Conversations July 15, 2010

Thursday, July 15, 2010

1:20 AM. Got a little sleep but I’m wheezing again and my mind is active, so why not go to work? Last night I took the header notes I have put together, broke them up one per line, read them into excel, sorted first by date and then, another sort, by date within individual. It comes to 14 pages, through June. More than eight pages of the 14 are Hemingway. A lot of information, if I can organize it. Never was able to do it in The Sphere And The Hologram.

3:30 AM. Might as well try; can’t read well enough to go back to sleep anyway. Who do I talk to? Papa?

Sure, why not?

Shall we continue with the questions I have accumulated so far? What about Agnes? How did you feel, all the way down, when you got that Dear John letter? [Agnes and he fell in love when he was her patient after he had been wounded in Italy in July 1918. He went home to America in January 1919, thinking that he and she would be married as soon as he could support them, but a few months later she wrote him, breaking off the engagement, redefining their love affair as kid stuff, more or less.] Obviously you were angry and hurt — but was that all? You weren’t 20 yet. Was there also some relief mixed in?

This is the way biographers and historians go astray. Reporters do, of course, but they aren’t as likely to draw that kind of conclusion, because they don’t deal with that level of things. They are far more into “what’s the latest?” than “what does it mean?” and “what’s behind the surface?” You should know; you’ve touched that world.

Only slightly. I was never that interested in surface happenings. I couldn’t be a good reporter in the way you were, even if my times had supported it. But — Agnes?

I haven’t lost the thread. I said, biographers go wrong by thinking that their subject may have — then it becomes must have — shared their own reactions to things. If you married too young and lived to regret it, it’s easy to think that anyone would who did the same, and therefore that anyone who wanted to, and expected to, marry young must have been at least a little relieved at being let off by circumstances. But, you know, being married suits some people in a way that it doesn’t suit others.

Then, tell it as you experienced it.

It was pretty much the way I showed it in A Farewell To Arms except that I wasn’t nearly that experienced — I wasn’t experienced at all, in fact — in love any more than in war. I had been badly hurt, which means, badly scared. If there’s anything that leaves you more alone than being badly hurt as a young boy, it’s being hurt among foreigners, right away, before you’ve had time to shake your faith in your physical immortality. You’ve been blown up, out of the blue. You died or started to die, and you came back covered in dirt, knowing you’ve been hurt but not yet knowing how bad it is, because the pain hasn’t started. You’ve done the best you could to live up to your ideas of how heroes acted, and then you’ve gotten a couple of machine-gun slugs in you and the heroic-rescue-while-wounded-himself is over too, and you have to be carried in. And then, still being brave and the pain not yet having started to come flooding in, because the nerves haven’t recovered yet, you have to tell these people who don’t speak English any better than you speak Italian that you are not dead, it isn’t your blood, and when you get them to understand that, you have to see your legs, because you know you’ve been badly hurt and you can’t walk now after that machine-gun slug got you, and you don’t know if this means that you are going to lose that leg. (I put a little of this into Harry Morgan, “I got a lot of use for that arm,” 20 years later, though I don’t think anybody made the connection.) So you look at it, and of course it’s a mess of blood and the kneecap isn’t the way it ought to be but it looks like the bones aren’t obviously broken, and maybe it’ll be all right, but you don’t know what the surgeons are going to be able to do or not do, and you’re holding on to your ideas of how a man acts, and you’ve never been nearly as scared as you are, you trying hard not to show it.

And then the pain starts coming in, a fast tide that keeps mounting and mounting and never ebbs but keeps on building and it gets to be all you can do to hold on. You don’t want to cry and beg somebody to make it stop, because the heroes you’ve read about get hurt and it never says they cried or were terrified of consequences: They took it with a smile or if they couldn’t smile they took it with a stiff upper lip, not like you inside. And if you’re still a teenage kid, maybe it takes you a while — weeks, I mean, not minutes — to realize that maybe the stories don’t tell the truth, either because editors don’t pay for the truth or because the writers don’t know. And maybe you don’t realize right away that it isn’t how a man feels that counts in such a situation, but how he acts. So maybe you disappoint yourself, and you spend the rest of your life coming to grips with the fact that you weren’t able to feel the way the real heroes feel when they get hurt. And if you start thinking maybe you aren’t what you wanted to be, then you have to try harder to be it. You fake it until you make it, like your partner used to say. And this puts you on shaky ground, but it gives you some kind of ground, anyway, to stand on, because otherwise you aren’t a wounded hero, you’re a scared kid a long way from home who wants his mother, or anyway what a mother should be, what he imagines other people have as all-accepting all-admiring mothers, and where is the place to stand if that’s what you are and if that’s how people see you are?

And then when they’ve patched you up and you are through with the worst of it, the pain and the terror and the shame that you’ll never admit, at first because you believe those hero stories that you didn’t live up to and then because you’re embarrassed to have been green enough to believe them in the first place, then you are in this heaven, all these women taking care of you, and you’re in a clean, more or less empty hospital, because you’re one of its earliest patients, before it’s really geared up to go. And by then you’re not in the same kind of merciless overwhelming pain, but a sort of intense fluctuating ache that isn’t any worse than a headache compared to a fractured skull, say. And you are back in control of yourself, because you’ve got the pain licked, and they aren’t going to take off your leg, and you aren’t going to be a cripple even if you did get a slug in the knee. And it looks to other people like you’re sort of a hero, because although real soldiers know the difference, other people can’t tell, and then it turns out that if you’re careful and you learn how to imitate, then the real soldiers can’t tell either. So you can at least put on a brave front and you can cautiously put out a few hints, and so you can hold your head up after all. And of course when the Italians use your industrial accident as an excuse to give you a medal, that’s good cover too, even if you don’t actually see the metal in the flesh.

