Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

"How People Go to Hell": Pessimism, Tragedy, and Affinity to Schopenhauer in the Sun Also Rises

Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

"How People Go to Hell": Pessimism, Tragedy, and Affinity to Schopenhauer in the Sun Also Rises

Article excerpt

This paper suggests a way of relating Hemingway's work to pessimism as a philosophical tradition and to tragedy as a literary genre. The first section summarizes the thinking of Arthur Schopenhauer, the most important representative of pessimism in philosophy. The aesthetics of this German philosopher give us the concept of the "tragedy of circumstances," extremely useful in the study of texts which are not tragedies in the classic sense of the word. The second section applies the terms pessimism and tragedy to Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises.

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"PESSIMISM" AND "TRAGEDY" are terms occasionally used (the latter more often than the former) to characterize the work and world vision of Ernest Hemingway, (1) but generally these words are employed in an impressionistic way, without a clear sense of their meaning. In this paper I will suggest a way of relating Hemingway's work to pessimism as a philosophical tradition and to tragedy as a literary genre. In the first section, I will summarize the thinking of Arthur Schopenhauer, the most important representative of pessimism in philosophy. The aesthetics of this German philosopher, whose name is not mentioned in Wirt Williams's The Tragic Art of Ernest Hemingway, give us the concept of the "tragedy of circumstances" extremely useful in the study of texts which are not tragedies in the classic sense of the word. in the second section, I will apply the terms pessimism and tragedy to the work of Hemingway. For reasons of space, I will limit the discussion to his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, published almost eighty years ago, although the analysis could also be applied to his two other major novels, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

In Spain, in the best history of world literature so far published in that country, Hemingway is still characterized as "the narrator of simple, elemental emotions" (Riquer and Valverde IX, 333). I hope that my analysis of his relationship to philosophical pessimism and the tragedy of circumstances will help to change such views and to encourage a more profound appreciation of his work. It is important to clarify that this essay describes affinity but not influence. It is not likely that Hemingway ever read Schopenhauer, although it is clear that he read Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Zola. At the time he wrote The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway was reading Tolstoy (Lynn 297), and Jake, the main character of the novel, reads Turgenev (SAR 147). Both the French realists and naturalists and their Russian counterparts were familiar, in different ways, with the works of the German philosopher. But the question of how Hemingway actually encountered philosophical pessimism and the tragic vision remains beyond the scope of this essay.

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The concept of pessimism tends to have negative connotations in everyday speech. "You must be optimistic" is the motto most of us use to try to muster enough courage to continue struggling to reach our goals, in daily life as well as in politics. In this sense, optimism tends to be associated with humanism and progress, and pessimism with anti-humanistic, reactionary thinking.

Philosophical pessimism, however, is far from anti-humanistic; its roots lie in a profound reflection on the nature of the human destiny and condition. Its major expression is found in the thinking of Schopenhauer, who in his work Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation) develops a theory of knowledge in which the "thing in itself," that is, the essence of the world that all preceding philosophy had sought in vain, is the will, a . broad concept that includes not only the conscious will of human beings but also all the active forces working in organic and inorganic nature and expressed through it (WI [section] 21-22, 109-111).2 According to the ethics of this system, because the will is a limitless force and human life is one of its expressions, no lasting happiness or satisfaction can be obtained in life (WI [section] 58,321), which moves like a pendulum between pain and boredom (WI [section] 57, 312, 313). …

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