A Farewell to Arms

Having started “Alexander Hamilton” (by Chernow), I realized I must publish my post on “A Farewell to Arms”. And that in turn means I must make a confession: my mother is much smarter than I. I realized that once before, years ago, and then forgot it, repeatedly. Being an English prof also helps her case.

I was confused. So confused! What was “A Farewell to Arms” about? I wrote an entire introductory paragraph ridiculing the title of the book, but you will not be reading that. My mother the English prof claims the title of the book is practically the best thing about the book. Why? The main character simultaneously quits the military and loses the arms of his lover. So, the title is a double whammy and I missed it entirely.

Hopefully the rest of my thoughts are more incisive, and less embarrassing.

Were I to sum up this book I would say it’s an exploration or expression of a stoic view of pain. The main character, Henry – whose name you don’t get until about four fifths of the way through the book – is an unruffled, standard yet savvy fellow. Of the American breed, who has decided to join the Italian army. So normal. And given how normal it is, you are given no explanation.

[Spoilers follow, of the most regrettable kind if you intend to read this book.]

The author tells you Henry’s story with much emphasis on what bread, cheese, or wine he was consuming and with zero transitional phrases – get ready for bumps – but also with a lovely ease. Hemingway’s lack of ornamentation is refreshing. Soon after that it’s annoying, because it goes too far. His style becomes mildly abrasive and literally hard to be follow because, believe it or not transitions exist to, uhm, transition you. Along with transitions, Hemingway has kicked nearly all human emotion out the door: the book feels flat, one dimensional, unexplored, simplistic, stiff, stilted, nearly surreal (because I can tell you my life isn’t this colorless), and lifeless.

Harsh critique, right? At the same time as being lifeless, his simple descriptions of nature, or simply of the room the characters occupy, are somehow warm, compelling, and rich. He uses simple language – appropriately complementing his simple style – and it could be that the lack of difficulty in processing his word choice, and/or the conciseness (due to lack of ornamentation), brings his descriptions great clarity and therefore emotional impact. Anyway, I remember the cold air of the Swiss mountains they hiked through, and the red velvet of the hotel room where Catherine was concerned he’d think of her as a whore.

What I mostly remember however was the lack of depth of the romantic relationship in this book. Did Ernest Hemingway have a lover or wife ever? I would truly hope it carried more life than this relationship. The conversations that Henry and Catherine have are painfully simple. They are what I imagine eighth graders might have, eighth graders who are having sex and who are in the Italian military and who have slightly Victorian ideas of romantic relationships. “Are you pleased with me? I hope you’re pleased with me.” That’s Catherine. And then so often, the other character will respond with no response to what was previously said. They just change the topic, no warning, and the other person never gets upset or confused that the topic just changed or that the other person didn’t answer their question. Stilted, swift, unfinished conversations.

You know that time that Henry has a near-death experience and bravely dives into the river out of the hands and guns of the hordes of military men surrounding him who are about to kill him, and he miraculously gets away? Well, when he finds Catherine, he shares none of this story. Normal everyday occurrence, apparently. Instead, they go directly back to their “interesting” conversations. (They actually had the first interesting thing they could have talked about!)

Negative critique aside, it was fantastic to get my first Hemingway experience, to view the European countryside of World War I, to get an eye into Godless psychology (both Henry and Catherine “have no religion” as they put it) at a time when it was a little less acceptable, and to see one author’s attempt to address a wrong: the great pain of the world. This book is dark. Bleak. Empty. It’s not that you don’t get an interesting ride on the way down, but Henry’s own military trying to kill him at the end of the book, the miscarriage of his child, and Catherine’s death in labor bring the book to a quiet, horrible, and answer-less ending. The only element I can see consistently woven through the book is unanswered pain. Henry doesn’t care for his family – this is demonstrated in how little time he thinks about his family and in his response to Catherine’s concern for Henry to update his family with the fact that he’s alive. Henry has no ties to anyone that matters. His only real tie – which feels truly superficial – is to Catherine. His love, Catherine, dies a horrible and needless death, he loses his first child, and the book ends. He walks away in the rain.

