Tuesday, March 7, 2017

But Will the Sun Set?

The characters in The Sun Also Rises are mostly pathetic, but we can no more blame Hemingway for doing a good job describing the lost generation than we can blame an entire generation for being lost - can we?

Hemingway's book shows us just why people need to be saved - and why none of them deserve to be.

"The world breaks everyone," wrote Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms, "...those that will not break it kills." This is probably why, having first read The Sun Also Rises as an unbroken teenager, I did not understand it. I took people like Brett seriously when she turns to Jacob in the cab and tells him "oh, darling, I've been so miserable." Now I know better. I've noticed, for example, that she repeats a variation of the same line exactly 40 pages later.

I am neither broken, nor dead. (perhaps because I am neither very good, very brave or very gentle the world is in no special hurry to kill me?) In any event, I now read this book with an admixture of sympathy seeping into what was once pure disgust.

And I no longer blame the messenger: Hemingway was not betraying literature by writing about broken people - he was painting a certain reality. Perspective is not advocacy. It was not a reality painted for its own sake, but serves to warn us of the mess that human life can become if we let it. If we let it? Or if it does. Or has.

"So many young men get their likes and dislikes from Menken." I was one of them. We did not read Menken in school. We read Hemingway. Was it because school is meant to break us, or prepare us to be broken?

Hemingway's work exhibits everything that is disagreeable in what passes for modernism and modern values:

"...it is because I have lived very much that now I can enjoy everything so well...That is the secret. You must get to know the values."
"Doesn't anything ever happen to your values?"...
"No. Not any more."
"Never fall in love?"
"...I am always in love."
"What does that do to your values?...You haven't any values. You're dead, that's all."
...We drank three bottles of champagne...

"I sat down and wrote some letters," we can almost imagine Hemingway saying of his book, "They were not very good letters but I hoped their being on Crillon stationary would help them..." Yet just as we are ready to toss the book into the flames, its' writer tends to remind us that while the letters are "not very good" this is because of the object that they are being used to describe: us. 'Don't like what you see,' Hemingway seems to mock his readers, 'toss humanity into the flames.' What is really going on here is a struggle for the role of literature. Is it there to reflect or to elevate? Can it elevate without reflection? Hemingway seems to think it can't. Does he think it should elevate at all? We can't be sure - and this bothers us.

Some of us. Most won't be bothered; most will be delighted with Hemingway's "narrative genius", especially if they find reading about nightlife in Paris at all interesting. Others will revel in aesthetic iconography. Brett the emancipated woman, who won't have long hair, wears an unbecoming hat and forgos stockings. Jacob the Catholic who can't be bothered. Robert the Jew.

In the end, much as I would like to feel that I can find redeeming qualities in this book as a work of literature now that I am worldly and broken, I can't because I'm not. It's about 100 pages too long for all the recognition Hemingway gets for being the master of consolidation.

The truly lost generation were the several million who died in the trenches. These idiots are not lost, just spoiled. They are spoiled because they are alive, rich and stupid. Or is it redundent to say such a thing? World War I did not spring ex-nihilo onto a promising generation just as Poland did not emerge from nowhere. All that these characters have done is to have found a good excuse for continuing a priori degeneration. It is indeed irritating after a time.

There is much more to say, but why?

"I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realized there was nothing  I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wish I felt religious and maybe I would the next time." 

I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten literary snob, but realized there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand book, and I only wish I cared and maybe I would the next time. 

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