Apr/May 2006 ´ Miscellaneous

Hemingway: Christian Manqué

by Gary Sloan

After the publication in 1952 of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, with its climactic image of the fisherman Santiago, hands lacerated, shouldering his cross-like mast, the role of Jesus Christ in Hemingway's fiction began to attract attention. The Passion, it was said, offered Hemingway an intelligible and powerful metaphor of the human condition: We are all condemned to suffer and to die. What matters is how we conduct ourselves in the face of the inevitable. Hemingway's conception of Jesus, it has been suggested, was shaped by once-voguish "Lives of Christ," where, in his dying hour, Jesus was customarily portrayed as the arch-exemplar of heroic manhood.

This is poet Ezra Pound's Jesus, a man's man who "cried not a cry when they drave the nails." It is also the resolute and imperturbable Jesus of Hemingway's early playlet "Today Is Friday." Here, Jesus merges with Hemingway's "code hero"--a tough, self-defined individual who rolls with the punches. Santiago, Nick Adams, Harry Morgan, Robert Jordan, Frederic Henry--each of these Hemingway heroes is linked with a stoical crucified Christ.

While the link is significant, it is by no means the only nexus between the Hemingway hero and Jesus. Lieutenant Frederic Henry, a young American serving with an Italian ambulance unit in World War I and the narrator of Hemingway's acclaimed novel A Farewell to Arms, provides a more pervasive link is with what one might call the Sunday-school Jesus. This is neither the supernatural, second person of the Trinity nor the vengeful proponent of hellfire, but rather the meek and lowly patron of self-abnegation. Frederic Henry's inability to live up to the Christian ethic of utter selflessness produces a recurrent self-loathing and a brooding guilt: "You are the remorse boy," Lieutenant Rinaldi, an Italian surgeon and boon companion of Frederic, tells him.

In the novel, the ethical pronunciamentos of the Sunday-school Jesus are embodied in an unnamed priest attached to the ambulance unit. Subjected to the men's ribald taunts, the priest remains humble and self-effacing, a soft answer his defense against wrath. Frederic, who declines to participate in the priest-baiting, gravitates to the priest, so much so that Rinaldi kiddingly implies the two have a sexual relationship. The priest tutors Frederic in the ethical incumbencies of self-denial: "When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve."

While Frederic endorses the principle of self-denial, he has not the priest's success in acting upon it. Self-renunciation is something that, in his words, he is "always able to forget."

Frederic is baffled by the inefficacy of his moral resolve. He wonders, via St. Paul, why "we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things." When he opts to visit city brothels rather than the priest's homeland, the sacred Abruzzi, he feels "badly" about his choice. Dissolute nights produce "strange excitement," but, come dawn, the "niceness" vanishes, and he is glad to get out on the street. Rinaldi, who knows this "fine good Anglo-Saxon boy" better than Frederic knows himself, advises him that he cannot brush away harlotry or clean his conscience with a toothbrush. For Frederic, like the incontinent St. Augustine, the purchased pleasures of the evening are the sins of the morning.

From beginning to end, the diet of carnal pleasure leaves Frederic unsatisfied. "Good Christ I was hungry," he says in a characteristic double entendre, but he remains forever hollow. Ham and eggs, brandy, and beer do not assuage his incorporeal appetite. "I might become devout," he tells the cosmopolitan nonagenerian Count Greffi, but he never does.

Throughout the novel, Hemingway invites ironic comparisons between Frederic and Jesus. The comparisons tacitly point up Frederic's sense of moral deficiency, the disparity between his moral aspirations and his performance. Just before he is wounded, Frederic enacts a truncated version of the Lord's Supper:

I cut the cheese into pieces and laid them on the macaroni.

"Sit down to it," I said. They sat down and waited. I put thumb and fingers into the macaroni and lifted. A mass loosened. "Lift it high, Tenente [Lieutenant]." I lifted it to arm's length and the strands cleared. I lowered it into the mouth, sucked and snapped in the ends, and chewed, then took a bite of cheese, chewed, and then a drink of the wine. It tasted of rusty metal.

