Consciousness, Hemingway, and war wounds

Now that I am settled into my new place in Charlottesville, I am hoping for a new series of conversations such as I enjoyed last year. This came yesterday.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

4:20 AM. All right, gentlemen, I hereby call this meeting to order, after a good long time. I haven’t sat down to chat on a regular basis since — when? December? November, maybe? First came getting the book into shape, then came a genuine hiatus in Florida with Charles, then a fast search for a new place in town, a month spent preparing to move, and a week and a little unpacking and arranging. But since yesterday Nancy brought me most of the houseplants she had protected from the move by keeping at her house, and since she helped me put up more pictures, I’m about ready to declare myself more or less resettled. And now it’s time to begin new habits, I think. So –?

You did move. It is a responsibility, knowing which promptings to heed and which to disregard, and it was no light thing to move after a 13-year association with TMI as a physical neighbor, passing the center every time you left home. But we had been instilling that background restlessness every so often for many months, as you know. It made it easier, did it not, to respond when the time came around.

It had less of a taint of possible Psychic’s Disease, yes. A recurrent impulse is not in the same league as a one-time stray thought. So what’s our new order of business?

As always, it depends on what you want to do, are willing to do, feel you have to do, or should do. Life is often a choice among many possible actions spurred by a conflict or convergence of motives. That’s where freedom enters in; otherwise, if your lives were impelled by a succession of inevitable necessities, where would the savor be? It is true that freedom is not everything, and that even a stretch in prison, or in a confined and regimented existence, may have its value and even its enjoyment for certain people at certain times in their lives (we speak as much of their inner, unconscious lives, of course, as of their outer awareness). Still, in general life is the making of choices and the living out of the effects of the choices. But this is old ground that you and we have paced out more than once.

Yes, I feel that I do know this, pretty much all the way down, or all the way in, however you would put it. This, plus my progressive realization at deeper levels that there is no victimization, only the unveiling of opportunities to react to things indicative of our inner condition, I could wish to have known at this level much longer ago. I could have saved myself and my associates of lot of aggravation.

And “could have” is worth –?

Oh, I know. But maybe there’s a value in being aware of the road you wish you had been able to travel.

There is that, true. It is a form of summing-up, provided you don’t let it become a sort of routinized regret, a script that lets you remain unconscious while thinking yourself aware.

Interesting way to put it. I can see the distinction. Nancy and I were talking about scripts yesterday, and I could see that it can be difficult to bring people to see that the objectionable part of people using scripts isn’t in whatever the script happens to say, but in the fact that the existence of a script allows them to react unconsciously, thinking they are conscious.

Not everybody will want to remain conscious continuously. Not everybody will be able to. And therefore it follows that wouldn’t necessarily be good for one and all to do so or even perhaps to try to do so.

I have been sort of assuming that greater consciousness is always better.

One size fits all? Some situations do not support greater consciousness and would not necessarily be an improvement if they did. Some things are possible chiefly in the absence of consciousness, or in its diminishment. Lindbergh flew the Atlantic largely on autopilot — that is, in a state of drastically lowered awareness. This was so that he could conserve psychic energy over a period of sleeplessness that otherwise would have required full sleep at some point. Nor does someone undergoing chronic pain necessarily want greater consciousness of that condition. Sometimes relative lack of consciousness is all that makes a situation bearable. And, finally (at least, finally for the moment) a relative lack of conscious awareness of us shifting scenery may aid rather than impede the processes behind life. It’s all an interplay between the individual and the individual’s circumstances.

I’m sort of hearing you saying, “that’s enough for now,” [meaning, it would be okay to quit for the day] and I’m half tempted to go along and half tempted to say, “but that’s a long way from our usual 10 pages!”

The pain in the ankle you injured yesterday; the stray thoughts of further reorganization of your living space; the sheer disuse of your accustomed habits, all militate against your continued focus here. So — decide. Either way is fine with us. Enough for the moment? Or more?

Well, now that I’m started again, I sort of hate to stop. (Using “sort of” a lot, I see. No doubt that means something, but I’ll worry about that some other time.) Papa, using this cane yesterday and this morning, I was thinking about you. It was romantic, that limping around — but it wasn’t only romantic.

No, it wasn’t only romantic. It was a damn nuisance, as well. And it was a loss that was bearable because it had meaning as an honorable war wound. Only with the coming of time did I start to feel it as an industrial accident, and then saw the other woundeds as equally the result of industrial accidents, regardless of their valor — an important point people often miss. And from there it became possible to see the entire war not as a crusade of right versus wrong — which is how it had been sold to us, how we had sold it to ourselves — but as one colossal industrial accident that had maimed us for no particular reason.

