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Bradley Cooper, Ernest Hemingway, and Realistic Optimism

April 24 2015

Pat: Mom, I…for what, I can’t apologize. I’m not gonna apologize for this. You know what I will do? I will apologize on the behalf of Ernest Hemingway, because that’s who’s to blame here.

Pat, Sr.: Yeah, have Ernest Hemingway call us and apologize, too.

The above dialogue is from the great Silver Linings Playbook. I found myself rewatching it recently because I found myself relating a bit too uncomfortably with Bradley Cooper’s character, Pat, and his inability to accept the obvious (though nowhere nearly as extreme). Movies help me to understand my own life experiences so Silver Linings helps at this time. I also think which movies you like say a lot about you as a person, but that’s another topic entirely. If you’ve read another post I’ve written, I have OCD (which is almost an afterthought at this point), but I’m convinced it is the same inability to see the world as it actually is which both contibuted to my worst experiences with the disorder and is that which has allowed me to stay doggedly persistent and hopeful. Unfortunately, while persistence, drive, and a dislike of ever quitting can be incredibly powerful, they can also cause you to care about or try for something well after you should have stopped. Thankfully, unlike Pat, I know when to cut my losses.

The quoted dialogue stems from Pat reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Long story short (you get this within the first 15 minutes of the movie), Pat is fresh out of a a mental institution because he was undiagnosed bipolar and almost beat his wife’s lover to death. Now that he’s out, he’s intent on remaking himself and winning her back (even though all signs, including a restraining order, suggest that will never happen). Nonetheless, Pat picks up the summer reading list that she (a teacher) assigns to her students, and starts working through it. A Farewell to Arms is on the list.

Note: I found myself laughing because my first encounter with that book a year ago was the exact same printing/cover illustration from decades ago.

You see Pat working though the book (with his mom being supportive and bringing him refreshments), and then it all ends with a very literal crashing and a loud “What the fuck?!” as he sends the book out the window. He then storms into his parents room (at 4 AM) and goes into a rant:

I just can’t believe Nikki’s teaching that book to the kids. I mean the whole time, let me just break it down for you, the whole time you’re rooting for this Hemingway guy to survive the war and to be with the woman that he loves, Catherine Barkley…

…and he does. He does. He survives the war, after getting blown up he survives it, and he escapes to Switzerland with Catherine. But now Catherine’s pregnant. Isn’t that wonderful? She’s pregnant. And they escape up into the mountains and they’re gonna be happy, and they’re gonna be drinking wine and they dance, they both like to dance with each other. There’s scenes of them dancing, which was boring, but I liked it, because they were happy. You think he ends it there? No! He writes another ending. She dies, dad! I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys. It’s fucking hard enough as it is. Can’t somebody say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”

I love this rant for a few reasons. First of all, I share Pat’s sentiment about staying positive. I really hate cynicism. It pisses me off. The world really is hard enough as it is, if you don’t face it with some hope then you’re gonna have a hard time. Second, I love Hemingway and his writing and am slowly trying to work through all of his major works. Finally, that glaring cynicism at the end of Arms is a recurrent theme thoughout Hemingway’s work and is something worth discussing.

To understand it, you have to understand Hemingway himself. I have a weird fascination with the guy. He was born in Chicago in 1899, grew up very middle-class and with Midwestern values. After a short stint with the Kansas City Star (where he picked up the writing style he is famous for), he went to the Italian front during World War I and drove ambulances for the Italian army. During this time he was injured and spent several months in a hospital getting well. It was in this hospital that Hemingway, the Hemingway, Papa Hemingway, the larger than life author that everyone knows, was born.

You see, in this Italian hospital he fell in love (for the first time apparently) with a nurse, Agnes Von Kurowsky, who was seven years older than him. It must have been fairly serious, as by the time he was released, they were planning on going back to the States and marrying within the next few months. Then it happened - she got engaged to an Italian officer and it was all over.

This surely shaped both Hemingway’s writing and life. It must have been somewhat traumatic for him and despite his ability to move forward (and move forward he did), those wounds must have never truly healed. He had a facinating life. On top of his writing career, he was part of the Lost Generation of Americans who moved to Paris in the 20s. He knew Scott F. Fitzgerald, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein among others (all captured incredibly well in Midnight in Paris). After Paris, he served as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, patrolled for u-boats in Key West using his small boat, dynamite, and a machine gun, saw the landings on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, was constantly exploring nature through trips like an African safari, and remained always quotable. He really knew how to live.

