Table of Contents
Escaping Time in the Works of Ernest Hemingway
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January 24, 1954 found Ernest Hemingway holed up in a hotel in Nairobi, engrossed in reading his obituaries. His death had been announced three days earlier, after his sight-seeing plane crashed near the Victoria Nile. No one was killed, although Hemingway’s injuries worsened when his rescue plane crashed as well, forcing him to use his own head as a battering ram to escape the burning aircraft. His “resurrection” was a media sensation. Dramatically injured all over his body (including his skull, which was broken completely open), Hemingway smirked at his epitaphs’ recurring theme, which was that he had always hunted death. “Can one imagine that if a man sought death all of his life he could not have found her before the age of 54?” he asked later (Mellow 586-587).
Hemingway’s incredibly violent life made him on more than friendly terms with death – and with two plane crashes, two car accidents, five concussions, and far too many smaller injuries to count, one can hardly be surprised (Mellow 403, 586-588, 596). But his familiarity with death was juxtaposed with the belief that it could be overthrown. This is reflected in Hemingway’s writing in two distinct ways: his depiction of nature, which reveals an endurance that surpasses the brief lifespan of any living thing; and his depiction of the art of writing itself, which captures a spirit of timelessness that cannot be achieved through any other medium. These two concepts are interlinked in the Hemingway text, and one must yield the other.
This is especially evident in Hemingway’s fascination with the ritual of killing, which he perceived as an art form in its own right to be examined aesthetically. The art of sport, Hemingway believed, was an allegory for the deeper, more permanent art of great writing. Just as Hemingway’s descriptive detail is always the top one-eighth of the iceberg, so do nature and the art of sport indicate the immortality that can be achieved through the written word. While Hemingway’s fascination with the concept of timelessness is rooted in all of his pieces, its connection to his aesthetic is fully articulated in both parts of his experimental short story “Big Two-Hearted River,” the nonfiction book Green Hills of Africa, and the rambling, philosophical Death in the Afternoon. It was these three texts that pushed the barriers of prose, seeking to achieve not just the illusion of reality, but reality itself.
Nature’s endurance, and civilization’s comparative mortality, is articulated in “Big Two-Hearted River Part One,” which opens with the ruins of a town that has been burned to the ground. The landscape is described as ugly, empty, and lonely. Moving past the destruction, Nick spies the river:
Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside, where he had expected to find the scattered houses of the town and then walked down the railroad track to the bridge over the water. The river was there. It swirled against the log spiles of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. (163)The ruins of the town contrast strongly with the animated image of a swirling river: here, civilization is portrayed as temporary and insignificant compared to nature’s stability. In addition, the language describing the river, which is typically simple, is soothing after the detailed account of the town’s destruction. Images such as the swirling “clear, brown water” and the trout’s elegant, “wavering fins” give the reader a sense of refreshment – as if he himself has just dived into the water. Fishing in an isolated area helps Nick take comfort in nature’s permanency. It is also a ritual that is spiritually healing, giving Nick time to recuperate from his war wounds: consequences of living in the civilized – one could even argue artificial – world. In his article “Big Two-Hearted River: A Reinterpretation,” Keith Carabine compares this spiritual journey to Thoreau’s Walden:
Like Thoreau Nick retreats to the wilderness to build a “home” and in order to rediscover what in himself and in his surroundings is still viable and alive, what in Hemingway’s terms is still not ‘lost to the writer.’ (41-42)Although civilization can provide nothing sustaining – either in the spiritual or literary sense – nature remains a stronghold, for both Nick and Hemingway himself.
Through his stream-of-consciousness memories, it becomes clear that Nick looks upon the civilized world with disdain. While stroking a trout with carefully wetted hands, he remembers with disgust the more popular fishing streams, where he would often find dead trout covered in white fungus due to fishermen’s carelessness. (176) This image mirrors the one that Hemingway would later propose in Green Hills of Africa, where civilization is compared to pieces of trash that float, unnoticed and insignificant, in the midst of a swelling sea. Mankind is represented as a parasite that interrupts nature’s cycle. Still, Nick finds this concept comforting rather than disillusioning. Civilization may die, but Big Two-Hearted River will continue to flow.
