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Reading, Writing, Thinking

“Nobody Said Anything”

Meghan Bidwell ponders language and silence in the short stories of Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and Raymond Carver (1938-1988) are ideal candidates for the examination of language, both as a conduit for connection and in terms of what happens when language fails us – when there is no vocabulary, or a flawed one.

The short stories of these American authors resist straightforward interpretation. Hemingway was a pioneer of what might be called ‘existential realism’, where the unspoken and the unrepresented signifies more than the overtly represented. Carver’s fiction describes the breakdown of the certainties, and so the language, at the heart of familiar existence (in other words, a shift into the ‘postmodern condition’). Faced with the routine alienations of daily life and disenchantment with the consumer society, the characters in both bodies of work are shunted beyond the precipice of articulate dismay, as the authors examine how things collapse and what is left when they do. Their stories demonstrate how when we cannot find nourishment from the culture which we inhabit, the ‘low-rent’ tragedies that our lives become often manifest themselves in obsessive behaviours; and silence seems the most appropriate signifier of a failure of language.

Modernity and After

To fully appreciate the deep structural forms at work in Hemingway’s and Carver’s short stories, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of what modernism and postmodernism mean in terms of literary theory and practice. After the First World War, new philosophical methods were sought to understand the apparent disintegration of civilization and the appalling dehumanisation of the new age of mechanised warfare. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) believed that by studying the raw data of sense experience, known as phenomena, he could establish a new basis for understanding reality which would have the human being as its centre and its foundation. This new approach, phenomenology, called for an ‘immersive’ study of texts, where the type of language used is itself seen as an expression of the text’s meaning. Importantly, this approach takes language to be secondary to meaning, and to that extent already limited. Modernist literature is characterised by a questioning of the content and form of art as it moves away from traditional literary techniques. Art is also understood to be autonomous, that is, not dependent on representing reality.

Two other pertinent schools of literary theory are structuralism and post-structuralism. Both begin with the premise that the individual components of any language system only have meaning in relation with other components of the system. This is often understood in terms of words only having meaning in relation to other word use; but it also can be understood in terms of the content of the story being secondary to its form. Thus, for example, the self-reflexivity of a story can become key to understanding its meaning.

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) identified language as an arbitrary system of signs, composed of ‘signifiers’ (the word sign or sound) and ‘signified’ (the concept to which the word refers). Under the influence of this theory, rather than being metaphorical (where words or phrases represent something other than their literal meanings), realist writing became characterized by the metonymic – which means words or phrases here act as a shorthand for wider meanings. Post-structuralism took this process one step further. In post-structuralism, signs are understood to be part of a relative construction where a single meaning cannot be identified, since the meaning of signs is constantly shifting in relation to the signs surrounding and contextualizing them. The meaning of a text also becomes fluid rather than fixed. The implications for fiction of understanding language as an unstable means of communication became something of an obsession for the twentieth and twenty-first century literary communities. Like much of what fiction investigates, we can come to understand fiction itself to be a farce: it appears to be centred in reality, but we are often left wondering if real knowledge is possible in any respect.

Modernists and postmodernists alike have considered the unpredictable and mystifying features which have characterized our lives since the 1900s in terms of the fragility and contingency of a secular reality, stripped of its religious dimension. Both Hemingway and Carver capture this spirit of confusion and disillusion, not just with the American Dream, but with the older ‘Western Dream’ of a rational, knowable reality.

The strange muted qualities of Carver’s short stories have a feeling of hopelessness which Hemingway’s do not. Carver says of his prose that he prefers it to contain threatening elements: “I think a little menace fine to have in a story. For one thing, it’s good for the circulation.” The ‘visible menaces’ his characters avoid only lead them to destructive or cyclical behaviours, a breakdown of communication, obvious omissions, and a pervasive silence. The crises which they endure are smattered with random circumstances, and their pathetic attempts to gain insight point to a loss of control, typified by ineffective language. Suggestion, ellipses and language games are the components of Carver’s narratives, rather than explicitness. An absence of metaphor means an increased use of indefinite articles, demonstrative narration, and repetition of the same words and phrases renders them functionless without the context in which they were originally found. Constantly questioning, the characters in his stories rarely obtain answers; meaning evades them through a postmodern crisis of language.

