Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hemingway and the Tough-Guy Writing

Paradox of American Life
There is a basic paradox in American life and letters on the one hand they claim to be peace-loving people, laying down their lives in the cause of peace all over the globe, and on the other they are fascinated by violence. They admire demi-gods who are superbly equipped to survive in a chaotic world. Their literature is full of men and women who have employed “questionable means towards desirable ends.” The conventional morality to which they pay lip-service goes overboard––it is pragmatism that is worshipped by all and sundry. The roots of this contradictory ethics can be traced to the Twenties and the Thirties and to Hemingway’s writing.

The Tough Hero
For the acceptance of the tough-guy and hard-boiled heroes as popular literary or film heroes the responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of Ernest Hemingway. The world-view that implicitly’ prevails in Hemingway’s short stories and novels is responsible for the qualities that make the tough-guy. To Have and Have Not is a, landmark in the fiction of the Thirties for its protagonist, Harry Morgan, depicts and epitomizes “the moral pragmatism of the hard­boiled hero.”_ Here in this novel the class-conflict is made explicit and it became the pattern on which popular novelists like Dashiell Hammeth and Raymond Chandler moulded their novels. Hemingway bad already popularized the cult of violence in his short stories to which To Have and Have Not affixed its seal in the imagination of the people.
Violence Glamourized
In some of his early stories we have been introduced to violence in its various manifestations : in Indian Camp we have seen through the eyes of Nick Adams an Indian husband cut his throat from ear to ear with a razor blade because he could not, hear the agonies of his screaming wife in childbirth ; in The Battler, Nick escaped severe punishment at the hands of an ex-prize fighter, an outcast from society; the experiences of “revolutionist” are not pleasant either ; My Old Man narrates what happens to a crooked jockey and how the son reacts to the unnatural death of his father ; Big Two-Hearted River is the account of a youngman’s psychological condition who has just returned from the war and is on the brink of neurosis; in The Killers even if violence is not let loose the threat of violence is as ominous as violence itself, and Today is Friday awakens in us the horror of the crucifixion, etc., etc. One might argue that there are few murders or executions in these stories but the fact remains that the atmosphere is charged with violence. It is the narrator’s technique that keeps the cries and shrieks muffled but in their effect on the mind of the reader they are devastating. The overwhelming impression is that of a violent world, a world at war, world gone to pieces, a world disintegrating. It is true that Hemingway is concerned more with human relationships, as most good novelists are, but he could not be indifferent to the social framework and cosmic order in which men and women make their futile effort to connect, as E. M. Forster would say. The western tradition demands of a man to act-as opposed to contemplate or reflect-and for these men and women violence seems to be the only recourse to assert themselves, to make their presence felt, to exist.
Go Down Fighting
Naturally, such a dire need would ignore the law ; in such acute crises law can neither guide human action nor be of much relevance. It does not mean that there is no morality in Hemingway’s world-view : on the contrary there is a zealot’s search for moral certainties. The importunate part of this search is that there are no moral certainties ; each attempt ends in a pathetic failure, in a realization of the emptiness or futility of the effort. Jake Barnes’s effort to find love ends in his pathetic and even ironic comment : “Isn’t it pretty to think so ?” Frederic Henry realizes that war is a deception and so is love. The society is an instrument of imposing this deception on man and Henry cannot agree to be a member of such a society. So, the Hemingway protagonist is an alienated individual. There is a despair beyond words that haunts him and all he can do is to go down fighting to escape from this despair. He drowns his despair in drink, in sex, in action and each of these is a variant manifestation of violence.
Tough-Guy’s Code
Hemingway’s hard-boiled children replace the war-torn world by “a society beset and corrupted by crime”. The horror of war is replaced by the horror of crime. It is ignorant of God and it ignores the law. The hero of “the tough-guy novel” must learn to adapt himself to the environment and conditions in which he finds himself. The tough-guy has to rely on his own resources if he is to carry out his assignment and survive. Personville in Hammett’s Red Harvest is a microscopic ruined America, a sort of social wasteland. There cannot be any cause in this wasteland, as there cannot be any genuine heroism. Personal loyalties replace the high sounding causes in which Frederic Henry had seen no glory, or honour. There is another loyalty for these wastelanders : loyalty to their profession. Wilson, the white hunter, owes allegiance to nothing except his profession. In The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe says : “You don’t know what I have to go through or over or under to do your job for you. I do it my way. I do my best to protect you and I may break a few rules, but I break them in your favour. The client comes first, unless he’s crooked. Even then all I do is hand his job back to him and keep my mouth shut.” Even when he violates a few rules his loyalty to the client is unchallenged, only if he is not crooked. The tough-guy practises a code which he has inherited from Hemingway. The new code rejects conventional morality and the law but affirms its faith in some human values like friendship, love, courage and professional integrity.