Note: If you weant to get and idea of who Hemingway really was and his vibrancy, check out this 1950 article in the New Yorker.

Where you really see Hemingway’s scars is in his relationships with women. Meeting women was something he never had a problem with. He was charming, outgoing, brilliant, and fit the idea of tall, dark, and handsome to a T. Aside from Miss Kurowsky, he never had a problem keeping them either. His problem was that (as pointed out by numerous scholars), he was so terrified of them leaving him, that he left them first. Over 40 years (1921 to 1961), he was married to four different women and never remained unmarried longer than a year or so. I’d list their names, but that feels weird, as if they were only footnotes to his life, which they obviously were not. He had three sons spread out over the marriages, which were for long stretches really happy times for him. He just couldn’t escape that nagging fear that he was going to be left behind by those who loved him. His last escape wasn’t with a woman, it was with a shotgun to the head in 1961 due to a depression exacerbated by injuries and electroshock therapy. When you look at the lives of people like Hemingway, it seems obvious that so much of the time our most creative people have to go through hell to get that power. They think differently, and it is this different way of thinking which both makes them miserable and allows them to create things which most “normal” folks can never even dream of - a real gift and curse if there ever was one.

Speaking of which, we havent really touched on Hemingway’s writing yet. Some people know him mainly for his style, which is often copied or parodied. In words, it is very stripped down, uses plain language, and the word “and” in place of commas. The most outright expression of this is seen at the very beginning of Arms, in one of the longest sentences in the of history of the English language. In content, he uses the “iceberg theory” or “theory of omission” which basically means that he rarely describes the explicit themes of his work, but rather describes actions and settings and lets the themes shine through. Finally, he had a penchant for making his work somewhat biographical. The names are always changed, but the influences are unmistakable. His experience in World War I is reflected in Arms, which explains Pat’s explicit mention of Hemingway as the main character. His own trips throughout Europe and love for wine and bullfighting is seen in The Sun Also Rises. For Whom the Bell Tolls is heavily inspired by his time spent in Spain during the civil war there (where he apparently helped with a small military action). Finally, by the time he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, which he won a Pulitzer for, he was very literally becoming an old man and his time spent in Key West and final years grabbing for life leave marks all over the story.

SPOILERS: I’m about to spoil the ending to every one of these books. You should skip to the next section if you have any desire of reading them in the future. You’ve been warned.

Aside from being semi-biographical, all of these stories have something else in common: they have sad, even tragic endings. In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway is Jake Barnes. He is a veteran of World War I who has suffered a wound which has made sexual relationships an impossibility. Throughout the novel, one Lady Brett Ashley flashes in and out of his life. She has been divorced twice and is still in and out of relationships during the book. She clearly loves Jake very much (as he does her), but his wound rules out anything serious. The final chapter finds her broken, him comforting her, and her lamenting, “Oh, Jake…we could have had such a damned good time together”.

Pat already told you the ending to Arms, so no need to do that once again. In As the Bell Tolls, Hemingway writes himself as Robert Jordan, an American professor fighting for the Republican side (the good guys, the ones Hitler and Mussolini helped Franco to crush). While following orders to blow a bridge with a small group of guerillas, he meets the very young and slowly recovering Maria, who has lost both parents, was raped, and as a result had been nearly crazy. They fall in love and start talking about a future together. Robert allows himself to dream of this future even though he knows that he must first live through the war. The group manages to blow the bridge and both Robert and Maria emerge unscathed. It is only during the final escape to safety that Robert’s horse is shot out form under him and he is left to die while the others escape with their lives. Personally, I think the final chapter of Bells is as good if not better than any other book. I still don’t understand how a modern movie adaptation hasn’t been made.

Finally, in The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway is (less conciously) the old man. The old man takes his boat out every single morning to fish for a living. He’s had a bad stretch of luck and finally decides to go far out from the coast in order to try for better odds. Throughout the book he keeps repeating to himself that he’s gone too far out. He knows it, but it is a risk he must take. He snags the biggest swordfish he has ever seen, something which both would turn his luck around and make him the talk of the community. He wrestles with the fish for several days and nights in order to keep it. Unfortunately, by the time he gets it back to the coast, sharks have devoured all but the bones despite his best efforts. As he returns to his shack, broken and dying, the massive skeleton on the beach both reminds everyone of just what he has managed to do as well has how much he has lost.


