Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

To Have and Have Not

Three passages from Ernest Hemingway's 1937 novel To Have and Have Not: potent examples of how literature can appeal to visceral experience, to the body's being-in-the-world, and of how language, crafted just so, can move us in powerful ways.

1. Hemingway describes Harry Morgan leaving his wife, and her bed, for the last time:

She watched him go out of the house, tall, wide-shouldered, flat-backed, his hips narrow, moving, still, she thought, like some kind of animal, easy and swift and not old yet, he moves so light and smooth-like, she thought, and when he got in the car she saw him blonde, with the sunburned hair, his face with the broad mongol cheek bones, and the narrow eyes, the nose broken at the bridge, the wide mouth and the round jaw, and getting in the car he grinned at her and she began to cry. "His goddamn face," she thought. "Everytime I see his goddamn face it makes me want to cry." (128)

The cadence of Harry's footsteps is matched by the cadence of Hemingway's prose, ambling, patient, "moving, still..." When Harry grins, and his eyes meet hers, the sentence stops to devastating effect: still, now, Marie is brought to tears by his quiet strength.

2. Helen Gordon gives her husband Richard a tongue-lashing during a lover's spat:

Everything I believed in and everything I cared about I left for you because you were so wonderful and you loved me so much that love was all that mattered. Love was the greatest thing, wasn't it? Love was what we had that no one else had or could ever have. And you were a genius and I was your whole life. I was your partner and your little black flower. Slop. Love is just another dirty lie. Love is ergoapiol pills to make me come around because you were afraid to have a baby. Love is quinine and quinine and quinine until I'm deaf with it. Love is that dirty aborting horror that you took me to. Love is my insides all messed up. It's half catheters and half whirling douches. I know about love. Love always hangs up behind the bathroom door. It smells like Lysol. To hell with love. Love is you making me happy and then going off to sleep with your mouth open while I lie awake all night afraid to say my prayers even because I know I have no right to any more. Love is all the dirty little tricks you taught me that you probably got out of some book. All right. I'm through with you and I'm through with love. Your kind of picknose love. You writer. (185-86)

Repetition and description, to have and have not, a game of adding detail and subtracting sentiment. With that devastating final insult: "You writer."

3. An anonymous "sixty-year-old grain broker" endures a sleepless night worrying that his tax-evading past has finally caught up with him. During the Great Depression, he was thankfully not one of those "have-nots"; their fate he imagines like so:

Some made the long drop from the apartment or the office window; some took it quietly in two-car garages with the motor running; some used the native tradition of the Colt or Smith and Wesson; those well-constructed implements that end insomnia, terminate remorse, cure cancer, avoid bankruptcy, and blast an exit from intolerable positions by the pressure of a finger; those admirable American instruments so easily carried, so sure of effect, so well designed to end the American dream when it becomes a nightmare, their only drawback the mess they leave for relatives to clean up. (237-38)

Damning irony, again pointed up by way of Hemingway's style: the measured repetition of "some" in the first three clauses giving way to a prolonged, wandering discourse on "those" (repeated twice) quintessentially American instruments of dream-brokering. To have and have not.

Hemingway wants you to feel his writing in your bones. He wants you to experience his words.

Special thanks to Ursula Grisham, fellow CSI enthusiast and Dartmouth (soon-to-be) grad, for letting me borrow her copy during the two months we lived together in Lima.

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