Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Farewell to Arms: Hemingway

Let’s start this rant with a reminder that Hemingway, a man’s man in the expat days at the freewheeling turn of the twentieth century, was a mosaic of the masculinity narrative: a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, gun-wielding, suit-wearing, elephant-killing, womanizing force on safari and rolling through the salons of Paris, casting his personality into all the nooks and crannies around him, filling the space and sucking out the air. But for all his seeming success, prowess and power, he was a deeply unsatisfied man, one who would eventually face a firing squad of his own making as he shot himself, ending a life that had become too painful to continue.
If not even white men with enough privilege to leave home, live off the income of their families while carousing in foreign lands can stand the message we are all of us supposed to live and uphold, what chance does anyone of the rest of us ever have?
The contemporary art and literature are rife with discontent and disgust at the modern, pre-crash era, from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to any number of works decrying corporate man, to the newly crafted voice of fear and uncertainty that is science fiction and all the mistrust of the dehumanizing elements and aspects of technology that the genre allows us to explore. The twenties wasn’t just fast and loose in the dance hall or on Wall Street; in Chicago and New York, the Italian mob was fighting tooth and nail for power over turf and transit and taxes, the usual purview of governments from time immemorial.
After the crash, those in power, most notably the FDR’s brain trust, the advisors who helped craft the New Deal, saw that traditional American adherence to the hands-off capitalist model, more narrative and rhetoric than actual policy or procedure, had taken the whole of the country from bad beginnings to worse ends by leaving too many holes and not providing any safety nets. The frontier was closed by the department of the interior in 1890 and the era of Industrialization was officially king, but within a generation, policies that favored the factory and its owner were decried as downright un-American, a callous framework for abuse and neglect that were actively sought to be ferreted out by the New Deal.
Today, we have again been seduced by the narrative and rhetoric of self-sufficiency and every man for himself, only now our society provides even less support for the corporate man or the manufacturing Joe. If we do not quickly reverse our course, it will again take us from bad beginnings to disastrous endings, and the writing is on the wall in the blood of black men, police officers and elementary school children of how destructive a path this is.
“Healthy masculinity means hope for the world in places where we have long felt only hopelessness.” One wonders if Hemingway would have liked more options. For all that he succeeded in a society where Wilde was condemned and imprisoned, it seems that Hemingway was the least happy and satisfied of his gang, the most interesting people in the world, while Wilde was vaguely bemused by everyone else’s confusion. While he may well have lost sleep and worried privately, Wilde certainly managed to hold the public veneer of one who was far removed and likely above the fray of common concerns such as adherence to the social code that others crafted long before he was born and to which he had never subscribed.
Oliver Wilde’s weapons remained, as ever, his words and his kind, unflappable demeanor in the face of hostility, confusion, fear, accusation and incarceration. Ernest Hemingway, steeped in the masculinity narrative that expressed itself through guns, wars, knives, domination had little in his toolbox to deal with his life off the page. Failed marriages, lost friends, rejection of family and country doesn’t disappear with a pulitzer, and he ultimately turned to the only tool that made any sense to him.
We absolutely must stop shooting. Ourselves, as well as each other. We need to stop the war on men, the war on women, the war on the poor, the war on the weak, the war on the old, the war on children. We need to stop. One century is long enough.