I recently read a piece by John Berryman on Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’ which appears in the poet’s collected criticism, The Freedom of the Poet. It led me to re-read the story. It’s beautiful. I’d admit it moved me to tears, but then we mustn’t show emotion in this line of work. Berryman reads the story of the neat old drunk drinking on his own in a café, as two waiters look on waiting to shut up for the night, ruminating on the concept of ‘nada’, ‘nothing’, ‘nothingness’ and how dignity is our only resource in facing such terms, as ‘something very beautiful’, with masterful deftness of perception, matching the story’s beauty with his own.
“Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.
“He was in despair.”
Berryman points out the subtle way in which Hemingway creates such intensity of feeling through a story where not much, if anything, occurs. On re-reading the story, I agree. As I’ve said elsewhere, I find much of Hemingway unreadable now. Berryman has shown me that it need not be so. The story of the old man full of dignity coping with despair, written by an old man full of dignity coping with despair, analysed by an old man full of dignity coping with despair, was enough to move this old man full of DDT coping with his hair. I shouldn’t joke of course. I trust you’ll forgive me. Reading both Berryman and Hemingway brings it front and centre: this is life and death, how what I write must strive for the same effect.
“I am of those who like to stay late at the café,” the older waiter said.
“With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”
Is it crass to say I know who those people are? That I am one? That you may be? The final line is a Hemingway classic. My classmate Emilio Bonome Ares mentioned Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” in his Textualities 2016 conference paper. I myself have criticized it in a previous post. My point of contention with both Iceberg Theory, and Hemingway, is that the more interesting story often takes place after the full stop of the final line; that the stories themselves often do not support the gnomic construction of their resolutions. Such may be the case elsewhere, but not here. To quote briefly Berryman’s other great treatment of Hemingway, “Dream Song 235”,
‘God to him no worse luck send.’
‘Many must have it.’
Many must have it.
Berryman, John. The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. Print.
Berryman, John. The Freedom of the Poet. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976. Print.
My thesis will seek to situate the poetry of Michael Hartnett within an Ecocritical framework of analysis. In addressing Hartnett’s work from such a perspective I hope to make a fresh contribution to the scholarship of this important Irish poet. Building upon existing work of contemporary literary criticism, I will strive to establish Hartnett’s as a vital voice within Irish ecocriticism. It is my contention that such an analysis is significant if a holistic conception of Irish contemporary poetry within an ecocritical viewpoint is to be achieved.
In constructing my analysis I will first analyse the current critical reception of Hartnett. Essays collected in Remembering Michael Hartnett (Four Courts Press, 2006), edited by John McDonagh and Stephan Newman of Mary Immaculate College, will be a valuable resource in this initial endeavour. Of this collection, “Secular prayers: landscape, language and cultural memory in the poetry of Michael Hartnett, by Eoin Flannery, is of most relevance to the area of ecocentricism.
Subsequent to my analysis of the existing literature on Hartnett, I will proceed to inspect that criticism which has as its focus Irish nature and landscape as seen through the ecocritical gaze. The Christine Cusack edited, Out of the Earth: Ecocritical Readings of Irish Texts (Cork University Press, 2010) will be a constant touchstone and aid in achieving this purpose. The ecocritical analyses collected therein have established the standard to which any ecocritical analysis of Irish literature must aspire. Amongst these, Eamon Wall’s “Wings beating on stone: Richard Murphy’s ecology”, will be central as a comparative analysis to my own. Writing with deft insight into the ecological contexts of Murphy’s poetry, as well as his position within Irish poetry more broadly, Wall builds a convincing thesis which places Murphy at the epicentre of ecocentric Irish poetry. I will seek to critique this assertion of primacy made by Wall, whilst concurrently making links between the poetic projects of Murphy, with that of Hartnett, thus enriching the appreciation of both poets.
