Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Getting a Zero

Cats in Finca Vigía. Ernest Hemingway Photographs Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
Brooks is still in Cuba, or still using it as a dateline. Naturally his favorite spot on the tourist itinerary has been the farmhouse of Finca Vigía, a few miles outside of Havana, where Ernest Hemingway started making his main winter residence a little before his 40th birthday and his marriage (the third) to Martha Gellhorn, in 1939. Brooks's meditations at that melancholy spot are the subject of his new essay, "Getting to Zero", and it's pretty unnerving.

It takes the form of what could have been a sketch for a chapter on Hemingway in The Road to Character, starting with a quick description of Finca Vigía as the setting, then outlining the elements of the novelist's long decline, as human and writer, during the 20 years he lived there, with his many severe moral failings, and finally looking for that redeeming feature that you can use in your own struggle to become a nice person, with eulogy virtues, like St. Augustine or D.D. Eisenhower. As you work through it, though, you're drawn irrepressibly to another kind of reading. The first sentence—
Havana — Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba seems like such a healthy place. It is light, welcoming and beautifully situated.
—for example, immediately makes me think:
Cleveland Park—David Brooks's house in the D.C. area seemed like such a healthy place. It had vast spaces for entertaining.
And when I get to
There are hundreds of his books lining the shelves, testimony to all the reading he did there. 
it's actually 9000 books, and I'm all like I bet in Brooks's library in the old Cleveland Park place the books probably did "line" the shelves, the way trees line driveways, making the prospect pleasing and enhancing the property value. That's not testimony to a lot of reading. Hemingway's books crammed the shelves and almost crushed them.

Photo by Tony Wheeler.
There’s a baseball diamond nearby where he used to pitch to local boys.
And a bar over on Connecticut Avenue where Davy used to pitch to high-concept editors. Heh.

But yes, while he thinks he's writing about Hemingway he is, to all intensive porpoises, writing about his deluded self. Brooks thinks he's Papa, even as his writing is especially most and saggy today. Or he's treating himself to some Hemingway therapy, trotting out his self-pity in Hemingway drag.

You see, Hemingway was essentially burnt out and finished by the time he turned 40, a sick drunk woman-abusing monster, yet such were his writerly skill and his iron discipline of cranking out those 500 words a day before getting his first whisky soda no matter what, that inside the millions of words he put out for the next two decades would be two authentic best sellers, a good one (For Whom the Bell Tolls) and a dreadful one (The Old Man and the Sea). And by the same token Brooks, who not coincidentally wrote his moderately amusing book just before he turned 40, and now a sad divorced guy, has steeled himself to write 800 words every Monday and Thursday afternoon before the cocktail hour no matter what the pressure, and often comes up with more stuff as well, at least when he has a good assistant. Also he's been to Africa, though I'm glad to say he didn't kill any animals, and now Cuba. You see where we're headed here.
His misogyny was also like a cancer that ate out his insides. He was an extremely sensitive man, who suffered much from the merest slights, but was also an extremely dominating, cruel and self-indulgent one, who judged his wives harshly, slapped them when angry and forced them to bear all the known forms of disloyalty.
Brooks's misogyny is more like a low-grade fever that just leaves him fatigued, like mononucleosis, and he sensibly avoids slights by not reading the comments. He has judged his single ex-wife with moderation and without violence, and subjected her to only a couple of the known forms of disloyalty.
By this time, much of his writing rang false. Reviewer after reviewer said he had destroyed his own talent. His former mentor Gertrude Stein said he was a coward.
As he moved into his mid-40s and beyond, virtually all of Brooks's writing rang false, or thudded, you know, or squished. Whatever sound it made was false. His former mentor William F. Buckley, Jr., retired, giving the National Review into other hands.
Yet there were moments, even amid the wreckage, when he could rediscover something authentic. Even at these late phases, he could write books like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea” and passages like some in “To Have and Have Not” and “Islands in the Stream” that remain loved and celebrated today.
To Have and to Have Not is actually from before the Cuba period, in the late 1930s. It's a terrible, incoherent novel, though the director Howard Hawks, the screenwriter William Faulkner (yeah, him), and the movies stars Bogart and Bacall were able to do something huge with it in Hollywood. Any passages from that that are loved and celebrated today certainly come from the movie. No passages whatever from Islands in the Stream are loved and celebrated by anybody, I'm pretty sure. Just saying.

Also, "at these late phases" is just a really odd expression.

Anyway, how did Hem manage to achieve some of the distinctions of his later life in spite of having become evidently incapable of them? Brooksian triad: (1) the discipline discussed above (the only piece Hemingway himself would have agreed to); (2) following the advice of Dorothy L. Sayers of "self-forgetting" (no evidence offered, and with good reason, that is certainly not something Papa ever did); and (3) "cutting out", for which he coins the phrase, "getting to zero":
When Hemingway was successful, he cut out his mannerisms and self-pity. Then in middle age, out of softness, laziness and self-approval, he indulged himself. But even then, even amid all the corruption, he had flashes when he could distinguish his own bluster from the good, true notes.
And for the second time in a couple of weeks, he lifts a quote from Maria Popova's Brainfarts or whatever it's called:
The poet David Whyte has written that work “is a place you can lose yourself more easily perhaps than finding yourself … losing all sense of our own voice, our own contribution and conversation.”
I'm surprised he doesn't know that David Whyte himself, a man after his own heart, facilitating corporate events and team building exercises with poetry.

Anyway the takeaway is, Hemingway succeeded once in a while in later years in doing the sort of thing he did in his youth by doing the sort of thing he did in his youth, in flashes. Thanks a lot, O guru! And Brooks, as we know, gets zero.

Holy shit it's bleak, when you think about it. Brooks going through the motions of being a writer, day after day, or two days a week in any event, in the hopeless hope of recapturing the cuteness he had 16 years ago, without any idea where it came from, except that he loyally scribbles his quotes and lays out his index cards. and persuades himself that he's not thinking about himself by talking about somebody else. And talks all day about this spiritual revelation he must know by now is never coming to him.

David Brooks thinks he's Hemingway, but he's really the older waiter in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" (1933):
"Good night," the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada...
No, Hemingway's the older waiter. Brooks is the old drunk who's clean—"He drinks without spilling"—and who's failed at suicide:
"He was in despair." 

"What about?" 


"How do you know it was nothing?" 

"He has plenty of money." 
It's just awful. I thought Driftglass would be onto it, the identification with Hemingway if not the suicidal aspect, and I wouldn't have to write it, but he found a different angle. So here it is after all.

No comments:

Post a Comment