Why Did Ernest Hemingway Leave Hadley Out of The Sun Also Rises?

We both watched him. “I’ve told him there’s nothing between us, you know.”

“I’m not sure he hears it,” I said, trying to be as delicate as possible.

“Men hear what they like and invent the rest.”

Lady Duff Twysden and Hadley Richardson Hemingway, The Paris Wife

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Isn’t that true of all of us, both men and women, we hear what we want and invent the rest?

Why read a 314 page novel about Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, when Hemingway own roman à clef novel of their time together, The Sun Also Rises, leaves her out? Paula McLain’s 2011, The Paris Wife, gives us Hadley’s side of the story, but I’m left wondering why? McLean artistically recreates Hadley, and is a fine read, but for me at least, it brings up a lot of questions about using real people as characters in a novel. Hadley’s main claim to fame is for being Hemingway’s first wife, and second, for losing all his early manuscripts. To be honest, I read The Paris Wife, hoping to learn more about Hemingway, not Hadley, and I did, but The Paris Wife does make her a solid character now. Yet, is she a work of art, or historical footnote?

The-Paris-Wife-book-cover

Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the two famous expats of The Lost Generation that lived in Paris in the 1920s, continue to draw readers into a moment of history that has become ever more glamorous.  This era even gave Woody Allen inspiration for Midnight in Paris. Professors, scholars and bookworms are drawn to this small group of writers because they defined their times like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs defined The Beats, and Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne and Pissarro defined The Impressionists. These artistic movements generate addictive fascination in us. We especially love the Bloomsbury group, Lost Generation and Beats because of their free love drama and sexual complications.

Paula McLain’s novel was inspired by a 1991 biography Hadley by Gioia Diliberto, which was republished in 2011 as Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife to ride the coattails of McLain’s bestseller. Obviously, McLain found Hadley fascinating, and so did the reading public. Interest in Hemingway’s wives continues, because last year, Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood came out, that covers all four of Papa’s wives in 317 pages.

I found great sympathy for Hadley Richardson while reading The Paris Wife, and thought Hemingway was an asshole, not only to his wife, but to his friends and mentors. But I already knew that. I will admit that The Paris Wife brings things into a new focus, but I also have to ask why we want to know more about Hadley. We do want to know more, but why? Hadley was a decent woman. She was reasonably good looking. She played the piano. But adding everything up, she wasn’t very interesting. Definitely not like Zelda Fitzgerald. But if enough writers reincarnate her into new stories, will she become the new Zelda of The Lost Generation?

What I’d like to explore is why we spend time recreating Hadley Richardson long after she’s dead. Why are we trying to make her into a memorable character of literary history? If Paula McLain’s novel had been entirely fiction, would the love story in it been worthy of reading? McLain is confined by fact, so the scope of her plot, characters, emotion and drama are limited. Given free reign, would her fictional Hadley been so dull and mundane? Hadley was part of the gang of dynamic people that Hemingway wrote about in The Sun Also Rises, so why does he leave her out of the story? He portrays himself as man sexually crippled by the war?  Jake Barnes, the Hemingway character, can’t chase Lady Brett, so he’s the observer of her wild affairs, much like we assume Hemingway was in real life – or did he actually get lucky? Did Hemingway see Hadley as a kind of chastity belt holding him back, or was she just not as colorful as his friends, and thus unworthy of being a character in his novel? Or was it even petty resentment and revenge?

Whenever I read about a historical person fictionalized I’m always anxious to know what is fiction and what is nonfiction. I knew some of this story before reading The Paris Wife. I’ve read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s own memoirs of the time, and I’ve read The Sun Also Rises three times, which The Paris Wife describes Hemingway writing – the why and how. The Paris Wife also shows us Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald just after The Great Gatsby came out, during the tumultuous time that Fitzgerald was struggling to write Tender Is The Night.

McLain has picked a juicy period and place to cover, but then so did these famous novelists. How many views of these events and people do we need? I’m still willing to read more. But I believe we need to ask why. Is this a feminist take on literary history? If so, why hasn’t Jean Rhys become famous? She wrote her own novels, lived the wild life, was part of love triangles, and was connected to Ford Maddox Ford, another character in The Paris Wife.

The Paris Wife covers Paris when many influential novels were written and their authors led lives that would generate countless biographies. Is Hadley’s unique perspective all that valuable? Hadley has now appeared in at least two novels, a memoir and many biographies, but she’s left out of the roman à clef novel by her famous husband. Isn’t that telling. In McClain’s novel, Hadley struggles to understand why too.

Of course new writers will continue to find peripheral individuals who were connected to The Lost Generation to give another perspective on this cozy history. There’s no reason not to write about Hadley. In recent years, books by and about all the women who hooked up with Jack Kerouac are coming out. Yet, the end result seems to paint more details about the male writers, and not to make their women more significant.

The more I read about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac, the more I realize I would not have liked them as people. I feel sorry for their women, and their friends. They were all self-centered drunks who were obsessed with making themselves famous by writing up their own lives. Hemingway used Hadley and when he found a more useful woman, cast her aside. Yet, what makes Hadley famous now is Hemingway. What drew Hadley to him? Hadley was 29 when she snagged the 21 year old Ernest. Hemingway was broken by the war, struggling to start a career, screwed up by an overbearing mother and haunted by a father who killed himself. Hadley had her own psychological demons. She also had an overbearing mother and a father who committed suicide. Hemingway was obviously looking for a nurturing mother replacement, a lover, and a cheerleader, and Hadley fit the bill nicely.

Hadley2

Hemingway was an alpha male that woman chased after. He was exciting and beautiful to both women and men, so it’s clear why Hadley wanted him. But like many alpha males, he was a serial womanizer, so Hadley never had much of a chance. And from a literary history perspective, we have to ask, what value is she to the story? Even with Paula McLain’s loving portrait, Hadley’s image is impressionistic at best. We never see her in realistic detail.

