Conversations June 19, 2010

Saturday, June 19, 2010

6:50 AM. All right, Papa — or anyone with business for the morning.

Your life is changing — everyone’s life is changing — more so than usually. More so both in the sense of “faster” and in the sense of “more extensive.” This is what you wanted, or why come into a life in these times? But that doesn’t mean that you’re automatically ready for the changes, or again what’s the point of living in these times? If you already know — already live — everything there is to know or to live — what tedium! Instead, what interest, what drama!

The only thing is, drama can be very entertaining, very absorbing — but who wants to be a drama queen? (The answer, obviously, is — some people do.) How do you live a dramatic life without it turning into melodrama? How you act within a drama without becoming a drama queen? That’s the task your time sets you. And by “you” obviously we meet you in the plural — you all (y’all) rather than only any one of you.

Now, bear in mind the definition we have been playing with — person-group rather than individuals. In short speech, it becomes necessary to use terms that blur the distinction between the way we see you and the way you see yourselves, so it’s going to be up to you to do the work to remember the distinction and sometimes actively relate one set of definitions to another. So if we say “you need to be flexible, you need to be in the drama without letting it become melodrama (insofar as you personally are concerned)” that doesn’t mean that we have, or you should, forget

You got tangled up, trying to make the parallel construction come right. We are smiling at you, but that’s the talent you bring to this. We were saying, it may look like we’re forgetting what we said about the individual actually being a convenient fiction, and the community being a closer model of what is the individual’s inner reality. We haven’t, we don’t, and you should make the effort not to do so either. But if we are to make reasonably concise statements, we have to use the language as a container of our thought, and hope that you will remember to open the container.

So — drama. You came for these times, as everyone did. But not everybody in the play portrays people on the same side. If you’re going to put on Hamlet, you can’t have only people playing good guys. Somebody has to be the king, the queen, the friends who get treacherously murdered. If Macbeth, somebody has to play Duncan. Some people have to represent two armies at war. [They may have made a mistake here. I think Duncan is murdered offstage and never does appear. However their point remains.]

So in life. In these times, some embrace your kind of change, some resist it to try to hold the status quo, some resist it hoping for other kinds of change. Your time is the conflict of these forces — each of whom consider themselves the good guys! If you’re going to understand, you’re going to have to give up the idea and the semi-conscious reality of self-righteously assuming you’re wearing the white hats and those who disagree with you, who oppose you, are wearing the black hats. You’re all wearing white hats, you’re all wearing black hats.

That is — nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

You’re in a Shakespearean mood, this morning.

It would pay you to be, once in a while, as well. A pity the plays are not in your vernacular but are in Elizabethan, which is no longer “English as she is spoke.” Shakespeare offers clues for your time, because that time and yours are bookends for Western culture — and therefore, in a way, for world culture at least at the moment, for the West’s culture carries the world’s as the ocean carries the content of the world’s rivers.

The Renaissance was not what they thought it was. They thought it was what the name implies — a rebirth. They thought, in connecting to Greek attitudes, to reshape themselves into something resembling (their idea of) an ancient Golden Age. But that isn’t what was happening. Instead, they were fashioning something new — for if it is true that there’s nothing new under the sun, it is equally true that there’s always something new under the sun. Life continually returns to its familiar patterns, but it doesn’t exactly repeat itself.

The Renaissance, 500 years now in your past, gave birth to what you used to call the Modern Age. Your time is putting paid to Modern Age and moving into another form of civilization that will be as different from it as it was from pre-Renaissance Europe, or as the Europe of the Renaissance was from the high Middle Ages.

You are living at the hinge. You cannot expect that anything will not be in transformation, and you cannot expect any transformations to be completed. These changes require generations — we said hundreds of years, you changed it to generations. No, it’s a longer process than even you think, no matter how familiar the thought.

Nothing “fixed” in your time will necessarily stand; but neither will any particular thing necessarily crumble. Some may appear unchanged, some may crumble, some may crack but stand, some may change in some essentials but not in others.

Flux. Flux. That is the keynote of your time.

Now — as you well know — for at least 250 years, an ever-accelerating technological revolution has left each generation gasping at the transformation it experienced. We won’t go into it; you know the story well enough, and perhaps to others the outline of the changes won’t mean much because they don’t have the context. Leave it at this: Every generation since perhaps 1750 — in the West, the crucible of this new world-civilization, beginning in England and France — every generation has had the same experience. The sense of technological marvels opening up new possibilities. The sense — growing with each new generation — of how “modern” times are not only quantitatively but qualitatively different. The progressively growing sense of being cut off, therefore, from their predecessors. The sense that old age signifies not wisdom but stuck-ness, obsolescence.

