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June 8, 2007

Grace Under Pressure


There is a copy of a black and white photo stuck to my wall, just to the left of this desk. It’s of an old man with white hair and a white beard sitting on a bed reading from a sheet of paper. The rule of thirds has been observed—the old man and the bed absorb the bottom horizontal third, and above him is a stark wall, notable only for a small crucifix hung to the right.

The old man is Hemingway, and he is occupying a room in M├ílaga, Spain in 1959. He had witnessed the country’s civil war, and had written some good stuff about it, but he would end it two years later in rural America.

Above the photo I have written six words. They are his words: “Write the truest thing you know”. I scribbled those words on the photo some years back, but I have done very little to observe them. Devoutly felt truths tend to be empirical if you lack confidence or a God, and as for me, I’m unsure about either. Others said the same about the older, sick Hemingway, the self-plagiariser who could no longer see “the world clear, and as a whole”.

But the younger Hemingway apparently could see the world clear, and as a whole, and if he did feel this way it was courtesy of a wonderful con he played on himself. But you need cons to write well. The trick worked for the younger Hemingway, as so he could write truly about the small worlds that exist in cafes and army hospitals and on rivers and open spaces.

Some have written that the world after the Second World War was too complex for Hemingway to maintain the con. But this is bunk. It wasn’t the world’s change that was significant—it was Hemingway’s. He was growing tired, bloated with booze, and had suffered from countless near-fatal injuries. If the world was once whole for Hemingway, it was because—in boxing, fishing, game hunting, fucking and writing—he could maintain the illusion that he was dominating it. With age and physical and mental breakdown the illusion broke down, too. It was all, and only could have been, an illusion. Hemingway’s activities—and they were only that—did not change the innately ambiguous state of nature. They did not change the cold, strange game of international diplomacy. They could not make static the increasingly radical politics of his home country. But the illusion was important, because he wrote with it, and, for a while, he wrote beautifully well with it, as so his short stories have the quality of being felt.

And for those who have no illusion? Well, there is Franz Kafka, a strange, tormented individual who gave us half-complete novels about men incapable of imposing their will on the world. His characters were men who struggled, and failed, against forces—psychological, logical, political, biological—that swept them towards nothingness. “I sometimes believe I understand the Fall of Man as no one else,” he said. He died in 1924 at the age of 41 of tuberculosis. That same year Hitler celebrated his 35th birthday in prison, then still a relatively unknown agitator. 21 years later and Europe had changed forever and the world knew of another Fall.

It’s pointless to ponder what Kafka would have said—he said it all when he was still here—but for Hemingway, for the survival of his own work and inner life, the war found its best side in small stories about grace under pressure. It was Hemingway’s war, because he wrote it, and so the war became something different, both true and false. Hemingway once wrote “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for” which may well be the finest illusion of all. It is certainly preferable to having none.

Posted by Marty at June 8, 2007 3:56 PM