Hemingway and Utility of Language

Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.

Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway were more alike than either would ever have cared to admit. Both used language with fascinating alacrity, both fled the ridiculousness of America for a Europe that never really satisfied them, and both were a little mad. Maybe more than a little mad. Most importantly, however, both were geniuses.

Hemingway suffers from the weight of history and his own childish and consuming issues with women and masculinity. Like Pound’s struggles with reconciling socio-economic distress and culture and his subsequent descent into an awful and racist Fascism, though, it shouldn’t invalidate the brilliance of the art. No one could deny that Hemingway was a flawed person. Given his family history of mental illness, that probably had an origin in serious neurological issues that the era was unaware existed. We’ll never know. But the fact remains that his work remains interesting and vital. The man had problems- the work has problems. But it’s interesting.

The secret to appreciating Hemingway’s prose is the easy, utilitarian way he uses language. There isn’t much extraneous verbiage in his work. What often gets ignored, however, is that there is a sentimentalism that runs through it. Despite his image as a manly man, a paragon of masculine virtue, Hemingway was all for flowery imagery- just not flowery language. And that’s a strength. He understood that the word ‘alone’ held much more power to suggest pain than a dozen pages of internal monologue about being alone. Just the word conjures the pain, the sentiment, the intensity of the experience for the reader. English is a very verbose language- ┬áby some measures more verbose than most- but the real strength lies not in number of morphemes but in ability to reflect the world. Hemingway understood this, and used it well.

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Tire Pressure and Travel Spring

It’s fully spring in upstate New York, the place that defies spring until the very end. It may not completely last- we’re still holding out for another frost before May, and planting must wait til winter stops being such a jerk and stops freezing our flowers off. But this week has been an incredible one, warm and sunny and breezy. It makes me anxious to take off and explore the region. I’m a big fan of hiking and we do a lot of that in our family. But spring, against all ethical and historical desires in my bones, really makes me want to hop in a car and explore.

I have a love/hate relationship with my car. I prefer having a newer car that is without any mechanical problems at all, and can just cart me all over the country whenever I wish. I don’t always have that opportunity, though. And the ethics of buying new really bothers me, when I know that older cars being well maintained is the best way to be a responsible citizen of the Earth. But I want to move through the country, over roads and through villages, and car repair just slows that process down. I want the perks of the car! I love asphalt, I love stereos playing Pixies while I crest ridges. I’m a spoiled 20th century boy, I suppose.

"Um, Papa? Cars make carbon monoxide. We should walk."

“Um, Papa? Cars make carbon monoxide. We should walk.”

But spring means getting out into the world, and I can’t really wait for that. I’m thinking a new car may be my best choice for an exciting voyage into spring and summer travel. I can hear that voice in the back of my head telling me to take public transport to a good hiking trail and just go. I can hear my son, the boy who hates all polluting machines and curses modernity, saying the same thing. ANd he’s right.

There’s nothing quite like the car for getting out into nature, though. I wish I could say my experience was different, but it isn’t. The car is just a fantastic tool for exploring a country the size of the United States. I’d give anything for an awesome rail network like Japan has, or a clean and comfortable bus system that takes you everywhere safely. But we don’t have it. So, spring means thinking cars and trails. Spring means silencing that voice in my head and from my son’s seat saying I shouldn’t like my car as much as I do.

And spring means rolling through forests and fields over tarmac and grinning like a madman with a petrol addiction.

Poetry Wednesday: Patchen

  • I’ve written thousands of words about Kenneth Patchen over the years. Yet I’m drawn to write more, time and time again. I’m not sure exactly why he’s the writer who has the most meaning to me. He’s clearly an immense, once in a generation talent, but that could be said of others I read and admire. Maybe it’s the similarity to in his background, also from a small industrial town ravaged by factory pollution and suburban apathy. Maybe it’s his long term relationship with Miriam, an intense bond so much like my own experience with my own partner. It could be.

Nowhere to Go but Everywhere: Milan

I have the weirdest relationship with Italy. My trips there have been bizarre amalgams of touristy train trips and punk rock squat-hopping. I’ve seen dead bodies and pizzerias packed with families. I’ve gone up and down the country but never set foot in Rome. Italy and I don’t know quite how to handle each other. But I will say two things about my favorite Italian city, Milan, that should sell anyone on a trip there immediately. It has the most gorgeous people in the world, and it has food that is as near perfection as food can get. That’s enough reason to go, right?

In 1999-2000, I stayed in some punk rock squats in Milan, and I quickly had to flee those for my sanity. Italian punks are lovely, and intense, and bring out some of the worst traits in myself. I knew that unless my Italian trip was destined to end with flinging Molotov cocktails at the chain restaurants I needed to change my locale. I decided on some dingy bed and breakfasts in the city center. They were a slight step up in terms of hygiene, but a large step up in not-going-to-jail. This was pre-EU Italy, and it was fantastically Italian. No English, few franchises… Italy.

The best part of the little B and Bs clustered in Milan was that it was like a language school and cultural exchange program all rolled into a fantastic package. I stayed at once place that had a little kid, maybe four years old, who was desperate to talk to me. It was perfect for both of us- he had an adult to tell his story to, I had a person whose Italian was about on my level.

I haven’t been to Italy since 2000. I moved back to Japan in 2001 and never went back to Europe. I wonder what the changes to Italy have meant for travel around Milan. I generally dislike nostalgia in any form, and I’m especially bothered by nostalgia for a place that I didn’t really know beyond a few short trips. But I can’t help but be curious by Milan in 2015. It has to feel different. The little squats may still be there. The abandoned train cars filled with gutter punks may still be there, serving cold food and being drunk at 9am. I have no idea. But Milan probably isn’t the same.

Every kind of Milan

Every kind of Milan

It doesn’t matter that the city is 2500 years old, it really goes away and reappears every few decades as an entirely new town. Every city does that- it’s reinvented by new generations, new technology. Milan just strikes me more than most because that illusion of age makes you feel like you’re walking Roman streets. The oven fired pizza makes you think you’re eating in Fellini’s Italy. You can’t really do that, though. The places move on, they change. This is necessary and important, of course. I’m not so blinded by historical interest or my own experience to pretend otherwise for even a moment. But it is interesting, and it explains a lot about the world to me. We love or hate change, we fear or embrace it, but we can’t deny the impact it has. I look at Milan and see ancient columns that attract me, old piazzas that evoke a different era. I ride on scooters from the Italian “economic miracle” days and wonder what it was like to follow old stone paths in the wake of the devastation of WWII. It isn’t nostalgia, exactly- I don’t pine for it- but it is a kind of passionate curiosity. It’s a desire to imagine vividly the place I am, what it has gone through, and what may be to come. And it doesn’t happen everywhere I go, certainly. But it’s powerful and constant when I’m in Milan.