And you are surrounded by women, and some of them are pretty human, and they get grouchy and they see through heroics, however well done, and others aren’t interested in you as any particular person rather than as a handsome kid in general, and then there is one who is.

Now, I never talked about this, because by the time I could talk about it, too much water had gone downstream, and I wasn’t that kid anymore, and I had walled her out of my emotional life, and so I couldn’t really remember what we had been to each other. To put it in terms of person-groups, the parts of me that had fallen in love with Agnes went away, and I never heard from them again. And, to put it in terms of robots, I never was able to trust women in the same way, couldn’t trust my feelings in the same way (for I’d been fooled, I told myself after the fact, and therefore it was a failure of observation and interpretation), had to be the dominant one so I’d never again get hurt like that, and I was always prepared for them to go. Anybody can see, looking at the way my life played out, that when I needed to separate from Hadley, or Pauline, or Mary, I needed to force them to be the ones to make it happen, because that’s the only way I was prepared for it by my experiences with Agnes. In other words, from the time I got her letter, I had a robot that made sure that in any circumstances that could be seen as being the same thing all over again, that would be the only way I could see it. And whatever I did to make it happen, I couldn’t see, because it wasn’t the same part of me doing it.

Yes, I do understand. It was a different kind of wounding, and nobody ever treated you for it because nobody ever really understood what it had done to you. Your generation was tougher than mine, and that wasn’t always a good thing.

No, it wasn’t. But either way has its advantages and disadvantages.

So you and Agnes fell in love and it was right, in the way your war experience wasn’t right.

That’s it exactly. The hero-stories didn’t match my experience, but the love stories did. I could reach out and encompass her and be encompassed by her, and it was a very pure, very satisfying love that promised to just keep getting better. It didn’t matter that she was eight years older than me — and remember, that meant she was very nearly twice my age! We were careful not to think about it that way, of course (and I lied to her about how old I was) but I was just 19 and she was 27.

You don’t mean twice your age, you mean the difference between you was almost half your age.

That’s right. It was a lot, and it meant that when I was 30, she was going to be nearly 40, and I was way too young to see that as possibly a problem, because for one thing I needed somebody to mother me, and for another thing, boys aren’t as likely to see things that clearly as girls are, at least not if he’s in love, and I was. All I figured was that every year we were together, the difference in age would matter less. But Agnes saw it, and couldn’t help seeing it, and finally she was able to see things differently, after she and I were apart long enough.

But you know, you don’t ever forget your first love. If it doesn’t work out, you either put the whole thing aside as a misinterpretation, or you read it as a betrayal, or you live as if you’d never felt those things, said those things, gave yourself in that complete beautiful unselfish way.

You’ll notice that Frederick Henry isn’t set out that way. He, unlike me, has had other women. He started out just looking for sex and was surprised when he realized he loved her. He was more experienced than she was, and you might say the experience with her re-educated him, so that he became innocent for the first time. Just as he was experienced as an ambulance driver, and as a long-term veteran, so he was experienced as a lover and as a taster of women. He wasn’t me at all. He was me as I like to think I might have been, but he was different enough that I could write of him.

And the marriage and the childbirth and the death weren’t the same either, of course.

You’d say they were what my life might have been. I had to kill off Catherine, because I had had to kill off Agnes within me, and so I had to kill that part of that innocent open-hearted boy. And the life we might have had, and the children we might have brought into the world, they went too. What the war hadn’t killed, her letter did. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the war, we never would have had our romance. And if I hadn’t been a starry-eyed kid to begin with, I wouldn’t have been within 3,000 miles of the Italian front. If I hadn’t still been a starry-eyed kid, I wouldn’t have been where I was in harm’s way — although I easily might have been later, of course. And if I hadn’t been the starry-eyed kid whose world had just been shaken by a hard jolt of reality, maybe I wouldn’t have seen her as my ideal other half, my better half as people used to say.

Ernest, this tells me so much about your life!

Yes. You’ve come a way since all those disillusioned questions three years ago.

It’s embarrassing, a little, except they were sincere and troubled, not accusatory or judgmental. (I hope.)

You learned a good while ago, there is no real room for tact when you’re communicating mind to mind, and none for lies and evasions, either.

No. When I noted this question about Agnes, page 52 of Baker, I had no idea I’d get so rich an answer. I see now why last time I was moved to skip around my list to three other questions. Thanks for the guidance — you and anyone else involved.

Notice your breathing.

Oh, I’ve noticed. It’s an entirely different experience from trying to read. I wish I’d discovered this decades ago.

Don’t go back to distrusting the past.

No. I do think I learned that lesson when Michael was here. Well, it’s 5 AM, so we’ve been at it an hour and a half, and I’ve gotten my dozen pages, so I’ll sign off for now. Only — well, you know how I feel. It’s sort of like saying “I love you” after you’ve said it so many times but still feel it as strongly as ever. You were a hell of a man. See you next time.

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