Genre, gender, and truth in 'Death in the Afternoon.'
But I find in Death in the Afternoon two textual problems and problematics quite worthy of profound study--the dramatizing of authorship through generic conventions and the exploration of gender through a dialectic of nature and performance. At once risking and consolidating his reputation as a, writer, Hemingway exploits the tropes of travel writing, documentary, and dialogue to mount a theory of writing that justifies his own practice and sets the terms for literary evaluation. At the same time, he explores cultural performances of masculinity in a way that both complicates our understanding of Hemingway's sense of gender and allows us to fink literary style with his core concerns about sex/sexuality and truth.
The only fully adequate answer to my taxonomic question, by the way, is that the book is an anatomy, a logical dissection on the order of Nash's Anatomy of Absurdity or Lyly's Euphues or Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. In its incorporation of various generic markers and discursive fragments, the book also resembles Moby-Dick, the great American anatomy, These examples are instructive in that each says quite a lot about writing even as it expounds upon absurdity, wit, melancholy, or the whale.(3) Any reader of Death in the Afternoon will notice the comments about other writers, about the act of writing. Writers as disparate as Waldo Frank and William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley and Andre Gide, come in for some criticism. Moreover, we can read many of Hemingway's comments about truth and decadence in the bullring as comments on truth and decadence in modern writing. Hemingway seems to despise all modern writing which, like modern bullfighting, elaborates what should be a small element integrated into a larger framework of tragedy into the end itself, so that the whole art form loses its tragic focus and suffers from enervating excesses.
At the same time some critics, most perceptively Robert Scholes, Nancy Comley, and Mark Spilka, have called our attention to the strange asides on gender that pepper the book, from the several appearances of the Old Lady through the almost prurient interest in the love lives of both bulls and matadors.(4) This critical emphasis on either writing or gender in Death in the Afternoon yields important insights into the book and into Hemingway's broader project, but I want to suggest some connections between these two ways of reading Hemingway's strange tauromachian text, to show how these insights reveal a Hemingway for whom truth, death, sex, and writing condense almost indistinguishably into one another.
That condensation produces a portrait of the, artist as sexually and stylistically complex, as torn between the search for authoritative truth and the acknowledgement of that truth's locus in performance. Such a portrait, I argue, helps us to make sense of what seems Hemingway's petulant insistence on attacking other writers and defending his own practice, for such literary matters as genre and style are inextricably bound up in the tension between seeming and being, between masking and making, that Death in the Afternoon explores.
We are led to read Hemingway's anatomy of the corrida as an allegory on writing by Hemingway's own early linkage of the two. On the very first page of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway notes that Gertrude Stein introduced him to the bullfight, and the same long sentence includes a reference to the Greeks breaking the legs of their horses and mules and shoving them off the quay at Smyrna, the famous incident memorialized in the first short story of In Our Time.
Once I remember Gertrude Stein talking of bullfights spoke of her
admiration for Joselito and showed me some pictures of him in the ring
and of herself and Alice Toklas sitting in the first row of the wooden
barreras at the bull ring at Valencia with Joselito and his brother Gallo
below, and I had just come from the Near East, where the Greeks broke
the legs of their baggage and transport animals and drove and shoved them
off the quay into the shallow water when they abandoned the city of
Smyrna, and I remember saying that I did not like the bullfights because
of the poor horses. (1-2)
The moment's significance is twofold (at least). As we know from A Moveable Feast and from Hemingway's contemporaneous letters, Stein's tutelage extended from bullfighting to writing.(5) She read and critiqued Hemingway's early stories and the young writer obviously studied and incorporated elements of her experimental prose style into his own.(6) What's more, the "and" that joins the clause about Stein's aficion and the clause about Smyrna introduces a compositional tic that recurs at crucial moments throughout Death in the Afternoon. In all of Hemingway, the joining of independent clauses by "and" cues heightened thematic or affective significance. What the "and" connects we are to read as somehow similar, and the relationship between the ideas is important, though the reasons are often left for us to determine.
