Paris is crowded, expensive and Godless. If you are young, if you are healthy, if you have money and if you are joined by friends, Paris is incomparably brilliant. Absent one of the above and the City of Lights very quickly loses its luster. The model of the modern city, Paris’s enlightenment left us desecrated temples and a Pantheon for the dead. And no one smiles at you unless they are trying to earn your money. But isn’t Paris just charming? Smile and nod.
Written in the decade after the Great War, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” explores life in a world without institutions. Although never discussed, the war casts a grim shadow upon the book, reminding all involved that life is utterly futile, death utterly inevitable. The world had revealed societal institutions — what Edmund Burke called “the decent drapery of life” — for the fictions they really were. God had died in the killing fields of the Somme (the novel’s theology, not mine). Machine guns, it turned out, could not discriminate between a marquess and a low-born private. Why should we? The strictures of marriage, only ever a working-class virtue, now seemed quaint in a throwaway world. When the decent drapery of life is gone, what is left?
Out of that dead land springs forth the lilac of Jacob Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley’s romance. The novel opens in Paris where Barnes, an American veteran who never returned home after the war, edits a daily newspaper. Following him from lonely bars to insufferable dinners, we witness the daily ordeal of “litterati” social life. Like revolutionary cultists of reason bowing obsequiously before idols of their own creation, Barnes’s expatriate friends recite their ritual affirmations: How do you like Paris? Isn’t it just charming?
Perpetually broke and morally bankrupt, Barnes’s friends cheat, flirt and dance their way through nightclubs — anything to get them drunk enough to shirk off the plague of remembering. Everyone’s cheating on everyone and everyone’s waiting to finalize their divorce so they can move onto the next cheap fling. In a world without a moral center, marital strife becomes a cliche. Robert Cohn, Jake’s thin-skinned, thick-knuckled frenemy, kicks his soon to be ex-wife out of their home, even though he can’t afford the 200 pounds to ship her off to England.
Aristocracy has lost all dignity and meaning, as epitomized in the character of Count Mippipopolous, whose name must be Hemingway’s version of a joke. The Greek count (is he really a count? Who knows? Who cares?) is a fat capitalist who owns a chain of candy stores in the States. He’s perfectly happy to play the part of cuckold, paying for Lady Brett and Jake’s dates and intimate dances while he watches and drinks himself to a quick death. Immediately after meeting Mippipopolous for the first time, Jake Barnes walks by a towering statue of Marshal Ney, the common-born general who slaughtered enough men that Napoleon named him prince. The fat cuckold just doesn’t match up.
Even Lady Brett Ashley’s title is revealed to be merely the “decent drapery” of a barbaric marital life. Twice divorced, Brett earned her noble title by marriage to a sailor, the ninth baronet of Ashley. Crazed by war, every night Brett’s first husband forced her, always at gunpoint, to sleep on the bare floor with him instead of in a bed.
Unmoored by either church or state — this is a story of atheist expatriates (they’ve even abandoned the community of their native tongues!) — Barnes’ lost generation roars their way through Paris, but without making any progress. Devoid of any grounding, they seek instead to find affirmation (or perhaps justification for existence) in love. When it turns out that mortal lovers cannot provide absolute meaning, Barnes’ Parisians constantly divorce and move onto the next lover, in the hopes of finding purpose in the next bedfellow. The definition of insanity, one remembers, is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting something to change.
Hemingway almost seems to long for the pre-modern world; after all, many modernist writers were themselves quite conservative. But, of course, Hemingway had bled to bring down three pre-modern empires. And even if he had wanted to restore the kaiser, there seemed no path back to 1913. The solution Hemingway discovered, imperfect at best, was Spain.
Like an artillery round on the Western Front, Jacob Barnes hurtles himself out of the licentious, entrenched, meaningless battleground of Paris. Barnes, Brett and friends (nearly all of whom have been, at one time or another, Brett’s sexual partners) head down to Spain to go enjoy the festival of San Fermin, a bullfighting extravaganza. The novel spends more time than one would expect describing the border between France and Spain, and the reader understands that this is a journey not just geographically, but also politically, spiritually and temporally backwards, backwards, backwards.
Immediately upon crossing into Spain, Barnes exits his high-speed train — replete with dining cars and expensive bottles of wine — and hops onto the roof of a country bus, sharing spurts of wine from communal wineskins with the well-tanned Basque natives. The Spanish countryside is blissfully underdeveloped, the locals generous with wine and affection, and the summer sun smiles ceaselessly.
After taking separate routes, Jake and one companion hurry ahead to indulge in a quick fishing trip to quiet and sane Bayonne. The rural fishing village revivifies one form of pre-modern life: pastoral, idyllic, serene. They then meet their friends in the regional capital of Pamplona. An old city still rooted in tradition and the communitarian structures of a pre-modern society, Pamplona provides a glimpse into a world already past, the world of yesterday, where societal institutions still hold sway and neighbors still feel some sense of community. Stopping before the Gothic cathedral, Jake and Brett even try to pray, on separate occasions.
