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 “APPRECIATE THE MUSHROOMS COMPLETELY”:
  HEMINGWAY'S MISSED MESSAGE

I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.

—Death in the Afternoon

Myopically focused on moral trivia, some critics have ignored the larger issues of Hemingway’s work and his primary message: carpe diem–tempus fugit.  We must seize the day; time flies and death is ever at hand.  Overlooking the obscene moral morass of modern warfare, critics have chosen to make judgments on issues of language and sexuality while missing the wisdom of Hemingway’s sensual focus.  In this discussion, we will briefly examine the novels that best demonstrate our points: A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls.  Both novels include a backdrop of war and carnage that is often overlooked, and both novels involve an intimate sexual relationship that receives a disproportionate share of criticism.  Lastly, both novels celebrate the wisdom of sensuality–the thoughtful enjoyment of all our senses in the face of inevitable, approaching death.

The initial reaction to Farewell is a good starting point for our discussion.  Scott Donaldson tells us that “Max Perkins was particularly concerned about the language of the novel…was worried about the probable outrage of readers unaccustomed to seeing such words in print.”  Donaldson goes on to summarize the major complaints against Farewell: vulgar language, sympathetic portrayal of an illicit love affair, graphic detail of Catherine’s death, and insufficient condemnation of Frederic for deserting the Italian army.  This last complaint is a classic example of the inverted moral priorities that are often applied to these two novels.  Western morality so enshrines warfare and so denigrates sexuality that Frederic is judged not for his participation in the atrocities of The Great War, but for his abandonment of its insanity for a sensual relationship with Catharine.

A basic familiarity with history will reveal the hideous nature of World War I.  The effects of mustard gas were so terrible (blisters in the respiratory system, vomiting blood, etc.) that the Geneva Convention was initiated, in part, to outlaw such heinous weaponry.  These facts were overlooked by an “outraged gentleman from Maine” who compared Farewell to a still life of souring milk, rotting vegetables, and moldy bread.  While this comparison may be interesting, full of death and decay, it misses the point entirely.  Intended to condemn the language of the novel and denigrate its unashamed sexuality, this complaint unconsciously touches on one of Hemingway’s major themes–death.  In light of the carnage of war and the certainty of death, this condemnation of simple sensuality can hardly be taken seriously.

Though most critics praised the novel, those who condemned it focused on such trivial issues as coarse language, army desertion, and the sexual behavior of an unmarried couple.  Even Scribner’s, in a careful statement defending Farewell as a “distinctly moral” story, felt compelled to be dismissive about the sensual nature of Frederic and Caherine’s love: “a fine and faithful love, born, it is true, of physical desire.”  This defense did little to thwart the plans of some censors however.  As is usually the case in issues of attempted censorship, Boston’s police chief Michael Crowley inadvertently promoted Scribner’s serialization of the novel when he had it banned from the newsstands.  Chicago novelist Robert Herrick wrote about Farewell in a 1929 Bookman article entitled “What Is Dirt?” where he referred to the sexual relationship between Frederic and Catherine as an insignificant lustful indulgence comparable to the copulation of animals.  These early reactions are mirrored, though in muted form, by modern critics of the novel.  Few, it seems, have the courage to applaud Frederic’s sensual persuasion.

Frederic muses: “I was not made to think.  I was made to eat.  My God, yes.  Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine.”  William Wasserstrom, in a 1983 critique, dismisses this basic sensual desire to enjoy food and sleep with Catherine: “That may be occupation enough for a besotted lover but it’s not signification enough for an ambitious novel.”  He goes on to discuss the need for Catharine and Frederic to “sanctify their affair” with a traditional marriage.  In a refreshing break from such shallow moral judgments, Bryant Mangum sees that Hemingway’s characters act in accordance with “his belief that the only things in life that one can know about with certainty are those things that can be verified through the senses…as Frederic can verify that being next to Catherine feels good.”

A long digression about the origin of dualistic morality is not necessary to understand the skewed priorities with which Hemingway’s novels are usually judged.  We need look no further than our Puritan forefathers to understand our penchant to slander the sensual.  Following in the footsteps of the Mathers of Massachusetts, twentieth century critics also overlook important moral issues and ignore the significant biographical foundations for Hemingway’s message.  Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we maximize minor issues, straining out the moral “gnats” while swallowing the “camels.”  Sensuality is not the problem–war is.

