Saturday, October 24, 2015
F: 3 a.m. So, Papa, to resume. We may have gotten a little off-point in our discussion of your experience of Catholic versus Protestant countries.
EH: Not off-point, but it has to be considered with other things. I wasn’t living in the 1600s, when people were killing each other over Catholic versus Protestant. In my day it was one distinction but hardly the only one, and not the most basic one, but it needed to be set out so people could understand it. Because it wasn’t the cause of wars that it used to be, it can be easy to overlook that it is still a factor.
Another division is between Christian and – well, I’m tempted to say heathen, but that calls up images of Western versus the third world, and isn’t what I mean.
EH: Closer, but not it. Nor atheistic either, because that may be mostly a matter of somebody’s opinion about the structure of the world, and not have anything to do with how they experience it.
F: Materialistic? Deterministic?
EH: You see how difficult it can be to put your finger on the distinction?
F: I do.
EH: We’re both pretty good with words, and in our own way we each can explain things – but some things are so hard to grasp.
F: I’d put it another way. I’d say some things are easy to grasp once they’ve been clearly stated but damned hard to state clearly beforehand.
EH: Of course. It’s a matter of creating a channel for people’s thought. That’s how words get created [i.e., coined], it’s how –
All right, look at it this way. That’s the function of literature, to take complex combinations of ideas and experiences and examples and thoughts and feelings, and bundle them together in a set of associations so they are more easily grasped as one inter-related, complicated, reality. You are re-reading A Farewell to Arms. That book, or All Quiet on the Western Front, or The Great Gatsby, say, all present a view of reality that can then be more manageable for people. Is that said clearly enough that people will get the idea?
F: I don’t know, but it clarified something for me, anyway. It reminds me of Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game [also called Magister Ludi], where complex intellectual factors could be played with because they were made into symbols that could be manipulated.
EH: In a sense, that’s literature, right there. You get a good sense of something and you miniaturize it so people can hold it. Who knows anything, in your time, about the Italian front in World War I or what it would have been like to be a young American volunteer in the Italian army and live among them? I didn’t do it; I imagined it out of what I had seen and heard and read about later. It wasn’t necessary for me to do it, any more than it was for Scott [Fitzgerald] to be a social-climbing bootlegger to write Gatsby – but if it wasn’t necessary for us to live those lives, neither would it have been sufficient to have lived them. Plenty of people live lives in a pattern, but only when some artist records the pattern does it enter the human mind, the human library, at a different and more profound and influential level. So, [John Millington] Synge and the Aran islanders, say. After he recorded it, there it was, not before and not without him even if that way of life had continued for centuries more. Or [James] Joyce and the inner lives of Dubliners, or Dos [John Dos Passos] on America as it moved into the 20th century, or Tolstoi’s recreating the Russian world of the time of Napoleon.
F: And that’s the difference between literature and hackwork, isn’t it?
EH: Literature changes you, enriches your life, gives you more to work with or chew on or even just hold on to. Hackwork diverts you and fills in the time. But it isn’t quite that simple, because oddly enough, what is literature to one may be hackwork to someone else, and vice versa. It isn’t a subject-object relationship, where the literature is an unmoving unchanging thing. Literature as an experience is always a relationship, and if people don’t bring that understanding to their literary criticism, they can go pretty far off the rails.
EH: Well, take [C.S. Forester’s] Hornblower. They were wonderfully evocative re-creations of an English Naval officer’s world during the Napoleonic wars. Skillfully done, in every respect. I loved them. But were they literature?
F: Yes but no?
EH: More like yes-or-no-depending. Who came to the books determined what they found in them.
F: My sister once told me she’d read a Hornblower and I asked what she thought of a battle or something, and she said she had “skipped all the navigational parts.”
EH: Sure, and nothing wrong with it, because that isn’t what she was getting out of it. But what you are only now realizing is, to a large degree, so did you, in that you had no experience to make what you read real. You could learn it abstractly but that isn’t sailing, any more than reading The Red Badge of Courage is experiencing a war.
Now, some hackwork is just that, not even sincere – the Horatio Alger books, say, [or] the Hardy Boys – and yet they can have their effect on the right person. Some books that are acknowledged literature may be too arcane, too far away in time, or require too much knowledge of their background to influence a given person. Don Quixote, say, or Moby-Dick. The quality is there, it can’t be disputed, but like everything else in life, it must meet a receptor in the person or the spark is not transmitted.
So to return to the point, there was a division in my world more fundamental than that between Catholic and Protestant, though that one had left deep results, in effect setting up whole countries as social laboratories in which humans could see the differences such different beliefs made in the societies they shaped. But that deeper division has been described in different ways, each of which is somewhat misleading because they each establish a framework that is necessarily arbitrary and therefore necessarily uncomplete. It is this division – that we have not yet quite found a way to frame – that made me who I am, by my ability to straddle it.
F: You say “made me who I am” and I guess you mean, “shaped the mind I continue to be”?
EH: It did do that, but for the moment I meant, shaped the force in culture called Ernest Hemingway.
F: Yes, I got that. Well, maybe the division was between sensory and intellectual?
EH: You could draw a thousand distinctions and many of them would be valid, and many would illustrate the situation. That would be one.
F: Then are we chasing something that can’t be caught?
EH: That’s practically a definition of life, as you often say. But the effort is worthwhile. Okay, let’s make one more effort. Resisting generalities, we still have to begin with them. If we don’t get beyond them, though, we won’t have gotten anywhere.
There is a direct experience of the world without intermediation of thought or concept or – opinion, call it. Poorer people, simple people, are more likely to live this way than those with more resources, physical or mental, because of course the more resources, the more things to tempt you off-balance, to distract you.
F: That’s what Thoreau was all about.
EH: It was, and he and I share a good deal, only in very different packages. Thoreau, and Emerson and old man Alcott, and some others you’d know but we don’t need to name, were sort of bloodless abstractions next to the Hemingway I was and the Hemingway I created. They and I felt the same thing, but we lived it out so differently, it can be hard to see what we saw together.
F: Can you say it now, with us keeping the Transcendentalists in mind?
EH: Maybe. Your own experiences at the Monroe [Institute] is another aspect of it. It is seeing the world as, in itself, without romanticism, without metaphor, spiritual which is to say magical. It is to live the difference between experiencing the world directly and experiencing it only through a veil of thought and script and memories and abstractions.
Every individual and cultural difference that exists can be seen as based on the primary difference between those who see the world directly and those who don’t. It is only one way to draw the line, but it is one way.
F: And you as writer could do both, because you could alternate between the two, or superimpose them somehow.
EH: I was reporting on the world. I was getting first-hand experience and then trying to recapture it, which of course transfigures it in the process.
F: I think we got somewhere today.
EH: I’d say so, and there’s your ten pages and your hour.
F: A great enjoyment, Papa. I look forward as always to next time.
5:50 a.m. And, typing this into the computer, I realize, of course that’s what The Old Man and the Sea was about, that direct perception of the world.
EH: Even in the old man, memories and other things were mingled, as when he wondered what Joe DiMaggio’s bone spur was. But yes.
Saturday, October 24, 2015