Not only is the sacrament corroded with inefficacy, it is a prelude to disaster. An explosion immediately ensues, Frederic and one of his men, Gavuzzi, lose their knees, and another soldier, Passini, is killed. Before Passini dies, he cries out to Frederic, "Oh Jesus shoot me Christ shoot me." As Savior Frederic prepares to make a tourniquet for the suppliant's leg, Passini expires. All Frederic can do for him is verify that he is dead.

Frederic's acts of charity sometimes have buffoonish results, like episodes from Romulus Linney's farcical Jesus Tales. Before Frederic is wounded, he devises a scheme to rescue from the unholy war a straggling soldier with a hernia: "You get out and fall down by the road and get a bump on your head and I'll pick you up on our way back and take you to a hospital," Frederic advises. Although the soldier does as Frederic bids, the ploy is ineffectual. Before Frederic can return, the injured man is picked up by his regiment. He will be operated on and then returned to the front. "Jesus Christ," the battered soldier says to Frederic, "ain't this a goddam war."

In a retreat from Caporetto, Frederic tries to expedite the exodus by taking side roads, but the roads all turn out blind. A car gets stuck, Frederic shoots a sergeant to whom he has given a lift, and another soldier is killed by his own troops. Later, lying in a barn near a stable, Frederic recalls his boyhood, when he shot sparrows with an air rifle (perhaps numbering each as it fell). Frederic is a bumbling savior: he has the power to hurt but not the power--nor at times the inclination--to heal. The point is made quite explicit near the end of the novel. When Frederic has "a splendid chance to be a messiah" to a colony of ants, he inexplicably lets them burn.

When his significant other, the English nurse Catherine Barkley, is dying, Frederic tries to be her pillar; instead, she has to bolster him: "I bent down over the bed and started to cry," he says. "Poor darling," soothes Catherine.

Unable to spit out the butt-ends of his days and ways, Frederic becomes the perennial schlemiel. In a league of good hitters, he "bats two hundred and thirty and knows he's no better." With his "ridiculous" Astra 7.65 pistol, he can't hit the broad side of a barn, and he feels shame when any countryman sees him with it. A St. Anthony medal is supposed to bring him luck, but he loses it. He backs a horse, named Light For Me, that finishes "fourth in a field of five." Even his salute feels phony: "It was impossible to salute [foreigners] without embarrassment." He is a "masquerader" and a "fake," a performer in a "comic opera." Like his namesake, opera singer Enrico DelCredo, he keeps waiting for something big to happen, but remains a colossal bust. While he waits, he seeks bestial oblivion. "Wine is a grand thing," he says. "It makes you forget all the bad." So do sleeping and not thinking, consummations he seeks devoutly and often.

Frederic's life is riddled with paradoxes. Although he has "always been happy," he feels "lonely and empty." He is "not made to think," but searches for "something to think about." He does "not care about the outward forms," but misses "the feeling of being held" by a uniform. He dreams of sultry nights with Catherine, then forgets they have a date. He is uninterested in his family, but worries if he talks about them. "Anxious to please," he is despised by nurses Van Campen and Ferguson. He is praised for lack of conceit and faulted for bragging. When scorned, he no longer picks fights, but he hones his pugilistic skills, speaks in the imperative mood, keeps train seats that are not his, gets angry when women spurn his amorous advances, shoots uncooperative sergeants, and kicks carabinieri in the shin and groin. When he deserts his unit, his separate peace leaves him unpacified: He would like to be in a unit called the Peace Brigade, but those in it would like to kill this hapless Prince of Peace. He says he has no religion, but he believes a son should be baptized. He prays, but disavows love of God, of whom he is afraid in the night. He aspires to be "gentle like Our Lord" and "become Christian" in defeat, but he does not believe in defeat, though he concedes that defeat may be better than victory.