When examining the Hemingway text, writing style and content must go hand-in-hand. The permanency of Nick’s environment is presented not just through images but through the format of the story as well. Words that invoke the river are repeated musically: river, water, stream, wet. Besides lending a sense of immediacy to the piece, this technique sets up a rhythm that mirrors the ticking of a clock. Its slow, steady pace, however, implies that there are plenty of days left before time runs out. In addition, Nick’s actions show that he is a willing participant in nature’s cycle. While cleaning a fish, for example, he tosses “the offal ashore for the minks to find” (180). Even death serves the purpose of sustaining life, so that it appears not to exist at all. Echoing the style of the prose, Nick truly feels as though he is immortal. He feels “awkward and professionally happy” and is certain that “there [are] plenty of days coming when he [can] fish the swamp” (174, 180). With most of his life before him, Nick feels that there is no need to hurry.
This complacency stands in sharp contrast to Green Hills of Africa, which is engrossed with the desperate need for, and lack of, time. Although Hemingway’s hunting trip in Africa is in part his search for a second childhood, it is ruined by the older man’s knowledge of his own mortality. While in awe of nature’s endurance, Hemingway is very much aware that he cannot possess it himself – except through writing, but he would have to be truly great to do it. Far from feeling his days are limitless, Hemingway feels rushed, not only because of the oncoming seasonal rains, which will cut his hunting short, but also because of his own mortality, which he fears will prevent him from writing everything he needs to. Hemingway describes this rush as “that most exciting perversion of life: the necessity of accomplishing something in less time than should truly be allowed for its doing” (qtd. in Baker 171). Although there is something exhilarating in his race against the clock, there is also a sense of despair. To capture all that he wants before death seems impossible.
Rather than taking comfort in nature’s timelessness, then, as Nick does in “Big Two-Hearted River,” Hemingway is envious of it in Green Hills of Africa. He longs to accomplish it himself, and admires other great writers of the past who have done so. During a lull in the hunt, Hemingway begins to read “The Cossacks” by Leo Tolstoy. Without going into paroxysms over the beauty of the story, he articulates its reality through stream-of-consciousness writing. As in “Big Two-Hearted River,” Hemingway manipulates language in order to convey immediacy.
First, engrossed in the narrative, Hemingway becomes the protagonist. He expresses this by moving into the first person: “I was living in that Russia again,” he writes; “I saw all that” (80). Then he makes this sense of immediacy accessible to the reader by transitioning into the second person. Now it is the reader who is participating in the action: “the next time you were coming… the next time you walked to it in the dark” (80; emphasis added). At this point Hemingway isn’t the only one experiencing this profound connection – he invites the reader to share in it as well.
Finally, Hemingway identifies both himself and the reader as the protagonist: he and the reader now share a bond forged by Tolstoy’s writing. Hemingway articulates this sense of community by switching to the first person plural:
For we have been there in the books and out of the books – and where we go, if we are any good, there you can go as we have been. A country, finally, erodes and the dust blows away, the people all die and none of them were of any importance permanently, except those who practised the arts… (80-81; emphasis added)It is through this collective consciousness of readers and writers, bound together by great prose, that timelessness is achieved. Tolstoy’s vision is able to live anew through every one who reads him, and thus his writing creates a sense of immortality.
The legacy that a writer may leave was a concept with which Hemingway was obsessed for most of his life. His “death” from the 1954 plane crash turned out to be false; but what if he had died? What could he leave behind? Hemingway prophesied this scenario nearly twenty years before his near-death experience in the short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The protagonist, Harry, is stranded with his wife in a remote part of Africa after their safari truck breaks down. As he lies dying of gangrene, all of the experiences that he never managed to capture in his writing flash before his eyes. One such memory is of gambling in Schrunz, Germany:
When there was no snow you gambled and when there was too much you gambled. He thought of all of the time in his life he had spent gambling. But he had never written a line of that… (42)For Harry, these experiences are meaningless if he hasn’t recorded them. If they can’t be passed on after his death, he might as well not have lived them at all. Now that he is dying, Harry regrets that he didn’t realize this sooner, when he still had the opportunity to write:
There wasn’t time, of course, although it seemed as though it telescoped so that you might put it all into one paragraph if you could get it right. (50)Harkening back to young Hemingway’s pursuit of “one true sentence” (as conveyed later in A Moveable Feast), Harry longs to write something that is truly worthwhile in order to validate his life. If he could only encapsulate time on the page – even in one short, brilliant paragraph – he might be able to create a legacy that he can pass on to another generation. Writing was Harry’s one shot at immortality, and now it was too late.
