Quotes & Commentary #43: Hemingway

Quotes & Commentary #43: Hemingway

So far, about morals, I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.

—Ernest Hemingway

It is an essential part of the process of maturing, I think, to come to terms with your own emotions. Can they be trusted? How far? In what circumstances are they misleading? Do they make you act irrationally or do things you don’t normally do? Are you afraid of your emotions? Are you afraid of communicating them to others? Why? Do you tend you bury your emotions, or to ignore them? With what consequences? All these questions, and more, are unavoidable as we grow older and learn how to deal with ourselves.

It is worth pointing out the odd fact, taken for granted by nearly everyone, that our emotions are discussed as something essentially separate from ourselves. They are things that happen to us, things that strike us, things that affect us like a sickness. And yet they are ourselves, aren’t they? What could be more integrally a part of yourself than your feelings?

Perhaps we think of emotions are outside events, comparable to snowstorms or car accidents, because we recognize that they are universal experiences. Being angry, depressed, giddy, the feeling of being in love—the triggers of an emotion vary, but the experience itself binds us together. And in that way, the emotions can be said to be objective facts, not the most intimate part of ourselves, because they are the same for everyone.

Or perhaps we talk of our emotions as separate from ourselves because they come and go, sometimes at random, and are often beyond our control. Feeling melancholy on a lonely walk is like being caught in the rain—an event that depends on the whims of fate.

As someone who prides himself on being logical—although, heaven knows how silly I can be—my relationship with my emotions has always been rather skeptical, even suspicious. My friends in elementary school used to tease me for being robotic. As I grew up, I lost most of this robotic coldness, but some traces of it remain. I am still quite skeptical of emotions, and I still find my feelings to be suspicious.

In my experience at least, emotions cannot be trusted as sources of information. A classic example is walking out the door and feeling that you’ve forgotten something, or packing for a trip and feeling sure that there’s something your missing. In my case, this feeling is almost inevitably wrong; my feeling of worry or confidence have almost nothing to do with whether I have actually forgotten something.

It was a major discovery—which I only made in university—that my mood had very little to do with the things I normally hold responsible for it. Sometimes I would get angry and think about all the unpleasant things my friends did and said, all the inanities of my roommates, all the annoyances of my classes. Or I would get melancholy and think about things I missed from home, or convince myself that I was lonely and unloved, or castigate myself for being a failure.

And yet all of these things I blamed for my mood were totally irrelevant. Almost inevitably, if I sat down and ate something, or if I had a coffee and a candy bar, my mood improved dramatically. Indeed, after I drink coffee I am often ecstatically happy, and I think equally unrealistic thoughts about how great my life is.

Experiences like these reinforce my skepticism about feelings. I can feel sure I’ve forgotten something, even after checking three times. I can be enraged and curse the world and everyone in it, and yet this is only due to hunger. Feelings come and go, each one seeming to tell me something clear and definite, only to be replaced in the next moment by another feeling that tells me the exact opposite thing. Each one is convincing in its strength, and yet each is totally devoid of substance; they give me the feeling of certainty without any evidence to support it.

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, there is a form of cognitive distortion, erroneous thinking, called “emotional reasoning.” This consists precisely in trusting your emotions. Depressed people often feel ashamed, worthless, and hopeless, and then reason that these things must be true, since why else would they feel that way so persistently? Similarly, anxious people feel afraid, and believe that this fear is justified and is telling them about a real threat to their safety.

Indeed, it seems to me—or at least it’s been my experience—that getting over anxiety and depression involves learning to distrust your own feelings. I have learned, for example, that my feelings of fear often have nothing to do with something bad that might actually happen; and that my feelings of shame are not a reliable indicator of what other people will actually think.

To a certain extent, I think most people would agree, in theory at least, that emotions can be misleading. Nevertheless, there is one domain in which nearly everyone puts implicit faith in their emotions: morality.

I remember reading a book by Steven Pinker in which he demonstrated the emotional basis of our moral thinking in this way.

Consider this short situation: A family’s dog, who had lived with them for many years, was killed in front of their house by a car. The family heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog and cooked him for dinner.

Now, in this situation, did the family act immorally? If you’re like me, you feel somewhat disgusted by this; and maybe you have decided that you’d never want to be friends with this family; and maybe you think it heartless that they could eat their loyal friend and companion. But did they do anything immoral?

I don’t think they did, because they didn’t hurt anyone or act out of accordance with the categorical imperative. And yet I admit that the first time I read this, I felt disgusted and almost outraged at this family. This illustrates Pinker’s general point: we have moral feelings first, and then try to rationalize them later. In other words, our moral reactions are not based on any logical standard but instead on gut feeling.

