Ernest Hemingway and the Failure of Art

From Paul Johnson’s amusing and enlightening book Intellectuals, a lengthy summation of the tragic façade […]

Matthew Stokes / 4.30.12

From Paul Johnson’s amusing and enlightening book Intellectuals, a lengthy summation of the tragic façade that was the life of Ernest Hemingway:

“Why did Hemingway long for death? It is by no means unusual among writers. His contemporary Evelyn Waugh, a writer in English of comparable stature during this period, likewise longer for death. But Waugh was not an intellectual: he did not think he could refashion the rule of life out of his own head but submitted to the traditional discipline of his church, dying of natural causes five years later. Hemingway created his own code, based on honour, truth, loyalty. He failed it on all three counts, and it failed him. More seriously, perhaps, he felt he was failing his art. Hemingway had many grievous faults but there was one thing he did not lack: artistic integrity. It shines like a beacon through his whole life. He set himself the task of creating a new way of writing English, and fiction, and he succeeded. It was one of the salient events in the history of our language and is now an inescapable part of it. He devoted to this task immense resources of creative skill, energy and patience. That in itself was difficult. But far more difficult, as he discovered, was to maintain the high creative standards he had set for himself. This became apparent to him in the mid-1930s, and added to his habitual depression. From then on his few successful stories were aberrations in a long downward slide.

If Hemingway had been less of an artist, it might not have mattered to him as a man; he would simply have written and published inferior novels, as many writers do. But he knew when he wrote below his best, and the knowledge was intolerable to him. He sought the help of alcohol, even in working hours. He was first observed with a drink, a ‘Rum St James’, in front of him while writing in the 1920s. This custom, rare at first, became intermittent, then invariable. By the 1940s, he was said to wake at 4.30am, ‘usually starts drinking right away and writes standing up, with a pencil in one hand and a drink in another’. The effect on his work was exactly as might be expected, disastrous. An experienced editor can always tell when a piece of writing has been produced with the aid of alcohol, however gifted the author may be. Hemingway began to produce large quantities of unpublishable material, or material he felt did not reach the minimum standard he set himself. Some was published nonetheless, and was seen to be inferior, even a parody of his earlier work. There were one or two exceptions, notably The Old Man and the Sea, though there was an element of self-parody in that too. But the general level was low, and falling, and Hemingway’s awareness of his inability to recapture his genius, let alone develop it, accelerated the spinning circle of depression and drink. He was a man killed by his art, and his life holds a lesson all intellectuals need to learn: that art is not enough.”

Johnson is – like the inestimable Waugh – a Christian in the Roman Catholic tradition. To that end he intuitively understands what Hemingway did not:  we are lawmakers by our own design, little gods creating little idols that will always fail us. How grateful we are to know that in Christ we have a Saviour who delivers us from the bondage of our own sin and brokenness.  The Law had indeed left Papa Hemingway broken; his only hope – our only hope – is not in manly triumph of the Nietzschean ubermensch, but instead in the defeated carpenter on Calvary.

As St. Paul says:

“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

(Romans 7:21-25 ESV)


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4 responses to “Ernest Hemingway and the Failure of Art”

  1. Brenda Jung says:

    The calling to be an artist seems as difficult as the calling to be a pastor… Thanks for this profound post.

  2. Jim McNeely says:

    That is really fascinating. I studied music composition and counterpoint in college, and set about not just to recreate contemporary music but how we use it and consume it. It was too high a goal and I left it behind, because it just didn’t work. I never thought of this as a form of artistic suicide. But there was in the end a vengeance in refusing to compromise, and choosing other ways. I never thought of applying grace to myself in that way. Great!

  3. Paul Walker says:

    Hemingway’s brilliance rests in his unflinching humanity. His longing for death tapped into ours. Was he an egomaniacal s.o.b.? Sometimes, yes. Like Faulkner, he didn’t just see into the despairing human heart. He just felt it beat in his chest until he couldn’t take it any longer.

  4. Joe Jones says:

    I think your Ernest Hemingway article may be the most important thing I’ve read in a long time.

    So, thanks.

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