Death and life and an end to silly despondency

Ernest Hemingway was smart, quick, experienced, and incisive. His novels are filled with life, and in them he says many memorable and valuable things, things that will enrich your life.

He also says a very few silly ones, and ironically, the silliest thing he ever wrote is quoted on every side as if it made sense. From A Farewell to Arms

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken place. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.”

At best, this represents the despairing mood of a rather young man who was prone to fits of despondency. But look at those five sentences – really look at them.

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.”

Read literally, this says that “the world” wars against brave people, that “the world” is out to break everyone, and those that will not break, “the world” kills. But does this view of “the world” as a sort of super-psychopath really reflect your experience of life?

“The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken place.”

Perhaps he is using the word “breaks” in a special manner, here. It is true that everyone in the world comes to know sorrow and suffering, but to grieve and to suffer is not necessarily to break. Do you think that everyone you know – including yourself – broke somehow?

“But those that will not break it kills.”

This is just plain silly, almost beyond comment. If death is a tragedy, then life itself is a tragedy, because all life ends in death, as all death prepares new life. Do you regard each new death as one more tragedy in a tragic world? And is it “the world” that brings death, or is it the process of living? And does death strike you as an act of malice? Is it not often an act of mercy?

“It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.”

If by this he meant simply that everyone dies, who could argue? But it seems to imply that “the world” has a special animus against “the very good and the very gentle and the very brave” and hustles them off the scene posthaste. Is that your experience of life?

“If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.”

Again, the sentiment that screams out of these words is a sense of “the world” as the enemy of life; of life as an inevitable tragedy because it changes form (or, as he apparently thought, ends).

None of this lessens my immense respect for a very great man. And in fact I often feel sorry for Hemingway, in that the cultural beliefs he was born into made his life difficult. But we do him no honor to put on a pedestal one of the silliest things he ever thought, and read it in awe-struck veneration, just as if it made sense.  “The world” is not an enemy to life, nor to brave and good people. And life is good.


7 thoughts on “Death and life and an end to silly despondency

  1. Parsing the quote like this certainly does make a difference. It seems that humans need a “them” so there can be an “us”. Using “The World” becomes even less personal and distancing. A bit of a cop out for not taking responsibility for the choices that result in our own personal world. IMHO

    1. What struck me even more forcibly is the sense that there is this antagonism between the way things are (“the world) and us. Some Zen Buddhist once commented on Christianity, saying something like: “Man against God, God against man. God against Nature, Nature against God. Man against Nature, Nature against Man. Very funny religion.”

  2. I’m trying to recall the exact moment in the book where the paragraph is found… I guess in the past, prior to any real analysis, I’d viewed these words not as words of wisdom but as Frederick being down on life and luck. Injured, AWOL. The words sort of hypnotize the reader, lull you to meditate on mortality. The sentiment is irrational and confused, sure. The war was cruel to the whole of a generation, stole their innocence and the pleasant veil of youthful naivety. The war stole that state of mind, the state so envied by adults once they lose it, where a child is still blissfully unaware of certain, indiscriminate death. We all will indeed perish. Tough lesson. / Also, Catherine and child both die, of course, and the paragraph has a foreboding element. Doesn’t Catherine have a vision of dying near this passage, as well? I dunno… I guess there’s that part of me that viewed this book as his flipping the bird, albeit rather subtly, to Agnes, too. A ‘Best revenge is living well’ — but in dramatic Hemingway fashion, where he keeps his bravado in check while at the same time spilling over with romance and sentiment. She has to die and take the kid with her too. I certainly don’t think of the words as words of wisdom; rather the kind of thing that goes through one’s mind in the moments before you make the decision to pick yourself up, give your head a shake, and dust yourself off and get moving again… or you fail and succumb and erode in the undeniable presence of the ephemeral

    1. There’s a lot in what you say. The thing is, though, that when these words are quoted — and they ARE quoted, a lot! — I have never seen them quoted in any context such as you suggest. Always they seem so say, with Walter Cronkite, “and that’s the way it is.” But — as i say — it ain’t!

  3. Frank,
    I agree we can cut Hemingway some slack, as
    – this passage was written in his 20’s,
    – he’s probably still feeling his war experiences,
    – he is ‘sliding’ from first wife to second wife,
    – feel like it was hip to show such great awareness of the ‘rottenness’ of the ‘world.’

    But I’m delighted that you ‘call out’ the “Oh life is so bad, particularly for the good ones!” crowd, and completely agree with you. “All is well, all is very well” seems to be really hard for many to wrap their head around, yet the closer I get to guidance the more I see it really is true.

    The ‘world’ often doesn’t do what I think ‘it’ should, but more and more I see/feel the direction/importance of what’s happening. It’s sometimes scary, sometimes depressing, often just plain weird, silly, and confusing … to (human) me. But more and more I can feel/hear guidance saying “Well look, this fits here … and this is because of that. Hang on, we ARE in the Change (shift in consciousness); just strive to be mindful that “All is well, all is very well.”

  4. I cannot say I’m familiar w/ this passage–nor am I a Hemingway scholar by any means! And indeed, as others have mentioned, this was a man in his 20s, perhaps seriously disillusioned w/ “the way things are” (in the small, humanistic sense), after a horrid war, and then throw in the 60 million who died worldwide of the Spanish Influenza, right after the war (then again, I’m no scholar on human warfare!) And, like Charles Darwin (and his wife), who lost a beloved daughter (age nine, I think), his outlook can be “forgiven” as “very dour” on life, and any sense of “ultimate meaning”, as a particular stage of his life.

    I see this going on today…a biting cynicism in many of today’s college students (based on an admittedly small sample I’m exposed to in our Liberal Arts college town), esp. against any such “silliness” as “belief” and “faith”. Personally, I’m not comfortable, at all, w/ the idea that life is a “pointless existence; a mere farce; perhaps a tragedy at best”. I’ve sometimes (well…often, okay) felt that “if our lives are so pointless and bereft of meaning, in an indifferent, purposeless universe (and it’s all illusion/not real anyway, according to some belief systems), then why the hell stick around at all?”

    For me, it’s that intuitional knowing that “there must be more to this, than what some of these scholarly folks, w/ so many letters after their name, are claiming!” Keeps me going on some days when it does seem pretty bleak (and this year…I’ve said to more than one person that we need a huge, freaking “burning bowl”, to do an end-of-the-year releasing ceremony in our town square!)

    I appreciate your bringing of this quote up, Frank; I also appreciate the comments of the others on this topic. Again, this “cyber spiritual sangha” is so important to me at this time.

    And on a humorous note (maybe, sorta), speaking of “letters after one’s name”, I’d just finished reading the Dannion Brinkley (NDE survivor, founder of The Twilight Brigade/Compassion In Action) series of books for a second time. He described being at a conference, concerning NDE research, and noted all these doctors and “serious” researchers, w/ degrees up the wazoo; one particular such doctor looked over his glasses at Dannion’s name tag, and asked, “…and you are?” to which Dannion replied proudly: “Dannion Brinkley, D.O.A.!” Gave me a chuckle, anyway…


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