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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

Hemingway’s Iceberg

Author: Sabrina Zehetner (TVP)

(05/03/2017)
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Les années folles. Interwar Paris became a meeting and trysting place for “the lost generation” that laid the groundwork for the modernist movement. Concepts of the subject, the narrative of the self, classicism and sexuality were at the heart of the zeitgeist that influenced psychoanalysis, and vice versa. Hemingway’s iceberg theory represented a new way of thinking in a time of upheaval and transition.

Hemingway, les années folles and Psychoanalysis

After the First World War, the lost generation was marked by disillusionment and existential nihilism that arose from post-war traumata. During this time, it was Freud who coined the term “war neurosis” and published the book “Psycho-Analysis and the War Neurosis” with his colleague Ernst Simmel in 1919. Interwar literature mirrored the war experience and its repercussions both in terms of style and content. For many authors death, conflict and the fragility of life served as major themes and more than a few succumbed to liquor’s lure – among them Ernest Hemingway as well as the infamous Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald who were known for their escapades and licentious lifestyle. Someone who appreciates Hemingway’s style is likely to enjoy the works of John Steinbeck, Ezra Pound, Raymond Carver, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Arthur Miller and Joseph Conrad. Like psychoanalysts, interwar authors focused on the individual. They all experimented with language and the unconscious content of a story and addressed human sexuality. This intellectual candour wasn’t well-received by American society and caused – besides the favourable exchange rates - many intellectuals to move to Paris where the climate was significantly more orthodox. With the founding of the Paris Psychoanalytical Society, Paris became a center of psychoanalysis over the course of the 1920s. Freud’s theories heavily influenced the modernist movement with his work laying the foundation for modern thought. He re-interpreted the world along with Darwin and other renowned scholars. After years of being widely ignored in the U.S., psychoanalysis became unstoppable in the 1920s and even threatened to replace experimental psychology. In Interwar England, Virginia Woolf’s brother Adrian was a psychoanalyst – her friends Alix and James Strachey translated Freud’s works.

In an interview with Lilian Rose for The New Yorker, Hemingway briefly mentions psychoanalysis: “(An) analyst once wrote me, “What did I learn from psychoanalysts?” I answered, “Very little but hope they had learned as much as they were able to understand from my published works”. Hemingway referred to his typewriter as his “therapist” even though he didn’t believe himself to be fit for analytic treatment. Hemingway’s allegedly simple writing style involved hours of editorial work and personal history. Not a single word is the product of mere coincidence but the result of a meticulous selection process.  Like his idol Rudyard Kipling, he began his literary career as a journalist. At best, editorial work has little to do with emotions and instead requires the journalist to be an “uninvolved observer”– an ideal that manifests itself in an exceedingly economical and information-centric writing style. Good journalism is characterized by the attempt to make complex issues more comprehensible. As a war veteran, Hemingway was born into turbulent times and was, like many of his peers, an eccentric contemporary. His mentor Gertrude Stein (“A rose is a rose is a rose”) encouraged him to write in a simple and precise way. Stein herself had studied medicine and psychology under the wings of her friend and teacher William James and even conducted several scientific experiments. William James was known as an unconventional teacher and a pragmatist who was convinced that the actual experience was far more important than the mere “knowledge of a matter”. The “stream of consciousness” method and automatic writing influenced Stein’s style, and consequently Hemingway’s. Resembling Hemingway, Stein’s style points to the latent, unconscious content of a story. 

The Iceberg

The iceberg model – based on Freud’s theories of the unconscious - is not only popular in the field of psychoanalysis. Freud himself, however, didn’t invent the iceberg metaphor and it’s unclear who came up with the idea first.  In the past, the model was frequently adapted and re-visualized by other disciplines – especially communication scientists made use of the iceberg to illustrate their theories but the model is also an integral part of economics. While it is unknown if Hemingway’s iceberg theory was inspired by Freud, his theories were omnipresent at the time and it appears likely that Hemingway had at least heard of the theory of the unconscious.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Hemingway explains,

“I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.” 

In “Death in the Afternoon” he writes, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

This writing style enables the reader to fathom and comprehend the depth and the unconscious of the text’s content. It allows more leeway for individual ideas and interpretations and puts the reader on eye level with the author. Legend has it that-  at dinner with friends - Hemingway bet ten dollars that he could write a story in six words on a napkin. To this day, the result is regarded as one of the most extreme examples of omission:

FOR SALE:

BABY SHOES,

NEVER WORN.

According to Ernest Hemingway, prose is “architecture, not interior design”.  In a manner of speaking, the reader is responsible for the interior design. Hemingway preferred nouns and verbs to adjectives and adverbs which he tried to avoid. The frequent repetition of words and phrases is owed to the influence of Gertrude Stein. The sentences are clearly formulated, yet the relation between two sentences is often absent. Fragmentation was a widespread stylistic element employed by the modernists. The aim was to trigger the reader’s imagination who would fill this creative word off his own bat. In this way, the reader investigates the depths of his own iceberg on a meta level and analyzes himself. What thoughts and emotions arise while reading? How do I interpret the protagonists´ actions? The personal, subjective perception and reality shape the text. The reader becomes a co-author, thus having a bearing on the content and context of the written text against the backdrop of the individual’s environment, and thereby becoming acquainted with the reader’s very own perspective.


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