Conversations July 19, 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010

5:15 AM. Was going to skip this until later, saving my energy, but I guess we’re going ahead. So — what’s today’s theme?

Look to your on-going list.

All right, let’s talk about your relationship to your father. This isn’t quite on my list, but it’s in my mental list, and in fact is in my mind since reading in Reynolds last night. So — your father.

My father. From my perspective now, the subject looks a lot different.

Probably true for everybody.

I loved my father, and I criticized him so severely — sound familiar at all? And I stuck up for him in my own mind, and wanted to protect him and wanted to get him to change, and felt betrayed that he wouldn’t change, and felt personally attacked not just by him but by his fatherhood when he seconded my mother’s judgments. It is all tangled up, and it will take a bit to untangle.

My father, you have read, was a great companion for a little boy. He and his son — I was the only son at that point — went fishing and did the things that a father and son could enjoy together in those days if the father loved the outdoors, and the outdoors were available, and the father could take the time, as mine could. Why do you suppose I became an expert trout fisherman before I even went to the war? Because it was a love I picked up from dad, and continued after he and I were living in different worlds.

You have read how he started moving away from the family when I was about 12. To put it plainly, his life became less and less bearable to him, and of course the family was a large part of his life. At the time I didn’t understand even what our society knew about what is called mental illness, and anyway in Oak Park mental illness wasn’t allowed to exist, it would lower the tone. So, he was “nervous,” and it came out in fits of what you might call modulated screaming. You can scream without ever raising your voice. You can reject everything and everybody around you by seeing them as not measuring up to some code you drew up. And you could get to the point that God himself couldn’t follow your rules to your satisfaction. In fact, you had to get to that point, because what you needed and didn’t know you needed was for nothing to measure up; it explained your feelings of rage and loneliness.

He didn’t get there in any one leap. He fought it, and sometimes gained ground and sometimes lost ground, but it was always there, the struggle. And because he was struggling with it night and day, it was exhausting; had to be, but it was invisible to us except when it showed as temper or unreasonable expectation.

When he lost his joy in the world itself may have been when he lost the battle, because that meant he had nothing to help him refill the wells. But it may be that losing the joy of nature was the effect and not the cause. I don’t know.

We live surrounded by our own mental lives, and we don’t primarily see what’s going on around us even with those we are closest to. It’s natural. Who could give somebody else 24-hours-a-day attention, and even if they did, who could know them from inside? So, most of what goes on around us touches us at the periphery, not at the center. Our family’s struggles surprise us, even if we’re in the middle of them.

My father must have loved my mother. At the same time, he had to live with her, and a person who does have strong feelings and desires and expectations can be exhausting to live with, if yours aren’t as strong. And if yours are as strong, you’re liable to get into a long tug-of-war, affection fighting alongside egotism, and somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose, and there isn’t likely to be a rematch.

When you win that tug-of-war, you’re happy you won, but maybe you think less of the one who lost. And of course it may not be all that clear even to the ones involved. For one thing, it may play out over years. For another, circumstances may blur the result. But over time it becomes clear enough.

And if you’ve lost, you may despise yourself for being weaker-willed, and may resent the other for that continuous unspoken pressure all the time. But maybe you still love her, or him, depending, and that complicates the resentments and the self-criticism. And maybe you aren’t all that self-aware, so this analysis would have surprised you. Maybe you’re taking it all out on everybody around you in bitchiness, and neither you nor they know why.

If you look at it that way, the story of my father’s life after a certain point in his marriage is the story of his living with a continuous unbearable pressure that could find occasional release to some degree, but ultimately just kept getting worse. As the pressure got worse, it acted the way continual pain will, it wore him down. As it wore him down, it pulled down his mental ability, so that he had a harder and harder time seeing things straight. Therefore over time he blamed more and more external things, and had a greater and greater need to blame them.

Look, don’t think I don’t know that I’m painting something of a self-portrait here, except for the cause which is different in my case. But I’m talking about my father, and what I saw and didn’t understand as a child and didn’t interpret correctly as a young man and couldn’t understand as an older man, for by then the pattern had gotten hold of me.

What I saw was a man browbeaten by his wife who nonetheless inexplicably and unforgivably took her side against us — me and my sisters and then Leicester too. That is what I saw, and what I knew, and when he killed himself in 1928 when I was not yet 30, I could only read it as: She killed him. And, along with that: She’ll kill me too if I don’t get the whip hand.

You understand, I’m not now saying that’s how I understood it then was right; I’m saying, that’s how I saw it. There’s a difference.

I’m not entirely wrong in that, either, it’s just that it wasn’t as simple as I saw it. The pressure of living with her and her ancestors and her standards and her certainties and her strong will did wear him down. The fact that he loved her nonetheless did provide confusing cross-currents. His mental illness probably did stem from that situation. In a different situation perhaps he would have lived a happier life. In fact, I’m sure of it. But it wasn’t a situation with a villain, it was a tragedy of good intentions and two people who really couldn’t live together happily because they couldn’t harmonize. Surrender isn’t harmonizing.

