Papa Hemingway Knew Best; Banking on the Past
Papa Hemingwaywas born 100 years ago this year and died by his own hand 38 years ago thisweek. I spent a day with him in 1954, when I spotted him walking-swaggering,really-up 5th Ave. He was wearing a rumpled brown tweed suit, beautiful cordovanshoes and a regimental tie. He went into El Borracho, a popular restaurant ofthe time, just off Madison Ave., that one my parents used to take me to oftenwhen I came in from boarding school. El Borracho had a quaint custom of askingevery lady customer to leave an imprint of her lips on a piece of paper, andits walls were covered with lipstick snippets. Some of the names were very famous,some not.
Papa wentstraight to the bar and ordered a tall drink. I waited shyly by the door, butas the barman sort of knew me, I finally approached the great man, asked himif I could sit with him and ordered a Tom Collins. Although I was just 16, Papa'sfame was such that the barman never dared question my right to drink. In fact,Papa could not have been kinder, and went as far as to quote from some of hisbooks for my benefit. We spent at least three hours together, Papa becomingmore Hemingwayesque as the drinks kept coming. He did not allow me to pay fora single one. By the time the bar filled up around eight in the evening we wereboth completely plastered. I asked him to come for dinner with my folks at theSherry Netherland, where old Dad kept a year-round suite, but he declined. "Theold lady's up and waiting," he said, or something to that effect.
I walkedback to the Sherry on the proverbial Cloud 9, and talked about Papa to everyoneI came into contact with the way people during the Stalingrad siege talked aboutfood. Relentlessly and nonstop. There was only one problem. My Hemingway turnedout to be a fake Papa. A newspaper report nailed the ersatz Hemingway as a well-to-dosalesman from New Jersey obsessed with the author. To say I was crushed wouldbe a grotesque understatement. Thank God, however, the phony Papa was exposedbefore I went back to school. I still cringe at the thought of what my schoolfriends would have done with the Taki saga of "Papa and I."
And nowto the real McCoy. Being Greek, I have never been in any doubt as to who isright in the centuries-long struggle between the Ancients and the Moderns. Myancestors knew what they were talking about when they declared that man does not control his fate. He is helpless while the gods toy with him. Oedipus didnot knowingly do anything to deserve his ordeal. It was the fate the gods haddecided for him. Shakespeare's protagonists, on the other hand, are broughtlow by their own failings. Othello and Lear are done in by their vanity, Macbethby his ambition, Hamlet by his indecisiveness. And they all rail at the terriblehand that life has dealt them.
Not Papa.Here was someone writing about heroic figures who understood fate and did souncomplainingly: Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, Jake Barnes inThe Sun Also Rises, Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms-incidentally,the best-written novel in the English language.
The 1950swere good years for heroes. The Bill Clintons of this world did not count backthen. The virtues celebrated by Papa were mostly about courage. He did not espousethe fashionable idea of today that we are all heroes the moment we venture outof bed. Heroes were those who sought to enact in their own lives the tensionbetween mortality and immortality. The heroes were those who went to war, thosewho were ready to fight for honor.
Needlessto say, Papa, the poet of machismo, is not liked by critics, the academy andfeminists. But no one can approach Hemingway in the craft of writing. He madenarrative prose into a physical medium, took out the fanciful, and-as Jeffrey Hart wrote in National Review-"used simple sentences" that"require you to think." Every word of early Hemingway counted. Andcounted a hell of a lot. Here is Prof. Hart quoting Hemingway: "And howelse could the novel end, other than it does, with Frederic at last outsidethe window?' "After a while I went out and left the hospital and walkedback to the hotel in the rain.' This novel puts war in the foreground, but itsreal subject is our nakedness before death. We are all finally outside the window,like the soldiers of the opening." See what I mean about Papa making everyword count?
Sure Papahad a terrible end, dying prematurely old, an emotional and physical wreck,writing parodies of his old self. It was the price he paid for living dangerously,and living up to the very virtues he chose to write about, the masculine virtuesof fortitude, of violence, of the nobility of failure. For someone like me,brought up during a war, there were only Hemingway heroes to look up to: DylanThomas, destroying his art by drinking and whoring until he dropped dead; CharlieParker playing 52nd St., his arms scarred with heroin tracks, dying with hiswoman; Rocky Graziano, smoking in the locker room before going out to fightTony Zale; Ted Williams, the best baseball player of his time, volunteeringfor flying missions over North Korea.
