Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hemingway and The Lost Generation

Origin of the Term
Hemingway made the words “the lost generation” famous by prominently displaying them on the title cover of The Sun Also Rises. It is reported that Gertrude Stein had used these words by saying “you are all a lost generation”. Hemingway had reacted to this particular definition by saying that they were as solid as any other generation and the words “lost generation” were a piece of high bombast.

The term “lost generation” is generally applied to those who had actively participated in the First World War and as a consequence of this had realised that life was meaningless. The importance of the First World War in the dethronement of moral and religious values cannot be over-emphasised. Those who had gone to the War had gone under the impression that war was an occasion to seek glory and assert one’s manhood. It was the First War in which machine had played a very important role, more important than the men who were fighting .the war. The unprecedented hatred of man shook their faith in the goodness of man and even the fact of their manhood. It was the first time that soldiers and generals alike had come to realise that they were helpless in the hands of the destructive weapons that they were using. The machines had become their masters instead of being their slaves. As a result of the domination of the machine over men, men had felt that they were extremely helpless, they were victims of a vast conspiracy in which machines and gods had conspired to strangle the individual’s freedom. They had moved from one trench to another in order to save their lives and when they were killed, they were killed by accident and they did mot have any chance whatsoever to show their courage or bravery which war is usually supposed to bring out in man.
Disillusionment After the War
The adolescent attitude with which the American youngman had gone to the war was bound to be replaced by disillusionment. This disillusionment could have taken either the shape of nihilism or a search for enduring values and absolutes. In the mechanised war there was no room whatsoever for the assertion of manhood or courage and bravery.
In a famous passage in A Farewell to Arms Hemingway brings out this disillusionment. In the rain, the words like honour, glory, patriotism seemed obscene to him and what was real were the names of regiments, streets, and towns. He had realised that the politicians had been indulging in a game of slogan-mongering without having understood what the war was about. The hollowness of the politician’s rhetoric was so apparent to all the youngmen who had risked their lives for the sake of their country that they had not thought desirable even to challenge it. Generals found it difficult to control and guide the men whom they were leading. They pushed them around and thought that the troops were there to be killed. Human life was completely devalued in this mechanised war. Whatever planning they did was undone by the unexpected development in the war. Not that the unexpected element was non-existent in previous wars but the impact that it made was far stronger than any in the past. When the Generals found that they could not lead their men honourably they mal-treated them and the American Generals became further disillusioned with the top military bosses.
Death of Older Values
The “lost generation” is the name given to these youngmen who had refused to look at the world through the rose-coloured glasses. Most of these men were highly perceptive and intelligent. The war had thrown them on their own resources to make a world which would be meaningful and significant in their own terms. Christianity which had provided a stable framework before the impact of Darwinism was already tottering when the war shook its foundation completely. The Puritan ethic was no longer valid for a world which was extremely unstable. The old sentimental attachment to the “stars and stripes” or the royalty or a political party was to be replaced by something more solid and reliable which, in act, did not exist and could not exist until it had been proved worthy of being respected through empirical contact with reality.
Birth of New Values
All these youngmen had one basic common trait and that was ‘honesty’. They wanted to be true to their emotions and feelings because only in this way could they learn what was of an enduring nature. They had seen the hollowness, of high-sounding slogans and therefore all slogans were suspect. They had, also seen death from very close quarters which was not a pleasant thing to those who were brought up in the Victorian tradition. They had learnt that the realities of life, as they had emerged from the chaos of the First World War, were harsh. Their solutions were to be an answer to the question : “How should one live in world which was chaotic, structureless, and from which God had disappeared leaving man to rule this world by himself ?”
A Life of the Senses
This war-time morality was carried over by these youngmen to their peace-time activities. They gathered on the Left Bank in Paris in cafes and bars where they sought relief from their inner turmoil in drink and sex. The sacredness of love and sex was no longer respected by them. Sex was just another opiate like drink. Their loyalty to themselves was one major trait that bound them together because only, in the stench of their comrades did they find any security. Hemingway’s twin novels The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms celebrate the, conditions that led to this disillusionment and how man sought desperately to clutch at straws in this meaningless and valueless world. There is no sentiment whatsoever about the retreat in A Farewell to Arms or the adventures of Brett Ashley. They are delineated with the realism of a scientist but with the tenderness of an artist. There is a feeling of boredom and disgust with the half-truths and sentiments of the earlier generations. Hemingway has, alongwith Remarque, revealed the grotesque and the animal nature in man.
Reality Without Emotions
In this new realism which Hemingway brought to the notice of the world in In Our Time there is no shrinking from the harsh realities of life :
