Thursday, November 19, 2015
F: [Sometime after 6:30 a.m.] … So now I am at the brink, wondering if I should communicate as usual, or skip today since we did double duty yesterday. Nancy and I are going to the VMFA for the opening of its Rodin exhibit but that isn’t until after 10 sometime.
So, instead, back to Hemingway and Pound, where I find a sentence that leads me on. Rather than plow on, I am trying to learn to slow down and express the passing thought, as I have been advised. “Hemingway had no interest in Dadaism’s illogic and absurdism. He had nothing to learn from this experimental circle as he plumbed the black depths of human experience, while ultimately seeking success in the commercial publishing market.” (p. 27)
Oh! I get it! Read a little, chat a little. Okay, so –?
EH: It wasn’t that I was plumbing “the black depths of human experience” so much as that I was plumbing human experience! All of it, not just some of it. Fun, mystical ecstasies, pain, despair, and everything in between. One thing I was not, was a Johnny-one-note. But I wanted to express as clearly as I perceived, and I wanted to perceive as clearly as humanly possible.
This author is wrong if he makes fun of Dadaism per se. Those people were the usual mixture of innovators, hangers-on and phonies, but they were centered on something that may not be so obvious in your time because conditions have changed. They were trying to show people that rational life has its limits.
F: Try that again? [For I could feel his dissatisfaction with the sentence.]
EH: Everything is a first draft here, and all my first drafts are public. I would have thrown that sentence away and started again, so let’s do that. They were trying to demonstrate that society’s emphasis on reason was not only one-sided but in fact itself illogical and unreasonable. Imagine a society that told itself that the conscious mind was all of life – and then proceeded to kill 20 million men, and women, and children, and animals – and make a wilderness in eastern France that is still not cleaned up in your time a century later – and at the end of it still have no clear idea what it had all been about.
F: Carl Jung says it was the result of the conscious mind losing sight of the unconscious, thus leaving the unconscious unconstrained by any conscious control, leaving it free to plunge the world into chaos. At least, that’s as I understand him. I don’t know whether he would endorse that as a summary of his position.
EH: In any case, the point is that Dadaism was a revolt against the pretense that society could be maintained by rationality alone, and to that extent I sympathized with it. My own early stories were about the contrast between the pious and “elevated” view of the world I had been taught as a boy and the way the world really was, as I experienced it in Kansas City and then Italy within the space of a short but very instructive year. Only – it isn’t enough to protest what is incorrect or phony or shallow. You have to have something positive to go beyond that, or else all you’re doing is crying like an animal with its paw in a trap. And that is what I objected to in the Dada movement as a movement. I also objected to so much stagy, posturing, insincere behavior, but that is a commentary on the men who were part of the movement, not the impulse for it.
F: Plenty of people have convicted you, and your friends, of posturing, insincere behavior.
EH: I am content to rest on my laurels. As I used to say, I declare to win on that record. It’s easy to criticize an artists’ life – anybody’s life – but you’d better include the artist’s art in that criticism, because if he is a real artist, that’s where his life went.
F: I just read something like that. Let me fish around for a moment. [Unsuccessfully.] well, I can’t find it, but I think it was Hadley, saying that the best part of an artist’s life goes into his art. Back to reading.
And, right away, I find the sentence that produced the stray thought in the first place. It wasn’t the one I just quoted, it was this: “… Pound composed his first opera … based upon François Villon’s fifteenth-century ….” (p. 28) It was that based upon that echoed the thought I have had so many times, why do artists have to use some pre-existing structure? James Joyce structured Ulysses upon the tale of the original Ulysses. It seems like this imitation – or, not imitation, but –. Papa, you know what I mean, could you shed some light on the subject for me please?
EH: I understand your point but you aren’t considering the process. I mean, art as a process.
It isn’t just perception and it isn’t just perception and expression. It has to have some kind of structure. Why not borrow that structure from anything you find that may assist you? The crucial thing is not to be absolutely individual in every last thing – or else, why not invent your own alphabet? – but to use whatever you can find that helps you say just what it is you need to say. So sometimes artists use pre-existing characters either from life or from literature – you did it yourself in Messenger. Or they begin with someone’s plot or with an understood situation. How many plots have drawn upon the legend of Dr. Faustus and the devil, from Marlowe to Goethe to Shaw?
The critical thing in considering any art is whether the artist is sincere and whether he conveys something to you. Think of it as an electrical circuit. Either the juice flows or it doesn’t. The viewer, though, is part of the circuit, so what flows for me may not flow for you, and the artist has no way to judge his viewers, nor should he try to. The only thing under his control is his sincerity, under which such things as intelligence, intensity, skill, technique, knowledge, all belong. That’s why you can have authors of great skill who aren’t really saying anything, and others whose technique may make you wince almost in embarrassment for them who nonetheless convey something important because that is their intent, the center of their effort.
To accomplish this, the writer needs all the help he can get, whether he gets it from art museums or his library or his friends and lovers or whatever gives him an eye on the world. [I sensed, but he did not say, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens as examples of men whose professions gave them windows on the world that might not be obvious to others.] So don’t begrudge him his borrowings. If they help him say what he needs to say, all the better.
F: Well, this brings up another point. As I read Matthew Nickel’s book again, I am again struck by the academic’s habit of reading so much into things. At one level it is interesting and perhaps symbolically true, but it seems to me that it easily leads to reading into it more than is there.
EH: That is an interesting question that will change as you look at it from different sides. Almost a morning’s work in itself. We could bookmark it and let you go on with your reading, or we could make a few observations.
F: “Remarks are not literature, Hemingway.” Said with a smile. [Quoting Gertrude Stein in the early days of their acquaintance.]
EH: No they aren’t, and she should have remembered that when she looked at her own writing.
F: I am surprised to see that we’ve covered more than eight pages, so I suppose we’ve been going long enough. Started some time after 6:30 and it’s 7:40 now. So we can go on next time, or can return to what you intended us to discuss earlier. If I had known that I was up for a full session, I would have started on it.
EH: If you learn – really learn – to interrupt your reading to explore the side-trails it suggests, this will have been a very much worthwhile morning.
F: So many years crammed with incessant reading, and so little made of it! Oh well, we’re always starting over with a new day. Till next time, then, and thanks.