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The Sweet Style of Ernest Hemingway

It is an exaggeration to say that the language determines the metaphysics of the tribe and what people can think—the so-called “Whorfian hypothesis.” Language is checked by unverbalized experience. Language itself is plastic and says new things when necessary. People do manage to communicate across the barrier of language and culture, e.g., I get something out of Homer, Genesis, and Confucius. And in the problems of philosophy, we can usually think away the language of previous thinkers and still find a real problem for ourselves.

But we can put Whorf’s thesis in a more modest form that is more rewarding: a style of speech is a hypothesis about how the world is. When speakers adopt a style, they are already saying something substantive. A good style, colloquial and literary, is one that is adequate to cope with, that “saves,” a wide range of experience, omitting nothing indispensable. It proves itself as a way of being, it does not break down, it is believable.

This view is similar to the newer philosophy of linguistic analysis that has developed out of linguistic positivism. Instead of treating popular metaphysics as nonsense in which people are stuck, and to which prophylaxis must be applied, linguistic analysis takes common speech as a repository of vast empirical experience of curious matters by the community, just as the common law is the embodied wisdom of the Anglo-Saxon people (such as it is). The philosophical problem is to decipher exactly what is being said; in colloquial sentences, what do people mean when they say “mind,” “cause,” “responsibility,” “good,” “bad,” and so forth?

Literary style is a convenient object for this kind of analysis. It is usually less subtle than excellent colloquial speech, but it is recorded and it provides large coherent wholes to examine. Let us look briefly at a famous modern style, Hemingway’s, and single out one of its dominant hypotheses.

It is a passive style. The characters, including the narrator, are held off in such a way—“alienated,” as Brecht puts it—that they influence nothing; events happen to them. The actions that they initiate—the story consists entirely of actions that they initiate—do not add up to actualizing them; it is one thing after another. Yet neither do the actions betray and doom them, as in ancient stories of Fate, for that would impart a meaning, a tragic meaning, to the world. Rather, the events turn out to be happenings.

Needless to say, the passivity of people in contemporary society, with its high technology and centralized organization, has been the prevailing theme of naturalistic fiction for over a century. But Hemingway takes the theme at a deeper level. His stories are located in nonindustrial scenes, often in fairly primitive places, and they are about activities that are even spectacularly individualistic and active, dangerous sports, smuggling, soldiers on the loose. The characters come on with a heavy preponderance of active verbs. And the effect is passive. Unlike the naturalists who show how men are puppets of the institutions, and by showing it inject their own activity, often political, into the prose, Hemingway contrives by his style, by what he tells and what he avoids telling, to show that happening-to-one is the nature of things. (Psychoanalytically, the passivity has been internalized.)

Here are two passages from The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926 when Hemingway was twenty-eight. The first is the end of a description, similar to others in the book. The characters have driven up a high mountain and it is cold.

The bus leveled down onto the straight line of a road that ran to Burguete. We passed a crossroads and crossed a bridge over a stream. The houses of Burguete were along both sides of the road. There were no side-streets. We passed the church and the school-yard, and the bus stopped. We got down and the driver handed down our bags and the rod-case. A carabineer in his cocked hat and yellow leather cross straps came up.

What’s in there?” he pointed to the rod-case.

I opened it and showed him. He asked to see our fishing-permits and I got them out. He looked at the date and then waved us on.

Is that all right?” I asked.

Yes. Of course.”

We went up the street, past the whitewashed stone houses.

The other passage is the climax of action of the novel, the bullfight.

When he had finished his work with the muleta and was ready to kill, the crowd made him go on. They did not want the bull killed yet, they did not want it to be over. Romero went on. It was like a course in bull fighting. All the passes he linked up, all completed, all slow, templed and smooth. There were no tricks and no mystifications. There was no brusqueness. And each pass as it reached the summit gave you a sudden ache inside. The crowd did not want it ever to be finished.