Another "and" leads to the sentence's concluding clause--"I remember saying that I did not like the bullfights because of the poor horses." Hemingway recalls filling the very subject position he opens his book arguing against; indeed, the book begins with Hemingway modelling that position--"At the first bullfight I ever went to I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the horses"--before going on to dispute it. He puts himself in the place he expects his reader to occupy, and sets Stein in the place that he now claims, all after linking Stein-as-aficionado with the Smyrna episode that exemplifies the writerly aim Hemingway describes in the next sentence: "to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced" The implication is dear. The horses in the bullring remind Hemingway of those at Smyrna, but Stein somehow helps Hemingway to overcome "what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel," to actually see the bullfight (through her photographs and then in person), and to put down the true gen.(7)
The true gen, of course, is death. As Hemingway writes later in the same paragraph, "one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death," and while Hemingway might not agree with Wallace Stevens that "death is the mother of beauty," he is firmly convinced that death is the inescapable heart of truth, itself the ultimate aim of writing (or of that writing Hemingway affirms and aspires to). And, of course, death is the enabling center of the corrida's aesthetic:
The whole end of the bullfight was the final sword thrust, the actual
encounter between the man and the animal, what the Spanish call the
moment of truth, and every move in the fight was to prepare the bull for
the killing (68).
From the beginning, then, the violent death at the literal and figurative center of the bullring is linked metonymically, syntactically, and spatially, to the truth at the center of writing. Throughout the book, death and truth and writing, often linked as I have linked them here--with "and"--are figured in the various aspects of bullfighting Hemingway examines in such detail.
Gender and sexuality play into this linkage in interesting and complicated ways, and it is by no means clear that they relate consistently or predictably to Hemingway's obsessive concern with truth/death. On one hand, Hemingway consociates adherence to conventional masculinity with the proper orientation toward death; in many scenes throughout the book he attributes a man's stance toward death or his recognition of death as the ultimate truth to that man's masculinity and, conversely, he attributes cowardice or the search for a false security in the face of death, to a man's unmanliness.
On the other hand, many anecdotes (including the opening story of Stein) complicate or challenge such easy correlations. At these key moments we find Hemingway losing control, letting slip something that gives the game away and lets the performative aspects of style and identity in the back door. Death in the Afternoon concocts a pungent and occasionally surprising mixture from these elements so central to Hemingway's project.
This is nowhere more true than in the famous essay, "A Natural History of the Dead," which Hemingway drops into the middle of Chapter Twelve. The title alone locates death as a basis for scientific truth, and Hemingway quickly links death and truth in an ironic application of Bishop Stanley's query whether any branch of Natural History can be studied without increasing faith, love, and hope: "Let us therefore see what inspiration we may derive from the dead" (134). Death does yield some "scientific" truths under this scrutiny. Hemingway asserts these conclusions almost dryly, as if pronouncing the results of some experiments. The dead during wartime are "usually the male of the human species," though animals of both sexes routinely die in combat (134). The human body, when exposed to explosives, is "blown-into pieces which exploded along no anatomical lines, but rather divided as capriciously as the fragmentation in the burst of a high explosive shell" (137). Humans die like animals and it is impossible to tell from the size of a wound whether it will be fatal or how long it will take the victim to die (138-9).
Quite scientifically, Hemingway's natural history approach sometimes leads to revisions of previously held assumptions. Hemingway assures us that, although we might think otherwise, mules are indeed mortal because he has seen dead ones in war (135). We must revise the titles of books like Generals Die in Bed because Hemingway has known generals who were killed by snipers' gunshots through the brain (140). Most importantly, the scientific study of death yields a truth that replaces the one with which Hemingway began the essay, the truth discovered in a moss flower by Mungo Park at the threshold of death: "'Can that Being who planted, watered and brought to perfection, in this obscure part of the world, a thing which appears of so small importance, look with unconcern upon the situation and suffering of creatures formed after his own image? Surely not'"(134). The smell of rotting corpses on a battlefield casts doubt on this wisdom, for "few travellers would take a good full breath of that early summer air and have any such thoughts as Mungo Park had about those formed in His own image"(138).
Moreover, Hemingway confesses that he attributed the fact that men die like animals to the war because he had never seen a natural death; this allowed him, like Park, to know "that there was something else, that always absent something else ..." (139). Until, that is, he saw a natural death from Spanish influenza, which involved drowning in mucus and choking and culminated in the patient "shit[ting] the bed full," and then he realized that men always die like animals. A clear-eyed examination of the dead, a "natural history of the dead," forces us to confront the truth that death is ugly, random, unpleasant, inescapable, and difficult.
Hemingway's style in the essay makes this point as completely as his imagery or bare assertions. Throughout "A Natural History of the Dead," he depicts death with scientific precision and matter-of-factness, scouring away the sentimental or mytical or aesthetic blurriness that allows one to take inspiration from death. His descriptions are clinical--accurate, graphic, and non-judgmental:
Until the dead are buried they change somewhat in appearance each day.
