Paying homage at Hemingway’s Paris shrines

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I did something while in Paris last month that I actively rail against, and ordinarily deplore: I worshipped at two of the shrines associated with Ernest Hemingway. I struggle with the why of this, since it goes against everything I preach to beginning writers. My only excuse is that I was an English major three times over, and Hemingway said some very important things about writing, and so homage was due.

I deplore the worship of ‘the capital A’ author. I wish we didn’t put these people (usually, but not always, men) up on pedestals, then compare ourselves to them, telling ourselves their creativity is a unique act of divine inspiration we’re too ordinary to match, that The Author was stroked on the forehead at birth by a muse that will never visit us.

In other words, we take mere mortals and turn them into statues, dipped in the bronze of genius, all because they have a facility with words. Words have power and magic, as all sorcerers and witches have made use of for thousands of years, and we allow ourselves to be mesmerized by their binding spells, even now. It’s probably so deeply inculcated in me to worship at an author’s shrine that I couldn’t help myself.

It might also stem from honest curiosity; I really did, at one time, feel a kind of bond with Hemingway. He has said some marvellously true things about writing that I have always sought to emulate. As writers, if we let ourself ‘just write,’ instead of sitting at the feet of the Author, we discover that the Great Man wrestled with language too, and that he failed from time to time, which makes him more human and real.

Hemingway, like Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis, began his writing career as a journalist. In the short time that Hemingway worked for the Kansas City Star he learned some stylistic lessons that would later influence his fiction. The newspaper advocated short sentences, short paragraphs, active verbs, authenticity, compression, clarity and immediacy.

Hemingway later said: “Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them.” Although he stayed there for only six months he relied on the Star’s style guide as a foundation for his writing: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”

Hemingway began to take himself seriously as a writer in Paris, initially working as foreign correspondent for The Toronto Star. His aspirations for himself as a writer changed when he became part of Gertrude Stein’s infamous literary and artistic salons, meeting modernist painters like Picasso and Juan Gris, but being influenced by older, more mature writers. This is where he met F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it was their competitive and inspiring friendship that spurred him to write his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.

Paris was inexpensive in the 1920s for poor expatriate writers. James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and T. S. Eliot were all drawn to the glittering center of intellectual and artistic expression in Europe. Hemingway met Ezra Pound serendipitously one day at Shakespeare and Co., pictured above (one of the two shrines where English majors tend to congregate when visiting Paris). Hemingway honed his writing skills while publishing short stories and editing The Transatlantic Review with Madox Ford.

While sitting in the now-famous, and sadly, touristy, Les Deux Magots (translation: the two figurines or statues, in this case two Chinese merchants, pictured above) I imagined Hemingway sipping a coffee, facing the street, looking out at pedestrians passing by. I visualised someone walking in and greeting him, what Hemingway said in reply, and what Paris would have been like almost 100 years ago. It was an illusion, an attempt to imagine the past and what it must have been like to be alive in that moment, but it made me feel a little bit closer to this icon of the modern American novel.

The pictures taken above include one hanging on the wall in the café, of an older Hemingway during his return to war-ravaged Paris, a city in the throes of liberation from the Germans. But I prefer to think of the young Hemingway sitting casually, one leg crossed over the other, leaning into his writer’s notebook perched on top of a tiny outdoor table under the trees on the Boulevard St. Germain, and what Paris must have been like for him, as he grew into the writer he would become.

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7 thoughts on “Paying homage at Hemingway’s Paris shrines

  1. In recent years, with arguable hours of contemplation and a wee bit of therapy, one of the things that I have strived to realize with any endeavor I take into a world where others have gone before moi, is to recognize that all writers are not inspired by the same things, nor purposed for the same muse. I think of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, two writers I personally “worship”, especially the latter. I had no functional history lessons under my belt to understand the context with which Whitman Wrote “Leaves of Grass” (which my fingers almost typed as “Leaves of Grace”), but it touched my heart, my mind and stirred me deeply. Whitman was what I would call a mystic. He captured his experiences of the Civil War, poignant ever so now, I would submit, and gave me an insight about humanity, or lack there of, that I have had haunting me in my times of despair, loneliness and sense of abandonment from Creator or sense of ineptitude:

    “COME, said the Muse,
    Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted,
    Sing me the Universal.

    In this broad Earth of ours,
    Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
    Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
    Nestles the seed Perfection.

    By every life a share, or more or less,
    None born but it is born—conceal’d or unconceal’d, the seed is waiting…”

    And in those times when dealing with the complexities of relating and being with people seems come with a cost and I’m drawn to withdraw I’ve said often, “I think I could live with the animals. They would not be bothered by any of this and their life would be so simple.” Such thoughts are inspired by this passage from “Song of Myself”, a section of a poem that has been poured over, crimped, highlighted in my copy for over 25 years:

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and
    self-contain’d,
    I stand and look at them long and long.

