Gopal Baratham: “Orwell of the Orient”

December 18, 2017

Gopal Baratham: “Orwell of the Orient”

by David Hutt

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The Late Singaporean Novelist Dr. Gopal Baratham

The late Singaporean novelist Gopal Baratham’s A Candle or the Sun, published in 1991, is rightly regarded as one of the finest works of literature to come out of the city-state (though probably not according to its government). Politically-minded, and not afraid to amble along a storyline of repression and state-enforced victimhood, it is small wonder Baratham’s writing was often compared to George Orwell’s.

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A Time magazine’s review of A Candle or the Sun states that it “picks up where George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four left off.” In the negative, both authors’ styles are admittedly a little too heavy with caricature and requisite pathos, especially when it comes to life’s victims. Indeed, A Candle or the Sun might initially catch one’s eye as a Southeast Asian transmutation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. As Baratham would say in an interview, he wanted to complete the book by 1984 “for Orwell” but couldn’t finish it until the end of 1985. The book is set in 1983. It took another six years to find a publisher, which was Serpent’s Tail, of London.

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A more discernible reader, however, might also notice the traces of Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A bored salesman and failing amateur writer (a la Gordon Comstock), Baratham’s protagonist, Hernie Perera, gives up on his artistic dreams, though with the promise of literary success, when he accepts a job offer from an old friend to work at the Ministry of Culture producing propaganda. Both Comstock and Perera are susceptible to hypocrisy gilded in justification, mistreatment of their lovers for their own advancement, and an overestimation of their own literary merits.

Perera’s self-respect is lost (though later redeemed) when he betrays to his new employers his lover Su-May, a member of anti-government Christian sect that is printing a “street paper.” This oppressive state is ominously distant from the story, however. (The setting is clearly Singapore, despite the book’s forewarning that “any similarity of persons, places or events depicted herein to actual persons places or events is purely coincidental.”) Perera does muse on how the state wants a say in even the most minute points of life (“your masters kennel you in neat boxes, doctor your females, control litter size according to pedigree and tell you what names you can give your pups,” to give one example.) And Perera is later chided by the lover of his friend: “Did they never tell you that on this island of paradise of ours trade is a matter of security, education is a matter of security, health is a matter of security, how you wash your underwear is a matter of security.”

The Singaporean academic Ban Kah Choon apparently once described him as a “magician who stands before the unknown to decipher what has yet to be written.” Ignore the pretentiousness and incoherence of this statement; Baratham, after all, was fictionalising fact in A Candle or the Sun: specifically, Operation Spectrum, the Singaporean government’s attempt at McCarthyism. But he was certainly charting a new course in Singaporean literature. And instigators often have to be more obvious. Baratham was at his best when he was at his subtlest, though he often had the habit of repeating his understatements so often they become glaring. Indeed, re-reading A Candle or the Sun in light of the more recent politically-natured novels from Singapore (I’m thinking in particular of Jeremy Tiang’s understated State of Emergency, published in May) one gets the sense that Baratham subscribes to the hammer-to-crack-a-nut cliché.

Three years after A Candle or the Sun was published, Catherine Lim, another Singaporean writer, earned a rebuke from Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for her articles in the Straits Times. Writers on the fringe must not challenge the government, the Prime Minister said. There were suspicions, during the ‘90s, of Baratham being the city-state’s “token liberal,” an author who avoided the sort of criticism and censorship others faced. “You should criticize the faults if you care for the society,” he said in 1996. “Some people say I’m the government’s token liberal. What can I say?”

His background, perhaps, afforded him some protection. Born in 1935, decades before Singapore became an independent nation, he followed his parents’ footsteps into the medical profession. At 36, he finally graduated from the University of Edinburgh, specialising in neurosurgery, after training at the Royal London Hospital. He would later return to Singapore, eventually becoming the head of Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s neurosurgery department. In 1991, the same year A Candle or the Sun was published, he was elected president of the ASEAN Association of Neurosurgeons.

His prominence in the medical field, at least in Southeast Asia, was not quite equalled by his literary recognition. A Candle or the Sun became his first published novel, after two collections of short stories, and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1992, which he reportedly turned down because, he said, it was awarded based on the panel looking for a “Singapore style of writing” when he considered his work international (most of his work was published by British publishing house, not Singaporean ones). He attempted another novel and a non-fiction book after A Candle or the Sun but it was that work that kept his name in alive among the talking classes.

His death, in 2002, gave chance for his reappraisal as an interlocutor for free speech in Singapore. Teng Qian Xi, writing in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore at the time, offered a retrospective: “The criticism of the Singaporean ethos of conformity and rationality, as well as the questioning of memory, rhetoric and history which I often found forced in his stories became more exciting, less pedagogical in A Candle or the Sun.”

Freedom from speech

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Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner–Hong Lim Park

I do not know how widely A Candle or the Sun is still read in Singapore. I am told anecdotally that, like Nineteen Eighty-Four is around the world, it’s known by many but read by few. I hope not. Nonetheless, it remains an easy-to-hand reference for free speech matters. Indeed, how little things seem to have changed since it was published. The People’s Action Party (PAP) is still in power, as it has been since Singapore gained its statehood. The country’s media remains closed. MediaCorp dominates television and radio, and is the only terrestrial TV broadcaster. It happens to be controlled by the government-owned investment arm, Temasek Holdings, the CEO of which is Ho Ching, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. As for the newspapers, the Straits Times is owned by Singapore Press Holdings. Its current CEO is Alan Chan, who previously served in several government positions, and its chairman Lee Boon Yang, who served as an MP for the ruling party from 1984 until 2011, and held Cabinet positions during that time.

When Baratham was interviewed after the publication of A Candle or the Sun, he laconically defended himself: “It’s not that I want to irritate, but I just speak my mind… You should criticize the faults if you care for the society.” But this is a concept that still doesn’t find ear among the ruling elite, despite its rhetoric. In February, the Prime Minister commented: “If all you have are people who say, ‘Three bags full, sir’, then soon you start to believe them, and that is disastrous.” On the same day, as the Economist pointed out, a respected former diplomat who now runs a public-policy institute at the National University of Singapore, said Singapore needs “more naysayers [who] attack and challenge every sacred cow.”

Singapore is now a 21st century economy propped up by 20th century politics. And the Sedition Act, on the books since the late 1940s, is still brought out to slap down those naysayers, especially those who criticise the sacred cows, namely religion and race. PM Lee Hsien Loong has defended Singapore’s limits on free expression as a means to safeguard social stability. “In our society, which is multiracial and multi-religious, giving offence to another religious or ethnic group, race, language or religion, is always a very serious matter,” he said. This has been the case since Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister (and the current PM’s father), promised in 1965 to build a multiracial nation. “This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion,” he commented that year.

Today, Indeed, Singapore is a multiracial state. And a heavy dose of state-enforcement has gone into defending this idea. Singapore celebrates Racial Harmony Day—July 21, the day when the riots broke out in 1964—and schoolchildren are taught about religion and ethnicity. But the idea that by suppressing “hate-speech” one can improve society reveals hidden impulses behind those who call from restraints. It is, at the same time, utopian and nihilistic.