Wall’s device of pairing his subject, Murphy, together with a poet writing within the American ecocentric milieu is one which I see great benefit in. Such an international mode of analysis is especially fruitful to any constructive reading of Hartnett’s poetry, the reception of which has been inordinately, and perhaps unfairly, Irish-centred. To this aim I will draw upon Cheryll Glotfelty’s and Harold Fromm’s Ecocriticism Reader (University of Georgia Press, 1996), Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale University Press, 2001), Bernard W. Quetchenbach’s Back from the Far Field: American Nature Poetry in the Late Twentieth Century (University Press of Virginia, 2000). Continuing to seek to foreground my analysis within an international context, Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth (Picador, 2000) will add an English perspective, which I intend to develop further by linking Hartnett’s ecopoetics to that of John Clare. The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge University Press, 1972) by John Barrell is a work which will contribute richly to this aspect of my criticism. Taking the project of contextualization still further I will address the influence of eastern philosophies upon Hartnett’s poetry whilst making reference to Kuno Meyer’s Ancient Irish Poetry (Constable, 1911).
The specific period of Hartnett’s poetic output which I intend to focus on is that period beginning in 1974, when Hartnett left Dublin and returned to live in his native West Limerick, specifically the rural townland of Glendarroch (Glen of the Oak Trees). As arboreal symbolism is a constant motif within Hartnett’s work I intend to build upon the work carried out by Dr Anna Pilz in this area, as seen in her article, “So dark and evilly menacing”: Arboreal Symbolism in the Irish Literary Revival’ (The New Hibernia Review, 2015). The decade in which Hartnett resided in this rural setting is most commonly associated with his period of self-imposed exile from the English language. I contend that the ecocentric direction which his poetry took at this time is of equal political importance. Erin James’s article “Bioregionalism, Postcolonial Literatures, and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road”, which appears in, The Bioregional Imagination (University of Georgia Press, 2012), edited by Tom Lynch, Cheryll Glotfelty, and Karla Armbruster, setting forth as it does the possibility of a reading of bioregionalism through the prism of postcolonial literary analysis, is an exciting reconceptualization of the parameters of all current ecocritical enquiry, not least my own research.
As I have here described, there are clear examples of outstanding research which analyses contemporaries of Hartnett. In seeking to emulate such research I seek to add Michael Hartnett to those poets who are read in an ecocritical context, his exclusion from whose company I believe to be a gap in current criticism in need of reparation.
Due to my aim of contextualizing Hartnett’s work within American and British ecocriticism, as well as the very nature of the area as an internationalized literary analytical model, my use of internet databases will be central in this research.
I’ve an essay due for next Monday (today is Tuesday) as part of the one module I did this semester, Irish Cinema: History, Contexts, Aesthetics, taught by Dr Barry Monahan. My decision to only do one, as opposed to two modules, was ostensibly to focus on a paper I delivered at the IAAS Postgrad Symposium, which took place on November 28th last. But also, because of my peevishness at the thought of slogging through the Gender and Sexuality module which was the only proffered alternative. I’ll be taking a module on Modernism in January instead, on top of the two modules which I’m due to take as part of the course anyway. It will be a busy new year in other words. I should be hitting my straps by then. Workload be damned. On a separate note, I use the word ‘which’ quite a lot don’t I?
I’m currently reading Tim Robinson’s Connemara books, specifically the parts which deal with the kelp industry as it evolved throughout the 20th century. Bear in mind my essay is on Irish Film. Being presented with that often repeated thought, ‘how-in-da-name-a-Jaysus did you get here Hanley?’, I thought maybe I’d use this blog to explain myself to myself. The happy upshot of which is that you can read it too, whoever you are.
Dr Monahan, being the kind, knowledgeable, and accommodating supervisor which he is left it up to ourselves to come up with essay titles, whilst also giving us a list of titles (probably more pertinent to the course than anything we might conjure up). Being an obscurantist and contrarian, of course I decided to come up with my own title. It is an MA course after all, we should be carrying out independent self-led analysis, redefining the academic wheel at this stage of our lives, right? I’m being flippant here I know. We should be doing such work. The former, not so much the latter. Yet. Not that it’s a choice; leaves on the tree, scorpion and the cowboy, scorpion and the frog etc. (Sidebar: if parables and fables have taught us anything, it is that scorpions are the most unforgivable assholes in the animal/arachnid kingdom.)
Here’s a few emails I sent outlining my ideas:
Just a quick one re the essay titles for the MA.