I like toquote the first story Hemingway ever published, as an 18-year-old cub reporter.Compare its youthful take on a dance to the crap novels of today about fecklessmoody youths fighting dreariness, the horrors of ennui and bad cocaine:
"Outside,a woman walked along the wet lamp-lit sidewalk through the sleet and snow. Inside,on the sixth floor of the YWCA building, 1020 McGee Street, a merry crowd ofsoldiers from Camp Funston fox-trotted and one-stepped with girls from the FineArts School while a sober-faced young man pounded out the latest jazz music...
"Ina corner a private was discussing Whistler with a black-haired girl who hadbeen a member of the art colony at Chicago. Outside, the woman walked alongthe wet lamp-lit sidewalk."
Now that'swhat I call writing.
How nearare Americans to losing their liberties? Maybe it's a question only for theblack helicopter set, or those overly attached to their guns or solicitous aboutthe kind of Christian sects Janet Reno doesn't care for. Surely regular folkshave little to worry about. Only tolerant Republicans and Democrats are nearthe levers of power, and the powerful opinion-makers would defend to the deathyour right to say or believe something they disagreed with. Wouldn't they?
Except thisveneer of tolerance is now wearing a little thin. Earlier this month TheWall Street Journal ran on its front page an extraordinary story-extraordinaryin what it revealed about how ready contemporary liberals are to limit freedomsprevious generations took for granted. The subject was Wickliffe Preston Draper,a "New York millionaire" who sent cash to a Mississippi pro-segregationoutfit in the early 1960s. Draper comes across as an eccentric, a big-game-huntingbachelor who became interested in eugenics in the 1930s and established a fundto encourage Air Corps pilots to have more children, an impulse Theodore Rooseveltwould have understood.
Though Nazismwould soon render this turn of mind unfashionable in the Western democracies,Mr. Draper's interest didn't flag. Instead it took a racialist slant, and tomake a long story short, the civil rights era was an unhappy time for him.
The Journalarticle focused on gifts of "nearly $215,000" that Draper transferredto the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission in 1963. This quasi-officialbody was set up by Mississippi state House politicians to lobby against thecivil rights bills then gaining steam in Congress. It also worked to undermineviolent and criminal opposition to the civil rights movement.But here was theJournal's peg for this interesting but not especially newsworthy story:Draper's bank, Morgan Guaranty, actually performed the fiscal transfers theirclient asked them to.
Thus muchof the piece consists of a back and forth about whether or not Morgan Guarantyacted immorally in carrying out client instructions. The episode "highlight[s]the ethical issues that confront an institution like Morgan Guaranty?when itis drawn, even unwittingly, into a client's support for repugnant causes."Thomas Donaldson, a professor in "business ethics" at the WhartonSchool, opines that bankers should have the words "Know thy client"tattooed on their chests, adding that when a customer's actions "offendvital, deeply held values of the institution, you have to say no." On theother side, Morgan spokesman Joe Evangelisti says, "We can't tell our customershow to spend their money."
There youhave it. The Journal reports, readers decide: Does a U.S. citizen havea right to send his own money to a legal American organization, or is it a bank's"moral" duty to block the transfer on grounds of political correctness?
The questionis breathtaking. Whatever assessment of the civil rights movement historiansultimately reach (which may well be more nuanced 100 years from now than itis today), in 1963 the question of whether the federal government had the authorityto require integration in private accommodations was far from settled. Segregationin the South, which had not been challenged by FDR or Truman or more than half-heartedlyby Eisenhower, was on the way out and would likely have expired from sheer absurditywithin a generation. But it wasn't going easily. Most white Southerners stillsupported it in some form. Nationally prominent conservatives like Barry Goldwaterand William F. Buckley opposed the federal civil rights juggernaut in the nameof limiting the power of government. In Congress, enthusiasts for the civilrights bills generally came from lily-white northern districts, with no experienceof racial divisions. Balanced accounts of the struggle to push the bills through(like Robert Mann's The Walls of Jericho) rightly paint their main Southernopponents as moral and principled men. To put them beyond the pale of decency,as the Journal so cavalierly does, is a bit scary.
