Hemingway in 1918

Sunday, October 4, 2015
F: 5 a.m. Okay, Papa, I don’t know quite what to ask to get us started, but we are still looking at how you discovered parts of yourself you hadn’t experienced, in Italy in 1918.
[A pause]
Not directive enough? Or maybe the coffee hasn’t yet kicked in? Or maybe you need some coffee? 
Or – maybe later?
EH: No, mostly I was waiting for you to collect yourself.
F: True, I am feeling a little scattered, a little bit “in neutral,” shall we say. Better now?
EH: Well, as usual – we’ll see.
F: So can you get to what we’re looking for?
EH: We’ll see about that, too.
When you’ve suddenly lost your sense of invulnerability – the other guy may get killed, but it won’t be you – and at the same time you gain a first-hand sense of having a soul, which implies an afterlife, it changes you. I don’t know how many other guys had the same experiences, because mostly people knew better than to talk about it, but in my case I can see it had a couple effects, and maybe not the ones you – Frank – would expect.
It didn’t make me reassured and trusting. Just the opposite. It taught me in one instant (that kept getting louder as it kept reverberating) just how precious life was, and how easily you could lose it, and that when you lost it, you really lost something. I didn’t know what was coming next – for all I knew it was judgment day – but I could see it was going to be a change, and it meant I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy this life, on this planet, at this time. And I wanted to! I didn’t mind dying, everybody had to die sometime, I knew that, but I didn’t want to die then. Or any time in the foreseeable future, if I could do anything about it.

