A Moveable Feast

The version reviewed is the revised edition (“restored”) by Hemingway’s grandson in 2009. It wasn’t universally appreciated, mainly because people resist change, especially when it comes to a famous author’s famous work. I’m not going to go into the details here but go Google the topic for yourself and you can read the pros and cons of this version over that one. Let’s just say this version is kinder to young Hemingway’s grandmother.

Much of the back and forth debate is typical of family dynamics. Hemingway went through a lot of women and the original version of the book was published in 1964 by his fourth and last wife, who edited his work with an eye toward herself. It’s hard to fault her for being human and that seems to be the same truth for the new edition edited by the grandson.

Ernest Hemingway struggled with depression and underwent electroshock treatments at the end of his life. The most revealing insertion in this new edition is a quote added by Hemingway’s son Patrick who gave us this as his father’s last words on A Moveable Feast:

This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.

Ok, on to the book.

This is Hemingway’s last book and at the time of his suicide in 1961, the manuscript of his memoir-in-progress didn’t have a title, a finished introduction, or a final chapter. Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary, and an editor worked together to shape the memoir that was published in 1964.

It’s a book, all about writing and being young in the Paris of the 1920s. Hemingway writes generously about Ezra Pound and unkindly about Scott Fitzgerald and downright viciously about Gertrude Stein. If you watched “Midnight in Paris”, you have a good sense of Hemingway’s writing and sentence structure. The character actor who plays him does a great job and the scene with him and Owen Wilson alone in the car is classic. Go watch that on YouTube even if you don’t watch the whole movie.

My mother (God rest her soul) was an old fashioned church lady who worked the inner sanctum of old-lady politics with the best of them. The success or failure of many country preachers rested in her approval or lack thereof, and the one thing that would do them in fastest was “meddling” or worse, preaching a sermon and “naming names”. That means specifically talking about a named individual from the pulpit. It also however made the juiciest sermons. Herein lies the power of AMF. Hemingway names names.

He’s hard on just about everyone he knows, and harder on himself. He wrote

“What if you can no longer measure up, no longer be involved, if you have used up all your fantasies? A champion cannot retire like anyone else. How the hell can a writer retire? The public won’t let him. When a man loses the center of his being, then he loses his being. Retire? It’s the filthiest word in the English language. It’s backing up into the grave. If I can’t exist on my own terms, then existence is impossible. That is how I have lived and must live—or not live.”

Keep in mind, he did not finish this book.

In April of 1961 in Ketchum, one morning in the kitchen Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary found him holding a shotgun. She called a doctor who sedated him and admitted him to the Sun Valley Hospital; from there he was returned to the Mayo Clinic for electroshock treatments. He was released in late June and arrived home in Ketchum on June 30.

Two days later, in the early morning hours of July 2, 1961, he unlocked the basement storeroom where his guns were kept, went upstairs to the front entrance foyer of their home, and pushed two shells into the twelve-gauge Boss shotgun. He put the end of the barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote

Standing there I wondered how much of what we had felt on the bridge was just hunger. I asked my wife and she said, “I don’t know, Tatie. There are so many sorts of hunger. In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now. Memory is hunger.

What he was hungry for we will never know. The feast, in the end, was more elusive than moveable.

John 1: 1-5
In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

 

 

Dig Deeper


The Life of Stories, the Life in Stories

 

In a witty yet harrowing story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, a desultory medical student comes across a Bible while idling away his time at an isolated ranch. He decides one evening to read the opening of the Gospel of Mark to the illiterate ranch foreman and his family. As he reads he feeds off their excitement, and it occurs to him “that throughout history, humankind has told two stories: the story of a lost ship sailing the Mediterranean seas in quest of a beloved isle, and the story of a god who allows himself to be crucified on Golgotha” (400).

They might quibble a bit about the number Borges offers—perhaps it’s three rather than two, or maybe we tell versions of five different tales—but most students of narrative would agree with his basic point. The stories we tell have common shapes and fit our experience into orderly forms, and the number of different types of stories is limited. Stories differ dramatically in their details, but each in its own way speaks of beginnings and ends, of rises and falls, of confusion that befuddles and disclosures that make things clear at last. Stories take the seemingly random facts of our experience and place them within a larger context; they make prominent what we take to be vital, and they dispense with things we consider trivial. Stories channel the aimless flow of time and turn our wanderings into quests. They have the power to cast us into dark despair, and just as quickly, they may flood our experience with illuminating clarity.