The color change in Caucasian races is from white to yellow, to
yellow-green, to black. If left long enough in the heat the flesh comes
to resemble coal-tar, especially where it has been broken or torn, and
it has quite a visible tarlike iridescence. The dead grow larger each day
until sometimes they become quite too big for their uniforms, filling
these until they seem blown tight enough to burst. The individual members
may increase in girth to an unbelievable extent and faces fill as taut and
globular as balloons. (137)
Hemingway's sentences here are simple and declarative, the verbs scientifically passive, the assertions carefully qualified, the figuration in terms of mundane substances and objects, the diction unassuming. But these aspects of the style make this plainspoken description of decay and corruption more rather than less dramatic and grisly. When you write the truth, true sentences are all that is required for compelling art, and Hemingway holds our faces to the gruesome scene with almost medically dean hands. Or, to figure it a different way, he crafts with language and syntax a clear and undistorted window through which we must view death in all its simple and compelling truth.
At the same time as it thematically and stylistically links death and truth, "A Natural History of the Dead" dramatizes authorship in a way that links it too with the truth/death nexus the essay explores. Hemingway frames the essay with brief exchanges between himself and the Old Lady, introducing his natural history as an alternative to all that has come before in this chapter (devoted to the breeding of fighting bulls), a text "written in the popular style and ... designed to be the Whittier's Snow Bound of our time and at the end... simply full of conversation" (133). But writing the new "Snow Bound" is difficult, as Hemingway's repeated glances over his shoulder demonstrate. A writer trying to articulate a natural history of the dead is thrown back on foundational experiences like witnessing the deaths of broken-legged baggage animals off the quay at Smyrna (135).
Such tactics, though, bring interruption and criticism; when Hemingway mentions the Smyrna episode, the Old Lady says "You wrote about those mules before," and he must reach for a different illustrative experience. This, too, meets with a negative reaction; for the Old Lady interrupts Hemingway's account of picking up bodies and their fragments after an explosion at a munitions factory to tell him "This is not amusing" (137). As the author replies to an early interruption, "It's very hard to write like this" (135).
More important than the quite real difficulty of writing "one true sentence," though, is the skirmishing Hemingway conducts around the borders of his own literary practice. In "A Natural History of the Dead," that skirmishing erupts into a pitched battle with Irving Babbitt and T.S. Eliot, writers who typify a self-consciously elevated and abstruse writing that obscures the truth that Hemingway himself tries so hard to capture and confront us with.(8) His rhetoric here is vicious. Indeed, the attack commences with Hemingway's desire "to see the death of any self-called Humanist," a desire which, following on the heels of his description of a miserable death from Spanish influenza, takes on added malice. But death is not nearly good enough for these Humanists; it allows the possibility of "noble exits, " and Hemingway is not about to leave such an escape route.
As if eradicating weeds, he goes to the root in his attack, locating all the Humanists' enervating erudition and dreary decorum in the moment of their conception. Because sex is "highly indecorous," the Humanists must be "children of decorous cohabitation" (139). On one level this simply means their pallid forebears were without passion. On another, though, Hemingway implies that Humanists are the products of a kind of parthenogenesis; they Were asexually conceived (and, therefore, must themselves be incapable of sexual production).
"But regardless of how they started," Hemingway continues, "I hope to see the finish of a few, and speculate how worms will try that long-preserved sterility; with their quaint pamphlets gone to bust and into foot-notes all their lust" (139). The double-freight of "sterility" is obvious. More interesting is the couplet that foresees the disappearance of the Humanists' productions (critical pamphlets) and the dissipation of their procreative capacity into that most academic apparatus, the footnote. For scholars, the footnote makes explicit their work's indebtedness to previous authors, their participation in the accumulation of knowledge and interpretation. For Eliot, they locate a poem within an intersecting set of myths and point to the wholes from which he draws poetic fragments. For Hemingway, the footnote demonstrates a book's birth out of other books, its containment in a system closed off from the world outside of literature and the academy. The Humanists, therefore, represent writing with no basis in experience, writing that cannot reach the truth.
But their distance from experience and truth is neither the only nor the worst offense attributed to the Humanists. In a bit of conversation provoked by the epigram on sterility and footnotes, Hemingway links the Humanists' literary practices with gender:
Old lady: That's a very nice line about lust.