                It was a frightfully hot day. We’d jammed an absolutely perfect barricade across the bridge. It was simply priceless. A big old wrought-iron grating from the front of a house. Too heavy to lift and you could shoot through it and they would have to climb over it. It was absolutely topping. They tried to get over it, and we potted them from forty yards. They rushed it, and officers came out alone and worked on it. It was, an absolutely perfect obstacle. Their officers were very fine. We were frightfully put out when we heard the flank had gone, and we had to fall back.
One section of this disillusioned generation gave themselves, up to drinking and whoring but there was another section that set out to find the meaning of life and perhaps to this small elite group belonged Hemingway. In Paris he was learning to live and to write’ and this he could do only by a rigid control. The stiff upper lip became a moral necessity. The code demanded that suffering being a part of life should never be shown. It was, in fact, a carry-over of the war-time code into peace-time activity. Irony, bantering indirection, allusion were some of the means to be employed in speech to convey a state of mind that could not be revealed in simple words. They were afraid of nada that they did not understand and they could not exhibit it. They were panicky but to show panic would be to show unmanhood.
The New Morality
Since the previous values were dead these people lived in a world beyond moral,, evil and good. It is said that in the books of Ernest Hemingway the amount of liquor consumed by the characters is fantastic. Free sexual relationship is the order of the day. Brett Ashley at one stage is waiting for her divorce, is in love with Jake Barnes, is engaged to Mike Campbell, has gone on a week’s escapade with Robert Cohn and then she shows no moral compunction in going away with the young bull-fighter Pedro Romero. Even in this unenviable situation she can claim that she has got a moral fibre and she does not want to corrupt an innocent young bull-fighter. This is what she has got instead of God.
The rationalism of the last three centuries was lying on the junk heap of the First World War. The master plan that religion or science put forward had huge cracks in it and they could not be sealed. Worship, of instinct instead of rationality became the order of the day. Nietzsche had been reinforced by Freud and the result is The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms. In the words of Maloney :
                The judicious reader will not censor Hemingway because the scent or garbage, real as well as metaphorical, invades his pages along with the clean smell of the north woods and the African hills and plains. For man is man, that is an animal of animals, and he who would write truly of him cannot be unaware of his animality. But for the greatest masters of literature man has always been something more. He has also a spirit, although ‘the great lob of spirit’,... The omnipresent symbolism in Hemingway’s writing seems to be a confession that this is true. For the utilization of the symbol is an admission that the fact is more than a fact, that behind it lies other planes of meaning and reality. In a strictly logical system of materialistic monoism there may be no symbolism.
That Hemingway seems to be groping for new gods is apparent from not only the early works but also from the later works. One of the new gods that Hemingway seemed to have accepted was the discipline that a writer must exercise in his writings. He must be true to his talent and in which the reader should experience by himself what the writer has described. In the words of Malcolm Cowley :
                     Most writers were content to describe an emotion as it was felt by themselves or their herpes, in hopes that the reader would be moved by it, but this was a method that made him the mere auditor of someone else’s fear, or longing or rage. Hemingway wanted to make his reader feel, the emotion directly––not as if they were being told, about an event, but as if they were taking part in it. The best way to produce this effect he decided as a first theorem was to set down exactly in their proper sequence, the sights, the sounds, touches, tastes and smells that had produced an emotion he remembered feeling. Then without authorial comments and without ever saying that he or his hero had been frightened, sad, or angry, he could make the reader feel the emotion for himself.
Signs of Recovery
That Hemingway refuted the general condemnation of the lost generation is being perceived by perceptive critics It is not the dissoluteness of the lost generation that has produced the effect that The Sun Also Rises has on the reader’s mind, it is the moral ‘backbone of this book. Even besides Pedro Romeo there are signs in other characters as well that the wounds of the war are healing and in their place raw flesh is growing. They are going to emerge out of the spiritual frustration and, may be, any time they shed ennui and become involved in the world from which they have sought retreat in drink and sex.
The famous Hemingway code emerged out of this struggle : the necessity to discard old values which were no longer valid “in our time” and to evolve a new morality that would be true to the facts that one experiences in life. There is a philosophical assumption underlying this particular attitude. Life is sad, tragic, and there is no escape from pain. If this be so, it is useless to try to escape from the inevitable. Therefore, what one can do is to be a man. When man is afflicted with misery, pain or sorrow, or even death, the way to face it is to remain calm, be true to oneself and one’s companions, endure pain as best as one can and to fight like ‘Santiago in the face of heavy odds. To give up a fight would be unmanly. The undefeated must remain morally victorious even though he has nothing to win. That the winner takes nothing is the crux of Hemingway’s philosophy and the code is an attempt to face up to this particular truth and this is the only reward that man can take with him from this world. There is also another underlying assumption in Hemingway’s philosophy : there is no world beyond the grave. Therefore, one’s victories and losses are to be measured in terms of this world and not in the world beyond the grave. So there is a constant stress on the enjoyment of the good things of this world.

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!