Hemingway on government and Harry Morgan and us

I am putting together a book of my conversations with Hemingway, with the intent of showing him from the inside. Regard these as merely imaginary conversations, if it makes you feel more comfortable with them. Whatever the source, the wisdom and the point of view they reveal repeatedly surprises me. As this, from a year ago.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

7:30 AM. I wake up, Papa, thinking about you and the Communists (having still been reading For Whom The Bell Tolls, of course). Is that what you want us to talk about next? If not, where would you like to go?

Do you really want an abstract disquisition about politics and government?

More, I’d like something on you and government.

You know my views. Government is a form of necessary protection racket. They have the ability to make you pay, and make you do things, and they use it as much as they dare. You have to have it, I’m not saying you don’t, because if you don’t have one protection racket, you’re going to have another one — but you don’t have to like it, and you certainly don’t have to see it as anything but what is. I mean, you don’t have to put a lot of hopes on it.

How are you going to win World War II, say, without a government? And not having a government won’t make you any safer — won’t keep you out of war. Just the opposite. You’re in the position of one man alone — with a family or others he needs to protect — surrounded by gangs. You can’t count on it, you can’t trust it, but you have to have it there.

That’s what Harry Morgan learned, part of it.

People don’t get what I was getting at with Harry — not that I did as good a job on it as I should have done, but I got distracted. The point about Harry isn’t that I was trying to jump on the “social relevance” bandwagon and become a New Dealer — or, even less, a revolutionary! The point was, Harry found that things were closing in. At one time he could function alone, in a sort of tribal way, just him and his family and community. They didn’t get anything special from the government and they didn’t owe anything special to the government, and they sure as hell didn’t confuse themselves by thinking the government was anything but an impersonal machine trying to milk them (and everybody else) of anything it could get. They lived their lives without paying much attention to the law one way or another. If some law made smuggling rum financially attractive, they noted the fact and did it if they could and didn’t consider themselves as bad men or as lawbreakers except in a technical sense. They didn’t figure that a thing was right or wrong according to how it was or wasn’t legal. They tried to do what they considered to be right, and fit it in as safely and profitably as they could, depending on conditions.

So, for instance, Harry kills one man in Cuba so he doesn’t have to kill the whole illegal cargo of men, and he figures to kill Eddy even though he likes him, just for his own safety, and he is just as glad when it proves to be unnecessary.

He did what he thought was right and necessary, you see. He didn’t take the law into consideration except as one risk among many.

You’ll notice that Max Perkins liked Harry Morgan “even though he was a bad man — almost because he was a bad man.” I doubt that Max ever thought it through, but that [the reason Perkins liked Morgan] was because Harry wasn’t a bad man, he was a good, responsible, reliable, well-intentioned competent man; it’s just that the times had made his virtues look like vices. If Harry had been a cowboy in the old West, nobody would have thought him a bad man in any respect, and he wouldn’t have been. He would have been a self-sufficient man raising his family, providing for them, reliable to do anything his community legitimately asked of him. And there wouldn’t have been government enough to molest him. Not like the 30s — let alone your times!

Harry had his rough side, sure. He was hard as a board and blunt as the side of a hammerhead. But that doesn’t have anything to do with right and wrong, or good and bad. That’s just the temperament he was born with. Fishermen in the Gulf couldn’t be soft, and Harry didn’t have any mannerisms to soften what he was, clean through.

Part nature myth! That’s how much people understood about what I was doing. Sitting there in New York or in some college town, they thought Harry Morgan was an impossible romantic abstraction. I knew a dozen of him. More.

So — to get back to the point I started — government is a necessary protection racket, and the closer the world gets tied together by technology, the more necessary and the more intrusive government gets. It doesn’t have anything to do with intentions, and not much to do with ideology. It’s a matter of technical necessity, you might call it.

If you have sailing ships, they go where they want and they can take their chances. But if you have coal-fired ships, now they have to have coaling stations. And if you go to motor ships, now they have to have access to refueling docs. You see? More complex things require a more complex network of support.

