Hemingway for Wimps

I’m thinking of writing a book with that title, about how to look death in the face and then run like hell.

Hemingway was the most important writer of the twentieth century—not the best, but the most important.  Too schoolboy-magazine, really, but of world-class stature.

Well, what does “not the best” mean?  The novels haven’t held up.  I love The Sun Also Rises, but it’s the only one that works these days, at least for me.

But the stories are up there with the greatest: Scheherazade, Boccaccio, Chekhov, Kafka, Hemingway.  “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”—is there a wilder, more gripping story?  Gable and Peck both starred in film versions.

But that’s not the point.  The importance of Hemingway was that he defined the American man, really for the first time.  Tom and Huck defined boyhood, not manhood.  Arthur Dimmesdale, Natty Bumpo, these are versions of the British gentleman, meaning the British aristocrat, like Tarzan
the only model American men had, and the world had of American men.

Look at the heroes of the movies of the twenties.  The most popular was Douglas Fairbanks, an American version of the British gentleman.  Barrymore, Adolpf Menjou—ersatz Brits.  Ronald Coleman—a Brit.

But in the thirties, when everybody’s read the novels, or heard of them, we have the emergence of Hemingway Man: Gable, Bogart, Cooper.  Tough guys.  "If you want to call me that, smile."

The British aristocrat, all old-world aristocrats, trace their lineage back to myth, to heroes and gods who slew monsters.  Hemingway slew his own monsters—bulls, lions, charging buffalo, giant fish—he traveled the world seeking them out.  It was very strongly felt by the young men who fought in Korea and Vietnam that you couldn’t be a man unless you had stood up under a shelling—“that chastening,” as he called it.

It is no exaggeration to say that what we call “the sixties,” the movement and broad social feeling roughly between 1966 and 1975, was a reaction against Hemingway, the minting of post-Hemingway man.  (Nor is it any exaggeration to say that the feminist movement that gathered such strength then was a reaction against the courtly love tradition, but that’s another story.)

There had always been guys like Teddy Roosevelt, “big-stick” guys, macho guys.  Indeed, Graham Greene says that machismo is an inheritance from the Romans, and exists only in places that had been part of the Empire, and their colonies. 

But Papa wore macho with a glamour that seduced the world, and gave America, and American men—and their women—a specialness, an identity, a global profile.

Fitzgerald, who wrote the finest English prose since Shakespeare, and was a more generous man than Hemingway, who despised him, was shouldered out by Hemingway Man, and knew it, and resented it, and forgave it.  Fitzgerald was the opposite of a tough guy, and therefore in competition with the British gentleman.  He wrote very little that wasn’t designed to show that American class had more class than British class. 

But by the thirties, nobody cared.  Indeed, who cares now?  Name a recent American president, even the sitting one, who isn’t cut from Hemingway’s cloth.

Ironically—for we must have irony, I can’t live without it—he finished life as a lesbian.

He became fascinated by lesbianism, put it in his novels and stories, and asked of his women that they treat him as one of them in bed.  Well, it takes balls.

One of my English professors told us that the Hemingway mystique was false if it came down to blowing your own head off, but that’s unfair.  Papa had been concussed and internally damaged in two back-to-back small-plane crashes in the jungle, and must have been in enormous pain.  With pain like that you can’t tell whether it’s physical or spiritual. Drugs, booze, shock treatments, going blind, I mean come on.

You’ve got to get out from under your heroes, and I think I have moved on from Hemingway.  My characters are as wimpy as I am.  But his presence is still there.  Norman Mailer carried it for us until a few years ago.  I leave you with this:

Norman Mailer and Robert Cohn
Went walking out at sunset by the sea.
Norman said to Robert, "I know you're only here on loan
But the same guy who made you made me.
He made John O'Hara and he made James Jones
And Camus and Antonio-nee.
He made more writers than Brando made actors
But the last and best he made was me,
See?
The last and best he made was me."
They walked on in silence and the waves washed in
And Norman kicked along absently,
Put his hands in his pockets and thought about things
And looked about as glum as he could be.
He said, "Brando won't speak to me,
Marilyn wouldn't sleep with me, 

I'm short and ugly and my thing's too small to see,
And what I want to know, what I called you here to ask you is,
Do you think he would have liked me?"
Cohn looked at him sharply and Mailer brought his guard up, said
"Well you punched him out, you should know!"
"Norman," whispered Robert, "you're confusing fact and  fiction.
It was Jake with whom I came to blows."
"Yeah but Papa let you beat him, he could feel you in your fists!
Do you really mean to stand there and say
That you didn't feel the victory engorge you like grace?
You fought the bull, boy! And you lived another day!"
But Cohn just whispered, "Papa don't care,
                          Papa don't care,
                          Papa don't care,
                          Papa don't care,"
And faded in the gloom and then was gone.
And Norman hung his head and trudged back to his room
And sat there staring at the gun.