What we make of the stories we tell depends in good measure on what we take our own roles to be in the stories we live. In After Virtue, a classic study of moral theory, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that cultures are like certain forms of drama—“Japanese Noh plays and English medieval morality plays are examples”—that have a set of stock characters whom audiences recognize immediately. To a considerable degree, these characters limit and define the possibilities of plot and action. In understanding them, MacIntyre says, we find a way of interpreting the behavior of the actors who play them “because a similar understanding informs the intentions of the actors themselves,” and other actors define their own roles in relationship to the central characters.13

The same holds true for cultures, which produce their own limited stock of characters whose actions provide insight into the core values of the culture. Such characters represent a “special type of social role,” in that they have “a certain kind of moral constraint” placed on their actions; understood in this sense, characters have both moral and dramatic associations. To explain the distinction between roles in general and characters in particular, MacIntyre asks us to consider the difference between a dentist and a garbage collector, on the one hand, and a bureaucratic manager, on the other. The former are not characters in the way the latter is, and the reason has to do with the way characters embody central moral assumptions of their age and “are, so to speak, the moral representatives of the culture.” Through characters, the crucial ethical and metaphysical ideas of a culture are enabled to assume “an embodied existence in the social world. Characters are the masks worn by moral philosophies.” The bureaucratic manager is a mask of contemporary moral values in a way that the dentist and garbage collector never can be.14

To MacIntyre, the dominant characters of contemporary postindustrial culture are the Rich Aesthete, the Therapist, and the Manager. Rich Aesthetes see the social world as “nothing but a meeting place for individual wills” and an arena in which they may pursue their own satisfaction; for the Aesthete, the last and greatest enemy is boredom. The Therapist represents more than a branch of psychology and medicine, for the concept of the therapeutic has entered fully into the mainstream of modern culture. To MacIntyre its prevalence is seen in the manifold ways in which psychological effectiveness has supplanted truth as a value. And, finally, the Manager represents the triumph of bureaucratic control over interest groups whose values conflict. In the culture of the Manager, authority has little or nothing to do with questions of truth and value, for “bureaucratic authority is nothing other than successful power.”15

For our understanding of modern literary culture, I would add a fourth character to MacIntyre’s list—we might call this character the Daring Warrior. This is a figure that any student of the literature and philosophy of the past 150 years will readily recognize. He or she is the one who has the courage to face unflinchingly the hardest truths of the modern condition. The Daring Warrior does not do battle against any human foes but struggles against the twin spirits of hostility and indifference that appear to divide between them the rule of the world.

The Daring Warrior has taken to the stage in an endless number of the dramas played out in the literature, visual art, and music of our time. She is the patient, saintlike heroine of George Eliot’s novels; he is the man who bravely demonstrates grace under pressure in the stories of Ernest Hemingway; and they are the women and men of popular music—from Jim Morrison to Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse—who do what they can to defy the nihilistic demons before they are themselves done in. “We picture the world as thick with conquering and elate humanity,” says the narrator of Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel”:

but here [on the prairie], with the bugles of the tempest pealing, it was hard to imagine a peopled earth. One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb. The conceit of man was explained by this storm to be the very engine of life. One was a coxcomb not to die in it. (822)

Courageous human conceit as the engine of life—this is the bravery of the Daring Warrior, and we are called by Crane to ponder the moral significance of such daring. Crane clearly finds there to be “a glamour of wonder” in our willingness to face the hostile loneliness of our lives on this “space-lost bulb” and to refuse to be cowed by it. Such an attitude is superior to a naïve desire to believe in God or a foolish willingness to hope for the future. The Daring Warrior would easily pass what F. Scott Fitzgerald famously defined as “the test of a first-rate intelligence,” which “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”16

As a social role and character, the Daring Warrior draws on several philosophical sources, one being a modern version of ancient Stoicism and the other an offshoot of the naturalistic materialism that came to the fore in the late nineteenth century. The Stoic tradition counseled individuals to live in accord with nature and to submit themselves to the providential plan underlying all of reality, including human experience. Nineteenth-century naturalism accepted the Stoic call to endurance, but it was nature as mechanism to which it submitted, not nature as Logos-bearer. As a result, the constraints of the Daring Warrior’s role required the lonely individual to oppose all suggestions that a personal God might be the creator, ruler, and reconciler of the world as we know it. To live without the comfort of belief in such a God became the sine qua non of one brand of modern heroism.