It is, of course, difficult to rationalize morality. Philosophers still struggle with it, and there are no easy answers. Be that as it may, this is no excuse to substitute feeling for thinking. Even a slight acquaintance with history shows that people have thought many things were terribly immoral—mixed-race marriages, or premarital sex—that nowadays don’t raise an eyebrow. The world is full of taboos and prohibitions that, to outsiders, don’t make any sense. We are capable of having strong moral reactions about activities that don’t harm anyone or pose any threat to society.

I do not know why people continue to trust their feelings of disgust and outrage when it has been shown again and again, even in my lifetime, that these feelings are often based on nothing at all. We trust our gut like it’s the Oracle of Delphi, handing out moral verdicts from on high; but out guts often disagree with one another, and just as often contradict themselves on different days.

Take the example of gay love. I remember when I was young, the idea of two men kissing was considered, by nearly everyone I knew, to be absolutely obscene; and now, we have a movie the features homoerotic love winning Best Picture. (I do not mean to suggest, even for a second, that we have overcome homophobia; but we have made progress.) The controversy surrounding trans people seems to be based on this same gut reaction of disgust. The “argument” about the “dangers” of trans people in public restrooms is so devoid of substance that I can only conclude it is feeble attempt to rationalize a feeling.

And yet I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, being transgender was considered as unremarkable as gay love. I can see no logical reason to regulate, ban, or even worry about sexuality, gender, and orientation, because they don’t hurt anyone and don’t pose any threat to society. You may not like gay love, you may find the idea of trans people gross, and that’s fine, but this feeling is no valid indication that these things are wrong.

This brings me around to Hemingway’s quote. Hemingway said this in connection with bullfighting. He expected to find bullfighting disgusting, but he loved it, and for that reason didn’t think it was wrong. Well, it’s obvious by now that I don’t agree with this method of telling right from wrong. If bullfighting is right or wrong, we need to explain why, with reference to some standard.

My problem is that I normally think of morality as a relationship between humans, and I actually don’t know how to think about morality regarding animals. A bull cannot understand a duty, an obligation, or the idea of consequences; a bull can’t be reasoned with or convinced. All of these things are necessary, I think, for a creature to be a moral agent, to be bound and protected by a system of moral injunctions. So when we’re dealing with animals, can an action be right or wrong?

My gut feeling is that bullfighting is wrong, because it involves animal cruelty. But this feeling, however intense, is just that: a feeling. Can I rationally believe bullfighting is wrong while continuing to eat hamburgers? I really don’t know. Thus I am in the uncomfortable situation of having a dilemma for which my moral reasoning provides no solution; and this leaves me with nothing but a feeling. I suppose I’ll have to read and think some more about the subject.

Review: Iberia

Review: Iberia

IberiaIberia by James A. Michener

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a sense no visitor can ever be adequately prepared to judge a foreign city, let alone an entire nation; the best he can do is to observe with sympathy.

Travel writing is like love poetry. All travelers and lovers are convinced that their experiences are unique, and therefore worth writing about; while in reality most travel stories and love poems express nearly the same basic sentiment, over and over, with only minor variations. Both genres are easy to write and hard to read, which is why far more travel blogs and love poems are written then read. Even brilliant writers sometimes make fools of themselves.

James Michener is not a brilliant writer, but he has done a fine job in this book. And for once in my life, I think I am actually qualified to judge, since I have been to about 80% of the major places he visited. Not only that, but I myself have written about my travels in Spain.

As I said before, Michener is not a brilliant writer; but he is a highly competent one. There are very few parts of this book that are memorably good, but very few that are memorably bad. The best thing that can be said for his prose is that you can read him for hours without getting tired or bored. The only parts that stuck out as bad were in some of his descriptions of churches. For example, I got completely lost in his description of the Toledo Cathedral, even though I’ve been to it—which is a bad sign.

His approach to travel writing is not very different from that of Bill Bryson: go someplace, find an interesting tidbit from the history, and then describe a few nice buildings or whatever. Apart from this, however, the two men are quite different. Michener is very much preoccupied with what in earlier times was called ‘culture’: painting, literature, architecture, music, and so on. Thus much of this book consists of descriptions and appraisals of Spain’s artistic and intellectual life. He covers flamenco, zarzuela, the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria, the paintings of Velazquez and El Greco, romanesque, gothic, and modernist architecture, the philosophy of Seneca, Maimonides, and Averroes, and much else.

But most of all, Michener is concerned with history. For him, Spain is a kind of window into the past, and he spends many pages on his so-called ‘speculations’. Mainly, these speculations deal with the following question: Why was Spain once so great and is now not so great? Personally, I found him to be a pretty mediocre historian, academically speaking; but he knows how to find a good story and how to tell one. And it is true that you learn quite a bit about Spain’s history in the course of this book.

