Excerpt from Hemingway and Ho Chi Minh in Paris, Introduction
This is the story of two young men who came to Paris to join a resistance movement that had been going on since the end of the previous century, a modern arts-and-politics movement that had accelerated sharply as the Great War ended in 1918. These young men knew that in postwar Paris a search was underway for new political, artistic, and journalistic practices that might sweep away the oligarchs, profiteers, corrupt politicians, colonial overseers, extreme nationalists, and casual bigots who had united to prosecute and prolong the first-ever world war. Like other hopeful modernists who came to Paris just after the war, they hoped to join with those who would dismantle a system of empire that was then bleeding dry Europe’s laborers and colonial subjects. These two young men hoped for the birth of a new freedom for people like themselves—smart, talented, humane, and hopeful, but seemingly consigned by the powers that be to the role of mere cannon fodder.
One of these men came to Paris determined to become an important writer. Soon, he decided to write as a modernist, which meant doing justice to the new theories of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud—recent liberators in the theological, political, and sexual realms. This young man wanted his writing to be existentially, politically, and psychologically realistic. He wanted to add his testimony to those who wrote about the challenges of living as a newly liberated person in a suffocating, pious Victorian culture, burdened with smug Christian confidence and a strong tendency toward violence.
He brought to Paris a unique viewpoint: he had nearly been killed in a battle with the soldiers of empire. He had not yet completely overcome the shock and outrage resulting from that trauma, so he found himself often angrier and more argumentative than his peers.
Over the course of the next three years, he would study in French libraries, visit galleries with friends, and attend a Parisian salon that was really a kind of debating society for modern ideas. There he learned about avant-garde arts such as Dada, surrealism, jazz and other black arts, Stravinsky, the Ballet Russe, cubism, vorticism, and the new French love of abstract art generally. On his own, he read Shakespeare and Dickens and Dostoevsky. He made friends who encouraged him in his writing, including French anti-war novelist Henri Barbusse, who showed him how to write acerbic accounts of recent violence from the point of view of the victim.
During this time of learning, he worked as a reporter, covering peace conferences that we now know actually scripted both another world war and the many local ethnic-nationalist conflicts of the 1920s and 1930s. He worked as a fiction writer too, but there was a serious snag. Stunningly, one day this apprentice writer’s manuscripts were stolen. At first depressed and enraged at the loss, he soon took the opportunity to begin the painstaking task of learning to write a different, more modern prose. He began to write vivid prose poems about the suffering of the century’s refugees and reluctant combatants, and this writing went well. He found an audience. Eventually he gave up journalism to dedicate himself to his more literary art, and because of the new literary circles he now ran in, he began to edit and publish in a modernist little magazine, a sort of bohemian pamphlet for small audiences. Once his readership was large enough to make him known internationally, he was able to consider leaving Paris for greater things. Before long, he found that a book he had written had earned a broad international readership. He had become regarded not just as a writer but as a revolutionary new thinker redefining his culture.
This young writer was Ho Chi Minh.
Another young man came to Paris a committed Communist (the capital C is his). For more than a year before arriving in Paris, he worked hard to promote a sweeping, worker-centered socialism, an anarchic, libertarian set of governing policies designed to redirect power from the elite citizen to the ordinary one. Indeed, while still living in his home country, he wrote socialist workers’ propaganda as a full-time job. He believed emphatically in one big union of international workers. He voted communist in national elections. He viewed the new Russian revolution as a hopeful event, possibly about to become, he thought, the greatest fulfillment of democracy the world had yet seen. He did not believe that it was the destiny of the working class to become shock troops for a violent revolution, but he did see laboring men and women as fierce, durable, and crafty—a potent force for worldwide reforms. He believed that if workers were to reduce the power and unearned wealth of the people we now call “the one percent,” forces for justice would have to learn to use creative coercion.
