Iceberg aesthetics

In Death in the Afternoon, his book on Spanish bullfighting, Ernest Hemingway famously compared his laconic writing to an iceberg. “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about,” Hemingway says, “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.” True to this understated style, Hemingway delivers his iceberg metaphor with no transition or embellishment: “The dignity of movement of an ice-berg,” he says, “is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”*

Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” subsequently became a shorthand definition of the author’s narrative technique, and by extension the work of others, like Raymond Carver, who aim for similar spare allusiveness. Among such minimalist writers, Hemingway’s writing is distinctive, though, for its characteristic tension between persistent omission and equally insistent repetition, as seen in the “iceberg” quote itself, which uses several words two times or more. On a broader thematic level this pattern of repetition and absence, a kind of terse circumlocution, corresponds to the way the author’s major themes and obsessions seem to be not merely understated but suspiciously hidden or, indeed, repressed, which has created a minor industry, in Hemingway scholarship, of literary-psychological exegesis.

There are other puzzling things in Hemingway’s work that cannot, however, be readily attributed to an author’s more-or-less willful omissions or latent psycho-sexual dynamics. As if emerging from below the text’s surface, such meanings testify instead to the force of history exerting a kind of retroactive significance on the cultural artifact. To pursue these historical meanings is perhaps to widen the ambit of “paranoia-criticism” and expose secrets that exceed the author’s intent, unconscious or otherwise. Primary among these historical meanings is the mounting threat of climate change, that belated aftereffect of modernity — and modernism –, whose evidence today is making us confront, like traumatized subjects, the distant source of our ills. And here of course Hemingway’s iceberg becomes newly suggestive.


“Iceberg” is a word likely borrowed from the Dutch ijsberg, meaning “ice mountain.” The semantic resonance of the word, with all that it implies of cold enormity and weirdly joined contraries — stillness and motion, solidity and transience — no doubt explains its lasting attachment to Hemingway’s macho persona and pithy style. The specific metaphorical sense Hemingway evokes of a hidden bulk of meaning — his submerged seven-eighths — appears shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out. In this way, death, disaster and the unconscious are packed into a modern cultural password already fully formed in 1916, the year Hemingway published his first piece of writing. As the OED puts it, citing a contemporary source, “reason in men is only the very tip of their iceberg of mental life.”

Iceberg suspected of sinking the Titanic (Wikimedia)

These fatal themes are condensed in the image of the African volcano that dominates one of Hemingway’s best-known and most accomplished pieces of fiction, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The eponymous mountain plays an unmistakably symbolic role in the short story, but in a more subtle way the tapering white summit above the volcano’s massive bulk also evokes the proverbial iceberg’s tip. With its ecologically isolated biomes rising far above the savannah, the “inselberg” of Kilimanjaro is topped not only by snow but secular glaciers. Moreover, as a dormant volcano, Kilimanjaro embodies the threat of a moving mountain, recalling in this way the “dignity of movement” Hemingway singles out as an iceberg’s main attribute. Finally, that movement is linked to the possibility of heat and thus melting — just as an iceberg in motion heads invariably toward obliteration.

Despite these suggestions of transience and movement, the volcano’s snow-tipped summit in Hemingway’s story is paired to themes of timelessness — albeit a timelessness beyond life. But this tension between eternity and finality reflects the story’s conflicted crux: the ambiguous death-in-life of literary posterity desired by Hemingway’s fictional alter-ego Harry. Confined to camp with a life-threatening infection, Harry, a washed-up writer on safari, is tormented above all by the thought of the works he may never write should he die. Harry’s frustrated ambition is conveyed in the story’s epigraph that speaks of a leopard found frozen at the mountain’s summit, emblem of fateful striving and incorruptible death. The story’s conclusion makes this connection abundantly clear, as the last thoughts of a dying Harry transport him to the shining, frozen mountaintop: “there was where he was going.”