Ironically, the very fragmented nature of Harry’s memories yields a sense of timelessness that Harry himself could never achieve in his works. Through “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway experiments with his own encapsulation of time; and here, as well as in other works such as Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa, he manages to capture brief snapshots of life in a style similar to that of impressionist works of art. In these short passages, which are to polished prose what sketches are to an oil painting, Hemingway attempts to pull the reader into his writing much in the way that Tolstoy did in his short story “The Cossacks.” (This will be expanded upon later.)
Interestingly enough, what Hemingway achieved in his fiction critics loathed in his non-fiction. In his review of Green Hills of Africa, literary critic Edmund Wilson argues strongly against his prose techniques:
Hemingway… [has written] what are certainly, from the point of view of prose, the very worst pages of his life. There is one passage which is hardly even intelligible – the most serious possible fault for a writer who is always insisting on the supreme importance of lucidity… something frightful seems to happen to Hemingway as soon as he begins to write in the first person… When he expounds his [ideas about life] in his own character of Ernest Hemingway… he has a way of sounding silly… he writes a different prose style from the one which he has perfected in his fiction. (Meyers 217-218)Wilson describes this new style of prose at different points in the article as “self-conscious,” “disappointing,” and “maudlin.” He criticizes Hemingway for departing from “the finest [prose] that has been written in America” and accuses Green Hills of Africa of being “one of the only books ever written which make Africa and its animals seem dull” (Meyers 305).
What Wilson missed was that Hemingway was creating a type of prose that transcended the page. He was attempting to use his hunting experiences as a vessel for his philosophy of writing as an enduring art. Wilson is clearly boggled: “It is as if he were throwing himself on African hunting as something to live for and believe in,” he clucks (Meyers 306). But what was significant was not Hemingway’s depiction of hunting, but what he was attempting to convey through it. This will be examined further on, but first, let us study another excerpt of Hemingway’s more “unintelligible” writing.
Much as he did in his description of Tolstoy’s “The Cossacks,” Hemingway rises beyond his condition as an isolated man in a similar passage – one long, streamlined sentence that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. As his group travels into new country, Hemingway attempts to articulate his feelings, which he confesses he “cannot define completely” – but at thirty-seven lines of text he’s getting there:
…when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way… you know, truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all of the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island… that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after… all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling… (108)Just as Nick took comfort in the permanence of nature, Hemingway is learning to take comfort in the immortality of great writing. In comparing great art to a Gulf Stream through which the “garbage” of civilization floats insignificantly, he underscores the link between nature and art.
The language of the sentence, too, is rhythmic and strong, and “flows” like a body of water itself. This harkens back to “Big Two-Hearted River,” where the pulse of the text reflects its commentary on nature’s endurance. When he compares society to garbage, Hemingway reiterates the lesson of the ruined town in “Big Two-Hearted River”: namely, that civilization is frail, and cannot contribute anything meaningful or long-lasting. And if civilization cannot endure, how can it produce something that can? Only through nature, and the attempt to write something real, can one escape time. Hemingway pursued this not only in his life, but in sentences like this one, which pushes words to the limit so that the reader is feeling the same suspension of time that Hemingway was experiencing while writing it. Just as Hemingway was pulled into the world of “The Cossacks” while reading Tolstoy, so he pulls any reader into the current of the Gulf Stream with this passage.
Hemingway’s revolutionary writing in Green Hills of Africa was not “unintelligible,” and certainly not “dull” by any means. Bernard de Voto, another critic, described Hemingway’s prose much more aptly, stating that it “sings like poetry without ever ceasing to be prose, easy, intricate and magical” (Meyers 28). This acknowledges the deliberation of the passage: its rhythm, its purposeful imagery, and its carefully-related message.
