Thursday, May 09, 2013

Danger, Difficulty, Death

Hemingway went to Pamplona in 1923 because, with no war going on, it was the only place he could observe violent death and he wanted his writing to proceed from such "simple things". In 1937 the situation was different. He could go to Spain now to observe death not in the bullring but in the field. "A writer's problem ... is always to write truly," he said, "and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes part of the experience of the person who reads it." For some reason, the truth was to be found in the vicinity of death. The "equipment for writing" had to be set up to "deal with" it.

You find a similar attitude about the importance of death in Lorca and Heidegger. "Death is Dasein's ownmost possibility," Heidegger explains (H. 263). "The Duende," says Lorca, "will not approach at all if he does not see the possibility of death."*

Hemingway described writing as difficult and, in wartime, dangerous. Echoing his 1937 remarks to the American Writers' Congress, he put it as follows in his 1958 Paris Review interview. The idea is to "[convey] experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I've worked at it very hard."

Part of the difficulty, of course, lies in discovering the truth, the "sequence of motion and fact", to convey. And this is where the danger comes in. "When a man goes to seek the truth in war," he said in 1937 (having just returned from Spain), "he may find death instead." During the 1958 interview, probably annoyed with the question—"What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer?"—he said:

Let's say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.

Or perhaps, as he later almost suggests, it would be sufficient to get into an airplane accident:

Certainly it is valuable to a trained writer to crash in an aircraft which burns. He learns several important things very quickly. Whether they will be of use to him is conditioned by survival. Survival, with honor, that outmoded and all-important word, is as difficult as a ever and as all important to a writer.

I like this theme of training, difficulty, and survival. It goes back to that "equipment for writing" of his that was unable to "deal with" the "definite action" of death in the bullring. But it also bears comparison to Ramana's mukti, which was altogether non-violent, and lacked any recognizable danger. Still,

The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the words: ‘Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.’ And I at once dramatized the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff as though rigor mortis had set in and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, so that neither the word ‘I’ or any other word could be uttered, ‘Well then,’ I said to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body am I dead? Is the body ‘I’? It is silent and inert but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So I am Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. This means I am the deathless Spirit.’ All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truth which I perceived directly, almost without thought-process.

Ramana "survived" a profound "experience" of death that "overtook" him. He learned a number of important things very quickly, we might say. Afterwards, it is said, he never feared death again.

*Perhaps in the twenties and thirties this seemed obvious. No serious writer, poet or philosopher, could deny the centrality of death. But why should this be so obvious? Arendt might have been onto something when she pushed back against Heidegger's insistence on our "ownmost" mortality with the simple observation that we were, just as certainly, once born too. Why should our future death be the basic fact of our existence? Why are we not, "proximally and for the most part", alive, not dying, having begun in birth, not heading towards our end in death?

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