Reading Desire: In pursuit of Ernest Hemingway

Reading Desire: In pursuit of Ernest Hemingway

Brenner, Gerry

Reading Desire: In Pursuit of Ernest Hemingway. By Debra A. Moddelmog. Ithaca, N.Y : Cornell University Press,1999. 189 pp. Cloth $45. Paper $17.95.

Though flawed, this important book further destabilizes Hemingway studies. It amplifies and complicates the ways readers can approach and question the meanings and values of his work. Moddelmog exposes the various ways we (Hemingway’s readers, teachers, critics, editors, publishers, the public at large) and our culture individually and collaboratively construct both Hemingway and his work. All of us are complicit in the larger constructions of the iconography we’ve embedded-.but not quite embalmed-him in. So, Moddelmog pokes hard at the biases we bring to Hemingway as well as those we buy into and perpetuate when, consciously and unconsciously, we subscribe to and foster prevailing but uncontested interpretations of him and his work.

No, there’s nothing radically new in exposing readers’ biases. We all read, teach, write, and talk about him myopically, steered by our agendas and crochets–our “desires;’ as Moddelmog would surely call them. Among us are those who sacralize him and his work because in writing about, say, the sporting or military activities of able-bodied, heterosexual men he surely validates “our” values and gratifies “our” fantasies. Likewise, among us are those who celebrate his,writing on those same topics because it reveals his trenchant and troubled questioning of them, which “our” values and fantasies require. The importance of Moddelmog’s book, however, is that she methodically targets significant ideological privileges, cultural hegemonies, and political categories that empower constructions which, ironically and inevitably, shrink Hemingway’s identity, a shrinking any author or person suffers when identity is considered a fixed concept rather than an evolving process of becoming.

Moddelmog’s primary target is Hemingway’s sexual orientation. Despite the surfeit of material available to the Hemingway Industry since the i98o opening of the Hemingway Collection at the John F Kennedy Library, Moddelmog finds his biographers and biographically dependent critics reluctant to revise their constructions of his identity: “their efforts actually reinstate both [his history and fiction] within a sexist, heterosexist, and homophobic matrix” (29). Indeed, they’ve permitted the topic of androgyny into their portraiture, she acknowledges. But that timid inclusion is actually an exclusion, for the temporizing euphemism “neutralizes any sexual component of Hemingway’s upbringing and role-playing, and of his characters’ impulses. The concept of androgyny gives critics permission to avoid looking at Hemingway’s explorations of sexual identity” (32). Not even Comley and Scholes in Hemingway’s Genders, she complains, probe his sexual identity hard enough or risk labeling him or his major masculinist characters “transgendered” or “queer.”

Rather than replace the entrenched, biographically essentialist identity of Hemingway with a revisionist portrait equally essentialist or “foundational;’ Moddelmog argues the need to consider him “a subject moving through history, a shifting, fragmented figure rather than a stable, arrested absolute” (39). Her antifoundationalist approach aims “to disrupt the homophobic and heterosexist strategies that critics and biographers (not to mention general readers, booksellers, publishers, teachers, editors, and the media) use to-portray Hemingway’s desire” (42). But that said, she herself goes no farther than to declare that she would “construct Hemingway’s sexual identity on the border between the heterosexual and the homosexual” (51). I guess that means she will not call him transgendered or queer, either.

In her best chapter Moddelmog examines how the published version of The Garden of Eden and the relative inaccessibility of the manuscript from which it was carved conspire to sustain Hemingway’s heterosexist identity and promote “white heteromasculinity” in a culture of consumer capitalism. After explaining how Tom Jenks’ shrink-wrapped version of the manuscript honors the Hemingway mythography and protects his publisher’s commodified property, she compares it with the manuscript. Jenks’ editorial excisions suppress material that, she shows, would have enabled readers to discern not only Hemingway’s creation of characters whose racial, lesbian, and homosexual desires, fears, ambivalences, and identities far surpass the transgressive experimentations of the published text; but also the shifting instabilities and anxieties of his sexual identity.