Even when we read nonfiction how close are we getting to the truth? And when is fiction more insightful than nonfiction? In McLain’s novel she uses people’s real names. In Hemingway’s novel, the man who actually witness the events, recasts his friends as characters with new names. They aren’t meant to be photographic portraits. We don’t see Hadley in The Sun Also Rises even though she was there with Hemingway, hanging out with the same people. Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s alter-ego, fictionally castrated, yearns for Lady Brett Ashley. Isn’t that psychological revealing way to portray himself in the novel? Years later, Hemingway does remember his wife in his memoir A Movable Feast, but isn’t it mostly guilt? He wants to apologize, but do we believe him?

HemingwayLoeb

In the end we’re fascinated by Hemingway and Hadley. But which is more important, the art, or the biography? Strangely enough, The Sun Also Rises is how most people see the Lost Generation, and it’s a lie, a fabrication, fiction. Hemingway distills time and memory like our dreams process our daily experiences. By fictionalizing Hadley, McLain is making her memorable in the same way Hemingway made his friends memorable. We remember Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn and Mike Campbell,  and not Lady Duff Twysden, Harold Loeb and Pat Guthrie. Which are more real, the fictional characters, or the people they were based on?

Literary biography can be a black hole sucking in facts searching for truth. If you get too close to the story, it can trap you inside the event horizon. For me, at some point, I get too close to these characters and start to dislike them. No matter how much I admire Hemingway’s skill with words, the more I know about him, the less I admire him as a person. The Paris Wife makes Hemingway into a real stinker – and here’s the real problem I have with the novel, I never see why Hadley loves him.

We learn why Hadley is attracted to Hemingway, why she needs him, why she admires him, why she wants to take care of him, but I never understood why she loves him. I think that’s true because we never understand why Hemingway loves Hadley. Love might not be something that can be conveyed in fiction or fact. We can describe romance and sex, but can we translate love into words? We can explain attraction, but can we put the ineffable into art? Even if we had high definition video of all the events in the book, could we ever know how people felt? Hadley says over and over again she loves Ernest, but that tells us nothing. We know she does because she puts up with so much. But I don’t think we ever feel what she feels.

Whether in fiction or nonfiction, we’re not recreating reality but art. We will never know Hadley and Hemingway. Novels like The Paris Wife have to stand alone as art. Bringing in facts from the past only confuses the issues even though we assume more facts bring more clarity. Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Kerouac knew that, and that’s why they don’t stick to the facts.

The Paris Wife did make me wonder why Hemingway wasn’t more genuine in his novel and included himself and Hadley as man and wife. For such a macho guy, I think he was being a pussy. He obviously didn’t want to write honestly about his attraction to Duff (Lady Brett), or deal with Hadley’s hurt. Hemingway would get in with the bulls, but was too chicken to throw himself in the romantic ring where everyone was goring each other. I’ve got to give Kerouac credit for portraying his own faults in his novels. It will be hard now to read The Sun Also Rises without thinking about The Paris Wife. As works of art they will always have to stand alone, but as literary gossip, they are forever married.

If Hemingway had really loved Hadley, and understood her deeply, knowing her soul with that love, don’t you think she would have been characterized in The Sun Also Rises? Like the quote I open with, “Men hear what they like and invent the rest,” Hemingway remembers what he wants remembered, and invents the rest.

JWH

Thinking Outside Your Head

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, April 13, 2015

Most people do all their contemplation inside their head, but it’s worthwhile to explore ideas about externalized thinking. Internal thinking is confined by our ability to mentally recall details and juggle concepts. We find it very hard to plot a novel or design a skyscraper without writing things down, and since the invention of the stylus we haven’t had to. From clay tablets to computers, we’ve been able to do much of our thinking outside of our brains. However, people generally prefer to use neurons for personal thought processing, and use external tools for professional thinking.

Like most people, I’m lazy and usually attempt to juggle my thoughts mentally, but now that I’m getting older, I realize external forms of memory are a big help. Until you attempt to organize your thinking externally, you don’t realize how vague your thoughts really are. Most people take in information – they watch television, listen to music, read books, listen to their friends talk. Except for talking, people generally don’t express their thoughts, and fewer still attempt to translate their feelings into words.

Take movies for example. Let’s say you see a movie that resonated deeply with your emotions. What do you tell your friends? “I just LOVED that movie.” Not much real information in that statement. And if pushed for details, you might expand your message, “It made me laugh. It made me cry. I really identified with the main character.” Still not saying much. People with better memories and communication skills will summarize scenes that touched them most. That actually does a better job of communicating. Writing a full movie review that systematically chronicles your reactions and explains why you have them, pushes your ability to express yourself, think coherently, and externalize your thoughts.

It’s much easier to babble one’s random thoughts as they float to the surface of our consciousness than to wrestle them onto paper, organizing them into successive coherent sentences. Writing this essay is hard work for me. I’m constantly feeling the urge to get up from this computer, go get some Triscuit® crackers and Swiss cheese, get in my recliner, and munch my snack while listening to Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan.

In other words, my instinct tells me to run away from the work of external thinking. Writing this essay took days. All this thinking about thinking got me to think about how we lasso, corral and brand our thoughts. From this work I noticed certain techniques we use to think outside our heads.

Lists

One of the most basic ways for external thinking is to make a list. Some people are quite good at remembering, and can keep a tally of items in their head with no trouble. I can’t. Putting items on a list is an external form of thinking and memory. Reorganizing the list and contemplating their ranking is external thinking. Looking at the list later is external memory.

Lists come in different variety, such as unordered, ordered, alphabetical, numerical, etc.

List of Musical Instruments:

  • Violin
  • Guitar
  • Piano
  • Oboe

It really doesn’t matter what order they are listed, we’re just trying to remember the class of things called musical instruments.

Favorite British Invasion Bands of the 1960s:

  1. The Beatles
  2. The Yardbirds
  3. The Who
  4. The Rolling Stones

Not only are we trying to remember specific groups, but rank them. This reflects personal opinion and tastes. If you took on the task of listing your absolute top 25 albums of all time, it would require a lot of contemplating and reflection. Composing such a list could take a great deal of work and effort, and using pencil or computer to compose the list would be a huge aid, because few of us can keep twenty-five items in their head at once. Recalling a lifetime of favorite albums is a mental struggle. Keeping a list over days or weeks is a kind of long term thinking. It allows us to conquer space and time.