I’ll take a fairly positive-slanted story from the Straits Times, dated November 8, 2015, as an example. The article’s author describes Singapore as a microcosm, “which pledges to be color-blind in its meritocracy and economic growth by providing opportunities for all”. From these, and numerous other reports, one gets the sense that perhaps the government is justified in trying to silence what it considers hate speech.

But a number of commentators are quoted as saying that Singapore is “nowhere near being a race-blind society” because racist undertones are hidden under the surface of a seemingly cohesive society. They also said that “some people and groups are downright ignorant and biased, others merely tolerate, but others are proactive in understanding and being appreciative”. One sociologist opined that “bubbling beneath our civil veneer, there are prejudices and stereotypes which occasionally surface to trigger bouts of soul-searching”. Indeed, the death of a foreign worker in Little India in 2013 led to a riot of more than 300 people, during which 54 officers and eight civilians were injured.

But silencing any public discourse on race or religion doesn’t seem to have done much good (just as banning mention of food isn’t a cure for malnutrition). As seen over the decades, while tensions remain dormant most of the time, they do have the recurrent habit of bubbling up. Moreover, not talking about the issue doesn’t always mean it will go away. A 2013 survey found that almost half of Singaporeans didn’t have a close friend of another race.

At some point in A Candle or the Sun, Perera is warned: “culture is a matter of security.” So, too, is culture a matter of free speech. While “hate-speech” does exist, all too often free speech is curtailed in Singapore over claims that individuals have offended a religion or race, when what they have really done is criticise the government. A casual glance over the cases of people recently prosecuted for free speech reveals that courts tend to find some facet of religious or racial offence in the person’s comments.

Take the case of the blogger Amos Yee, who was prosecuted twice for wounding religious feeling, not for criticising the government. As Singapore’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Foo Chi Hsia, said in 2015, “Amos Yee was convicted for insulting the faith of Christians…Protection from hate speech is also a basic human right.” Indeed, from this comment one can denote the legal contortionism of the Singaporean government: its citizens have the right of freedom from speech, which, to the government, is more important than freedom of speech. Yee might have gone on a tirade against religion, but his main target for criticism was the government, specifically the death of Lee Kuan Yew, in 2015. He called the late leader “a horrible person”, an “awful leader” and a “dictator,” as the Economist reported. Indeed, the American government was clearly of opinion that Yee was persecuted for his political views when it offered him asylum this year. “This is the modus operandi for the Singapore regime – critics of the government are silenced by civil suit for defamation or criminal prosecutions,” one American immigration judge wrote during Yee’s asylum ruling. To which the Singaporean government responded that America allows “hate speech under the rubric of freedom of speech.”

It is often too easy to defend the freedom of speech for the likes of Baratham, a learned doctor and adroit novelist. Harder, though, to defend the uncouth ramblings of someone like Yee. As I wrote in the Diplomat at the time: “It is clear that most of [Yee’s] comments were crude and inarticulate and, befitting his age, childish. This doesn’t mean, however, he ought not be defended for merely uttering an opinion.”

Taking the candle

George Orwell once described Speakers Corner, in London’s Hyde Park, as “one of the minor wonders of the world.” On my last visit to Singapore, last year, a reposeful afternoon provided me with a moment to visit the city-state’s own attempt at a Speakers Corner, located in Hong Lim Park. Oh, how imitations are inferior. The Economist described it thusly:

[A] spot set up for Singaporeans to exercise their freedom of speech without any restriction whatsoever, beyond the obligation to apply for permission to speak and to comply with the 13 pages of terms and conditions upon which such permissions are predicated, as well as all the relevant laws and constitutional clauses.

That article was about the prosecution of blogger Han Hui Hui who, in 2014, journeyed to Speakers’ Corner to protest the management of the Central Provident Fund, the city-states compulsory social security fund. She was found guilty and fined more than $2,000 last year not for voicing her opinion, a government spokesperson said, but for “loutishly barging into a performance by a group of special-education-needs children, frightening them and denying them the right to be heard.”

But what’s surprising about Speakers’ Corner is that Singapore would even attempt a parody. But, then again, Baratham understood the importance of the masquerade. The real heft of A Candle or the Sun is not in how an oppressive state operates but how people are so ready to sacrifice (and justify sacrificing) freedom for “good housing, safe streets, schools for your children and… three square meals a day and a colour TV,” as Perera says. Indeed, principles are sacrificed with only the slightest enticement by the state, unlike in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In 2013, a survey of 4,000 Singaporeans asked whether they preferred “limits on freedom of expression to prevent social tensions” or “complete freedom of expression even at risk of social tensions.” 40% of respondents went for limits and 37% said complete freedom. The remaining 23 percent had no opinion on the matter, which perhaps says something about public participation in Singaporean society.

If Nineteen Eighty-Four is a novel that represents what Orwell described as “the dirty-handkerchief side of life” then Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published 17 years earlier, is its saccharine facsimile. Huxley in a letter to Orwell shortly after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.

A Candle or the Sun serves somewhat as a synthesis between the censorial warning of both dystopias. Baratham understood that too much jack-booting, never the first port of call for the Singaporean repressors anyway, couldn’t last. (A Candle or the Sun happened to be published the year the Soviet Union collapsed). Equally, permissiveness, unlike in Brave New World, had to be carefully managed: provide a glimpse but never the real thing. Perera, an intelligent man, understands the cognitive dissonance one needs to survive in such a world. A noted passage in A Candle or the Sun finds him musing over whether to take the censorial job. He compares his position to that of a prostitute. “Once I’ve accepted Sam’s job,” he thinks, “I was sure I would have to do things distasteful… I suppose this loss of self-respect is what distressed me. It must be something that all whores grappled with.” But as he soliloquises, he swiftly talks himself round to a justification:

The analogy with prostitutes was a good one. There must be prostitutes who are wives and mothers, who ran families, loved their husbands. Their salvation must lie in an ability to separate in their minds acts which were physically identical.

The psychically identical act, for Perera, was to be able to write artistically and censorially at the same time. In short, selling something that one doesn’t want to, nor believes in. Indeed, from his days running a furniture store, Perera reflects that salesmanship “consisted not of providing people with what they needed, but with that was essential to their dreams.” Shortly afterwards, he comments: “The possibility of winter is essential to the happiness of people living in the tropics.” Dreams, Perera realises, are all too willingly indulged and what people really need (freedom and autonomy) sacrificed. Indeed, do people want the candle (the intimation of freedom) or the sun (the real thing)? The government’s art of salesmanship, as Singapore’s history has shown, makes sure people readily opt for the candle.

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Editor’s note: readers interesting in buying The Candle and the Sun can find copies available through Marshall Cavendish or at AbeBooks.