I’ve two embryonic ideas which I think might be worth developing, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
A look at the cinematography/mise en scene of I Went Down. Looking at the influence of nature documentary on De Buitleir’s style, and how in so doing a new representation of rural Ireland was created in Irish Cinema.
A look at Lenny Abrahamson’s “Prosperity”, an examination of the links between the televisual and the filmic. Maybe looking at Kieslowski as a precusor, and Soderbergh as a contemporary exponent.
Get back to me when you get a chance!
Do you ever look back on something you did in your past and shudder? These days I’m finding that the temporal distance between the act doing and the act of shudderance is becoming shorter and shorter…
For the essay… My initial idea of looking at Cian De Buitleir’s cinematography in light of his father’s work I realise now would involve a few days at NUIG in the De Buitleir archive there, which isn’t feasible unfortunately. Another idea I had was of doing something on Gerry Stembridge, specifically About Adam. My idea is to write an analysis of the film, which I’d then give to Gerry himself to debunk/agree with etc. And in so doing both comment on the film, but also on aurteurial intentionality/reception theory/hermeneutics of aesthetics. If that doesn’t sound too theoretical! As he’s the film maker in residence I think it’d be a unique opportunity. What do you think? On a basic level, is he available for such interaction with students?
Get back to me when you get a chance.
Turns out Gerry was out of town. My dreams of dazzling him with my insightful analysis will have to be put on hold. I do think it’s a cool thing that we have a director on campus. Saying that, I’m keenly aware of the possibility of coming across like a Rupert Pupkinesque weirdo however. Lookin’ good Gerry! There’s better examples than that, just not on Youtube. You’ve probably seen it anyway.
With the deadline fast approaching, I thought it best to fish out the list of essay titles and actually read through them.
‘Compare the representations of a single aspect of “irishness” (political, historical, literary, biographical etc.) in a number of American, British or Irish films from any period.’
Yeah, I could probably do something with that, right?
Smash cut to:
Break out the anthropology books which detail the vagaries of the kelp industry of rural Galway in the 19th Century!!
Even when I try, I can’t do anything straight forward. I don’t try very hard, admittedly. Better get back to my reading…
This is one of two mandatory research blogs which I have to do as part of my MA here at UCC. Of course the fact they’re making me do it ensures that I don’t want to do it. This life of privilege I lead can be so unfair sometimes. Trying to muster the enthusiasm required to write something I don’t particularly want to, makes me realize what a terrible a news journalist I’d be. Or script editor. Or technical writer. Or any type of productive writer that doesn’t involve some level of navel gazing. I’m being harsh on myself course. Self deprecation, Social Anxiety etc. Being serious for a second, to any prospective employers reading this I’m just as capable of shilling as the next guy. Just give me a shot coach!
The subject of this mandatory blog (It can be fun to be passive aggressive sometimes) is a talk which Professor Bill Lawson gave at the School of English, UCC, on the 7th of October last, titled ‘Douglass, Memories and Disappointment’.
In trying to write about this talk I’m immediately brought back to the very first piece of writing I carried out as an infant in National School. Mrs. Cunnigham’s Junior Infants class, Autumn 1992. I’m sure there’s some line or other from Gatsby that would work well here, I’m going to beat on ceaselessly with my anecdote however. The exercise involved Mrs. Cunningham (stern, but fair) asking the class of just turned five year-olds to tell her what we did over the preceding weekend. At which point, following our adorable innocent replies; ‘went shopping with mammy’ (most likely me), ‘fed calves with granddad’ (there was a lot of farmers in the class), ‘played with my teddy bear before taking a nap’ (I’m being florid), Mrs. Cunnigham would summarize our remembrances into a unified narrative on the blackboard. Which we then wrote down in our copy books, a collective remembrance of a weekend which never actually wholly took place. This current research blog on Prof. Lawson’s talk, is basically the same. Or completely different, whatever you’re having yourself. It happened over a month ago, I didn’t take notes. Is what Professor Lawson meant actually what he said? Is the exact same meaning of what he said to be found in this paper I found which deals with exactly the same subject matter? Or does the particular audience to which he gave the talk impact on the inflection or nuance of his meaning on that particular day? Is the meaning in the text or the intention of the speaker/writer? I’ve asked more questions than I intend to answer here. But that’s just the kind of wrenboy (rǽn bɔ̀y) I am.