Tragedy is right.

My emotional indictment of my mother is accurate enough. But the facts are mostly wrong or distorted or out of context — and now I can see why, of course. Just like my father, I was seizing on what seemed like logical factual reasons to support what was an emotional certainty and, like him, and for the same reason, I couldn’t admit what I was doing because I couldn’t see what I was doing. An obsession becomes an obsession because many strands of emotional logic keep calling you to something that can’t be satisfied. So you lay out all the reasons why you feel a certain way, to put it to rest. But it doesn’t! [i.e., doesn’t put it to rest.] You feel just as strongly, maybe even more strongly. So you lay out all the facts again, trying to make the urgency go away. But it won’t, and if somebody reasons with you or contradict you, it’s like you’re being prodded with a stick. (And why would they want to do that to you? They must have it in for you, for some reason.) And if they go along with you, you know they’re pretending to agree to something they don’t really believe, so you despise them and distrust them, both, a little, even while in another part of your mind you’re gratified that they see it as you do.

If there is a way out of this kind of a box, I never found it.

Lincoln practiced benevolence, I think. He never purposely planted a thorn in another man’s bosom, he said once.

But then maybe it turns inwards. I don’t know. Once you develop that way of seeing the world, it’s hard to get out of.

But you know, I don’t think he did see it that way. Well, maybe we can ask him. And maybe for all I know he has been knocking on the door. Mr. Lincoln?

If we go brooding over the little slights and wrongs that we feel we have suffered, we’re likely to magnify their effects — and to what purpose? Maybe we imagined a slight where none was intended, or maybe the wrong was truly intended but wasn’t mainly aimed at us but was a collateral effect of someone’s selfish desire to have something at your expense. What of it? I never found it worthwhile to pay a lot of attention to the things my enemies did to me or said about me. It made a much more pleasing picture to remember all the kindnesses I had received, from so many people. And after all, it takes no more effort to determine to be cheerful than to allow ourselves to be miserable. I often said, most people are about as happy as they set their minds to be.

I had troubles enough, and deep sorrows. Is there anyone on earth who doesn’t have them, or hasn’t had them, or can guarantee to himself that he won’t have them? But should your troubles overwhelm your cheerfulness, you are just that much farther behind. It seems to me sheer folly to conspire with your enemies to overwhelm yourself.

It seems to me that both of you had to deal with what we call mental illness. (I know the guys don’t believe in the existence of mental illness but I haven’t been able to get what they see in its place.) I don’t have any way of knowing who had more to deal with. I’d be interested in your assessment.

[EH]: I can hear you clearly enough: Too much liquor made my problems worse. But — did it? The concussions didn’t help.

[AL]: I believe that I inherited my melancholy from my father. Nothing in my life’s circumstances was noticeably different from those around me. If I was poor and many of them or not, when is the earth ever free of rich and poor? And that is the only form of deprivation I can see in what was a singularly happy life. The melancholy was not the natural effect of circumstance, but something I was born with, like my wit and my love of fun. Maybe they’re the same thing, melancholy and love of fun to overcome it. Certainly they drove together in my life.

I seem to hear you say, it wasn’t circumstance but inherited predisposition that drove you to melancholy, and to the necessity of overcoming melancholy. Whereas, Ernest, I seem to hear you saying, if I was melancholy, there were reasons enough for it.

Two different ways of looking at things. I get it. But my father still had to live with my mother. He still had to live with the feelings that raised in him. It wasn’t just that he was prone to melancholy, or mental illness, or “nervousness.” He had been pushed by his life.

Don’t you believe it.

Welcome, Dr. Jung.

You can always find good reasons for anything that happens, reasons that excuse you from responsibility. It was circumstance! It was fate! It was something external. This is true only from a point of view that thinks that what happens to us happens to us, instead of with us. In fact, though, our lives are much more mysterious than that, more patterned, more inter-connected not only with space and time but with what we used to call the eternal and spiritual.

Dr. Hemingway came into the world with a certain broad range of possibilities, and honed and refined (and therefore narrowed) them as he went along. This is how we live.

His internal choices helped determine what his external challenges would be. It isn’t merely a matter of his internal choices determining how he would cope with external events. No, although it goes against common sense, nonetheless I saw it continually in half a century of practice, what he made himself determined what would happen to him.

You must not make that true description of the process of life into something simple-minded. He did not consciously decide what would come to him. Nonetheless what we choose determines what or cannot come to us. There is a time delay in physical reality, and there is a perception of separation both by space and by time. Nonetheless, it is so.

Had Dr. Hemingway consciously adopted Lincolns cheerfulness — his determined cheerfulness, I should say — and his benevolence and his determination not to blame his troubles on others, he might have been able to bear the troubles of his own life as well as Lincoln bore his. It would have been good work, and would have lightened his own load.

However, remember that we cannot judge truly. No one knows another’s life as the person himself does, and no one knows his own life as his total self does. Judgment is tentative and for the sake of understanding. Within these limits it may be helpful. Beyond them it is limiting and destructive.

