Hemingway: Symbols and the limitations of scholarly analysis

What a strange and wonderful thing, to have learned how to converse either with the shade of Hemingway or with some representation of that shade that my mind has made up (which I don’t actually believe is the case, but recognize that it remains a possibility) and not only enjoy the process but continually learn things. While engaged in going back over my conversations with Hemingway, thinking to make a book out of them, I came across this one that should be of interest.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A thought that has come to mind repeatedly is how much good thinking is contained in your books that, for some reason, makes no impression on The Hemingway Myth. That myth is not really larger than life. It is distorted, with certain elements exaggerated and others ignored — suppressed, I sometimes think. The result misses you entirely.

And so does biography based on external fact, as I’ve said. What we do is only part of our life, only part of what we are. Why we do it — in what internal and external circumstances — is rarely obvious. That’s why these professors keep coming up with their theories, trying to explain everything. But nobody’s life can be explained, just explained away. And I never could persuade anybody of the fact.

Yes, I’ve been thinking of that professor you worked with — or worked against, sort of — whose name I can’t dredge up. Hanson or something. [Charles Fenton] He kept trying to persuade you that what he was doing in rummaging through your life was important to the world, and I guess you felt that all the rummaging (that he thought of a serious research) couldn’t come to anything because the job couldn’t be done by anybody.

Well, it’s clearer when you see them trying to practice biography on you, and you see that everything they’re concluding is wrong because of what they don’t know, or don’t believe, or even what they do know or do believe but don’t put together with stuff they might never think of. Now, of course, I see the value in biography — up to a point. But I think that point has long since been passed, because people are trying to get an outside view of the inside using evidence that is only on the outside.

A white whale may be many things, but what writer of fiction would be dumb enough to try to pin a symbol to one specific meaning? Why would he even think it was a symbol? Why would he expect to know what his unconscious mind was telling him anyway? Moby-Dick came to Melville, and he worked and worked to find what was in it and bring it out. He went way beyond his depth as a craftsman and when he struggled back to shore, he’d caught a whale! But the whale wasn’t just blubber and spermaceti oil. It was the boredom and calm and routine and incidents of a four-years’ voyage to the South Seas and back, captured in a hundred chapters of material about whales. Now, you years ago realized that. And you saw Melville’s humor, how funny his temper was, how he saw things with a satirical eye even if a sympathetic one. “Heed it well, ye pantheists!” But the reason you didn’t make Moby Dick into a Symbol Of Evil, or Symbol Of Vast Impersonal Nature, or Symbol Of The Unattainable Goal or any of that is because you were shown that the academic game is limited and the academics don’t always realize it.

Until you came to this table today, you didn’t realize why you got the impulse to read Moby-Dick while you were in your year of graduate school. Now you do.

Huh! I’d never connected the two, no.

And you weren’t intended to connect the two. But Moby-Dick reminded you, on an unconscious level, that the academic trick of associating one thing with another, comparing one thing to another, understanding one thing in terms of another, has the drawback of obscuring the thing itself! If something is always seen as being more or less related to something else, it becomes an endless contest, a wrestling match.

Nobody can look at a symbol and tell you what it “means” — so, if the professors and the critics try doing it, in the first place they’re going to fail, because they’re going to miss the thing in itself. In the second place, they’re going to wind up ascribing motives and associations and complexes to you that are just things they’re making up as they go along. They may not realize it, because the beauty of their brilliant insight blinds them, but they are making up the connections they think they’re seeing. And of course in the process (assuming you take them seriously) they’re making you look like a pathetic mess instead of a careful craftsman.

Scholarly analysis has its place, but that place is not, repeat not, in interpreting symbols. If anybody is going to do that, it had better be another artist — and he’s going to know better than to do it!

Take Santiago, fishing alone and having his daydreams and memories, and using his skills and fighting his flight, and dreaming of lions. There’s plenty of symbolism in that story, but the symbols were put in by life, not by me. And so they can only be interpreted by life, not by me or you either.

I get the sense of it, but it’s not yet clear.

Santiago could symbolize many things, and I’m not going to start to list them. So could the fish, and the boy, and beisbol and the gran ligas and Joe DiMaggio. We’ve been through all that. But my job — the only job I could do or should do — was to choose the symbols to start with — the story of the old man’s great catch — and follow it as it led me. What work of art — as opposed to hackwork or whoring — can ever be designed and produced to order?

It is the artist’s job to go fishing in the unconscious and bring back a fish and describe the fish (the story, I mean) so that others can recognize it.