To cut a long ramble short… What I remember of Bill Lawson’s talk on ‘Douglass, Memories and Disappointment’. (If Mrs. Cunnigham could only see me now… she could do quite easily by the way, we’re from the same place (you get what I’m trying to say).)
The main thrust of Prof. Lawson’s talk focused on the concept of ‘social disappointment’. ‘Social disappointment’ for me, would be a good description of my daily interactions with other human beings, specifically, interactions involving the women of Cork in various nightclubs I’ve been known to frequent (thankfully all in the past now (I love you, Elaine)).
The term for Lawson, means something quite different; ‘the experience of disappointment that comes from the failure of the government to satisfy the expectations of the majority of Blacks.’ My emphasis on the word ‘expectation’ here parallels Prof. Lawson’s. Disappointment doesn’t come from ‘hope’, it comes from ‘expectation’. I can’t speak to the veracity of this statement in regards my own romantic endeavors, me always being more of a hope than expectation guy, however it does ring true in the context of American race relations. Prof. Lawson went on to outline the social disappointment experienced by Frederick Douglass following the emancipation of the slaves, and more generally, the social disappointment which “Black Americans” have experienced throughout the centuries following emancipation; segregation, institutionalized racism, and issues relating to the justice system and law enforcement, making specific contemporary reference to the shootings in Ferguson. There is an implicit criticism of the strand of black political engagement which resorts to ‘Hope’ (see image above). As the paper on which Prof. Lawson based the talk was first published in the mid-nineties ((Existence in Black, 1996), it could be read as prophetic. For me, it speaks to the generalizing dual reading of “Black American” political and social engagement; that of a strident rights based approach exemplified by Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and the more dialogic conciliatory approach, for our current purposes, exemplified by President Obama. I’m conscious here that I’m making broad generalizations myself, using the ‘collective identities’ which Frantz Fanon criticizes for instance, and have characterized President Obama as one with the Uncle Tom’s of black history. What can I say… my simplification parallels that of Prof. Lawson’s initial ‘Hope’ and ‘Expectation’ binary.
The hard-hearted individual never sees people as people, but rather as mere objects or impersonal cogs in an ever-turning wheel. In the vast wheel of industry, he sees men as hands.
-Martin Luther King Jnr.
This quote for me hints at the Kantian genesis of King’s philosophy; men as ends in and of themselves, not merely as means to an end, be it economic, or societal. Who would disagree with such propositions? But, then there have been quite a few critics of Kant down through the years…
As I’ve said, the term ‘social disappointment’ seems perfectly fine to me as a term for the generalization which Prof. Lawson makes, and simultaneously shies away from. What remains with me from Prof. Lawson’s talk is his final words. He picked out Dr. Lee Jenkins of UCC, who was in attendance, citing her as an example of someone who’s ‘read all the literature, read all the criticism, read everything on the subject’, as someone who, along with himself, knows better than anyone who might attempt to question or criticize his thesis. I’m paraphrasing, as as I’ve mentioned above I’m drawing from my recollection. I recall quite vividly however being taken aback by this particular type of argument, and can only wonder what Dr. Jenkins felt at being put in such a position.
Anyway, there’s a couple hundred words, my UCC overlords. I guess that wasn’t so bad…
I read a poem by Desmond O’Grady in September. I reacted against it then. And feel the same now. It’s called ‘Purpose’. Have a read of it.
I looked at my days and saw that,
with the first affirmation of summer,
I must leave all I knew: the house,
the familiarity of family,
companions and memories of childhood;
a future cut out like a tailored suit,
a settled life among school friends.
I looked face to face at my future:
I saw voyages to distant places,
saw the daily scuffle for survival
in foreign towns with foreign tongues
and small rented rooms on companionless
nights with sometimes the solace
of a gentle, anonymous arm on the pillow.
I looked at the faces about me
and saw my days’ end as a returned ship,
its witness singing in the rigging.
I saw my life and walked out to it
as a seaman walks out alone at night from
his house down to the port with his bundled
belongings, and sails into the dark.