The timelessness that Hemingway achieves in his works is intimately related to the notion of childhood. Nick Adams, although technically not a child, is innocently confident that “there [are] plenty of days coming” (180); later, in Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway longs for this same certainty, and seeks it out in both the landscape of Africa and the act of writing. In fact, when examining Hemingway’s works in the order in which they were written, a progression emerges from childhood, to adulthood, to childhood again. The sharp and cynical characters of The Sun Also Rises that typify Hemingway’s “adulthood” phase have no place in either the world of “Big Two-Hearted River,” which preceded the novel, or the world of pursuit (both literal and philosophical) in Green Hills of Africa, which followed it.
In his later works, Hemingway is less focused on humans in his writing, or even civilization itself. Instead, he is more engaged with the elegant simplicity of nature. This harkens back to the days of his youth, where hunting, fishing, and exploring were the principal activities he enjoyed (Mellow 13-14). Interestingly, it is when Hemingway is searching for a renewal of that childhood that his work appears to be the most mature.
Hemingway constantly draws connections from his childhood to hunting in Africa. When he and M’Cola overhear Karl shooting not far away, Hemingway quotes the old Indian idiom he learned as a boy: “One shot, meat. Two shots, maybe. Three shots, heap shit” (123). Although Hemingway can only communicate this through dictionary-Swahili, M’Cola understands completely and is very amused. Through his “simple” childhood experiences, Hemingway is able to communicate and later enter into a friendship with M’Cola, whose life is utterly different from Hemingway’s own. Even on the most basic level Hemingway draws these connections, such as when he is at first thrown by the word “m’uzuri” due to its similarity to the state name “Missouri.” To Hemingway’s ears this sounds abrupt and wrong. Gradually, however, he is able to comfortably integrate it into his vocabulary.
Pop, the amicable leader of the safari, also lends to the sense of childhood in Green Hills of Africa. He becomes a father figure to Hemingway, and the latter attempts to impress the former whenever he can. After Hemingway successfully kills a rhino, he, Pop and M’Cola examine its carcass:
“How is his horn?”Although Hemingway is elated with his prize, he turns to Pop for approval and respect. While Pop’s response is mild concerning the horn size, he takes pains to encourage Hemingway, complimenting him on his shooting. Hemingway’s response – that M’Cola is pleased with it and is his friend – is reminiscent of a small child bragging to his father. Pop’s reply corresponds with Hemingway’s actions, encouraging him in the friendship as a father might indulge a son. Hemingway had loved and respected his father, but was disappointed by some of his shortcomings, the most momentous one being Dr. Hemingway’s suicide in 1926. In a deleted passage of Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway gives vent to his disgust: “My father was a coward.” (qtd. in Mellow 371-372) In contrast, Pop’s bravery is never questioned. Here, in the land of renewed childhood, Pop becomes the father that Hemingway had always wanted.
“It isn’t bad,” Pop said. “It’s nothing extra. That was a hell of a shot you made on him though, brother.”
“M’Cola’s pleased with it,” I said… “He’s my pal.”
“I believe he is, you know,” Pop said. (61-62)
Hemingway not only longs for his old childhood experiences while he’s in Africa – he uses them as a basis for comparison. When discussing the almost mythic country of the old man (which is also revealing, as the old man is able to find the land based on memories of his childhood, and so he and Hemingway are literally as well as figuratively traveling back to the past), he recalls his own Utopia back in America: a river, similar to that of “Big Two-Hearted,” that “no one had ever fished on” (150). He describes his memories of trout-fishing as one might describe a secluded patch of heaven. Nick, too, enjoys his river for its isolation, as his disapproval of the more popular rivers, where fishermen carelessly infect and kill trout, shows. This mirrors Hemingway’s difficulty hunting in other parts of Africa, where the game are too spooked to make an enjoyable hunt. The land of the old man, however, is a paradise: “a virgin country, an un-hunted pocket in the million miles of bloody Africa” (158).
