Sunday, 15 May 2016

Quote of the month: Hemingway (and Murakami)

"Man is not made for defeat." This sentence - part of Santiago's train of thoughts near the end of The Old Man and the Sea (p. 80) - is a sentence that breathes both tiredness and a kind of stoicism. Man is not made for defeat, but he is defeated. Defeat is unavoidable if one lives long enough. Needless to say, "man" here is also woman.

I'm not sure Hemingway ever learned to accept defeat. Santiago is not defeated. He has his dignity, and nothing to be ashamed of, because he knows he has done well. And think of sentences like "Every thing is your own damned fault if you're any good" (from Green Hills of Africa, p. 202). These aren't things you say when you're defeated.

Let me follow up this by turning to Murakami Haruki, who writes in one of his short stories: "As Ernest Hemingway realized, the value of our lives is ultimately determined by how we lose, not by how we win" ("Kaeru-kun, Tokyo o sukuu", from Kami no kodomotachi wa mina odoru, p. 180). This sentence hangs together with and speaks to another of the short stories in the same collection ("Thailand"), where a woman, Satsuki, takes a vacation after a conference and receives a helpful piece of advice by her driver Nimit:
"You're a beautiful person. A doctor. Intelligent and strong. But you look as if you're dragging your heart behind you. The time has come for you to start preparing for the slow descent towards death. If, from now on, you devote all your power to living, you won't be able to die well. Little by little, you have to shift. To live and to die are in a sense equivalent, doctor!"
    "Nimit", Satsuki said while removing her sunglasses, leaning forward from the backrest.
    "What is it, doctor?"
    "Have you been able to prepare yourself to die well?"
    "I am already half dead, doctor", Nimit said as if stating something self-evident. (Murakami 2000:142)
That night Satsuki cries in her hotel bed. Her driver's words have helped her come alive again, because she too had in a sense been dead, in the sense of having lived for years suppressing her emotions and cutting herself off from her inner self. Paradoxically, he helped her release these emotions by urging her to prepare to die. There's something Heideggerian about his advice, and yet one doesn't have to be a follower of his philosophy to accept that Nimit might have a point. No-one lives for ever, just as economic growth or human civilization cannot last for ever. All things that have form must vanish. It is not to any authentic resolution he urges her to gradually turn, so much as towards a slow acceptance of death that also unhinges us from desire and hatred, and that ultimately implies a liberation from karma. It is a death that unchains us from everything we have told ourselves must be our fate. Maybe it's comparable to the "dropping off of body and mind" that Dôgen speaks off, a state where you are free to accept death since you are already dead. Or maybe it is more instructive to compare it to the ideal of the sufi: "to become a 'dead man walking': one whose body stays alive on the earth yet whose soul is already in Heaven” (Chatwin 1988: 179).

The idea about a mid-point in life where you need to start preparing yourself for death appeals quite strongly to me. The other day when I went to work, I thought about how long I had been able to tell myself that I had a future. For most of my life I've been a believer in my bright future. A future that was pleasantly blurry and appeared almost limitless. But now, I told myself as I walked, I'm already here, in the midst of this future. I liked those words and repeated them: I'm in the midst of my future. Yes, here I am, in the midst of this strange country: the future. The contours are clearer now. This is how it looks. The future too has a future, but it is shorter.
I was feeling tired. That might have been one reason for my ruminations. Defeat always seems near to a person who's tired. Tiredness is a good emotion. It makes you remember important things. It's also an emotion that often appears in Hemingway's novels. Here's a sentence from one of them, a good one that is full of tiredness, and that I agree with despite my tiredness:

“The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.” (For Whom the Bell Tolls, p. 499)


Chatwin, Bruce (1988) The Songlines, London: Penguin.

Hemingway, Ernest (1994) For Whom the Bell Tolls, London: Arrow Books.

- (1994) Green Hills of Africa, London: Arrow Books.

- (2004) The Old Man and the Sea, London: Arrow Books.

Murakami, Haruki (2002) Kami no ko wa minna odoru, Tokyo: Shinchō bunko

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