He was interested in a Parisian experiment newly underway—the practice of using art and propaganda in explosive combinations to raise into consciousness, and maybe into possibility, serious changes to an unjust and broken world. The bohemian artist-radicals practicing this art seem to have found the most peaceable form of creative coercion available to the right-minded. Wisely, these bohemian provocateurs multiplied the effect of their efforts by forming cliques and schools and alliances and movements dedicated to refining and promoting their arts. A fiercely independent young man, he did not want to join any such school, but he was interested in talking with these artists about their hopes and goals and crafts.
This young man brought to Paris a unique viewpoint: he had nearly been killed in a battle with the soldiers of empire. He had not yet completely overcome the shock and outrage resulting from that trauma, so he found himself often angrier and more argumentative than his peers.
He treated Paris as his university. From a variety of friends he learned about avant-garde arts such as Dada, surrealism, jazz and other black arts, Stravinsky, the Ballet Russe, cubism, vorticism, and the new French love of abstract art generally. On his own, he read Shakespeare and Dickens and Dostoevsky. He made friends who encouraged him in his writing, including French anti-war novelist Henri Barbusse, who showed him how to write acerbic accounts of recent violence from the point of view of the victim.
Before he had been in Paris for two years, this young man’s communist commitments had altered. He was no longer a pro-union, Marxist tough. He was interested in the artists who split off from the Dadaist satirists of Western civilization, who were mostly hilariously nonpolitical, to become the surrealists. He knew that these artists were more serious about communism than the comical Dadaists were. The surrealists even wanted to join Lenin’s Third International, a momentous decision because it meant they were ready to contemplate, if not carry out, armed revolution. Our young man found these surrealist arts intoxicating, and the artists fun to be with, so he began to drink with them, to learn their doctrines about the possibility of sweeping social change, and to purchase their weird and unsettling art—the pieces he could afford, anyway, by not buying new clothes.
During this time of learning, he worked as a reporter, covering peace conferences that we now know actually scripted both another world war and the many local ethnic-nationalist conflicts of the 1920s and 1930s. He worked as a fiction writer too, but there was a serious snag. Stunningly, one day this apprentice writer’s manuscripts were stolen. At first depressed and enraged at the loss, he soon took the opportunity to begin the painstaking task of learning to write a different, more modern prose. At first he wrote vivid prose poems about the suffering of the century’s refugees and reluctant combatants, and this writing went well. He found an audience. Eventually he gave up journalism to dedicate himself to his more literary art, and because of the new literary circles he now ran in, he began to edit and publish in a modernist “little magazine.” Before long, he found that a book he had written had earned a broad international readership. Once his readership was large enough to make him known internationally, he was able to consider leaving Paris for greater things. He had become regarded not just as a writer but as a revolutionary new thinker redefining his culture.
This young communist was Ernest Hemingway.
Ho Chi Minh and Ernest Hemingway were actually unacquainted brothers-in-arms. They probably never met, mainly because of the racism and elitism that normally kept menial Vietnamese workers in Paris from befriending American expatriate artists. But these two had something more important in common than, say, a brief conversation in their la Mouffe neighborhood. They shared humane ideals, a hatred of injustice, and curiosity about processes of change. They also had severely wounded psyches. When they arrived in Paris, Ho probably in the first weeks after the Great War’s conclusion in late 1918 and Hemingway definitely a few months later, in December of 1921, they came in order to join in a kind of revolution. That is, they were dedicated to developing talents they knew they possessed so that they could make a material difference in the lives of injured people, those who, like them, had suffered want or indignity or physical harm. They hoped to help sweep away those elements of the traditionalist Victorian society that had pushed the world into cataclysmic war.
Both were invested in reforming governments and economies they thought inhumane. They were convinced that the powers behind empire had started the war under a false flag. The war had not been launched to preserve democracy or to end all wars, as some of its apologists claimed. It was actually a morally dubious attempt on the part of privileged men to retain their power and to increase their profits. These powers that be then had managed the conflict so ineptly that millions upon millions had died—about seven million civilians and ten million military personnel—and for nothing more than a slightly different and wholly temporary European balance of power. Both Hemingway and Ho were determined to resist that cynical and violent world with all their talents. If the art they created in the course of this work gave them some personal meaning and widespread reputation and, in Hemingway’s case, even material profit, so much the better.