World War I affected Hemingway profoundly.  According to Sandra Whipple Spanier, “Hemingway spent nearly the entire decade following the war writing about it.”  He was constantly reminded of the immanence of death and the insanity of Western moral priorities.  Nearly being blown up at night at the Austrian front, his father’s suicide, Harry Crosby’s suicide, and Fitzgerald’s death are just a few of the real life experiences he had that helped him develop a more practical set of moral priorities.

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway hints at his own war experience when a hospital orderly tries to decorate an unwilling Frederic.  “Tell me exactly what happened.  Did you do any heroic act?” To which Frederic replies, “No, I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”  This answer is amusing, but also revealing of Hemingway’s sensual morality.  Frederic Henry was more interested in experiencing the cheese as one of the few (and possibly last) pleasures of his wartime life than he was in having his ego boosted with combat medals.  Before this scene, we learn that immediately after a shell explodes nearby, Frederic asks what there is to eat.  When the next shell comes a little closer, Frederic and Gordini run for cover.  Even when staring into the grinning face of death, Hemingway’s characters revel in their senses: “I was after him, holding the cheese, its smooth surface covered with brick dust.”

Death and the sensual experience of life are often juxtaposed in Hemingway’s novels.  After running for cover (cheese in hand), Frederic and his fellow soldiers sit in their bunker smoking, drinking wine and eating cheese, not allowing their fear of death to cheat them of any pleasure.  Discounting the lists of sensory details provided by Hemingway, critics like Wasserstrom feel that “none of these either singly or collectively invite further evaluation,” and thus miss the point of the code.  When the next shell hits their bunker, Frederic gives an account of what is now called an NDE–near death experience.  Describing the sensation of rushing out of his body, floating in the wind, and sliding back into his physical form, Frederic’s description precludes the objections by anti-sensualists that his morality is merely a material hedonism.  There is something of spirit in Frederic Henry that often gets overlooked.  It shows up here in his near death, and it is portrayed later in his gradually increasing devotion to the pregnant Catherine.

During their hotel rendezvous, Frederic quotes Marvell’s famous lines: “But at my back I always hear / Times winged chariot hurrying near,” revealing his motivation.  Catherine realizes the brevity of life earliest in the novel when she discusses her dead fiancée, but Frederic has his own realization of impending death now. As the story progresses, Catherine increases her appreciation of sensuality, and Frederic increases his appreciation of spirituality.  Though he feels “trapped biologically” by his appetites, Frederic begins to realize the religious nature of his love thanks to the balanced advice of Count Greffi.

Spanier’s essay focuses on the heroism and growth of Catherine while it maintains the inverted priorities that have traditionally applied to the novel.  Because of this Spanier, like many critics, cannot acknowledge growth in Frederic much beyond his early, lustful “chess game.”  The end of the novel betrays their prejudice as Frederic grows in his love for Catherine and even acknowledges her heroism and strength.  He has developed his sensual attraction into a spiritual devotion without giving up either one.  Both characters are heroic in their own ways.  The fact of Catherine’s death only serves to magnify the importance of Frederic’s carpe diem morality and heighten the sadness of the insane war in which they meet.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway has the same message.  Again, many critics miss the point.  A. Robert Lee, for example, while discussing a letter Hemingway wrote to Max Perkins, overlooks the life and death emphasis of Hemingway’s words to discourse on the credibility of Robert Jordan’s perspective.  In the letter, Hemingway points out that Jordan is lying in the pine needles, experiencing the moment, in the beginning and at the end of the story.  Hemingway comments on how Jordan really lives his life in the few days contained in the novel and how his impending death brings him no fear.  Though Lee seems to miss this point, Jordan’s testimony is credible because, like any of us, he must decide the best way to spend his life before it is over.  He is more credible because he does respond, appropriately, to the reality of death.  He enjoys the moment, he savors sensual experience, and he does his duty.