That had plenty of good effects and plenty of bad effects, and if you are still sure you can tell which is which, that is just remnants of ignorance and arrogance, because the same thing looks different — shows different sides of itself — in different light, from different viewpoints. The operative point is that this “modern” age of ever-increasing technological change is passing away, however little it seems so.

It will not be replaced by a new age of barbarism, or a catastrophic collapse into a new Middle Ages kind of society. Find Kenneth Clark’s passage in Civilization where he talks pessimistically and yet hopefully about the reasons why it won’t be a new dark age, yet clearly it will be the end of what is, or what was then, and quote it. It is in the final chapter — practically the final paragraph.

I’ll insert it when I enter this.

[Here it is. Copyright 1969.]

And yet when I look at the world about me in the light of this series, I don’t at all feel that we are entering a new period of barbarism. The things that made the Dark Ages so dark — the isolation, the lack of mobility, the lack of curiosity, the hopelessness — don’t obtain at all. When I have the good fortune to visit one of our new universities, it seems to me that the inheritors of all our catastrophes look cheerful enough — very different from the melancholy late Romans or pathetic Gauls whose likenesses have come down to us. In fact, I should doubt if so many people have ever been as well-fed, as well-read, as bright-minded, as curious and as critical as the young are today.

I said at the beginning that it is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills civilization. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and dissolution, just as effectively as by bombs. Fifty years ago W.B. Yeats, who was more like a man of genius than anyone I have ever known, wrote a famous prophetic poem.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Well, that was certainly true between the wars, and it damn nearly destroyed us. Is it true today? Not quite, because good people have convictions, rather too many of them. The trouble is that there is still no centre. The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism, and that isn’t enough. One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.

[End of quotation.]

Kenneth Clark was an intelligent, cultured, thoughtful man. But he was a man of that civilization as you are not. You are not a member of the next civilizations either: They do not yet exist in form. You are the midwives.

Now, there’s nothing essentially melodramatic about birth, or about midwife-ing a birth. It’s a natural process that is sometimes smooth, sometimes dramatic, sometimes tragic. Take your role as matter-of-factly as you can, and things will go more smoothly, because you won’t be inadvertently falsifying your life through your wrong ideas.

Could Shakespeare, could Marlowe, could Goethe, later, see what the new civilization was going to be? Could Shakespeare foretell the religious tolerance America would pioneer, or the religious exhaustion and apathy that would follow so much energy and hope and desperation and struggle being poured into religions as cultural artifacts and containers during the religious wars of Europe? Could he have foreseen the onset of a civilization neither Catholic nor Protestant, either Christian or Muslim (let alone Jewish) that de facto worshiped what it called reason — and not just in revolutionary France! — and “progress” and “evolution” and “science” and in the greatest good for the greatest number?

He couldn’t foresee them, but sometimes he could embody them, and write from some inner knowing, so that, looking backwards, you might say, “he knew!” Well, he didn’t know that he knew; he only felt.

And that’s our task.

Part of it, yes — to feel the future in your bones, and help shape it by what you are and what you do. But just as you don’t live in the future, so there’s no use living for the future. You live now — whenever you read or re-read this — so live for now. That doesn’t mean don’t plan, and it certainly doesn’t mean “the world is coming to an end in 20 minutes.” It means, simply, live consciously.

I can’t help make the connection that Hemingway read Shakespeare extensively and repeatedly. He must have, given that he searched Shakespeare as well as the Bible when he went looking for titles.

Do you think there might be a reason why we’re bringing you to an appreciation of a great writer who has been seen only partially?

Wise guys. Okay, it’s only 7:50, but this has come fast and furious, and I think it’s time to quit.

It’s a rounded-off thought anyway. Don’t neglect to get that Clark quotation.

I won’t. Till next time.

11:30 AM. More?

Just because you prefer doing one thing to another doesn’t mean that it’s always appropriate to leave the other things for later.

It’ll be all right. What would you like to talk about, Papa?

Your father.

My father?

Your father’s effect on you, and to some extent your effect on him.

In light of your own relationship with your father, I take it.