Being Exceptional the right way

November 15, 2017

Being Exceptional the right way

by Azmi

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Mustafa Akyol and Azmi Sharom

I WAS very surprised that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature this year. Don’t get me wrong, I think he is an excellent writer. Believe it or not, I do occasionally read things other than football reports, and I have enjoyed Ishiguro’s work tremendously.


However, I always thought that the Nobel Prize for literature was given to authors who are so complex and hyper intelligent that they seem to be from another planet. I have tried to read the books of some of these folks – Naipaul, Saramago and Gao, to name a few. And I haven’t managed more than 20 or 40 pages. It’s not because the books were awful. It’s just that they were too difficult.

Contrast this to Ishiguro’s breakthrough book The Remains of the Day. My Japanese mate introduced it to me and I read it in one night. It was a jolly good read, but it wasn’t particularly challenging.

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But then, can we be surprised? After all, Bob blinking Dylan won the prize last year. Seriously? “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man? …The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Seriously?

Again, I am not dissing Bob. I think that Blood on the Tracks is an awesome album; it’s the best break-up album money can buy. And I remember fondly hearing him sing unintelligibly at, of all places, the Putra World Trade Centre. But is he up there with Neruda?

Image result for Bob DylanMusical Genius Bob Dylan and a Man of Peace


Okay, at this point, you may be saying that I am being elitist. Maybe I am, but not in the way that you may think. After all, I freely admit that I am not smart enough to get the works of the Nobel winners that I have tried to read. How can I be elitist when I clearly don’t understand them?

I guess what I am trying to say is that it is good to have some crazy mad high standard of human achievement; something to look up to and admire. A gold standard that perhaps in our own small way we can aspire to.

The same goes for sport. As sweet as it is to see the Falkland Islands badminton team huff and puff away at the Commonwealth Games, it is the elite in sport that truly captures the imagination.

It is when we bring things down to a lower or in the case of television, the lowest, common denominator that we start to lose that aspirational element of human endeavour. Why train and work hard to be a good actor when you can simply be obnoxious and have your own reality TV show?

And so it is in politics. I want leaders who are smarter and more able than me. They should be people who have a grasp of the world that I don’t have, in order for problems to be solved and governance to be good. If we just go for the popular and the lowest common denominator, then any Tom, Dick or Donald can be a leader and that could be disastrous.

All people are created equal. That is something I believe in. But not everybody can achieve equally. Some are just stronger or smarter or more talented.

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It is one thing to acknowledge those who can be appreciated by a wider audience, who are more like “one of us”. But if we do that all the time, then what is there to aspire to? What is there to inspire?

Azmi Sharom ( is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

The Work You Do, the Person You Are–Self Esteem

October 30, 2017

The Work You Do, the Person You Are

The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound. I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed.

By Toni Morrison

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

All I had to do for the two dollars was clean her house for a few hours after school. It was a beautiful house, too, with a plastic-covered sofa and chairs, wall-to-wall blue-and-white carpeting, a white enamel stove, a washing machine and a dryer—things that were common in Her neighborhood, absent in mine. In the middle of the war, She had butter, sugar, steaks, and seam-up-the-back stockings.

I knew how to scrub floors on my knees and how to wash clothes in our zinc tub, but I had never seen a Hoover vacuum cleaner or an iron that wasn’t heated by fire.

Part of my pride in working for jer was earning money I could squander: on movies, candy, paddleballs, jacks, ice-cream cones. But a larger part of my pride was based on the fact that I gave half my wages to my mother, which meant that some of my earnings were used for real things—an insurance-policy payment or what was owed to the milkman or the iceman. The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound. I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed, nuisances to be corrected, problems so severe that they were abandoned to the forest. I had a status that doing routine chores in my house did not provide—and it earned me a slow smile, an approving nod from an adult. Confirmations that I was adultlike, not childlike.

In those days, the forties, children were not just loved or liked; they were needed. They could earn money; they could care for children younger than themselves; they could work the farm, take care of the herd, run errands, and much more. I suspect that children aren’t needed in that way now. They are loved, doted on, protected, and helped. Fine, and yet . . .

Image result for Toni Morrison Toni Morrison receives Presidential Medal of Freedom. Toni Morrison, the renowned author and the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities Emeritus at Princeton University, was named by President Barack Obama a 2012 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

Little by little, I got better at cleaning her house—good enough to be given more to do, much more. I was ordered to carry bookcases upstairs and, once, to move a piano from one side of a room to the other. I fell carrying the bookcases. And after pushing the piano my arms and legs hurt so badly. I wanted to refuse, or at least to complain, but I was afraid she would fire me, and I would lose the freedom the dollar gave me, as well as the standing I had at home—although both were slowly being eroded. She began to offer me her clothes, for a price. Impressed by these worn things, which looked simply gorgeous to a little girl who had only two dresses to wear to school, I bought a few. Until my mother asked me if I really wanted to work for castoffs. So I learned to say “No, thank you” to a faded sweater offered for a quarter of a week’s pay.

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“Make a difference about something other than yourselves.”– Toni Morrison–

Still, I had trouble summoning the courage to discuss or object to the increasing demands she made. And I knew that if I told my mother how unhappy I was she would tell me to quit. Then one day, alone in the kitchen with my father, I let drop a few whines about the job. I gave him details, examples of what troubled me, yet although he listened intently, I saw no sympathy in his eyes. No “Oh, you poor little thing.” Perhaps he understood that what I wanted was a solution to the job, not an escape from it. In any case, he put down his cup of coffee and said, “Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.”

That was what he said. This was what I heard:

  1. Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.

  2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.

  3. Your real life is with us, your family.

  4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.

I have worked for all sorts of people since then, geniuses and morons, quick-witted and dull, bighearted and narrow. I’ve had many kinds of jobs, but since that conversation with my father I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home. ♦

NY Times Book Review: What the Greek Myths Teach Us About Anger in Troubled Times

September 7, 2017

Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths
By Emily Katz Anhalt
268 pp. Yale University Press. $30.

The very first word in the history of Western literature is “rage” or “wrath.” For that is how Homer’s “Iliad” begins. Composed some time in the eighth century B.C., it starts with a call to the Muse, the goddess of inspiration, to help tell the story of the “wrath” of Achilles (menin in the original Greek) — and of the incalculable sorrows and the terrible deaths of so many brave warriors that this wrath caused. Homer’s epic, set during the mythical war between Greeks and Trojans, is as much about anger, private vendetta and its fatal consequences as it is about heroic combat and the clash of two ancient superpowers. What happens, the poem asks, when your best warrior is so furious at a personal insult that he withdraws from the war and simply refuses to fight? What are the costs, to use the modern coinage, of “Achilles sulking in his tent”?

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In “Enraged,” Emily Katz Anhalt, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, offers an engaging and sometimes inspiring guide to the rich complexities of the “Iliad.” Her underlying point is that, from its earliest origins, Western literature questioned the values of the society that produced it. The “Iliad” is no jingoistic Greek anthem, proudly celebrating the achievements of its warrior heroes and their struggles for military, political and personal glory (their struggles, as she sums it up, to be “best”). The poem both encapsulates and simultaneously challenges that worldview, by asking what “bestness” is and what the costs of such a competitive culture are.