The Masai tribe that lives in this virgin country is also painted as the ultimate ideal. So perfect is their society, so integrated into nature, that time does not even appear to affect them: “The children were all quite young and the men and women all seemed the same age. There were no old people. They all seemed to be our great friends” (201). In this land of the second childhood, old age and death no longer exist. Here is the place where Hemingway, like Nick in “Big Two-Hearted River,” may roam free and innocent,
living there [in Africa] and hunting out each day, sometimes laying off and writing for a week, or writing half the day, or every other day, and get to know it as I knew the country around the lake where we were brought up… [a country] where a man could live and hunt if he had time to live and hunt. (199; emphasis added)Then Hemingway would have the opportunity to explore a whole new land, one as fresh and exciting as Michigan was to him as a child. He could discover new things in the landscape and his writing without ever exhausting his allotted number of days.
As Hemingway connects his past experiences to his present ones, he strips away much of his middle life: the few references to his experiences with literary society, for example, are related in a mocking tone. This is a result of the barriers of language and culture: Hemingway cannot side-step his way through conversations as he did with his fellow English speaker, Kandisky. In fact, the few times Hemingway attempts to be sarcastic with non-English speakers he fails utterly, such as when he commands Dan, a translator, to repeat his words:
“Tell him I am B’wana Fisi, the hyena slaughterer,” I told Dan. “B’wana Fisi chokes them with his naked hands.”Because his frivolous jokes do not translate, Hemingway is forced to communicate with others on a level more basic than words. Any lies, therefore, are practically impossible. Nor is this level so primitive as to be inhibiting: Hemingway finds himself engaged in long hunting conversations with warriors of the Masai tribe without using words at all:
Dan was telling them something else.
“Ask them if they would like to meet B’wana Hop-Toad, the inventor of the hoptoads and Mama Tziggi, who owns all these locusts.”
Dan ignored this. (116)
You ask how this was discussed, worked out, and understood with the bar of language, and I say it was as freely discussed and clearly understood as though we were a cavalry patrol all speaking the same language. We were all hunters… and the whole thing could be worked out, understood, and agreed to without using anything but a forefinger to signal and a hand to caution. (179)As Hemingway himself said in Death in the Afternoon, it is very difficult to fake what is presented simply (54). That he was talking about writing is not irrelevant. As with his prose, Hemingway is learning to whittle his life down to what is simple and true.
The art of sport is presented as an allegory of writing not only in terms of hunting as in Green Hills of Africa, but through the vessels of fishing (The Old Man and the Sea) and the bullfight as well (Death in the Afternoon). In The Old Man and the Sea, the method by which Santiago captures the marlin becomes a commentary on the nature of writing. Holding the fishing line gently in his hands, the old man attempts to gather as much information as he can:
[Santiago] reached out for the line and held it softly between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand… it was a tentative pull, not solid nor heavy, and he knew exactly what it was… [H]e felt something hard and unbelievably heavy. It was the weight of the fish and he let the line slip down, down, down, unrolling off the first of the two reserve coils. As it went down, slipping lightly through the old man’s fingers, he still could feel the great weight, though the pressure of his thumb and forefinger were almost imperceptible. “What a fish,” he said. “He has it sideways in his mouth now and he is moving off with it.” (41-43)The “tentative pull” of the line is only a slight hint of the fifteen-hundred-pound marlin that is tugging it six hundred feet below. Far up on the surface of the water, Santiago cannot comprehend the enormity of the fish that he has caught; but he is still able to interpret its actions by the slightest movement of the line between his calloused fingers. Hemingway strove for this same dexterity in his prose, where a knowing omission speaks in greater volumes than a bald statement. Like Santiago, who must learn to derive the nature and actions of the marlin by interpreting the tug of the line, so Hemingway’s best writing only hints at the possibilities that lie just beneath the surface.
But with Santiago as well as with Hemingway himself, time is the true enemy. It is difficult to hunt in the middle of the sea alone, especially at an older age, and Santiago wishes that the boy Manolin were with him: “I wish I had the boy,” he says. “To help me and to see this.” (48) Apart from the superficial reasons that the old man might want the boy – to remind him to eat and sleep and to help him with the fishing line – Manolin represents something far deeper to Santiago. This is articulated in the second part of Santiago’s statement: he wants the boy “to see this” – that is, see the large marlin he has caught. Manolin’s presence could serve as a confirmation of the work that Santiago has accomplished. If the boy were on the boat, the old man could work happily, knowing that, should he fail in his endeavors, his protégé could complete the task – or, at the very least, share the old man’s tale with the world. Santiago needs Manolin so that he may pass on what he has captured to the next generation. This need for a legacy is echoed in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” where Harry despairs of dying without writing what he has learned.
