Metaphor(m) and Foundational Metaphors in Ernest Hemingway

by Mark Staff Brandl

To Gasquet, [Cézanne] said: “While being the first to work in my way, I want to stay simple. Those who know are simple ...” Hemingway had become aware that the strategies Cézanne had developed in the second half of the 19th century in order to transpose nature into art proved to be largely parallel to what the Modernists were trying to realize within literature in the nineteen-twenties. That he saw this parallel enabled him to create literary landscapes which belong to the best in twentieth century fiction. Thomas Hermann 1

The novelist Ernest Hemingway is renowned for the apparent straightforwardness of his literary manner. While his style is clean and unornamented, this is the result of a refined yet involved metaphor(m), one not so easy to demonstrate schematically. Therefore, his work offers a rich and surprising case study. Similar to the analysis of van Gogh I did in a previous article, a pursuit of Hemingway’s central trope serves well as an example of my theory in use.

In the development of his metaphor(m) Hemingway, as most other creators, had an agon, an antithetical battle with his personal precursor. This was not, as he claimed, with Steven Crane; that was purposeful misdirection, a pretense most likely largely inwardly directed. Harold Bloom asserts an important fact concerning artistic lineage. “No poet, I amend that to no strong poet, can choose his precursor, any more than any person can choose his father.” 2 Hemingway cannot decide to be the son of Crane, as much as he strove to avow and probably even believe this. Upon close study, it becomes obvious that his real struggle was with a conglomerate figure of a precursor composed in equal parts of Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein. Anderson represented the realist and regionalist strain of Hemingway’s desire. Stein was the penultimate Modernist, avant-garde and experimental. Many critics of the period believed realism and modernism to be irreconcilable. Yet, Hemingway managed to perform this impossible blend through his struggle with these specific figures. Most of this author’s remarkable achievements are complex and seemingly unattainable when considered in isolation from achieved fact. Bloom asserts that the greatest American poets, which we may extend to mean authors and artists in general, “make impossible and self-contradictory demands upon both their readers and themselves.” 3

The painter Paul Cézanne pointed the way for this novelist. It has often been noted, and thoroughly scrutinized by Thomas Hermann, that Hemingway “wished to write like Cézanne painted.” 4 The novelist was extremely visually oriented. Hemingway was “a man to whom the sense of vision was of the utmost importance. His writing was, from early on, influenced by paintings.” 5 Cezanne had overcome a conflict comparable to that which faced the author. This painter took the atmospheric touch of Impressionism and created its opposite—an art of solid construction. He forged a style which is clear, simple and avant-garde by making the strokes building-block-like, by forming space purely through structured color (not a play of light as in Impressionism), and by finding geometric simplicity in the essential shapes of objects, landscapes and people. Cézanne’s willful and original misprision of his Impressionist forerunners was the analogy freeing Hemingway to accomplish his own necessary interpretive contortion.

The author’s tools were many, but two are most important. The first is his often discussed use of metonymy instead of metaphor. 6 The second is the chiastic structuring in his prose, which is less renowned yet equally important. This later insight is a recent gift to us from Max Nänny and his students, most notably Thomas Hermann. 7 Metonymy emphasizes context; it is profoundly useful in realistic endeavors. It supplies an author with “natural symbols,” or “context-sensitive” analogies.8 Metonymy is a clear, simple, real-world oriented trope. It avoids the extravagance of metaphor, which is tainted through its propagandistic misuse by authority figures such as politicians, businessmen, religious and military leaders. Extravagant metaphor is often used in lies and romantic rabble-rousing. Here, we can think of the amplified, aggressive, ostentatious metaphors of Nazis, both neo- and historical. Considering such modern misuse of rhetoric, Hemingway was exemplary in his “fear of abstractions,” a phrase Hermann borrows from Ezra Pound.9 Metonymy surfaces in many elements of Hemingway’s works: descriptions, vocabulary, dialogue and even characters’ appellations. In A Farewell to Arms various figures are identified by Hemingway in this fashion, such as “the man with the garlic,” or “the men of the anti-aircraft gun.” In a famous passage in the same novel, the character Lt. Frederic Henry describes Hemingway’s view of language.

There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates. Ernest Hemingway 10

As exhibited in this quotation, metonymy is a “context-sensitive” tool. Because of this, Hemingway was able to use it to create “natural symbols,” that is, images which can be read as naturalistic details, yet also may be imaginatively expanded by the reader to the level of metaphor. 11 A realistic description of Santiago sleeping in The Old Man and the Sea can also be interpreted as a visual image of the crucifixion, symbolically making the old fisherman a Christ-figure in his tragic, yet heroic, suffering.

Inside the shack he leaned the mast against the wall. In the dark he found a water bottle and took a drink. Then he lay down on the bed. He pulled the blanket over his shoulders and then over his back and legs and he slept face down on the newspapers with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up. Ernest Hemingway 12

Whereas metonymy is Hemingway’s cardinal rhetorical figure, chiastic structures are the principal building-blocks of his prose. A chiasmus, also termed a chiasm, is a patterning device in which symmetry is achieved by following the first half of a linguistic unit with a parallel of its form in reverse. This is typically described diagrammatically as ABBA, 1–2–3:3–2–1, ABCD:X:DCBA, or the like. Most frequently this involves a repetition of words, however a chiasmus “may be manifested on any level of the text or (often) on multiple levels at once: phonological (sound-patterning), lexical or morphological (word repetition;...), syntactic (phrase- or clause-construction) or semantic/thematic.” 13

Chiastic patterning is one predominant formal technique in the Bible. It appears in the discussions of almost every book in The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. Shakespeare’s works and the King James Version of the Bible are the two columns supporting any English speaker’s world, whether recognized or not. The Bible is, of course, the weightier member of this pair, especially for an American, Shakespeare the more psychological. Not only is chiasmus a foundational element of sentence structure in the poetry of the Old Testament, but longer passages, whole sections, images and even underlying subtexts and meanings can be chiastic. This occurs, for example, on a grand scale in chiasmata of polarity in the first books of the Bible.

The first division in Genesis 1 was that between light and darkness. This polarity continues powerfully throughout Exodus and beyond. On its journey through the desert, Israel is protected and led by a column of smoke or a cloud during the day and a column of fire at night, as signs of God’s presence. These are the virtuoso effects of the master of polarities, who has thus created a chiasm: light in darkness, darkness in light. These polarities occur at strategic points in the composition: in chapter 14, where the division between Israel and Egypt becomes definite, around and in the Red Sea (13:21–22 and 14:19–20), and also in 10:23, 19:18, and 20:18, where smoke and fire dramatize the theophany on the holy mountain; in 33:9–11a, in front of the tabernacle of the congregation, where the cloud appears only in order to screen from the people Moses’ contact with God; and preeminently in the climatic moment at the conclusion of the book (40:34–38), where the full polarity, day/night = fire/cloud, appears and marks how “the glory of YHWH filled the tabernacle” (v. 35b). J.P. Fokkelman 14

Biblical chiasmata appear quite visibly in the poetic parallelism of sentences formed by pairs of phrases. This can be displayed in Psalm 1:6, as diagrammed in The Bible as Literature by John B. Gabel, Charles B. Wheeler and Anthony D. York, (see figure below): 15

Biblical chiasmata chart