Hemingway — understanding the shock of Spain

Friday, October 16, 2015
F: 2:55 a.m. So, Papa, you said start with the image of you at San Fermin.
Not so much that image as, me – being what I thought I was – suddenly encountering another world and realizing that I belonged whole-heartedly to it, as well. Not that I had “gone native,” so to speak, but that I had
F: Interesting. I didn’t drift, but it is as if we both came to a halt, not knowing how to phrase the idea. I do know what you mean, but we’re going to have to go slowly if we are to express it.
EH: I was the product of Oak Park and daydreams of Teddy Roosevelt and camping trips with my father and the war and opera and literature and a fast introduction to the very different America I learned from the Kansas City Star [experience] in a few months in 1917. I was those things and I never ceased to be those things. The shock was to find that I was also other things, traits and values and ways of seeing the world that I first experienced in Spain all at once in a few days.

Hold an image of me in your mind – a very young American expatriate with the ideals and ambitions of a very young American expatriate. Add to that image another, not contradicting the reality but adding to it, making it very different – the extremely open experiencer of life at all levels, highest to lowest, most refined to crudest, most intuitive to most sensory.
F: Emerson’s “transparent eyeball.”
EH: You could put it that way – only, much more active, more physical, more energetic, than those somewhat thin-blooded New England idealists. But yes, Emerson’s observer of everything.
Add the entirely unassimilated experience of the war, which for me was a couple of weeks preceded and followed by setting.
F: I know what you mean, but – let’s say, maybe, that your intense experience of the trenches and the immediate aftermath of your wound, only a couple of weeks in duration, were preceded by a gradual increase of tension from April until July 8, and a gradual decrease from the time of your arrival at the American hospital a few days later to the end of your convalescence or your return from Europe, or whatever stopping-place you care to choose.
EH: That’s right. The American boy comes into contact with a different reality and begins to be changed by it, but the change takes place at two uncoordinated levels.
The change is quick; realization of the change is slow. Living out the consequences takes a lot longer than experiencing them.
F: I think you mean, bringing them to consciousness takes longer.
EH: Yes. That’s the same thing. Well – come to think of it, it isn’t, quite, is it? You live it out unconsciously and you get PTSD. I mean, it is the PTSD that is the unconscious living-out of it. Or you live it out consciously and to that extent it deepens you rather than maiming you. Nobody does all one thing and none of the other, maybe. You come out of a war maybe relatively sane, relatively whole, depending on what you experienced and how much you dealt with it.
But I don’t want to underplay or overplay this. It was the first step in separating me from what I was a few months before, but only that. If I had not died and come back – and remembered it, because not everybody did – I would have been much less affected, because the wounding and recovery really would have been nothing much more than “an industrial accident” with slightly comical aspects in that I was Red Cross rather than Army, etc.
Next came my romance and disillusionment, my many months back home, lost and seemingly cut off from myself and my imagined future. Again, if I differed from so many thousands of my compatriots it was mainly in my intense openness and my ability to articulate what many felt and experienced at a somewhat dimmer level.
F: I had to use “dimmer” so as not to interrupt the flow, but that isn’t exactly the right word. What is?
EH: Less articulate, less conscious, less raw, perhaps. I had thinner skin, I was about as young as soldiers came, I had already embodied my ability to express in words what I felt and imagined and saw. All these things made me a good reporter, you see. Even without the added dimension I got from realizing that I had a soul, I was better able to express our common experience by extrapolating what I felt and later heard soldiers discussing, and still later, read about and studied in written accounts of our war. The experience of dying and coming back added a secret element that deepened it even more.
F: Secret.
EH: Well, you’ve touched on this with me before, if you remember. The experience of dying and coming back was not a common story – I mean it wasn’t a typical element of war stories men told each other – so I not only was never tempted to glamorize it – I was reluctant to talk about it, the way you might be reluctant to talk about specific sexual urges or fantasies because you didn’t know how unique or typical they might be, and you weren’t quite willing to expose yourself so unguardedly.
And, by the way, you call them near-death experiences, but they were near-death only in that they were something you happened to return from. You could die from the shock of separation and people would assume you had died from the physical effects they could see, not realizing that at a certain level it becomes a choice to go or to return.
But that’s a side-trail. All that we just described – and more – my marriage and early married life, my assimilation into the community of foreign correspondents and the overlapping world of expatriate literature – it all was the background to the terrific shock of Spain. But that shock was not “external” in the way people see it; it was very much internal in that being there liberated and activated parts of me that were very much not the products of the life that had preceded them.
That was what came to San Fermin, and that was what experienced it, fascinated but of course mostly not comprehending and mostly not assimilating, not for a good while. The immediate result of that experience was not manifest for months, even years, just as with the events of July 1918 and after.
F: May I? I think this time you are going too fast.
EH: Quite possible. Go ahead.
F: Not sure how to phrase it, but I was confident that it would be missed if not expressed more carefully. The expatriate boy pretending to be an expatriate married man – in other words, living as, and considering himself to be, a certain image that secretly he was still stretching to live up to, came to San Fermín. The boy who left it was still the same boy he had been, only he was excited by what he had seen, and he knew he wanted more of it, but it had no idea as yet how deeply stirred his mixture had been. He didn’t yet realize what had happened.
EH: That’s right, and of course that’s how it always is. You experience something in an instant and you spend a long time living through the process of it percolating into deeper and deeper layers of yourself – that’s how it seems – or, if you look at the process a little differently, you learn to coexist and rebalance with previously unsuspected infernal strands. You become someone different, in effect. The impetus may be that of a moment. The living-out of the results of that impetus may be a matter of the rest of your life.
And, not only is your hour at an end, but this is a good place to pause. In one sense, we are no farther than when we paused before, but in another sense, we have come that much closer to seeing and understanding the underlying elements.
F: Very well, Papa. I trust that you are enjoying the process as much as we are on this side (or in 3D, or whoever we should put it). See you next time.

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