Monday, October 12, 2015
F: 3:30 am. As I sat down with my coffee and added the date to the journal, I heard, “bullfighting.”
EH: That’s right. And now perhaps you can see where it fits in.
F: Well, tell me.
EH: Gertrude Stein steered me to Pamplona and the festival of San Fermin, and it was a tremendous opening-up for me. You saw it in The Sun Also Rises.
F: I did. Many do not, though.
EH: I’m going to try to make it clearer. You and I have been down this road before, but every new look at a thing makes it clearer, because each time it is a little more familiar going into it, so more detail and nuance can be discerned.
F: The Sun Also Rises contrasts the rotted-out, shell-shocked state of “modern” Europe with the old, enduring medieval, and older than medieval, mind-set of peasants and “primitive” people that coexisted with, and endured, the modern veneer that dominated it.
EH: Yes, there is the description of Americans vis a vis Europeans, but you will notice, the Americans don’t come off any better than the Europeans. Whether rich and bored or in some way maimed by their experience of the war, they are not sound in the way the peasants are, although they may be sounder than the Europeans.
This is not literary criticism, and I am not out to defend my work from various misunderstandings, but I bring up The Sun because reading it can help people to understand the point I am about to make. There is nothing so pointed as concrete example.
Spain came as a terrific shock to me, entirely unexpected, and entirely salutary. Something deep within me first saw itself mirrored, and rose closer to the surface. And although it is simple enough to convey essence to essence, as has happened between us in this manner, it is not so easy to convey by means of words or even stories. But the shock of seeing corridas may serve as example.
Bulls weigh 1000 pounds, they are as quick and agile as cats, as smart, and they are born to fight. They have needle-sharp horns that they use the way a boxer uses his fists, right-left-right. They are tremendously arrogant, and concede nothing to anybody.
Against this, the bullfighter, on foot, armed only with a sword and a cape, aided only by the tactics of the picadors to bring the bull’s head within range and by the established routine that prevents the bull from learning the tricks of the cape.
A man on foot facing a thousand-pound animal bred for ferocity, maddened by confinement, and deliberately incited to attack. And the bullfighter on his best day, in his best moment, shaves his margin of safety until the spectator cannot bear it. (Or, he fakes doing it by the acquired tricks of hundreds of years, and preserves his own skin but cheats the spectators of their moment – and don’t think the spectators don’t know it, and don’t make their anger clear.)
This is not about bullfighting any more than it is about literature. It is about emotion, and purity of perception.
F: I know, Papa, but I have a dismal knowledge that half our readers have stopped listening to you by now, enmeshed in their own political opinions about bullfighting and killing and animal rights and all.
EH: But if we don’t bring it to consciousness, how can they deal with it?
F: They can’t. All right, proceed.
EH: At some point we will have to deal with the changes in perception of the minds and souls of animals in the century that has elapsed since I went to Spain right after the war. That will deal with the larger questions about hunting and fishing that I know you have had, as well. But for now, let’s keep our eyes focused on one thing – not the pros and cons of bullfighting in 1923, any more than the politics of France or the U.S. or the emptiness of lives centered on boredom and idleness. My focus here is on the different world the Spaniards lived in, as contrasted with Oak Park in one way, or Paris in another. This is entirely about how they experienced and participated in the world, and has nothing to do with politics or economics or religion or sport or commerce except as such things manifested the difference.
Southern Europe lived in a different world. The individual person, day by day, generation by generation, lived in a different world. I don’t know, you try it.
F: I haven’t had much luck in trying to say it. The words mean one thing to us, and maybe another thing to those hearing them, because they think they already know what we’re saying, and that doesn’t leave them any room to hear it anew.
EH: That’s why you write stories that show it, and hope for the best.
F: Why you did, anyway. The best I have done to try to clear people’s window of perception is to put it into terms that are pretty abstract, and I’m afraid I lose them there too. But it’s worth another try. My camera experience may help, come to think of it.
