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The Snows of Kilimanjaro

The association of poetry with magic goes back a long way in our culture, at least since Plato expelled poets from his Republic if not earlier. Less dramatically, let us say that the writing and reading of literature has always implied a transformative power – the power to transform the self and redeem the fallen world. But at the same time, at the end of the day, the poet needs to earn a living just like the plumber, and the weight of words adds nothing to nor subtracts from the weight of the world on one's shoulders. An entire language – the glue that constitutes a social structure over thousands of years – disappears when the body of its last native speaker withers and dies.

The magical potency of poetry is subjected to comic and violent rebuke in the figure Don Quixote, making that book the first modern novel in the Western tradition. Later, that potency is revived and celebrated by the English romantic poets, but ends in the 20th century – or rather more precisely survives in difficult modes of disillusion and irony. Earnest Hemingway's treatment of the same theme is colored by the particular moods of exhaustion and regret, and nowhere are those moods more finely expressed than in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1938). Taking an additional step, one might say that by the time of Roberto Bolano, the potency of poetry lives on posthumously in the desperation of the poet haunting the barren world like a ghost after the death of poetry.

The main character in Hemingway's story is a writer, Harry – not a failed writer but a successful author, like Hemingway himself. Stranded in the African bush during a safari with his wealthy wife, the gangrene has spread from a scratch up his leg and the soul's armor (his body) has just about rotted away, with death cast alternately as a disembodied voice and as a kind of malicious troll bristling at his feet, creeping into his lap and finally seated triumphantly on his chest. Expiring, Harry recalls his failures, specifically, his inability or unwillingness to write, or to get around to writing what he has had to say about the world and his eventful life in it.

"So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it...Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the writing. Well he would never know now."

The regret sweeps over him like a wave – regret at having traded his talent for the trappings of success, and by being traded, his currency is destroyed – "by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook. What is this? A catalogue of old books?"

But Harry's regret over things not written must bear some relationship to what has been written – or more accurately, what is being written, and is being read by us, here and now, namely, the story called The Snows of Kilimanjaro. And Harry's regret is also Hemingway's regret, or something like it, notwithstanding the fact that unlike Harry, Hemingway actually did get around to recording it.
One senses the relationship in a passage such as this exchange between Harry and his wife Helen:

"He slipped into the familiar lie he made his bread and butter by.

'You're sweet to me.'

'You bitch,' he said. 'You rich bitch. That's poetry. I'm full of poetry right now. Rot and poetry. Rotten poetry.'"

I feel like saying: Unlike Harry's, Hemingway's regret here is not at having failed to write what he could, but exactly at having written it – having written what he could, and done it as well as it can be done, but no longer being able to convince himself of its potency, its power to transform and redeem. "Rot and poetry. Rotten poetry."

At the story's end we encounter the almost unbearably beautiful vision of Harry's rescue via airplane piloted by a fellow named Compton, and Harry's realization, all too late but with release rather than regret, that "instead of going on to Arusha they had turned left," and "they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed," and "Compie turned turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And he knew that there was where he was going."

We want to believe – and at that moment we can almost (but not quite, thanks to the early occurrence of the hyena and other hints) believe that Harry will be OK, that the plane will return for Helen – just as we want to believe that Literature can change the world, can redeem our lives, even perhaps (from the author's perspective) fend off death, but in the end all we can hear is "the same strange noise" of the all too familiar hyena and the beating of our own hearts. Hemingway took his own life twenty-three years after writing The Snows of Kilimanjaro.


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