Although For Whom the Bell Tolls is similar in many ways to Farewell, the later novel seems to have been written with extra doses of realistic, some might say profane, language, sensuality, and violence as if to highlight the issues that readers and critics have consistently overlooked or misjudged.  While it is certainly true that Bell came out when public standards had relaxed a bit since the moral uproar caused by Farewell, the increased detail given to expressions of lust and violence indicate that Hemingway heightened the relief for those who didn’t get his message the first time.  There is little in Farewell to match Pilar’s description in Bell of the killing of the civil guard in the Spanish Civil War:

…they were shouting and clubbing and stabbing and men were screaming as horses scream in a fire.  And I saw the priest with his skirts tucked up scrambling over a bench and those after him were chopping at him with  the sickles and the reaping hooks…

If we are to take Hemingway as a serious artist, we can hardly pass this description off as gratuitous violence inserted because of relaxing standards.  To contrast this barbarous insanity, Hemingway also provides more graphic detail of the sexual relationship between Robert Jordan and the beautiful, nubile Maria:

He felt her trembling as he kissed her and he held the length of her body tight to him and felt her breasts against the chest through the two khaki shirts, he felt them small and firm and he reached and undid the buttons on her shirt…

Imagine the paroxysms of condemnation that scenes like this might have provoked from those who found the comparatively mild Farewell too much for their taste.  Frederic and Catherine may have been considered “loose” for being sexual outside of marriage, but at least Hemingway didn’t provide the uncomfortable details!

Faith Pullin acknowledges, “What impresses the reader is (not Jordan’s political or social awakening but) Hemingway’s conviction that the only truth is in physical sensation,” yet she dismisses these experiences as invalid.  In her analysis of the novel, Pullin feels obligated to mock the relationship between Robert and Maria.  Finding their sleeping bag intimacy amusing, Pullin doubts the depth of Robert’s love.  She does not see the precarious balance he must strike between love and duty; thus it appears to her that Robert’s love can be “switched on and off at will.”  Pullin realizes Hemingway’s emphasis on the sensual, but seems to miss its significance: “What Hemingway seems to pursue in his writing is the physical epiphany in which the ‘event’ is the sensation itself and the people – if present at all – are merely part of the background.” 

This emphasis on “physical epiphany” is a major connection between Farewell and Bell.  As Hemingway prepares us for an erotically charged scene between Jordan and Maria (quoted above), he warms us up with a list of Jordan’s sensations.  Sensuality is not just about sex:

They were walking through the heather of the mountain meadow and Robert Jordan felt the brushing of the heather against his legs, felt the weight of his pistol in its holster against his thigh, felt the sun on his head, felt the breeze from the snow of the mountain peaks cool in his back and, in his hand, he felt the girl’s hand firm and strong, the fingers locked in his. (italics mine)

Hemingway tells us that “all his life” Jordan would remember the curve of Maria’s throat.  This fate, however, is not tragic because these three days are lived to the fullest, each sensation noticed, appreciated, enjoyed.  Robert and Maria make love, and he is transported to a mystical “nowhere” (repeated eleven times) reminiscent of the “little death” of orgasm, after which he returns to an enjoyment of his other senses.  The word “nowhere” can also be read as “now here” a clever Hemingway double entendre.  The smell of the heather, the roots, and the earth; the feel of sun and the scratchy sensations on his shoulders are all completely appreciated by Robert Jordan.

Like Frederic Henry, Jordan is fully engaged in his senses, but Jordan seems to be more cognizant of the wisdom of this choice.  After considering his involvement in the Republican cause and the ethical issues involved, Jordan ponders his other responsibility: “But in the meantime all the life you have or ever will have is today, tonight, tomorrow, today, tonight, tomorrow over and over again (I hope) he thought and so you had better take what time there is and be very thankful for it.”

As Stephen Cooper notes, “Jordan accepts the price (of war) not because he is callous, but because he is a realist who wants to know how things really are.”  Unlike Frederic, Jordan does not flee the tremendous burden of this responsibility, but like Frederic he keeps his attention focused on the present and his immediate experience.  Cooper comments: “Throughout the novel, he tries to avoid questions of belief and ideology and not think about anything except his immediate duties and responsibilities.”  Robert Jordan is more mature than Frederic, but he never abandons the solid foundation of sensual experience of the moment.  Abandonment of this sensible code would be a betrayal of his humanity.

Robert Jordan does not only look out for himself, however.  Mangum observes that Jordan represents a period in which “Hemingway shifted away from what many consider the hedonistic value system of Jake, Brett, Frederic, and Catherine…to a concern with the collective, almost spiritual value of human life.”  Jordan’s involvement with the guerillas brings discipline and encouragement to their bare bones fight for freedom.  He is a middle class American who has given up a life of safety and privilege to fight alongside Spanish peasants.  He is a fighter, but not without compassion.  Though he is encouraged to kill Pablo before he becomes a problem, Jordan delays until Pablo does become a problem and even then Jordan does not kill him.  He lets Pablo live, forgives his betrayal, and figures out ways to make use of Pablo’s talents for the cause. 

