Going On in Ourselves
By Eli Siegel
A great problem of relation is: what is relation as going on in oneself? A good deal of the literature of the world is about that: the way one sees oneself. In the phrase I expect more of myself, what are the two things in relation? The self expecting, and the self it expects more from.
Though the subject is difficult, it can be instanced in many ways. And a way that remained with me was exemplified in a review of Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. It appeared in the Saturday Review of October 10, 1970, and is by John W. Aldridge. I’ll read some passages because the review shows vividly how a self is related to a self—the same self. In the poem “Ralph Isham, 1753 and Later” I ask, “What was he to himself?” Just as we can ask what is a tree to a yard? we can ask what is a self to itself?
The first passage brings up the question, What do we do when we repeat ourselves? The thing felt by critics was that Hemingway was repeating the successes of The Sun Also Rises, somewhat A Farewell to Arms, and the stories, and not doing it so well. Aldridge says:
The problem was not only that Hemingway was sounding like himself in a manner that seemed synthetic. It was also that the self he sounded like was not the self he any longer was.
The review is quite keen, and makes for questions that are in the very midst of Aesthetic Realism. How, without knowing it, do you use yourself against yourself? If “Hemingway was sounding like himself in a manner that seemed synthetic,” it can be inferred that maybe he hadn’t been so good to himself.
There has been a great deal written about the sadnesses and disasters possible for the creative spirit. Van Wyck Brooks wrote about this in The Ordeal of Mark Twain, showing that the primness of America interfered with Twain’s creative spirit. However, something else can happen—as, for example, with Wallace Stevens: in later poems he did say some things that he had said long before, but not with the earlier energy. That is so with Sandburg, and here and there with Edna St.Vincent Millay. What happens when we repeat ourselves and are not so fair to that earlier self, or flourishing with it? Why are we not equal to ourselves? What do we want? It’s quite clear that when we’re insincere, the self that’s sincere, wherever it may be, is in relation to the insincere self.
“Self-Discovery” and More
Aldridge says of Hemingway:
Writing for him had apparently ceased to be an act of self-discovery and had become an act of self-resuscitation.
Why do we have to discover ourselves? You’d think ourselves were Nova Zembla or some African desert. But people do talk of finding themselves; and finding is a kind of relation.
Near the beginning of this talk I gave a definition in two forms: “Relation is the way things are and may be to each other” and “Relation is how things have to do, and may have to do, with each other.” Does that apply to things in oneself? When one is tired, is one in another relation to oneself? And what is the difference between self-discovery and self-resuscitation, or simply self-being? What is in the phrase pull yourself together?
In Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, a character is bitter with himself, discontented with himself. Another work mentioned here, Across the River and into the Trees, of 1950, is about an officer in Italy who is very discontented with himself, and despite a strong quality, is always bemoaning himself: Look at me at 50 and what’s happened to me! And somehow it doesn’t have the quality of self-bewailing that had been in earlier Hemingway writing. So what is the difference?
Then, another great problem: what is the difference between self-pity and self-concern? The human being is a poetic possibility, and the distinction between self-concern and self-pity is like the distinction between poetry going well and poetry not going so well. That is: self-concern is poetry going well, and self-pity not so well.
Two years ago, then, Islands in the Stream appeared, and you had this bitter, retrospective strong person asking what had happened to him. There’s a difference between the introspector and the introspectee, though they’re the same person; and they are in a relation.
Aldridge says with pathos that people were hoping Islands in the Stream would be a very good work. There was a review of it, by Robie Macauley in the New York Times Book Review, that said it was a masterpiece, but hardly anybody went along with that. This is Aldridge:
There is diminishment for each of us in the possibility that the book might prove a disaster. But the worst diminishment of all: if honesty forces it upon us...to say, as unfortunately one must, that the book is neither very good nor very bad.
Those sentences are about a relation: If we see a big tree fall, we take it upon ourselves—we feel, Look at us. In fact, no big building can crumble without our feeling, See what can happen to us. So if Hemingway can, toward the end of his life, write things, and he tries to regain a self and doesn’t, it is sad news for everyone as every person tries to maintain self and add to it. To maintain the self is to be equal to it. To add to it is to be more than self. But equal to and more than are both terms of relation. Mathematics is like poetry this much anyway: it is all about relation.
Aldridge is saying that in Islands in the Stream Hemingway didn’t know what he was doing—that a certain awareness of self as working in art was not had. The word self-critical is a word of relation. Hemingway couldn’t be self-critical, though he was doubtful about many things.
Power and Delicacy—and Contempt
Aldridge doesn’t go into why Hemingway met this weakness. The big thing is that Hemingway was a victim, as nearly everybody is, of contempt. And contempt and art—they just don’t mix. When you have contempt, without knowing it you’re saying bye-bye to art. And Hemingway had contempt for too many things.
He used toughness to despise that other thing that goes with toughness: tenderness, delicacy. In his early work, there was the presence of delicacy. But the more he became delicate himself, the more the toughness was apart from delicacy in his writing. The desire to be tough should be welcomed, but there is more than one way to be tough. There is a toughness in seeing the uncertainty, the wispiness, the delicacy of the world. Strength in writing is the oneness of bulk and subtlety, the oneness of power and delicacy.