The bull was squared on all four feet to be killed, and Romero killed directly below us. He killed not as he had been forced to by the last bull, but as he wanted to. He profiled directly in front of the bull, drew the sword out of the muleta and sighted along the blade. The bull watched him. Romero spoke to the bull and tapped one of his feet. The bull charged and Romero waited for the charge, the muleta held low, sighting along the blade, his feet firm. Then without taking a step forward, he became one with the bull, the sword was in high between the shoulders, the bull had followed the low slung flannel, that disappeared as Romero lurched clear to the left, and it was over. The bull tried to go forward, his legs commenced to settle, he swung from side to side, hesitated, then went down on his knees, and…. Handkerchiefs were waving all over the bull-ring. The President looked down from the box and waved his handkerchief….

These passages are, of course, artfully different—within the narrow range of language that Hemingway uses. The short, active, declarative sentences of the description are increasingly connected by “and” in the action, accelerating the tempo; finally there are only commas, speed of speech. In the climactic sentence “Then without taking a step, etc.,” the syntax is allowed to break down. The description has a natural randomness, as things turn up, including the pointless dialogue with the carabineer. In the action every sentence is pointed to the climax.

In both passages, Hemingway uses the repetitions that are his favorite glue. But in the description they are more freely scattered and oddly equivocal in syntax: “road,” “cross-roads,” “cross-straps,” “crossed,” “sides of the road,” “side-streets,” “leveled down,” “got down,” “handed down.” In the action, the repetitions follow more directly and are univocal, urgent, plangent: “They did not want,” “they did not want it over,” “he wanted to”; “killed,” “killed,” “killed”; “directly below us,” “directly in front of the bull”; “charged,” “waited for the charge”; “handkerchiefs were waving,” “waved his handkerchief.”

Nevertheless, the two passages have overwhelmingly in common the chief characteristic of Hemingway’s style early and mature: the persons are held at arm’s length, there is no way to get inside them or identify with them, it is happening to them. (But note that the events do not happen to the prose; rather the prose influences the events. For instance, it is because the driver handed down the bags and ended with the rod-case that the carabineer came up and pointed to the rod-case.)

In a description of arriving in a new place, it is plausible for events to happen to a person; but in the passages of action it is almost uncanny—and this is why this is a remarkable style—how we still seem to hear, “It happened that the crowd did not want,” or even “it happened to the crowd that it did not want”; “it happened to Romero that he wanted,” “it happened that he profiled,” “it happened to him that the bull charged,” and “it happened that he met the charge.” This has gotten to be the style of “objective” journalism, but it was writers like Hemingway who invented the style for the journalists. The verbs are active and the sentences declarative, but since the persons do not do it, we feel that they do not do it. And this is how the author has plotted it in the preceding pages anyway.

The narrator too is mesmerized by what he is telling. The effect is not at all like the impressionism of Virginia Woolf, for she lets us experience the first-person knower, who grows. Rather, as I have said, it is like the Brechtian “alienation,” which Hemingway achieves more consistently than Brecht.*

That we exist in a meaningless universe—vanity of vanities—is the theme of The Sun Also Rises with its motto and title taken from Ecclesiastes; and this novel, though not powerful, is authentic through and through. In Hemingway’s later works, the more romantic or adventurous themes are betrayed by the passive style. (The Old Man and the Sea has some authenticity, but the style is richer.) Ideally, the style of any work should be the style of that work, a unique language saying what the whole work wants to say. But of course with Hemingway and most of us, our style is our way of being in the world in general rather than for just this one book. We are wise to choose our subjects according to what we can say. In the best cases, we choose on the borderline and learn to say more. Hemingway played it a little too safe.