Favorite British Invasion Bands of the 1960s:

  • The Beatles
  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Who
  • The Yardbirds

This is the same list, but it’s alphabetical. Such a listing connotes a desire not to rank.

Favorite Albums:

  • Rubber Soul (1965)
  • Blonde on Blonde (1966)
  • Younger Than Yesterday (1967)
  • Electric Ladyland (1968)

This uses a numerical approach. If you look at the various approaches to making lists you see that list gathers details and imposes order. Unless you have a special kind of brain, you don’t do this mentally. This is why I say it’s thinking outside your head. List making is just the beginning. There’s all kinds of ways to think externally. My list of books read since 1983 is an external memory. At first I kept the list in an old chemistry notebook, but recently moved it to Google docs using the spreadsheet. For decades I recorded just the title, author and date I finished reading the book. I refer to this list pretty often and it’s been very useful as a memory aid. When I moved to the spreadsheet, I added some columns – year the book was first published, and what format I read the book – hardback, paperback, trade paper, ebook, library book, Kindle ebook and audiobook. I’m able to search the list and reorder it by any column, and I can extract sublists – like all books I read in 1999. I could never do this mentally. There are some idiot savants that might, but it’s not a common trick.

External memory

Outlines and Mind Mapping

A step up from list making is outlining or mind mapping. Our brains are constantly striving to categorize by who, what, when, where, why and how. Using an outline, or it’s modern equivalent, the memory map, we can add more layers of structure that a simple list cannot handle. Outlines are essentially compound lists. They offer layers of structure and can infer more inherent meaning.

I thought out this essay with Xmind. Each detail originated in my brain, but recording it in Xmind allowed me to see a growing structure that triggered additional inspiration and details. Thoughts are like spider webs that interconnect in interesting patterns. We don’t see those patterns until we externalize them.

Logs, Calendars and Timesheets

Sometimes we want to organize pieces of information by time, like the list of books I’ve read since 1983. I wish I had been doing this since 1959 when I first became a bookworm. I just read a biography of Kay Francis, and she keep a calendar for decades that recorded the parties she attended and her sexual conquests. The biographer used it as the structure of their book. I wish I had kept a list of all the movies I’ve seen. At work I sometimes kept timesheets of projects I worked on.  Logs, calendars and timesheets are our way of planning events and remembering when things happened.

Diaries, Journals and Blogs

For casual thinking outside the head, nothing beats diaries, journals and blogs. Isaac Asimov kept diaries his whole life that allowed him to write his memoirs with precise details. This blog is my way of remember my external thinking sessions. Quite often I’ve reread posts I wrote years ago and not remembered them at all. This is amusing to me now to see how I thought back when. Reading old blog posts is sometimes sad too, because I often feel like I can no longer think as well as I did just a few years ago.

Essays and Books

Before October 14, 1947 when Chuck Yeager flew his Bell X-1 people theorized about the “sound barrier” as if it was impossible to fly faster than sound. I often feel like I have a cognitive barrier that I can’t think through.  Even though I’ve written 916 blog posts for Auxiliary Memory I feel there is an essay length that confines my thinking. I struggle to make a thousand words coherent. Imagine the task of writing 100,000 words. I have met writers who talked about taking ten years to write a book. That’s a Mt. Everest of external thinking.

As an aside, I got the details about Chuck Yeager from Wikipedia, which is a hive mind form of external thinking and memory.

I have often thought that the large novel or nonfiction book is the most complex form of human thought. Can you imagine all the thinking that went into War and Peace? Isabel Wilkerson said she interviewed 1200 people to write The Warmth of Other Suns, and took over a decade to write. Did any individual architect designing the One World Trade Center spend as much time thinking about their project?

As an expression of external thinking, the novel or nonfiction book is among the most complex, don’t you think?

Thinking About Thinking

This essay is a recursive expression of external thinking. I started out by making lists of ideas. Then I switched to mind mapping. For each section, I would spend time daydreaming about the idea, and when I came up with interesting details, I’d write them down. I cannot even keep a portion of this essay in my mind at once. If I start rereading the beginning, I forget the rest quickly. It’s only when I reread this post several times do I see consistent patterns. Several times within the essay I used the same example, having forgotten I used it previously in another writing session.

I’m at the 1,500 word mark and hitting a barrier. Writers with better minds than mine can take this subject and turn it into a 100,000 word book. One of the best I’ve read is The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick.

There are two barriers that hold me back. One is the scope of the idea, and the second is the length of time I can contemplate an idea. If an essay gets too long, or I have to struggle with it for more than a few days, I crash and burn. I’d love to be able to write a book, but that’s probably more external thinking than I’m capable of accomplishing. I wonder if that’s a cognitive barrier or an age barrier – or both. Even with these tools I can only comprehend so much at any one time.

JWH

Why I Wish I Had a Memory Like a Robot

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 4, 2015

Have you ever wished you had a perfect memory? I have.

Have you ever wondered what having a perfect memory would be like? Me too.

Have you ever imagined what your memory would be like if you were a robot? Yeah, I think about such far out ideas too. Future intelligent machines will store memories as digital files, and would only forget if they decide to delete them. Robots will record everything they see, hear, feel, smell and taste. If a robot read a book or watched a movie, they could store the complete work as a file. They’d have perfect recall of whole libraries. When I spend twenty hours reading a nonfiction book full of wonderful information, I might be able to give a vague five minute summary of it two weeks later.  Robots would remember everything, and link everything in the book to everything else they know. Damn, I wish I was a robot.

I hate that I take in so much knowledge and quickly forget it. I hate my memory is so unreliable.

Bad Lands

Movie watching is a great example of my frustration with my limits of memorization. For example, last night I watched Bad Lands, an old western from 1939. I’m quite positive I’ve seen it before. I am also quite positive that I’ve experienced the same plot used in another movie. If I had a perfect memory I wouldn’t need to watch a movie again. If I had a perfect memory, I’d remember where and when I saw Bad Lands the first time. If I had a perfect memory I’d know what movie Bad Lands ripped off. If I had a perfect memory I’d know what other movies the actors from Bad Lands had been in. I’d also remember when and where I had seen those movies too. A perfect memory would mean knowing a vast web of interrelationships – much like the internet.