It is an irony Hemingway could hardly have anticipated — or even indeed imagined — that his most striking emblems of the aesthetic ideal, combining timeless permanence with cold, compact solidity, are symbols now of evanescence and threatening change. Thanks to significant media coverage, notably Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, it is well known today that the glaciers of Kilimanjaro are melting and expected to fully disappear in the near future. Likewise, polar icebergs are no longer Hemingway’s dignified emissaries of eternally frozen wastelands but alarming signs of ecological collapse.

It might seem anachronistic, then, in the light of Hemingway’s necessarily restricted viewpoint, his distance from our disasters, to read future threats in texts of his that could not possibly anticipate them. And yet, in writings from the period of “Snows,” Hemingway explicitly seeks a temporal viewpoint that extends both into the prehistoric past, a time “before man,” as he puts it, and into an apparently posthuman future, after “all the systems of governments” are gone, an entropic vision that verges on the ecological.*** In this light we could argue that critical anachronism is no error of interpretation or paranoid fabulation but inheres to our subject itself. Human and geological tempos collide; as Andreas Malm neatly puts it, “climate change is a messy mix-up of time scales.”****

This “mix-up” of time, pace and chronology is precisely one of the signal achievements of “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and the key to its enduring success. Although Hemingway staked his reputation on his novels, his short stories better reflect his innovative style. “Snows” perhaps demonstrates this best of all. The theme of the story — the writer’s regret at all he has not written — epitomizes the conflict between Hemingway’s two main genres: if the novel remains Hemingway’s failed achievement, his short stories overcome that deficit, but only by making their unwriting — the bulk of the iceberg — their secret force and suggestiveness.

The compact coldness of Hemingway’s strongest writing is vividly conveyed in the almost telegraphic cursive passages in “Snows” where Harry’s racing memories revisit “the things he had saved to write” (42). Major episodes of Hemingway’s own life are compressed here as if preserved in ice, and with them, large swathes of history too, from the Paris Commune through WWI and including even the heroic legacy of polar exploration — the latter strikingly condensed in the single evocative surname of Nansen. Snow in these passages is palpably insistent and dazzling, “so bright it hurt your eyes,” Hemingway says, and accordingly, the word’s strobing flashes cast an intermittent blackness:

That was one of the things he had saved to write, with, in the morning at breakfast, looking out the window and seeing snow on the mountains in Bulgaria and Nansen’s Secretary asking the old man if it were snow and the old man looking at it and saying, No, that’s not snow. It’s too early for snow. And the Secretary repeating to the other girls, No you see. It’s not snow and them all saying, It’s not snow we were mistaken. But it was the snow all right and he sent them on into it when he evolved exchange of populations. And it was snow they tramped along in until they died that winter.

The great scientist, inventor and sportsman Fridtjof Nansen, record-setting explorer of the North Pole and first to cross the Greenland ice-cap, appears here in his humanitarian role after WWI as advocate and defender of refugees and displaced persons. In referring to Nansen as the “old man” not only once but twice, and casting him, quite improbably, as unable to judge the threat of snowy weather, Hemingway compacts into the vignette the enigma of his rivalrous toxic masculinity and his near-inexplicable self-destructiveness. This simmering violence adds to the retrospective resonance of the passage, as it is more than a little uncanny to see Hemingway’s iceberg prose combine the eminent incarnation of polar discovery with numberless “populations” of refugees. But the uncanny is always untimely. In Hemingway’s displaced persons we recognize the forerunners of today’s homeless and precarious populations, and the first waves of climate refugees, the lead characters of our apocalyptic future on a warming planet. Reading Hemingway, we too are displaced persons, unsettled and disoriented, scanning backward in his texts the tight-closed germs of today’s growing calamities.


In a often-quoted passage from “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin makes the striking claim that “the storyteller … has borrowed his authority from death.” This borrowed authority seems amply displayed in Hemingway’s imagined death on safari. Less cited is the next sentence of Benjamin’s: “In other words,” the critic says, “it is natural history to which his stories refer back.” Benjamin argues that the distinctive temporality of prose narratives — especially those with a link to oral traditions — is tied to rhythms that are longer, deeper, and therefore disjunct with mere life-stories. As an example, Benjamin recounts a tale in which a groom dies in the mines on the eve of his wedding, but whose body is kept intact over the years in a mineral solution until the day his bride, an old woman now, witnesses the exhumation of her handsome young suitor.