I’m not sure if all of his writing ends like that, but those are some of his defining works. I think part of the allure of Hemingway and his writing is that he expected things to go wrong, but he couldn’t help but to try. Within him, we see someone that is inherently hopeful, but realistic about things. Personally, I appreciate those endings in a weird way. It would have been so easy to end Arms with Frederic and Catherine happy, Sun with Brett getting over Jake’s flaw, Bell with Robert and Maria in a Madrid hotel room, or Man with a community patting the old man on the back for bringing the biggest fish they had ever seen home. It would have been easy, but it wouldn’t have felt real. Those positive endings would have felt way too Hollywood, and the real world is not Hollywood, or at least Hemingway didn’t think it was.

Was he right? In some sense it took some bravery to write sad endings like those. You know that he, just like Pat, wanted to put forward the idea that the world was good and everything works out in the end. You see nuggets of it sprinkled throughout his writing. But he couldn’t do it. Ultimately, I think Hemingway saw life as a struggle that you had to make the best of. Ironically, he may have sabotaged any chance he had of being happy in being so scared of the best things in his life going away that he left them. It was self-destructive behavior.

Ok, so Hemingway may have had some issues, which in turn helped him to write some beautiful stuff (for the moment we’ll ignore his weird statement about Othello, some anti-Semitic ideas, and the fact that most of his female characters are overly simple). What is the proper mindset to take into the world? I think how you view the world runs along a spectrum, which like the Kinsey scale of sexuality, can change through your life. It can roughly be thought of as:

cynicism — realism — realistic optimism — optimism — delusion

Cynicism is simply the belief that the world is a cold place, we are here, there’s not much magic to any of it, and odds are that ultimately things will go wrong. I have no time for that kind of thinking, I don’t think anyone does. On the other hand, you can be spectacularly successful as a cynic simply because you don’t expect anything, you just live life, and things surprise you because you have kept your head down and you operate by a very limited set of rules. Realism does not stretch things this far, but there’s still not room for any kind of optimism. You don’t expect bad things to happen, but you don’t expect anything good, either. I will come back to realistic optimism because that is the point of this entire post. Optimism is a general belief that things are and are going to be okay. Pure optimists of this type often tend to be dreamers and might struggle to get anything done because they don’t see the hard reality of obstacles or necessary work. Finally, delusion isn’t just optimism that things will be okay, it is an overriding belief in things that there is no real evidence for. Delusional people, like cynics, can often be very successful. Their belief in things may cause them to work on causes that other people would have left behind way in the past, or expect things to work that others have long since ceded to impossibility. There’s a long line of delusional people who have pushed the world forward. Unfortunately, these same people have often made a mess of their lives.

What about realistic optimism? What is that? There are similar phrases, one by an author that I cannot recall currently, so I’m just using this term. I think Pat sums it up really well:

This is what I believe to be true. This is what I learned in the hospital. You have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest, and if you do, if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining.

Life isn’t going to handed to you. It is hard. If it is not hard, or at some point things within your life haven’t been hard, then I have to question whether you are really living. You are probably playing it too safe. On the other hand, for some people life is just hard in general. Nothing has been easy for them, and it is a constant struggle. Realistic optimism is an acceptance that life can be a struggle at times, and sometimes you will fail, but just because you failed doesn’t mean you are a failure or will always fail. You’ve got to keep moving forward, be realistic about where you are and what it will take to get where you want to go, and then do everything you can achieve it, all with the hope that it all really is achievable.

That’s realistic optimism, and I think it is a healthy mindset for living. The great thing about Silver Linings is that Pat goes from being delusional to a realistic optimist, while his love-interest, Tiffany, played by the great Jennifer Lawrence, goes from a kind of cynicism to the same realistic optimism. It’s a little magical, which is why so many people, regardless if they’ve experienced mental issues or not, can relate to it so well. Something used throughout the movie is a little saying that Pat learned in the hospital that helps keep him positive. The saying is never really explained, but at times is comical, others sad, and others poignant. Right now, it just seems appropriate and perhaps a little abrupt, but I’m all out of words: