The works of Ernest Hemingway have always aimed to elucidate the looming presence of death as it follows his characters through post-war modernity. His minimalist prose works to highlight a process of truth within simplicity and to locate the absurdity of life through literary plainness. What provokes Hemingway’s characters into unravelling life’s irrational construction is inevitably death’s lingering embrace. The stories oscillate around a certain morbid inevitability in which death is either deferred or makes itself known. Such narratives of necrophilic modernity unveil the melancholic symptoms which plagued Hemingway and other writers at the time. Scholars have observed, that modernity has a ubiquitous fetish of fear and love for death’s presence. Its omnipotent nature is what drives these movements and thus the literature which effaces the living.
This effacement of life is recognized in the movements of modern necrophobia explained by theologian Catherine Pickstock in After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy.
“This necrophobia can be seen already in the increasing early-modern focus of attention not on the deceased person but upon his survivors and their display of piety in the erection of elaborate tombs and monuments”.
The shift to deny death’s existence and restrict areas of the necropolis out of the domains of life is constituted to reflect the symbolic and modern desire to escape any physical reference to death’s inevitability. What Hemingway reveals is how states of chaos undermine the hubris which aims to exclude death’s presence. Underneath all facades of human projection rests death’s swaying currents animating how the world frames itself against the fearful backdrop of any post-reality.
Pickstock points that within modernity’s necrophobia rests a true necrophilia which stimulates societal apparatuses and thus human behavior around death’s opacity. Her critique of Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction is used to censure his position that the sign in relation to all language perpetuates a state of “post-presence”. That is the final revelation, the bottoming out of theory, the true meaning of anything and everything is always muddled, unclear and awaiting its next postulation as the final derivation of any sort of clear and impenetrable hermeneutic. Yet, within this thinking that post-presence is perpetual, even Derrida’s relegation of death as nothingness still constructs death as somethingness.
Thus, the “pseudo-eternity” that necrophobia desires to sustain is ineluctably centered around the invisible presence of death’s reality. There is no abstinence from the true knowledge that the great unknown motivates all structures; its underlying fear brings us closer to a fascination and respect for its ability to breach linguistic deconstruction.
The post-presence cannot compete with Hemingway’s own reality where necrophobia is exposed from its opacity and its true tendencies break down into necrophilic behavior in which the escape from death is always centered along the sustainment of the self in landscapes of finitude. Life is motivated by death, not as an arbitrary dichotomy, but by means that existence is implicitly derived from our limited, tangible reality. Because its nature overrides deconstruction its invisible presence heeds new grounds.
A Farewell to Arms portrays both the necrophobic and necrophilic positions through scenes in which death is escaped and through the scenes in which death is embraced. The book’s climax tends to be thought of as the American protagonist Frederic Henry’s escape from execution. Italian officers (he once served) begin questioning soldiers in order to expose German spies. Upon interrogation, the accused servicemen are shot without any consideration for potential innocence. Frederic identifies such blind decisions by pointing to the absurdity of these actions.
“I was obviously a German in Italian uniform. I saw how their minds worked; if they had minds and if they worked. They were all young men and they were all saving their country”
His comments highlight the myopic display of nationalism upon a world gone mad. Death is pursued to eradicate the possibility of other death; murder is enacted to defer one’s own demise. This coordinates a reality where rationality is put on hold for the absurd precautions and fear of death’s pursuit.
Frederic, understanding that this will be his end, pushes through two soldiers and jumps into the nearing river. This act is one to sustain life, though through high-risk means of salvation against the frigid cold and raging currents. What occurs is a pseudo-baptism and the literal farewell to arms. The freezing waters act a second birth towards life and towards anti-death. Through the river, Frederic’s uniform, the symbol of military obedience, becomes wet and unusable. Though he continues to wear it, it has lost the extravagance which it once embodied. Likewise, he rips off the clothed stars and hides them in his pockets. He is no longer a soldier but a newly, birthed civilian. This is furthered by his sudden realization that the Italian officers had taken his pistol, resulting in the loss of the phallus in which he is reborn devoid of the masculine structures that imposed themselves upon his body and his world.
