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Hemingway’s Attempt

Had a friend who says interesting things say something interesting to me recently. The interesting thing concerned writing, purpose, those who truly go after the evasive metaphysical “it” and those who don’t but are still good at stringing together sentences in clever ways and making a less monumental impact on thought. Hemingway was mentioned, and the interesting thing in its roughly quoted form was this:

“I think of George Saunders or Sam Lipsyte. Very good writers. But great? But worth following into the forever darkness? Probably not. I’ve felt the same hollowness from this type of writing. There is no ground to it. There are no roots. They lack blood and semen. […] It is very hard to be alone, truly alone. I’ve been reading Hemingway. He got to the blood and the semen. But he could never be alone. And then there was the shotgun.”

I’ve also been reading Hemingway lately. The first time I’ve revisited him since I was a youngster in college, being told by Journalism professors who totally misconstrued Hemingway’s purpose, that short, terse sentences would be the bread and butter of a successful daily newspaper career. My sparse language concerning the bittersweet closing of a local hibachi restaurant was really something else. And this was what was encouraged in journalism school, the use of little clever phrases while getting directly to the point, because the goal was to trick your reader into reading the entire article. Some of this trickster creativity remains in me. There are certainly lesser writers than George Saunders or Sam Lipsyte who practice it. But while I was imitating Hemingway’s declaratives and vague adjectives, my soul was inexplicably shaken — perforated, even — by the content he was providing me. It’s been dripping ever since. Maybe this was the blood and semen my friend was talking about, something visceral and violently impassioned. Let me stress that violent part. Great writing, the stuff that really seeks what everyone is afraid to search for, enters some really uncomfortable terrain, much of that terrain existing within the reader himself. And it brings that uncomfortable terrain to the reader’s forebrain in a way that can’t be verbalized, subdued with words, which makes the perforations that much more violent, the holes that much more gaping, your soul no longer leaking but gushing. Hemingway does this, and he does it so well. Because he didn’t like being alone, he understood a lot about human interaction. And the conflict he presents with his dialogue is always perfect and haunting, the tension between how we so desperately need one another and how other people destroy the individual. Even how we try to destroy others for making that attempt at contact in the first place. There’s the blood. Yet then we try to call them back, to nuzzle next to them because oh how we’ve longed for them during their absence. Only to spend that time together trying to inflict your will on that person, hating them for coming back to you and yourself for needing them. There’s the semen. Hemingway extracts these conflicting, seemingly inane feelings about other people you try insulate with your rubber soul, and he does so in a way that makes you despise yourself and other people; poking holes; everyone is an antagonist in his work. And yeah, he happens to do it in a really terse way. But that’s what poetry’s supposed to be, right? Evoking the most soul-(mis)shaping emotions with the fewest words possible, the sparseness of the words perhaps reflecting how truly difficult it is to verbalize this gut pain? And the pain then arising in your head because of this inability to process and categorize what you feel in your gut, because there’s just too much of it, and the brain can’t do it’s job properly and so it concedes. (“And then there was the shotgun.”) Hemingway found out that others couldn’t do it for him either. So the loneliness just got worse, and the loneliness could even hit its peak when he was around other people. You see this a lot in The Sun Also Rises — how there’s no escape, because alone you’re miserable, and surrounded by others you’re miserable, their presence and their verbal noise almost creating a contrast stark enough to make your loneliness even more obvious. Then there was the pining, what you couldn’t have with another person and what you’d never be able to have because of something wrong with you that was beyond your control. Something you needed with that outside soul, something you couldn’t provide for yourself. Yet the misery and the ritual of constantly trying to achieve it regardless — failure your daily alarm clock and calendar.

This book made me feel a lot of things in college. Some of his stories I’m reading now are making me feel a lot of other things. Here are some quotes from “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” that make me feel:

(On his speaking cruelly to the woman he’s with while he’s dying) “Do you think that it is fun to do this? I don’t know why I’m doing it. It’s trying to kill to keep yourself alive, I imagine.”

“How could a woman know that you meant nothing that you said; that you spoke only from habit and to be comfortable? After he no longer meant what he said, his lies were more successful with women than when he had told them the truth. It was not so much that he lied as there was no truth to tell. He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places and some new ones.”

“That in some way he could work the fat off his soul the way a fighter went into the mountains to work and train in order to burn it out of his body.”

“Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook. What was this? A catalogue of old books? What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do. And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil.”

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