Friday, October 2, 2015
F: 3:45 a.m. Papa, I know that you were al fondo a very religious man, and I know that to many, it didn’t look that way. We’ve touched on this subject before, so I don’t know what we’re after that we haven’t explored already. But I can feel that it is critically important to understanding – what we started out looking at – what happened to you around To Have and Have Not.
EH: You remember that we drew a connection between my own religion, my superstitions, my intuition, my psychic flashes.
F: I do.
EH: If you look at them as different signposts pointing to the same inner reality, they make sense and they give you something you didn’t have otherwise. But if you look at each of them separately, they don’t seem to fit together – they seem to contradict each other, and they each seem to contradict much of the rest of my life.
F: The key is your connection to the non-physical, I would say.
EH: Yes, but a key held unconsciously. I myself couldn’t have told you how they all fit together, because I didn’t live them all at any one moment. Different parts of me were on deck for each of them.
I was aware of being superstitious. I was even proud of it, actually, though I wouldn’t have put it that way. You know I made no secret of it.
F: Not to Perkins, certainly.
EH: Not to anybody. I took it as an important part of me and I relied on it. When I couldn’t rely on it, or didn’t want to, it shook me.
F: “Hemingway’s Death.”
EH: That’s a good example. Jesus Christ, page after page of proofs of Death in the Afternoon, headed by “Hemingway’s Death.” It was like an omen, and I didn’t want to die, and it felt like I was being pushed off. I knew it was just Scribner’s style of slugging proofs – but at the same time, it felt like somebody was trying to throw me off-stride, and I complained to Max about it.
F: Not expecting him to do anything about it, after the fact.
EH: No, of course not. What’s done is done. But I damn well wanted to complain about it. And maybe a part of me felt like somebody should have done something to avoid it. Anyway, I was superstitious and I made no bones about it, because, as you say, it all connected. I didn’t know it intellectually, but I felt it, and that is even stronger and less under our control.
It was the same way with my religious feelings. Now, I’m not going to get into reincarnation and strands and all that, because that’s all theory and it could make a good argument one way or another, but it wouldn’t aid anybody to understand anything. However I got to be the way I was, the fact remains, that’s what I had to work with. I was born into an American Protestant solidly middle-class family, and I was all of these things. But beneath the part of me conditioned by my environment and physical heredity was another person entirely, with different core values and needs. And it is this person that was liberated as soon as I got to France in 1918. Or, if not France, Italy, but really it started damn near as soon as I got off the boat.
You understand, I’m telling you what was happening beneath the surface. All I knew at the time was, I was a kid among kids, but also a man among men, off on a great adventure. A year out of high school, a couple of months out of running around as a kid reporter for the Star, on my own to raise hell and live life without all those restraints of respectability that had hedged my life until then. And remember, at age 18 you don’t think you don’t yet know anything; all you know is that you are at the tail end of what seems like a long time growing up and being under someone’s authority. The Red Cross, and overseas, and responsible duty, and friends I made, changed all that, and fast. But none of that had anything to do with my religious feelings or anything out of the normal, until Italy.
F: When you got blown up, or when you first saw death in large numbers, at that factory explosion?
EH: The carnage [in the aftermath of the factory explosion] was gruesome, and strong stuff for a kid, but remember, I had been on the police and fire beat at the Star. I had seen stuff and mostly heard about stuff that was already a world away from Oak Park. So that didn’t affect me as much as it might have – collecting all those body parts of the women workers strewn around. I don’t mean to say I had done anything like that before, of course, but working for the paper had already toughened me up, in a way, to the world.
EH: Well, sure, but I didn’t quite know that. At 18 you’re not quite as self-aware as you are after you’ve found your footing in life. At least, I wasn’t. Sure, internally I was still chock-full of illusions. I mean, we were all over there as volunteers. None of the ambulance drivers were there to avoid the draft – we were there for a mixture of reasons, but a naïve idealism was right there on the list.
F: You had grown up following Teddy Roosevelt.
EH: Well, we had. He preached the strenuous life, and manly ideals, and he lived them and we admired him. It wasn’t his fault that warfare had changed.
F: Injury or death in war was never an “industrial accident” to him.
EH: No, and it wasn’t to me, either – until I experienced the reality!
F: But to return to the main thread here –
EH: You know what happened externally. I volunteered to be up with the Italian troops instead of remaining in an inactive sector, and I got blown up by a shell out of nowhere, pretty much right away. I had what you would call a near-death experience, or at least an out-of-body experience, and I came back to months of pain and operations and a permanently damaged knee and the end to the kind of mobility I had always taken for granted. Also I fell in love and got jilted and I wound up back home, eking out my insurance payments, fighting not to fall back into the dependent position I’d escaped from a year and a half earlier, and changed beyond recognition. But that is all external. It’s true enough, but it doesn’t take us where we want to go.
Internally, it went something like this. I was one of the boys among the Red Cross drivers, and that was fun but left me restless. When I went among the Italians, they adopted me as a mascot, this big smiling American boy who was there because he wanted to be there, when all they wanted was to be away and home safely. I wanted to learn Italian and they wanted to teach me, so we got along great. But more than that, there was something about them that drew me, something different from Oak Park and I don’t just mean manner or class or language. They were a different kind of people than I had been among, and I liked it.
In Kansas City, I had been among different classes, so it wasn’t just that these were poor people, and besides, they weren’t all poor. There was something at the core of their lives that was different, and if I didn’t think about it, still I was absorbing it, drawing it in like a sponge, not knowing why and not even quite noticing.
And then I was blown up, and I had a lot of experiences in a hurry, much faster than I could absorb them. Finding out that I had a soul by experiencing it leaving my body and then coming back. Excruciating pain that never let go. Finding my limits and exceeding them, just like other woundeds. Terror that they were going to take my leg off. Days of anxiety over that, because it wasn’t till after the second operation, at the hospital, that it seemed pretty sure they wouldn’t have to. Embarrassment and delight at being handled and bathed and all by the nurses. And then the beginnings of figuring out what I had really felt as opposed to the lying stories about war I had read and heard. And still this doesn’t get us there.
F: No. An hour gone and we haven’t really gotten to your religious feelings.
EH: But we haven’t been wasting time, either, or going off on side-issues. It’s all relevant. We’re trying to tell a story nobody else can tell, except maybe as fiction, because even I didn’t know it. Don’t give up.
F: No, no thought of that. It always takes so much longer than I think it will.
EH: That’s because you have always gone too fast. Slow down, it’s good for your writing, and that’s all you care about, isn’t it?
F: Not like you, but yes.
EH: Slow and steady wins the race.
F: Okay. Till next time, then.
Friday, October 2, 2015