Friday, April 20, 2012

Belief and Orthodoxy, Part 2

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what your were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if your stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to try to get it. (Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, 1932, p. 10)

One of the stories Hemingway may have been trying to write is "Soldier's Home". It is about a soldier who returns late from the first world war and finds that the people in his town are no longer very interested in hearing what happened there. "Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie, and after he had done this twice he, too, had a reaction against the war and against talking about it." This reminds me of Anne-Wil Harzing's disturbing study of the citation of expatriate failure rates in the literature. She found that the figure was systematically inflated. The only figure with any basis in fact is 8-11 percent, while the figure that is often is cited is 40% (sometimes even 70%). Moreover, very few researchers would cite the actual study that put a number on it. Most would cite second-hand accounts. It is not difficult to understand why people who study expatriate failure would want to cite a high figure (it makes their studies of, say, the cultural mechanisms of expatriate failure all the more "relevant"). This also resonates with Hemingway's story.

His lies were quite unimportant lies and consisted in attributing to himself things other men had seen, done or heard of, and stating as facts certain apocryphal incidents familiar to all soldiers. Even his lies were not sensational at the pool room. His acquaintances, who had heard detailed accounts of German women found chained to machine guns in the Argonne forest and who could not comprehend, or were barred by their patriotism from interest in, any German machine gunners who were not chained, were not thrilled by his stories.

By the end of the story, Krebs finds himself lying also about his love for his mother, his desire to be useful member of society, and his faith in God. This underscores the damage that his lying had already done to his character.

All of the times that had been able to make him feel cool and clear inside himself when he thought of them; the times so long back when he had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally, when he might have done something else, now lost their cool, valuable quality and then were lost themselves.
Notice the connection between "the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally, when he might have done something else" and "the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion". Here Hemingway is having one of his characters experience the same difficulties about storytelling that he himself experienced at the time. The problem is that of writing honestly.

Masterfully tongue-in-cheek, Andrew Gelman suggests that I should drive my point home with a story about a group of soldiers following a map in mountainous terrain. Perhaps I could have told the story of Krebs as though it was a true story, not a work of fiction, thereby performing the very mistake that I'm trying to warn against. And Andrew is, of course, alluding to the way Karl Weick exaggerated the "truth" of the story about those soldiers in the Alps. I like my solution: I tell the story along with some remarks about the storyteller's views on writing. This allows me to use the moral of the story in my advice for writers. (Indeed, as I show in a paper you can download here, it is possible to make a similar move with the Alps story. We can tell the story of how the story circulated among the scientists in Szent-Gyorgyi's circle, eventually ending up in a poem.) But Hemingway does allow me to invoke the joy that a good map can bring:

[Krebs] sat there on the porch reading a book on the war. It was a history and he was reading about all the engagements he had been in. It was the most interesting reading he had ever done. He wished there were more maps. He looked forward with a good feeling to reading all the really good histories when they would come out with good detail maps.

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