The 10-year Trojan War was fought to protect the honor of one Greek king, whose wife, Helen, had been stolen by — or had run off with — a Trojan prince. It must always have been very hard to listen to the “Iliad” (it was originally delivered orally) without wondering whether being “best” really should mean deploying almost unlimited resources and sacrificing the lives of countless friends and allies to avenge such a personal slight. Or, to put it in our terms, was the military response proportionate to the provocation? The dilemma in Homer’s plot, which focused on a few days’ slice of the action, is similar. In a public contest of bravado, clout and honor, Achilles had been forced to give up a captive girl, who was his favorite spoil of war, to the Greek commander in chief, Agamemnon. It was for that reason — the dishonor more than the girl herself — that he sulked off from the fight and by his absence caused the deaths of many dear to him. “Was he justified?” is the obvious and, in terms of traditional heroic codes of honor, the radical question.


No less radical are the different perspectives on the story that Homer encourages his listeners and readers to adopt. As Anhalt rightly insists, by setting some of his scenes behind enemy lines, among the Trojan fighters and their families — from the ruminations of the sadly regretful Helen to the encounters between Hector, the Trojan super-warrior, and his young son — Homer destabilizes the traditional “them-and-us” culture of the ancient Greek world, and its conventional polarization between civilization and barbarity. We are invited to see the Trojan enemy not as barbarians at all but as people very much like us (that is, like Greeks): laughing and joking, loving their children, kindly, fearful and in awe of their gods. In short, as Anhalt writes, the first work of Western literature already reminds us that even a sworn enemy is “fully human.”

Anhalt, however, has bigger points to make. She wants to show that the “Iliad” and other works of Greek literature (she also examines in detail two fifth-century-B.C. Athenian tragedies set in the last days and aftermath of the Trojan War) have direct lessons for the modern world. You can see why. As she makes very clear, dehumanizing the enemy is still one of the most counterproductive aspects of political rhetoric. It may suit some narrowly short-term ends to pretend that, for example, the politicians and people of North Korea do not laugh and joke and love their children; but of course they do.

She has some powerful words too on the modern unreflective complacency about the democratic political process, as if so-called free and fair elections were its only touchstone. One of her chosen tragedies, Sophocles’ “Ajax,” explores the consequences of a popular group decision that was morally wrong: After his death, the armor of Achilles was unfairly awarded as a prize to Odysseus, not to his rival Ajax — and bloody mayhem came from Ajax’s rage at the decision. Anhalt urges us to look harder, as Sophocles did, at the way democracy works, to face the uncomfortable fact that democratic decisions can be wrong and can sometimes serve the ends of tyranny and ignorance rather than of justice and equality. Her implication that it is the job of a democracy to debate and to deal with democracy’s mistakes as well as to celebrate its successes is important, even if she is occasionally unfair to some human political achievements. “In many parts of the world today,” Anhalt writes, “slavery and ethnic inequality persist and women still lack equal rights and cannot vote” — which in some general sense is true, though the last part is misleading. It is certainly the case that in some places voting may not amount to much, and that women face all kinds of political disadvantage almost everywhere, but to my knowledge it is only in Vatican City that women are allowed nowhere near a ballot box.

But as the title “Enraged” suggests, fury and anger are at the center of Anhalt’s agenda. If, she claims, we were to take a lesson from the “Iliad” and from the human costs of Achilles’ anger, we would now be trying much more determinedly to move away from the politics of violence, vengeance and reprisals, to the politics of debate and verbal persuasion. “As we face the domestic, international, and global crises of our own times we have to resist the seductions of rage,” she writes.

Ancient literature can certainly be eye opening, and it has a wonderful capacity to make us re-examine many modern assumptions that we take too much for granted. But I am very doubtful that it has any particularly useful direct lessons for us. It is slightly disappointing to find that, after many fine observations, the book’s central conclusion lies somewhere between a liberal truism (essentially: It is better to talk about things than fight) and a misleading oversimplification. As Anhalt more or less concedes, the final verdict on anger, whether political or personal, must come down to what we are angry about and how we act as a consequence. Rage, as shown in the “Iliad” and some modern geopolitical debate, can be petty and corrosive, but I doubt that Homer was advocating that we should live entirely without it. It is sometimes not only justifiable but necessary. Do we want to live in a world in which we don’t get furious at slavery, racism, or any number of other global injustices — or even at some of the dreadful truths of the human condition? When more than two millenniums after Homer the poet Dylan Thomas wrote of facing death with the words “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” it was the kind of rage that many of us understandably cherish.


Edward Said–A Tribute

August 12, 2017

Edward Said–A Tribute

by A.C. Grayling

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Edward Said (pic above) was a much interviewed man, partly because he stood in a unique cross-cultural place at a painful historical juncture, and could speak about it with intelligence and eloquence,thus attracting the persistent attention of journalists and fellow intellectuals, and partly because he agreed so often to be interviewed , doubtless out of the intellectual’s need for expression, but almost  certainly also because there was more than a tincture of vanity in that handsome man who derived so much from so many places–Palestine, the Western literary tradition, the East, America, the British public school tradition,the Arab world, the East Coast Ivy League tradition, Cairo, Jerusalem,New York, well lit European television studios, the border with Israel at whose fence he could throw stones–because he claim to belong to none of them though benefiting massively from them all.

The many interviews he gave between them beautifully manifest these paradoxical  self-positionings and deep ambiguities, and in the process offer a portrait–all the more striking for being so unselfconsciously self-conscious–of a vitally interesting individual. A volume collecting his interviews was ready for publication shortly before his lamented death, and he therefore read it;  one wonders whether he saw how chameleon-like he was, taking on colours of the side from which his interviewers  came: an Arab for Arabs, a ‘colonial’ when talking to other ‘colonials’ (for example the Indian editor of the volume), and a culturally conservative four-square Western-educated intellectual for Western academic colleagues. He even went so far as to say to Israel’s Ha’aretz magazine, “I’m the last Jewish intellectual…I’m a Jewish-Palestinian.”

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He was, of course, nothing of the sort, and not much of the other thing either. Born a Protestant Christian in West Jerusalem of wealthy Christian Arab parents, he spent his early life in Cairo being educated at a famous English public school there along with later King Hussein of Jordan and the famous bridge player-actor Omar Sharif, and then went to university in America. After taking his PhD in English Literature he joined the faculty of Columbia University in the early 1960s, and New York remained his home until his death in 2003.

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Although his chosen milieu was American academia, the accident of his origins gave him a stake in the tragedy of the Middle East, and he became an indefatigable and powerful advocate of the Palestinian cause. Fame came with his book Orientalism , whose argument is that Europeans deal with the Orient through a process of colonisation premised on the Orient as ‘Other’ expressed in many ways, from literature and art to scholarship and thence colonial bureaucracy. He saw the Occident-Orient relationship as deriving  not in fact from alienation but from historical closeness, although at its fullest it takes the form of power, dominance, and varying degrees of hegemony in Gramsci’s of ‘cultural domination’. This important idea, and its extension into Said’s views about the relation of culture and imperialism generally, is discussed repeatedly and from a variety of angles in the interviews he gave, which between them therefore constitute a work in itself, and an excellent introduction to hie thought.

