Hemingway — finding meaning in the 1920s

Tuesday, October 13, 2015
F: 3:50 a.m. All right, Papa, let’s continue.
EH: You need to understand, throughout this process, I am giving you a bird’s-eye view of what happened. Even as much of it as I was aware of, I didn’t necessarily understand. In life we tack our meanings on to things as we go along, and we revise the meanings as we have to, but obviously the only meanings we know are based on our experience to that point, inner and outer.
F: Meaning, I take it, what we have been taught one way or another, and what has happened to us that modified our ideas of what we have been taught.
EH: Yes, but don’t forget, you come into your life with certain strong biases formed by what forces exist within you, and in what proportions.
F: In other words, to some extent we are prepared to see the world in a certain way.

EH: Yes, by what you are – which means, by what is going on along all those strands connecting you to the rest of what is going on in the endless present-time that is reality. As you may imagine, I didn’t have any way to see life in that way, so what I felt, and knew, didn’t match what I had any concepts for. Certainly my father’s strict religion made no provision for our extension into other times (for that’s what it amounts to) and other lives. A concept of strict duty and of a final reckoning left no slack for experimentation and damned little for error. You see? So my first breaks came against dad’s religion (and mother’s proprieties).
F: Common enough among teenagers.
EH: Sure, but I’m tracing my conduct along these invisible inner fault lines. Drinking, cussing, general hell-raising were all reactions. But how far could I go in that direction and still be true to my internal guidance system? The times – I’m talking about the immediate postwar and especially the generation who were young then, in our 20s and 30s mostly – led to a massive repudiation of religion as bunk, and I agreed with that and that was my first course set by the inertia of that first rebellion. But atheism was empty of meaning for me – as it was for you after your rebellion. It may have been the assumed thing among my peers, but it didn’t ring true, somehow, deep within.
F: But neither did Catholicism, at first.
EH: Let’s go a little slowly. Fine distinctions require slow untangling of things. You know that by now.
F: I still have a tendency to assume that things are simpler, more self-evident, than they turn out to be.
EH: That’s why you aren’t a writer in the way you would have liked to have been. You don’t produce a story by lumping things because you are hurrying to get somewhere. It doesn’t matter what effects you are reaching for – you can’t go faster than your own speed of perception and expression if you are going to produce something uniquely you. You never speed when you are on the beam. Instead, time slows down around you.
F: All right, so there was that immediate tendency to see the world atheistically after the war.
EH: Again, you see, the reason to go slowly is to define things as we go along. Otherwise everybody falls off the hay wagon, thinking they understand when what has happened in fact is that certain undefined triggers you used [i.e. trigger-words] have set off automatic mechanisms within themselves. This is going to happen even when you go carefully. You can see what’s going to happen if you just bull your way through, not thinking about the confusion that taken-for-granted words can strew in their wake.
To say “atheism” is to say so many things to so many different kinds of people at vastly different levels of awareness and of historical and psychological knowledge –. You might as well quit, if you leave it at that. Anybody who will be able to follow your thought will be doing so because they are instinctively on the beam, and in that case, what do they need explanations for? And then, others won’t have much of an idea.
F: You are exaggerating for effect, I take it.
EH: Not much. Not much. It’s the difference between a specific number to two decimal places as opposed to a vague generalization.
All right, atheism. What this meant for me in the context of the time and place surrounding me – the early 1920s first in Chicago and then in Europe, mainly Paris – was that the religious ideas we had been raised under were inadequate. It didn’t mean there wasn’t any God necessarily, but it certainly meant that God and the Devil weren’t what we had been taught. Freud and his associates had opened a whole new world to us, and we were absorbing our first impressions of the psychic underworld that had been terra incognita to our parents. It left us with a sense that we knew so much more than they did.
F: But you weren’t a fan of H.L. Mencken, say.
EH: I was a fan of people who were pushing back against the forces of conformity that were always hemming us in, and he was that. But I never thought that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – the very traits that made him somebody else’s enemy were likely enough to make him mine too, it always seemed to me. And that’s usually how it turned out, too. You don’t find affinities in mutual opposition to something, you find them in mutual ways of seeing the world, and that’s not the same thing. In Spain you had 37 different kinds of people who opposed the fascists, and pretty much all they had in common was that they opposed the fascists. Otherwise, what did anarchists and liberals and communists and separatists and so on have in common? Whereas, people with a certain attitude toward life might be found on both sides of any given political or social line you cared to draw. So, in the early ’20s, just because somebody no longer believed in the God of his fathers, that didn’t necessarily mean he and I had anything in common. Didn’t even mean we could necessarily even stand each other, either as individuals or as representatives of another manner of thought.
Hadley and I had been well formed in Protestant respectable middle-class middle America. For our own reasons, we were in the same emotional place of rebellion when we met, and we encouraged each other by our similarity. And of course, as youngsters in love do, we exaggerated our likenesses and didn’t much see our clashing dissimilarities. So, drink and smoke and read forbidden books – or if not exactly forbidden, certainly not quite “nice,” not quite respectable – Havelock Ellis, for instance – and think forbidden thoughts.
Become forbidden kinds of people, in other words, though we couldn’t really. We were as we had been molded to be, and that amounts to saying that the essence we bought into life, combined with the experience we had attracted (and experienced as external to ourselves), were the solid platforms against which we launched ourselves. Naturally this made us still very different from those who came from different internal and external backgrounds, but for a while the differences seemed less important than the sense of shared pioneering.
You might not notice it, but you were being held, tightly or loosely, inside a new orthodoxy. The set you hung around with – be they artists or journalists or businessmen or whores – anybody with a shared set of attitudes had a tendency to tighten up into a kind of orthodoxy over time, and sooner or later you could conform to somebody else’s certainties or remain alone. The latter was the hardest, of course, and was chosen by few. You might say it was never chosen, in fact, but experienced as a consequence of having no other viable option.
F: So when you broke up with Hadley it also broke you away from a tightening set of expectations?
EH: I wouldn’t have put it that way, but that was one effect, and maybe one cause, too. But that isn’t what I had my eyes on. I was thinking about my craft. I was a writer, and real life as people called it was vastly interesting but it also could get in the way of the concentration you needed.
F: Another hour.
EH: But you can see that slower can mean deeper.
F: I can. I feel like I’ve spend my life lumping tings.
EH: Well, maybe for a reason. But if you want to change, the time is always now.
F: Including connections to past versions of me.
EH: No point in learning things and not using them.
F: No. See you next time, then. Thanks as always.

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