Author: I know it. It came from Andrew Marvell. I learned how do
that by reading T.S. Eliot.
Old lady: The Eliots were all old friends of our family. I believe they
were in the lumber business.
Author: My uncle married a girl whose father was in the lumber
Precisely as we might expect, Hemingway feminizes and genteelizes Eliot, and through him the Humanists he represents, by constellating him with the Old Lady. Even more importantly, he devalues their compositional method and their academicism through a code of gender associations. Not only a consistent representative of femininity for Hemingway, the Old Lady symbolizes an insipid propriety, a saccharine sensibility shaped by genteel culture, and a matronly censoriousness and caution born of these. By familial association, Eliot is similarly tainted.
But Humanist writing, however untrue, however genteel, however worthless for Hemingway, is nonetheless writing with immense institutional authority. Hemingway must challenge that authority to dear the way for his own practice and to mark the Humanists as opposite his vision, as unproductive, unoriginal, and, finally, unworthy of the attention he has already paid them; this discussion of the Humanists, while it might have a place in his natural history, is ultimately "unfair to the other dead, who were not dead in their youth of choice, who owned no magazines, many of whom had doubtless never even read a review" (140).
Hemingway's thesis about bullfighting--it has become decadent as subordinate aspects like capework or the placing of banderillas, things once considered the preparation of the bull for the crucial moment of killing, have become instead ends in themselves--is also his thesis about writing. In both arts, the moment of truth is a moment involving death. In writing as in bullfighting, the immortality constructed by the performance and vicariously experienced by the reader is key:
Now the essence of the greatest emotional appeal of bullfighting is the
feeling of immortality the bullfighter feels in the middle of a great
faena and that he gives to the spectators. He is performing a work of art
and he is playing with death, bringing it closer, closer, closer to
himself... He gives the feeling of immortality, and, as you watch it, it
becomes yours (213)
But in each art form this moment's importance has been diminished and replaced by stylistic frills that allow the artist to print his own identity upon the form while evading the personal danger once fundamental to the performance. Simplicity and lack of ornament left a bullfighter with no choice but to expose himself to mortal danger; only this would render an honorable performance. The same is true for writing: "If a man writes clearly enough any one can see if he fakes" (54). Decoration and excess, on the other hand, allow the bullfighter to give the impression of danger, to wow unknowing audiences:
As the corrida has developed and decayed there has been less emphasis on
the form of killing, which was once the whole thing, and more on the cape
work, the placing of the banderillas and the work with the muleta. The
cape, the banderillas and muleta have all become ends in themselves rather
than means to an end ... (67).
Again, what works in the ring works in writing: "If [a writer] mystifies to avoid a straight statement ... The writer takes a longer time to be known as a fake and other writers who are afflicted by the same necessity will praise him in their own defense"(54). The overelaboration of one element to show off and to avoid what's difficult, in writing as in bullfighting, is decadence. Paradoxically, though, decadence has made the modern bullfight possible" (68). Rotting, deprayed, and doomed, bullfighting is at the same time reaching its fullest flower. Modern writing, too seems to be dying in its moment of most florid bloom (a bloom Hemingway locates in such decadent locales as Bloomsbury and Faulkner's south).
At every turn, however, we find that the most sustained moments of prescriptive commentary about writing, the most sustained answers to critics or assessments of other writers, come hand in hand with meditations on gender and sexuality, more specifically homosexuality. These juxtapositions effectively locate Hemingway's aesthetic project in a thoroughgoing exploration not only of existential and artistic "truth" but also of the "sexual truths" with which they are so often interwoven.
The rising emphasis on decorative capework and the concomitant evasion of death/truth in bullfighting represents, in the book's allegorical economy, the rising emphasis on decorative style and the concomitant evasion of death/truth in writing. Hemingway links these decorative excesses, at several, crucial moments, to forcible sodomy and the moral decadence it synecdochically represents. The linkage is repeated in what becomes a standard progression in chapters. An aspect of the corrida is described in detail, compared with the past, and exemplified in present practice. This is followed by a discussion of some aspect of writing or language. Finally, gender or sexuality appears at the end of the chapter to synthesize Hemingway's commentary on bullfighting and writing.
