Friday, May 14, 2010

Reading Hemingway

To read a book at a particular time in life is to capture a moment. Never again will you have the exact same lens through which you view this very subjective experience. Each person looks at life, like reading, through the entirety of who they are. Great authors such as Hemingway are able to get past the lens and find something of the universal in each one of us.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is the first Hemingway book I’ve read since junior high. Back then it was The Old Man and the Sea. I don’t remember it. Hemingway for me is a brand new experience. His life, each life, is a lens as well. It is through his ability to convey his own humanity that makes this book what it is.

So in between the author Hemingway, and you or I as the reader stands interpretation. In a war novel, we are faced with many tough questions. Is the value of the cause worth killing and dying for? To Robert Jordan it was. For me, I have only viewed modern American warfare, which is quite simply imperialistic expansion. I am cynical as to any good motive for fighting a war. I have to take this viewpoint and combine it with that of Robert Jordan, who was fighting for and with an oppressed people. These people could not escape the fascists around them. They were forced into the situation. This is similar to the Palestinians and any oppressed peoples throughout the world today. It comes down to self-defense. What do you do if your wife, husband, mother, father, sister, brother, is tortured, raped or killed? Even with my anti-war stance, that takes me beyond. At that point, a part of me is violated. But I must be very careful here. Because the problem with this line of thinking is it can degenerate into pre-emptive warfare. Fear takes over, and your own drive for safety turns you into the tyrant you oppose. Not having been placed in this situation, it is difficult to say how I’d react, but I believe that I wouldn’t hesitate to fight. Not when it becomes as personal as my own family.

We see the internal dissonance that comes with war killing in the minds and thoughts of many of the characters. This is one of Hemingway’s strengths. Richard Wright has the same gift. Thoughts are experienced as if they’re our own. Hemingway shows the conflicts best when describing the internal dialogue in the minds of Anselmo and Robert Jordan. I was particularly struck by the old man Anselmo. At the end of the book he was forced to kill a stranger, but a fellow countryman. Anselmo realized what all of us who are pacifists have already contemplated. That man was not much different than himself. The sentry was not even a true fascist. He was probably forced to serve or die. But he stood in the way of Anselmo and his family and friends experiencing a peaceful life. What do you do when you live under tyranny and oppression?

Hemingway’s war story is a life story. There are themes of purpose, love, firm conviction, and the uncertainties of time.

Nor is the opportunity to show the importance of the moment missed by Hemingway. Robert Jordan realizes that a life well lived can be done just as much in 3 days as 30 years. It’s the quality and the experiences lived and learned that count. It’s the difference that you make in the lives of those around you. We may find it a bit unbelievable that Robert Jordan and Maria could really feel so strongly for each other so quickly. But Hemingway was showing the human mind when faced with mortality. Everything important and valuable rises to the surface and all else fades away. You feel death hovering inside the mind of Jordan. He thinks deeply about life, feels deeply, and loves deeply in his last days. He didn’t know if he was going to die, but he acted as if he were.

Some live their whole lives looking for purpose. Others find their voice and individuality very early in life. My interpretation of Hemingway at this moment in time has come through my own experience of looking death in the face. So, the book struck me as a search for the value of life NOW not later. That’s why I write about books. The exact same experience of a particular read will never happen again. I hope to see what this and other great books will mean to me in the future.

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