Hemingway on the middle ages and us

Thursday, June 24, 2010

5 AM. I stopped at Barnes and Noble and bought five Fitzgeralds. Re-reading The Great Gatsby first, because it is an old friend, and perhaps will ease me into reading him as his short stories definitely did not. Also, the next volume of Nevins’ history of the Civil War arrived in yesterday’s mail. Quite a plethora of books to read; I’m a little bit overwhelmed.

Good morning, friends. Anything special on your minds today?

No? Then I guess it’s up to me. All right, Papa, let’s talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald and me. Yesterday I was moved to buy five of his books, after having been unable to read the book of his short stories that I had borrowed. Other than “The Lost Decade,” they seemed so shallow and even silly – just an impression from titles, and reading the first few pages of “A Diamond As Big As The Ritz” and “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” – that I returned the book and thought I was finished with. But then I return with Tender Is The Night, The Beautiful And Damned, This Side Of Paradise and Gatsby. I’m wondering: why.

There is a sense in which the public is always right, and you know it, so if somebody made that huge an impact on society, you may need to know why. If you are building a picture in your mind of the progress of the age – the way it moved forward, I mean, not the idea that every new thing is “progress” and is therefore something worthwhile – you’re going to have to know something of its full proportions. You can’t do it if a big –

Well, let’s go about this in a less abstract way. I never trusted abstractions all that much.

Maxwell Perkins’ kids did a lot to shape the world that followed the war [World War I, of course], because they had been shaped by the world and continued to be shaped by it and shape it in turn. You don’t know anything about Tom Wolfe or Marjorie Rawlings for that matter, or any of his authors but Fitzgerald and me, and even I am a recent acquisition, I think you could say. Well, you don’t have time to absorb all the major influences of the time if you’re going to accomplish anything else. How many years have you been reading about the Civil War and the history of your country, and how easily do you find yourself coming across new information that shows you that you only very incompletely understood what you thought you knew? And even to get what you’ve got, you had to pretty much ignore all but the highlights of what has happened in your time. You know? It’s always a lot bigger than anybody can comprehend, but you have to make the effort anyway. And if enough people make the effort, a common understanding does emerge on this side that can help you on your side.

That would take some spelling out.

Yes, and although it might take some time, it would be easy enough and worthwhile enough to do. You might start a list of things you want to come back to, with the date it occurred to you, the speaker if known, and the subject.

Acting as my own Rita Warren.

How many times have you said that the reason your book [The Sphere And The Hologram] got such good information is that she asked good questions and kept following up?

All right, I’ll do that. Nice tip, thanks. So, go ahead about Fitzgerald.

I don’t know that it has occurred to you, but you’ve been judging him by the people he wrote about, and figuring that they are trivial so he’s trivial. But that’s the same thing my parents did about me and my fiction. I wrote about lost, often despicable people, and they worried that this meant that either I was whoring for a popular following, or I was drawn to such people by some personal resonance, as you put it. But if you just read what I wrote, and the feelings it raises in you, you will know what I thought about them, because that’s the feeling I intended to convey. So why should it be different with Scott? So give him a good try before you conclude that he’s not worth your time.

I hear you. I hear you pointing out – and pretty gently, too! – that I’ve been condemning. All right, I’ll grant him a full conditional pardon and try him as if I didn’t know anything about him, which come to think of it is approximately true. I know only The Fitzgerald Myth.

You’ll find that people are usually better than their myth. I’d say “always” but you don’t like “always.”

It only takes one exception.

In any case, a myth is what grows around somebody; it isn’t the man himself, or the woman.

You were plenty judgmental, in your day. Why?

Why? Ask yourself! When you are on your own, you have to do your own discerning, because you don’t and can’t accept authority’s word for it. And it’s a very fast slide from discernment to judgment – that is, to putting something or somebody in a box, and then comparing them to yourself, and condemning the differences.

So – what is Fitzgerald’s importance?

Mostly let’s save this until you actually read him, or even finish reading-reading Gatsby. But in a nutshell, he did just what he says in The Crack-up he did – he told people that he felt just the same way about things that they did, and they responded the way people always do when they suddenly feel heard, or when what they know is suddenly for the first time put out in a form like print or film that is beyond personal – they identified with him, and with his characters whether he approved of them or not, and with the life – you’d call it lifestyle – that they thought he was describing and recommending. You saw in The Crack-up that he said no author had been so thoroughly “frisked” as Ring Lardner but me. Well, his [Fitzgerald’s] style and mannerism wasn’t imitated as much as his attitude. People tried to write like Lardner or me, but they tried to live like Scott, or how they thought he lived, or how they could on their limited income. So he reflected the new ways of thinking and feeling, and then he reflected the ways of thinking and feeling that had been modified by his earlier writing, and it wasn’t long before that road petered out on. But – as I said – read him, then we’ll talk.

Now, as you undoubtedly know, Papa, I am reading Hillaire Belloc’s The Crisis Of Civilization and seeing our history with his eyes, something of an education in itself, because I agree with his analysis but can’t agree that the High Middle Ages were necessarily the height of our civilization or the goal we should try to attain – that is, the thing we should be striving for – if we can bring the ongoing wreck of our civilization to a safe harbor.

