Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Power of One Woman Over a Man's Life

One of my colleague's, A, and I have an ongoing debate about the power one woman can have over the course of a man's life. Interestingly enough, I find our positions counter intuitive. She says that I overestimate the power of women, and I say she underestimates it. The source of our discussion is Ernest Hemingway and his World War I paramour American nurse Agnes Von Kurowsky. For those of you unfamiliar with this pairing, Hemingway's relationship with her inspired A Farewell to Arms and a film version of their real life romance, In Love and War.

The sheer breadth of their love for one another is well captured in the following dialogue from A Farewell to Arms:

"Please stop it. I don't want you to get Scotch and crazy tonight. We won't be together much longer."

"No, but I am Scotch and crazy. But I'll stop it. It's all nonsense."

The scene foreshadows the lovers' fate at the novel's conclusion. Hemingway is afterall pretty formulaic. Guy hangs out, gets laid, downer ending. But, he does it really well. Not lost in the literary allusions is the idea that there is a type of love analogous to being drunk and losing our minds.

Back to my debate with A. I say that Agnes Kurowsky, by dumping Hemingway, changed the course of American literature. A look at some of their letters shows just how deep the feelings ran (alas, Kurowsky's next boyfriend in Italy burned all of Hemingway's letters):

[Sept. 25, 1918]

Kid, My Kid (She always refers to him affectionately as "Kid" due in part to the difference in age),

I've just been in your room, & talk about chairs that whisper! That whole room haunted me so that I could not stay in it.

Even Kurowsky's "Dear John" letter from March 7, 1919, shows only a lame attempt to cover her feelings:

For quite awhile before you left, I was trying to convince myself it was a real love-affair, because, we always seemed to disagree, & then arguments always wore me out so that I finally gave in to keep you from doing something desparate.

Now, after a couple of months away from you, I know that I am still very find of you, but, it is more as a mother than as a sweetheart.

In the last letter she ever wrote to Hemingway, dated December 22, 1922, the joy in her voice springs forth from the page:

Well, when your voice from the past reached me - after I recovered from the surprise, I never was more pleased over anything in my life.

Once again, back to my debate with A. Her take is that perhaps it's youth. In other words, when we're younger (Hemingway was around 17-18 at the time), we feel more, and things seem more dramatic because they're new. Well, that may get Hemingway but certainly not late-twenty-something Kurowsky.

There's also another way to look at it: Charles Lindbergh versus Sargeant York. Lindbergh, the hero after flying The Spirit of St. Louis, stuck around long enough in the public eye to become a Nazi sympathizer and founder of the America First movement. In contrast, after World War I, York went back to his home in the Arkansas hills, and the legend only grew from there. So, in one instance, the love we lost never gets the chance to screw it up. Her legend, like York's, takes root and grows. In other words, Hemingway never had to hear Agnes Kurowsky say, "For the last time, Ernie, will you take out the fucking garbage!"

Me, I'm far less cynical in this regard. I believe that one woman can have the power to alter the course of a man's life. We cannot escape the fact that, when all else is said, the guy wrote a novel based on her! Maybe some women just have that certain something to really frak a guy to the core. Hemingway is proof. Sorry, A.


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