For all that Said was a campaigner for Palestine and enemy of Zionism in unequivocal terms (he disliked Martin Luther King Jr. and King was pro-Israel), he was otherwise a small conservative in cultural terms. Despite everything he said about Orientalism, his most abiding loyalty was to Western High Culture ( he loved serious music and opera, and wrote about it frequently) and the literature of the English tongue. Claiming that even Jane Austen embodies the imperialising thrust of English literature–Mansfield Park is paid for by a slave plantation in Antigua, a passingly mentioned item which for Said, as for the many engaged in the industry of ‘postcolonial literary studies’, is an endless resource–Said  was able to be a prophet among avant-garde lit.-crit. fraternity, and yet at the same time he came early to despise them.

“One thing that everyone can agree with Said about–and it is  a point he often  and eloquently made–is that academy should not be disengaged from the real world and especially the injustices it contains. His own life is a monument to that conviction, and deserves praise for it”.–A.C. Grayling

Refreshingly, he was sometimes dismissive of ‘literary theory’ and the jargon-laden ‘auto-tinkering’ of the academy,  in which literary criticism  is a cheap form of philosophy done by waving banners  with ‘Derrida’ and ‘Heidegger’ on them, resulting in salaried logorrhoea, a thick stream of indecipherable nonsense that has spewed, like outfall from a main sewer, into an intellectually polluted sea of futility.

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But interviews with him show  that he never quite escaped the grip of this intellectual disease. When speaking to fellow lit.-crit. academics he falls easily into the jargon: ‘As (Michel) Foucault said…As  (Jacques) Derrida said…’is the familiar refrain, and, like his colleagues he misquotes  and misrepresents (as when he shows unfamiliarity with what for example (Thomas) Hobbes and (Karl) Popper really meant, though airily invoking their names in that lit.-crt.way, which is like a verbal twic or twitch: ‘…as Popper said…’)

As just one of many  ambiguities that cluster around Said’s intellectual persona,though, his divided attitude  to his academic discipline is understandable enough. Often pressed in interviews on  the question of how he can regard (Jane) Austen and (Joseph) Conrad as great writers and their works as great literature while at the same time viewing them as imperialist producers of texts not merely expressing but embodying the very process of colonisation and therefore diminishment of the Other, Said had to navigate carefully between emphasising  now on one side of the dilemma and now the other, trying to show that a work can be great literature even if it is, because it is of its time and place, an instrument of a form of harm. To perceptions which catch less shiftingly grey nuances, this seems like having a cake and eating it; much of what Said tried to do in interviews was to show how that can be done.

One thing that everyone can agree with Said about–and it is  a point he often  and eloquently made–is that academy should not be disengaged from the real world and especially the injustices it contains. His own life is a monument to that conviction, and deserves praise for it.

Source: A.C. Grayling, The Heart of Things: Applying Philosophy to the 21st Century (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), Edward Said, 1935-2003, pp 226-229

Ernest Hemingway, the Sensualist

June 27, 2017

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From Langkawi Island–Home of the Malaysian Eagle

Ernest Hemingway, the Sensualist

The macho icon has been recast as a gender-bending progressive. But what really made his pulse race?

It’s difficult for people who weren’t around at the time to grasp the scale of the Hemingway cult in twentieth-century America. As late as 1965, the editor of could write reverently of scenes from a kind of Ernest Hemingway Advent calendar: “Wine-stained moods in the sidewalk cafés and roistering nights in Left Bank”. Walking home alone in the rain. Talk of death, and scenes of it, in the Spanish sun. Treks and trophies in Tanganyika’s green hills. Duck-shooting in the Venetian marshes. . . . Loving and drinking and fishing out of Key West and Havana.” It was real fame, too, not the thirty-minutes-with-Terry Gross kind that writers have to content themselves with now.

To get close to the tone of it today, you would have to imagine the literary reputation of Raymond Carver joined with the popularity and political piety of Bruce Springsteen. “Papa” Hemingway was not just a much admired artist; he was seen as a representative American public man. He represented the authority of writing even for people who didn’t read.

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The debunking, when it came, came hard. As the bitter memoirs poured out, we got alcoholism, male chauvinism, fabulation, malice toward those who had made the mistake of being kind to him—all that. Eventually there came, from his avid estate, the lucrative but not reputation-enhancing publication of posthumous novels. The brand continues: his estate licenses the “Ernest Hemingway Collection,” which includes an artisanal rum, Papa’s preferred eyewear, and heavy Cuban-style furniture featuring “leather-like vinyl with a warm patina.” (What would Papa have said of that!) But few would now give the old man the heavyweight championship of literature for which he fought so hard, not least because thinking of literature as an elimination bout is no longer our style. We think of it more as a quilting bee, with everyone having a chance to add a patch, and the finest patches often arising from the least privileged quilters. In recent decades, Hemingway has represented the authority of writing only for people who never read.

Suddenly, though, there has been an academic revival in Hemingway studies in which, with an irony no satirist could have imagined, Hemingway, who in his day exemplified American macho, has, through our taste for “queering the text,” become Hemingway the gender bender. The Hemingway Review can now contain admiring articles with subtitles like “Sodomy and Transvestic Hallucination in Hemingway.” It is newly possible to deduce that Papa was far weirder, in a positive sense, than he liked to pretend, and that his texts contain, just below their rigidly tumescent surface, deep glimmering pools of sexual ambiguity and gender liquidity.

Mary V. Dearborn’s new biography, “Hemingway” (Knopf), is hardly full of revelations. With the witnesses almost all dead, and the archives combed through as if by addicts looking for remnants of crack, how could it be? But it is up to date in attitude. The queer-theory patches are all in place, as are the feminist ones. Dearborn has an oddly puritanical attitude toward the storytelling of a storyteller, becoming quite prim as she points out that Hemingway exaggerated here, confabulated there, made less of this than was quite truthful, and more of that. Hemingway, she writes, told “enormous whoppers” about, for instance, trapping pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens for dinner in his early years in Paris. In fact, he and his first wife, Hadley, had plenty of money. But he was writing fables about the aspirations of expatriates, not textbooks on accounting. Hungry people—and no one is hungrier than a young writer trying to make a reputation—feel hungry even when they’re not actually starving.

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In general, Dearborn seems not to have met many writers along her scholarly path, and appears astounded that the good ones tell tall tales about their own formation, which is like being astounded that fishermen exaggerate the size of their catch. (Of course, Hemingway did that, too.) Most of Hemingway’s fabulations are transparent in style and purpose: he told an interviewer once that, when he walked with Joyce in Paris in the nineteen-twenties, Joyce would “fall into an argument or a fight. He couldn’t even see the man so he’d say, ‘Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!’ ” This surely never happened, but you can see why he wished it had, and can’t hate him for wishing it. He wanted to be Joyce’s Luca Brasi.

In Dearborn’s better moments, she shows how intelligently Hemingway managed to apportion the amount of empirical accuracy for each occasion. Although he inflated his heroism in the Great War—at one point giving credence to the report that he had carried a wounded Italian soldier over a distance twice the length of a football field—he was direct and understated in his published stories. Dearborn thinks that Hemingway was asking whether “there was any more authenticity, or truth.” No, he wasn’t. He was allocating authenticity and truth according to the needs of his art. The original of Catherine in “A Farewell to Arms” was an American nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky, whom he loved passionately, only to have her reject him with a chilly Dear John letter, in which she told him that she was “still very fond” of him but “more as a mother than a sweetheart.” He fixed the facts in the novel by having her die for love bearing his child. Revenge on reality like that is what literature is.

But Dearborn is an encyclopedic collector of facts and, on the whole, a decent and fair-minded judge of them. One rarely objects to her verdicts about what exactly happened and why. The story here gets retold more or less on the terms we know, with judicious guesses made as to the truth of much-argued-over episodes: yes, his mother dressed him as a girl until he was old enough to notice; no, Scott Fitzgerald probably never asked him to check the size of Fitzgerald’s member in a Paris men’s room; yes, those famous wilderness outings in Michigan took place in the context of a big middle-class house and middle-class vacations, and were not nearly as primitive as the stories make them sound; and no, his first wife did not lose all of his early work on a train for good—a lot was soon recovered. Recent “discoveries” in the field are put more or less into place: the revelation from the author Nicholas Reynolds, in “Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy,” that Hemingway had been recruited as a spy by Stalin’s N.K.V.D. in the nineteen-thirties is noted, although it’s also noted that Hemingway seems never to have done anything for it. The truth that he was not entirely paranoid at the end of his life to think that the F.B.I. had been keeping an eye on him is noted, too, and so is the fact that the Bureau seemed to have little malice toward him. Indeed, J. Edgar Hoover himself—another tough guy with a hidden side—was an admirer. And Dearborn sees clearly what was clouded then: that a large part of Hemingway’s decline in his last years was due to an inherited bipolar disorder coupled with a penchant for self-medication through alcohol.

We pass through the usual progress of Hemingway’s life, already well charted in all those other books. Early fraught years in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, with a distant, manic-depressive father, who eventually committed suicide, and a cold mother, who once ordered the young Ernest out of the house and, years later, when his first novel was a hit, found a wholly negative local review to send him. Relief in the form of summers spent fishing at the family’s lake cottage. No college years—he missed that part, and paid for it by overcompensating intellectually—but war experiences. Hemingway went to the Italian front in 1918, at eighteen, as an ambulance driver, in the company of the once famous, now largely forgotten novelist John Dos Passos. As James McGrath Morris points out in his new book “The Ambulance Drivers,” Dos Passos had a keen sense of the real waste and horror of war, whereas Hemingway still saw it as an occasion for a heroic show of stoical endurance. The courage of his going at all is undeniable; after a few weeks, he got blown up by a mortar and recovered in the hospital, falling in love with that beautiful nurse. He then went to work as a journalist for the Toronto Star; there’s a nice line in “The Sun Also Rises” about the easy social graces of Canadians. But, as much as generations of newspapermen have claimed him as a student of newspaper style, nothing memorable emerges from the collected journalism.

It was only after his marriage to Hadley Richardson, a St. Louis heiress, that he set off for Paris, arriving in late 1921 with a determination to become a great and modern writer that was touching in one who had received so little encouragement. Encouragement as a writer, that is; Hemingway’s charisma and good looks had made life easy for him, as they would go on doing for a long time after. (Of all the gifts that can grace a literary career, good looks are the most easily overlooked and not the least important: though we may read blind, we don’t befriend blind.)

Dearborn is faintly disapproving of his literary careerism in Paris, registering the fact that he used his attractiveness to attract, while rather missing the point that the people he was courting, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Beach and Gertrude Stein and the rest, were avant-gardists with no influence in the realms of commercial publishing where he had to make a living. He was certainly ambitious and appealing, but the ambition for which he used his appeal was to write well in a new way.

His natural sound, the tone that rises when he is writing unself-consciously to friends, is nothing like the voice of his good fiction. He was naturally garrulous and jocose—indeed, by the time he was a celebrity he was so garrulous and jocose that it shocked people, though he was just being himself. (This explains the response to the notorious Profile of him by Lillian Ross that ran in this magazine in 1950: he read the galleys, thought he sounded hilarious and charming, and had no idea that he would come off as a self-absorbed blowhard.) Writing to a friend about bullfights in 1925, when his literary style was already fully formed, he said, “It ain’t a moral spectacle and if a male looks at it for a moral standpoint there isn’t any excuses. But if a male takes it as it comes. Gawk what a hell of a wonderful show.” His letters are stuffed with similar kinds of heavy-handed kidding.

The real American masculine style, as Sinclair Lewis shrewdly saw, is not tight-lipped-stoical but wheezy-genial. Hemingway was no exception to the rule that every American man needs to see himself as funny. (Clint Eastwood’s famous turn at the 2012 Republican National Convention is further evidence of this: America’s tough guy took it for granted that he was so naturally amusing that all he had to do was drag an empty chair onstage and start joking.) Hemingway actually had zero gift for comedy—he liked making fun of other people, but could never implicate himself in the jokes, which shuts off the humor spigot quickly. Still, the tight-lipped grimace was always threatening to turn into a regular-guy grin, since the regular-guy grin was what the tight-lipped grimace started off concealing.

But—what a fantastic writer he became! Scribner has now produced a new volume of Hemingway’s short stories, most from the nineteen-twenties, his best decade, complete with many of the drafts he made along the way. What is amazing is how pitch-perfect he was. Reading passages from the Nick Adams stories published originally in relatively obscure literary reviews, one is overwhelmed by how so little produces so much—how the brevity, far from being taciturn or severe, is matchlessly eloquent in its evocation of the pleasures of the senses and of the feeling of place, as in the famous description of a trout stream in Michigan from the 1925 story “Big Two-Hearted River”:

Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.

Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.

The beauty of the description is reinforced by its emotional subject: we sense and then briefly deduce that Nick is a veteran of the war, trying to relocate his mind through familiar pleasures. How did Hemingway do it? Simplicity, monosyllables, elimination of adverbs and adjectives . . . that’s supposed to be the formula. For mordant mischief, one can now download the Hemingway Editor app, which contains an algorithm meant to reproduce his style, and see how well this works. (The app picks out, adversely, the single adverb “swiftly” in the opening paragraph of “A Farewell to Arms.”) But all the algorithm can do is simplify, and produce the kind of baby-talk prose that Hemingway himself wrote only when he was losing it. The heart of his style was not abbreviation but amputation; not simplicity but mystery.

