Why is Hemingway so Embarrassing?


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The Old Man and The… Bath.

I read a lot of Hemingway when I was young. You can’t undo these things. Most immediately, it led me to be an insufferable proto-Nick Adams type youth, not one such as sleep a-nights. More lastingly, it made masculinity one of my foremost concerns. Versions. Subversions. That kind of thing. My reading material was, and remains, written largely by white males. It’s certainly a problem. And like all problems, it’s something I’m happy to ignore, rationalize after the fact. To masculinity then. And where better to start…

Farewell to Arms, like all Hemingway’s novels features a protagonist who is a thinly veiled cipher for Papa himself. In this case, Frederic Henry, a young American who volunteers as an ambulance driver in the Italian Army during WW 1. Like all Hemingway heroes, Henry is variously; fluent in a European language, a solemn observer of local custom, obsessed with masculine conduct, brave, contemplative, a high functioning alcoholic, and above all, ludicrously capable. You’ve probably read it so I needn’t elaborate. A few of those traits however…

The importance Hemingway places on his American protagonist conversing in European languages amounts to near fetish. He gets his retaliation in first to the accusation of being called an ignorant American. He is Rochester speaking French. Not Paulie Walnuts falling flat on his face attempting to chat to locals. A short interaction between Henry and a Major who is about to operate on him:

‘I guess you’ve got a fracture alright. I’ll wrap you up and don’t bounce you’re head around.’ he bandaged, his hands moving very fast and the bandage coming taut and sure. ‘All right, good luck and Vive la France.’

‘He’s an American,’ one of the other captains said.

‘I thought you said he was a Frenchman. He talks French,’ the captain said. ‘I’ve known him before. I always thought he was French.’ He drank a tumbler of cognac.

The blustering confidence of the Major, as well as his heavy drinking, highlights another trait in Hemingway, the exaltation of professional capability above all else. The sequence wherein the Major comes to diagnose Henry’s knee as operable, disregarding the dithering opinions of three junior doctors is a perfect example of this. Too long to reproduce, here it is. ‘There was a star in a box on his sleeve because he was a Major.’ This sequence perfectly encapsulates Hemingway’s denial of doubt, those who would second guess. Self-doubt or anxiety of any kind is to be avoided at all costs. Primarily through liquid means. For an example of a Hemingway character drinking to assuage depression open any page of his collected works. Examples of any elaboration on the subject are more difficult to find.

The complete lack of honesty in his poetry, the form of expression where we might expect to find such feeling addressed, is a prime example. His poems amount to little more than curios. To quote one is to almost carry out an act of violence against the great man. But howsoever…

In the rain in the rain in the rain in the rain in Spain.

Does it rain in Spain?

Oh yes my dear on the contrary and there are no bullfights.

The dancers dance in long white pants

It isn’t right to yence your aunts

Come Uncle let us go home.

Home is where the heart is, home is where the fart is.

Come let us fart in the home.

There is no art in a fart.

Still a fart may not be artless.

Let us fart an artless fart in the home.

                                                             -The Soul of Spain

(I’m willing to never speak of this poem again if you are.)

Introspection is always hinted at in Hemingway, never detailed. The results of his theory of omission, ‘that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood’, is that we are made ‘feel’ something we can never understand, are left to stare through the opaque window of his prose at a primary feeling whose depths we can only wonder at. The gnomic way in which he ends stories for instance, by his design, an expression of significance and meaning, are often cliff edges over which we are flung, left to run furiously in the air Wile E. Coyote style vainly seeking traction. Often, he himself was unsure of how to end them. If we as readers aren’t meant to ‘understand’ but rather ‘feel’, can we say that he himself lacked true self knowledge, understanding?

It is this lack of understanding, and the refusal to address it, which made my teenage-self, in the fog of adolescence sharing in that refusal, love his writing so much. He remains for me, a writer who should be read in those teenage years, and discarded thereafter. Writing this I can’t help but feel a well of sympathy for him. Perhaps you’ll allow me this compromise: to criticize Hemingway’s engagement with masculinity as limited is not to invalidate it. He wasn’t empty, rather, in the sensory sense, merely dumb.