    They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
    They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
    They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
    Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
    owning things,
    Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of
    years ago,
    Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    He was a vagabond. A wanderer. A mystical reporter of the human condition and he had this marvelous duality that only a Gemini could invoke and a polytheism that I could hold onto. It was a kind of bible of sorts for me when I was in my 20’s. It was a muse and it inspired me to write poetry and it also intimidated me as well. And I asked myself if I could life his life. And the answer came up, “No…You cannot be what already was.” And so I’m left with a particular ache one acquires when you learn that you are yearning for a nostalgia that never existed…

    Same holds true for Dickinson. She never left her room and communed with God in a way few writers do. She scribed her ecstasy, awe, grief on life and death as a poem, but really what she was writing was prayer. Dressed in white, she was taking orders, an archetypal nun, devoid of the necessary impurities one would “need” to commune with fellow man. She was called, and I would argue, to a place where few would want to tread, the life of a hermetic mystical writer, alone, in her room and growing more seldomly capable of directly communicating with people. And she lead a life that made her eccentric and disconnected from humans, but not her humanity, which is a paradox.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    “AMPLE make this bed.
    Make this bed with awe;
    In it wait till judgment break
    Excellent and fair.

    Be its mattress straight,
    Be its pillow round;
    Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
    Interrupt this ground.”
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    I do not know that I would be capable of such sacrifice and not suffer in the kind of grace required to humble oneself to something greater than Self and our experiences of the physical world. And like many a mystic… She died of a stroke. Which, is interesting when you think about that for a while… For her, it was not one. It was a calling she responded to. Whitman was called to the front lines of the darkness of humanity and he vesseled that for generations to come. Here we are, astrologically speaking, at a revisit of many of his themes, and we can learn from him as the lost soul can read upon Dickinson and draw form of prayer from her works.

    That is not what many would call glamourous or sexy or high profile, let alone successful in todays market. It was a time when she was not hampered by the natter of so many voices. We live in a time where we all have much to say, and much without thought. Many people write and say nothing. And I suppose the kind of agony Hemingway had was the very muse and passion that allowed him to devour life.

    It is said that one of the Mystical Law is “That which we crave will be the source of our greatest suffering.”

    We crave when we believe there is lack, there is drought, there is unworthiness. And we can accept that as a truth, first, to become hungry, and we can allow that suffering to animate us to passionately give over to that voice, give it air time, and release it. I think Hemingway knew this. How one voices is so utterly unique if one can pull up the talons of attachment to trying to recreate what has already been done. People either synthesize or they are original. The majority of writers and artists synthesize. That’s not likely going to change. Because…

    Originality is a lonely journey.

    It requires us to stand alone and be accountable for our words, thoughts and ideas that come to us unfiltered, ready to be uttered. It is about standing in your dominion, unfettered by the naysayers, and that is the spot that can gut us out and bring up our Saboteur. We don’t sabotage ourselves when we are about to fail. We sabotage ourselves when we are about to do something we CAN do.

    It takes a special kind of BRAVERY to be a writer. It HAS to… Otherwise we would not “worship” at the hands of those before us whose words turned over new soil. We love and honour the pioneer, the hero, the person who is capable of going it alone amidst the greatest of oppositions because he or she has FAITH. They have that undying spark inside that says, “I am scared to death, but if I DON’T do this it will kill me.”

    We write because we have to. We write because we are called to speak. We write because if we didn’t life would cease meaning and purpose. Dickinson had her works edited frequently for mass consumption, but it didn’t discourage her from the inspiration to keep expressing that voice. It would have killed her not to. What we say is OUR business. How other people “hear” it is THEIR business. So the focus of our writing has to be, at its core, PERSONAL, not commercial, not about “popularity” or whether or not we get an Oprah level stamp of approval, not whether or not we “live up to” those who came before us. We can be inspired by competition, so long as there is not the seduction to compete with ourselves as well.

    So I offer if we crave something that will result from the writing, it is not the writing we crave, it is the experience we enslave it to deliver us. There is always a “thing” or a “feeling” or a validation of a belief at the other side of the writing. It can, perhaps, be distilled to the simplest of “I AM” statements. If we know we are sacred, unique, and have something that is a seed, a gift not opened, then we needn’t preoccupy our hearts with the contents. It can open with little effort. If we hold it hostage even then we will block our flow. If we release it, perhaps that is the step to allowing it to come to us willingly, lovingly and humbly? We can honour her words, or Hemingways or Fitzgerald brought forth and recognize the beauty that they were able to vessel. We can also channel our own grace and summon forth our own contribution, our own verse and no that neither has a lesser worth to someone. For some we are the message, or a conduit to a deeper message, or we ask the question that provokes the desire to animation, to seek, to contemplate to a-muse ourselves… TO give VOICE to a VERSE the comes THROUGH us NOT TO us.

  2. Reblogged this on The Collaborative Writer and commented:

    I’m responding to a Daily Writing Prompt which, interestingly, resonates with a blog entry I wrote two years ago. The idea is to show some sort of homage, which I did, once; I could only show homage to Hemingway, because his simple, but profound suggestions to writers formed a neural network in my brain that have never let go.

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