The code of the Daring Warrior differs sharply from that of a more ancient Christian ethic, and that difference shows itself clearly if we set side by side paragraphs from two books by twentieth-century writers. The first passage comes at the very end of The First Three Minutes, a study of the origins of the universe written by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. In it, he moves far beyond the confines of science to face what he takes to be the ultimate question:

As I write this I happen to be in an airplane at 30,000 feet, flying over Wyoming en route home from San Francisco to Boston. Below, the earth looks very soft and comfortable—fluffy clouds here and there, snow turning pink as the sun sets, roads stretching straight across the country from one town to another. It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.17

The second passage serves as the opening of C. S. Lewis’s 1941 sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (25–26)

To Weinberg, the only authentic story that can be told about our world is one in which the primary agent of action is mindless matter spinning in pointless motion. All our other accounts of life that we might offer are nothing more than fabulous fictions that may shelter us, but only briefly, from the cold, brutal fact of our plight. For the more that we learn about the “overwhelmingly hostile universe” we inhabit, the less we are able to believe it has any meaning intended for us. The wise thing for us to do is to renounce our desires for assurance and, like a sheriff facing down a scoundrel, look this terrible truth in the eye with courage and without flinching.

Lewis draws an opposite lesson about our desire to believe in meaning and reward. By nature and through the grace of God, he explains, our lives and the world in which they unfold are enfolded within an order that God has created and continues to sustain in love. If we are prone to consider deprivation and meaninglessness as our heroic lot in an indifferent universe, it may be that we do so because we mistakenly prize unselfishness more than love. We have come to believe that self-denial is our highest calling and that it is more virtuous to renounce our needs than to hope for their fulfillment.

On this matter, Lewis links up with MacIntyre through their emphasis on the virtues, those moral goods and ideals that, according to Aristotle and Aquinas, God has woven into the fabric of creation. To believe in such virtues is to acknowledge that God has established certain ends for human life and the created order. When, for example, Augustine cries to God at the start of the Confessions, “Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in Thee,” he is testifying to his conviction that however aimless our strivings and longings may seem to be, they point to a story-shaped form that God has written into the cosmos and inscribed upon our hearts.

To Weinberg, such a belief is incomprehensible in light of what we know about the impersonal laws that generate and regulate all of life, including that curious, self-reflective, language-saturated form of life that only we humans know. The steely resignation Weinberg promotes is rooted in a Stoic view of virtue as freedom from passion achieved through self-mastery. To embody this virtue in late modernity, we are called to align our wills with nature and to resign our hearts to its sublime indifference.

It is in this context that Lewis suggests that if we believe it wrong to long for our own good, such a “notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.” He rejects what he calls the “negative ideal of Unselfishness” and says that if we consider “the unblushing promises of reward” as well as their “staggering nature” as Jesus describes them in the Gospels, it would appear “our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.” We would prefer to conclude, that is, that our lives are stories of desiccation and decline than believe the unblushing promise of a staggeringly happy ending. When it comes to telling and hearing the story of our destiny in a world ruled by the risen Word, we do indeed seem, as Lewis said, to be “far too easily pleased.”

Sources & Resources

13 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, rev. ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 27.

14 Ibid., 27–28.

15 Ibid., 23–35.

16 F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up,” in The Crack-Up, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: New Directions, 1956), 69.

17 Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, updated ed. (New York: Basic, 1993), 154. In a different context, I discuss the Weinberg passage in From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (2005; repr., Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 131–33; I discuss “The Weight of Glory” in The Culture of Interpretation: Christian Faith and the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 216–17.

Roger Lundin, Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief, ed. William A. Dyrness and Robert K. Johnston, Cultural Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: A division of Baker Publishing Group, 2014), 112–117.

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Rick is an ordained minister who is voraciously interested in the holistic transformation of people individually and in an organizational context - enabled by technology, educated continuously through multi-channel systems and informed by the wisdom of history's greatest thinkers. He is a Ph.D. student at Faulkner University, focusing on English Literature in the context of Classical Education. He earned a Master of Arts in Christian Education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Science in Management from Sam Houston State University. His undergraduate studies earned a BA with double majors in Sociology and Theology from Houston Baptist University. Rick is Deputy Director of PACES PAideia Classical School and leads the Parenting Teens Adult Community at Faith Bible Church in The Woodlands Texas.