I sometimes wonder what Ernest Hemingway was like. Not Hemingway the novelist, nor Hemingway the adventurer, but Hemingway the man — the Hemingway that lived, embodied in flesh and blood, who said ordinary things and who, for the most part, lived in an ordinary way.
When I wonder this, I get pulled away by flashes of foreign memories: scenes from his life in Paris as told in A Movable Feast, the laughs and the sadness that came with The Festival of San Fermin in The Sun Also Rises, and his moving depiction of what it means to do-what-you-ought-to-do in The Old Man and the Sea. But these memories don’t feel enough. They are what his cultural image is built on, and they maybe give you a sense for his style, but they don’t bleed in a way that makes you feel like you know someone.
Any intentional sequences constructed in my mind by his words are not a complete representation. They unmask a setting, they outline a belief template, and they bring to the foreground what gives us context to uncover what is in the background, but to see the man, I’ve realized, is to look beyond his words and to read into his silences.
In the last few decades, neuroscientists and developmental psychologists have uncovered something that philosophers of language began to suspect in the middle of the 20th century: The manifestation of our conscious experience is in large part determined by the linguistic concepts we use to understand the world around us. These concepts categorize our experience, which in turn allows us to impose artificial boundaries on reality so we can make it a little more coherent as we move through life.
The words Hemingway uttered and the sentences he wrote may capture some fragrance of the truth, but they don’t fully map us to the territory. They don’t give us a way to look beyond the conditioned linguistic boundaries that confine us, and they don’t tell us anything about what can’t be said. Our memories are, of course, formed by these concepts, and that’s useful as far as our need for a coherent narrative goes, but to understand what lies beneath all of this, we have to sit with what remains undefined.
When I think of Hemingway the man — as I think of any other person in my life and their person-hood — I find myself looking in the spaces between the words. I’m not interested in who they say they are, nor do I find what others associate with them all that compelling, but what interests me is what they embody — what they leave for interpretation; what they act out in the space they don’t verbalize; what they say with their silences.
Humans like labels. We define ourselves by them. They get us through life, for the most part, more effectively than if we operated without them. But as we get comfortable relying on them, we forget something: Their utility is in what they accomplish, not what they represent. They are valuable, yes, but what they represent is an approximation — occasionally wrong, often problematic. You are not the words you define yourself by, and I am not the person with a disposition that can be captured by a written scene.
What makes me, me, and you, you, is how we connect to the ever-changing reality around us. It’s what we say-without-saying as we manipulate our understanding of a stimulus into a response, and what we embody as we move through the trials of space and time.
One of Hemingway’s most honest scenes takes form at the end of A Farewell to Arms, where after a period of fighting in the First World War, the main character illegally escapes its bounds. As we get to the last section of the novel, it’s just him and the woman he loves, pregnant with his child, without any of the brutality that has kept them apart until then. It’s quiet and beautiful.
There isn’t much room left at this point to take the story anywhere else, so what happens next is sudden. Catherine, the woman, goes into labor. It’s difficult; painful. Frederic, the main character, waits for as long as he has to until they give him the news: the baby is stillborn. Before he even has the time to process this, Catherine begins to hemorrhage.
In a flash of a moment, Frederic goes from having everything to nothing. There are no words that can do what he experiences any justice. The world has nothing to offer but silence. When the inevitable occurs, he ignores what the nurses tell him he can and can’t do, walking into the hospital room to hold Catherine’s lifeless body. And this, finally, is where Hemingway reveals himself, ending with the least satisfying final line I’ve ever read:
“After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”
That’s it. There is no closure. There is no attempt at making sense of what is essentially senseless. There is just him, the hotel, and the rain.
This ending is unsatisfying because it’s real; more real than the string of words that contain it. We don’t get to know what happens next because it doesn’t matter what exactly happens next. If we tried to define it, we would lose the thing that makes it hurt; the thing that makes that character who he is; the thing that, perhaps, makes Hemingway who he is.
Now, maybe it’s naive to impose on a writer his person-hood more from what he didn’t hint at the end of a fictional novel than from the words and the sentences he explicitly wrote about his life. But applied to Hemingway, I don’t suspect that’s true. His famous iceberg theory states that “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water,” and writing — like an iceberg — gains not from what is apparent on the surface, but from what is spoken between the lines. The ocean below what’s visible shapes more of the current than the waves on top.
Within this ocean, there exists a world we can’t talk about in any satisfying way without distorting the essence that makes it true. It’s complex and multi-dimensional, extracting its meaning not from any singular cause but from a confluence of partial interactions between a chaotic set of axioms. The more you try to define it, the more it eludes you. The closer you get to its trail, the further away it begins to move.
What we are left with, then, is a dichotomy: a) we have the waves on top, which we can define fairly well with our words, and b) we have the undefined space below the surface that continually affects those waves. The trouble, naturally, is that we often impose too many of the characteristics associated with what we know onto what we don’t know.
None of us can understand the depth of the ocean — or what makes a person who they are — by trying to see it through a myopic lens (with the words we use to talk about ourselves) because the connection is illusory. The only honest way to truly see what we can’t talk about is to watch the space that maintains its silence: to observe what is embodied in the omission and to look at what is happening in the world rather than getting caught up in futile attempts at describing it.
When you finally do this, a pleasant sincerity unveils itself: you realize that silence has its own sound, and it creates words in its own rhythm, and once you learn to speak its language, it tells you everything that the conceptual alphabet can’t verbalize into meaning.
More and more, we live in a world where we are defined by who we say we are rather than who we really are. It seems like we would rather talk than do the work required to understand what it is that we truly embody. It’s easier to speak than to be silent, of course, so not only do we never observe the space that we need to observe to see the truth, but we don’t even give ourselves the chance to create it to begin with.
In leaving Frederic as he does, Hemingway makes no effort to hide behind false words. He puts it to us to read between the lines and to interpret what little there is left of the story. His silence doesn’t tell us anything specific about the character because he knows that his words have reached their limit. The character is as he is, and he will do as he does, as he deals with reality.
Hemingway wasn’t the first to intentionally employ such techniques in his work. Even in the visual arts, the concept has a name: negative space — the area we find around the subject of a piece; the area that gives form to what exists to be highlighted. What Hemingway did do, however, as he showed himself, was cement its association with the edifice of truth.
We can spend our whole life describing ourselves without seeing who we truly are. In the process, we may even uncover every answer to every question our mind can formulate. But the only answer that matters doesn’t have a corresponding question. It lives in what we can’t talk about.