Hemingway — the shock of 1918

Saturday, October 3, 2015
F: Very well, Papa, it is 3:50 a.m. and my rule of thumb is, if it is 3 or later when I wake up, and I feel alert enough to begin, off we go.
I do want to ask, who are we going to be writing this for, or rather, what form is it? As you know, I’ve begun the process of reorganizing what we got earlier [and published as Afterlife Conversations with Hemingway] and putting it into your chronology rather than how it came to me – maybe should have done that right along – and I guess I’ll weave in this closer look, but what is it going to be?
EH: Perhaps you should remember what you learned from your friend Rita. To understand A, etc. We’re circling in on a better understanding, and maybe the end result will either shape itself or there won’t be an end-result. Does it matter?
F: It doesn’t matter in that this is its own reward, but it matters in that I’d like to have something at the end.
EH: But, you see, that is you forgetting about to understand A in terms of inability to see something new ahead of time.
F: Well, I’ll take your word for it. This much – day by day – I can do. So let’s continue with your religious experience as a 19-year-old on the Italian front in World War I.

EH: Now right there is an example of how the shape of the question can bias the answer. It wasn’t so much a “religious experience” as it was a sudden awakening to what was already there without my knowing it. You have the sense of it, you say it.
F: I get, it was like a sudden rejiggering of the kaleidoscope, or a jolting into place of things that had been free-floating. I don’t have a better way of expressing it.
EH: That gets the sense of it, though. It wasn’t the addition of something new, but the recognition of what had been there all along, but latent rather than obvious. Remember, I was still just a kid, I was too young to have spent any time in that kind of religious self-examination. The kind of thing my father insisted on wasn’t it at all. I wasn’t saying, “dear God, I am such a miserable sinner, I know I didn’t do what you wanted, please don’t hit me although you certainly have every right to, and if you don’t I’ll be good and never do it again, honest.” That kind of thing had already worn off years before.
F: Oh?
EH: It is an interesting process, isn’t it? This time I picked up another view from you. Yes, you’re right, that was always there beneath the surface too, my whole life, only I didn’t realize it because I thought rejecting the idea of it was the same as freeing myself from it.
F: Just the opposite, I’d say – you lost all conscious control of it.
EH: I see it now, or I’m beginning to.
F: Remember, Papa, I haven’t had nearly the range of experience you had, but I am older than you ever got, and the inner world is all I have. It isn’t new territory for me in the way it was for you. I mean, I read more psychology than you, just because it was there to read when I was young as it was not there when you were young. You read Havelock Ellis, but I read Jung. You had a vivid active external life, but I had time, and plenty of it, to go over and over some of the same material, and gradually get the sense of it.
EH: It’s an interesting role-reversal, in a way, but in a way it’s just the same process we’ve been engaged in for several years now, only with a little different emphasis. All right, I concede that I never did overcome my early training, and I lived with it as a sort of unconscious or semi-conscious wellspring of my behavior. I suppose that will color things as we go along. But, 1918.
F: Yes, 1918, the year your universe changed. Can you get at it?
EH: I think, as long as we make it clear that I wasn’t aware of the changes within me—
Or maybe we should say, as long as I wasn’t aware of my suddenly realizing where I fit and where I didn’t fit, because it wasn’t so much that I changed as that I became aware of who I really was beneath all that cultural conditioning.
F: Yes, we keep getting to this hurdle and you keep shying away from jumping it. Let’s just take any one strand that presents itself and see where it leads. I can see that our usual process looks like it has reversed itself, but I think that’s because we’re going after something you never knew in 3D life and so you don’t have pathways for it.
EH: Maybe. All right, doctor, I’ll lie back on the couch and we’ll see.
F: I suppose we could ask Carl Jung to help us here, but something says not. Let’s keep on and if we give up, then we can call for help. I don’t know why, but that’s the sense of it I get.
EH: One strand. Well, take the way the Italian soldiers enjoyed their life as it came along. I don’t mean they enjoyed being soldiers – by 1918 you had to be an American to feel that way, new to the war and still thinking it was a dangerous picnic. No, I certainly don’t mean to imply they liked being in the war. But I could see that they lived their lives differently than we did. With us, you know, it was always with an eye to the future, like we were storekeepers trying to make a profit.
F: That’s going to need some explaining. I got the words but I don’t really have the sense behind them.
EH: That’s because you’re fighting the perception, trying to reconcile it with logic. “How could he know anything about their life but what he saw in the trenches?”
F: You are absolutely right. Okay, I sit corrected, so to speak.
EH: The Italians had a different attitude to life than Oak Park did. They weren’t anxiously examining their conscience to be sure they were thinking and feeling and doing only the right thing all the time, like my father. And they weren’t thinking to set an example to society like my mother. They weren’t consumed by fear of hell and they weren’t consumed by fear of other people’s opinion, put it that way, and maybe you should underline that part.
F: I don’t see how you intuited that –. Oh, of course, I see my error. I was thinking what changed you had to have happened before you got blown up, so it could be there to be changed, but that isn’t quite it,, is it. Getting blown up made it possible for you to experience and change.
EH: Both, not one or the other. But yes, you see. My months from July through December [that is, the time between his wounding and his departure for America] were easily as important as the couple of months I was in Europe before July 8. The mortar shell blew me out of the old life, but the next six months gave me new models and new experiences that I tried to put together to make my new life.
F: And still this only skirts the religious issue.
EH: No it doesn’t, actually. You think that because you’re thinking of it as a separate thing, but of course it wasn’t separate. To look at that in isolation is as distorting as looking at any other piece of life in isolation. You might as well look only at my drinking while I was in the hospital, or my imitating the veterans I saw around me. What we’re looking for here is how I found out who I really was, and it had a lot of strands to it.
F: Can’t we stick as closely as possible to the religious strand first?
EH: That’s what I’m doing. The Italians lived a more human religion than anything I had known. You see? It incorporated all of life, not only some of it. It assumed they weren’t going to be perfect, and it provided for a new start. It had a realism and a tolerance that my father’s religion just didn’t have. And I was in the mood to learn, because I had just learned in the most vivid and striking way possible that in fact I did have a soul, and so it would be stupid and in fact impossible to pretend I hadn’t learned it.
But don’t forget, I was surrounded by Americans and English from the time I got to the American hospital in Milan, so there wasn’t the temptation to go native, so to speak. I didn’t think of myself as being suddenly a Catholic until years later when my external life made it possible and in fact convenient. But the change had happened, and it was just waiting to reveal itself. With Hadley it showed as a freedom from the bonds of childhood, but not yet as the taking on of an external discipline as it did when I married Pauline and became a practicing Catholic. That period lasted only until Spain, really [i.e. the Spanish Civil War], and then I was in a sort of no-man’s-land, or no-God’s-land, because I still believed but felt I hadn’t the right to consider myself part of the church. But we can look at that in its proper place.
F: And there’s our hour. Should we press on?
EH: No, we made some progress today. It’s best to pause when you’re going good, you know that by nw.
F: I do theoretically. Okay, Papa, you can get off the couch and I’ll see you next time. Thanks as ever.

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