Exemplary of this structure is the fairly brief Chapter Seven, in which Hemingway's interlocutor, the Old Lady, makes her first appearance. The chapter focuses on the bull's entrance into the arena, when a banderillero trails a cape from side to side to determine which horn the bull favors. Hemingway defines the Veronica, in which a man provokes the bull to charge and then deflects the bull from his body by flourishing the cape; he provides the term's etymology ("from St. Veronica who wiped the face of Our Lord with a cloth and ... is always represented holding the cloth by the two corners"), and explains why banderilleros are prohibited from using both hands on the cape and why only matadors are to manipulate the bull with both hands on the cape. This discussion leads Hemingway to contrast present practice with the classical age of bullfighting; where once banderilleros simply led the bull into the ring, discovered its dominant horn, and left the bull for the matador to prepare, they now "do much of the work of preparing the bull for killing that was formerly done by the matador" (66).
Hemingway's diatribe against this decadence, his explanation of how the bullfight has arrived at this crucial-moment in its development, ends in a conversation with the Old Lady about the word "decadence" itself
I will explain later, madame, but indeed decadence is a difficult' word
to use since it has become little more than a term of abuse applied by
critics to anything they do not yet understand or which seems to differ
from their moral concepts.
Old lady: I always understood it to mean that there was something
rotten as there is at courts.
Madame, all our words from loose using have lost their edge but your
inherent concepts are most sound. (71)
Hemingway begins to make an argument for the precise use of words, one that follows naturally from the just-concluded discussion of precision both in the rules that govern bullfighting and in the execution of passes by the matador, but is dissuaded by the Old Lady.
To please her, he makes his point about decadence, a point applicable to bullfighting and writing alike, by telling a story that is both about writers and about sex, the story of Raymond Radiguet, "who knew how to make his career not only with his pen but with his pencil" (71). Chafing under the protection of Jean Cocteau, his benefactor, Radiguet trysts with a woman then working as a model in the Latin Quarter. Cocteau, enraged by Radiguet's behavior, charges the younger writer with decadence: "Bebe est vicieuse--il aime les femmes" (71).(9) Hemingway's moral is precisely the same as his comment that precedes the story. Language itself has become decadent through imprecise use, and this decadence is proven by the decadent Cocteau's application of the very term "decadence" to the heterosexual behavior of Radiguet, behavior Hemingway, of course, finds not decadent in the least. Sex, sexuality, and writing intertwine to bear out a truth Hemingway first explores allegorically in his discussion of bullfighting.
But the Radiguet anecdote, which Hemingway adduces in support of an anti-decadent clarity and, ahem, rigidity, in fact questions the location of sexual truth in "nature" and locates it instead in performance. For what does it mean to say that Radiguet "knew how to make his career not only with his pen but with his pencil"? Hemingway fairly leers in the sentence, winking and nudging the Old Lady with a salacious "if you follow me, madam." Both phallic, both phonologically and symbolically dose to the penis, the pen and the pencil can be differentiated only by the use to which each is put. The pen belongs to the writer. Its mark is permanent and this durability grants it power denied the sword (even the bullfighter's sword, as Hemingway elsewhere makes dear in his comments about the fleeting character of the bullfighters art).(10) The pencil, on the other hand, is the accountant's instrument. You plan to make mistakes with a pencil, but that is all right because you can erase them.
So Radiguet succeeds not only in the phallic exercise of literary creation, but also in the more ephemeral and experimental use of his pencil. "You mean?" asks the Old Lady. "Not exactly," Hemingway replies, "but something of the sort." The context of the passage makes its implication dear: Radiguet, the enfant terrible of French letters, whose first novel scandalized the public with its celebration of a young man's affair with the wife of a soldier at the front, chooses where and with whom to write with his pencil. Not bound by nature or convention, Radiguet's pencil writes a multifarious, outrageous, and unpredictable sexual text.
Decadence recurs as a central theme throughout Death in the Afternoon, and this makes sense because, historically, theories of decadence proliferate when artistic (including bullfighting) elites no longer police the borders of their own art forms or of their gendered, identities, or when they refuse the typical division of gendered labor. Hemingway clearly has normative aims in this book despite the open-endedness of the anatomy. There is a truth here, he insists, a truth achieved through a masculine agon of competition, and it is through this truth that Hemingway can make normative claims on his audience and on his literary rivals alike. There can be no right way, after all, without a truth to which that way can correspond.
