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  • The Novel as War: Lies and Truth in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms

The project of reevaluating Modernism in terms of the political interests that informed its formalistic claims has particularly questioned the aesthetics of the American moderns—Pound, Eliot, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. Hemingway’s style has suffered an especially damaging translation into its ideological determinants—for example, Walter Benn Michaels reading the signature of simplicity (“nice” “good” “true”) in Hemingway’s miraculously clean prose as the transformation of racism (“breeding”) into aesthetics (196). While revisionary skepticism has, of course, regularly followed praise of Hemingway throughout his publication history, contemporary ideological criticism—in which New Historicism has taken the lead—proposes a much broader challenge of the formalist New Critical canonization (“It is the discipline of the code that makes man human, a sense of style or good form” [Warren 80]) 1 of Modernism. At this stage a project both impelled by this revisionary impulse, yet poised to challenge its cruder political indictments of Hemingway, might productively launch a sharply focused interrogation of the rhetorical and narrative maneuvers that constitute his troubled and troublesome ethic. By using textualist strategies that revisit the tensions between narrative unreliabilities (that have traditionally been recognized) and their function to alert the reader to their own power of [End Page 689] rhetorical manipulation, one can demonstrate in Hemingway’s novelistic treatment of World War I a series of thoughtful and shrewd maneuvers to challenge the desires and resistances that readers bring to war novels. By treating plotting and style, narrative and dialogue, as self-conscious exercises by which Hemingway recognizes (and shows that he recognizes) that even novelistic writing is inevitably enmeshed in an ethical function (veracity, lying, self-deception, misdirection, etc.), Hemingway’s textual practices lose some of their transparency and take on the self-reflexive sophistication more usually imputed to his modernist contemporaries. While this does not solve the problem of judging the residues of either authenticity or bad faith that survive in writing when the courage to tell the truth is transformed into the courage to betray that one is lying, the Hemingway who writes A Farewell to Arms brings to his text an ethical sophistication that contrasts sharply with that of his character and narrator, Frederic Henry.

In A Farewell to Arms the stakes of “writing truly” take on special seriousness as a fictive witness to the unknowabilities of war. The novel therefore provides an excellent opportunity for testing for patterns of self-reflection that reveal an authorial willingness to problematize the ethical status of modernistic poetics. What can be demonstrated, I believe, is that Hemingway inscribes attention to ethical discourse into speech acts within and outside the narrative—an inscription that relates discrepancies between speaking truly and writing truly to problems of reception that plague ideologically invested fiction—particularly novels of love and war. We can begin by noting in A Farewell to Arms a moment in which Hemingway appears to stage the obverse of Walter Benn Michaels’ formulation, when he shows figures transforming aestheticism into racism. When Catherine Barkley produces the lovely Shakespearean locution, “Othello with his occupation gone” (257), Frederic Henry transforms her poetry according to the modernistic poetic into the form of the short declarative sentence, whose valued simplicity is here a stark brutality: “Othello was a nigger” (257). But without attempting to separate Frederic’s ugly sentiment from Hemingway’s own demonstrable racism, this dialogue with its poetic juxtapositions can be read as a complex set of speech acts intended to foreground, rather than ignore or excuse, a hatefulness of character in the protagonist. 2 Catherine’s Shakespearean lines, intended as a tactful reference to the lassitude brought on by Frederic’s desertion, inadvertently places him in [End Page 690] painfully embarrassing moral contrast to the courageous, victorious Moor. The vicious epithet with which he responds is meant to assault and negate the ground of contrast, but serves instead to foreground Frederic’s cowardice, desertion, racism, and bad faith. But the dialogue supplements this tacit moral with a generic gloss. Catherine’s poetry textualizes Frederic and interpolates him into a Shakespearean play in which—as in A Farewell to Arms itself...

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