To make my point, let me contrast this passive style with a powerful active style. I unfairly choose a very great passage. Here is the exordium of the opening section of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

For three long chapters Gibbon has been describing and (more or less) extolling the Roman Empire under the Antonines, its extent, its power, its prosperity, its arts, its institutions and civil peace, the occasional beneficence of its rulers. He concludes,

But the empire of the Romans filled the world, and, when that empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies. The slave of Imperial despotism, whether he was condemned to drag his gilded chain in Rome and the senate, or to wear out a life of exile on the barren rock of Seriphus, or the frozen banks of the Danube, expected his fate in silent despair. To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly. On every side he was encompassed with a vast extent of sea and land, which he could never hope to traverse without being discovered, seized, and restored to his irritated master. Beyond the frontiers, his anxious view could discover nothing, except the ocean, inhospitable deserts, hostile tribes of barbarians, of fierce manners and unknown language, or dependent kings, who would gladly purchase the emperor’s protection by the sacrifice of an obnoxious fugitive. “Wherever you are,” said Cicero to the exiled Marcellus, “remember that you are equally within the power of the conqueror.”

Whether in his enlightened awareness or in his Enlightenment prejudice, there is no doubt that Gibbon is in complete control of the vast scene and appropriates it for the reader. In each sentence he exhausts the alternative situations, the possibilities of action, the geographical space of the world. The ideas are many and not repeated, the motion is rapid for an elegant style, yet he gives us all the balances and parallels and even a chiasmus. Without losing speed, he builds to longer sentences, grander territory, bleaker scenery, and more desperate gloom. Yet, though he has the story in his grip, he is by no means cold or detached; he does not strangle himself. Nearly every sentence has something sarcastic or spiteful—“safe prison,” “gilded chain in the senate,” “irritated master,” “obnoxious fugitive.” He is not talking about an abstraction; we are made to identify with that hyperactive, and balked, victim. And in the book the plotted place of this bitter outburst, after the (rather) golden narration that precedes, is like a blow.

Return now to Hemingway and his narrow range. It is not surprising that a succession of short active indicative sentences produces passivity. We turn to each verb after it has struck. There is not enough syntactical leeway for the author or reader to become engaged either actively or contemplatively, or as one who desires, or one who interprets. An advantage of the style is that it is in close contact with the facts being told, since there is no intermediary of indirect discourse, point of view, subordination, explanation. This is its aptness for journalistic reporting. A disadvantage is that it can rapidly become boring, as Hemingway often is, because it is hard to make the bits add up and there is increasing resistance to taking the bits in. When Hemingway is good, he provides glue, repetitions, or leading tones like the rod-case.

But Hemingway certainly also used the style hoping to tell simple, down-to-earth experience, and in this crucial respect the style doesn’t work, since it is not how we experience. I have elsewhere made the same point against taking short active indicative sentences as the syntactical kernels of all sentences. The world that is told by them is not primary experience, which is more elaborately and globally structured, and we see that when such sentences are actually spun out, the effect is human passivity. To derive all sentences from short active sentences, as Chomsky does in his basic grammar, must be wrong, because this is not how uncorrupted speakers are in the world, especially children.

But we must then ask a further question: If Hemingway’s style is so persistently passive in effect, how can it cope with enough of human life to be viable? I can think of four ways in which Hemingway countervails the passive effect of his prose.

First, obviously, is the violent macho activism of the characters and events he couches in the prose, nothing but bullfighters, warriors, gun-packing gangsters, hunters of big animals and big fish. But this becomes real thin real soon. One begins to psychoanalyze it simply because there is nothing else to do with it. One wishes that the chosen sport was baseball, with teammates, or that he wrote about equally manly tasks like farming or carpentry, so that there could be some product more interesting than a corpse.

Second, he knows better. There is a unique sentence in The Sun Also Rises that is a most peculiar development of the accustomed style. The whole passage is a deviation. A man has been killed on the street by a bull being driven to the ring, and a waiter at the café comments that it’s a stupid kind of fun and not for him. The narrator says,

The bull who killed Vicente Girones was named Bocanegra, was number 118 of the bull-breeding establishment of Sanchez Taberno, and was killed by Pedro Romero as the third bull of that same afternoon. His ear was cut by popular acclamation and given to Pedro Romero, who, in turn, gave it to Brett, who wrapped it in a handkerchief belonging to myself, and left both ear and handkerchief, along with a number of Muratti cigarette-stubs, shoved far back in the drawer of the bed-table that stood beside her bed in the Hotel Montoya, in Pamplona.

