As the famously grouchy Ernest Hemingway once said, it’s very rare to find an intelligent, happy person. Of course, I’m paraphrasing. (Mostly because I suspect this will seriously piss off old Ernie, wherever he is. …Hell, probably.)
My whole life, I’ve been fascinated by this happiness/knowledge connection. Is it better to see/feel/know too much, and risk becoming broken and jaded? Or protect yourself from certain aspects of life, and remain innocent, even naive in certain respects? Which path makes for the utmost happiness? Is it possible to live both ways?
As the saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” Someone far less famous than Hemingway said that. (But I’m using quotes anyway, because take that, you drunk old bastard! Maybe be a little less verbose in the next life.) But what do we most commonly associate with a state of bliss? Ignorance, for one thing, because of that saying. Pleasure, usually fleeting, characterized by its connection with carnal pursuits, drug use and the dystopian state of having complicated thoughts removed from our heads? Or, if you prefer the Webster definition, a form of “perfect joy.”
Perfect is something I’ve never seen in this life. So, being somewhat agnostic (much like our literary friend, Wallowy McGee), I cannot say with any authority whether it exists. But I do believe in happiness, because I have felt it. Ironically, most strongly in some of life’s least perfect moments.
To me, happiness has always seemed less of a state and more of a nebulous and personal concept that most people spend their entire lives attempting to define. More ink blot than emotion, happiness is whatever you want it to be, and what it looks like changes from moment to moment based on experiences and the inevitable paradigm shift of a life fully lived.
That said, I realize this is only my opinion, and one many people do not share. However, I’ve noticed a lot of people–that lovable yet blustering, bearded literary d-bag included–try to impress their definition of happiness on others. Drinking to make the world around you seem more interesting is one thing, but telling other people what happiness is, or isn’t, just seems like kind of a waste of time. Judging the source seems even less worthwhile, if possible. Especially if you’re pointing to people and saying “Oh, he’s only happy because he doesn’t know any better.” Or, “It’s impossible for me to be happy, because I know too much.”
In my sometimes less than humble opinion (still more humble than Hemmy, though, holla!) I don’t think happiness has anything to do with the intelligence level of the person who is (or is not) experiencing it. Instead, I submit that true happiness is the ability to choose whether to laugh or cry at any given moment. No matter what is happening. They say “discretion is the better part of valor,” and “cleanliness is next to godliness.” But that doesn’t have to mean indiscreet acts are always cowardly, or dirty people are closer to hell. (Except Hemingway, of course. We all know it; even he knew it, and he was too drunk to get home half the time.)
Seriously, though. I believe knowing when to stop taking things so seriously is one of the coolest and most useful benefits of higher cognition. A good sense of humor is what separates us from the plankton, and the republicans. It gives us power over pain like nothing else in the world.
And some of the funniest people I know are also the smartest, and happiest, because they’ve figured this part out. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Sighballs Stogeyface. I defy your assertion–however misquoted–that you can’t question and explore, devour all the knowledge you can hold, and still take limitless joy in all the world’s f***ed up glory. Laughing at things like Epic Fail videos on YouTube, and political satire, and Milli Vanilli, and wine.
To be fair, Old Blustery and I do agree on one thing, and on this topic I will happily quote him: “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”
You know what, Ernie? You’re okay. Carry on, my white-bearded bro.
One thought on “Mirth > Bliss: An Open Letter to Ernest Hemingway, Who I Openly Hate”
I must say that Hemingway’s books have not aged well, to say the least. They are filled with disappointing endings, pointless death scenes and dialogue, and various other remarkably amateurish things that writers often advise other writers to never, ever do. I honestly have to wonder if an editor ever even saw them. I know that it might seem like sacrilege to criticize the great Writing God Hemingway as being rather amateurish, but I suspect his reputation as a “Writing God” was formed in another time, under another set of values, which have long since gone away. I have seen many books far better-written than Hemingway’s from a dramatic point of view, and even just in terms of good writing.
My reaction to Hemingway is very like that of Bradley Cooper, in the movie “Silver Linings Playbook.” Cooper reads to the end of Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell To Arms, and freaks out. The reason? (Spoilers!) The wife of the main character in A Farewell To Arms just DIES for no apparent reason, leaving her man bereft and alone, and very very sad – and after an entire book of the man attempting to find his woman, overcoming enormous obstacles, until (seemingly) finally achieving victory and happiness! Pointless, cliched, and amateurish.
I have seen writers such as Stephen King – together with so many different writing instructors – advise other writers to never, ever have the main character fail entirely to achieve his/her goals by the end of a long novel. Readers do not stick with a main character through a 200 or 300 page book (or longer), just to see him/her struggle, struggle, struggle, and then suddenly fail to triumph at the end. It’s the equivalent of seeing a hero struggle brilliantly against the bad guys for a long, involved epic, only to have the hero fail completely at the very last moment, and the bad guys win. Yech. What an ugly ending. Whatever Hemingway’s ultimate point in writing such an ending, dramatically, it doesn’t work. Readers tend to feel cheated by having the main character fail completely; they feel frustrated and let down, as does Cooper in the movie – he throws the book out a window – and most of Hemingway’s books seem to have similarly amateurish and unsatisfying endings in them.
In Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (more spoilers!) the main character, Jordan, fails to escape from an ambush scene during World War Two, and, wounded, spends the last pages of the book gasping out his final breaths, waiting for the enemy to arrive and kill him. No point, no victory, no triumph – just pointless death. And after a whole book of difficult, heroic struggle, too. This is fantastically unsatisfying, and actually made me quite angry as a reader at Hemingway for wasting my time and for cheating me. Having a main character die at the end of a long novel is another huge literary no-no, and it also tends to make readers feel cheated and frustrated. Unless the death is done very, very well, as is Dumbledore’s death in Harry Potter, writers should not kill main characters at a novel’s end – and Jordan’s death is not anywhere NEAR as satisfying and well-done as Dumbledore’s.
And in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the main character, Jake, spends a great deal of the book pursuing a girl named Brett, who in the end just decides arbitrarily to have a relationship with Mike, another rival character – and Jake and Brett spend the final pages of the book in a taxi, discussing “what might have been.” Another disgusting, pointless ending, where the difficulties are not overcome, and it all just ends because it ends. This no doubt prompted one reviewer at the time to say of the book that it “begins nowhere and ends in nothing.” I must say I heartily agree.
Why did Hemingway frequently write endings that other writers tend to describe as amateurish and cliched? My suspicion is that he was trying to be all “literary” and “serious.” It’s almost as though he’s saying, “Look at how most of my main characters fail in the end! I must indeed be a very Serious Writer, who takes Literature VERY Seriously, and who is trying to make a very Profound STATEMENT. Life and Death, wow! Meaning and meaninglessness, ooh!”
I personally think it’s just plain bad writing. But hey.
Hemingway’s books also tend to be remarkably boring and dull, no doubt arising from his amateurish grasp of drama, as demonstrated by his hackneyed bad endings. He does little to satisfy the reader in most of his books, in their middles OR at their ends, preferring to remain unspokenly Profound, and (as I said earlier) it doesn’t work. Writers can be as profound as they want, but if they don’t have a dramatically interesting story to tell, it really doesn’t matter. As Stephen King says, most readers just want a good story, something to get lost in – and I think most people today find it very, very difficult to get lost in Hemingway’s writing. I don’t see any major movies being made of his books today, as there are (for example) for J.R.R. Tolkien – whom I consider to be a vastly superior writer to Hemingway. The reason seems to be that Hemingway’s books are, for the most part, not very interesting or dramatic, and are often awkwardly written and amateurish in their endings. At least Frodo Baggins destroys the Ring in The Lord Of The Rings; most of Hemingway’s characters just seem to die or fail at life (or both). I really don’t see blockbuster material here, or even very good writing.
As for Hemingway’s “short” sentences, I have to say that most of them are not really all that short. H. G. Wells, for example, in his masterpiece “The Time Machine,” uses much, much shorter sentences than Hemingway tends to – and “The Time Machine” was published in 1895, far earlier than Hemingway, and is a much more interesting and well-written read than anything Hemingway ever wrote.
Sometimes a writer’s work just ages badly – and I think it’s time for a major re-evaluation of Hemingway’s books in general. The best-selling author during Hemingway’s time was not Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Salinger – it was Edgar Rice Burroughs, the inventor of Tarzan, which really says something, I think – Hemingway never created any characters as deep, memorable or unique as Tarzan; every school-child has heard of Tarzan. And reading Burrough’s actual books, it is very clear that Tarzan himself is an absolutely remarkable character; he doesn’t just stay in the jungle like in the movies; he becomes an English Lord, and a soldier, and distinguished himself by fighting in World War Two. Way better than Hemingway’s war stories. Even Hemingway’s CHARACTERS aren’t all that terribly great or compelling, and I think it’s about time he shouldered some criticism for that too.
In summary, I find Hemingway to be a rank amateur writer, about whom I cannot understand why various “literary” people frequently make so much fuss – maybe they just like dull, uninteresting stories with cliched endings. I think much of his reputation as a “Writing God” is thoroughly undeserved, and should in fact be revoked. He doesn’t challenge me intellectually or dramatically; his badly-written stories mostly just frustrate me and annoy me, as they did Bradley Cooper – and as I think they do most people with any real experience with more expertly-written stories. Now that I’ve actually READ most of Hemingway’s books – most recently The Old Man And The Sea – I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. Why is Hemingway so famous? I think it’s just an accident, really. I think he just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and for no other reason. Editors frequently say that there are absolutely no rules in the publishing business, about why one writer becomes famous, and another does not. If it happens, then it happens. I think Hemingway is just an overall bad writer who got very, very lucky – and I think he has been unfairly held up for years before the rest of us as what a writer SHOULD be, despite his rather boring stories, unmemorable characters, and amateurish endings.
In the words of Bradley Cooper, “No, no, I’m not going to apologize to you; ERNEST HEMINGWAY needs to apologize, because THAT’S who’s at fault here. That’s who’s to blame.”
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