For more such idle verse see Literary Musings.



The Accidental Monkey

"That which has always been accepted by everyone, everywhere, is almost certain to be false"—Paul Valéry 
Darwin was a Romantic. 

The Romantic is impatient with mystery. He must identify himself, and that means to identify with something, or someone—to be able to say, “That’s me”—which requires indulging in metaphysics, as who can help doing?

The usual Romantic choice is Nature. De Sade identified with a Nature that was bloody, murderous and, well, sadistic (see The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France); Byron, with the storm; Shelley, with the west wind“Be thou me, impetuous one!” (perhaps he's punning; péter is French for fart); Marx, with history, which he thought behaved rationally; Darwin, with the orangutan; and Freud with Darwin: the id is the ape within.

For the Romantics, and for much of the nineteenth century, time was an absolute. The ancient Greek absolute was space, three-dimensional Euclidian space. The Greeks knew the diameter of the globe, and one idea moving behind appearances gives the parallax of rational thought.

This same enthusiasm was unearthed in the Renaissance. Three-dimensional painting became an optical science, Baroque perspective dominated everything from Versailles to the ruler-drawn borders of America, and Newton built his universe in Euclid’s space. 

The inward-looking Romantics were in love with one aspect of this space, infinite time. An object is inert in that it doesn’t move unless acted upon, and in motion continues forever unless it meets another force. That line describes infinite time. Space, said Kant, is our outer sense, time our inner sense. Likewise for Godard the shot is a glance, montage a heartbeat. 

In all of literature, said Northrop Frye, there are only two books that go from the beginning to the end, the bible and The Communist Manifesto. Darwin stopped in the present, but his time-line was infinite.

This absolute collapsed, however, in the 1870s and 80s, when our telescopes became strong enough, and our cameras fast enough, to record the movements of galaxies, and we saw that their placement doesn't fit three-dimensional space. Of this arrangement we cannot construct a model—cannot imagine it. Euclid’s laws, it turns out, are the laws of the mind, and we can’t think outside them. (See on this Greece versus the Puritans.) 

We call intergalactic space “curved” as a metaphor derived from Mercator’s projection: if Moscow and Saint Petersburg are the right distance apart, Nairobi and Mombasa can’t be, and vice versa. (There’s more on this in What We Know.) But if space is skew, so is the now perhaps finite time-line. 

And the nineteenth-century view of things has survived. Is it therefore the fittest? That esteemed entomologist Vladimir Nabokov said, Perhaps the most admirable among the admirable laws of Nature is the survival of the weakest.

Evolution is our myth, our default belief about ourselves. Ask any jerk walking down the street and he'll tell you the score. Have a banana. The “scientists” who publish daily base their speculations on it, as do the literary Naturalists, from Flaubert and Zola to Norman Mailer. Poor disappointed Strindberg wondered if men and women were not descended from different monkeys.

It's a version of the medieval Great Chain of Being, from God and the angels down to minerals, laid on its side and extended in time. Stanley Kubrick, that stern satirist, was having none of it. In a gesture of victory an ape throws his bone-club, the first tool, into the air and, leaping the longest gap ever in a piece of montage, it becomes a space module. No explanation needed—our myth, and therefore invisible. But if being the fittest were just a matter of incremental circuitry the computer HAL (read IBM) would win. (See also Some Thoughts on Stanley Kubrick.) 

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in many ways an exemplary thinker, said, “Darwin’s theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science.” But it isn’t a “theory.” Scientific method requires of a theory that it be testable, “verifiable,” as Karl Popper put it. Nothing in the Theory can be tested. 

“Science,” said Paul Valéry, “means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. The rest is literature.” And there are other ways to read the fossil record. "Facts"? Turn a fact a little this way and a little that and it will show you a different face. The proper concern of science, as Edgar Poe said, is not with facts but with laws.