At the same time, aspects of this very agon (in the ring as in writing) continually undermine the truth and open up a space for masquerade, for making something so by acting it. Chapter Fifteen, one of the book's most crucial, addresses this theme through another discussion of the changing part capework plays in the corrida. Once simply the means by which matadors drew the bull away after its charge at the picador, one among the many elements that prepare the bull for the moment of truth, the cape has become the bullfight's centerpiece. Killing is no longer the climax to which all other parts of the bullfight lead; it has been replaced by the continuous moment of truth offered by matadors executing delicate and dangerous passes with the cape.
Again, in bullfighting as in modern writing, decoration has superseded truth and changed the art form, drawing attention from death and substituting for that simplicity a filigreed but ultimately empty set of stylistic flourishes. Bereft of the real moment of truth, audiences trained to appreciate fine capework continue to demand "the maximum they can give with the cape and the muleta, regardless of its final fitting of the bull for killing, and the structure of the bullfight has been changed accordingly" (178-9).
The connection between this shift in bullfighting and a corresponding shift in modern prose is clarified by the appearance of William Faulkner (not coincidentally introduced by the Old Lady when she asks for a story like "Mr. Faulkner writes" instead of "another one about the dead").(11) Modern prose stylists, like matadors, do not kill well; they substitute for the truth a mode of telling stories that mystifies with flourishes and stages stylized dangers. The material substituted for death becomes clearer when the Old Lady requests a story "about those unfortunate people"-- homosexuals. Bullfighting, writing, and sexuality knot together in a prescriptive judgement about modern prose. Faulkner and the modern writing he represents--with its emphasis or dependence on the grotesque and the flamboyant in both subject and style--evades the moment of truth like a contemporary bullfighter, and the audience's desire for sensation can only be met with wilder or more "abnormal" subject matter.
Hemingway's authorial persona responds to the Old Lady's request with a critique that, on the surface, could as easily be applied to the corrida. He knows some stories about "those unfortunate people," he assures the Old Lady, but "in general they lack drama as do all tales of abnormality since no one can predict what will happen in the normal while all tales I of the abnormal end much the same" [emphasis mine]. All bullfights, too, "end much the same," don't they? And many narratives do as well; as Hemingway himself writes elsewhere in Death in the Afternoon, "all stories, if continued far enough, end in death" (122).
At the center of this book is the truth that, although death awaits us all, there are many ways to die and to face death. This means two things. First, the fact that all stories end in death does not mean that they end the same way; rather, there is enormous, almost infinite variety within that truth. And, secondly, some endings are better than others because they recognize, they idealize, they instantiate this truth.
The story Hemingway provides for the Old Lady, on the other hand, the story he represents as exemplary of "the kind of stories Mr. Faulkner writes" and, therefore, of decadent modern writing, shows that tales of the "abnormal" indeed end much the same--in capitulation. The narrative revolves around a young man's violent initiation into homosexuality. The newspaper man who tells the story is twice disturbed by the young man's resistance, first when the young man seeks escape in the reporter's room, claiming he prefers death to this initiation: "He would kill himself, he said. He would absolutely kill himself" (181), and later, when sounds like fighting come from the room next door and the young man cries out "I didn't know it was that. Oh, I didn't know it was that! I won't! I won't!" (181). Hemingway concludes the story matter-of-factly: "He pointed them out to me a day or two later riding together in an open taxi and I frequently saw them, after that, sitting on the terrace of the Cafe des Deux Magots." Like the audiences at contemporary bullfights, though, the Old Lady, who asked specifically for such a story instead of one about death, still requires something sensational: "Is there not to be what we called in my youth a wow at the end?" Hemingway's reluctant attempt to provide a wow emphasizes the banality of such stories' endings: the last time he saw the two men, the younger man had hennaed his hair, thus completing his capitulation to the desires of his comrade.(12)
