May 8, 2008

1. Hemingway

I read a Hemingway story called “Fathers and Sons.” Good stuff. The central character, Nick Adams (a recurring character in Hemingway’s fiction), remembers his late father, while his son sits next to him, and has filial feelings for him such as he had for his father. Nick remembers his Michigan summers, his Indian girlfriend, and hunting with his father:

His father came back to him in the fall of the year, or in the early spring when there had been jacksnipe on the prairie, or when he saw shocks of corn, or when he saw a lake, or if he ever saw a horse and buggy, or when he saw, or heard, wild geese, or in a duck blind.... His father was with him, suddenly, in deserted orchards and in new-plowed fields, in thickets, on small hills, or when going through dead grass, whenever splitting wood or hauling water, by grist mills, cider mills and dams and always with open fires.

Could even the harshest Hemingway critic say anything against this passage? Notice that phrase “the fall of the year.” It may seem that “of the year” is superfluous, and “the fall” is sufficient. But “of the year” adds poetry, rhythm, and it also adds clarity. This is literature of a high order.

Hemingway is writing about what Proust called the “intermittences of the heart.” You start to recover from your grief, and then suddenly something recalls the deceased, and your grief returns; your grief is intermittent. These intermittences are so important in Proust’s work that he thought of calling his novel The Intermittences of the Heart.

The Hemingway documentary makes it clear that Hemingway himself was an excellent athlete. His Idaho neighbors were much impressed with his shooting ability. Perhaps his talent for shooting fed his passion for shooting. Aren’t we fond of the things we’re good at? Hemingway’s athletic ability reminds me of Shakespeare, as does his thirst for travel and adventure, his preoccupation with war and violence, his multiple marriages/affairs, etc.

Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, said there were “so many sides to [Hemingway] you could hardly make a sketch of him in a geometry book.” This agrees with my remarks on the psychology of genius: “Genius is multi-faceted and protean; genius has a wide variety of different personalities.”

I also read one of Hemingway’s most famous stories, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Set in Spain, it’s about a lonely, perhaps suicidal old man drinking brandy at a café. “It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.” Two waiters talk about the old man, and about whether to close the café and go home.

Perhaps the real protagonist of the story is the feeling of nothingness that comes at 2 in the morning. “What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.” Unlike the younger waiter, the older waiter sympathizes with the old man because he too feels the chill of nothingness, he too dreads the dark and the solitude, he too wants a “clean, well-lighted place” as a bulwark against nothing.

Why this preoccupation with nothing? Is it because Hemingway’s was a lost generation — nothing to believe in? Is nihilism at the core of this story? Is this story an epitome of the nihilism of the lost generation?

“‘Last week he tried to commit suicide,’ one waiter said.
‘He was in despair.’
‘What about?’

Like the old man, Hemingway himself later tried to commit suicide, and was prevented. Soon after being prevented, Hemingway did commit suicide, like his father before him. Does this story anticipate Hemingway’s own end? If someone asks us, “what prompted Hemingway to commit suicide?” should we answer, “nothing”?

Students of Kundera may feel that Hemingway’s nothingness (nada) resembles Kundera’s “unbearable lightness of being.” Maybe I’m stupid, like the younger waiter in the story, or maybe I don’t stay up late enough, but I don’t feel this nothingness, I don’t feel the “unbearable lightness of being.” Zen thrives on nothing, it flourishes in the void, it loves emptiness. In this nada, Zen finds its todo.

Joyce was a big fan of this story. I’m starting to like it, though I didn’t like it much at first. It was apparently the inspiration for a Hopper painting, Nighthawks.

I recently wrote about Hemingway for my Sketch of Western Literature:

Perhaps the last great generation of American literature was the generation of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Wolfe (some people add to this trio the names of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos). Hemingway was a celebrity while still in his 20s. His spare style appealed to his contemporaries, and his adventurous life captured the imagination of the public. But the novelty of his style wore off, the despairing tone of his work left some readers cold, and some of his later works, like Across the River and Into the Trees, were panned by the critics. It became fashionable to say “I don’t like Hemingway.”