Ho and Hemingway were in a uniquely parallel situation. Both had been raised in deeply devout, idealistic households, and then both experienced the deep shock of near-fatal encounters with the empire’s military forces. Indeed, both may have arrived in the City of Light still suffering post-traumatic shock. Certainly both felt desperately angry and anxious when they moved to Paris: angry about the waste of war and anxious about the future of civilization. They were especially concerned about the Great War’s wasted young people, the colonial subjects and common soldiers who had been told during that war that it was their responsibility to die gladly and readily for empire. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, the pious motto went: “It is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country.” Ho and Hemingway thought differently. They wanted to turn their talents—and thanks to excellent secondary educations and extraordinary international experiences, they had truly impressive talents—to help build a civilization that did not turn so readily to killing or, less drastically, to the routine domination and exploitation of the least powerful. They wanted to learn how to live, and live meaningfully. And so, they began to study the arts of modern resistance—resistance to this universe of killing, mainly, but also to the worldview and economic system behind the killing.
It was a moment for a smart, young person to become an agent of change, a definer of a better way, a modernist, or even a revolutionary. Ho and Hemingway were certainly not alone in realizing that the Great War had revealed a smug, murderous side to Western civilization. In the immediate postwar years, in cities across Europe such as Berlin and Zurich and Vienna and Paris, the very word civilization was undergoing revolutionary redefinition. So-called modernist artists, writers, philosophers, and political revolutionaries, many of them motivated by their own faiths, worked to propose and promote a new way. These modernists took seriously the writings of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and even Einstein, finding in these men’s theories the foundation for a more egalitarian, psychologically astute, relativistic world, consonant with their deeply held beliefs, yet leading, they hoped, to more widespread material justice.
Ho and Hemingway were primed to become modernists. Ho grew up a racially denigrated servant of the system of European privilege called colonialism. He saw his father and other elders endure insults and injuries from French colonial managers and leaders. He also witnessed Frenchmen perpetrating racist assaults on his Vietnamese friends and neighbors, both at home and during his world travels. These outrages included beatings of innocent laborers, sexual domination of young women, and taxation of poor servants and farmers who had no say in their system of government. He knew that his unluckiest fellow colonials often suffered far worse abuses, such as murder, rape, and sadistic torture—all essentially permitted by a legal system that served the French but not the Vietnamese. A smart and talented young man dedicated to Confucian teachings, Ho knew that he was not simply to resist these criminal acts but was to resist the immoral political and economic systems that made them possible.
Hemingway, by contrast, was the son of a respected suburban physician and church elder. As the child of such a father, he enjoyed his own privileges, including excellent schooling and idyllic summers at the family’s lake home. Yet his first job out of high school, reporting for a Kansas City newspaper, showed him the desperate lives of other, less fortunate Americans. He witnessed crimes that arose from hunger, and cruelty that arose from anti-immigrant bigotry. When he went to war as a Red Cross volunteer, he met men from Europe’s working classes who as civilians had had no choice but to perform degrading work and, when drafted, were forced to serve as pawns in a rich man’s war. He realized that fighting for the survival of empires, even joining that fight as a compassionate noncombatant as he had, was deeply problematic and perhaps even wrong. Like Ho, he came to realize that his faith put demands on him as well. Having been trained in Protestant Christian doctrines and then having undergone a wartime conversion to Catholicism, he felt called not just to resist specific acts of unkindness or violence but to resist the political and economic abuses that made them possible.
Ho and Hemingway followed differing logical and theological paths to their realizations, but their conclusions turned out remarkably similar. When cruelty, hunger, and denigration arose from specific political and economic systems, those systems, they realized, had to be resisted and reformed.
To learn more about Hemingway and Ho Chi Minh in Paris by David Crowe, click here.