Hemingway: The Almost-Finding of the Truth and the Spirit

I’ve just finished reading Harold Bloom’s excellent How to Read and Why–a critical exploration of some of the great Western literature, wherein Bloom (a truly expansive, elegant, clear-seeing thinker) shares with the reader his own experience of how and why he reads, and gives suggestions for our own reading. The following are my notes on some of the most interesting points he makes on Hemingway’s short stories.

The Truth that Shatters

Hemingway is famous for writing, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” In both Shakespeare and Hemingway, there are points at which a character will suddenly speak the true, heartfelt wisdom of the story (/play). As an example, Bloom cites the following passage from Hemingway’s short story, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”:

“Ride you, Doctor, on the day, the very anniversary, of our Savior’s birth?”

Our Savior? Ain’t you a Jew?” Doctor Wilcox said.

“So I am. So I am. It always is slipping my mind. I’ve never given it its proper importance. So good of you to remind me. Your Savior. That’s right. Your Savior, undoubtedly your Savior–and the ride for Palm Sunday.”

These moments can be, and probably will be, crucial moments, in any story. While they may not be the ultimate crux of a short story–the rift, or climax–they can send cracks through the story which will eventually shatter it. Or if that metaphor doesn’t work for you, they provide strands of thread which eventually make up the tapestry of the story’s soul.

Lost Spirituality, Almost Found

Of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Bloom writes, “…the writer’s vision of Kilimanjaro does seem another of Hemingway’s nostalgic visions of a lost spirituality, qualified as always by a keen sense of nothingness, a Shakespearean nihilism.”

I love this idea of Hemingway having “nostalgic visions of lost spirituality”–I think it’s not only beautifully put, but very accurate as a description of one of his major themes. You can see it in “Big Two-Hearted River,” a striking early piece of Hemingway’s containing the seeds of explorations (including the perpetual character of Nick Adams) that would find their fuller, more beautiful and powerful fruition in later stories. In “Big Two-Hearted,” Nick–having recently returned from war–goes on a fishing trip near his old home town, seeking in the simple routines of camping and the quiet of the wilderness some kind of healing. In Hemingway’s careful description of Nick’s setting up camp, there is more than a hint of the ritualistic.

And just as religion can both soothe and challenge, so does nature: in the first part of the story, Nick seems to be finding the soothing he longs for in his camping trip. But by the end of the story, he has also been challenged by the natural world. Nick isn’t interested in the shallows, the small trout: “he was certain he could catch small trout in the shallows, but he did not want them” (176). He is drawn toward deeper places, bigger things. But when he follows this desire, he immediately hooks an enormous trout, his fishing rod coming “alive and dangerous” with “a heavy, dangerous, steady pull” (176). Hemingway’s repeated usage of the word “dangerous” is, of course, significant: Nick has struck out to face the bigger challenges, and he has put himself at risk.

This becomes more apparent in the next passages. The large trout has “a heaviness, a power not to be held” (177). And when the fish escapes, Nick’s hand shakes, and we are told, “The thrill had been too much” (ibid.). Our protagonist assumes that the trout is angry—“Anything that size would be angry.” Nick then retreats, because “He did not want to rush his sensations any”—words that strongly suggest the feeling of overwhelm which so easily troubles victims of trauma. Resting on the bank, he dries in the sun and is calmed by the beauty of the scene and the peaceful view of the river winding onward. He soon catches two more reasonably-sized fish, and later reflects that he could fish further down river in the swamp, but that such fishing would be difficult and “tragic” (180). And he thinks, “There were plenty of days coming when he could fish in the swamp” (ibid.).

For many people, this is the experience, and ultimately the power, of religion/spirituality. As a good parent, it is ready both to soothe, comfort, guide, as well as challenge the devotee. Even when we’re not ready to face the swamps, it shows us that the swamps are there. That can be the gift of the spiritual life, and that is the gift that Nick Adams finds in the wilderness of “Big Two-Hearted River”–the lost spirituality found in a nostalgic home-town wilderness.

Bloom also notes that Hemingway’s vision of lost spirituality is “qualified as always by a keen sense of nothingness, a Shakespearean nihilism.” One of the examples that would surely be in Bloom’s mind when he wrote this is the story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In this story, we feel the presence of religion just behind the surface of the story (as, in Hemingway, everything is), and more explicitly we see the idea of nothingness. In summary, the plot of the story is that late one night, two waiters in a cafe are discussing a customer of theirs: an old man who recently tried to commit suicide. The younger, less sympathetic waiter says that he tried to commit suicide was because he was “in despair,” and when the older, more sympathetic waiter asks, “What about?” the other replies “Nothing,” to which the older says, “How do you know it was nothing?”

The spiritual nature of this cafe becomes apparent in the waiters’ varying attitudes about the cafe. The younger waiter wants the old man to leave so he (the younger waiter) can close up the cafe and get home to his wife. The older waiter, however, continues to reveal the understanding and empathy he seems to feel for the old man, and what soon becomes clear (although it is submerged in dialogue, in true Hemingway “iceberg” fashion) is that his empathy is actually much broader, including any number of people: “‘I am one of those who likes to stay late at the café,’” he tells the younger waiter, “‘With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night’” and later he adds, “‘Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café’” (ibid., 290). With all those who need a light for the night–in this perfect line, the late-night cafe suddenly becomes a chapel in a dark world, lit by something transcendent (embodied by the waiter’s kindness).

This darkness is the story’s antagonist–it is the literal darkness of the night outside the cafe, and is included also in the younger waiter’s cruelty and obliviousness, in the old man’s despair. And encompassing all of this it is the presence of death, introduced through the mention of the old man’s suicide, and waiting out in the night for the old man and the elder waiter (but not yet the younger waiter, with his youth and his wife). The night is an age-old symbol for death; furthermore, death is often thought of as the ultimate nothingness, or nada, the word that looms large in the older waiter’s re-imagining of the Lord’s Prayer:

Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada [then nothing]. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.

As we can see, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a textbook example of this phenomenon so eruditely pointed out by Bloom: that some of Hemingway’s most compelling characters seem to drift or struggle in between two worlds: one of darkness, pain, death; and another of light, healing, friendship. And it ought to be noted that Bloom calls this dynamic not just a longing for the spiritual, but a nostalgic longing. For Nick Adams and the waiter and the despairing old man, there was a world once that was good, perhaps a more spiritual world, and the longing for this world is itself (of course) a spiritual longing. And crucially, it is not a longing that denies the night or the swamps–rather the opposite. This is real spirituality, that–with kindness–looks always for the truth.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1987.


About Kestrel Slocombe

I like writing, meditation, art, reading, riding horses, playing guitar, watching trees in the wind, ferns, the smell of woodsmoke, Mozart and Bach, long walks in the wilderness, and the sound of the cello.
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