Anything old enough becomes misunderstood because too much of the context is forgotten and gone, just like you and the 1920s, which is scarcely even before your time. And anything misunderstood is soon enough forgotten as it was, and remembered if at all in some different form, not at all the way it was experienced by those living there. And anything forgotten is therefore and thereby dropped into the unconscious, or maybe I should say it drops out of consciousness, for it takes effort and selection to hold something in consciousness – your RAM so to speak. And – as you know now and always say – anything unconscious has power over you, for you have no power over it. So – if you want to escape the unconscious drag of the Middle Ages, say, you need first to recapture them in a conscious form and then you can bring your time to closure with them and can deal with them constructively.

I hear you saying this: Just as we as individuals – as person-groups – can only change ingrained habits (robots) by bringing into consciousness the feelings and experience that first programmed that robot, so we as a culture, as a social-group, need to do the same thing about the trauma of the Middle Ages. But were they a trauma?

The trauma was the disruption of the Middle Ages, the way in which they ended. Just as France will never recover its balance until it deals with the French Revolution, so the West will not regain its balance until it deals with the Reformation and the Renaissance as mortal blows to Christian unity, and as the beginning of deafness to the important side of life that is connection to the non-physical world.

This doesn’t mean, as Hillaire-Belloc thought, that the answer to your time’s (and my time’s) problem is to return to the Middle Ages even if it were possible. It means, the answer lies in becoming conscious of that long convulsion from a more detached, more multiple-viewpoint perspective, so that you can truly understand it and integrate what the convulsion has to teach.

You see? The real root of the modern age’s descent into robotic unconscious behavior that is killing the West and may kill those that imitate the West is that unconsciously, every person-group (because every social-group) is fixed in attitude toward a major turning point in Western, and therefore in human, history. You are for or against the Reformation. For or against the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church. For or against universal authority, or individual freedom of conscience, and down the line.

All that fixed attitude fixes you in judgment, in condemnation, and therefore makes it impossible for you to move as living things must move. If you are a Hillaire-Belloc or a Chesterton, you look at the restoration of a Universal Church and a medieval state at least to the extent of protecting the common people from unbridled competition and powerlessness. If you are a libertarian, say, you look to individual freedom as an absolute. Communists believed in social justice as an absolute. Your contemporary politicians seek positions almost at random, and hold them ferociously and without desire for compromise. All these are pathological symptoms, and the root-cause has to be unresolved unconscious feelings. Ask Carl. And of course it was true in my day too, and back to the 1500s. But it gets worse by the decade, because it magnifies, as Toynbee would tell you, each time a challenge isn’t met constructively.

Another dot to be connected as we go, I take it.

Little by little.

Okay. Till next time.

One thought on “Hemingway on the middle ages and us

  1. Very useful and timely, thank you! Been going through family history, and even there, the unresolved judgements very clearly are acting as obstacles. And it is surprisingly difficult to find atonement and forgiveness for abandonment and betrayal and all the multitude of sins that is the human condition for past generations and for us. And also, it is a hefty serving of the humble pie to start seeing how easily one does the same things, while excusing oneself, because of course I always have the most compelling reasons to behave like a nasty person.

    It feels to me like there is also an undercurrent going on in these selections of texts and new material that concerns writing. As a form of genuine art, as opening doors of perception. My writing has always had a motivation of clarifying things to myself, and although I like to write, declaring things to others seems somehow useless. My writing has been a user manual for my life, and I just do not see it as relevant for anyone else. It works as a part of conversation here on this board, where we all say something about how we as individuals see this or that thing sparked by what Frank writes. A lot of literature is like that, maybe: a lonely person expressing: this is how I feel about what is going on. Books have been my friends, too, confirming what I see when no humans have been available who can see things the way I see.

    But then there is literature as high art. Dreaming the human path forward instead of trying to soothe the loneliness and find like-minded friends. What could be the dream of our culture that is wallowing in immense material wealth and immense spiritual poverty? We are collecting the fruits of what our ancestors dreamed: food and things, stuff in abundance, wide sexual liberty and other freedoms, like traveling and study, physical ease and comfort. These are delicious fruit, but some of the side-effects of these are bitter, even deadly. How can we get to balance when the ancestors were starving and we are still ballooning? When will the hungry ghosts be full, the shallow ghosts have enough admiration and attention, and the fearful ghosts find safety? We are being chased by the ghosts those who this culture has pushed under water, into the unconscious.

    We are starting to see that too much of a good thing really can be too good, and that it also flips into the opposite. Too much sugar brings sickness. We can long for spiritual life, but the practical attempts have been such spectacular failures, that it is hard to hold that kind of longings at all. It is as if the house of our culture has a fireplace that has no updraft, and a downdraft forms, so all the smoke comes inside and makes the house unliveable. With a chimney you must warm it up gradually so that the air will move in the right direction. It is as if we are now at a point where we need to figure out how to get the updraft going, or abandon this house and find some new way of keeping ourselves warm and sheltered. Thinking about art in this context, names that come to me: van Gogh and the visual vividness of just experiencing. Hilma af Klint, abstract joy. Tarkovski’s last movie, where something horrible almost happens, but then doesn’t.

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