Southern glacier and ice field, Mt. Kilimanjaro

Benjamin’s illustration of “natural history” might strike today’s reader as strangely familiar, as similar anecdotes have been cropping up in recent news. But unlike in the German fable these incidents are not so much wondrous as alarming. In melting glaciers around the world, from Everest to the Alps, the near-magical preservation and re-emergence of bodies frozen in the ice has become a gruesome warning signal of climate change. In 1991 the naturally-mummified body of Ötsi, the 5,000 year-old Iceman, emerged from a glacier in the Tyrolean Alps; In 1999, the “remarkably well preserved body” of George Mallory was found near the summit of Everest. And in 2013, a pair of Austrian soldiers from WWI were found on Presena glacier. Casualties of the alpine conflict between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the soldiers were contemporaries of Hemingway, who served as an ambulance-driver with the Italians during the “White War.”

According to The Telegraph, the discovery of the soldiers proves that history “lives on, thanks to the preserving properties of ice.” In her 2018 book The Library of Ice, Nancy Campbell views this episode of historical recovery somewhat differently, connecting it to Hemingway’s formative war experience as related in A Farewell to Arms. For Campbell, the preserving qualities of ice are more ambiguous and shifting in the era of climate change; like the art of Giacometti that “reduced his models to their sparest elements,” Hemingway’s iceberg aesthetics may only leave us with perishable, mangled fragments of history, “disordered bodies merged now in a single mass.”***** Here Benjamin’s “natural history” is turned against us, no longer the “sanction,” like death, of reliable cycles of time. Likewise it defies our inherited tales of life, survival and posterity, disgorging the past into a dubious future. We might imagine Hemingway’s alter-ego Harry, would-be figure of timeless literary posterity, as similar: an untimely corpse released to the corrupting elements by Kilimanjaro’s Furtwängler glacier.

Obsolescent as they may be, tales of “natural history” such as Benjamin describes continue to have a dangerous hold on us. Dangerous because the narrative habits that sustain our redemptive notions of enduring memory and cyclical or progressive time may be fundamentally at odds with the terminal conditions we confront in climate change. One therefore reads with despairing amazement the words of the doyen of landscape theory, geographer Denis Cosgrove, who, in a magisterial account of the idea of the “symbolic landscape” in contemporary critical thought, summarily discounts the pertinence of environmentalism to our knowledge of man’s relationship to nature. Cosgrove scoffingly asserts that “Any sensitivity to the history of landscape and its representations in the Western tradition forces the recognition that human history is one of constant environmental modification, manipulation, destruction and creation, both imaginative and material.”******

Apparently, knowledge of the past imposes on us, “even today,” as Cosgrove notably insists, an implacable historical pattern with which to understand the present. This is conservatism as antiphrasis and history as alibi, and both are enabled by implicit narrative assumptions. Those structuring assumptions are continuity (“constant environmental modification”) and cyclical order (“destruction and creation”), where that last word, in a surreptitiously redemptive move, overtakes and supplants the negating force of the former. It seems especially fitting, then, that in Cosgrove’s fable of natural history the time-honored belief in such a cyclical and constant “process” is one that, like Benjamin’s sleeping suitor, is, as the geographer puts it, “deposited deep in myth and memory.” These words, it must be noted, were written a full eight years after the IPCC’s First Assessment Report warned that recent temperature anomalies had not been seen on Earth in 10,000 years.