This unusually long and uncharacteristically complex sentence is the only spunky sentence in the book, and one of the few in Hemingway’s work. It tells of a rebellious, not passive, response: bitter contempt. Once the short active sentences are brought synoptically together, the effect is to write them off, to tell the world off. But though he knows this, Hemingway cannot follow it up, so that the passage is merely sentimental—sentimentality is feeling or “significance” more than the plot warrants. Instead he goes on to the bullfight and, as if on the rebound, to the one overwritten paragraph in the book, “Pedro Romero had the greatness, etc.,” which is hopelessly sentimental. Instead of taking his own rage as meaningful, Hemingway makes a desperate bid to find a hero, an agent. It doesn’t wash.

The rejected theme reappears years later, however, as the rueful message of The Old Man and the Sea, that you try like the devil and bring back bones. The later book is not spunky, it rationalizes; but it is a fairly hard look at Hemingway himself.

(Incidentally, the bull’s ear that Brett leaves behind with the cigarette butts, embarrassedly in the back of the drawer, is the real literary probability for her walking out on the young bullfighter in the end, and not the lofty renunciation that some of the critics seem to read. What does one do with shitty underwear or a bull’s ear, in a hotel?)

A third way in which Hemingway countervails the passive hypothesis of his style is his stoical ethic. It appears not in the subject matter or the prose, but in the plotting: the people are loyal, they endure, they go it alone. This ethic is surely why he was so popular and seemed to be a major writer during his era. He gave people something to live on with, when the conditions were so absurd. But he did not have enough intellect to assert a lasting ethical position.

My impression is that young people today do not find him “existential” enough. I have heard young people seriously ask what difference it would make if the human race vanished utterly. Hemingway would have been shocked by such an attitude, as I am. Put it this way: normally, we would expect characters in novels, especially toward the end, to do something, influence events. In Hemingway’s novels the characters are done to, but at least they are done to by the events, they are engaged in them. In many recent novels, however, the characters just “make the scene,” they are not engaged in the events but are like tourists. Or they con the scene like hipsters. They seem to have infinite time. Hemingway understood that people get worn out, grow old.

But therefore—yin and yang—in contemporary writing, there is a flood of very personal reporting of actual political events in which the authors have taken part. More passionate and reflective than objective journalism, less plotted and universal than poetic fiction, this has become a new genre since it fills the need of the times. So far as I have read, Barbara Deming is the best. Mailer is an interesting transitional writer; he is caught in an ethic partly Hemingway and partly hipster. He gravitates to the new subject matter, but he is not committed to its actions and therefore he becomes decorative. (Reminds me of Carlyle.)

In my opinion, Hemingway’s work will last, not because of his stoical ethic but because of something in his style. It is sweetness. It appears more frequently in books later than The Sun Also Rises, especially in A Farewell to Arms. When it appears, the short sentences coalesce and flow, and sing—sometimes melancholy, sometimes pastoral, sometimes personally embarrassed in an adult, not an adolescent, way. In the dialogues, he pays loving attention to the spoken word. And the writing is meticulous; he is sweetly devoted to writing well. Most everything else is resigned, but here he makes an effort, and the effort produces lovely moments. The young, since they read poorly, do not dig that writing is his “existential” act. As Spinoza would say it, for a writer his writing is intellect in action, his freedom, whereas the themes he is stuck with, his confusion, his audience are likely to be his human bondage.

  1. *

    In one of his aphorisms, Kafka says, “I have long since fallen under the wheels—comfortingly enough.” But in his stories he persists in asking why; he feels insulted. The effect is not comfortingly passive but painfully restive.

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