But Hemingway’s reputation will doubtless make a comeback, when people focus on his best works rather than his worst, on his strengths rather than his weaknesses. He was a great literary artist, a great reporter of places, experiences, feelings. T. S. Eliot said he had “considerable respect” for Hemingway’s work because “he seems to me to tell the truth about his own feelings at the moment when they exist.”1 And Joyce had high praise for Hemingway’s story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” calling it one of the best short stories ever written.

Hemingway didn’t write from his imagination, as Kafka did. He wrote about the summers he spent in Michigan as a boy, about his experiences on the Italian front in World War I, about his years in Paris (where he knew Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and other writers), about Spain and the Spanish Civil War, about going on safari in Africa, about the Florida Keys and Cuba. Hemingway was preoccupied with death and violence, and often wrote about war, bullfighting, and hunting. He shot himself in 1961, at the age of 62.

If you want to read about Hemingway, consider the works of Princeton professor Carlos Baker, who wrote a biography of Hemingway, critical studies, and Selected Letters.

I also wrote about Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner, and E. M. Forster for my Sketch of Western Literature:

2. Thomas Wolfe

Wolfe’s early death seemed to hang over his life like a dark fate, and he lived with a wild urgency; he died in 1938, at age 37. While Hemingway’s style is spare, prosaic, Wolfe’s is romantic, poetic. While Hemingway aims to tell the truth, Wolfe has a penchant for exaggeration. The city that Wolfe wrote about most was a city that Hemingway disliked: New York. Despite his untimely death, Wolfe’s work has a more affirmative tone than that of Hemingway or Faulkner. Hemingway sometimes despaired, but Wolfe didn’t have time for despair; Wolfe loved the world like one who has to leave it soon. He even loved death, as mystics sometimes do. Wolfe said Yes to the whole world.

What strikes one about Wolfe is his subjectivity, his preoccupation with the motions of his own soul. But he also has a sure sense of the external world, and created many memorable characters and scenes. Faulkner called Wolfe the best American novelist of the time. Nobody surpasses Wolfe at depicting the wonder of being alive. Critics, however, are often cool toward Wolfe, perhaps because his work has more passion than structure.

If you want to try Wolfe, I recommend his first and most famous novel, Look Homeward, Angel, which deals with his early years in Asheville, North Carolina, and his college years at the University of North Carolina. If you want to read a biography of Wolfe, consider Look Homeward, by the famous Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald. If you want to read a good critical essay about Wolfe, I suggest “Thomas Wolfe and Death.”2

3. Faulkner

Faulkner is more obscure, more difficult to read, than Hemingway or Wolfe. He didn’t become popular as quickly as Hemingway and Wolfe did, but his style appeals to modern taste, and his reputation is at least as high today as that of Hemingway or Wolfe. Faulkner’s reputation extended to Europe; among his fans was Sartre, the French philosopher. Sartre said that the dominant note of Faulkner’s work was hopelessness — a preoccupation with the past, an inability to look to the future. Sartre described Faulkner as “a lost man,” just as Gertrude Stein told Hemingway that his was “a lost generation.”

While Wolfe focused on his own soul, Faulkner turned to the outside world, and tried to depict the people he knew in his native Mississippi. His early works and late works aren’t highly-regarded. His best works are those written during his middle period, such as The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!

Faulkner was in ecstasy while writing The Sound and the Fury, and the reader can get much pleasure from it, too, if he can overcome the initial hurdles. I recommend the Norton Critical Edition, and also Volpe’s book, A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner. With the help of books like these, the difficulties of The Sound and the Fury will melt away. Faulkner describes everyday life so vividly that his characters are more real than real people.

4. E. M. Forster

Along with D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster is one of the key figures in early-twentieth-century English fiction. Born in 1879, Forster began writing novels at an early age, and also stopped writing novels at an early age. By the time he was 31, he had published four novels: Where Angels Fear To Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room With A View, and Howards End. During the remainder of his long life, he wrote only two novels: A Passage to India, one of his most highly-regarded works, and Maurice, which dealt with homosexual themes, and wasn’t published until after Forster’s death.

