Ernest Hemingway is credited often as having contributed the most influential prose style of the twentieth century. The popularity of his writings and his continuing influence on writers remain largely a mystery. Was his style simply effective—easily mimicked? Or was it actually a perfection on all prior styles?
Hemingway emphasized honesty above all else. He accomplished this through simple word choices, word repetition and parallelism. His sentences are generally characterized by long strings of simple clauses telling simple truths, repeating key words, enlisting the senses and making plain observations of his character’s environments. In his memoir on craft, A Movable Feast, he compared his sentences to a form of impressionistic painting. In these paintings, a close examination of the canvas would reveal a series of small repeated brush strokes using similar colors. As one steps back, the simple brush strokes blend and a more complex, more emotionally arousing vista emerges. This vista can be understood to temporarily hypnotize its viewers with its beauty.
The most effective writing is also a form of hypnosis in which the conscious mind agrees to surrender control to the writing and time seems to stand still. To hypnotize his audience, Hemingway chose universally arousing words: ‘love,’ ‘anger,’ ‘food,’ ‘good,’ as his trance words. As readers digest these repeated words within passages of less important words, they are continually nudged in and out of small trances by a process known in hypnosis as fractionation. Through fractionation, a hypnotist gains greater and greater compliance by taking subjects in and out of very small trances so as to prepare them for deeper trance-work.
Hemingway’s work entrances audiences through word repetitions in a manner similar to acclimating to a cold pool of water. The pool represents the emotion he wished to conjure. Imagine the pool is full of words relating to his chosen emotion. The process of scanning past these words is similar to dipping a toe in-and-out of the pool and then later dipping a knee. More direct word choices can be comparable to going in-and-out of the pool waist deep. With enough repetition, he is capable of doing what might seem to those unaccustomed to the cold pool as unthinkable. Readers willingly jump in and out of the pool repeatedly and, as a result, have a much more exhilarating and satisfying experience. Word fractionation is allowing readers to practice their emotions before they must use them at a critical point in a story. It’s a more advanced, more subtle form of foreshadowing. While this hypnotic foreshadowing can explain ‘how’ his writing is effective, looking to mathematics can provide a deeper answer as to ‘why’.
His prose makes for rewarding comparisons with some of the more layman friendly concepts of Chaos Theory. A main tenant of this discipline is that as simple equations repeat, they give rise to what is known as emergent behavior. This behavior is often an unexpected, and much more complex, encompassing pattern. These patterns emerge as mathematical and natural constructs known as fractals (visual forms of Chaotic equations). The iteration of these simple fractal shapes can give rise to an emergent, beautiful image.
Hemingway’s long strings of simple clauses are like the building blocks of repeating fractal patterns. Just as very simple triangular shapes can give rise to a beautiful coastline from ascending aerial view, Hemingway’s easily digestible word and clause repetitions and his long, easy sentences can give rise in our minds to the emergent behaviors of experience and emotion.
He arouses our experience and emotion further through the perfection of his prose composition. This can be understood more fully through the Chaos Theory concept of self-similarity. As chaotic equations are iterated or, visually, as we move farther and farther from a fractal pattern such as a coastline, we notice a repetition of basic patterns throughout increasing levels of complexity: groupings of small triangle shapes in a coastline combine to create a larger, triangle-shaped arch in that coastline; cells in the human body have similar functions to the organs of human bodies; humans in a government have similar functions as those organs of the body. This self-similarity is applicable in prose as well. A good word choice is similar to a good clause choice which is similar to a well constructed paragraph and on and on to the levels of the chapter and the complete novel. All these elements must be pure, i.e.: contain no confusion, and they must be seamlessly joined to each of their higher and lower elements. This seamless joining of elements in literature was first explored by Aristotle in his Poetics. He advocated the large scale unities of place, time, and event. Hemingway’s writings emphasize an additional unity of prose composition: One word builds on the next; one clause builds on the next; sentences build on sentences—all while fighting to mine those arousing words and excluding the parts we knew to add ourselves.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Chaos Theory is its seemingly near universal application to natural phenomena. To really understand Hemingway and his writing one has to push just an inch past science into Mysticism. We need to question the misconception of separation of Mind and Body held in the West. Imagine an ‘empty’ section of space. Even if all matter is removed from this space, the gravity of nearby massive bodies radiate outward infinitely in a field which communicates with every other body. This communication between all bodies through space links all objects to each other and all objects to space. In this way, the acceptance of Relativistic Theory maintains that physics does not allow for the existence of ‘empty space’. All of reality is unified through gravity and space. While distinctions are possible, just as you can tell the top of a wave from the bottom of a wave, there is no true separation of any person from any other person or any thing from any other thing. Because of this, it’s important to realize that unity is the truest expression of reality and to achieve what people call realism, a writer must employ unity in time, place, event and prose composition.
The best way to create unity in prose composition is to tell the truth and this is a foremost principle of Hemingway’s writings. To understand truth, we must take a close look at a lie. Lies are grounded in the past: I used to swim that fast, had this type of home, expect this welcome from friends, this level of esteem. Truth is always in the present and much richer with detail. When we look for liars, we seek discontinuities like the lie-detector examiner looking for changes in heart rate, expression, intonation. Truth is seamless and unified. Truth should not be confused with perception. There can be an infinite number of perceptions but truth relates to the accuracy of a particular perception. A perception is a facet of the Oneness. As a person communicates with clarity such that everyone can understand what is said, that message becomes larger and larger and integrates with the Oneness. Truth is a window to life. As this window becomes more and more clear, through greater and greater accuracies in the message, the distinction between Truth and Life fades. The irresistibility of truth is in its seamlessness, its purity and its unified connection to all humanity. The seamlessness of prose (i.e. regarding smooth transitions between clauses, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc.) means that it is closer to this unified reality of the Oneness. And this represents the ultimate reason why Hemingway or any author endures: Their work integrates both within the imaginative worlds they build and beyond into real life.