My God, what a fortunate life I lead! Hemingway, Lincoln and Jung!

And any others you vibrate with. Life is much richer than people commonly suppose.

Well, it’s 7 AM, which means that somehow I’ve been doing this for an hour and three quarters, minus a few minutes to make coffee. A great joy, my friends. Ernest, maybe we can come back to your parents and you tomorrow.

If not tomorrow, there’s always some other day.

Thanks to you all.

12:40 PM. Ernest, I have some time if this is a good time to pursue the question of your parents.

The “wrong time” wouldn’t ever be on our end. You don’t get a busy signal or an answering machine except from your end.

All right. So, about that marriage.

It isn’t the marriage per se that we’re interested in, but the effects on the children of the marriage, of the continuing discord and the results of that discord on my parents.

It is true that I blamed it all on my mother, and it is true enough that between her and Agnes I developed a deep distrust of women, and an expectation that women brought trouble. At the same time, I needed what women carry with them — and I don’t mean sex. I still needed nurturing, and the worse I got, the more I needed it. And the more I needed it and didn’t get it, the worse I got. And the more I looked in the wrong place, in the wrong way, the more lost and desperate I became, and then at some point I gave up, decided sex and all that was just a cheat, and that what I really wanted and needed didn’t exist, or didn’t exist for long, or didn’t exist if you looked behind the illusion.

Shall I act as interpreter, in case what is clear to me is not clear to others?

Feel free. It’s your job, after all you are the one in the physical.

For the moment. All right, I am hearing you say that you needed mothering and didn’t get it, or didn’t get enough of it. So it was a natural progression to seek it in a combination of sexual activity and emotional nurturance from older women. But the more you confused sex with nurturance, the less satisfactory the result.

True enough. Why don’t you sketch out your centaur theory?

To put it briefly, we function in two ways. Physically we are male or female individuals, with our mental, emotional, physical particularities. (I don’t use the word peculiarities here because it will suggest abnormality, which is not my intent.) But on another level we might be looked at as representatives in the flesh of the masculine or feminine gods or goddesses. That is, we carry that divine energy and it is carried sort of regardless of our personalities. A woman who feels herself valued (or, less commonly, undervalued) because of her sexual attractiveness may feel unseen, because her humanness is getting lost amid her divine aspect. It’s a way of seeing that could be easily mocked, but I think there is something to it.

Well, if I’m attracted to four women to the point of marrying them, and lots of others to the point of sharing sexual relations with them, it ought to be clear that I was seeking something, and it is easy enough to say, “sure, you were looking for sex!” But if I was seeking it, and finding it, why would I need to seek it farther? That answer is too simple. Not that I necessarily saw that it was too simple! Just, now I see it is.

What is sex, anyway? Physical pleasure, but if you have sex with someone you don’t care for, the aftertaste is plenty bitter. And if you have sex with someone you do care for, but it doesn’t give you that something you need but can’t define, it leaves you unsatisfied, and perhaps inclined to search elsewhere.

And if, occasionally, you do get something of what you need, sex doesn’t have to have anything to do with it one way or another — Gertrude Stein, for example. [Meaning her early help with his writing.]

And I’m hearing to ask you about homosexual or lesbian cross-currents in this context. Maybe it’s the mention of Gertrude Stein.

That’s something else I didn’t understand. I saw it all around, of course, and I fought against the hypocrisy that didn’t let us write about it. But it is only now that I see it without what you would call the political overtones. The thing itself, in other words, not the thing as a political movement or a social fad.

Everybody guesses about me, and says Hemingway was so vehement about queers, he must have had his doubts about himself, and spent his energy over-compensating. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that in this like other things I reported what I saw, and did it not from some neutral place but from a very definite moral stance. In fact, let’s say a few words about that.

To describe a thing is not necessarily to approve of it. Anybody really looking at my work — my stories particularly, because it’s more compressed — must see that I am writing from a particular point of view. You may have to dig for it — I wasn’t painting billboards! — but it is clearly there. Did any of the professors ever find a place where I showed that I approved of or encouraged homosexuality? Do they think I approved of the senseless cruelty or war that I also reported? I wish they’d open their minds and use their heads and lay off the psychoanalysis.

My attitude toward homosexuals and lesbians was often tolerant as long as they weren’t behaving in a political sort of way. I mean, weren’t rubbing people’s noses in it for the sake of feeling superior. Now you know — or would have known if you’d been in Paris in the 20s, say — that sometimes they do it. Why shouldn’t I attack them for doing it in the same way I attacked Mike or Brent [characters in The Sun Also Rises] for being worthless sponges?

I wrote about what I saw, and although in my day we didn’t have the phrase “politically correct” we had a lot of people who tried to enforce it. They didn’t enforce it on me, provided I could find an outlet that would pay me. [Meaning, it’s clear to me, provided he could find a magazine that would touch the topic. I add this just in case it isn’t clear to everybody.]

We’ve hardly touched on the topics we could pursue, and it has been less than an hour, but I’m going to have to fold my tent for the moment. Thanks.


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