On reading it I wrote this:
“O’Grady is an interesting figure in Irish poetry. Any Irish poet who features in La Dolce Vitawill automatically qualify as interesting! That clip is emblematic perhaps of the extra textual allure of O’Grady: his relationship with Pound, the life he led after he ‘saw [ …] life and walked out to it’. I’m not sure this position of interest is justified in his poetry. Taking “Purpose” as the briefest of samples, written in his middle age, the position of the poet is one of hindsight, lacking the immediacy of the Steven Daedalus type exclamatory willfulness, which it recalls. It fills me with the same peevishness I feel when reading Hemingway now, resenting his lack of truthfulness; there being no room for doubt, existential anxiety, introspection.”
Reading that now, I can’t help but wonder if I let my own insecurities colour my analysis. My envy at O’Grady’s journey into an uncertain future. My own journey, of course, having only taken me so far as the sheltered waters of UCC bay. We all bring our own prejudices when we read a poem though don’t we? Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics have been instructive for me in my reading recently. Much of what he describes I’ve intuitively felt to be true. In so far as any theory can be “true” of course. Or should aspire to be. I think I might be a Gadamer guy. Although to be frank, I’m unsure as to what that might mean. Who’s a pariah. Who’s a prophet. Who’s to know. Further reading required. Anyway, I can stand to be wrong, when there’s no such thing.
After damning O’Grady, I then went on to praise Spender:
“Another poem, which I read recently, which may be read as a companion piece to “Purpose”, and one which I view in a more favorable light, showing the qualities for which I criticize O’Grady, is “The Uncreating Chaos” by Stephen Spender. We all bring our own prejudices to our reading, where we are at that particular time in our lives, or days, or afternoons, and this is probably an example of that. Spender’s sensibility is more in tune with the academic life I lead perhaps, perhaps just simply the life I lead. That is my prejudice. You, of course, have yours. A poet who exposes himself unflinchingly will necessarily speak to us, above one who postures or fakes however. Can that be established as a truism? Spender’s poem is a cutting critique of posture, fakery, heroics. And though aimed at himself, can be viewed as a critique of all that which we see in “Purpose”.
Before I include the verse which best outlines this, a point of interest which adds a further nuance to the subject of truthfulness in poetry. The final line of the fourth stanza was revised by Spender in subsequent editions of this poem. The line, ‘I shall always have a boy, an affair, or a revolution.’ being amended to read, ‘I shall always have a fare, an affair, or a revolution.’ That the self censorship occurred that way and not the other, the initial utterance being one of seering self disclosure, must be read in Spender’s favour. The linking of the word ‘boy’, with ‘bride’, in the original version is a startling feature of the poem, which is lost in the alternative. That the censorship had to take place at all is perhaps more an indictment of the society Spender wrote in, rather than of Spender himself. I include just the first section here, have a read of it for yourselves:
To the meeting despair of eyes in the street, offer
Your eyes on plates and your liver on skewers of pity.
When the Jericho sky is heaped with clouds which the sun
Trumpets above, respond to Apocalypse
With a headache. In spirit follow
The young men to war, up Everest. Be shot.
For the uncreating chaos
Claims you in marriage: though a man, you were ever
Ever among the supple surface of summer-brown muscle
The fountaining evening chatter under the stars,
The student who chucks back his forelock in front of a glass,
You only longed for your longing to last.
The engine in you, anxiety,
Is a grave lecher, a globe-trotter, one
With moods of straw, the winds that blow him, aeroplanes.
‘Whatever happens, I shall never be alone,
I shall always have a boy, an affair, or a revolution.'”
The intervening weeks haven’t altered my reading of Spender’s poem. I still love it. It’s ironic, self-accusatory, replete with self doubt. All that O’Grady’s rhetoric isn’t. I hint at the issue of reader’s prejudice, something which I’ve since identified in Gadamer, as I’ve addressed. If a theory just confirms what I feel to already know to be true however, can this be said to be a meaningful engagement with that theory? Perhaps they’re not made to be agreed with. Or disagreed with… Theory, Theory, Theory. Theory.