Makes for good drama. And certainly he connects with his readers because who doesn’t know pain? But for me, it’s entirely unclear what the book is about. Meaning, if you are Ernest Hemingway, why write it? If life is so bad, where do you get the energy to write a book, and more importantly, to what purpose? There is some reason to be alive for Hemingway and, in this book, I see no reflection of it. I see only stoic expression of pain, no answer to pain, and resulting bleakness.

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YouTube Therapy

When I need to relax this is what I listen to.

 

It’s verging on hypnotic, read by Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve been amazed to note that poetry doesn’t work unless you devote yourself. The meaning is so thick, meaning every word counts, almost counting double in comparison to prose, that you need to be fully engaged to not miss something. This was written in 1819 so not all turns of phrase are immediately accessible, making it that much harder. But when the rhythm is right, such as in this clip, meaning is clearer. Conclusion: poetry appears to be compacted meaning and emotion carried on the winds of rhythm. And I love it.

For Connie

My thoughts in general are too large to fit into one little blog post, but this will have to do. Supposedly I’m finding a career for myself. This turns out to be the undertaking of a lifetime. How does one know what to with oneself before you get into it? I don’t think anyone knows whether they like a job until they start. Perhaps we shoot too high? Perhaps we shouldn’t expect to find jobs that are our fulfillment? Maybe I should be happy with the roof over my head and food in my kitchen and the general prosperity which is 21st century America. It is pretty nice. Amazing actually. Has society been asking too much of itself? 80% of people dislike their job/career. Man I’m normal! As a woman, I should probably be glad to be treated as an equal, to have options other than wife/mother/homemaker, to be able to vote, and to participate in sports. As a human, I should probably be happy not to live in a war-torn area, to have had a functional family growing up, to have food/shelter/clothing everyday, and amazingly enough to have education. I’m quite educated! Got me an MBA, and an undergrad degree.

With all that, I still think I should be able to find a career which isn’t traumatizing and which is generally enjoyable. What would that be? How do I know when I’ve shot too high? I googled “what to do with my life” today and the first link was TinyBuddha or something like that. That site, and all others, said what I already knew. Ask yourself – what do you love, what gives you life, what are you good at, and where do you want to be in 5 years. Ok, done that before. Fortunately, one or two sites were honest enough to say There is no formula but here are some ideas. Awesome! I believe that. If there were a formula, I would have executed it by now. There ain’t none. I like reading, writing, study, presenting, discussing, explaining, teaching, planning, communicating, and learning. Mostly I seem built for academia. Does that seem right? That’s what I’m currently leaning towards. I don’t need money. That’s for sure.

My window to my left shows nothing but snow, a mildly oppressive lack of light (it’s evening), and the stark outline of two trees. And part of a conifer.

Fortunately, while I can’t find a career or wish to play in the snow (I prefer looking at it), I can read Sherlock Holmes. And this stuff is the best! I promise! I swear. Good good stuff. Sherlock, the character, is entertaining, inspirational, and hilarious. Also, the best part of these stories? They are playful. This is crime not like our current crime shows do it – intense, urgent, everyone talks in the same cadence/rhythm (really, when will they learn to act?!), and taking themselves far too seriously. But these original Sherlock stories are whimsical, safe, relaxing, and even cozy, even with references to cocaine, death, and crime. What got me started? The recent BBC Sherlock TV series – I must say both are as good as each other (which is saying a lot!) and the TV series truly honors and does justice to the books, despite being a modern reincarnation.

Sunday ends my insane diet – avoiding all foods except fruit, vegetables, and meat. That is restricted! I will introduce dairy first, see what sort of my reaction that produces. Three days later, I will introduce sugar. And three days after that my first grain: corn, because I want to have popcorn at one of my movie nights. I’m doing this to find out what medical practitioners can’t tell me, which is, exactly what foods I am sensitive too. It is amazing what medicine doesn’t know. I think they don’t know most things. Anyway, I am currently gluten free but have the suspicion other food sensitivities may be floating around my system. We shall find out.

This post is long enough! Way too long! I am meeting the challenge of my sweet friend Connie, to whom I dedicate this post, to demonstrate that you can write about your complete lack of a career, snow, Sherlock Holmes, and health… all in one post.