And then when radio comes, you can do more to help, so you set up stations to help seamen know where they are by triangulating, and to let them have somebody to broadcast to if they are in trouble. But if you have radio, you have to have some sort of regulation of radio, or it becomes chaotic.

And so one thing keeps leading to another, and regulation keeps getting piled onto regulation, and it’s always in response to somebody seeing a new need, whether the need is real or not. The thing that is moving it is technical elaboration — or what people call progress. Well, progress always leads toward something, but it also leads away from something, at the same time, and what it’s leading away from had its value; maybe more than what you’re moving toward. No matter what, you can count on the fact that to some people, what you’re calling progress is progress in the wrong direction.

By the way, this is why so many people in your time see conspiracy everywhere. They can feel that current, always pushing toward one goal of more complexity, more regulation, more regimentation. They think it’s designed, when it is really gravity, with some people taking advantage of the downhill slope for purposes of their own.

Do you think we are pretty much doomed to a more complex life, then?

Didn’t Joseph [Smallwood] tell you your life seemed like living inside a machine, to him? And it gets more so every day, you can’t help it. If the stream is carrying you in a certain direction, you can fight it, but that’s still the direction you’re going every minute that you don’t fight it. At some point you realize, this is the trip I’ve signed up for. I can fight it, I can make it compromise with me, I can compensate for it, I can live around it, but that’s the current.

How many times did I have my characters say, in effect, what you draw is what you get? That’s how it is and that’s always how it is. How you play the cards is up to you, but the cards get dealt by somebody else.

So what do we do, to play our cards as well as we can?

Well, that’s the point, you see. You have to have a solid place to plant your feet, and to me, that place is in the values you choose for yourself, and then try to live up to. If you don’t choose your own values, you live by somebody else’s. Now, maybe they fit you well enough and maybe they don’t, but you’re fitting yourself into somebody else’s shoes. And even there, you’re going to have to live up to those values or not.

Now you might say, the only values you can live by are the ones you already have, but let’s look at that. Yes, your traits are those you are born with. But you have enough choice that you can turn around, after all. If you’re naturally timid you can choose to be bold. If you’re naturally inhibited, you can become extroverted. If you’re naturally irresponsible you can train yourself to do your duty. So it isn’t like it’s fated, entirely. What is fated is what you start with, what you are most comfortable being or remaining. But you can make yourself into something else (if that possibility of choosing is in you).

When you choose a set of values, or when you take seriously whatever set of values you are born with, or pick up unconsciously from others, you confine yourself — or you accept confinement, let’s say — to the rules that follow from those values. If you value honesty, then whatever honesty means to you, you have to do, or know that you are breaking your own rules, going against your own values.

Well, who doesn’t? But it doesn’t come free, that’s the point. To have a firm place to stand is the thing. It lets you stand instead of drift. It lets you hit back.

Harry Morgan had a place to stand. Now maybe you look at that and you say, he wasn’t broad enough, or wise enough, or flexible enough or even smart enough — and that all misses the point. He was somebody in particular. He was a man planted on the earth. It didn’t have a thing to do with him being a tough guy, though he was tough, or with being a cruel hard man, though he could be that, or with being any given characteristic. The point was, he was a definite person — a crystallized being, to use your jargon from a while ago — and so he was not just drifting with the tide.

Sometimes governments realize that they need guys like him — when they have wars to fight, say, or natural disasters to deal with — but often enough they’ve driven them away, or sent them underground, or turned them into the enemy, and when they need help they’ve got jellyfish. Too bad.

And so?

And so you are in your own peculiar fix, in your times, just as we always are. That fix wasn’t an accident and it wasn’t a plot and it isn’t even, exactly, what you could rightly call a predicament. It’s a fix in the sense of a mariner getting a fix on his position. It’s where you are. Live it.

Wonderful thoughts, Papa. The more I study you, the more amazed I get at how little even the scholars understand you.

That’s because you’re seeing me from the inside more than from the outside. Don’t forget that. Anybody looks different from his own view of himself.

Well, you look pretty good to me. Thanks.

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