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Hemingway and Jesus

Subsequent to 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 Christ, it has been suggested, was shaped by once voguish “Lives of Christ,” where, in his dying hour, Jesus is portrayed as the arch-exemplar of heroic manhood. This is Ezra Pound’s Jesus, a man’s man who “cried not a cry when they drove the nails.” It is also the gritty 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 isn’t the only nexus between the Hemingway hero and Jesus. In the case of Frederic Henry, the protagonist of Hemingway’s World War I novel A Farewell to Arms, 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 this ethic of selflessness produces a recurrent self-loathing and a brooding guilt: “You are the remorse boy,” his Italian friend Rinaldi tells Frederic.

In the novel, the ethical ideals of the Sunday-School Jesus are embodied in the priest. Subjected to the men’s lewd harassing, the priest remains humble and composed, a soft answer his defense against wrath. Frederic, who does not take part in the priest-baiting, is attracted to the cleric, so much so that Rinaldi kiddingly implies the two have a sexual relationship. The priest tutors Frederic in an ethic 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, he has not the priest’s success in acting upon it. Self-renunciation is something 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 accept an invitation to visit 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 self-pleasure leaves Frederic unsatisfied. “Good Christ I was hungry,” he says in a characteristic double entendre, but he remains forever “hollow.” “I might become devout,” he tells the 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 ethical aspirations and his performance.

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 escape 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 no power 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 lover, Catherine, is dying, Frederic tries to be her pillar; instead, she has to bolster him: “I bent down over the bed and started to cry.” “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.

Frederic is a moral paradox. 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 want to kill this hapless Prince of Peace. He says he has no religion, but he believes a son should be baptized. Frederic 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 avers that defeat may be better than victory.

The cynical surgeon Rinaldi is Frederic’s 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 the two “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 his friend’s cynicism, but the surgeon prophesies that Frederic will catch it anyway. He mocks Frederic’s aspirations to selflessness: “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 his handling of events, Hemingway distanced himself from Frederic, the two are psychologically close. Hemingway himself seems fully to have subscribed to an ethic of selflessness, though he honored it more often in the breach than the observance. The image of the gentle 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 told 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 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 unwonted civility, “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 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 wrote 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 the chapter titled “The Sins of Christianity” in Atheism: The Case Against God, George H. Smith observes: “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 his mouthpiece Frederic Henry. Each was torn between rational self-interest and irrational self-immolation. Fortunately, great novelists can transform private foibles into artistic virtues.