With the help of Wikipedia, I figured out this western was inspired by The Lost Patrol, from 1934, which I also have vague memories of seeing. And by jumping over to IMDb, I could follow the links to see what other movies all the actors from Bad Lands played in too. Robert Barrat (1889-1970) who played the sheriff, has 161 movie and television acting credits at IMDb. Some shows I remember seeing, and many more I could have seen – but alas I don’t remember Barrat in any of them, nor did my memory feel any recognition  when I saw him last night in Bad Lands. I did recognize Noah Beery, Jr. and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, from movie memories which I can’t recall their titles. I did think Guinn Williams had been a side-kick in some Errol Flynn movies, and IMDb validated those hunches. I even felt Beery and Williams had been in other movies together, but so far the internet hasn’t helped me prove that whiff of intuition.

If I was a robot, I’d be a western movie guru.

another-dawn-1937

What’s spooky is last night was the second night in a row of picking out an old movie to watch, thinking they were new to me, and realizing in a déjà vu manner, I had seen them before. The previous night I had seen Another Dawn, a 1937 flick with Kay Francis and Errol Flynn. It didn’t take long to feel I’d seen it before, but for the life of me I couldn’t summarize the plot. I enjoyed both movies because I didn’t remember enough to know how’d they turn out. I either faintly remembered the ending of Another Dawn, or guessed it, and I guessed wrong about the last man standing in Bad Lands. Being human means seeing a movie again can be fun. Would anyone with a robotic memory ever watch a film twice?

The Big TrailStagecoach

I want to remember everything. I wrote about Kay Francis last week, and listed her top films according to IMDb, but some people wanted to know which of her films were my favorites. I’ve seen many, but can only name a couple off the top of my head. I know there are others I really loved when I saw them, but can’t remember the titles, or even what they were about. Isn’t that a pisser? My memory has never been very good, and now that I’m getting older, it’s getting downright untrustworthy – even flaky.

My unfaithful memory is painful. I’d love to have the kind of memory were I could say, “These are my favorite 10 westerns of the 1930s,” and then tick them off in a flash. I can remember I love The Big Trail for 1930 and Stagecoach from 1939, but can’t remember anything in between.

One reason I called this blog Auxiliary Memory is because when I do write an essay about my favorite westerns, it will be in a memory I can recall. When I’m watching TV with Janis or Susan, I often ask them, “Where have we seen her before?” Susan is surprisingly good at remembering, and Janis is almost as good. Both are far better than me. But I think it pains Janis most when she can’t remember. We’ll often be in the middle of a really engaging show and she’ll have to pull out her iPhone to track down an actor or title. I’ll have to pause the TV, because nothing will stop her until she’s tracked down her fact. Janis is like a bloodhound on a scent when chasing an elusive memory.

I like to contemplate what life would be like if we all had perfect memories. But would we have as much to talk about if we all remembered everything? Would I turn to Janis to say, “We saw this actor back in August 4, 2003 when we saw The Ideal Husband,” knowing she already knew that? And Susan would not enjoy making fun of my poor memory, nor I get to praise her for having such a good one.

Even though we might have less to talk and joke about, wouldn’t it be great to have perfect memories? Everyone would have gotten 100s on all their school exams, and we’d have no need to take the written test at the DMV. And think how much easier it would be to write a PhD thesis having memorized all the research? And after we watched a wonderful film, we could play it over in our head whenever we wanted. Parties would be so much less stressful when we could remember everyone’s name.

Probably there’s some huge downsides to having a memory like a robot.  Although, couldn’t we just delete the bad memories? Or would we?

JWH

The Resurrection of Kay Francis

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 28, 2015

This essay is written for a blogathon hosted by Pre-Code.com and Shadows and Satin.

Who is Kay Francis? She is a long dead movie star who was once famous in the first half of the 1930s. Few remember her today. So, why am I writing about her now? For some reason I love seeing her movies when they come on Turner Classic Movies, even though they’re generally lousy films. Why? Well, I think Kay Francis is the most fascinating and beautiful of all the actresses of the 1930s. Other fans of 1930s films are taking note of her again too. Kay Francis said she wanted to be forgotten, and the men who made her movies never imagined them as lasting works of art, so why are we remembering Kay Francis now? There is two kinds of fame, one is contemporary, and the other is historical. Kay Francis once had fame for a few years, and then was forgotten. Why are we resurrecting Kay Francis now?

Kay Francis 1941 The Man Who Lost Himself

Kay Francis is the perfect subject for a study in fame. Back in the 1930s Kay Francis was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, with legions of fans, and her image adorning more magazines covers than anyone but Shirley Temple. Yet, today she is virtual unknown. Why are Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn from that era remembered as superstars, but not Kay Francis? Many people believe great movie stars make films great, but it’s my theory that’s its great films that make great movie stars. Kay Francis isn’t remembered today because most of her films were forgettable, and that has destroyed her memory in popular culture. Strangely enough, as Warner Brothers attempted to force Kay Francis to break her high salary contract by putting her into forgettable films, Kay Francis refused to give in, took the parts Warner’s pushed on her, collected her huge paychecks and is quoted as saying, “I can’t wait to be forgotten.”

She almost got her wish, if it wasn’t for Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and the growing interest in Pre-Code Hollywood. I don’t think Kay Francis cared for fame, and I doubt any of the filmmakers then thought movies would become a lasting art form. This is before television and DVDs, and maybe even film festivals. It’s only us fans who love the past that want to make sure the objects of our affection aren’t lost forever. What will it take to resurrect Kay Francis?

