Hemingway and Hotchner and “objectivity”

Friday, November 6, 2015
F: 4:30 a.m. So, yesterday my copy of Hemingway in Love, by A.E. Hotchner arrived. Slim book and of course I read it right off.
So, Papa, anything you’d care to say about your old friend’s book? It was curious to be reading it going, “no, that’s not quite right,” and “he’s remembering it wrong, or else he was told it wrong.” I don’t mean interpretation, obviously, but matters of fact.
EH: Old men’s memory, eh?
F: Well, that’s what it felt like – a combination of emotional authenticity and factual inaccuracy. Slippage, let’s say.
EH: But that wasn’t the thing that struck you the most, was it?
F: You mean the casually taken for granted hunting and fishing? I’ve gotten used to it, but I know it is one of those things that will never sit well with me and in fact is becoming less comprehensible as an attitude the longer the years go by.
EH: Like typewriter ribbons to those who have never fought with them.
F: I suppose. But, the book?

EH: People are going to accuse Hotch of making it up out of whole cloth, or of trying to get one more moment in the spotlight, or of trying to make some more money while he still can. But he did a good job for a good reason, and ultimately the inaccuracies won’t matter there any more than here. [Meaning, not 3D as opposed to non-3D but that book as opposed to this series of conversations.]
F: Hadn’t thought of it like that.
EH: He reconstructed a past that lived within him all those years, for the sake of giving those memories and emotions longer life. Why would I care if he got the ZIP codes and telephone numbers wrong, or if he mixed his own interpretation with mine more often than he realizes? What you and everybody else are going to carry away is precisely the emotional story. Nobody will go to it to look up the dates we crossed the Atlantic by steamer, or the number of drinks we had at which bar.
F: Different evidence serves different purposes, you’re saying.
EH: Different memories are reliable evidence for different purposes. A scholar’s careful reconstruction may establish that I was in one place doing one thing when my memory and my testimony was that I was somewhere else doing something else, and the scholar’s work is valuable within its competence. It is fact-checking, and provides a sounder basis from which to establish what was or wasn’t possible. But it can’t establish emotional facts except indirectly, and for that a book like Hotch’s, or Morley Callaghan’s so long ago [That Summer in Paris], are better suited. Everything within its range of competence. Hotch did a good job of portraying his own reaction to seeing me at the end of my days, and –
Let’s put it this way, and then drop it, maybe. Every author is at the center of his own book, like it or not, because what we can report is limited by what we can know, and we are at the center of that, always. You can keep that fact in mind, you can correct for it, but you can’t escape it any more than you can stand somewhere where your body isn’t. So Hotch’s memoir is centered on him as mine was about me, and as long as you keep that distinction in mind – and don’t fight it, because that’s the way it always is, “objectivity” to the contrary – you can pick up valuable insights into what is being talked about.
F: I had an insight flit through while I was writing that long sentence. Is it gone? Something about reflections.
EH: You realized that the word can be taken in a different sense than merely “somebody thinking about something.” It can also mean the way you see something from somebody else’s words reflecting off a separately existing reality.
F: That’s the kind of sentence you would have worked on all morning, isn’t it? That’s the sense I get, anyway.
EH: You can’t make a careful statement without considering it from many angles, and often enough you can’t even know what you are trying to say. It is a long slog. Not like this, no, nor like “Hemingway’s emails,” as you call my correspondence.
But to finish the point, and then go on to something else: Hotchner reported on his own emotional reaction to my last years, and [his reaction] to what he learned from me. It doesn’t matter if he neatened up the process of hearing it, that’s just the kind of thing memory does, your own life should tell you that. The thing his flashlight is shining on, is the thing to pay attention to once you have satisfied yourself that he is painting it as best he can. It is the reflection and not the flashlight or the process of shining the flashlight that will give you what he was trying to give.
F: Well, I know from experience that conversations I remember word for word, events I remember clearly, turn out to be not as I remembered them when I look in my own journal of the time, my own record made for my own memory, and I see that my memories may have been emotionally accurate but are not word for word the way I would have sworn they were, but edited over time somehow, simplified and subtly distorted by whatever they have been associated with. So I know our memories aren’t nearly as reliable as we think they are if we haven’t left inconvenient reminders for ourselves.
I can feel this subject taking on a life of its own. As I went to get more coffee, I sort of overheard you rehearsing the next material.
EH: Rehearsing. Maybe so, that’s one way to put it. It’s this: Memories organize themselves around an emotional center; they clump. So the things you remember in one context may not at all line up with what you remember in another context. Hotch has reported how I felt about Pauline in relation to Hadley, and in relation to the pain it caused me, and as far as that goes, it is a true story. But I have other memories of Pauline centered around other things, other centers, and of course they are going to have an entirely different feel, and will describe an entirely different emotional interaction between two people who are somewhat different.
But it is this sort of careful sorting out that people are likely to miss if they aren’t careful. Like the scholar, they assemble their evidence. Like a person about his own life, they unconsciously simplify, which flattens out and omits and thus distorts.
F: So everybody who participated in your life draws a different portrait and they are each somewhat accurate even if they contradict each other.
EH: In the first place, we are all contradictions, so even God writing about you would have to present contradictory selves as they manifested. In the second place, remember what I just said, and let it sink in: Each of them, writing about me, can write only of what I seem like to them, because they are at the center of their lives, and they are showing you how the picture of me reflected off their consciousness.
So, two variables, and the result is, “objective” truth is at best an approximation, and the surer the person is, the more likely they have skipped or edited or never perceived other, contradictory, pieces.
F: I am surprised to realize that it is nearly 5:30 and, counting, we’ve filled more than eight pages. I would have said we’d barely begun our session.
EH: Your stamina is creeping back up on you, the way climbing stairs gets easier when you do it all the time. Habits help; lean on them.
F: More to say about Hotchner’s book?
EH: What we’ve said is enough. He was a good friend then and he is a good friend now, and if he didn’t understand some things right, or if I misled him, it doesn’t matter. Contradictions in fact sort themselves out. It is in emotion that we live, and this he reported as best he could.
F: It occurs to me, Buck Lanham’s portrait of you at war would be valuable.
EH: And you don’t know whether he ever wrote one – but you do know that he furnished part of the testimony in The True Gen, and you could look there, if it became important.
Now, Hotch has provided us with a full day’s diversion – I mean this entry, not your time reading it – and next time we can continue where we left off.
F: Okay. Till then.

2 thoughts on “Hemingway and Hotchner and “objectivity”

  1. hey were, but edited over time somehow, simplified and subtly distorted by whatever they have been associated with. So I know our memories aren’t nearly as reliable as we think they are if we haven’t left inconvenient reminders for ourselves.
    I can feel this subject taking on a life of its own. As I went to get more coffee, I sort of overheard you rehearsing the next material.

    This can take on a life of its own…what I wonder about is how much the unconscious plays into memories. And what about intentional distortions people make up to cover their guilt or use propaganda to make themselves better than others. Do these distortions become memories. I really do understand the emotional center gathers so much and this can be very disturbing as well. Much to chew on.

    1. In the book i did of conversations with Hemingway we (with a little help from Carl Jung!) discussed how avoiding “legitimate pain” — meaning, deliberately rewriting your memories to make it easier to live with them — could lead you into a wilderness of mirrors.

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