As natives and bullfighting aficionados assemble for the festival of San Fermin, the novel speeds toward the heart of its second act. In fervent Pamplona, the ostensibly Catholic festival of San Fermin exhorts its practitioners to fits of pagan ecstasy. Wine flows without ceasing in a near-Bacchic rite, fantastic fireworks explode overhead and nobody ever sleeps. Drunk with exhaustion — and with wine — and running on pure adrenaline, the entire city rocks and rolls and explodes into fits of passion to the beat of bull hooves. Aficionados, eager to imitate their hero matadors, chase down parading bulls in the street. Some suffer a nasty goring. Some die. The voyeuristic crowd moves onto the next bullfight and cheer as their young gladiators slaughter bull after bull in the arena.
This is a pocket of the pre-modern world, which Hemingway preserves for us as if in amber. Pamplona drinks itself to crazed rapture on blood and wine. But the matadors themselves are a grim lot. They know they may soon die. And yet, day after day, fight after fight, they climb back into the arena, all for a fit of vainglory.
But even in this corner of the world, the modern world encroaches. An innkeeper, Jake’s friend, has to shield 19-year-old Pedro Romero, the most beautiful, most heroic, most pre-modern, rugged bullfighter, from the throwaway world outside. When the American ambassador to Spain invites Romero to dinner — intending to pump him full of cash, pimp his talent out for as much profit as state-side audiences will proffer and then throw him away like any other cheap product past its use — the innkeeper hides the invitation from Romero.
Hemingway supplies two other bullfighters as foils to Pedro Romero, so that we may see what we lose when the modern world takes over. One is not nearly as good and demonstrates the comparative excellence of Romero. The other, a legendary veteran who sold out to commercial sponsors, turns out to be nothing more than a capitalist fraud: so well-funded, so well-advertised and such a cheap imitation of true heart and passion that every audience, which pays top dollar to see him, cannot help but be disappointed by the corporate performance.
Anxiety over the coming storm of capitalism, which threatens to batter down all the old ways of life, manifests itself in the intense, violent anti-Semitism of the novel’s characters. Robert Cohn is a complex character, and Hemingway is careful to introduce him by laying out the anti-Semitism he has had to endure, so as to endear him to the reader. We learn that Cohn became a formidable boxer to defend himself against the ceaseless WASP bullying at Princeton — he even knocks out several characters in the book. But Cohn is ultimately the antagonist (if there is one) of the novel, and he plays into several anti-Semitic tropes, not the least of which is the lustful Jewish villain trying to steal another man’s wife. Jake and his compatriots, dreading the fast-approaching capitalist future, misdirect their agitation about society into unbridled bursts of anti-Semitism directed at Cohn.
And this brings us to the last, most haunting message of “The Sun Also Rises.” Released in 1926, the novel now reads like a modern Cassandra, desperately screaming unheeded warnings of what is to come. In just seven years, Mussolini’s blackshirts will provide an absolute solution to a dissolute world. In 10, Franco’s fascists, feeding on the existential dread of tomorrow that pervades Hemingway’s story, will rise up to force Spain into reactionary retreat. In a way, Franco will play the part of Lady Ashley’s first husband, forcing Spain, at gunpoint, to abandon modernity for a nasty, crude and primitive tyranny.
Reading Hemingway, one feels that modernity is too feeble, too rootless, too abstract to compete with the blinding forces of fanaticism, tribalism and bloody, martial glory. This is the charge of learned authoritarians like Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule, who want to return us to brutish absolutism. In an August 2020 tweet, he suggested replacing liberal democracy with “loyalty to living rulers who embody the polity in a concrete way.”
Following Jake and his friends’ meaningless Parisian life, one understands why absolutist movements like fascism and communism held such appeal in the modern world. And one understands further the appeal of cults of personality and online conspiracy theories that provide an all-encompassing answer — no matter how absurd, horrible, or inhumane — to the problems of modernity. Given all the hype of Enlightenment-esque thinkers like public intellectual Steven Pinker, who insist the world is still, on the balance, sprinting ahead into a new age of liberty, equality and fraternity, it is remarkable how contemporary “The Sun Also Rises” reads. Slang aside, Hemingway could have written the story yesterday.
At least 87 current or former congressional candidates in this election cycle have openly embraced QAnon. Senator Perdue in Georgia ran anti-Semitic ads against his Jewish opponent, attempting to paint the picture of a Jewish, Democratic cabal in the Senate, controlling D.C. In the absence of God or national unity, a secular fundamentalism attempts to fill the void.
Things fall apart; the center, it seems, may not hold. We are reminded once again, to our horror, that the past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Timothy Han | firstname.lastname@example.org