But how are we to read this anecdote? As evidence of Papa's homophobia, the kind of feeling about gays we see in Jake's reaction to them in The Sun Also Rises?(13) Or as some sort of latent homosexuality Hemingway himself feared and so attacked? The taxonomic question I began with, and its answer, help us, I think, to see these moments in another light. For Death in the Afternoon is not only a book about the corrida, it is a book that follows the structure of the corrida in its step by step elaboration of the pageant and process of bull-killing, and it is a book that enacts a sort of corrida, one in which Hemingway plays all the parts Oust as he does in dialogues with the Old Lady). He is a brilliant matador at times, enticing the reader with elaborate lures and feints, turning, fixing, and finishing critics and opponents. But Hemingway must also be the bun if he is to get it right, and he must identify with the abject just as he has momentarily identified with both the horses and those who abhor the horses' fates. He must inhabit decadence, succumb to it and learn to love the rotten sweetness just as the young man in this anecdote learns, in his capitulation, to love it.(14)
Hemingway assumes the position in an early description of the matador, Cagancho:
Cagancho is a gypsy, subject to fits of cowardice, altogether without
integrity, who violates all the rules, written and unwritten, for the
conduct of a matador but who, when he receives a bull that he has
confidence in, and he has confidence in them very rarely, cap do
things which all bullfighters do in a way they have never been done
before and sometimes standing absolutely straight with his feet
still, planted as though he were a tree, with the arrogance and grace
that gypsies have and of which all other arrogance and grace seems an
imitation, moves the cape spread fun as the pulling jib of a yacht
before the bull's muzzle so slowly that the art of bullfighting,
which is only kept from being one of the major arts because it is
impermanent, in the arrogant slowness of his veronicas becomes, for
the seeming minutes that they endure, permanent.(14)
This is not the signature Hemingway style, and he well knows it; the passage is followed by an immediate justification: "That is the worst sort of flowery writing, but it is necessary to give the feeling" (14). And that is the key: Hemingway demonstrates in Death in the Afternoon that he will do pretty much anything that is necessary to give the feeling"--including such flowery writing. By so doing, Hemingway challenges his own repeated insistence that style unerringly identifies the man, whether the man is a bullfighter, a writer, or a painter.
Recall that, in the famous digression on El Greco in Chapter Seventeen Hemingway points to the painter's style as an indicator of his sexuality:
Did you ever see more classic examples anywhere than he painted? Do
you think that was all accident or do you think all those citizens
were queer? The only saint I know who is universally represented as
built that way is San Sebastian. Greco made them all that way. Look
at the pictures. Don't take my word for it. (204)
Here, though, Hemingway not only claims but also demonstrates that styles can be performed, that they can be elected. Amidst his efforts to naturalize or otherwise codify things like masculinity or bravery (or effeminacy or cowardice), Hemingway admits the volitional component of these qualities. The brilliant faena that allows us to share a sense of immortality results not only from talent or from inborn courage; it is chosen. The matador "performs," he "brings death closer." Hemingway shows us various examples of matadors electing bravery throughout the book, from Maera's apparently insane insistence on killing the bull even after he has broken his wrist to the single brilliant corrida of Manolo Martinez. Even "the cowardly bullfighter by a taut unnatural nerve-strained effort, abrogating his imagination, does a splendid and brilliant performance" (91). Artistic style, too, is located in the realm of choice. No one has to write "erectilely," as Waldo Frank does in Virgin Spain (53-4), or allusively, as Eliot does (139), or solemnly, as Aldous Huxley does in reviewing Hemingway (190-92), or gaudily, as Faulkner does (120). Anyone, though, might choose to do so, including Hemingway
So, in this wildly self-reflexive text, we can see both a division in Papa and signs of identification's unruly power. These signs, I think, make the point over and over again that bravery and truth and sexuality and style exist not in some predetermined nature but instead as they are performed--in the bullring, in prose, and in every other location. Hemingway is caught between his overwhelming need for authenticity, and the fact that he is a writer insightful enough to realize that "authenticity" is always-already a set of deferred promises. Indeed, Death in the Afternoon reads, overall, as always-already belated. Everything is too late: the bull fights have gone to hell, the war is done, we're going to die, literary styles have degenerated into parodic decadence. The modernist artist-hero never had a tougher task in ordering culture, in setting aesthetic crises right.
(1.)Kenneth Lynn, for example, spends some ten pages discussing the Eastman review and the ensuing fracas (397-407).
(2.) Robert Coates's review in the New Yorker is typical; he tries "exhaustive treatise" as a label for the book, then confesses the label's insufficiency and goes on to write simply that "Death in the Afternoon was almost a suicidal book in its deliberate flouting of the reader and critic alike" (63).
(3.) And, in the case of Moby-Dick at least, an amount of attention comparable to Hemingway's is paid, obliquely, to matters of sex and sexuality.
(4.) See Spilka (1990), especially pages 223-8, and Scholes and Comley (1994), especially Chapter Four, "Toros, Cojones, y Maricones" (105-144).