Hemingway emphasizes carpe diem sensuality with the location of the guerilla fighters.  They are located, significantly, in a cave – in the heart of the earth.  This is no accident as the earth is often associated with sensuality, both involving chthonic overtones for a frightened humanity.  For those who are comfortable with the chthonic, as the partisans are with their cave, there is no terror of the mysterious unknown.  However, part of our Western inability to appreciate and enjoy the sensual is our fear of a Dionysian loss of control.  The Book of James tell us that earthly wisdom is “sensual and devilish,” so we are conditioned to fear it.  We imagine a safety in our Apollonian attempts at control that does not exist in reality.  All too often, these ways have brought us the carnage of war that Hemingway uses so effectively as a contrasting background to the balanced sensuality that his characters enjoy.

When Maria is discussing her first sexual experience with Robert, she says, “the earth moved” and upon being pressed for details by Pilar, replies, “Truly, it was a thing I cannot tell thee.”  This inability to describe the experience is further evidence of the chthonic which connects Hemingway’s sensual emphasis to early mystery cults.  These ancient religions focused on the experience of the individual and believed sexual pleasure to be sacred.  The “mystery” of mystery religions was not that they were secret, but that, like Maria’s experience, they could not be communicated

Robert Jordan casts his thoughts back to this ancient, chthonic past when he considers:         

Nobody knows what tribes we came from nor what our tribal inheritance is nor what the mysteries were in the woods wherethe people lived where we came from.  All we know is that we do  not know.  We know nothing about what happens to us in the nights.  When it happens in the day though, it is something.

In his interior monologue, Jordan displays the wisdom of Socrates and acknowledges that we cannot know what comes “in the nights” but that what we experience in our day of life is worthwhile.  Our sensual experiences are our birthright and our life rite.  They are for our enjoyment and our healing.  As Lee notes, Maria’s fascist rape is “a past hurt healed and redeemed through (her) present intimacy” with Robert Jordan.

Later in the story when he is discussing a snowstorm with Pablo, Robert Jordan further identifies with the earth and revels in his experience of her, “He was excited by this storm as he was always by all storms.  In a blizzard, a gale, a sudden line squall, a tropical storm, or a summer thunder shower in the mountains there was an excitement that came to him from no other thing.”  Though his erotic experiences with Maria are powerful, they are by no means the only powerful sensuality he encounters.

As with Frederic Henry, Robert Jordan’s sensuality is a survival mechanism that allows him to immerse himself in the moment and temporarily escape the chaos he can never control.  It is Jordan’s attention to his present that leaves him able to die peacefully and without fear.        

Hemingway’s lust for life was something people found striking about him; he lived the philosophy he espoused in his novels.  Live now.  Enjoy now.  Seize opportunity.  Do not fear death.  Perhaps this is why, though some find it cowardly, Hemingway was able to choose his own time of departure without fanfare or fear. His legacy is one of exuberant life.  A. E. Hotchner remembers his first meeting with Ernest Hemingway:

Something about him hit me – enjoyment: God, I thought, how he’s enjoying himself!  I had never seen anyone with such an aura of fun and well being.  He radiated it and everyone in the place responded.

Through A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway tries to share with us all a basic, sensible approach to life based on human experience.  No fancy doctrines, no ethereal theologies, just simple experience. If we can see past conventional moral blinders we are more likely to appreciate the message of Hemingway and see the value of a life full of satisfying sensual experiences like Jordan and Maria had:

Robert Jordan looked at Maria and shook his head.  She sat down by him and put her arm around his shoulder.  Each knew how the other felt and they sat there and Robert Jordan ate the stew, taking time to appreciate the mushrooms completely, and he drank the wine and they said nothing.

This message is more relevant now than ever before to citizens of the nuclear, terrorist age.

Referring to the primitive air power used in the Spanish Civil War, Augustin says to Pilar: “In this war there is an idiocy without bounds.”  Imagine what he might say today in our post-9/11 world.  Certainly, Hemingway was right; we must savor our moments while we have them, for we cannot forget one thing: that Bell continues to toll…

August 2003

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