Also, I’ve since watched La Dolce Vita in full. The central motif of the alienation of modern man, the uselessness of art, song, poetics, is realized almost perfectly. The episode with Marcelo’s father, Steiner’s infanticide/suicide, the final scene on the beach… It’s heartbreaking. And in the middle of it we have two windbag poets, played by O’Grady, and Iris Tree. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and ascribe a self mockery to what may be seen as a lack of self awareness.
A month has passed and here’s my second blog. I’ve been waiting for the dust to settle on my excoriation of Hemingway. Obscure silence being the best place to lie low obviously. Also. Going to seminars. Having coffee. Pulling pints. Being in love. Watching films. Reading a poem or two. Putting off accomplishing the amorphous task of creating a break-out blogging success story. I’ve a few ideas I intended, intend, will intend, to write upon. Who’s to know if you, my future reader can presently scroll down and view the insightful missives I shall write. Who’s to know… You.
I think it was Twain who said that, and I’m paraphrasing, if writing doesn’t come to you as easy as it is for leaves to grow on a tree, you should just pack it in and be done with it? Maybe it was Dumas. Or a Russian. Keats? Nevermind. On the other hand there’s the old Hemingway chestnut of shackling yourself to the desk for four hours a day typing out Gatsby if the Muse doesn’t come. I read Kevin Barry sides with Hem on this one. The reference I’m looking for appeared in an interview in one of the national newspapers last weekend. Not online however. So no fancy hyperlink. It exists. I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it. And yes, I’m aware that’s not how it works. But there you go. Barry is all over the place recently on the back of the recent publication of Beatlebone. He’s giving a reading in Waterstone’s tomorrow night in fact. A suitable event for a blog post you’d think. I recall reading the first story in “There Are Little Kingdoms”, when it first came out, and flinging it across the room, never to be retrieved. For fear of causing an affray, perhaps I’ll stay away from Waterstone’s tomorrow. Or not. If the next blog you see is my updating of Reading Gaol you’ll know I took the latter course. In which case, don’t cry for me…”
In matter of fact, it’s now coming on two months since I last blogged. My course supervisor has hinted strongly that I need to write more. As has my father, himself an inveterate blogger (http://vinhanley.com). Fathers shouldn’t bury their sons. Fathers also shouldn’t be more prolific bloggers than their sons. And yet here we are. The first part of that was a bit morbid, I apologize.
I’m sure you’ll agree “reasons why I don’t blog so often” is probably not great subject matter for a blog. It’s obfuscation. Like what’s gone before. To write you must acknowledge your limitations. I don’t like that. No one does I presume. The academic game I’m trying to play involves straining at your limitations daily. Those of perception, understanding, analysis, I can live with. Add in those of expression however and I generally kick the can until I can’t feasibly kick it any further.
Further on that point, and something that perhaps seems axiomatic, but bear with me: Academic work involves two things, reading and writing. The first part is consuming. The second part is production. Studying as I am, it’s possible to rationalize reading, the consumption part, as doing work. When in fact, any sane definition of work involves the creation of a product. Herein lies the problem beauty, of studying in the humanities.
And so I come to my question, to what extent are MA courses, like the one I’m studying now, extraneous arms of the “Culture Industry”? To what extent are we in MA programmes merely the descendants of those Jazz loving soda guzzling ignoramuses who packed the picture houses at weekends to keep cool in California? And what if we are, I suppose. Adorno and Horkheimer weren’t exactly guys you could tan a few beers with were they? (Not that that’s a legitimate critieria I use to analyse literature/philosophy (It is)). In a nutshell, having fore-knowledge of what I’m doing when I willfully consume rather than produce, placing myself in the picture house, indicts me all the more. So along with my Kevin Barry denial, I’m guessing there’s no hope for me.
To put it more succinctly still: being part of an MA or PhD programme in the humanities requires the student to battle through years of existential guilt at not being a productive member of society, whilst telling him/herself that the completion of this journey will bring more than their supervisor embarrassingly telling them that, ‘no… Philip? I’m afraid you can’t have my job’.
And that’s where I am right now. So forgive my lack of blogging Dad, I’m trying my best down here. The next one will be about poetry and stuff I promise.
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.