Why do I quote artists rather than scientists? Because they're better. Poe, with his take on Newton, and his understanding that physics is metaphysics, anticipated much that a later century found revolutionary. "Space and Duration are one," he said. Whereas scientists, so numerous, so earnest, are as guilty as the rest of us of scientism, the confidence that science knows it all, can know it all, will know it all.

Most of them are kids publishing or perishing, and have no time to think things all the way through—nor would they dare commit heresy. Sponsor spank. And so the Theory assumes the rigidity of religious dogma. Doubt "science" and you can go to the stake. Just look at the comments on this essay.

Must we be saddled with the effort to imagine one thing turning into another, and to explain the existence of “stuff,” that from which we “evolved”? Or was it always there? Always will be? Are we flirting with a model of God? Are we creationists?

Darwin was a creationist. And the pope is a Darwinist, no problem there. The Scopes monkey trial baffled literate onlookers. Only fundamentalists could insist that the world was created five thousand years ago like it says in the bible. In the movie, Spencer Tracy (marvelous man) shouts “I don’t give a damn about right and wrong!” “What do you give a damn about?” “TRUTH!” 

Well, truth is hard to come by, and overrated. We know how things behave, but what they are is a closed door.

Is our local Euclidian time-line long enough to accommodate the Theory? Godard, to come back to him, says no, it’s too short to get all the way from the amino-acid soup to us. “Our ignorance of our nature,” he says, “is total.”

And Valéry, to come back to him (he had what Nabokov calls “the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist”), says:

Humanity is very young and its memory short. Hence it is quite legitimate to surmise that the known physical laws are no more than hasty conclusions drawn from too brief observation and that the human race as we know it (Homo sapiens) has so far existed only between two manifestations of prodigious, discontinuous “laws,” between two gaps in the order of the universe. But a man who watches a church clock from five past to fifty-five past twelve cannot know that it strikes the hour; cannot even guess this. It is not impossible that certain inexplicable phenomena, such as the appearance of life on our planet, are the effects of intermittent laws, laws whose successive manifestations we have not yet had time enough to observe.

Of course that opens things up to uncomfortable speculation. (See Some Notes on God.)

Perhaps I’ve been living too long in Greece. These Mediterraneans are classicists, rock people, as Dalí says, and he evokes Mantegna to prove it. Romantics are Nordics, forest-and-fog people, music-and-flowers people, gazing inward at evanescent visions. “My moustache is the contrary of Nietzsche’s, which is depressive, with plenty of music. Mine is a pair of erect scissors, the rocks of this country.” 
And indeed, Romantic depth can usually be traced to indigestion.
The accidental monkey
‘S a metaphysics junkie
With bothersome abysses on his mind;

Preoccupied with dying,
Interminably trying
To turn around and glimpse his own behind.

His finger in his yin-yang
He contemplates the Big Bang,
The earliest ancestor he can find,

Unless it’s all that room
The Bang had to go boom—
Or does it create space as it unwinds,

A spreading dance of gravity
In a potential cavity
Like that in which his finger is entwined?


Reality extrudes him.
Its structure still eludes him,
His probing finger warmer but confined.

A cosmos so anonymous,
How can it but be ominous
That such vast masonry was left unsigned?


Enigma born of distances
And exquisite resistances—
Too seamless not to seem that way designed.

Theisms, whether mono
Or other sorts of guano,
Have left his spirit largely unaligned.

Perusing Darwin’s Theory
He feels a little leery
Of sepia-toned free-market states of mind.

Amino acid soup-erman
Whose wake-up call so overran
’S the one myth all the apes have not maligned;

But too unscientific
To offer much specific,
As willing as he is to be resigned.

The spiral strands of rubble
He surveys through the Hubble
May possibly bear others of his kind.

Would that be any better,
To get an email letter
From some strange breed of orphans just as blind?

Abject on a conveyor,
Hunched over as for prayer
He’s hummed through life bowed down by double bind.

The horizontal motion
Admits no meta-notion,
His view cut off both forward and behind.

A bas with this banality!
He opts for verticality—
His heart leaps up and stands in him star-high!

A fallen god no longer,
Already he feels stronger,
Astral banana peeling off the rind!

Abyss-wise up is down though
And starry heaven’s clown so
Has raised his head it’s lodged in his behind.

Divine but rather stupid,
Of Morpheus and Cupid,
And to this grosser matter self-consigned,

The accidental monkey
At least is his own flunky,
And buoyed by this he hop-turns to the grind.