Biography

Who was Kay Francis? Unless you’re a hardcore TCM addict, it’s doubtful you’ve heard her name. Visit Wikipedia for an excellent concise summary of her life. Kay Francis was known for her striking beauty, and the ability to play daring women. Francis was born in 1905, and started her acting career on Broadway in the Roaring Twenties, just before sound movies came out. Kay was at the right place at the right time, because Hollywood began a massive import of Broadway actors to work in the talkies. Kay Francis made nineteen films at Paramount before going over to Warner Brothers to be the new queen of their production lot. Warner Brothers then proceeded to use her star appeal to sell second rate projects, riding Kay Francis’ fame with fans for all its worth. Eventually the public got tired of seeing mediocre films that didn’t match her talent. Warner didn’t renew her contract, and Francis became a free agent. She continued to make movies, some even decent, but none that would keep her name alive in our new century. Her career peaked in 1932 with three movies, that are only remembered today by connoisseurs of Pre-Code Hollywood. She died in 1968, at age 63, which is how old I am now.

Pre-Code Kay Francis

The appeal to Pre-Code films is hard to explain. Simply, they are sound films made before July 1, 1934 when a national censorship code began to be rigorously enforced. Only in recent decades has Pre-Code become a distinctive sub-genre of 1930s films. When the public remembers films from the 1930s today, then tend to remember those made in 1939 – Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. The early sound era, before the production code took affect, was a primitive time for “the talkies.” As actors and technicians worked out their techniques for the new art form, pictures improved dramatically as the thirties progressed, and by 1939 they were stunning. The few pop culture favorites today from the early 1930s tend to be films that appeal to young people, like Tarzan of the Apes, King Kong, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Thin Man, Little Caesar, Public Enemy, etc. Only hard-core old movie fans remember the dramas, melodramas, literary and historical films of the 1930s.

Pre-Code films are now remembered for pushing the limits of the state censors. Pre-Code films explored the reality of sex and violence in  contemporary culture that both shocked and titillated Great Depression audiences. Some films made serious social statements and others exploited sensational subjects. It’s hard to say why some Pre-Code film buffs love those films when 21st century flicks are far more daring in their explorations. What’s the appeal of skimpy dressed actresses in crudely made old black and white movies, when modern actresses show far more flesh in brilliant high definition?

I can explain why I love those films. I imprinted on 1930s black and white films by watching television in the 1960s. Everyone acquires their pop culture tastes in early adolescence when books, television, movies and music brand on their formative minds. In the early sixties, I imprinted on 1960s rock and roll music, 1960s television, 1950s science fiction and 1930s movies. I love being up late at night in a darkened room lit only by the flickering light of old black and white movies.

When I talk to young people today, most of them claim they can’t stand black and white movies, and hate movies from the 1930s because the acting seems funny to them. They see a film like Grand Hotel as silly, not stylish like I do. To me old films are an alternate reality, one that glitters in infinite shades of gray, exuding style and glamour. Yet, this can’t explain why Pre-Code films deserve their attention. It’s definitely an acquired taste, like learning to watch silent films. I long ago gave up expecting any of my friends to share my enjoyment of 1930s movies. I do spot fellow fans on the net writing about TCM or in the comment sections for the DVDs on sale at Amazon.com. I suppose we’re like fans of other older dying art forms, like pulp magazines or 78 jazz records.

Kay Francis’ real life was more Pre-Code than her Pre-Code films. She was a predatory divorcee years before Norma Shearer made them famous. She was involved in three way love affairs long before making Trouble in Paradise. Kay Francis had a huge sexual appetite, consuming men and women in far greater numbers than all her film lovers combined. All her reel-life roles as cutting edge women were merely cleaned up versions of her real-life experiences. Pre-Code Hollywood films explored the lives of women with bad reputations, not as sinners, but as daring explorers on the social frontiers. Kay Francis grew up living those lives, first traveling with her mother a stage actress, and then later on her own, in New York and Europe. By the time she went to Hollywood in 1929, she had lived most of the roles she played in the 1930s.

Kay Frances was recreating her own experiences onscreen, in glamorous costumes she changed dozens of times a picture. In her most famous films, she was a sexy goddess of sophistication, looking great even when she was down and out, or even dying. For a few years in the 1930s, Kay Francis was so alluring that moviegoers fell in love with her, but in the second half of the decade her fans moved on.

To understand why people in the 1930s fell for Kay you have to watch her films. But which ones?  What I’ve done is identify her five best films through the film ratings at IMDb. Then I list her next twelve highest rated films, but these are harder to find, and probably will offer little appeal to most modern movie watchers. I’m hoping the top five films transcend their times and appeal to audiences of any time. If Kay is to be remembered, it will have to be through films that are remembered. I’m encouraged that Trouble in Paradise has enchanted some of my younger friends. That gives me hope. I am always delighted to see Jewel Robbery over and over again, and wonder if it will appeal to 21st century television watchers. I know One Way Passage is a quaint melodrama, but I still love it. I’m not sure modern audiences can handle it’s over-the-top sentimentality.

Kay Francis would still be famous today if she had gotten to work on a great film. If Kay had starred in one of the AFI’1 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, I suppose I wouldn’t be writing this essay. Would The Philadelphia Story been that different with Kay Francis instead of Katherine Hepburn? Hepburn is considered a much better actress than Kay Francis, but who knows. Kay always seemed up to the roles she was offered. Her weakness was she didn’t fight for them, choosing instead to do what Warner Brother’s asked – until it was too late. Obviously actors are not interchangeable – I certainly wouldn’t want anyone else doing Blonde Venus but Marlene Dietrich, or Jean Harlow starring in Red Dust. But Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis had so many great stories, it’s a shame that Kay Francis couldn’t have had one or two of them. I fantasize that MGM would have found better vehicles for Kay Francis.

Sadly, we have what we have, and some of Kay’s best films are magical if you are the right person for them. Luckily, I am.

Kay’s Top Five Films

There’s no absolute way to judge something like a film, so these top five pictures come from a voting system at IMDb. There is some validation to this list from reading about Kay Francis, from the All Movie Guide, from comments at Amazon for those films on sale, and from my own experience watching them. Kay Francis was known more for her typecasting rather than her acting range. She did have a speech impediment that writers had to work around, and her fans demanded to see her in expensive gowns rather than character costumes, so there is a certain unreality to her stories. In her most popular films, Kay played rich beautiful women in designer gowns framed by Art Deco sets, but in some of her less famous movies, she played business women, doctors, nurses, gold-diggers, and women down on their luck.