If you understand how I came to see it that way, you’ll understand better my attitude toward the second world war. I went into that one without illusions. The men at war were a fascinating phenomenon, and the war had to be won, but as evil as the Nazis were, they were only evil in a different way from the people running England and France, not to mention Russia and the little dictatorships all over Europe. The little countries weren’t so much to blame, but their sufferings were as much the result of geography and history as of anybody’s evil intent. You might say that the invasion of Belgium both times, and Holland and Denmark and all the second time, were another form of industrial accident.

That’s a lot of insight to get from your wounding.

From my wounding, but also from some reporting for the [Toronto] Star after my wounding. The Turkish war showed me World War I in miniature and in retrospect. It is all there in Farewell To Arms and The Sun Also Rises, but you have to be able to see that my perceptions were neither simple-minded nor trendy nor the party line. And God knows, I wasn’t advocating that anybody live like Brett or Mike or even Jake. I was just describing the aftermath — the emotional aftermath — of one giant industrial accident. With time it became clear that this accident was still in progress. As you’ve seen and see and are going to continue to see. It’s hard to get too excited about Progress and the Rights Of Man and the Victory of this or that principle, when you see that it is mostly illusion on some people’s part and deception on other people’s part and what you would call general unconsciousness on everybody’s part living through it. It’s just that I was wounded so quickly that I had just what I had wanted when I shipped out! I was a hero, or as much of a hero as you can be when you are wounded out of the blue — or out of the black, to be more accurate — with no combat involved. And isn’t that how nearly all the boys and men were injured and killed, after all? If you are torn apart — a little bit or extensively or entirely — by high explosive thrown at you from a distance, by somebody you never saw, who knew or cared nothing about you except maybe as an abstract representation of “the enemy” — the valor involved is entirely different from a cavalry charge, say, or a sword fight or even a duel of rifles at point-blank range. They saw it — the soldiers saw it, whether the officers did or not — in the Civil War, 50 years earlier. Getting blown to bits by artillery fire while you hide from it in trenches was exactly what was happening in France and Italy in 1918. It was a world of difference from warfare as it existed in 1861, let alone in the Napoleonic era, say.

And when you were wounded you were a little embarrassed that you hadn’t been doing anything heroic.

Exactly. The experience didn’t match what we had been fed about it — mostly lies, of course, as usual in war — so at first I assumed there was something wrong with me. So, I dressed up the story to make it bearable, so I wouldn’t feel like a pretender.

You had to pretend to avoid feeling like a pretender.

Yeah, crazy, isn’t it? But I didn’t see it that clearly then, and maybe you weren’t so clear yourself when you were 19.

You don’t have to tell me! But, continue.

The real soldiers, the ones who had gotten wounded after long service, saw through me at once when I paraded through all decorated. They knew, you see. I was still seeing through civilian eyes, and the eyes of a kid who had just arrived, like a new recruit in 1864 would have been among men who had been wounded at Gettysburg and were still recuperating, or who had just been wounded at Forts Hell And Damnation. They knew, and I didn’t, even though my industrial accident had given me a spurious membership in the club. It was okay for me to use the clubs facilities, but I was an honorary member, and they knew it and made it plain.

Now, it’s funny how life works. I was an innocent, though I didn’t quite realize it because I was such a fast learner. My few months as a reporter in Kansas City had given me enough of a peek into the lives of the men who kept things going, like police and firemen, and the lives of people who had had their own industrial accidents (though I didn’t think of them that way yet) that I thought I had become hard-boiled. I felt toughened and knowledgeable. And of course I was so green, so much living in image and illusion, and everyone around me knew it, but I didn’t know it. So — I pretended my way through a succession of roles, altering the part as I went, learning from observation how the real heroes acted, figuring out how they felt, and mimicking them when safely not in their presence. This whole sequence was invaluable when I came to become a writer, for what is a writer of fiction if not somebody who gets inside somebody else’s skin and describes how the world looks from there?

And the result was that even when I was back home, or in Chicago, and I was still playing the role, I was feeling my way to a reevaluation of what I had expected to feel and what I really had felt; what I thought was the way things are, and what I had really found them to be. I pretended, or posed, maybe we should say, and it gave me cover, and with time I learned what had happened to me, and then I could start to express it.

I get that as others wrote their experiences, you learned from that too.

Well, sure. You think writers can always write and never read? I know you don’t, that was rhetorical. Reading other people’s stuff is a prime window on their world, and some things are going to be obvious, and some you’ll reject and some are going to surprise you and lead you to think about things differently.

It’s only been an hour, Papa, but I’m pretty tired. More another time, I hope.

It’s up to you as always — we aren’t going anywhere!

Enjoy your fishing.

You enjoy yours, too.

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