I’m not sure that everybody will get what I got — that the fish you are talking about is whatever story you bring back. It’s a great metaphor, I just don’t want people getting lost and having to go back and retrace their steps.

No, you never do. Well, if the artist is describing his fish of a story, that’s all he can do. It’s all he should do. If he starts putting in symbolism from the conscious mind, he’s going to cripple the effect of the story. He’s going to mutilate the fish. That isn’t the proper use of his skill as a writer. The writer’s function is to fish and to bring all his life to the process of fishing. If he properly lands the fish, he and the reader will both have something neither one could have had otherwise, because it was created out of the unconscious, normally not a part of their world.

But if he tries to get cute, or tries for a consciously-chosen effect, or tries to be “meaningful” he is going to botch the job.

It takes all a writer’s skill and all his life and preparation to catch a fish and describe it properly. He reaches out, and he keeps reaching out as he works at it, taking out all the wrong words, turning back at all the wrong turnings, holding to the indescribable feel of the right thread. He doesn’t have time or effort or disengaged ability to spend on consciously putting in symbolism! If he sees it as he’s working, it’s as much as he can do to stop it from getting out of control. And I don’t mean out of his control, I mean to stop it from taking an unwarranted importance.

If that isn’t clear enough, it’s going to have to do anyway.

Well, it’s clear to me, and I think it will be clear to anybody who ever tried to write a novel, but I suppose it’s hopeless to try to get across to a certain kind of mind. I remember telling somebody once I wrote Messenger because I wanted to see how it could turn out. (In this case, how Shangri-La could continue to exist after the Red Chinese came. At least, that’s why I thought I was writing it, at first.) He said,” yeah, I’ve heard other people say the same thing, but I don’t believe it,” and I said simply (for it was simple and obvious to me), “That’s just because you’ve never written a novel.” That stopped him, and unpleasantly for him, because it threw him out of the Expert seat that he had arrogated for himself, and said that he didn’t have the experience to judge from. I wasn’t trying to put him down, I was expressing the knowing that had come to me instantly. He didn’t believe it because his preconceived ideas hadn’t been corrected by the reality of actually doing it.

I can see that the professors are used to doing things their way, and I guess if they’d stick to say “Hemingway’s characters and plots suggest this about life” instead of saying “they show this and that about his deeply rooted complexes and his ambivalent feelings about his hunting dog and the geese,” I wouldn’t have anything to object to. In fact, maybe they’d actually make something clear. But to do that, they’d have to do the same thing the author has to do — the thing you say I didn’t do in Death In The Afternoon — and that is, get the author out of the way! Don’t waste your time saying “this proves Hemingway was ambivalent about drinking.” Say, “this could be looked at as a message from life meaning whatever, that used Hemingway to put words around the message.

Yes, I agree. Parlor psychiatry — what I call psychiatry-without-a-license — has a lot to answer for. You can do it — one can, I mean — in person and with caution and empathy, and being in connection with the other side so that you bring forth what they need regardless of your knowing they need it. But to do it third-hand, in cold blood, in writing — impossible. The only way around the distance of time or space is intuitive. You aren’t going to get there by logic. You might create a wonderful logical structure, and parts of it might even be right, but it’s going to be hit or miss and you’re likely to not even realize it.

But it has been an hour and a half and I’m tired now. Thanks as ever.

 

2 thoughts on “Hemingway: Symbols and the limitations of scholarly analysis

  1. I love this sentence: “It takes all a writer’s skill and all his life and preparation to catch a fish and describe it properly.” [Fish, of course, being the story from the unconscious.]Nice catch, Frank.

  2. Something that Hemingway would likely have experienced in the real world was the excitement of catching a big fish – and I think that he was probably aware that catching a big idea had the same thrill and that once you had done that it wasn’t necessary to doll it up with any extraneous symbolism.

    I love this statement …

    No, you never do. Well, if the artist is describing his fish of a story, that’s all he can do. It’s all he should do. If he starts putting in symbolism from the conscious mind, he’s going to cripple the effect of the story. He’s going to mutilate the fish. That isn’t the proper use of his skill as a writer. The writer’s function is to fish and to bring all his life to the process of fishing. If he properly lands the fish, he and the reader will both have something neither one could have had otherwise, because it was created out of the unconscious, normally not a part of their world.

    Properly landing the fish … as a fisherman myself I can fully understand how it feels. The great catch is its own reward, you don’t have to make it fancy or embellish the experience (though all fishermen are usually considered guilty of exaggeration).

    I got a real “AHA” moment from this Frank (with thanks to Ernest). Well done, nicely caught!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *