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The Hemingway illusion: how pop culture shapes our experience of place

midnight_in_paris_hemingway
Corey Stoll played Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris.’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

I hate Ernest Hemingway.

From the time I had to read Old Man and the Sea in a single night to my university writing teacher assigning A Farewell to Arms twice, I’ve always hated Ernest Hemingway. The lone exception being his six-word short story, a wholly appropriate parallel that his best writing is the story which includes the least writing.

In all my interactions with other writers, this hatred of Hemingway is the most controversial stance. For people who have spent much time with writers, this is likely at first surprising, and later quite obvious. Finding a writer, especially a fiction writer, who is willing to admit their hatred of Hemingway is like finding a Christian willing to say that Jesus was kind of a moody dick. My mention of this dislike in writing workshops has never failed to spark a thirty-minute debate with up to a dozen people attacking me at once. I’d argue that his prose is bland and uninteresting, tacked together like an 8-year-old telling his parents about last week’s field trip (There were cows and there were trees and there was dust on the trees and a river and the river was loud. And it rained.) and that his attempts at objectivity were betrayed by pejoratives and thinly-veiled hyper-masculinity. But mostly, I’d argue that he writes women as though they are helpless creatures in need of a dominant male to teach them how to breathe. My opposition would argue that everyone else says he’s a groundbreaking author, more famous than any of us will ever be, and what does “a poet know about writing fiction anyway?” Of course, after these academic assaults, there’d always be two or three silent classmates who’d later confide, “I hate Hemingway too. I just didn’t want the rest of the class to attack me.”

Shakespeare-and-Co.-Paris-Bookstore
(via europeantrips.org)

Nonetheless, when I finally visited Paris in May of 2013, one of my first destinations was Shakespeare and Company. Not because of Hemingway, nor because of Ezra Pound (whose writing I like aside from the fascism), James Joyce (been meaning to finish Dubliners), Gertrude Stein (haven’t read) or F. Scott Fitzgerald (loved The Great Gatsby, it is everything Hemingway is not), but because when you’re a writer in Paris, it’s is simply what you do (well, that and I wanted to purchase notebooks with the bookstore’s logo on them for some of the student writers I used to mentor back home, which were not available). But years of education in the American literary canon, writing workshops, people telling me they know the way to write, have drilled it into my mind that as a writer it is my duty to visit Shakespeare & Company. In fact, I would be a lesser writer for not taking that opportunity. As though just being in this location, among the invisible legacies of great writers which came long before me (ignoring the thousands upon thousands of never-knowns and wannabes who made that same pilgrimage) would somehow inspire the breakthrough novel that I’d been searching for all my life.

It didn’t happen. But I still like the shop very much, aside from getting yelled at for taking a picture.

That’s the kind of effect that a location like Paris has on artists. It’s up there with New York for all artists, what London is playwrights, Rome is for sculptors, and Vienna is for singers. Whatever type of art you’ve dedicated yourself to, Paris is one of those places which you feel a need to visit at least once in your life. It is a very well-earned reputation. The city overflows with art. Yet, it seems to me, that so much of what makes Paris a popular and inspiring destination for artists, is its reputation  as a popular and inspiring destination for artists.

before-sunset
From ‘Before Sunset’ (Columbia Pictures)

 

Now, I don’t know much about the history of Paris, so I’m not going to attempt to theorize how the accumulation of art in the city began. What I know of Paris comes partly from art history classes and much more so from popular culture. My view of the city is less shaped by Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo than it is by Before Sunset and Midnight in Paris. It’s shaped less by the actual history of the city than by people enticed by the history of city. In the same way that New York’s image is as informed by Wu-Tang Clan and Notorious B.I.G., Martin Scorsese and (again) Woody Allen as by Wall Street or the reality of living there, or the rest of American life is more generally shaped by films and television shows based out of Los Angeles than any other source, Paris’s modern reputation is created by the artists attracted there through the reputation of its art. It’s a sort of artist Ouroboros, a cyclical process of building an image upon its image.

For Americans, the art we see will generally be that of a foreigner, the rare exception being French popular culture which crosses over to the U.S. like Amelie and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Jesse from Before Sunrise/Sunset, Gil Pender from Midnight in Paris, even the entire Lost Generation were all expats attracted to the city because of its history and historic appreciation of art. It’s likely  more the appreciation than the history that causes Americans to migrate across the ocean, thinking that what our countrymen won’t understand, with our love of hot dogs and Michael Bay movies, will be beloved by the more sophisticated audiences of Pairs, with their crepes and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

The pop cultural image of Paris is so prevalent that it has become accepted shorthand within fiction. Think of a Paris story and what immediately comes to mind? Cafes, romance, art, rich food, the city lit up at night. Or if one prefers the Luc Besson view of the city: car chases, bald action heroes, and casual violence – America with an accent. Now what comes to mind with stories set in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo, London, Bangkok, Athens, Hong Kong? Even Bruges and Fargo have artistic reputations, although Fargo didn’t actually take place in the titular location.

the-untouchables
Prohibition-era Chicago was the setting for Brian De Palma’s ‘The Untouchables.’

Now what comes to mind about a story set in Chicago? Prohibition-era gangsters, deep-dish pizza and little else. Chances are high that every one of us has consumed Chicago-based art (from The Adventures of Augie Marsh to The Dark Knight) or the work of Chicago-born artists (from Kanye West and Common to Harrison Ford and the Wachowskis). Even much of New York’s modern artistic reputation is shaped by folks who started in Chicago, like Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert, yet the city itself doesn’t have the same well-formed image as most other famous locations, especially not when compared that of Paris. The image of Paris is so cemented, that it isn’t necessary to provide details about the setting. The audience can project those details into the story enough to convince all but those who have actually lived or spent considerable time in the city themselves. For most Americans, placing a story in Paris brings an inherent level of romance and sophistication without even including any such elements in the story. I know this because the effect works for my hometown as well: Honolulu – what image just came to your mind? Artistic representation is that powerful.

The curious thing about actually being in Paris after a lifetime of having popular culture portray it was seeing how the reality was both betrayed and enhanced by that image. There was a feeling of accomplishment just in being there, walking from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower to L’Arc De Triomphe. As a writer I genuinely felt compelled to visit Shakespeare & Company and Les Deux Magots, even if only to walk through or take a picture to show other writers. I spent rapturous hours wandering and staring at buildings. Wonder unfolded on every block.

Yet, my entire time in Paris I couldn’t stop thinking of Honolulu. There is very little the two cities have in common except that they’re both tourist destinations with very strongly portrayed reputations. People know exactly what they want when they come to Paris or Honolulu, and will seek out that thing over any other. Thus if they can’t find it, they feel disappointed, disillusioned. But whereas at home my view is as one who has lived there, staring from behind the curtain onto the stage, in Paris I was part of the audience that comes to see the show. I was now another writer visiting famous writing locations, just as thousands of writers, generations of writers before me had done, because that’s what writers do in Paris. Even if you hate Hemingway you visit these locations, because that is what you do. You want the beach, go to Honolulu. You want art, go to Paris. It’s the same thing.

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‘Hawaii Five-0’ (CBS Television)

The question now becomes how much of the magic I felt in visiting is from the location and how much is from the culture which has arisen from that location? Is it the reality or the fiction which makes the city so fascinating and inspirational? At this point, with now generations of artists migrating into the city, influenced by those who came before them, those whom they would like to emulate, does the city even matter? Artist who enjoy Parisian art want to create Parisian art because they enjoy Parisian art. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle inviting those who are naturally attracted to become part of the attraction. Eventually, like Honolulu, the entire city may become more committed to myth than reality. But does any of this even matter? Is the reputation, and however illusionary it may or may be, enough? In the same way that a writer becomes great by having the majority of readers say they’re great or a sugar pill cures a headache because the patient thinks it will cure their headache, does people saying Paris is an inspiration make it inspirational? Real or not, we feel it.

Perhaps that’s all which really matters.

*****

I still hate Hemingway, only I’ve almost forgotten why other than remembering that I hate him. It’s probably more the reputation of his writing than the writing itself, in the same way that many of his followers have likely read less of his work than I have. His success comes from enough people calling him great to make others believe that he is great. That’s part of what draws people to enjoy his writing and to visit the locations which he helped make famous. We feel that by being there perhaps we can understand what made those artists great. We’ll see what they saw, hear what they heard, breathe the air they breathed (and, in Hemingway’s case, taught their women to breathe), and that will be enough to inspire us. Whether the image is reality or not, we are eager to be a part of it. And by doing so, we make that image reality. We will it into being.

After all, in essence, art, from writing to painting to sculpture to architecture to music to film to dance to fashion, is nothing more than collective illusion.

What we believe, we make true.

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About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll has spent years traveling the world, writing books, performing poetry, teaching, playing D&D, and occasionally discussing movies for Pop Mythology. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press. He can put his foot behind his head.