Climate change has prompted a recent vogue in scholarship showing the influence of weather and climate on various events in history. In a brisk challenge to such studies, Andreas Malm argues that the point is not to look for the role of climate in history, but instead to consider the role played by history in transforming the climate. It might be said that our reassessment of Hemingway shares more with the former, and that we have done little more than shown how the Holocene left its mark on one man’s writing life. If so, we will be in good company; future readers will do the same, no doubt, distracted by the muted yet insistent hints of enviably mild weather wafting from between the lines of virtually any text penned in the past. Those readers will not be kind to Hemingway’s archetypical heroes roaming foreign wilds to claim big game for sport.

And yet Hemingway’s tragic vision highlights temporal conundrums that climate change has only exacerbated. How can one grasp finality within the relentless ongoingness of the present? How can one reconcile the brief span of one’s life to a broader responsibility on geological time scales? The author’s narrative evocations of snow and ice point to dilemmas that go well beyond his ordinary themes of heroism and adventure. If these are ‘existential’ questions, our human sense of lived time may be sadly mismatched with climate end-times. In this way we are all like the people living next to one of the world’s fastest-melting glaciers: as the Guardian reports, “locals cannot believe it will die because their own existence is intertwined with it.”


“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” was inspired by the author’s safari in Kenya and Tanzania in 1933. In his autobiographical account of the trip, Green Hills of Africa (1934), a striking passage embroiders on another image of enduring nature. Like the iceberg in Death in the Afternoon and the snow-topped summit in “Snows,” the suggestiveness of this figure has only increased with time. Anticipating the themes of Hemingway’s famous later works, including The Old Man and the Sea, it also echoes the writerly metacommentary of Death in the Afternoon, and as if to underscore its latent importance, it is found at the dead center of the safari, like the motionless eye of a spinning ocean gyre.

That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know, truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student’s exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing — the stream.

The passage mimes its subject in the run-on flow of phrasing, while the description of random offal contrasts with what Hemingway calls the “permanent” and “lasting” force of the natural ocean stream. The passage certainly does not count among Hemingway’s finest. Its chief interest lies in its failures. Notably, Hemingway cannot help frame his evocation of entropy and loss with an image of eternity. The Shakespearean resonance of Hemingway’s “four or five fathoms” surely calls up The Tempest’s magical premise of “sea-change,” in which an apparent calamity at sea gives way to a message of transformation and enduring life. In spite of its grim disenchantment, then, the passage offers a redemptive message that owes something to the deep pull of metaphysics. But we might also attribute that conservative force to the Holocene, whose moderating climate allowed Hemingway to see nature as a circular force of recurrence and regeneration.

Needless to say, Hemingway’s claim that pollution amounts to nothing in the larger scheme of things has been proven sadly mistaken. Far from being an indomitable force of perpetual recurrence, a Gulf Stream warmed by greenhouse gases is contributing to rapid glacial melt in the Arctic. Icebergs are calving at unprecedented rates, and recent studies have suggested that the rate of melting in the Arctic may be 10 to 100 times faster than previously thought. This year saw a record-breaking hurricane Dorian, swollen in size by a sluggish, overheated Gulf Stream. And the slowing Stream threatens the North Atlantic’s entire circulatory system as melting Arctic freshwater pours into its path; some forecasts anticipate the Stream halting in the near future.

This month a memorial plaque was mounted at Ok, a volcano in Iceland, at the upper bend of the Gulf Stream. The glacier was recently declared dead. In highlighting the challenge of putting into words a eulogy for a glacier, a supposed “symbol of eternity,” the author of the memorial text notably faults literature for providing him poor counsel. Nor does any broader narrative notion of drama provide any help. “A dying glacier is not a dramatic event,” the author points out. With natural history turned on its head, the storyteller is at a loss for story.


*Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (New York: Scribner, 1999 [1932]), 153-4.

**Ernest Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987), 56.

***Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935), 150, 149.

****Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (New York: Verso, 2016), 8.

*****Nancy Campbell, The Library of Ice: Readings From a Cold Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).

******Denis E. Cosgrove, “Introduction to Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape” in DeLue and Elkins, Landscape Theory (New York: Routledge, 2008), 37.


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Filed under Critical Ecology, Fiction

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