The gangster novel’s ancestry is established beyond doubt by its acceptance of and adherence to the Hemingway code. The code requires of the protagonist to be tough. Toughness means a rigid control upon one’s emotions and self-discipline. These are acquired traits, not inborn and they have been acquired at enormous expense from a series of violent and painful experiences. It is the toughness of the veteran soldier, the coolness and stoicism of the professional, “and the numbness of the man who has witnessed more horror than he can absorb”.
Stamina and Will
The toughness of the protagonist implies at its most obvious level, sheer physical stamina and iron will. All tough heroes or characters are expected to perform under most unfavourable conditions, like Manuel in The Undefeated. He is gored by the bull but he must thrust the sword between the shoulders and he cannot quit, even when his wrist is broken. Robert Jordan must blow up the bridge without the detonators and without EI Sardo’s help, and later on cover up the retreat of his comrades even though he has fractured his thigh-bone. Santiago must fight against the sharks to defend his prize, no matter how tired, exhausted, hungry or sleepy he may be. As Santiago says, pain does not matter to a man ; he must perform his self-appointed task. They must not only rise to the occasion but also take the beating like a man. The tough-guy acting on this code must not give up : he may be momentarily put cut of action by his wounds, drugs, or police harassment but he must not give up his activity. He cannot afford to miss the opportune chance when it comes his wits remain alert even when he is physically impaired. Philip Marlowe’s conduct in The Big Sleep toward his assailant is a case in point.
A Cool Head
The toughness in a Hemingway protagonist also implies an effort to restrain one’s emotions. All his heroes strive for coolness and freedom from passion but very few succeed wholly. Henry falls in love with Catherine in spite of himself. Wilson cannot help quoting Shakespeare because Macomber has shed his-fear: “But my troth, I care not ; a man can re once ; we owe God a death, and let it go which way it will be at dies this year is quit for the next.” Even the hardened Roman Soldiers in Today is Friday, cannot help feeling admiration for Christ’s conduct on the cross. A real tough-guy like Continental Op in Red Harvest develops tender feeling for Dinah Brand, a greedy woman, ex-mistress of another gangster. “Although the protagonists of Hammett Chandler, and others lead far from ascetic lives, it, must be remarked that they will not take to bed a woman who is merely desirable and available. At minimum there must be affection, need, and emotional rapport to exalt the sexual drive.”
Sympathy For Others
What really distinguishes the tough-guy from the criminal or the gangster is his humanity––in this respect he is absolutely normal. His power to feel for others has not been impaired at all. The tough protagonists may be alienated from society but their channels for reintegration are not blocked. As a matter of fact their toughness is a mask that conceals a very sensitive nature underneath. Jake Barnes cries in private over the loss of his manhood but he cannot exhibit his true feelings before others. The two killers in The Killers are criminals because they have no mercy for any one. Their decision to let George, Nick and Sam off is purely a matter of whim, whereas Manuel in The Undefeated, an equally tough-guy as the killers, cannot help taking an interest in the stuffed bull that killed his brother nine years ago. The hoodlums and heroes who appear in the novels of the tough-guy writers are the descendants of the prototypes created by Hemingway.