Through Catherine, Frederic hopes to escape the disquieting contradictions. Their separate selves will fuse, and they will be one: "There isn't any me," she tells him. "I'm you. Don't make up a separate me." With their identities thus merged, he can love her as himself. She will be his religion even as he, she says, is hers. He will, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's great Gatsby, "wed his unutterable visions" to perishable flesh. He will no longer be "terrifically hungry."

It was, in the words of another Hemingway hero (Jake Barnes of The Sun Also Rises) "pretty to think so." Yet from start to finish, Frederic and Catherine are poor players in an elaborate masquerade of mutual deceit. What Frederic says in the opening phase of his relationship with Catherine is true to the final curtain: "This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards." Shortly after they meet, he tells her he has never loved anyone. Rarely thereafter does he exhibit an equal candor. The first time he swears he is made of truth, she eschews pretense. "Let's not lie when we don't have to," she tells him. Soon, they have to. To keep the elixir of passion potent, they must replenish it with vials of pretty falsehoods. Frederic's language betrays the nature of the enterprise. He speaks the hackneyed idiom of starry-eyed adolescence: "I'm crazy in love with you," "I'm just mad about you," "Everything turned over inside of me," "God knows I had not wanted to fall in love with her," "I felt faint with loving her." The breathless hyperbole, conspicuously discordant with Frederic's usual laconic restraint, bespeaks an unquiet desperation.

Although Hemingway once characterized A Farewell to Arms as his "Romeo and Juliet story," in retrospect, if not along the way, Frederic recognizes that he and Catherine have a sublunary lovers' love. At the races, when she asks him whether he likes being alone with her, away from the entourage, he answers "yes," but shortly the truth outs: "After we had been alone awhile we were glad to see the others again." In Montreux, after they seal their pact of oneness by agreeing to fall asleep "at exactly the same moment," Frederic violates the pact by staying "awake for quite a long time thinking about things." In their Edenic garden--they spend a lot of time in or near gardens--the little weeds of routinized domesticity begin to sprout. His comments, ostensibly playful, develop a hard edge. "You say it so cautiously . . . as though you didn't want to offend anyone," he says in response to a soft rejoinder. When she wants to talk, he is incommunicative:

"What are you thinking, darling?"
"About whiskey."
"What about whiskey?"
"About how nice it is." Catherine made a face.
"All right," she said.

He dislikes the beard he grows at her behest, and she plans to cut the luxuriant hair he likes to lie tangled in. When she voices her intent, his response is characteristic. He registers discontent via silence and then, deferring to the protocol of charity, feigns acquiescence:

I did not say anything.
"You won't say I can't, will you?"
"No, I think it would be exciting."

While Frederic was hospitalized with the damaged knee, Helen Ferguson, Catherine's friend, with Cassandra-ish insight, prophesied the future of Frederic's affair with Catherine:

"Will you come to our wedding, Fergy?" I said to her once.
"You'll never get married."
"We will."
"No you won't."
"Why not?"
"You'll fight before you'll marry."
"We never fight."
"You've time yet."
"We don't fight."
"You'll die then. That's what people do. They don't marry."

Catherine's death (she dies of a hemorrhage shortly after having given birth to a dead baby) keeps the fighting--and the boredom--inchoate. The affair is exempted from the crucible of time. But all along a deadly undertow has swirled beneath the innocent surface. In a bar in Stresa, Frederic, with unconscious irony, identifies the problem. Before he met Catherine, his life, he says, was "full of everything." Now he has only her. Unable through romantic love to achieve selflessness, he feels imprisoned. While he and Catherine lie awake in their room in Montreux, he notes "the bars on the window-panes." Later, in their hotel in Lausanne, he sees through the window "a wet garden with a wall topped by an iron fence."

