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Monday, 7 August 2017

Moral Courage


Hemingway is an author who seems to attract equal parts love and hate. The hatred of Americans I can understand - schoolchildren of both Canada and the US are repeatedly and consistently bludgeoned with his Nobel Prize winning status, his tortured soul, the luminaries of the Parisian milieu with whom he associated, and, if they're really unlucky, with the technicalities of his theories on the art of writing.

For others, this ambivalence seems to arise from the atavistic masculinity which he projected without necessarily possessing. And it is this question - the conundrum of Hemingway's real character, which concerns me today. Let's leave aside the fact that his writing advice could be copied and pasted into a Lee Child or James Paterson style manual without causing a single comment. That his weird modernistic obsession with form and structure was so easily co-opted by cynical purveyors of trash. That the worshippers at his shrine are made up almost exclusively of people who struggle to conceive of a single original idea, or to construct the shortest of viable sentences. Or the fact that he, like Peter Carey, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, and Graham Greene, smashed into my forming literary consciousness like a revelation of divine grace. Let's leave all that aside and focus on the myth of Hemingway and its feet of clay.

One of Hemingway's biographers pointed to an incident involving, if memory serves, Evelyn Waugh. If not him, then some other writer who saw actual war service, rather than receiving a medal for being randomly shelled at a politically expedient time. This writer, who I'm certain was British, penned an open letter to the great man asserting that, machismo aside, Hemingway lacked that most important of the types of bravery - moral courage. Hemingway, possibly drunk, or possibly simply not understanding, replied with a long letter listing multiple instances of his physical courage. And it's this which leads me to my point.

Moral courage does not consist in doing what is 'right'. Doing what is visibly, palpably, uncontroversially right, basically amounts to that tricky, vainglorious quality we call 'honour'. And honour is a doddle. All we need do to be honourable is to follow a course of publicly approved, widely popular external measures for rectitude, and then spend the rest of our days sneering superciliously at those lesser mortals who have had the misfortune to acquaint themselves with failure. This is emphatically not the essence of moral courage. Moral courage is about doing that which does not publicly or immediately seem to be right, but which we know to be anyway. It's about following through on abstract, and often counterintuitive principles. It's about seeing the picture which lies beyond our individual wants, vanities, and dignity, and doing what is best according to rules which have little or nothing to do with personal satisfaction in one's own virtue.

This is where the grand tourist Hemingway failed. He was incapable of separating real courage from the histrionics of his own personal code. There is a feeling, trembling on the edge of a theory, that the day he put that shotgun under his chin was the day he finally realised the hollowness - the cheap externality - of his own conception of honour. "I can't believe they fell for The Old Man and the Sea," he was reported to have said of his masterpiece. I don't believe there is anything particularly wrong with that book. Except, perhaps, for the self conscious bid for external moral approval which infests almost every sentence. That sense of a man laboriously doing good according to someone else's lights and not his own. The essence, in fact, of the opposite of moral courage.

I am reminded of a story about a sword master who, on being confronted by bandits, was forced to crawl through their legs while being pelted with stones to avoid being killed. After this incident, his students asked him why he had submitted to this humiliation and he said, "I gave them their lives." As a young and angry man, I had always dismissed this story as a tale of cowardice justified through sophistry. It's only recently that I've come to realise that what this story is about is the essence of exactly that kind of courage which Hemingway never managed to achieve.

Almost invariably, the appreciation of moral courage is retrospective. Because the essence of this kind of courage is not in the doing of what is acceptable, but of what is right in spite of all, including the popular, casual, or - most importantly - facile perception of 'right'.


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