Only three of these five films are available on DVD: Trouble in Paradise, One Way Passage and Jewel Robbery, so you will have to haunt the TCM Schedule each month in hopes of catching the other two. Nor will I recommend you rush out and buy them on my recommendation. Catch them on cable first. There’s a good chance you won’t like them. Only a small percentage of avid movie watchers like movies this old.

The decimal number with the title is their current IMDb rating.

Trouble in Paradise (1932) – 8.2

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Kay plays Madame Mariette Colet, a rich and beautiful owner of a French perfume company, who is targeted by jewel thieves Gaston, Herbert Marshall, and Lily, Miriam Hopkins. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Trouble in Paradise is the one Kay Francis film that often shows up on lists of the best films of the 1930s, and it was an early film added to the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Trouble in Paradise was considered one of the top ten films of 1932, and Roger Ebert included it in his Great Movies collection. This one film is Kay’s best hope for being remembered by 21st century movie fans.

The plot of Trouble in Paradise involves Herbert Marshall choosing between two beautiful women, his equal-in-crime partner, Miriam Hopkins, or the wealthy woman with all the jewels he falls for while trying to rob her, Kay Francis. The plot is light and slippery, and the banter airy and breezy. Sadly, even the best of prints are not pristine, giving the impression that the film is very old indeed, showing its age at 83. It’s a damn shame that Fox Grandeur 70mm widescreen filming didn’t become standard in 1930. I would never dream of wishing 1930s movies had been in color, but I sure wish the prints had been super high resolution and widescreen. I wonder if modern film fans would be more accepting of old films if they didn’t look so old.

 

One Way Passage (1932) – 8.2

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I’ve seen One Way Passage many times – it’s all style and little substance, a stateroom melodrama set on a ship crossing the Pacific. Both characters are destined to die at the end of a long voyage, one for his crimes, the other for her weak heart. Both keep their fatal destinies from each other, promising a lifetime of devotion.

Like many 1930s melodramatic films, One Way Passage has a second string of characters providing comic contrast. Frank McHugh plays Skippy, Dan’s sidekick, who meets Aline MacMahon in the backstory, playing Barrel House Betty, a fake countess con woman. Frank McHugh uses Aline MacMahon to run interference for his buddy, with Steve, the cop that’s guarding Dan, played by Warren Hymer. The entire show is just 68 minutes, so while the action is very slow, the story moves very fast.

Many of my favorite movies from the early 1930s run under 90 minutes. The studios cranked out the content, with actors often doing four to eight films a year. The quality of the storytelling is often less complicated than an hour of modern TV. William Powell gets a fair amount of character development, but not Kay, who is defined by her limits of physical exertion.  I have to wonder if One Way Passage was longer, say the 104 minutes of Dark Victory, and given more rewrites, if it wouldn’t have been a much more popular film today. I think it’s a lovely romantic idea that needs fleshing out.

Often these movies made for depression era shop girls had little in the way of real characterization. The men were painted quickly as suave and debonair, and the women sketched even faster by the fashions they wore. The lovers would drink and smoke, and banter innuendoes to each other. Part of this staginess was due to back lot sets and primitive microphone techniques of the early sound years.  Yet, I believe One Way Passage generates maximum charm with such little effort by Powell and Francis, as if they were impressionistic actors. If you have the 1930s movie gene, this film is enchanting.

I imagine, when I get very old and bedridden, I’ll prefer the elegant simplicity of 1930s storytelling on my deathbed to the long complicated films of today. The ending of One Way Passage, or On Borrowed Time, offer death fantasies that would be very pleasant to die by.

Pre-Code films were made during the heart of the depression. They offered both silly escapism and gritty realism. They were made for my parents’ generation, who were teens when these films came out. It’s almost impossible to comprehend the life back then, when people didn’t have television, computers, cellphones and the internet. I don’t think most citizens of our technological century can tune into this 1930s version of dream time. I can because some of my earliest memories are waking up to watch the all-night movies with my father. Philosophically, I’m light years away from the common mindset of 1930s moviegoers.  Yet, emotionally I resonate with these stories.

One Way Passage works so well for me because William Powell and Kay Francis are my favorite actors from this period. Understanding why is harder to explain. Maybe the stars we admire are the ones we wished we could be or be with.

Confession (1937) – 8.2

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Confession is a film that I only vaguely remember seeing. Like most of the films of Kay Francis, I caught them on television, usually TCM, and their details are in the jumbled mess of my memories. I remember the basic plot and mostly the ending. I was surprised this film was so highly rated on IMDb and I’m looking forward to catching it again on TCM, or buying it if it ever comes out on DVD.

Even though Kay Francis is only 32 years old when this film was made, she plays a mother, Vera, of a 17-year old girl, Lisa, played by Jane Bryan. The story centers on an older man, played by Basil Rathbone, chasing Kay’s daughter. Since this story has a surprise ending and is more complicated than most of Kay’s usually films, I won’t go into the plot. And that might be one reason why it’s remembered so well, even though the story was only complicated enough to require 87 minutes to tell. The reason why we remember actors and actresses of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz is because they got to play meaty distinctive characters. If Kay Francis ever had a chance to play more characters like Scarlett O’Hara, she would have have been remembered today.

If Kay Francis had shot Basil Rathbone as viciously as Bette Davis shoots her object of hate in The Letter, then Confession might be more remembered. Bette Davis became the box office queen for Warner’s after Kay Francis fell from grace. And the truth is, Bette Davis was a much better actress because she had such killer instincts in real life. Kay never fought Warner Brothers like Bette did. Kay was a lover, not a fighter, and she got dumped.

Girls About Town (1931) – 8.1

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Girls About Town is the kind of picture that typifies Pre-Code films – you get to see Kay in her underwear, and’s she’s a slutty gold-digger. I’m surprised by it’s 8.1 rating at IMDb. The film’s popularity might be due to Joe McCrea growing stardom. However, the interplay between Francis and Lilyan Tashman, friends in real life, make the movie even more suggestive. Kay was just 26 for this picture, but she looked older. Depending on her hairstyle, wardrobe, and how the cameraman filmed her, Kay could look round faced and older, or thin faced and younger. This made her look old fashioned and at other times modern. Seeing her in this earlier picture probably captures more of what she looked like in real life. Her Warner Brother pictures featured a far more crafted look. It’s a shame she didn’t get to play more physically active characters, because her slinky manikin posing was great for Hollywood glamour, but poor for demonstrating acting ability. Look how animated Tashman is below while Kay plays it coolly.  Kay’s directors should have pushed her to be more kinetic.