F: The joke says the churches are filled with people who want to go to heaven but don’t want to die to get there.
EH: Yes, and everybody’s last words are supposed to be “but not yet.” Neither of these things is what I’m saying.
F: No, I get it. You loved life intensely and you didn’t want to lose it.
EH: That is true but it doesn’t quite get the sense of it.
F: Go ahead, then.
EH: I suppose there isn’t any reason for me not to talk about myself in this way. It still feels funny every once in a while.
I was intensely alive! You got the sense of it the day you saw me as an eager kid chasing cops and ambulances and fires when I was in Kansas City. I loved being alive, and there was so much going on all around me! My senses were wide open, my enthusiasm never quit, my confidence was absolute even when I couldn’t see my way ahead. And, of course, I knew I was immortal because I was just a kid and I went off to have my glorious adventure just like Teddy Roosevelt.
Only, it didn’t turn out right. Getting hurt, hurt! Getting killed turned out to be not glorious so much as unfortunate. Getting injured wasn’t glorious either. It was almost embarrassing if it was not because you were doing something heroic but because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Still not quite getting to it. I tried to make my experiences conform to what I thought they should have been, to what I had read about, and the only thing that happened was that the real soldiers saw right through me. So then I listened and absorbed, partly so I could pass as a veteran and of course partly because I was a born reporter, spying on life in all its aspects as it presented itself to me. All that – both those early reactions – were straight out of my background in Oak Park.
Little did I know it, though! Like my grandfather who was wounded in the Civil War “in the presence of the enemy” but somehow not in the line of duty and certainly not self-inflicted, so that he didn’t get court-martialed but didn’t get honored either, my experience didn’t match up with the recognized models, so I began pretending. It wasn’t so much trying to fool others, as trying to make it be what it should have been. And, as I say, that was all coming out of who I was when I got to Europe. Even the heavy drinking, that the nurses disapproved of, was rebellion against Oak Park, of course.
F: Sometime I want to know if you can tell us what happened to your grandfather Hemingway, but not now.
EH: No, not now, because I think I have a handle on this. The changes within me happened more after the fortunate industrial accident than before it. Until then, I was an American boy observing the Italian front and the war and my fellow American boys, and no matter what it was that I thought, the reality was that I was seeing things through the filter of an American boy with all that had shaped me. Roosevelt’s example, hunting and fishing with my father, camping trips, a few months on my own, reporting and beginning to make my way in the world, all that “Christian” example – because that’s all I knew about Christianity in those days – it was all Oak Park or rebellion against Oak Park. And for a while – out of spiritual or intellectual inertia, you might say – I continued that way. A wound and a love affair could be worked into the pattern easily enough.
F: But then –
EH: Then for one thing came that soldier who died of the flu, his guts pouring out of him, is the way it seemed. It terrified me.
F: We went into that once, you and I. It was the difference between disease which you couldn’t do anything about and injury that you could tough your way through.
EH: That’s right. That distinction stayed with me all my life. But I’m making a different point, here. Him dying was pointless. And him killing me, if I somehow got infected and died of it, would be even more pointless. I was determined, I wasn’t going to let that happen if I could help it. I wanted to live. That, I knew.
And it was listening to the soldiers talking among themselves, and absorbing their point of view. Even the English, like Chink [Eric Dorman-Smith], were different. They had had a different war, and a lot of it. It changed my point of view.
And don’t forget, I was recuperating, I wasn’t discharged. It was only a matter of time before I was declared recovered, and then it was back to the front, and I had to wonder how it would be when I went into it knowing how painful or fatal it might be, and having to function anyway.
F: Like the bullfighter after he has been gored the first time.
EH: Exactly like that, and how do you think I knew it intellectually? But just about the time I was well enough to return to duty, all of a sudden the war was over, so then I’d never know. That’s what I thought at the time.
And in those months of being an American among Americans but also being a boy in a foreign country, I was still a sponge soaking up impressions. Opera in Milan was not opera in Chicago. I knew enough to appreciate it, because that is one thing I had learned from my mother, music. But because I knew something about opera, it wasn’t the opera itself that was different, but opera in the society of Italy. And the Italian rigged horse races. And everyday life in the streets of Milan. And learning enough Italian to get along. It all changed me.
F: And does this have something to do with the religious feelings I thought we were chasing down?
EH: If it were all that easy to get at, don’t you think two generations of very competent biographers would have gotten to it? All that, what I’ve been talking about, is context, and it was only the context that led to the unnoticed changes within me. Because, remember, I didn’t come home in 1919 knowing any of what I’m trying to get at. I came home consciously as the boy set on reinventing his history to make it conform to how it should have been. The real changes within me didn’t show at first, or let’s say the symptoms of the change that did show didn’t connect the dots for a long time. I didn’t come home thinking of myself as a Catholic, but my idea of what it was in practice to be a Catholic, or an Italian, or an Englishman or Frenchman, had changed. My sense of the possibilities of life had changed. I didn’t see things the same way. I had thought I had broken free of Oak Park while I was in Kansas City, but of course I hadn’t, that was just a kid reveling in the sense of a new kind of freedom, thinking he was making his own life now, not realizing that making his own life is something that takes time, takes years and experiences, and that it is still going to be built on what he was molded to be, one way or the other.
F: And that’s our hour. Frustrating, in a way, it’s so slow, and yet even as I looked up at the clock I knew that your last paragraph there was a culmination.
EH: The pages add up, the accumulated knowledge adds up, the picture fills in. Don’t worry about it.
F: I’m not worried, I’m impatient, but knowing not to be. What about your grandfather?
EH: He was fooling around somehow, though you wouldn’t have thought of it. He lived a life of conscious rectitude, and he was as straight as an arrow, but long before I came around he had been a kid, after all.
F: I get that you aren’t going to say any more about it. Is that because you don’t know, or you don’t want to say, or I can’t get it – or what?
EH: Your defenses against maybe making it up behind your own back are way too high to bring it in. but maybe some time, you never know.
F: All right. Till next time, then.
EH: Little by little. Don’t get discouraged.
F: Okay. Thanks again.

2 thoughts on “Hemingway in 1918

  1. The impression I’m getting is that this is a life review of sorts for Hemingway, introspection that hasn’t occurred in this way previously, and therapeutic at that. Very interesting process.

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