My favorite high schoool teacher didn’t like Ernest Hemingway’s machismo. He influenced me in that way. I didn’t either. It may explain a few things to know that Hemingway’s mother dressed him as a girl until he was 4 or 5 years old, though that was less unusual then than now.

Hemingway said that he wrote about grace under pressure. That means he wrote about courage, as the definition of courage is doing whatever needs to be done despite fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome it, and gracefully is how anyone would wish to do it. Looking at Hemingway’s history, I suspect that courage was something very personal to him, and his suicide suggests that eventually it failed him.

Fear seems to be an unavoidable part of life, especially if one is really living. It’s part of what helps us survive, since there are many things appropriate to fear. The law of gravity doesn’t care what your intentions are. If you step off a roof you will fall, so it’s wise to at least respect heights. But fear can, and often does, deform life. Jealousy is fear. Hatred is fear. Greed is fear. Anger is very often fear. You may believe you’ve conquered fear forever, but it’s doubtful that it’ll never return. I suspect it returned to Hemingway often.

At the same time that Hemingway was beginning to make a name for himself in Europe, George Gurdjieff set up his Institute for the Harmonic Development of Man outside of Paris. Katherine Mansfield, a famous writer at the time, had heard of him, and visited. She was suffering from terminal tuberculosis, and decided she wanted to stay there for what was left of her life. She knew, intellectually at least, that her life wouldn’t last much longer, though she probably hadn’t fully accepted that. Gurdjieff was a healer, among other things, and must have known that her tuberculosis was incurable. It’s also very possible he knew that if she stayed and died there he would be blamed. He allowed her to stay anyway.

She wasn’t able to take much physical part in the work going on, but was allowed to observe. She was given healthy food, and allowed to rest when she needed to. Writing to her husband she seems to have felt she had found something that had previously been missing in her life. She thought about how differently she would write if she were able to reoover, and called Gurdjieff “a man without quotation marks.” What did that expression mean to her?

According to Camille Paglia, writing in Sexual Personae, it has always been more problematic to be a real man than a real woman. Men generally have more to prove than women. Many women feel having a baby proves whatever they need to. Men’s lives may be more complicated in that respect. They may become aggressive or defensive because they feel they’re falling short in some respect. Men are expected to make lots of money, to have lots of women, to be responsible husbands, fathers and sons, to always be strong, and never weak…. That can be a lot to carry, and a lot of men may not feel able. They may not know just how they are failing, but may feel that they are, and find that nothing can make them feel secure.

At the time Katherine Mansfield came to his Institute, George Gurdjieff was trying to earn enough money to support it, by starting businesses and then selling them, or by investing in various enterprises. This at a time when he didn’t speak any European language, and had little time to learn. He did have students who could translate for him, though. Meanwhile, he was also trying to direct the activities at the institute and guide his students. So he would spend all day at the institute and all night in Paris, or vice versa, which eventually began to undermine his health. His health wasn’t extremely good to begin with. He had suffered three serious bullet wounds (he had been involved in various revolutionary activities), all three nearly fatal, and had contracted a number of serious diseases during his wide travels, some of which had become chronic, so that he was probably in fairly constant pain. He was no longer young, but had become wise with all he had learned during his travels, and many have testified that he was tremendously charismatic.

So what did he have that impressed Katherine Mansfield so much? He had interesting theories, but many people have those. He had traveled widely, but many have done that too. He explained it in terms of having a soul. Most religions assume that everyone has a soul. Gurdjieff said that humans have the potential to MAKE a soul, which, like everything else in the universe, is material, though of such a fine material that western science so far hasn’t noticed it. Doing this required a transformation that was complex, and the way to this transformation was what he taught. Perhaps it would be appropriate to say that he had experienced a great deal, and deeply. Life is out there, he said, not in here. He wanted to learn, and made great efforts to do so.

Katherine Mansfield didn’t survive long. She came to the institute in autumn, and died shortly after a Christmas celebration of a hemorrhage. Gurdjieff did get blamed by some for her death. He struggled on with his institute, and seemed to have gotten it on a secure footing after a trip to the USA where he lectured and his students gave demonstrations of ancient sacred dances. Many people contributed to his institute, and he was able to pay all his debts after returning to France.

But then he suffered a very serious auto accident, running into a tree on his way back from Paris. Doctors doubted he would live, but he eventually recovered just in time to find his wife and mother both had cancer. Both died within a year or two. The institute never recovered financially, and Gurdjieff spent much of his remaining life writing about his view of life and then teaching students whom he hoped would be able to correctly interpret what he had written.

Hemingway, in the meanwhile, had become a great success. A number of years ago I watched a drama (probably on PBS) in which all the characters were Hemingway. There were at least three: one was the young Hemingway, humble and without any particular accomplishment. One was the older Hemingway, just returned from a plane crash in Africa, an older and seemingly defeated man. One was the Hemingway in the middle, who had achieved success, and wasn’t particularly gracious about it. He was not portrayed as a very nice man.

I read a number of Hemingway’s novels when I was younger. The only one I liked very much was To Have and Have Not. Two or three years ago I reread The Sun Also Rises at the suggestion of an online friend. The only part I liked was when the Jewish guy beats everyone up, including the narrator, though the relationship the narrator has with one of the women in the novel is interesting. She’s not a particularly attractive character, sleeping with many of the men around her, and not seeming to care much about their feelings. She doesn’t sleep with the narrator, though, or if she does, he doesn’t tell us. Was the narrator Hemingway, or made up? He supposedly has some kind of wound from the recent war, and the implication is that it has made him impotent. Did Hemingway feel that way? Or is the character a fabrication for some other reason?

I read The Old Man and the Sea from Hemingway’s later novels, and remember almost nothing about it. I started reading Across the River and Into the Trees, but gave up on it. The main character, who wants to call every woman he speaks to daughter seemed pretty pathetic to me.

William S. Burroughs thought that writers have to choose between their lives and their work, and that most choose their work. He said that when they choose their lives, their work suffers, and he thought that’s what Hemingway had done.

Hemingway became an idol for many people, but despite his success, I think he was a sad man. His suicide seems to confirm that idea. Outwardly he seemed to embody manliness, but the inner reality seems to have been different. Just what his life was missing is debatable, but it seems to have been missing something.


2 thoughts on “Manliness

  1. I think one needs to know more about Hemingway’s life just before his suicide to know whether it was a loss of courage or an act of courage. I heard that he was severely depressed, and a friend told me that he was receiving electric shock therapy so strong it was destroying his memory, which as a writer was like living death. I have never investigated the circumstances to verify if this was true, but if so I think it makes a difference.

    • Dear Tom Gething,

      I don’t remember if I’d known about Hemingway receiving electric shock therapy just before his death. That probably does make a difference to some degree, but I wonder also just what the etiology of his depression was. I suspect there were psychological factors from his earlier life leading to that, but don’t know enough to say that for certain. You would think his condition had to be severe for electric shock to be used, but that’s a treatment that got used inappropriately often enough, like other things. I can only imagine what effect it would have on me, but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t like it. Thanks for your comment.

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