Michener spent about thirty years traveling in Spain, on and off. As a result, he is able to cast a wide net, covering almost every major city in the country. Most of the chapters are centered around one city—Barcelona, Madrid, Salamanca, Seville, Santiago, Córdoba, Toledo—but Michener inevitably ends up leaving the city and touring the surrounding areas. (The exceptions to this are his chapters on the Guadalquivir Marshes and bullfighting.) Not only that, but Michener is very digression-prone, so he will often pause to tell you some bit of history that interests him. Thus in the course of these 900 pages he travels through nearly all of the country, the only noticeable exception being the Basque Country. It is an encyclopedic travel book.

Some people have said this book is outdated. To a certain extent this is true. Michener first came to Spain as a young man, which must have been in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and then continued his visits until the books publication in 1968. Thus you obviously can’t find anything here about the great transformations and dramas of post-Franco Spain. Apart from this, however, the book has kept its relevance. Every time he visited somewhere that I had been, I found little to no discrepancy between his description and my experience. All the beautiful cathedrals and churches and plazas are still standing today, just as lovely as when Michener saw them.

The only section where the book’s age really made itself felt was in the chapter on Madrid. In one section, Michener adds excerpts from several conversations he had about what would happen when Franco died. What is most fascinating is that nobody saw what was coming. In fact, many people insisted that democracy could never work in Spain and that Juan Carlos was just a weak little boy. A mere seven years after this book’s publication, Franco would die, Juan Carlos would take over, and then the new king would effect a masterful transition from fascism to liberal democracy. Of course, Michener can’t be faulted for missing this.

I am not sure whether this book can be enjoyed by somebody who is not at least planning on visiting Spain. It’s simply too long and too detailed. For those who are planning a trip, the book can be profitably skimmed, and indeed that might be the best way to read it. But frankly this may not a great travel guide, if only because it can make you feel inadequate and envious. You see, Michener was a successful novelist with plenty of time and disposable income on his hands. As a result he went everywhere he pleased, stayed in whatever hotel he wanted, spent months driving around eating, drinking, seeing bullfights. Every time he goes to a new town the local professor comes to talk to him about the local history. He gets private tours of every monument. In short, he has many experiences that aren’t available for the rest of us.

On the whole this book is a very well-done piece of work. It is not poetic, not profound, but it covers a lot of ground in a highly readable way. But the book suffers from several faults. First, it is simply too big and sprawling. Michener needed a better organizing principle than “Hey, this is all the stuff I liked in Spain!” This lack of an overarching organization really wore on me by the end of the book. There are only so many buildings I can hear described in agonizing detail, there are only so many times I can hear him say “This is one of Spain’s finest plazas,” or “This was one of the best meals I had in Spain.”

This is related to another flaw. For travel not to be frivolous, I think it must change you in some way, if only subtly. Well, Michener is certainly not a superficial person, and I think he was deeply affected by Spain. Nevertheless, at times I wondered whether all this travel—all this eating and music and art loving—was just another, more sophisticated version of consumer culture. Of course this is a bigger question than this book; and in fact it can be asked about all modern travel. At what point does the itch to go to a new city and to see all the sights become just as frivolous as the itch to buy the newest iPhone? At what point does travel stop being a rewarding experience and start becoming a consumption of experience? And by the way, this question can be asked of books too, especially on Goodreads: at what point does reading stop being a form of self-learning and start being a form of conspicuous consumption? Probably there is no clear line, but in any case there were several times during the course of this book that Michener’s urge to see and know everything about Spain struck me as the urge to consume the country.

The third flaw was Michener’s preoccupation with authenticity. He often talks about finding the ‘real’ Spain, and I find this grating. He goes from place to place, finding each one more ‘authentic’ and more ‘Spanish’ than the last. I admit that I have had experiences in which I couldn’t help saying to myself “This is so incredibly Spanish.” Just the same, I am deeply suspicious about this idea of authenticity in travel. Every tourist looks for something that is unique to the area they are visiting. This unique thing—whether it’s a dish or a genre of music—becomes profitable and then becomes commodified very quickly by locals hoping to earn some money. Thus a kind of arms-race ensues, with tourists trying to find out where the locals go and locals trying to find out where the tourists go. The whole thing is silly. And the silliest part is that often the locals are not fond of the ‘authentic’ local attraction. I know Spaniards who dislike flamenco, and I’ve met Germans who insisted that the best food in Germany is Döner Kebab.

These flaws are all certainly applicable to myself. I offer them in the spirit of comradeship and not of spite. All things considered, this book is really a marvelous tour of Spain. Michener did a fine job in a difficult task. If you read it, you will learn a lot, and you’ll get many good ideas for trips too. Michener is a clear writer, a knowledgeable guide, and a genial companion. More than that, this book has a special significance for me, since we are two writers with similar experiences, similar flaws, and roughly the same interests. This book spoke to directly to me in a way that few other books have, so I am sad to be putting it down.

View all my reviews