Hemingway and The Truth

I found myself reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast only last week and remembered again why I find what he writes about so juvenile. I say what he writes about rather than his writing because, while I concede that appreciating someone’s writing style can be largely subjective after a certain point, what someone writes about — the topics, the themes — can be discussed profitably and even perhaps be sprinkled with nuggets of that much dreamed-of gold of El Dorado, objectivity, if done carefully.

Now, Hemingway and juvenilia are inextricably linked in my imaginings because of the author’s clear-eyed view of stunning vistas of truth, a quasi-mystical vision that pervades his literature and excites the blessed pure of heart. In one’s youth, these stunning vista are revealed almost daily and knowledge and truth do seem declarative — carbon has six protons, chien is French for dog; the truth is mine, ye evil deniers of wisdom! Soon, the unchecked fire of the gonads engulfs the brain and moral indignation runs wild: here be change, a new world order, the overthrow of the wicked and the righting of countless wrongs via the embracing of what’s certain, what’s true: carbon has six protons and chien is French for dog, ye blackguards of untruth, and the light of the good guides us in our reshaping of the world!

There is indeed something noble in such an attitude. The austere clarity of the unspoiled truth is alluring and inspiring, the kind of thing that gets people on soapboxes spouting glib wisdom. Of course, a bout with quantum mechanics — protons are spin-½ fermions composed of three quarks!? — and the discovery that languages have histories, fuzzy bounds and uncharted byways — chien might mean dog in certain respects, but a dog of a day and un chien d’un jour shows that’s certainly not in all respects — puts paid to the old notions of what’s true.  The messiness of reality rears its sullying head, and those who can bear to look turn from youthful, simplifying idealism towards a mature, do-as-best-as-one-can pragmatism. Others, however, remain oblivious to reality and cling to the adolescent’s truths.

Bono professes to write songs containing no more than “three chords and the truth”, and it’s that naivete that makes Bono so downright embarrassing as he struts about attempting to right the world’s ills, no matter how noble his intentions might be. In Hemingway and his offspring, those ever so earnest Beats, we find that same attitude, that same superficial certainty masquerading as mystical profundity that excites simplicity’s yearners and sticks in the side of complexity’s acolytes. And in Moveable Feast we find Hemingway’s awkwardly juvenile paean to his muse, Austere Truth, who sheds her glib grace on her patient, obeisant faithful:

But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was a good and severe discipline.

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