In many ways, almost everything Ernest Hemingway wrote was non-fiction. The names and details may have been changed, but the emotions were real.
Naturally, then, when A Movable Feast (his official memoir) was published, it didn’t at all feel separate from his stories. The same simplicity, the same vivid prose, and the same heaviness that people had come to love were there. It was as real — or as imagined — as anything else he wrote.
It’s a tale of a young man in Paris. He was happy then. Life wasn’t necessarily easy — he was frequently poor and his writing hadn’t yet taken off — but he had everything he needed: a loving wife, good friends and, of course, the city itself; a vibrant and caring companion.
There is a lot of insight in the book that illuminates who he was in his early-to-mid twenties and how he found himself on the road that led to becoming one of the great writers of the 20th century.
But the most interesting thing about it has less to do with him; it has to do with his relationships. In those years, he mixed with everyone from Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein to poets and writers you have never heard of— literary giants made human and mere humans made temporarily immortal.
Paris was also where he met his life-long friend and rival F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it’s this relationship that, in my opinion, is the most honest and telling.
Fitzgerald didn’t make the best first impression on Hemingway. He was everything that the latter was not: unassured, excessive, and almost.. childish. All of this came through in their first few meetings, among them a road trip that convinced Hemingway of the perils of traveling with strangers.
But then he read The Great Gatsby. This was before the novel had iconized Fitzgerald, but Hemingway knew right then that there were other dimensions to this man and that, no matter what, he would maintain the friendship. From there, their relationship changed and grew into something else.
The Preference Falsification Threshold
In one of her old blog posts, Sarah Perry talks about the work of social scientist Timur Kuran, particularly his idea of preference falsification.
In simple terms, Kuran contends that people have two sets of preferences: private preferences, which reflect what they truly believe and how they see reality; and public preferences, which are showcased by the mask they put on when they face the outside world as to not cause any trouble.
It’s a fascinating theory of how political revolutions occur and the way we respond to predominant social influences, but I think we can apply it to something simpler, too, something just as important; namely, I think we can apply it to express the first big step that creates an interpersonal bond.
In everyday life, we all experience some form of this dichotomy as it relates to who we think we are. Very few of us share all of our private thoughts publicly and for good reason: if we did, it would cause a lot of needless inconvenience, and at times, it would even make it difficult for us to operate effectively in a society bound by a social contract.
This means that, in a way, we have two selves: one that we mostly keep to ourselves and one that we feel comfortable showing the world.
A bond with someone is forged when we move away from showing them our public self to when we show them our private self without worrying about the common repercussions that come with doing so — we cross the preference falsification threshold to invite someone who, until then, was a relative stranger into our weird and beautiful and personal little world.
In the case of Hemingway’s relationship with Fitzgerald, this is likely what happened when he read The Great Gatsby. He came out of it having, essentially, looked into his new friend’s soul, knowing that it came from a place far deeper than what he had seen until then. After that, as he recalls, they grew on each other and shared many years of an intimate friendship that seemingly held little back.
By default, there is an invisible wall that separates us from most people that we interact with. This wall is created by the public selves both parties hold up.
The only way to truly connect with someone is to break this wall down, not fearing that doing so is going to lead to a kind of nakedness; the kind that makes us feel shame and embarrassment and vulnerability.
Once that threshold is crossed, what is left is truth and honesty and all of the soft and warm and fuzzy things that make life just a little better.
The Agency of an Interpersonal Culture
I have written before about how any strong relationship has its own culture and how much of what is great about it stays hidden in what is unspoken.
I suspect that what happens is that once we remove the mask of our rigid public selves, we allow a dance of two fluid and malleable private selves that can then create a separate life-form (or culture) as a bond.
This culture forms a feedback loop — meaning that not only do we influence it but, more importantly, it continually influences us. It becomes a living, breathing creature in its own right, one that is an amalgamation of the two subjects that come together to create it. The context needed for inside jokes and shared experiences, for example, can be found here.
You don’t need to talk about and define every little thing that is said in a conversation between the two of you, nor do you need to justify each one of your actions. This life-form does it for you.
Crossing the initial threshold required to form a bond like this is the first step to building a strong relationship, but maintaining that bond as you change and grow is about something more — it’s about agency.
Just like human beings have agency, so, too, do cultures. But this agency is informed by what each individual subject does to feed it.
If two people in a relationship are going through a rough patch and one of them, out of frustration and anger, begins behaving in such a way that makes the other person feel unappreciated and uninteresting, this will affect the culture that exists between them, especially if it persists over a long period. The agency of this culture, then, will point in the wrong direction.
Every interaction between two people provides an information point to the culture that exists between them and this culture subsequently develops its own agency according to the sum of these information points.
To maintain a bond, not only do the total positive points have to outweigh the total negative points, but the two parties have to consistently redirect the agency of the interpersonal culture to aim towards a future that is meaningful before it gets too heavily reinforced in the wrong direction.
The longer a relationship lasts, the more information the culture contains and the more it affects the space that exists between the two individuals.
It’s the job of each person to ensure that they are paying attention to how the different shared cultures in their life are developing.
The masks we wear — or don’t wear — shape the way that we interact with the world around us, and they determine the space in front of us.
This space is where selves meet. If it’s an interaction of two public selves, there will be an invisible wall still separating them. If, however, two private selves expose their nakedness to each other, a bond is formed.
This bond is what creates an interpersonal culture — it is what gives us jokes that don’t need context, and it is what makes simple moments sacred.
The agency of any culture is a product of the information points that are fed into the relationship by individual subjects, and this agency either creates truth and warmth and mutual growth or it invites pain.
Hemingway might never have put it this way, but he captured the general sentiment that expresses the difference well in his famous memoir:
“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.”
All of us get to form a few meaningful bonds in our lives and, often, these bonds are among the most treasured of the possessions we collect on our brief journey from conception to passing.
There is something very honest about the emergence of many of these bonds that makes some of us feel that being too deliberate about forming and nurturing them takes away from their spark.
The truth, however, is that if we aren’t deliberate in nurturing them, a time eventually comes when there is nothing left to nurture.
The difference between people we see as limiters of happiness and those who are as good as spring itself lies in the interactions we have with them.
Some interactions are meaningful; others aren’t. It takes work to know the difference, and it takes commitment uncover beauty.
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