Hemingway was very much concerned with retaining what he had captured, whether it concerned a new piece of game or a new style of writing. He examines both in his narration of the hunt for a sable bull in Green Hills of Africa. At the height of the pursuit, Hemingway and his companions strain their eyes amidst the grassy landscape for a trail of blood. Hemingway describes the intricacies of the tracking process:
“… [you would trail] in short grass on hard ground where a blood spot was a dry, black blister on a grass blade, difficult to see… you must find the next little black spot perhaps twenty yards away, one holding the last blood while the other found the next, then going on… until it ran out again and you marked the last blood with your eye and both made casts to pick it up again…” (191)The traces of blood on widely-spaced stalks of grass must be carefully hunted and deciphered, just as Santiago must interpret the gentle pull of the fishing line. Both represent Hemingway’s pursuit of writing what is real and true. Far out to sea, or far into the virgin country of Africa, Hemingway is grasping for something beyond his capacity to understand – something that he may never attain, but for which he must at least strive.
The hunting party is eventually defeated by time:
[T]he sun and the heat must have dried the wounds and we found only an occasional small starry splatter on the rocky ground… we could not trail from there. The ground was too hard to leave a track and we never found blood again (192).The progress of the day ruins Hemingway’s chances; the heat of the sun only adds to the sable’s many hours’ lead, and time defeats the writer once again. The pursuit of good writing, like the pursuit of good game, morphs into an all-consuming occupation where time becomes the enemy. This is echoed in The Old Man and the Sea: alone in the sea with a mammoth marlin, Santiago can only cry, “God help me endure!” (87) This plea could not be perceived to be anything but Hemingway’s own. All he wanted was to last long enough to write everything he had learned.
Hemingway had always found the proximity between the sports of hunting and fishing and the art of writing very natural. In Death in the Afternoon (which was written three years before Green Hills of Africa and twenty before The Old Man and the Sea), he expresses his belief that there are no lines between the two. This was due in part to his parents’ influence: his mother, a cultured voice instructor, taught him to appreciate music and art (Hemingway was even forced to play the cello in high school); his father, meanwhile, taught him to love hunting and the outdoors (Mellow 28). All his life, Hemingway respected both sports and the fine arts, although the former was admittedly on a lower level than the latter. Carlos Baker put it well in his book Hemingway: The Writer As Artist:
Dramatically speaking, physical courage is often a convenient and economical way of symbolizing moral courage… In this African story Hemingway is obviously dealing with both kinds of courage, though, as the situation naturally requires, it is the physical aspect which is stressed. (Baker 190)Kandisky, the pompous plantation manager in Green Hills of Africa, is Hemingway’s complete opposite in this respect, as he cannot comprehend the relevance of one to the other; and it is through his argument with Hemingway that the latter articulates his writing philosophy (serving the same purpose as his dialogue with the old lady in Death in the Afternoon).
Hemingway discusses the difference between the art of bullfighting and writing in terms of “major and minor art” in Death in the Afternoon. Only through a major art, he claims, can a sense of immortality be experienced – not just in the moment of the kill, but again and again every time the piece is reexamined.
If it [bullfighting] were permanent it could be one of the major arts, but it is not and so it finishes with whoever makes it, while a major art cannot even be judged until the unimportant physical rottenness of whoever made it is well buried. It is an art that deals with death and death wipes it out… (99)In his book Concealments in Hemingway’s Works, Gerry Brenner argues that its very dealings with death lend bullfighting a sense of reality that most art genres lack:
… All the arts commence in [conflict], give expression to it, and work toward its resolution. But the conflicts may be abstract, as in music. Or they may be static, which is the case in painting and sculpture. And the conflicts in literature, and drama, and that new art, motion pictures, are imaginary; sometimes so much so that they disguise what that conflict is all about. For remember, all conflicts are just variations on the one big conflict: life against death.Brenner’s words are accurate: rather than representing life and death, the bullfight offers the real thing, delivering an authenticity that is rare in the art world. However, this authenticity is coupled with a type of artificiality: the setup of the bullfight is merely imitative of nature, and cannot possess its permanency. What Brenner neglects to recognize is that the reality of life and death in the ring can only be experienced for a limited span of time. Once the bullfight ends, all that remains is the spectator’s memory; and memory, as Hemingway said himself, “is never true” (100).