Banal situations and a distressing passivity mark the mood of Carver’s stories – he describes “a certain terrible kind of domesticity” that he termed ‘dis-ease’. Unemployment, violence, and ‘baffled manifest destiny,’ are the typical situations of his protagonists, who find themselves marginalized and on the brink of the abyss. Renowned for an undemonstrative narrative voice and the simplicity of his colloquial language, Carver unpretentiously captures the hopelessness of modern living. His ability to portray the whole moral condition of his characters’ transient lives enables him to paradoxically allocate value to a world where the inertia of the characters is mirrored in the uncertainty of their externalities: in so many of his settings, the furniture is shabby and the freezer has broken.

Carver’s destruction of certainty contrasts with Hemingway’s recreation of reality. Hemingway, like Carver, typically illustrates characters trying to reconnect to life. However, his stoic characters differ from Carver’s in that they retain underlying values. Carver’s characters have a passivity and hesitancy which Hemingway’s do not. They seem uncertain that anyone will hear their story. However, both authors illustrate a disjointed state where locating meaning sometimes becomes almost impossible, but is always a necessary and resonant task. In the end our shared human reality provides solace, but not, in any traditional sense, meaning: “I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” (Raymond Carver in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, p.129, 2003.)

Writing as Omission

Hemingway achieved notoriety for his literary style of neutrality, a ‘degree zero style of writing’. Finding inspiration from the Impressionists, Hemingway’s use of omission inspired other authors to consider how meaning is not simply enhanced by style and form, but can be conveyed by style and form. Perhaps also due in part to his journalistic background, his short stories are honed and exact. Every word has been carefully selected, not so much to represent, as to signify a greater, more significant, absence. Hemingway’s focus on a plain description of the everyday observable, is a deliberate attempt to avoid the abstract and unknown. Everyday objects are imbued with their own significance. Hemingway crafted a prose self-consciously devoid of symbolism. Writing about his 1952 novel The Old Man and The Sea he said “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. […] What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.” The power and intensity of his writing is sufficient to create its own resonances and depths without the use of metaphor. Hemingway’s concern is to condense the emotionally affective material of fiction by using stylized techniques. And, as with Carver, he presents characters who pretend to be other than they are and who refuse emotions they ought to have. His modernist method uses understatement, brevity of diction, dissemblance and omission. One critic called this Hemingway’s via negativa. The ‘implied’ under the surface of things points to undeclared knowledge, like an epistemic iceberg:

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows, and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one eighth of it being above water. [By contrast] A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
(Ernest Hemingway on Writing, ed. Larry W. Phillips, p.77)

Carver, equally renowned for his brevity, states, “for the details to be concrete and convey the meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise that they may even sound flat, but they can still carry if used right; they can hit all the notes.” (‘On Writing’ in Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories, p.26, 1991.) A sparseness of detail contributes to the disconnected narrative structure. The reader is responsible for making the necessary connections between seemingly banal details and the periods of stasis that the vulnerable characters of his stories hide behind.

Carver’s style suggests something bleaker: perhaps for him the remainder of the iceberg does not exist, or maybe it is unknown. As with a close-up shot, we can hear and see the characters of the drama, but we cannot explain why they carry out certain actions or, conversely, fail to take any action: we cannot even be sure that there is a linear thought process. In his short stories, existential trials of character are avoided, as is Hemingway’s notion of masculine assertion. He also adopts negativity to point to the incomprehensible: a loss of speech (and arguably, understanding) is implied in the struggles his characters face.

When we explore language it is imperative to identify its limitations. Obviously, we can never fully know what any other person is feeling. We cannot fully bridge the gap that spans the incommunicable void between us. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of ‘language games’ implies that the mimetic (reality-imitating) function of language is secondary to the rules which dictate the ways in which language may be used. He also implies that reality may be mistranslated by language: “Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds its reflection in language, language cannot represent. What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language. Propositions show the logical form of reality” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness, p.31), and that the margins of the human world are indicated by the boundaries of language: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (ibid, p.68). For the characters in the short stories of Hemingway and Carver, silence is a recognition of the Wittgensteinian limits of language.

© Meghan Bidwell 2013

Meghan Bidwell was born in the USA, has an MA in English Literature from the University of Aberdeen and is now studying Material Cultures and the History of the Book at Edinburgh University.

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