The cynical Rinaldi, not Catherine, is Frederic's true alter ego. Rinaldi is consciously what Frederic is unconsciously--or what he will become. "You are just like me underneath," Rinaldi tells Frederic: "All fire and smoke and nothing inside." Although Frederic denies the characterization, he concedes that he and Rinaldi "understood each other very well." Rinaldi recognizes the fragility of romantic illusions. He is the "snake of reason" in lovers' gardens. "You're dry and you're empty and there's nothing else," he tells Frederic. Despite the jaded posturing, Rinaldi, like Frederic, yearns to be what he sardonically says he is: pure.

Frederic seeks immunity to Rinaldi's cynicism, but the surgeon prophesies that Frederic will catch it anyway. He mocks Frederic's aspirations to moral perfection: "I am like you," he says, "call me Rinaldo Purissimo." By novel's end, Frederic and Rinaldi have undergone a psychological merger. Each has eaten the fruit of knowledge, and each now knows the way it is. The primal Eden is inaccessible. The wall of egoism, Frederic discovers, is impregnable: it can be neither scaled nor breached.

Although in mapping out the plot, Hemingway distanced himself from Frederic, the two are psychologically close. Hemingway himself seems fully to have subscribed to an ethic of self-abnegation, though he honored it more often in the breach than the observance. The image of the Sunday-school Jesus was imprinted early on the choirboy in Oak Park's First Congregational Church and, at sixteen, stalwart pillar of the Plymouth League for young people. At eighteen, making his way in Kansas City as a cub reporter for the Star, Hemingway effusively assured his anxious mother that he was still in the fold: "Don't worry or cry or fret about my not being a good Christian. I am just as much as ever and pray every night and believe just as hard so cheer up!"

But within the year he was, he regaled a friend, "hitting it up with about 18 martinis a day" and entertaining lascivious thoughts about nurses. Soon, he was blithely invoking sweet "Jo heesus" and lacing his speech with manly "gaoddams." As the years wore on, his letters to friends and associates show, the callow naughtiness evolved into chronic irreverence. Becoming increasingly splenetic, he felt benetted round with villainies. Editors were "dried up old bitches," reviewers full of "crap," "wordy, sentimental bastards," while fellow writers were, he said with comparative civility, merely "hampered by lack of intelligence." By the time Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms (at twenty-nine), the nasty streak that later suppurated into full-fledged paranoia, culminating in his suicide, had become broad and deeply imbued. Soon, even Jo heesus came in for it. "Remember," Hemingway told fellow novelist John Dos Passos, "our Lord yellowed out on the cross and was only successful because they killed him."

The curmudgeonly strain was accompanied by bouts of remorse and asseverations of atonement. "I wish I could wipe out all my meanness," he told Harold Loeb. To F. Scott Fitzgerald, his steadfast confessor, Hemingway wrote: "Jesus Christ, some time I'd like to grow up," and "Christ nose [sic] that when I cant sleep I have enough sons of bitching things I've done to look back on." In such moods, the erstwhile choirboy, chastened and prayerful, re-emerges. He assured Pauline Pfeiffer, his wife-to-be: "I pray for you hours every night and every morning when I wake up." He also interceded for his soon-to-be ex-wife, Hadley, "I pray God always that he will make up to you the very great hurt that I have done you." With unfeigned pride, he told his family how he taught his young son "all his prayers in English" and took him to church on Sunday. Hemingway's well-known irascibility, observed biographer Carlos Baker, was counterpoised by a "ready sympathy for the ailing, the bereaved, and the downtrodden." But such displays of sympathy were at best intermittent.

In a chapter titled "The Sins of Christianity" in Atheism: The Case Against God, George H. Smith says: "Christianity thrives on guilt. Guilt, not love is the fundamental emotion that Christianity seeks to induce—and this is symptomatic of a viciousness in Christianity that few people care to acknowledge." This inculcation of guilt was played out in the lives of both Hemingway and Frederic Henry. Each was torn between rational self-interest and irrational self-immolation. Fortunately, great novelists can transform the foibles of religion into artistic virtues.


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