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In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Harry set out to Africa with his wife in an attempt to recapture his former literary motivation; in “the good time of his life” he had been happy in Africa. His will to write has softened with the comfort and luxury afforded him by Helen, his wife’s, affluence. After having spent years “with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones,” he reached a state of artistic stagnation from which he has been unable to extricate himself (59). He came to Africa to be for a time without luxury, and with “the minimum of comfort”, to recreate something of the sensation of his old life before the money (60). A parallel is made between affluence and an idiosyncratic kind of non-bodily death: the death of creativity, initiative, and meaningful experience. Harry has been dying in this way for years, and, ironically, only as his physical death closes in is his aesthetic sensibility resurrected. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” death of the physical body does not preclude the continuance of other, more esoteric modes of being; through the resurgence of his art, Harry is able to achieve another life, one that continues even after the death of his physical body.
Harry’s former life of colorful, deeply felt experiences is in direct contrast to the life he began once he allied himself with the rich. “The rich were dull and . . . they were repetitious,” Harry says. Even if he were to live, he would not write about Helen or “about any of them.” They were not the “special glamorous race” they were thought to be (72). The money acted as armour, Harry says: “Your damned money was my armour. My Swift and my Armour” (58). The money protects him from the difficulties of the world, as armour might, yet it also cuts him off from the life-blood of the artist: meaningful experience. Thus, the money has, metaphorically, provided for the slow dying of his artistic spirit by allowing his life to become too safe, too predictable, too sheltered. Harry no longer feels things deeply; he admits he never has loved Helen. However, he remains trapped in a circle of those who either “drank too much” or “played too much backgammon ” (72). Such are the lives of the rich: composed of repetitious, dull excess; excess to fill the lack left by dearth of true experiences. Henry feels this lack and, in his reflections, dying in Africa, he resents the turn his life had taken in the last years: the aesthetic, the literary, no longer holding a a meaningful place in his life.
In Africa, without the comforts and distractions of wealth, Harry felt he could “get back into training.” He needed a place to “work the fat off his soul,” fat that had accumulated over years of an sedentary, complacent life, divorced from the realm of the aesthetic. While on safari, Harry says the “illusion” of a returning strength to write was felt, but the real strength of will does not truly come until his leg’s infection becomes serious and Harry must face the fact that he will soon die.
Harry begins to write again. In segments of italicized text, divorced from the frame narrative of Harry and Helen in African, Harry mentally writes those things which he wishes he could put to paper.
So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. (54)
It is significant that Hemingway pairs these two sentences. Henry regrets that, because of the imposition of death, he will not be able to write these stories – “to finish it”; however, it is his coming to terms with impending death that freed him from his complacency and his rationalizations and has given him the will to write again. Before death closed in, his only intentions of writing were “illusions”, as Harry puts it. Now the end is almost tangible, he knows it is all over, and is compelled to write, to finish.
Death breathes new life into Harry in this way. These italicized sections are not only melancholy reminiscences of his life in the world, but they are its coda as well. He has failed to publish a textual monument that would preserve permanently his life and the knowledge he gained throughout it, however he did all that he was able: mentally construct said monument, thus codifying his worldly life. And in codifying his worldly life, the rebirth of Harry’s aesthetic self is affirmed.
Hemingway subverts conventional ideas of life and death with “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Two types of life – and thus, of death – overlap in the story: physical and aesthetic. In the first part of Harry’s life, his physical and aesthetic lives were interwoven, each thriving because of the other, symbiotically. However, with affluence and its trappings the two separated and thus began Harry’s slow aesthetic death. He ceased writing because he stopped deeply feeling things. This second phase of life, one divorced from the experience of the aesthetic almost entirely, was one devoid of ambition, initiative, or happiness: an empty, meaningless life. However, his physical dying – the end of this second phase – brings new perspective. Harry mentally prepares himself for bodily death by writing – though only in his mind – those things he had saved so long to write about, logically concluding his worldly, bodily life, and in the process, giving birth again to his aesthetic self. Though Harry does die physically in the end of the story, his aesthetic self continues; divorced from Harry’s physical body, it moves to a realm separate from the physical.
Kilimanjaro looms in the distance and Harry knows this is the place to which he travels; it is “as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably pure in the sun” (76). Harry’s “aesthetic body” moves to a new world, one white and pure, elevated with respect to the plains. Harry has achieved a new vision of immortality, one located in art. Harry’s transcending this world is an allegorical illustration of what any artist is capable of: immortality through the art’s continued appreciation and evaluation. Harry, though unable to access this more traditional route of exhibiting (or publishing) art for the world to engage with, nevertheless achieves a kind of aesthetic immortality via a separate, more idiosyncratic route. Hemingway, in portraying Harry’s struggle and ultimate success, illustrates the romantic notion of the artist’s autonomy and art’s transcendent possibilities: through creation, one might realize something beyond oneself, and after death aesthetic consciousness can live on through the artist’s work.
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