Moddelmog examines other Hemingway fiction and non-fiction to further her discussion of”social discourses and power arrangements” that bear upon his constructed identity But her success in advancing new formulations-is uneven. She looks at The Sun Also Rises to unravel the complex sexual orientations among its characters, presumably illustrating how Comley and Scholes might have corrected one of their failures, to reconsider globally Hemingway’s “male protagonists whose names now denote masculinity in our cultural imagination: Jake Barnes, Frederic Henry, Nick Adams, and Robert Jordan, to name just a few” (35). But Jake Barnes has never fit that category-masculinity-and the ground Moddelmog works over in discussing his gender and sexual orientation was well plowed in 1995 by Ira Elliott, of whom she makes no mention.

Rather than reconsider any of the other male characters she’s listed, Moddelmog shifts to post-colonial discourse. By focusing on Harry of “Snows” and Macomber of “Short Happy Life” she shows that Hemingway critics, enamored by the ideologies of his individualistic and redemptive narratives, have been blind to the imperialism in his African stories and identity Faulting his “artistic imperialism,” she cites his failure to consider “the ethics of [his characters’] occupation of Africa or the humanity of the black people who stand before them” (113). Inasmuch as Moddelmog includes Green Hills in this judgment, her own ideological predispositions have blinded her to Hemingway’s commitment to earning the respect of the narrative’s dominant black, M’Cola; that goal, which Hemingway meets, surely rivals in difficulty shooting a trophy-sized kudu in an act of possession-unless readers discount the value of interracial relationships.

Gazing at the bodies of Hemingway’s men and women, Moddelmog revisits Philip Young’s decades-old wound theory. The body wounds scarring Hemingway’s able-bodied men visibly assert “the physical and moral supe-‘ riority of white normative masculinity and heterosexuality” (124). They also express, however, an “underlying hysteria” in the repeated pattern. And inasmuch as Hemingway describes the bodies of his male characters in less detail than those of his women characters, his worry “that turning the narrator’s male gaze on these men will not only feminize them but produce homosexual implications” is revealed (16). That worry translates into Hemingway’s vexed and vexing identity-As a man who “rebuffed and desired the gaze of other men, [his] desire never found a resting place on either side of the homo-hetero binary” (130).

Moddelmog’s last chapter, “Critical Multiculturalism, Canonized Authors, and Desire;’ reveals that her study of Hemingway is a vehicle for posing questions and approaches that will advance the discipline and pedagogy of “critical,” as distinct from “literary” or “popular” multiculturalism. (Because the latter’s identity politics fixates on how social positioning determines political power, it leaves multiculturalists little to do but “expose and resist the hegemonic values inscribed in [canonical writers; like Hemingway’s] tents” (134), perpetuating the practice of viewing identity and culture as stable, fixed, essentialist. “Critical” multiculturalists, on the contrary, allow for unstable configurations of both identity and culture and acknowledge that their constructions are mediated by desires and fluid identities. There’s merit.in faulting Moddelmog for this diversion, for her hierarchical march through fixed socio-political categories tends to exploit Hemingway as a tool to be . used, a means to an end. And gaps in her knowledge of Hemingway criticism-as in the cases of The Sun Also Rises and Green Hills ofAfrica-can be attributed, I think justly, to this fault, although Moddelmog’s strategy and desires, I also believe, fully justify her subordination of Hemingway

Yes, I used that term, desire, which, regardless of the number of times Moddelmog invokes it, remains elusive and is her book’s major flaw. At times “desire” refers to a libidinized or erotic drive to join with some Other, however sublimated, displaced, defended against, or symbolic. This use well explains Moddelmog’s own desire to pinpoint the vagaries and complexities of Hemingway’s sexual orientation. But at other times it refers to any vague.or specific category that a reader might insert, be it political, economic, racial, social, cultural, religious, etc. In short, “desire” is a protean abstraction without boundaries: an all-encompassing category and an empty set. The book’s title may have admirers, but for me it’s a non-starter. Something like “(Re)Constructions of Hemingway: A Multicultural Inquest,” would better gratify my desire to see this otherwise important book affect Hemingway and multicultural studies in ways that would also gratify its author’s desires.

-Gerry Brenner, University of Montana

Copyright The Hemingway Review Spring 2000

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