Again and again, he creates his effects by striking out what would seem to be essential material. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick’s complicated European experience—or the way that fishing is sanity-preserving for Nick, the damaged veteran—is conveyed clearly in the first version, and left apparent only as implication in the published second version. In a draft of the heartbreaking early story “Hills Like White Elephants,” about a man talking his girlfriend into having an abortion, Hemingway twice uses the words “three of us.” This is the woman’s essential desire, to become three rather than two. But Hemingway strikes both instances from the finished story, so the key image remains as ghostly subtext within the sentences. We feel the missing “three,” but we don’t read it.

That’s typical of his practice. The art comes from scissoring out his natural garrulousness, and the mystery is made by what was elided. Reading through draft and then finished story, one is repeatedly stunned by the meticulous rightness of his elisions. There are influences at work, obviously, from Stephen Crane to Sherwood Anderson, not to mention Gertrude Stein’s faux-naïf smarts. Yet Hemingway himself gave most of the credit to Cézanne. In that cancelled passage from “Big Two-Hearted River,” we read, “He wanted to write like Cezanne painted. Cezanne started with all the tricks. Then he broke the whole thing down and built clearly and slowly the real thing. It was hell to do. He was the greatest. It wasn’t a cult.” (The crossing-out is in the original.) This is the kind of classy thing that writers are bound to say and biographers are bound to doubt—Dearborn calls Hemingway’s constant reference to Cézanne “mystifying”—but it makes all the sense in the world. The whole aim of Cézanne’s painting from the eighteen-seventies on is to build up landscape and still-life from the pictorial equivalent of monosyllables—from small, square constructive marks, like the cross-shadings of a pencil, which make space by being overlaid. Outline and firm shape are subordinated, as in Hemingway, to the passage of one shape into the next. Both men are masters of “and” more than “this.”

Cézanne also showed that a few strong hints of specificity—this one pine tree in the right front plane, this plastic foregrounded orange—are all that is needed for the evocation of shapes and spaces. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” there are moments that are not just constructed like a Cézanne painting; they look like a Cézanne painting:

There was no underbrush in the island of pine trees. The trunks of the trees went straight up or slanted toward each other. The trunks were straight and brown without branches. The branches were high above. Some interlocked to make a solid shadow on the brown forest floor. Around the grove of trees was a bare space. It was brown and soft underfoot as Nick walked on it.

It is exactly the feeling of Cézanne’s “Pines and Rocks,” at MoMA. Hemingway’s prose combines the brightly colored sensuality of modern French painting with a clench-jawed American repression. The stoical stance and the sensual touch: that was Hemingway’s keynote emotion, and his claim to have learned it from Cézanne looks just.

The stoical stance has been much celebrated—“grace under pressure” and the rest—but the sensual touch is the more frequent material of the prose. Whether at Michigan trout streams or Pamplona fiestas or those Paris boîtes, there is a strong element of “travel writing.” He wrote pleasure far better than violence. Fitzgerald’s evocation of the fashionable world is quite abstract and mostly unspecific. Hemingway is full of advice about what to eat and drink. “Death in the Afternoon” even includes a brief but decisive “Lonely Planet”-style discourse on European beer—the best is Czech, German, and Spanish—as “The Sun Also Rises” does on Spanish wine. There’s a reason that the bar at the Paris Ritz was the first place he “liberated” in Paris, and that El Floridita restaurant, in Havana, still claims him as the father of its grapefruit-enhanced Daiquiri. No good writer ever had such clear views on hotels and cafés and restaurants.

Hemingway’s people are damaged but not shell-shocked. “A Farewell to Arms” is a romance—a Hollywood-movie romance, featuring a couple with glamorous names. The romance of honor and glory may have died on the Western Front, but the romance of romance, and of sex and the material life in particular, was relighted; in the face of annihilation, postponing pleasure just looked silly. For all his reputation for “masculine” values, an instinctive Hemingway theme is far more culturally “feminine,” a graceful bending under pressure. “I’m not brave any more, darling,” Catherine tells Frederic in “A Farewell to Arms.” “I’m all broken. They’ve broken me.” The self-recognition of breakage is the form of bravery available to real people. The edict of Hemingway’s art is to take what life throws at you without complaint, but it is also to never postpone pleasure if you can help it. The travel-literature, brand-name side of Hemingway—the side that made Pamplona a tourist trap and Venice’s Gritti Palace an “icon,” the side kept alive in degraded form by all that artisanal rum and patio furniture—is essential to his effects. Hemingway was a master not of a realized stoicism but of a wounded epicureanism. Have fun while you can, and then endure the bad stuff when it comes. It doesn’t sound high-minded when you say it, but it was saner than almost anything else on offer.

Hemingway’s early style is also a poetic style; it’s significant that, like the Romantic poets, he bloomed as a writer in his mid-twenties. The novel was invented by the middle-aged, and George Eliot and Anthony Trollope were in their fifties when they wrote their masterpieces. But lyric poetry is for the young, and the trouble with a poetic style is that, with age, it can become a pose. Hemingway’s became a style so mannered that it could be parodied endlessly, to the point that Hemingway parodies are nearly as rich a literary form as Hemingway stories. The two best—Wolcott Gibbs’s “Death in the Rumble Seat” and E. B. White’s “Across the Street and Into the Grill”—both appeared in this magazine, and it’s significant that the two parodists shared Hemingway’s project of simplifying the hell out of American prose; it attuned them to the distortions and tics in the Master’s way of doing so.

Dearborn brings home another truth: for all his time with the Paris modernists, Hemingway’s reputation was made on the best-seller lists in America. “A Farewell to Arms” (1929) had a first print run of more than thirty thousand copies, huge in its day. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940), helped by its timely fighting-the-Fascists subject, stayed on the best-seller lists for two years. He had written much of it while renting Finca Vigía, a beautiful house in Cuba, and, with the money from his books, he bought the place. It became his castle and retreat almost for the rest of his life, until the Cuban Revolution forced him out. It was here that he became Papa Hemingway, the great bear of literature, receiving journalists and raising children and inventing the grapefruit Daiquiri and fighting marlin and taking quick and often dangerous trips to lesser provinces of his empire, to Africa (where, on a single trip, he twice crashed in a plane) and Spain (where he continued to return, Franco notwithstanding, to watch the bullfights).

The weird sexual stuff began, or began to be recorded, in the nineteen-forties. The actual sequence is a little hard to follow, since the literary evidence appears in “The Garden of Eden,” an unfinished, posthumously published novel that he worked on in the forties and fifties but that takes place in the mid-twenties, which is when he started seeing the American journalist Pauline Pfeiffer, who eventually became his second wife. Basically, Hemingway began to insist that the women in his life get their hair cut short, like his, while he dyed his to match theirs, with many complicated twists in both color and styling. The ins and outs of this “sex play,” as Dearborn calls it, read like a mix of D. H. Lawrence and a Clairol ad. She recounts:

First, Ernest bleached or dyed his. Josephine Merck, a friend from Montana, visited Ernest and Pauline in 1933 and remembered Ernest’s hair “bleached by the sun”; it was highly unlikely that the sun “bleached” his dark hair. She also saw it just after, when his hair was red, and when she asked him about it, he got annoyed. A letter from Pauline to her husband cleared up what color his hair was that spring: “About your hair,” she wrote him, “don’t know how to turn red to gold. What about straight peroxide—or better what’s the matter with red hair. Red hair lovely on you.” Evidently Ernest felt some regret, if not for dyeing his hair in the first place, then for choosing the wrong color.