EH: You see? Specifics, not generalizations, and then you hope they can connect the dots.
F: That’s how I had to learn to read Thoreau, come to think of it – he would have two sentences that didn’t seem to belong together, and my working out the connection is how I got inside his thoughts.
Anyway, about ten years ago I bought my first digital camera, and one morning I took a walk to see if there was anything to see. That is, I was walking along a dirt road on a sunny morning, camera in hand, looking around at the world, and I was puzzled to recognize in me a state of being that brought me back to when I was a boy. I realized, it was a state of generalized openness and expectation, unclouded or I should say unfiltered by the screen of thoughts, associations, scripts, memories, scenarios, etc. that typically kept me at one remove from the physical world. I recaptured the feeling I had had as a boy, that anything could happen, that I was right there.
EH: That’s it. And something similar happened to me when I experienced these people living right there as opposed to the life I saw even among the artists of Paris, let alone the wastrels.
That living on the very point of the moment is the attraction of bullfighting to the torero, or of war to the soldier, or of anything that brings you to the edge, as opposed to the dullness that creeps into life too settled.
F: But this still doesn’t get it. Now you’ve triggered automatic reactions about war and guns and machismo.
EH: I know, but can it be confronted by not confronting it? If they won’t set their opinions aside long enough to try to understand me as I understand myself, or as you understand me, even, they can’t get much from this.
Read every word I wrote. You won’t find one word glorifying war, because I didn’t glorify it, and I saw through it, and I hated it. But I saw what could shine through it, which isn’t the same thing.
F: I’ll find your Fukushima thought and I’ll put it in here.
EH: Yes do. You heard that clearly.
F: [On April 14, 2011, while I was engaged in a routine household chore (which occupied my surface mind) I got this from Papa, nearly in direct, specific words rather than my usual knowing-which-translates-into-words. “If you want to understand my attitude toward war, just combine your admiration for the men who are doing their heroic best at Fukushima, and your sympathy and pity for them and their families, with your anger and disgust at the decisions that made this all possible, and the people (and their motives) who made the decisions. Nothing is different.”]
EH: This is not about politics or statecraft or humanitarian concerns, any more than it is about biology or nuclear physics. I am concentrating on one thing, and one thing only, and that is a state of consciousness that determines the world you live in. Spain in 1923 enabled me to see life more from the outside than I had ever been. I had already seen through Oak Park’s values, but Spain showed me a way through the artistic world of Paris, no less. It almost showed me the older civilization – the way of being – that predated the nation-state, that predated Christianity. Everything that we called “modern” and (until the war) had supposed was the pinnacle of social progress – evolution – had been superimposed on this very slowly changing peasant society. They weren’t unaffected, but they weren’t converted into moderns, either. They rode buses and trains, they read newspapers (if they could read at all) and they believed in the things of the church, however loosely. But at their core they were closer to the real world than the Northerners were, or than their own ricos were. (Except, that division is too simple, too. A rich Spaniard could be as well-rooted as a poor one. And there was the middle-class too. Let’s forget economics here.)
It wasn’t an intellectual understanding. Nor did I understand it very well, for many years, for it had to work its way through many filters. It was a visceral response to a sudden glimpse of a more authentic, less buffered, way to experience the world, more like my camping trips of my boyhood than anything else I could compare it to.
F: Our hour is up, but like Lincoln I am loath to close. But I don’t know if we could get any closer to it even if we kept going.
EH: That isn’t really up to us. We have put it out there, and those who have the receptors can grasp it if they will make the effort. If they won’t, they will merely stuff the thought into some comfortable pigeonhole. And of course if they don’t have the receptors, there isn’t anything they can do.
F: It continues to surprise me – I suppose you’re getting tired of hearing it – to sit down having no idea where we will go, and emerge an hour later with a continuation of an argument or exposition that is still only shadowy to me. Thanks as always for making the effort to communicate, Papa, and we’ll hope that people listen. Till next time, then.
Monday, October 12, 2015