Hemingway, in other words, had contempt for those “literary fellas.” He didn’t see much in Henry James. Well, the feeling might have been returned. However, art does have many ways, and Hemingway of In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises belongs; and so does James. They’re in relation to that large thing Shakespeare was writing about in the sonnets I discussed: the meaning of the world, the world itself, and art.
So, Aldridge doesn’t ask what went on in Hemingway. It happens that Hemingway didn’t have a kind enough heart. The statements that were made about how unkind he was to Sherwood Anderson and also to Gertrude Stein are quite true. Hemingway, whatever else—though he was a writer—just wanted to make it. And when you’re interested in making it, you can’t have too much feeling for other people. He suffered from women. A major story of his in mid-career, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” I regard as a false story, and in it the woman is made the brute. That is also true of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Hemingway didn’t know how to criticize women. There was a feeling for the nurse, Catherine Barkley, in A Farewell to Arms that is not to be seen later. There was a desire to see women fairly before he began suffering—shall we say left and right—from women.
What occurred? We have a certain relation between lack of heart and weakness as to art. It seems to be a rhyme: Lack of heart / Can make for weakness in art.
For instance: Satire can be good, but in For Whom the Bell Tolls Hemingway is satirical about both right and left. And that is a very dangerous thing—where you feel you’re above both sides. You have to know who you are to use satire in that way, and I don’t think Hemingway knew himself that well. (This mistake is present also in Mary McCarthy.) You could see Hemingway had more sympathy with the Loyalists in Spain. But at the same time, he felt that not giving in to any sympathies was strong, not taking a side.
Hemingway, then, as an author, at a certain time doesn’t know what he’s doing. And as Aldridge writes of him, we have the matter of relation in a technical way, with the problem of separation and junction. The prose of For Whom the Bell Tolls is already getting a little sleazy: things are too separate. Aldridge sees that. Though he praises For Whom the Bell Tolls, he says it has “some of the best and worst features of Hemingway’s writing.” But it’s tighter than To Have and to Hold, also Across the River and into the Trees, and the one being reviewed. Aldridge says:
Where For Whom the Bell Tolls is held together by the...tightly interlocking relationship of events occurring over a period of a few days, the new novel is composed of episodes much more widely spaced in time and only vaguely connected by an evolving plot.
I don’t think For Whom the Bell Tolls is as “interlocking” as Aldridge says. However, the problem is not how good For Whom the Bell Tolls is, but what kind of relation do words look for, both in prose and in poetry? What is that relation of closeness and distance—because words want to be close and they want to be distant. What does it mean? To say something is close to one is to state relation. To say something is distant from one is to state relation. Interlocking is a word about relation.
In a later sentence about Hemingway and self, Aldridge talks of his despair. Hemingway was worried about two things: his health, and also that the impetus in writing was not there.
Hemingway had arrived at the kind of despair he had spent his whole life in flight from, the kind he could no longer evade through the killing of big game in Africa or by writing about the death of his heroes in his books. All the heroes were dead now. There was only himself.
We all look at ourselves, and want to be related to ourselves in various ways. One way is to be able to say, I look at myself and I see something strong. Hemingway was very much given to that, as Jack London was. His manner is quite different from Hemingway’s. Jack London got a certain release by being able to write about the poor of London in The People of the Abyss and elsewhere. But Hemingway had a notion of himself: the tough writer who would always have his muscles taut, and also could be quite impressed by a lion but would not run. We have the work about bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon. And there was the fight with another person who had difficulty about sincerity: Max Eastman. (If I seem to say that every person has difficulty about sincerity, that is just what I’m saying.) Eastman had a quarrel with Hemingway and wrote something called “Bull in the Afternoon.” But people have felt that Hemingway’s interest in the slaughter of living things and in toughness had something false about it.
The despair of Hemingway, then, is an attitude to himself, because if you despair of yourself you’re seeing yourself as an object which you want to give up. Aldridge writes:
When he went down into the basement of his house that summer morning and selected the weapon that would end his life, Hemingway evidently forgot about art.
No person wholly believes in art. Shakespeare was trying to believe more in art—it’s one of the reasons he wrote the sonnets. But the belief of Hemingway in art was hardly complete; you find that what he saw as good was a little scanty.
Things and Relation
What I have been implying in this talk is that when one knows what poetry is and really respects it, the relation with oneself can be better. It can be more accurate. Hemingway did not care for poetry. There’s poetry in some of his writing, but he did not care for it as such.
The structure of poetry can be very, very useful to oneself. In the structure of poetry we have, as in the world itself, things and relation. I mean this talk to be a hymn to relation, or a hymn to everywhere. It deserves it. Relation and things are already in a poetic state. How a piano, lettuce, a child, something in history, a star are related—or any other five things—shows that the world in its deepest sense is up to something good.
It can be said that the purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to encourage a person to be in the best relation with the world, with oneself, and with everything else you can think of.