My father — and my sons. Don’t forget, it was the father’s love for his sons that was the emotional tie to you in Islands In The Stream. That wasn’t the only thing in it, and wasn’t the only thing you took from it but it was the initial hook. There was a reason why you and I connected first along that theme. It wasn’t the first time you read one of my books, but it was the first time we connected. I was just a name on a shelf before that. And Islands met something to you long before you learned anything more than the barest outline of my life as reported.

All right.

You’ve seen, in working with people, that their parents often inflict the deepest wounds on them, and at the same time give them what they can develop into their greatest or most valuable gifts. Neglect can foster independence. Abuse can create toughness. Unreasonable demands can foster a sense of fair play that becomes paramount.

Now, that is just considering the unfortunate side of a father’s — or a mother’s — legacy to a child. The straight-forward gifts — teachings, examples, traits, even the hereditary talents that may be identified — they all get their recognition. It is the things we struggle with that we have to learn to see a more rounded way, in a different light. And of course, if you can’t see your father and mother in that way. You can bet you’ll never be able to see yourself in that rounded way. You’ll be full of defensiveness and self-condemnation and shame and all the need to try to hide these or at least survive them. And, if that’s true within you, it’s going to be true outside of you, around you, as well. Your relationships with lovers, friends, even acquaintances sometimes, are all going to reflect these same characteristics, not only as much as if they were conscious, but more so, because you won’t have any conscious control over them. You know all this, but perhaps not everybody who comes to it will.

So take my situation. I loved my father and he loved me as long as I was a boy. But just at the time I started to become a teenager, he changed, and of course at 12 years old I assumed it was something in me that caused him to back away. I didn’t think of it this way, but I unconsciously felt that he didn’t like what I was becoming.

I know now what everybody knows, and of course my criticisms of him read ironically in light of the rest of my life, but you don’t criticize somebody that harshly unless you love them. The opposite of love isn’t hatred, it’s indifference.

Just to clarify for others, I know that you’re referring to your description of your father as a coward because he wouldn’t stand up to his wife, in your opinion, and because he killed himself.

That’s right, especially the second. I didn’t understand that a man can come to the point where he can’t stand things.

Just as Nick’s father says in “Indian Camp.”

Prophecy, but unconscious prophecy. Or maybe I was moving toward excusing my father, or understanding.

I looked; it was one of your earlier stories. Written before your father killed himself?

No. But I wasn’t thinking of my father; I was thinking of myself. I was thinking of what it is to be very young and very open and misunderstand what you’re seeing.

Of course, this ratchets up my anxiety. Wasn’t written before 1928?

Just don’t worry about it. You don’t always have to be demonstrating to yourself that you’re not just making it up. If you got something wrong, so what? Would that affect the quality of what else you brought through?

My father became very harsh and very self-absorbed as his mental deterioration proceeded. Nobody knew all that much about such things in the 1920s, not where we were, not among the level of society we were in. We knew there was something wrong, but nobody knew what to do.

It’ll give you a different view of my life if you realize that I spent half a dozen years — my teenage years — sort of tiptoeing around my father. Mental illness’s cause not being recognized — though its effects sure were! — we held him responsible for his actions as if the man we had known was choosing to act that way. What was the alternative? To admit — even to realize — that it was all inside himself? And if it was too hard, too painful, to think of him choosing to be that way, the only thing left was, it had to be somebody else! And there was Grace Hall Hemingway, born to play the part.

But you didn’t consciously realize what was going on within you.

Oh no. When parents are at war, children either choose sides or they say “a pox on both your houses” or they try to keep the peace somehow — by being extra good, by anticipating everybody’s needs, by trying to be whatever the parents need as far as the child can tell.

I loved my father. It made it impossible for me to not hate and resent my mother. That’s why I was never rational on the subject. No matter what the facts were, I could only see them in whatever way made her wrong.

So you’re asking what does this have to do with your father, who didn’t kill himself, who didn’t surrender to try to keep the peace in his marriage, who though he could share most of his life didn’t withdraw from his family?

Oh, I think I know the connection, all right. It’s tied write to you today, and to last night’s emotional decision about eating. Dad weighed 280 pounds later in his life — at about my present age or before. I was so busy criticizing that, that I lost sight of so many fine qualities that have become more and more obvious over the years — 25, now — since he died. This fat that I hate carrying around is my penance, in a way, for all that criticism.

And now you’re going to be rid of it.

I hope so. It remains to be seen.

Well, what do you tell people happens when they make things conscious?

They regain control over whatever it is. Thank you, Papa.


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