We know this because Pauline wrote to a friend that Hemingway was “a little subdued, though not much, by his haircut,” and explained, “His hair turned bright gold on the boat to Havana . . . and he cut it to the roots in a frenzy.” Later, Hemingway dyed his hair red and went around insisting that it had happened “accidentally.”

Realized as fiction, all the cutting and dyeing becomes even odder, not because of its daring gender fluidity but because of the sticky prose that was necessary to dramatize it. “The Garden of Eden” has sequences with the cooing, self-caressing sound of someone whispering his sexual fantasies in your ear, and, like all sex fantasies, they have a standardized, stereotyped setting—in this case, French hair salons. Dearborn tells us that Hemingway loved to write down the shades of blondness: pale gold, deep gold, ash blond. (The power of words for a writer’s fetishes is absolute; Auden says that he was more stimulated by the words for his sexual obsessions than by their objects.) “Over time, just writing about the shades of hair color would become almost unbearably exciting to him; he would catalogue them with obvious erotic pleasure,” Dearborn recounts. Simply thinking about hair color “made Mr. Scrooby stand at attention.”

Where Mr. Scrooby really got turned around, though, was in bed. In “The Garden of Eden,” the Hemingway stand-in, David Bourne, is anally penetrated night after night by a dildo, with the now short-haired Hadley character on top—a practice that, in real life, seems to date to Hemingway’s fourth marriage, to the journalist Mary Welsh, in 1946. When “The Garden of Eden” appeared, in 1986, reviewers made much of the hair-cutting androgyny while leaving the anality more or less alone, but it’s clear in the text that the “devil things,” as Catherine calls them, center on the penetration, for which all the hair treatment is merely a preparation.

It’s this kind of thing that makes Hemingway’s “libidinal politics” look progressive today, revealing gender roles as the culturally manufactured toys they are. Yet the sex, one soon sees, is actually imagined on much the same macho terms as before, just with the signifiers shaken up. “The Garden of Eden” evokes not cheerful pluralism in transgressing gender boundaries but the old Hemingway themes of the bonding of hunter and hunted, prey and predator. Sex roles are switched, not broadened. The twists and turns are, in this view, entirely sinful—what drives us from paradise, not what reminds us of it.

Like every sexual fetish, his got its tang from transgression. Sex must be experienced as sin to be satisfying. For Hemingway, there was no greater sin than acting in a “womanish” way, and it was therefore the subject that Mr. Scrooby awoke to. The prospect of being unmanned was as thrillingly illicit for his self-stimulation as the enactment of manly ritual was essential to his self-image. We need not believe that the public face is fake to understand that the private desire can be its opposite. The result, as evidenced in “The Garden of Eden,” was certainly more daring and original and honest than the “Old Man and the Sea” stuff he published in the fifties instead. But it was not postmodern gender pluralism, either. It was more binary than that, and more brutal.

What gives Hemingway’s flirtation with gender reversal a special pathos is his relationship with his much loved son Gregory, an intermittent cross-dresser who had a sex-change operation at the age of sixty-three and died using the name Gloria. At one point, Hemingway came upon the boy, whom he called Giggy, trying on his mother’s stockings and dress in a family bedroom in Cuba, and later said to him, “We come from a strange tribe, you and I.” He doubtless saw in this boy, his favorite, ambiguities that he could never confess, and it made him by turns both enraged and, oddly, touchingly, empathetic. Their letters, reprinted in a memoir by Greg’s son John called, appropriately, “Strange Tribe,” are deeply moving, in their moments of cruelty and, on Greg’s part, at least, their flashes of insight. (Greg was the only person ready to tell Hemingway how bad “The Old Man and the Sea” really was: “As sickly a bucket of sentimental slop as was ever scrubbed off a barroom floor.”) As always happens with famous fathers and strangled sons, the letters turn toward money, with Hemingway gracelessly laying out his budget for the boy. (Let it be said, though, that Hemingway’s money troubles must have been exhausting to live through: he was never nearly as rich as his reputation would make you think.)

“He has the biggest dark side in the family except me and you,” Hemingway wrote to Pauline, “and I’m not in the family.” Hemingway’s own suicide, by shotgun, in 1961, at his hunting retreat in Ketchum, Idaho, brought a palette of tragedy to the story, even though the much discussed curse of the Hemingways seems no more than a gene for bipolarity that bounced around fiendishly from generation to generation. The trail of suicide is heartbreaking to consider—the father, Clarence; Ernest, his brother Leicester, and his sister Ursula; his helpless, beautiful granddaughter Margaux.

The new attempts to make Papa matter by making him a lot less Papa and a little more Mama are, finally, not all that persuasive. Hemingway remains Hemingway—the macho attitudes continue to penetrate the prose even when the gender roles get switched around. And those macho attitudes include many admirable things: a genuine love of courage, a surprising readiness to celebrate failure if it is bought with bravery, an unsparing sense of the fatality of human existence, a love of the small pleasures that ennoble it.

At Hemingway’s best, the affectations are undone by an affection for the sensuous surface of life, which is of necessity erotically multivalent, neither neatly masculine nor neatly feminine. Although we may “gender” it, our descriptions, if they have density at all, escape the brutal binaries, the narrow categories, of appetite. To read the opening lines about the lovers’ breakfast in “The Garden of Eden” is to be in touch with an impulse far more moving and pansexual than all the sexual reversals that revisionist critics have to offer:

On this morning there was brioche and red raspberry preserve and the eggs were boiled and there was a pat of butter that melted as they stirred them and salted them lightly and ground pepper over them in the cups. . . . He remembered that easily and he was happy with his which he diced up with the spoon and ate with only the flow of the butter to moisten them and the fresh early morning texture and the bite of the coarsely ground pepper grains and the hot coffee and the chickory-fragrant bowl of café au lait.

The flow of the butter and the bite of the pepper—there is more effective gender-blending in his breakfasts than in his bedrooms. The pleasure he takes in the world’s surface is more plural than the poses he chooses on the world’s stage.

Always an epicurean before he was a stoic, Hemingway is at his worst when he is boasting and bluffing and ruling the roost, at his best when he is bending and breaking and writing down breakfast. Macho and minimalist alike, the sentences are thrilling still in their exactitude and audacity. Coming away even from the sad last pages of his biography, the reader feels that Hemingway earned the epitaph he would most have wanted. He was a brave man, and he did know how to write. ♦

This article appears in other versions of the July 3, 2017, issue, with the headline “A New Man.”

Adam Gopnik, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1986. He is the author of “The Table Comes First.”