Perhaps Forster stopped writing fiction because, being homosexual, he couldn’t empathize with heterosexual characters, and he couldn’t express his homosexual feelings publicly. Perhaps he stopped writing fiction because astute critics, like Virginia Woolf, argued that his fiction was a failure — though it had lively scenes and deep thoughts, it didn’t form an artistic whole. Forster is a fine essayist and critic, and wrote a book called Aspects of the Novel. Was he too great a thinker to be a great artist? Did he understand the machinery of fiction too well to believe in fiction?

Forster was one of the first English writers to appreciate D. H. Lawrence’s genius, and sing his praises, at a time when Lawrence was controversial. Forster himself was appreciated and praised by the great American critic, Lionel Trilling; when Forster met Trilling in the U.S., Forster said, “So this is the man who made me famous.” Like Lawrence, Forster wrote several travel books, drawing on his experiences in India and Alexandria.

Forster admired Jane Austen for her lively humor, and Walt Whitman for his profound mysticism. Forster’s fans (of whom I’m one) believe that his fiction is a marvelous combination of humor and profundity. Forster did what every great intellectual must do: he respected culture, he made culture enjoyable, and he pursued spiritual growth.

5. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 98

In this sonnet, the poet misses the absent beloved, and even the joyful springtime can’t raise his spirits. To the poet, the colorful and fragrant flowers are merely shadows of the beloved.

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
    Yet seemed it winter still, and you away,
    As with your shadow I with these did play.

In line 4, “heavy Saturn” means melancholy Saturn. In line 7, “summer’s story” means happy story. The poet is in a wintry mood because the beloved is away.

6. Von Franz on Fairy Tales

Still working my way through Individuation in Fairy Tales, by Marie-Louise von Franz. Von Franz sometimes summarizes a major Jungian idea simply and clearly — as if she were writing for readers unfamiliar with Jungian ideas. In Individuation in Fairy Tales, she says that primitive man viewed the king as divine. The king periodically became worn out, and had to be killed and replaced, or symbolically reborn. The same is true, at a higher stage of civilization, for the concept of God: it becomes worn out, and must be periodically replaced by a new God-concept, or reborn through new ideas/feelings/rites.3

In the last issue, we discussed Weber’s remark that Western civilization needed spiritual renewal, which could come through new prophets (new religions), or through a rebirth of old ideals. Weber is saying what von Franz is saying: the king must be replaced by a new king, or reborn. I consider these two options in my book of aphorisms. Though I favor the first option (the replacement option), if someone wants to continue to use the term “God,” we shouldn’t argue with him.

Von Franz discusses the felix culpa, the fortunate blunder, the mistake that ultimately leads to spiritual growth. The most famous example of a felix culpa is Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, a mistake that ultimately led to Christ’s mission of redemption. Though I don’t use the term “felix culpa” in my book of aphorisms, I do write about “Growth from Disaster,” which is closely related to felix culpa, and which is a common route of spiritual growth.

7. Closing Comments

A. Many intellectuals have relationships with older women: Thomas Wolfe (his girlfriend Aline was 20 years older than he was), Hemingway (his first wife, Hadley, was 8 years older), D. H. Lawrence (his wife Frieda was 6 years older, and was married with three children when they met), Robert Louis Stevenson (his wife Fanny was 10 years older), Robert Musil (his wife Martha was 7 years older), Raymond Chandler (his wife Cissy was 18 years older), Pablo Neruda (his second wife, Delia, was 20 years older), Erwin Panofsky (his first wife, Dora, was 8 years older), Samuel Johnson (his wife Tetty was 20 years older), etc.

B. “The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for.” (Maureen Dowd) Once you start failing, failure starts snowballing.

© L. James Hammond 2008
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1. Quoted in Hemingway and Faulkner in Their Time, by Earl H. Rovit and Arthur Waldhorn back
2. Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Leslie A. Field, “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier back
3. Ch. 4, p. 168 back