Saturday, 2 July 2016

Hemingway: The Conquest of Panic

Now that he is dead and nothing remains but a few books and the problem of his dying, perhaps we should ask the simplest, most radical of questions: what was there in Hemingway’s writing that enabled him to command the loyalty of a generation? Even those of us who disliked some of his work and most of his posture, why did we too feel compelled to acknowledge the strength and resonance of his voice?

Answering such questions can never be easy, and with Hemingway, master that he is of false leads and distracting personnae, it demands a touch of ruthlessness. The usual business of literary criticism will yield only limited returns, for if you were to spend the next decade studying the narrative techniques of his stories you would still be far from the sources of his power. Most of his late work was bad. Papa gone soft, desperately in search of the image of self he had made in his youth. The Old Man and the Sea—a confection of synthetic wisdom, an exercise in pidgin-classicism, a parody of composure and lilt. Across the River and Into the Trees—the swagger of a failing conqueror, all garrulous and fantasy, but as a personal revelation unbearably sad, the pose crumbling, the terror of getting old finally breaking past his guard.

For the past twenty years the public Hemingway, who cannot after all be so readily separated from Hemingway, was a tiresome man. The old African hunter, the connoisseur of bulls, women and wars, the experience-dropper, was a show-off who had stopped watching the audience to see if it remained interested. Nothing more cruel has happened to an American writer than the Lillian Ross interview in a 1950 New Yorker: a smear of vanity and petulance that only a journalistic Delilah would have put into print. Miss Ross, a few days ago, wrote in anger to say that Hemingway had approved her article, and one believes her implicitly. That is just the trouble. Years earlier Hemingway had written, “Something happens to our good writers at a certain age. . . .” Yes; they devote the first half of their lives to imitating human experience and the second to parodying their imitation.

But there was another Hemingway. He was always a young writer, and always a writer for the young. He published his best novel The Sun Also Rises in his mid-twenties and completed most of his great stories by the age of forty. He started a campaign of terror against the fixed vocabulary of literature, a purge of style and pomp, and in the name of naturalness he modeled a new artifice for tension. He was a short-breathed writer, whether in the novel or story. He struck past the barriers of culture and seemed to disregard the reticence of civilized relationships. He wrote for the nerves.

In his very first stories Hemingway struck straight to the heart of our nihilism, writing with that marvelous courage he then had, which allowed him to brush past received ideas and show Nick Adams alone, bewildered, afraid and bored, Nick Adams finding his bit of peace through fishing with an exact salvaging ritual in the big two-hearted river. Hemingway struck straight to the heart of our nihilism through stories about people who have come to the end of the line, who no longer know what to do or where to turn: nihilism not as an idea or a sentiment, but as an encompassing condition of moral disarray in which one has lost those tacit impulsions which permit life to continue and suddenly begins to ask questions that would better be left unasked. There is a truth which makes our faith in human existence seem absurd, and no one need contemplate it for very long: Hemingway, in his early writing, did. Nick Adams, Jake Barnes, Lady Brett, Frederick Henry, and then the prizefighters, matadors, rich Americans and failed writers: all are at the edge, almost ready to surrender and be done with it, yet holding on to whatever fragment of morale, whatever scrap of honor, they can. Theirs is the heroism of people who have long ago given up the idea of being heroic and wish only to get by without being too messy.

It has been said that Hemingway, obsessed with the problem of fear, sought in his fiction for strategies to overcome it; and that is true, but only partly so. Hemingway was not so foolish as to suppose that fear can finally be overcome: all his best stories, from “Fifty Grand” to “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” are concerned to improvise a momentary truce in the hopeless encounter with fear. Hemingway touched upon something deeper, something that broke forth in his fiction as the most personal and lonely kind of experience but was formed by the pressure of 20th Century history. His great subject, I think, was panic, the panic that follows, so to speak, upon the dissolution of nihilism into the blood-stream of consciousness, the panic that finds unbearable the thought of the next minute and its succession by the minute after that. And we ail know this experience, even if, unlike Jake Barnes, we can sleep at night: we know it because it is part of modern life, perhaps of any life, but also because Hemingway drove it fearlessly into our awareness.

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