Face Death Boldly
The Hemingway protagonists have succeeded in not only over­coming and conquering pain but also confronting death stoically. The mask must remain impregnable when they are face to face with death. Henry walks away from the hospital, after saying good-bye to statue-like Catherine, in the rain. No tears are shed, no sobs are audible ; there is a tacit agreement with oneself that whatever be the loss, including the death of a near and dear one, there will be no squealing, no teas or sighs. Death is the acid test of a man’s character, according to Hemingway’s code. One could argue that Hemingway’s subject is not death but life : his interest in violence and in its extreme form death, stems from his interest in life. In a moment of trial, death being the severest, life asserts itself in its most exquisite form : the courage of the matador, the skill of the professional hunter, the toughness of a prize fighter. Henry in the face of sure and certain death at the hands of the battle-police uses his ingenuity, makes a desperate run for the river, jumps into it, remains under water so long as he can hold his breath and fights for his life in getting out of the river. In his disdain for death Maera, the matador, enjoys life at its intensest. Only in life and in the manner of one’s death a man can be Man ; after death there is no difference between man and animal. Stare death in the face unblinkly and by so doing dispel the fear and mystery of death.
From Hemingway his literary descendants, of the tough school especially, learnt their attitude of defying death. Continental Op expresses this attitude admirably in Red Harvest :
                        I’ve got a hard skin all over what’s left of my soul, and after twenty years of messing around with crime I can look at any sort of murder without seeing anything in it but my bread and butter, the day’s work. But this getting a rear out of planning deaths is not natural to me. It’s what this place has done to me.
From Hemingway to Ian Fleming there is no basic change of attitude to the problem of death.
Colloquial Speech
The toughness that Hemingway and his hard-boiled children display inn their writings is concealed to a great extent by the tough style that, Hemingway perfected in the Twenties. Mark Twain had certainly used colloquial speech indepicting the adventures of Huck before Hemingway but in the hands of Hemingway it acquired a new brilliance, a new metaphor to depict the chaos of the post-war years and man’s futile efforts to master that chaos. “It employs a simplified diction, limited vocabulary, and seemingly basic but subtly varied grammatical and sentence constructions. It also stresses the concrete noun and verb, and conveys a sense of objectivity through the avoidance of adjectives and adverbs. When Hemingway wishes to portray characters of little formal education and/or low origin, he will make use of the vulgate, e.g., slang profanity, broken grammar, fragmented constructions.” The speech is drawn from everyday life and not from books : the effect is that of terseness, control and brutal honesty. The abrupt endings, occasionally ironical in their intent, the bareness of the diction require no further comment for the style itself is a powerful commentary on the human conditions. The repetitions of a word often act like hammer strokes driving nails into the coffin of the pre-war values and culture. Hemingway’s language is an appropriate medium for the contemporary sensibility which is fascinated by violence and at the same time rebels against it. The speech of the “tough-guys”, the low caste and the unlettered is highly repetitious, emphasis being achieved by inflections. There are no amplifications, elaborations, illustrations as in the speech of the educated. The tough-guy wants to use his breath in action and not in long-windedness. “The tough style is thus the attempt to give organic form to a, world view : muscular, functional, and deliberately unbeautiful.”
Toughness : A Social Need
Hemingway wrote To Have and Have Not as his tough-guy novel and in spite of its weaknesses it remains one of the best novels of the sub-genre. It depicts “a society so dominated by crime and injustice, that law and order have become viciously hypocritical terms. Only power, money, and indomitable individual action make for survival, and if one must survive at the expense of others, so be it.” The inevitable corollary is that Harry Morgan evolves a personal and pragmatic and personal code of conduct––”a Darwin––Neitzschean morality’ at the furthest remove from the official morality, of our Judaeo–Christian culture...” It is a morality which will occasionally violate the law but it cannot be helped for one must live with dignity. “For Harry Morgan, impelled by destiny, character; and the social condition, there can be no alternatives. His toughness is both necessitated and justified by the social jungle he inhabits.” Harry, even when he kills, kills out of necessity, the need to survive, and not for profit or pleasure or politics or power. This is what distinguishes him from the criminal.
Again, in his sexuality he is the prototype of the tough hero. His wife Mary, ex prostitute, ought to know; she admires his virility. He stands out in contrast against all the impotent rich and the decadent who indulge in sado-masochistic exercises in futility.
“No doubt each decade will see the emergence of other varieties of tough writers whose work we will continue reading to satisfy our vicarious desire for the strenuous life, to participate in the adventures of the strong, stoical heroes who can take it and hand it out, to become in our imaginations the tough-guys who transcend the fear of softness, of old age, and of dying.” But it will be a long time before Hemingway’s influence wears thin and finally out.

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!