Sunday’s Sermon

Finding Patterns in Hemingway and Camus: Construction of

Ernest Hemingway in Milan, 1918

Ernest Hemingway in Milan, 1918 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meaning and Truth

an essay on A Farewell to Arms by Robert D. Lane and Steven M. Lane

Once we knew that literature was about life and criticism was about fiction–and everything was simple. Now we know that fiction is about other fiction, is criticism in fact, or metaphor. And we know that criticism is about the impossibility of anything being about life, really, or even about fiction, or finally about anything. Criticism has taken the very idea of “aboutness” away from us. It has taught us that language is tautological, if it is not nonsense, and to the extent that it is about anything it is about itself. – Robert Scholes

One of the fascinations of reading literature comes when we discover in a work patterns that have heretofore been overlooked. We are the pattern finders who get deep enjoyment from the discovery of patterns in a text. And true to the calling we have noticed a pattern in and around A Farewell to Arms which, to our knowledge, no one has seen before. Although there are many editions of the novel, and as a result the pagination is slightly different in various editions, it is the case that all editions have forty-one chapters to be found in five books. Here is what we have discovered: if you multiply 41 by 5 you get 205. And now if you take the number of letters in Frederic’s name (8) and add that to the number of letters in Catherine’s name (9) you get 17. 205 + 17 = 222. And if you grant that the time of the events in the novel, counted properly, is three years, then the pattern we have discovered starts to emerge as figure on ground or as lemon juice ink on a secret message when held over a candle. For what is the product of 222 and 3 but the infamous 666 of Revelations 13:18?
Imagine now our delight when we discovered a similar 666 pattern in The Outsider. If you multiply the number of letters in Meursault’s name times the number of letters in ‘Albert’ times the number of letters in ‘Arab’ you get 216. Add to that the 6 of ‘Albert’ and multiply by 3 (which is the number one gets when dividing the number of chapters in Part one (6) by the number of books (2) that make up The Outsider) and surprise of surprises: the meaning revealing number ‘666′ once again emerges!
Clearly, when seen in this light, these two novels take on new meaning, and this pattern discovery provides a conclusive way to counter all earlier critics who have failed to see this talisman of interpretation, this key to understanding the complexities of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Camus’s The Outsider. ‘666′ offers a key to understanding in that it clearly refers us back to the text which these texts are “playing” with and are in some way about, if “aboutness” is a viable concept and if they are about anything at all.
“Wait a minute, here!” shouts Bickford Sylvester, “there is some nonsense even Hemingway scholars will not condone.” And of course this pattern of 666 is a bit of nonsense which could be discovered almost anywhere by someone forcing the facts into the pattern. Good 666 sleuths can find that devilish number anywhere; if you don’t believe us just ask the soap company. But what are the legitimate limits to interpretations? Does anything count? How can we know when the interpretation we are working on or reading has slipped into the realm of nonsense?
There are facts to be observed by the act of looking at the text and then there are interpretations to be deduced using those facts plus everything else one knows about what counts as a fact and what is to be counted as important in producing a coherent and consistent reading. Just as there are different interpretations of quantum theory which must deal with the same facts (taking a fact to be what is) there are different interpretations of A Farewell to Arms and The Outsider. In fact, the difference between science and art may be teased out just here: when a scientific interpretation becomes the accepted one it achieves a privileged status (e.g., evolution), but in art it seems that the more interpretations a work inspires and grounds the more privileged its status. Gerry Brenner argues that “a masterwork is a text that generates a wide array of divergent readings” and certainly on that criterion both of these novels are to be counted as masterworks. In the same way that science seeks a unifying theory to account for and predict from events in the world in a broad general way, so too do these two works offer a broad and general theory of the human condition and the human hunger for meaning.
What would count as “a broad and general theory of the human condition and the human hunger for meaning”? At the most general level only two readings are possible: we humans are special and are a part of a meaningful divine plan which is unknown to us in detail but is hinted at in various ways and has been delivered to us in outline by some special text; or, we humans are the result of time and chance, not at all special except as we create our meaning and value through our lived and shared experience. The first reading seeks the universal and enduring Truth or a hierarchy of values which is crowned by God. The second reading opposes that approach and insists on subjective intensity of passion maintaining that the individual is always becoming as the result of choices, risks, and reactions to the experiences of the world of which s/he is naturally related. The reader of the first text often sees death as a door; the second reader sees death as a wall and as the inescapable and shared destiny of all persons.

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