Of coursethe impulse to impose restraints on those whose actions we don't like may lurkin all of us. As I was talking through this column, a close friend told me shewouldn't mind if banks froze the assets of the producers who make huge fortunesfrom the dissemination of gangster rap, violent movies and video games. I couldn'tagree, though they are surely a more ignoble bunch than the Mississippi StateSovereignty Commission. Perhaps that's an ethical issue for the Journal's editors to ponder next: Should major banks continue to accept business fromTime Warner, News Corp., Disney, etc.? But don't hold your breath waiting forthat one.
HAMLET Games People Don't Play
My schoolclass was the one most wounded by the 60s. Here's a sure test: Among the thosewho graduated in 1967 from my elite high school (the Eton of Chicago) not oneof us who was the son of a doctor became a doctor himself. But while we boysof the intellectual elite were dosing ourselves with all the nostrums of ourtime, two groups among our schoolmates were preparing themselves to do muchbetter.
More-perhapsmost-of the black kids became doctors. On the other hand, there were the irresponsiblewhite boys, sons of businessmen rather than of professionals like our dads,who neglected their studies and ignored our ecstasies, but spent their timeplaying poker for breathtaking stakes beneath the basement stairs. For themanother fate awaited: They stayed in Chicago and became traders in the futuresmarkets, some of them making fortunes big enough by their mid-30s to retire. The gambling skills they honed on the sly gave them a sense of odds and proportionand timing that served them well.
I thoughtof this reading William Safire's latest spluttering denunciation of state lotteries.Safire can't see that gambling exists for a reason. It crystallizes in a fewhours humankind's encounter with fate-uncontrollable, but within limits delicatelypredictable. Gambling's utility is to offer a playful way to get a grip on howchance and probability operate in our world. Fortune plays an enormous rolein a life lived by anyone who isn't a peasant tied to a single patch of ground;it is our reality, civilization's substitute for natural selection. And nowadaysgambling offers a far more meaningful and useful encounter with nature in thesense of ultimate reality than do hunting and fishing.
Lackinga sense of fortune's interplay with events, it's all too easy never to get asense of how to handle the world, and how its things work. Of course the statelottery is the dumbest form of gambling, but even it offers a lesson: that smallrisk brings an even smaller chance of reward. And it operates for most peopleas entertainment rather than a game. But real gambling as a part of everydaylife has almost been eradicated. No one plays cards anymore. Almost from thefirst time the middle class began, card-playing for small stakes was its mostcommon indoor amusement. And suddenly, in the 1960s, this reality dramaticallyceased to be. And I wonder if civilization can be maintained without it.
Of coursegambling can be overdone, but it's more likely to be seriously harmful amongthe top drawer (there! I've used it!) than among the masses. In the last centuryit was a staple of fiction that the oldest son ruined his family by his gamblingdebts, and it certainly happened in real life. But that it did was an effectof immense class differences that no longer exist. A young man unknown to societycould only prove that he was a gentleman or man of honor by running up debtsand paying them if he could.
Nowadaysthere is little danger from young men going to extremes because they want tobe accepted by good society. Now people play video games if they play at all.And when playing these games, the only thing you have to lose is time, and the only thing to win is to have justified the time you've spent playing it. Whatvideo games lack is the application of human intelligence to the laws of probabilityand fate. Instead of playing against nature and nature's God, confronting theimmutable rules of fate that govern the glorious universe in which we live,you play according to the whims of the t-shirted Gen-Y'er on a Pepsi high whodesigned the game a few months back.
Have welost anything? I doubt that a generation of cardplayers could have been suckeredinto waging the war we just pretended to fight and now pretend to have won.It began in a game of cards that we lost miserably. Between our position and Yugoslavia's across the green baize table at Rambouillet, there was a pointof compromise that a couple more hands could have reached. Now, at war's end,we have accepted a weaker hand than what we were dealt. All the rest-all thebillions spent and yet to be spent, all the human dispossession prompted byNATO's air campaign, all the deaths of civilians caused by NATO bombs, Serbmilitia and KLA action, all the destruction of houses and churches and infrastructure-wasthe result of misplaying our hand, or, more accurately, refusing to play itat all. Seldom has so much destruction been caused by so few for so little.If you ever have the chance to play poker with our secretary of state, takeit. And give me a piece of the action?
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