Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Problem with Hemingway

I'm an admirer of Hemingway's work, for the most part.  I'm not all that fond of his novels, except for The Sun Also Rises.  It seems to me that his longer works become disconnected, and lack impact as a whole (though parts of them are impressive).  His short stories are, for me, always enjoyable and sometimes remarkable.  I wonder, as I have here in other posts, whether this is the case for all American writers I've read.  But it may be that I lack the patience to appreciate novels generally.  This wasn't always the case, though, so it may be a function of age (strangely; but I'm nothing if not strange).

I think A Farewell to Arms retains what I will call the precision and purity of his short stories, but For Whom the Bell Tolls does not.  The latter novel straggles into the didactic and maudlin.  I'm uncertain whether The Old Man and the Sea is a novel or an extended short story. 

I refer to precision and purity not merely because I find them attractive in his work, but because Hemingway himself seems to have valued them highly.  He wrote in Big Two-Hearted River, or a version of it, that the character Nick wanted to write like Cezanne painted.  Nick, in that story at least, is generally considered Hemingway's alter ego.  He's also known to have been critical of James Joyce for using "tricks" in his work, though he also wrote that Joyce's characters were too much like Joyce himself.  Perhaps "simplicity" is a better word for the works of Hemingway I like.  Though I don't doubt he wrote with great care and purpose, I don't get the impression of contrivance and unnecessary and indulgent elaboration I receive when reading other authors when I read him; and I value this highly.

Since the days of his greatest popularity and acclaim, however, Hemingway and his work have been subject to a great deal of criticism.  Hemingway the person is said to have been unduly macho, cruel to friends and enemies, jealous; it's maintained he was an alcoholic, insecure in his masculinity (whatever that is supposed to mean), preposterous, a bore, self-serving.  His work is said to lack subtlety and art, to be easily imitated, to focus too much on "masculine" concerns like hunting, fishing, fighting and war; to be predictable.

The novel published after his death, The Garden of Eden, makes one wonder about the accuracy of the traditional, rather stereotypical, view of his personality and his writing.  It's difficult to think of Hemingway writing about what we would now call "gender roles" and "gender confusion" although his attraction to women of masculine appearance has been noted previously.  His scope as a person and as a writer may have been much greater than previously believed.

His personality and conduct must be considered in light of what seems indisputable--that he suffered from mental illness, as did other members of his family.  His father committed suicide as did other close relatives.  He clearly deteriorated during the 1950s, becoming paranoid and depressed, and was subject to various physical ailments as well.  It's speculated he was bipolar.

What seemed to be the primary problem with Hemingway as writer after his death, particularly in the late 20th century, was I think that he went out of style.  His writing was much imitated for a time, he fell out of fashion.  I recall feminists finding him particularly hateful, and anti-war feelings during the Vietnam era resulted in a lack of interest in his work.  So the themes of his work were thought chauvinist and macho.  But his style was also in disrepute, and as it seemed to some his later writing came to be repetitive in style as well as them.

My problem with Hemingway, to the extent there is one, has nothing to do with the fashion of the moment, nor am I a critic of his style, which I find admirable;  I very much enjoy reading his work, generally.  I have no problem with the subject matter of his work either, though I've never been a hunter or fisherman, and have no interest whatsoever in killing otherwise harming animals, especially for "sport"; nor have I been a soldier.  His fascination with "grace under pressure" is one which I may even share.  His manner of writing, and the way it seems to me to express ideas and feeling with which I'm familiar and for which I feel empathy, transcends subject matter in some fashion.

My problem with him arises from his (to me) inexplicable love for bullfighting.  I've read Death in the Afternoon but was unimpressed.  It seems to me to be a grotesque pageant in celebration of the extended ritual torture of an animal, ending in its death.  It's not clear to me how any reasonable person could enjoy such a spectacle, let alone admire it and its participants.

Bullfighting may have originated in the Roman games I did a post on recently, but if that's so something changed to have resulted in the adulation for the toreador we see in the cruel circus and in Hemingway.  Animal fighters, beastiarii, were held in low regard by the Roman populace, in contrast to gladiators.  The sacrifice of animals to placate the gods was also characteristic of pagan religions, and no doubt caused unnecessary pain and death, but as far as I am aware sacrifice did not involve prolonged torment. 

It's sometimes claimed the courage and skill required to be a successful toreador renders bullfighting interesting and them admirable.  No doubt the toreador is exposed to danger, but the bull has been tormented and bled by picadors by the time he encounters it.  How is it possible to find, as Hemingway did, grace, beauty, courage and honor in such mere slaughter?  There is something unseemly, unworthy and base in the spectacle and therefore in those who laud it.

This is what makes it hard for me to admire Hemingway as a person.  There is a cruelty present in him which doesn't arise from hate or circumstances which seem to justify cruelty in return for cruelty.  It is more a kind of sadism. 

Does this impact his work?  I don't think it's possible or advisable to separate a person from his work as others do, which is why I hold Heidegger in low esteem.  I have not felt that way about Hemingway, though.  Do I draw a distinction between philosopher and artist, cutting the artist more slack because I feel a philosopher should be held to a higher moral standard?  I suspect that's the case, and wonder why. 

But that is the subject of another post.

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