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Hemingway and the Hero

L.A. Rowland campaigns to instate Ernest Hemingway as a philosopher-hero.

Talented famous people who blow their heads off with shotguns are not usually forgotten quickly. They are more commonly the object of empathy for their tortured souls and reverence for their otherworldly genius, and consequently secure a high position in the pantheon of great artists and brilliant minds. But Ernest Hemingway’s suicide whilst in forced exile at the age of sixty-one has been followed by increasing neglect by the cognoscenti. I was shocked to discover that many university courses on modernist literature do not even mention Hemingway, despite his vital contribution to the development of the novel in the early twentieth century. His enormously popular A Farewell to Arms (1929) is unquestionably a classic – “one of the great modern novels” according to Malcolm Bradbury – and in recognition of his originality Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

And therein lies the paradox: it is extremely rare to find blockbuster writers winning this most prestigious of prizes. Hemingway has always been an enigma, a curiosity of sorts. His readers feel something special infusing them, but many critics loathe him precisely because he has this effect on ordinary people. The scathing and snobbish New York intellectual Dwight Macdonald famously dismissed Hemingway as a ‘midcult’ writer. Given Macdonald’s influence on the elitists of his day, this clearly contributed to the smear on Hemingway’s name that has since prevailed in literary circles.

But if Hemingway has received short shrift as a great writer, he has suffered from a more profound lack of acknowledgement as a philosophical writer. When he’s discussed there’s much talk of style and the intimation of deep emotion, yet hardly ever do academics or critics expound on Hemingway’s philosophical ideas. Partly this is because he didn’t have ideas in the conventional philosophical sense. There are no systems, no arguments, and no conclusions in his thinking. Hemingway’s works deal with the pressing problem of how best to live – and offer a more forceful philosophy as a result, I believe. He never claimed to be learned, but experienced, and one almost feels false analysing and dissecting his words for intellectual meaning.

So before recasting Hemingway as a philosophical writer it is worth asking what this ascription would entail. Tom Stoppard concluded his essay ‘Reflections on Ernest Hemingway’ by asserting that it is “inadequate to think of ‘philosophy’ as something quite so detached from the ordinary business of living and surviving.” In Stoppard’s view, and no doubt in Hemingway’s too, the values by which one lives and the celebration of the experiences that unite all people are powerful phenomena against which philosophy must be measured, and which are not themselves measured by philosophy.

This approach to ideas leads to writing that is not overtly philosophical, yet the philosophy is there. It was not for nothing that Colin Wilson argued that little more was said in the whole of Being and Nothingness than in A Farewell to Arms. The reader merely has to be more attentive with Hemingway to extract the philosophy, suspended as it is below the track of dialogue and action. There are few aphorisms, aper çus, or epigrams by which Hemingway’s thought is revealed. “Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes,” said Hemingway in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The whole work needs to be considered in context.

Hemingway’s Hidden Philosophy

The moral context in which to begin to extract and frame Hemingway’s philosophy is that of a life lived fully and heroically. The essence of Hemingway’s thought is that in the confused and disordered world left after the Great War it is within man’s power alone to realize his moral purpose, and it must be forged and thereafter protected in the citadel of the soul. The true hero accepts responsibility for himself in a world where notions of ultimate truth and certainty have all but vanished, and with heartfelt vigour and persistence he must wring meaning out of a world devoid of any values outside of himself.

Plainly there are elements of existentialism and Stoicism here, but Hemingway cannot be pigeonholed so easily. In addition to not adhering to any one doctrine, neither did he confine himself to the prescriptions of those philosophies he did adopt. Just as no single philosophical system can encompass all human action, no life can flourish so constrained. Instead Hemingway draws on philosophy when it can enhance living, and shows too how living can shape philosophy. Sometimes, as is seen in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, this means that life can destroy the will to maintain the heroic stance: “He had loved too much, demanded too much, and he wore it all out.”

Contrary to Sartre’s conclusion that, because all paths lead to death, one must choose one path and follow it wholeheartedly, Hemingway sees as crucial the manner by which the end is reached. To become honourable and dignified, to show grace under pressure, to assert the primacy of consciousness – these are the values that will lead to truth and freedom. And for Hemingway, truth is values, not ideas: one must feel truth, not derive it through argument. In his account of his early years spent in Paris, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s search for truth through the redemptive powers of work and self-discipline provides a coherent organising theme that was to occupy him throughout his life in his attempt to write the “truest sentence he could write.” Amid this pursuit he is charged by his mentor Gertrude Stein for writing a story that is good but inaccrochable [unpublishable] “like a picture that a painter… cannot hang.” Hemingway was especially affronted by this because his mission was to make a story true, and this is why he thought about “egotism and mental laziness versus discipline.” He grumbled “Who is calling who a lost generation?” Hemingway believed that meaning – living truth – can be instilled through discipline.

Stoicism grew out of a period of insecurity in the Hellenistic world with the decline in power and stability of the Greek city-states. With the similar crashing down of the old world after the ‘war to end all wars’ in Hemingway’s time, the vista of the Stoic was indeed an attractive one. Ultimately, the Stoic tempering of the mind through acceptance and serenity was a survival mechanism that helped the individual to maintain some sense of purpose and thus avoid slipping into despair. To accomplish this, the Stoic must work hard to overcome himself, not submitting to error and weakness. In the words of the Roman champion of Stoicism, the Emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius, one must “Wipe out imagination: check impulse: quench desire: keep the governing self in its own control.”

