"Hemingway's in Our Time: Cubism, Conservation, and the Suspension of Identification

Article excerpt

Taking issue with criticism that links In Our Time to Cubist technique and theory, the essay nevertheless finds the comparison of Hemingway's stories and Cubism fruitful for what it tells us about form in his work. The liberated tone of early Cubism stands in stark contrast to the restrictive tone of In Our Time. Hemingway's collection focuses mostly on the isolated, meditative, reflexive character of Nick, whereas Cubism strives for the democratic and the social. In Our Time assumes a certain depth, whereas Cubism creates flat surfaces.

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AN EMBLEMATIC MOMENT IN IN OUR TIME occurs in the first paragraph of that strange preface (1) of sorts, "On the Quai at Smyrna." Describing a refugee population at Smyrna, the narrator, a British officer, says,

 
   We were in the harbour and they were all on the pier and at 
   midnight they started screaming. We used to turn the searchlight 
   on them to quiet them. That always did the trick. We'd run 
   the searchlight up and down over them two or three times and 
   they stopped it. (IOT 11) 

The powerful light destroys the shelter of darkness and brings a violent clarity. An artificial extension of the human eye, the searchlight for Hemingway also possesses a peculiarly tactile quality, as if to emphasize the physical force of this technology, and reverse the conventional associations of light with objectivity and enlightenment. Moving "up and down over them" the glare seems to touch the screaming people, forcing them to silence. (2)

Throughout In Our Time, Hemingway explores the destructive power of touch and human presence. Human beings in Hemingway's text have been transformed into dangerous creatures, with a domineering stance towards the world and physical capacities radically enhanced and extended by 20th century technology. When discussing touch, then, I refer not just to a certain kind of physical contact, but to all forms of human impact on other people, things, and creatures, especially in the machine culture of Hemingway's time.

In Our Time offers a critique of and a tentative solution to a culture of domination, as Hemingway suggests the necessity of caution, of withholding touch, and of refusing to bring darkness and absence to light, except after much consideration--if at all. From Hemingway's viewpoint, the sense of caution--understood as caring and conserving--demands a certain quality of perspective, as well as a circumspect attitude towards touch. I will argue that much of In Our Time considers how to approach people, things, and creatures without objectifying them. My argument conflicts with an important strain of Hemingway criticism that compares the structure of In Our Time with the radical modernist styles of Cubist painting. Such comparisons are interesting. But behind the spirit of the original Cubists working between 1907 and 1914, when Cubism was a unique way of seeing the world, rather than just a set of techniques, is an attitude towards reality that Hemingway decidedly rejects.

Ever since Paul Rosenfeld described In Our Time as a Cubist work in a 1925 review, many critics have pointed out what they see as Cubist elements in the book. For example, Jacqueline Vaught Brogan argues that the fragmentation of the narrative in In Our Time parallels the visual fragmentation in a Cubist painting, while Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn points out that Hemingway's repetition of words parallels Picasso's repetition of geometrical forms. For Vaughn, both Hemingway and Picasso emphasize form over content; because of this emphasis the audience discovers meaning by looking both at the work as a whole and at the relationship among the individual parts of the text or painting. For A. Carl Bredahl, the "divided narrative" of In Our Time mirrors the work of Cubist painters who visually dismantle "formally considered integrated units" (16). But Bredahl goes on to explain that "Picasso, Panguin [sic? …