Frederic, however, finds himself from transcendent birth and then quickly into another deathly womb. When he sneaks aboard a passing freight train he describes his position as,
“Lying on the floor of the flat-car with the guns beside me under the canvas I was wet, cold and very hungry. Finally I rolled over and lay flat on my stomach with my head on my arms”
Immediately, he is placed inside another nascent space but instead of encompassing the maternal warmth associated with the womb, he is surrounded by phallic weapons of death. The nurturing and motherly tenderness is replaced with hunger and cold yet he still lays in a fetal position, symbolizing a retrograde into a space conditioned by the wet and frigid bleakness of inescapable death. Though his baptism appears to reject the order of deformed, military values for some secular, belief system, this leads him back to spaces of death in which the anti-life makes itself known through the perversion of maternal symbols.
Necrophobia cannot be sustained when the city of the dead has become inherent within all modes of life. The world in chaos unveils the ruse of social order in which death has been embraced and now enacted. The freight train acts a symbol of moving anarchy in which the precision of deathly things is to be coordinated against others. Within the chaos of war, necrophobia turns into necrophilia in which love is centered upon that which has to die in conjunction with a love for the self to perform in that distribution of death. Frederic, who rejects the system, must sit patiently by the rifles like an infant nestled against the Mother Mary of Arms.
For Pickstock, however, war’s deathly focus is not just cognizant within turmoils of anarchy but its place lays hidden behind modernity and post-modernity. A war-time love for death is made visible in Hemingway’s narrative but death’s suction into commodities of knowledge reverberates under the ambiguous fear and love within contemporary epistemologies. Frederic’s tale highlights a heightened necrophobia against the once enigmatic necrophilia which only concealed in modernity and post-modernity as an inveterate compulsion to obsess with objects of finitude.
The true climax of A Farewell to Arms is when Frederic and his lover Catherine begin a night’s boat travel from Italy and Switzerland to escape the oncoming Italian soldiers following Frederic’s desertion. Catherine, who is now pregnant, mirrors Frederic in his depression over the war and state of the world. Her own fiancé was killed and the emotional lacuna which, for Frederic, began as a game of promiscuity, turns into a passionate, love affair.
The two set forth over a dark night’s travel in raging waters to reach the salvation that is Switzerland and to receive political amnesty. This scene, however, is not one of optimism but rather its melancholic tone can be sensed throughout its passages. Together they act as Adam and Eve figures searching for a brave new world amongst the backdrop of a chaotic and unforgiving reality. The tragedy, however, is the implicit knowledge that Switzerland only has more death to offer them. What appears as domains of redemption is only a necrophilic endeavor.
Unlike Frederic’s desertion for life, the two paddle through the night knowing that they are drawing closer to death’s embrace. Even Catherine asks Frederic, “Are you dead?” while checking if he is tired from rowing. But the question is a request to reaffirm that he is indeed alive, that in this space between two deaths (Italy and Switzerland) he is still active in the transient domain between the dual landscapes of the anti-life. In addition, when Catherine eventually takes a turn at rowing Frederic warns, “Tell me when you’re tired […] watch out the oar doesn’t pop you in the tummy”. To this, Catherine morbidly responds, “If it did […] life might be much simpler”.
Hemingway’s use of this detail exposes the knowledge that the pregnancy complicates the means of death’s escape. But the child growing within brings about the final death that eradicates its own life along with Catherine’s. This is the climax of the book as it presents the ephemeral space between deaths, leaving the necropolis only to be greeted again by its inevitable appearance in the facade of Switzerland’s salvation. The space juxtaposed between these two worlds unveils society’s morbid fascination in which death’s interest provides no room for life to exist across these spectrums.
Modernity induces a delirium of deathly neuroses in which the choices towards life and towards death become obscured yet ubiquitous. While many reader believe that Frederic’s desertion is the literary climax towards life, we can see that the space between Italy and Switzerland presents the true apex where Frederic and Catherine must pass through the watery domain between two deaths. What Hemingway portrays is the necropolis that we live in, by which our positions to a post-reality become subsumed into a indecipherable and incomprehensible love/hate for the ending of all life. Such acceptance of the necropolis poses other questions, that if modernity and post-modernity have lead us (deconstructed us) to ambivalent positions towards the only truth of death, then perhaps it is time to observe alternative realities and metaphysical positions.