A Virtuous Woman: Hem on Hunger

“When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to go was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l’Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go to the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly empty, hollow hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you are sleepless or hungry. Later I thought Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way.”

P 39, A Moveable Feast

The first lesson that resonated with me in Hemingway’s reflections on his time as a young writer in Paris was this. It felt like a ringing bell, ringing out to me alone in the mists of a personal time of reflection. Both a lesson in writing and in life perhaps.

Hemingway describes hunger in a way that one might describe the importance of dark to light. For him, hunger brings out the truth in Cezanne, the truth of Hemingway. Ernest speaks of this in the literal term of a need for food. It feels that perhaps the metaphorical hunger, although not directly written, is as significant. Its only when you don’t eat that you feel hunger. In this first world of consume it is almost impossible. Food is pushed where it is not needed. It is a commodity all can reach, no matter how dire its provenance and origin. The democratisation of food has meant the dilution of truth and thus flavour in food. Chemistry means as much in food production as the artistry of its preparation. Likewise the dilution of truth in life.

So much knowledge has washed over the populus that it has lost its magic and its potency. The flood is so high that now it’s just all water – difficult to determine its priority and necessity. There is no hunger for knowledge, even less so an appetite for it. This floodscape has created a lazy consumer who looks for the knowledge that most suits their end, rejecting the contrast. Ignoring and blocking the contrary.

This laziness has crept into our approach for love – something that (so far in my toe dip into A Moveable Feast) I find no indication that Ernest had an interest in expressing in deep contemplative form. But as in food, information, in love we set ourselves up to solely consume. There need be no risk or sacrifice in love in a world where comfort is the aim. A quiet life. A place solely to rest and shut out the world, nothing more. Simple. This is a world where no passion, no creation, no hope of more can flourish. Safety, although it is our biological imperative to seek by generations of social evolution, is no substitute for the learned experience of risk, of disappointment, perhaps even of triumph. But, in a world where the wish is to be normal, who would eschew vanilla for the unknown? Why experience loss, grief and hunger for the chance of something beyond the ordinary?

It’s hard to expose yourself to hunger. It is a discipline – more so now than in Hemingway’s day. Food, information , love, even life is available in sterile little packets. But no-one is more observant, more appreciative, more critical of the world around them than the hungry person. All colours are stark, all decisions are vital, a matter of the upmost importance. Time warps with hunger. It is defined by the process of need and acquisition. Focus is singular and concentrated. Experience and memory amplified as the body seeks to sate its need and to avoid the possibility of recurrence. The clutter of the upper brain is swept aside. 

Desire produces the effect equally. The body is the organ – all at one with itself, without consideration of the layers of socialised she’ll. Desirous hunger is the most focussing of all. It taps into the fragile beauty of the remainder of human existence. It brings us all back to the base, to the primordial, to the purpose. More than the mere desperation of hunger. The driver of all romance, all loyalty and all deceits. Comfort scrutinises this desire. It takes its teeth and grinds them into an homogenous paste to be applied liberally in a uniform and cold state. Convention makes it safe, removes the risk and reduces love into a pallid sequence of unremarkable and common place events. Preordained and normalised. 

How to break free of this dull, lifeless emotion sausage factory? Bring back the risk? Factor in the approach of a gambler? Find a kindred soul and carve out a new code of adoration, whilst trying to trying to suppress the instinctive socialised rituals of romance and the need to be secure and snare predictability? How can we stave off the wish to never feel hunger?

We shall see how I fare, both personally and as a writer by remembering the discipline of hunger.

“It is necessary to handle yourself better when you have to cut down on food so you will not get too much hunger-thinking. Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it.”

P44, A Moveable Feast.


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