Another little excerpt from my conversations with Hemingway, forthcoming this fall as Hemingway on Hemingway.
[My friend Hank Wesselman sent me an email in response to one of these dialogues, saying that he had been put off by Hemingway’s obsession with boxing “and the fact that he proclaimed that he would rather beat someone up than read a good book.” He suggested I bring it up.]
Friday, July 10, 2009. Papa, you will have read Hank Wesselman’s somewhat pugnacious question to you. At first I wasn’t going to ask it, but then I thought, if it was a sincere question it deserves to be asked, and deserves an answer.
All right. And this answer may illustrate for you one of the problems always attendant on this kind of work. Who are you talking to? In this case I mean, what age Hemingway? The answer you’d get from a 20-year-old isn’t what you’d get 10 years later, or 30, or after-the-fact entirely.
Yes, I do see that. We’re not the same person from year to year.
The whole point of living is not to be the same, year by year, but to change – hopefully for the better, hopefully learning something, but anyway changing with inner and outer experiences. Of course, you gain and you lose as you go along. You outgrow some things and develop new problems, maybe.
Now, one part of this question is easily dealt with. I didn’t prefer beating somebody up to reading a good book. Just count the number of people I beat up, and the number of books I read! And, more to the point, I never said that. I may have said something like it; I may have said I love boxing even better than reading a good book, but that was in a moment of exuberance. Would you want anything you ever said – in whatever passing mood – to be taken to be your philosophical stance?
But if the problem is that I loved boxing, well, there’s no defense possible, and none needed. Tastes differ. If he doesn’t like boxing any more than you do, fine. But just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. I liked my life to have an edge on it, and boxing is a very good edge, pretty harmless except if there’s an accident somehow, and great fun. You tend to think of it as beating people up, but that’s because you’re not considering that you’re as likely to get beat up, unless you’re the kind of guy who only fights patsies. There’s nothing wrong with getting and giving a bloody nose, or bruises, or cuts, or anything, as long as you’re taking the same risk and it’s a fair fight.
It’s like bullfighting. The torero isn’t exactly taking advantage of the bull! If the man had armor plating, or a safe platform, or he went out there with a rifle, it would be one thing. But he goes out there with his skill and his courage and his sword and cape, and he is not as likely to die as the bull is, but it happens; and he’s plenty likely to get wounded. In fact, it’s damn near certain that he will be, sooner or later – and the trick then is to go back into the ring the next time, when his body knows full well what could happen. And that’s the edge, you see. That’s feeling the life within him. That’s living right in that moment. And that’s why some people get addicted to the edge.
Well, you can’t fight bulls every day, and you can’t do it in Paris in the 20s or Key West in the 30s. You can’t risk your life in a war, or on safari, more than a few times at most in a lifetime. And who would want to? That’s the edge of the edge. But boxing, it’s good exercise, it’s a fair fight, it’s not likely to really hurt anybody, not on a friendly-match basis. You’ll notice from Morley Callaghan’s book, he continually gave me bruises and cut my mouth, and I didn’t hold it against him – why should I? – and I kept coming back for more
Betting more money than you can afford to lose, too – that can give you the edge. If you lose, you aren’t going to be killed or wounded, though you might not eat so well for a while, but while they are running you are right there. And then it becomes less about whatever you’re betting on, and more about the bet itself. Winning, or the chance of winning, especially at long odds, and the chance of losing – the good chance of losing – gives you the edge. That’s why betting can become an addiction, and the more a person has, the more he has to bet, so he’s putting down insane amounts on something that can’t be calculated – because it takes that much to give him the edge.
So, that’s me and boxing. And me and hunting and gambling too, for that matter, as a sort of bonus. What people don’t get about me for some reason – and I can’t figure out why – is that I wanted first-hand experience of life. I didn’t just read about it, I wanted to live it. I enjoyed living in a body. But if I [hadn’t needed] to write it, to re-create it, you never would have known I existed. There are plenty of people like me only they don’t write. Gregorio Fuentes, for example. All the men I hung around with who knew how to do things and enjoy them and do them perfectly. You just don’t hear of them unless they happen to be inside your world.