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Jewel Robbery (1932) – 7.5

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Kay plays a flibbertigibbet who seems to have only one thing on the brain: JEWELS!  Kay is married to a dull older man, Henry Kolker, who works hard to feed her gem habit to keep his beautiful young wife from running wild. We know Kay isn’t faithful right from the start, but when her rich husband takes her diamond shopping and the store is robbed by a gang of jewel robbers bossed by the magnificently charming William Powell, Kay stops thinking JEWELS and starts thinking MAN!

This is the fifth of seven times Powell and Francis would act together.  They play off each other wonderfully. It’s a shame Kay didn’t get to play Nora Charles, because she’d definitely be remembered today. Kay certainly had real life drinking practice down for the role.

Jewel Robbery is another film that fits into the Pre-Code appeal for its adultery, sexiness, innuendo and even drug use, but it’s all done with such a light touch that I can’t even imagine Will Hays himself being bothered by the film.

 

The Best of the Rest

Using the ratings at IMDb, I picked the next dozen highest rated Kay Francis films. None of these films are going to be remembered by the public at large today, but they aren’t bad if you like old movies from the 1930s, especially Pre-Code films.

  • The House on 56th Street (1933) – 7.4
  • Mandalay (1934) – 7.3
  • Guilty Hands (1931) – 7.3
  • Secrets of an Actress (1938) – 7.3
  • In Name Only (1939) – 7.3
  • 24 Hours (1931) – 7.2
  • The Vice Squad (1931) – 7.2
  • Cynara (1932) – 7.2
  • Strangers in Love (1932) – 7.2
  • Stranded (1935) – 7.2
  • First Lady (1937) – 7.2
  • Divorce (1945) – 7.2

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Most of us will die and be forgotten, but sometimes the accomplished among us will live on in history, maybe not forever, but longer than they ever imagined. Kay Francis is fading fast in pop culture immortality. It’s strange that I know about Kay Francis. Why did I bond with the movies of the 1930s when I was growing up in the 1960s? The simple answer is television. 1960s music and television imprinted on me because that’s what I heard and watched as a teenager. As a kid I seldom went to new movies, and never bought the latest bestsellers.  Old movies and books are what I was exposed to first. That’s how I got out-of-sync with my pop culture times. The art forms you’re exposed to in your formative years are the ones you live with for the rest of your life.

What draws us back to these old films time and again? What makes us scrutinize the TCM schedule every month looking for that rare film we haven’t seen? What makes us frequently search Amazon hoping to find a new DVD of a very old film we’ve been waiting years to be released.

There is the real world out there, with terrorist bombings, climate change, drunk and texting drivers, mad shooters, a world filled with hating and conflict. Sure, our alternate celluloid reality is also filled with killing, hate and conflict, but it’s not real, and the good guys triumph. We love Pre-Code Hollywood for its grittiness, the exact same thing we’re trying to escape.

Box Office Poison

In the May 3rd, 1938 issue of Independent Film Journal, Harry Brandt, of the Independent Theater Owners of America, published an article called “Dead Cats” where he listed the actors and actresses his group felt were no longer making his group money, claiming the movie studies were overpaying them, and they were box office poison. Among those he listed were Garbo, Dietrich, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, John Barrymore, and Kay Francis. Garbo famously walked away from Hollywood in 1941. John Barrymore died in 1942.  All the others continued to make films, including Kay. She made 16 films after 1938. Yet, Brandt was right, and Kay Francis was no longer the star she had been.

Why Isn’t Kay Francis Famous Today?

Kay Francis said time and again she wanted to be forgotten, yet she relished the limelight as long as she could. Near the end of her life, Francis got drunk and passed out at a New York restaurant. While her friends were carrying her out to a cab, a young man walked by and asked, “Is that Kay Francis?” Kay opened one eye and said, “It used to be.”

We like to believe the star system that emerged in Hollywood during the 1920s and 1930s defined a kind of pop culture immortality, yet that fame was temporary for all but a few legendary actors and actresses. Long term fame isn’t determined by publicity and box office. When we’re looking at decades and generations of memories, what lasts are the great films, not the stars. Sure, the stars in those films are remembered, but they are remembered for the films. I search the TCM schedule every month for Kay Francis movies and watch whatever’s available, knowing the odds of enjoying a good story is small.

I remember Kay Francis for her beauty but beauty offers no lasting fame.  And if you’re an actor seeking historic fame, you need to play an immortal character. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara make us remember Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh. We would never remember Johnny Weissmuller if not for Tarzan.

We don’t remember Kay Francis because we don’t remember Mariette Colet, Joan Ames, or Baroness Teri von Horhenfels. And that’s the ultimate lesson of this essay. Great characters and story are everything. If we can’t remember the character, we won’t remember the actor. The legacy of Kay Francis will never be resurrected like her fans hope. Kay Francis had a tremendous life as a real person, just read her biographies to be dazzled, but the characters she played were never real enough, not like the woman who played them.

References

JWH

Retirement 2.0

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 22, 2015

Now that I’ve been retired for a year and a half, I see that I need to rethink my retirement plans and habits. Living without the structure of work is changing my psychology. Unlimited free time is like living land of the Lotus Eaters. Doing whatever I want, when I want, is like a habit forming drug. Want to kick back and listen to Van Morrison for two hours – cool. Want to watch the Oklahoma Kid, a western from 1939, sure, why not.  Want to put off lunch until 2:30 to keep reading my science fiction novel, that’s a-okay. I go to bed when I’m tired of doing things, and get up when I’m tired of not doing anything. I’m like a dog that takes a nap whenever and wherever it damn well feels like it.

