashing out on all sides (or sinking into intolerable depression) or I could just bring it to an end. Mary knew that, and she helped me, but of course she couldn’t admit it, any more than I could admit what I was doing in France [in 1944], and for the same reason: legal consequences. But she then, and I before, did what was right instead of what was legal. Harry Morgan would have approved.

All right, I see that. I knew and I suppose everybody knew that her reasoning was lame in leaving the keys where you could find them. I have supposed you made her life unendurable and this was her only means of self-defense, finally. And the fact that you killed yourself where you did, rather than in the basement, tells me you held her at least partially responsible for what they’d done to you.

That’s right. And I wasn’t even quite wrong in my reasoning about it, but I couldn’t really realize, in the state I was in, that she had acted from the best motives. It seemed to me that she had acted with my enemies to destroy me, and really she had, only not — I see now — deliberately or knowingly.

Well, it isn’t every biographer who can ask his subject about his suicide. If people catch on to this — and find a way to verify their results — that will be one more window into life, won’t it?

To continue about my values —

Yes, I’ve gotten us off track, haven’t I? But, one thing, it does demonstrate that the topic is yours more than mine.

There is a reason to talk about them, and it isn’t antiquarian curiosity. None of this is.

Well, I’m willing to cooperate blindly. My very best thing, in fact.

You copied three paragraphs but the first two were merely to make a third clear and meaningful. I didn’t care what was the meaning of life in any metaphysical way. I wanted to know, not in any abstract fashion, but concretely, day by day, action by action, how to live in it. And I trusted that if you lived right, maybe you’d learn the meaning as you went along, or maybe at the end.

But, you see. The meaning of life can’t be some abstract thing different from your day-to-day living of it. What kind of sense would that make? And I didn’t for a moment believe that life didn’t have a meeting just because I didn’t know what it was. So — it meant that I had to have a code, and had to live by that code unless I found a better one, and for the moment the best I found was, live the life that’s available to you.

That’s why I planned my fun, you know? That’s why when I learned something, I learned it. That’s why I was so fiercely intolerant of so many things and so many types of people that were phony or empty or just words or pretending, or dead at the core.

Now, people looking at my life from the outside, I can see they thought it was just pointless roistering interrupted by tossing off some bit of writing to pay for more pointless roistering, but that just shows that they didn’t understand what they were seeing. My life was the living of life as it came, and as I could steer it or was steered, and I was living as best I could on my terms that I had set and accepted.

Work was the basis for it all. You will notice that Jake works, and Bill works off-scene, but the worthless lost ones — Mike, Brett, Cohn, the count — have no work to do, and have no work they ever could do. Mike had been a soldier and, I don’t know if you could tell, a good one. But he didn’t have any work when there wasn’t a war. Cohn had written a novel but he was crippled by having enough money that he wasn’t forced to do anything to make a living, and he didn’t have enough self-discipline to make himself work at being at least a better author of lousy novels. And it never even occurred to Brett that her emptiness had less to do with men than with the fact that she was useless and knew she was useless and didn’t have any anchor in her life. Sex and liquor are well and good, but nobody ever called them anchors.

I worked, all the time, the way I read, all the time, unless I had declared a certain time no-work days or I was prevented from working by illness or injury or some specific circumstance. Without work I would have been lost, for I wouldn’t have had anything to pay with except money, which is empty unless it is the fruit of something specific. I mean — if you’ve paid out of yourself, that’s one thing. If you’ve only paid money and spending that money doesn’t mean anything to you because there’s so much more, it isn’t the same.

As long as I could work, I could enjoy life as it came to me, and not just as raw material for future writing — though it was that — but as life. If I enjoyed breakfast, did that mean I enjoyed it because someday I might need to describe somebody enjoying breakfast? And yet, if I did need it, it was there. But that isn’t why I ate breakfast. I didn’t go fishing so that I could write about going fishing, either.

That’s all very clear. And the meaning of life?

Well, the meaning of life. That was something very different. I said, as a young man, that maybe if you lived paying as you went you’d eventually figure out if life had purpose beyond itself. My times were against me there. What I knew wasn’t in fashion, and those who knew it with me weren’t the kind of people to provide me with that kind of support.

Take Santiago, fishing alone in the Gulf — well, in the Stream — at the end of his life. He takes for granted the things he was raised to believe, the things simple people believe — God, Jesus, Virgin, the Saints — and also various superstitions, and they are all as real and as natural to him as newspaper reports of Joe DiMaggio and the gran ligas. He hadn’t ever seen DiMaggio either, but he didn’t doubt that he existed.

So I had my beliefs, sort of left over beliefs, and my superstitions that seemed valid enough to me, and were anyway a comfort and a support, but none of it was anything I could put forth except as speculation. And I had none of your repeated systematic testing of boundaries between one world and another. Didn’t know it could be done, wouldn’t have known how to do it. Would have, though, if I’d known how. It wouldn’t be any different from the rest of my life. One more skill to learn.

But I was left sort of clinging to an inadequate life raft made of bits and pieces. At the end, I still believed as I did when I was a young man, only I didn’t have anything left to buy, and nothing to buy it with.

Admirable man, Papa, and maybe your continuing education of people, through so much undying literature, is a continuing filling of the well so that you may buy things over there.

Or next time.

Yes, or next time. But I’ve run out of energy for the moment. Maybe we can talk about that later. Thank you for all this.

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