When reading Tolstoy, Hemingway feels linked to the great writers of the past. Bullfighting, however, lacks this sense of history that characterizes writing. Bullfighters do not have the luxury of learning from their predecessors in the same way that writers may learn from theirs. They may watch bullfights of their own, but like any spectator, all they have to rely upon is their memory. Each bullfighter must instead learn alone:
Suppose a painter’s canvases disappeared with him and a writer’s books were automatically destroyed at his death and only existed in the memory of those that had read them. That is what happens with bullfighting. The art, the method, the improvements of doing, the discoveries remain; but the individual, whose doing of them made them, who was the touchstone, the original, disappears and until another individual, as great, comes, the things, by being imitated, with the original gone, soon distort, lengthen, shorten, weaken and lose all reference to the original. (99)There can be, then, no collective consciousness as described in Green Hills of Africa. Despite its unique authenticity, bullfighting is still confined to the category of “minor art” because it does not possess the same endurance of writing or nature.
Just as he does at the end of Green Hills of Africa or in the fragmented memories of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway closes Death in the Afternoon with an impressionist description of all the things he would like to add to the book if he had more time. This only occurs in his later works, and is probably the result of his older age and the number of accidents he suffered (Mellow 596). Somewhere in almost all of his later writings (including A Moveable Feast, one of the last books he wrote), Hemingway enters into a race against time, writing his impressions down in a stream of words so that they will endure on paper long after he has expired. He articulates the essentiality of writing down everything you know, even if it is only a sketch, in the final lines of Death in the Afternoon:
The thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after. Let those who want to save the world if you can get to see it clear and as a whole. Then any part you make will represent the whole if it’s made truly. The thing to do is work and learn to make it. (278)The lesson to write “not too damned much after” is well-illustrated in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in which Harry has pushed off writing his ideas because he is waiting “until he [knows] enough to write them well” (41). When he is dying, however, and time has run out, he no longer wants to record these experiences perfectly, but just to put them down on the page. Unfortunately, it is far too late for even that. Harry’s inability to leave a legacy serves as a warning to all writers who wish to create something that endures.
The notion of “saving the world” – not as in rescuing it, but capturing it on paper – is a constant concern throughout the last chapter of Death in the Afternoon, and is closely tied into the notion of creation. Hemingway’s language in this series of impressions is telling: “If I could make him,” he writes, “if I could make…” (274-275). Hemingway is trying to truly create something – not just to characterize it on the page. He does not want to merely represent, or create the illusion of, life: he wants to recreate the realities he saw before him. It wasn’t so much that Hemingway wanted to create something new – he just wanted to write in a new way in order to capture as much of reality as possible.
In October 1954, Hemingway was honored with the Nobel Prize in literature – a mere nine months after his two disastrous plane crashes. Still recuperating, he was too weak to attend the ceremony. But his acceptance letter reiterated his life philosophy: “if [one] is a good enough writer, he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day” (qtd. in Mellow 590). Literature, for Hemingway, was a device that could ensure immortality. Civilizations might crumble, but good writing remains alive so long as there is someone to read it (Selkirk 105).
Hemingway’s personal struggle with eternity encompassed his entire life. Even his eventual suicide was a manifestation of his beliefs: no longer able to write due to depression and poor medical treatment, he felt he could not produce sustaining works of art; and so, confronted with his own mortality, he chose to face it head-on. His paradise was an isolated patch of country in the midst of Africa, or Nick’s “Big Two-Hearted River”: an untouched land away from civilization, with nothing but an endless supply of time.
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1 “Time held me green and dying” is a quote from the poem “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas.