Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Literary Sage?

"When a situation gets so bad that no solution seems possible there is left only murder or suicide. Or both. These failing, one becomes a buffoon." (Henry Miller, Nexus, p. 36)

Over a number of posts this month (which I'm going to have to try to bring together in an essay of sorts) I've been trying to compare the mystical and the literary approach to "the encounter with nothingness". It is, of course, in precisely this encounter that existence is presented to us as a "problem". There are different ways of dealing with it.

Ramana Maharshi faced his fear of death in a single moment as a teenager and became a sage, perhaps the most sincere and most believable guru that ever lived. Ernest Hemingway, by contrast, appears to have spent his whole life trying to find the requisite courage, becoming arguably the greatest writer that ever lived in the process. That's not just hyperbole, though it's that too, of course. In his person (not just his books) Hemingway was more specifically a writer than perhaps anyone else, before or since.

But neither man is finally exemplary, at least from practical point of view. Ramana lived for twenty-three years in a cave before emerging as the resident sage in an ashram that catered for his every (albeit admittedly humble) need. This way is not very likely open to us; the meaning of his life clearly depends on our admiration, on what we project onto him. Hemingway, meanwhile, dealt our admiration of him a great blow by, as Mailer put it, "depriving us of his head". His hypothesis is that Hemingway "set out to grow into Jake Barnes and locked himself for better and worse, for enormous fame and eventual destruction, into that character who embodied the spirit of an age" (PP, p. 91). He believed that mood was everything and that it depended on "the excellence of your gravity, courage, and diction, that is to say, your manners." (92)

You might say there was a certain discipline in that. Indeed, he shared one of the core ambitions of the Pangrammaticon. He wanted the encounter (in his case with nothingness) to be articulate. This decidedly literary ambition is not shared by the mystic.

I think Mailer was on to something in tying Hemingway's fate to this reliance on style (a mood supported by "the excellence of your manners") to face down the emptiness of the cosmos. "[His] dreams must have looked down the long vista of his future suicide. ... Hemingway's world was doomed to collapse so soon as the forces of the century pushed life into the technological tunnel; with Hemingway, mood could not survive the grinding gears, surrealist manners ... static" (92). (Note: as far as I can tell, Mailer is writing this without knowledge of the electroshock therapy that Hemingway underwent in the last year of his life. I think this aspect of the "technological tunnel" prevents quite so clear a "vista" on the connection between Hemingway's existential and literary projects.)

Miller, by contrast, "did not wish to be a character but a soul," Mailer suggests (PP, p. 91). When he met him in Edinburgh in 1962, he noted that his personality was "all of a piece", "no neurotic push-pull", "extraordinarliy gentle without being the least bit soft":

Then you wonder at the gulf which forever exists between an artist's personality and his work — here particularly the violent smashing, fuck-you gusto of Tropic of Cancer and the strong, benign, kindly mood of the man today — and decide that writing is also the purge of what is good and bad in yourself, and the writers who write sweet books, pastorales, idylls, and hymns to the human condition, end up snarling old beasts in their senility, whereas Henry, after years of saying out every black thought he had in his head (and some silver ones too), is now forced to defend himself against the allegation that he is angel or saint. (EE, p. 263)

Miller himself was not above invoking the Dhammapada: "If you give up both victory and defeat, you sleep at night without fear" (Nexus, p. 38) "He is a force," Mailer tells us, "a value, a literary sage" (PP, p. 89); "Miller may have had a message that gave more life than Hemingway." (93)

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Update (14/02/14): The symbolism of Hemingway's suicide—that "he deprived of us his head"—has a been a running theme in these posts. So it's worth noting this reflection of Miller's in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

Most of the young men of talent whom I have met in this country give one the impression of being somewhat demented. Why shouldn't they? They are living amidst spiritual gorillas, living with food and drink maniacs, success-mongers, gadget innovators, publicity hounds. God, if I were a young man today, if I were faced with a world such as we have created, I would blow my brains out.

Though not perhaps a young man when he finally did it, Mailer's argument is that more or less that these were Hemingway's reasons. It can be argued that Ramana Maharshi and Douglas Harding were reacting in a similar but, of course, more spiritually constructive, way.

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