Both Hemingway and Marcus Aurelius had veneration for nature and the outdoor life, and this intense love of all things natural kneaded their thinking. It helped to offset their erudition and to shape them as moralists – not intellectuals – who believed that man should behave according to the dictates of the natural order, not according to the whims of others and the false doctrines they espouse. Like Epictetus before them, they thought that the measure of an individual is not where he or she has come from, for all are born equal under nature; but where they are going, because this is the individual’s response and responsibility. But how is one to know which particular values to cultivate? Understanding comes through suffering and the pain of living.

This theme of understanding through suffering runs strongly through nearly all Hemingway’s novels, whether framed by war, starvation, harsh outdoor life, or the long lonely ride to death. And yet despite coming up against the stone cold facts of life, Hemingway’s characters are not the typical troubled, introverted types we encounter in many existential novels. His heroes do not wallow in the misery of meaninglessness, but try to impose meaning upon life. They are always engaged in something bigger and more important than themselves: Robert Jordan and the guerrillas blowing up a bridge; Frederic Henry escaping from the war to take his pregnant girlfriend to safety; Santiago battling with the fish... There is no place for pussyfooting or for losing one’s nerve in these situations. The hero must act, and act according to values that mesh with the world of living things. One could term this attitude ‘respect’.

Hemingway constructs testing situations for his heroes and those around them. The hero must act with dignity and conviction, placing virtue above personal needs. Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls can think of nothing more satisfying than doing away with the antagonistic and bullish Pablo, but he resists in order to stay loyal to the cause. In putting others first, Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms does his best to uphold honour through duty, such as through his rescue efforts during the bombing. But he also has the courage, despite high risk, to choose his own path when he deems it right: in escaping the Front to embrace love (the highest of values, says Henry) he has made “a separate peace.” One of Hemingway’s greatest heroes, and least obvious, is Catherine in A Farewell to Arms. Full of courage and cheerfulness during a traumatic childbirth (she calls the bad pains good ones), she stares death in the face and does not avert her gaze.

One of Hemingway’s finest short stories, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, is about a man dying of gangrene during a safari in Africa. In it we see the hero through someone who is not a hero: “it was not so much that he had lied as that there was no truth to tell. He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again, with different people and more money…” Here is the broken man, the man who has fallen from grace, the man who has shorn himself of dignity. He has given up on life and work, and consequently, love. He has tried to start again and “burn the fat off his soul” by retraining to write, like a boxer works fat off his body. But he ceases to aim for truth, and thus his life has become meaningless and enervated. We see a man who reflected what Hemingway was to become.

Much has been said of Hemingway’s sparse prose, and how by the steadfast avoidance of adjectives he developed an inimitable (although often copied) style that sought description and expression less through what was said and more through the associative power of words. This approach demands that the reader see for himself – and the more powerfully and clearly he will see for it. When I first came to understand this I thought of Wittgenstein’s ‘atomic propositions’ and how one must just see the “sense of a proposition”. Further, for Wittgenstein the aim of philosophy itself is to see clearly. I believe that Hemingway was trying to do a similar thing through his writing: to see the world more clearly by feeling the truths that could be felt with certainty. For both these writers, their achievement was to show that understanding consists in seeing connections, not in finding ‘proof’. Philosophy, life, writing: these are not theories, but activities. Robert Pirsig explains in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that by trying to define ‘quality’ we define something less than quality. Similarly, Hemingway and Wittgenstein are aware that saying less can enhance understanding. According to Hemingway, the journey to obtain such clarity is arduous and solitary, and should only be undertaken if one is suitably heroic – if one possesses the bravery to be “driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.”

The Hero and the Sea

I am compelled to say something about The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which has had rough treatment from critics and has not been taken seriously for some time now (Macdonald particularly despised this book). I think in many instances it has been misjudged. It is often disregarded as an essentially religious novel. It is true that like Wittgenstein, Hemingway did become concerned with religious themes as he aged, often envisioning the cardinal virtues as mystical – although this view was there in the early works too, such as the idea that “love is a religious feeling” in A Farewell to Arms. But more than being concerned with religion, The Old Man and the Sea is primarily a psychological novel. Great chunks of the book are played out in the old man’s head, and the interrelation between his mind and his environment is explored in exquisite detail. Throughout his ordeal at sea while trying to land a big marlin, Santiago conceives a continual monologue in a battle to impose his will on the world against the invasion of the world on his will. The old man talks to the fish, to the birds, to the sea, to himself, and to no-one in particular, in an effort to manifest his reality and to suppress the reality nature is throwing in his face. He knows that all he must do “is keep the head clear” because that is “all he has left.” When he weakens, he is unsure whether he is reeling in the fish or whether the fish is reeling in him, and he becomes sensitive to “some great strangeness and he could not believe it.” This is the world infiltrating the fortress of his consciousness. But Santiago reminds himself “be calm and strong old man” – he knows he must remain so if he is to not be defeated. Yet it is not the fish which may defeat him, for as Marcus Aurelius wrote, “no evil is according to nature.” Rather, the hero must keep his head because his head is where truth and freedom reside. Many people who have endured unimaginable conditions in concentration camps have attested that their mental freedom is the one thing that cannot be taken away by force – one has to relinquish it. Only then is defeat truly let in through the door.

Perhaps this mental defeat is what happened to Ernest Hemingway, having never quite shaken off the belief that life is inevitably tragic, and having realised that no manufactured set of morals can offer protection. “If a person brings so much courage into the world that the world must kill him to break him, of course it kills him. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those it cannot break it will kill. It kills the very good, the very gentle, and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these things the world will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.”

With fire in his belly Hemingway worked tirelessly, boldly trying to write a moral philosophy by which best to live. Finally he was overwhelmed, like many before him. But he strove for honesty, and no one should ask for more than that.

© L.A. Rowland 2009

L.A. Rowland works at the Behavioural Dynamics Institute in London.

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