(5.) Of course, by the late 1920s Hemingway began to disclaim Stein's influence, and by the time he drafted A Moveable Feast his comments on her were wholly negative. His 1923 review of Stein's Geography and Plays gives a more accurate (because undistorted by subsequent developments) sense of his debt to Stein. In it, he praises not only the book under review, but also (and at greater length) Three Lives, writing that "you ought to read her Three Lives. The Melanctha story in Three Lives is one of the three best short stories-in English" (quoted in Reynolds 1989, 110: see also Reynolds 1983).
(6.) Stein's influence was detected by the very earliest critics of Hemingway's short fiction. Edmund Wilson, for example, writes in his review of Three Stories and Ten Poems that the stories had obviously "felt the genius of Gertrude Stein's (Three Lives) and ha[d] been evidently influenced by it" (340). For more recent discussions of Stein's 'influence on Hemingway's prose style, see Smith, Perloff, and Ryan.
(7.) Hemingway here reverses the aficion/novice relationship from The Sun Also Rises, in which a man (however emasculated Jake is) introduces a woman (no less so, as Jake assures us, because Brett's appearance challenges conventional gender codes) to bullfighting.
(8.) Kenneth Lynn reads this attack as part of Hemingway's larger mid-twenties assault on "men of Harvard," a program which, according to Lynn, reveals Hemingway to be "an envious, ferociously egocentric, and hugely ambitious writer with the bravado of a competitive athlete" (248). While this psychoanalytically inflected reading is illuminating, it obscures Hemingway's profound dedication to a literary project and a philosophical understanding predicated on assumptions to which Humanism and Eliotic allusiveness were antithetical. The vigor with which Hemingway defended and developed that project forces us, I think, to recognize his sense that literature deeply mattered because it had consequences.
(9.) Gay French writers, for some reason, come in for especially acerbic treatment in Death in the Afternoon. In the list of maricones Andre Gide is mentioned in much more negative terms than either Oscar Wilde or Walt Whitman: "the prissy exhibitionistic, aunt-like, withered old maid moral arrogance of a Gide"(205).
(10.) See, for example, pages 99-102.
(11.) Faulkner's most recent publication when Hemingway was writing Death in the Afternoon was Sanctuary (1931), a novel immediately infamous precisely for Faulkner's portrayal of strange sexualities, especially that of the rapaciously impotent Popeye.
(12.) Hennaed hair, as Mark Spilka and Robert Scholes and Nancy Comley point out, is an especially powerful signifier for Hemingway. Changes in hair length and color indicate what Scholes and Comley call "sea changes" for Hemingway characters, and they discuss at length the significance of hair style changes in The Garden of Eden, the novel in which they play the biggest part (see especially pages 87-103). For Spilka's discussion of the novel, which also focuses on David and Catherine Bourne's hairstyle changes, see especially pages 284-336. At one point, he calls the novel "chiefly a novel about haircuts" (284). Spilka, whose book examines Hemingway's lifelong fascination with and exploration of androgyny, also discusses Hemingway's hairy biography, from the Fauntleroy style his mother forced upon him in his youth (50-62) to the tonsorial practices of Hemingway's wives as these relate to their sexualities (280-84).
(13.) E.g. I was very angry. Somehow they always made me angry. I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure" (20).
(14.) Here I would diverge from Spilka, who reads Hemingway's subject matter and strategies alike as "ways of coping with a personal deadness, a numbing of affect, a movement down the stoic spectrum from the intensities of tough-minded fictions with tender implications to hardened feelings about bullfighting ... (227).
Coates, Robert. Review of Death in the Afternoon. The New Yorker (1 October 19 32): 61-3.
Hemingway, Ernest. Death in the Afternoon. New York. Scribner's, 1932.
--. The Sun Also Rises. New York. Scribner's, 1926.
Lynn, Kenneth S. Hemingway. New York. Fawcett, 1987.
Perloff, Marjorie. "`Ninety-Percent Rotarian': Gertrude Steins Hemingway." American Literature 62.4(1990):668-683.
Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
--. "Hemingway's Stein: Another Misplaced Review." American Literature 55.3 (1983): 431-4.
Ryan, Dennis. Dating Hemingway's Early Style/Parsing Gertrude Stein's Modernism." Journal of American Studies 29.2 (1995):229-40.
Scholes, Robert and Nancy Comley. Hemingway's Genders. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.
Smith, Paul. A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1989.
Spilka, Mark. Hemingway's Quarrel with Androgyny. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990.
Wilson, Edmund, "Mr. Hemingway's Dry Points.'" Dial 77 (October 1924): 340-41.
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|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1998|
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