The Sun Also Rises: A Commentary
Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is a grand novel about the “Lost Generation” of men and women, who came of age during WWI. It was published in October, 1926. Nonetheless, this is not a war novel, for it takes place after the Great War. Instead, it is an unusual love story, ahead of its time.
The experts tell us that any masterpiece of literature will stand the test of time. And this novel is a testament to its fortitude. But, when reading it in today’s day and age, it acts as a sounding board, an accusing mirror or an indictment to our current generation. If the people of the WWI generation lost their innocence, limbs and in many cases, their lives, we have lost way more than that: our humanity.
Hemingway’s prose is minimalistic, essential and brutal to be sure. Therein lies its beauty. His narrative fills my lungs with mountain-top crisp-cold-air, while fly fishing for trout in crystal-clear streams. It ignites my imagination with tantalizing debauchery in all-night drinking binges. And it most certainly fires my heart with images of warm spilt blood over the bullring’s hot sand, in a mythical sacrificial dance of life and death, evoking insane passionate love making; a reassertion of the life-force that gushes through my veins.
Reader be warned: It is Hemingway’s writing that inspires and gives me a new found impetus to critique some our current societal predicaments. I will address book specifics, later.
A CRY IN THE DARK
Have we not capitulated our humanity, our sense of purpose and our chance at greatness? Have we not lost the ability to feel deeply, to rage or to love with passion without remorse or contempt? Doesn’t it seem that cold intellect and fear has taken over our once courageous hearts? Political correctness or PC, rampant positivism and sheer cultural ignorance have won the day. No wonder our mediocrity and timid personas are satisfied with bread and circuses, a.k.a. the minimum common denominator: everywhere!
The cruelty of our complicit PC behavior is manifested, by the most insidious form of self-imposed collective censorship. Similarly, Morpheus had this to say in The Matrix movie trilogy:
“You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch: A prison for your mind”.
Such hateful coercion, represses our ability to grow and express our humanity, outside of the devilishly well concocted corporate designs for the unsuspecting and unwashed masses, which have been lobotomized and molten from a people and a citizenry, to a well behaved consuming public or sheeple: from cradle to grave.
Do not succumb to the knee-jerk-reaction of “I didn’t know”. Yes, we did! Collectively, we all knew. Let us not forget the warnings from societal stalwart commentators and towering dystopian authors, such as: Yevgeny Zamyatin and “We”, Aldous Huxley and his “Brave New World”, or George Orwell’s 1984.
On April 4th, 1967, and exactly one year before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered what many think was his most eloquent speech, at Riverside Church in New York City, called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”. He, too, warned us:
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered”.
“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country”.
Our modern-day-society has reached such an awesome technological level, wealth and power; it should be able to create gods, let alone monumental works of art, architecture, engineering, medicine, science, technology a.k.a. a magnanimous culture and a legacy of well-being for the planet and humanity for the next thousand years. Perhaps the old adage is true, “There is nothing new under the sun” and “History does repeat itself”. I am thinking of our society’s parallels with Atlantis; an allegedly super-advanced technological civilization with a completely debased spiritual consciousness.
Today, our greatness can only be measured in terms of milliseconds, for our attention span is shorter than that of a flea. Our memories cannot hold more than a Twitter-bite-sized-message. In a sea of instant communications, we have become desperate trembling little children who fear the impenetrable night, and more than ever, feel alone.
We have truly become the generation of the impermanence, the foolish and the crass. Critical thinking has been supplanted by coarse mainstream media dictums. Culture has been reduced to the populace’s voracious appetite for all things narcissistic, vulgar and banal.
BACK ON TO THE NOVEL
As Robert Cohn, a character in the novel and an American writer visiting France puts it: Jake Barnes, the protagonist and expat journalist living in Paris, is a pimp. He introduces his beloved friend, Lady Brett Ashley, a predator and man eater, to potential male victims. His reward comes in the form of brief encounters with Brett, a totally irresistible woman who tells him, he is, the real love of her life. Jake basks in the powerful scent of this seductive woman; enough to mitigate his incomplete existence, for they will never be able to consummate the act, since he was rendered impotent when wounded in the Great War.
At first, I felt disgusted with this arrangement. But later on I realized that it was unfair to pass such severe judgment, under these circumstances. Regardless of the bad hand dealt to him, he too had a heart. The irony of it all is that Jake was, in fact, a gentleman, a thrill seeker and an adventure-loving robust male.
Brett, a beautiful young English woman of 32, who had numerous love affairs, who divorced twice; thus, inheriting a nobility title, is a voracious tramp. She spends her life partying all over Europe, in the conquest of men who will amuse her and squander lavishly on her. And when she comes crashing down, she runs to Jake’s arms, so that he mends her.
The first part of the novel takes place in Paris; from one bar scene to another, drinking and carousing at all hours of the day.
One evening, Jake arrives at a nightclub with Georgette, a plainspoken prostitute, and meets with a group of friends. Lady Ashley shows up, too, and immediately dashes off towards him. Robert, who is Jake’s tennis buddy, is smitten by her. Georgette starts dancing with some of the men, while Jake, who cannot stand Brett’s coquettish behaviour, calls it a night and goes home to sleep. In turn, Lady Ashley picks up an old wealthy count named Mippipopolous, to entertain her for the rest of the evening. Although, she pays no attention to Robert, in a couple of days she will go off on to another escapade with him, for a whole week, to a quaint little coastal town in the Spanish Bay of Biscay.
The second and possibly the most memorable part of the novel takes place in Spain.
Gordon, another American, leaves with Jake for Pamplona, on a previously planned holiday trip to the “Feria de San Fermin”; a week-long Fiesta Brava, an unruly carnival and a grand bull fighting event. But a few days before the fiesta begins, they go off trout fishing in Burguete, a small village in the near-by mountains.
In spite of the difficulty of a first person point-of-view, Hemingway’s narrative is magnificent, for you are left with a taste in your mouth that you have actually been there. And the novel’s dialogues are second to none. They ring so true; you forget this is fiction and not a real-life memoir.
They cut their enjoyable fishing trip short when Jake learns that Brett, Robert and Mike Campbell, who is Lady Ashely’s new Scottish fiancé, are coming to join him for the fiesta, in Pamplona.
After a week of heavy drinking, fistfights, arguments and all-in-all rowdy behavior, Brett runs away with the bullfighting star; a handsome 19-year-old-matador called Romero. Cohn leaves in shame, defeated and heartbroken, returning to Paris to see if his former girlfriend will take him back. Gordon departs for France, to set sail towards the United States. All the while, Mike, who is broke and whose engagement is off, heads to Bayonne, on the southeast coast of France, where he claims he can still find some credit.
Finally, Jake leaves for San Sebastian to spend a week on the beach; sun bathing, swimming and relaxing before he goes back to work in Paris. However, he gets a pressing telegram from Brett, asking him to come immediately to her rescue, in Madrid. She has dumped the young torero and has neither money nor a place to go.
Jake grabs an overnight sleeper train for Madrid and finds her at a cheap hotel. She doesn’t want to spend a minute longer there and they leave all her belongings behind. Once inside the taxi, she asks him to take a tour of the city, which she hasn’t seen, for spending all her lascivious time with the young matador.
Brett says: “Oh, Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together”.
To which Jake replies: “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?”
And with that, the novel, unceremoniously, ends.
Obviously, there is way more to this novel than what I’ve described. Hence, if you haven’t done so, go ahead and read it. You will be glad you did.