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Now this might sound like paradise to my hardworking friends who toil away at their nine to five grind. And it pretty much is. I’m not really complaining, but I sort of am, a kind of worry that I have too much of a good thing. My mom used to always ration cookies to me and my sister, Becky, so when I got my first apartment, I would buy a bag of Chips Ahoy! and eat the whole damn thing. Retirement is overindulging in free time.

I need to make Retirement 2.0 more disciplined. Maybe I need to schedule my fun, so I’d feel more productive about doing nothing.

The trouble is, I’m writing less, letting the house go, ignoring things on my to-do list, and losing all sense of discipline. I don’t know if this is because I’ve gone eighteen months without working, or because I gave up junk food January 1st, and don’t have enough brain fuel to keep me energized. However, I don’t want to get a job just to force a routine on myself.

I started writing this essay last week. I wrote the title, thought about it, and then went and fixed myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and went back to reading The Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. Writing takes work. Writing takes sticking to the project for hours. And since I’ve been retired, I realize that it’s much too easy to skip working at things. I’ve talk with some of my other retired friends, and they also talk about losing their discipline. We can’t decide if it’s a matter of just getting old, or not having a routine forced on us. Evidently, what they told us in school was true, work builds character.

At work, if I got assigned a big project, knowing it was due in two months, and I’d project manage myself and get it done. Now if I want to do something, it’s whenever I feel like doing it, and that tends to promote a lackadaisical mindset. If I have to do things by a date, like a doctor’s visit, or help a friend move a tree, I get it done on time. Which makes me think I should assign myself tasks and deadlines, even if it’s fun, like promising to go a movie with a friend next Sunday afternoon.

Now I’m sure BillyPilgrim is going to suggest I’m depressed, but I’m not. I’m writing this essay to think about the nature of my situation, and figure out solutions. I should plan each blog post as a specific job with a deadline, and divide up the work like a project manager.

I’m fascinated that we all go through various phases in our life. My friend Connell, who retired ahead of me, warned me about this phase. I didn’t understand. I wonder how many more phases I will experience before I die? Could older people warn me about future life phases of retirement years? Would I comprehend what they tell me. Could I use the knowledge to my advantage? I don’t know, but I’m going to research into this.

[p.s. I scheduled writing this essay in my Outlook Tasks, and I’m finishing on time. And I’ve just scheduled a much bigger writing project that’s due March 31st.]

JWH

The Pre-Code Blogathon–March 31st to April 3rd

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Do you love old black and white movies? Especially the ones before 1934? Well, Danny at Pre-Code.com and Karen at Shadows and Satin are hosting a blogathon to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the Production Code. If you’d like to join in visit this page. I’ve signed up to write about Kay Francis.

I’ve written about Pre-Code Hollywood before. If you’re a hardcore TCM viewer, then you already know what Pre-Code films are. If you don’t know, follow the link and read. If you’re already a fan, bookmark Pre-Code.com or Shadows and Satin and come back at the end of the month.

As a kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I loved staying up late watching the all-night movies on television. There’s something about sitting in a darkened room, when everyone else is asleep, escaping into the past by the flicker of black and white movies.

JWH

Redefining the Word ‘Soul’ for Atheists

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 15, 2015

The concept of the soul is quite ancient, preceding monotheism, polytheism, pantheism and goes back to animistic times. I don’t know why ancient people thought animals, plants and even inanimate objects had souls, but I guess they believed everything had a part to play in reality. Modern religious believers see the soul as the immortal aspect of their being. Early Christians thought their bodies would be resurrected, and would become immortal too, but I think most modern believers think the soul is the immortal kernel of who they are, and the body belongs to this physical world.

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[ArtofNightSky]

Atheists generally do not believe in souls. They believe when we die, everything disappears, including our consciousness. However, I like the word soul, and want to keep using it. Religion has a long history of repurposing words, so why shouldn’t atheists do the same thing? The concept of the soul is very useful when we think of it as the center of our being. We can lose our senses or parts of our body, and still exist. Sometimes our souls can disappear but our bodies keep living.

Of course, atheists believe self-awareness is directly tied to the physical body and feel religious terms are tainted. I accept the soul is mortal, and even corruptible by the physical world. Our souls can be changed by lack of air, disease or brain damage. But it’s still nice to have a single word to use for our essential essence.

Why do we need the word soul when we have the words mind and brain? The brain is the physical seat of the mind and soul, so how do those two concepts differ? I like to think of the soul as the inner most core of the mind. The mind is bigger and more complex, with conscious and unconscious systems. I think of the soul as that nexus where we view reality through the filter of our mind. When we become unconscious, either through sleep, inattention, drugs, disease or trauma, the soul shuts off.

I think of the soul flashing into being when everything is just right with our physical body and mind, like a fusion power plant when atoms begin to fuse. If the particle beams are shut off, the fusion stops, and so does the soul, when our mind and body stops working.

From self-observation, I feel I view reality from a unique perspective that I want to call my soul. You know how old people will say they feel no different than when they were nineteen? I think that’s the soul. I’m not sure if the soul is merely an observing conscious self-awareness, or if it has other attributes. Does prejudice lie in the mind or the soul? Just like disease and drugs can influence the body, I think ideas can influence the mind. For example, is racism part of the soul? What do racists do if there’s a heaven and no bodies? Or is racism a defect of the soul? So a racist soul sees everything, no matter what the data the mind presents, with prejudice consciousness?

I’d like to believe our souls are purely observers, and what we see is tinted by the mind. The mind, body and soul are actually one system, each influencing the other. I think the mind and body can exist without a soul, but a soul can’t exist without a mind and body. That’s why I’m an atheist. Theists believe souls are descended from a higher being. Evolutionists belief everything ascends from nothing.

Do souls learn? Do they evolve? Do they grow? Or do they only observe? Do dogs and cats have souls? By my atheistic definition, yes. They just don’t have language of mind like we do to communicate what they observe. Are dogs and cats self-aware? I don’t know. That’s why I believe souls evolve. A tree has a soul without self-awareness. That’s why I also believe some people have more evolved souls than other people because they see beyond hate. War and violence comes from our animal natures. This suggests that some souls can escape the bioprogramming of the body.

I want atheists to hijack the word soul and embrace it for our own, because even without God I want us to have spiritual growth.

JWH