Archive for trauma

‘Love as War’: Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2013 by drayfish

Robert Capa 1940

IMAGE: Ernest Hemingway, Sun Valley Idaho, 1940, photo by Robert Capa

These past few weeks I have had the great fortune of reconnecting with my favourite book, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (or Fiesta)*.  It is a book that I have often seen referred to as little more than the playful account of an expansive tourist bender – a group of spoiled Europeans sashaying through Spain to soak up the cheap booze and carnival excesses of the annual fiesta.  And yes, while it does indeed present some of the most evocative descriptions of drinking and partying, and the anarchic swirl of an exuberant sexual bacchanal, ever committed to fiction (the scene in which Jake has trouble going to sleep because he is blind drunk and the room keeps spinning around him is particularly captivating) – it is precisely because there is more going on beneath the facade of this apparent abandon that the novel is infused with an unspeakable lament and trauma, and the novel consequentially succeeds in being so profoundly moving.

Ernest Hemmingway was a boxer (he famously wanted to box Ezra Pound to toughen him up), and many people mistake his work as being similarly hard, punchy, overly-masculine prose.  What’s easy to forget, though, is that boxing is also about the precise, measured footwork going on underneath, and that is what Hemingway mastered: the delicate, descriptive movements beneath the surface of his imagery.  And this is nowhere more evident than here, in his first published novel; because on closer inspection, The Sun Also Rises, like the characters it depicts, reveals itself to be a deep, resonant and mournful novel that is only pretending to be carefree and aloof.

Although the characters might appear to be frivolous, urban socialites, criss-crossing countries on an binging vacation – this is a war book.  Set in the immediate wake of the first world war, this is a book about the nature of war.  A tale of tortured and torturous love.  Of self-loathing and emotional instability.  Of broken people, unsure of how to go on.  Of the psychological scars that remained after the declaration of peace as a civilisation struggled to come to terms with living through – but perhaps not wholly surviving – the great conflict that would redefine humanity’s conception of itself at the dawning of the twentieth century.

Much, like the narrator protagonist Jake Barnes, the novel therefore goes to some lengths to talk around the physical and psychological wounds that humanity has sustained rather than address them directly.  Paris and Spain are shown being haunted by figures wandering around in a state of numb shock, wounded soldiers and old fighters relieved to be alive, but not really sure what that life means anymore.  Jake is a wounded war veteran; his lover Brett is a war nurse whose husband died of dysentery; there are matadors trying to stave off fear; servicemen with amputations; a Count who has too much of the frontline, and violent revolutions, and who thus anesthetises himself with pretty women and alcohol.  All the characters are therefore adrift, wandering, unable to lay down roots or commit to anything.  They drink and hook up and travel, desperately trying to distract themselves from the horror that they have all witnessed, and struggling to recoup what they have lost, in themselves and society.

At its heart, this novel is a story about two nouns that have become almost sickeningly cliché: love and war.  But just as he does with his every application of misleadingly simplistic language, Hemingway strips these words back to their grammatical core.  It is a story about love in a time of war.  Love in spite of war.  About love as a type of war.  At the centre of this mediation it is an account of the relationship between two characters, Jake and Brett, who seemingly despite themselves, are bound together through the history they have shared in war (Brett was Jake’s nurse as he recovered from an injury not dissimilar from Hemingway’s own), and a love for each other that they cannot successfully resolve.  Seeing it as a fractious love story, one can observe a great deal about their relationship, their history, and this fiction itself, in the way that Hemingway chooses to describe that most familiar romantic trope, two lovers staring into each other’s eyes:

‘Don’t you love me?’

‘Love you?  I simply turn all to jelly when you touch me.’

‘Isn’t there anything we can do about it?’

She was sitting up now.  My arm was around her and she was leaning back against me, and we were quite calm.  She was looking into my eyes with that way she had of looking that made you wonder whether she really saw out of her own eyes.  They would look on and on after every one else’s in the world would have stopped looking.  She looked as though there were nothing on earth she would not look at like that, and really she was afraid of so many things.

‘And there’s not a damn thing we could do,’ I said.

‘I don’t know,’ she said.  ‘I don’t want to go through all that hell again.’

‘We’d better keep away from each other.’

‘But, darling, I have to see you.  It isn’t all that you know.’

‘No, but it always gets to be.’

‘That’s my fault.  Don’t we all pay for the things we do, though?’

She had been looking into my eyes the whole time.  Her eyes had different depths, sometimes they seemed perfectly flat.  Now you could see all the way into them. (p.23)

We see here a striking metaphorical encapsulation of Hemingway’s descriptive style: crisp, clear and declarative.  He doesn’t get poetical and syrupy.  He writes in lean, precise prose, even when articulating with the most loaded of emotional scar tissue.  Our narrator Jake – like his author Hemingway – is a journalist, who observes his world in nouns and verbs, honed with objective diligence, but it is what he isn’t saying, what he cannot bring himself to verbalise beneath the surface of this exchange (the ‘It’ of ‘it isn’t all that…’, ‘No, but it always gets to be…’), that is most revealing, and that motivates all else.

As is gradually revealed throughout the text, the ‘it‘ that Jake and Brett cannot bring themselves to verbalise is Jake’s impotence – his inability, after the horror of a devastating war injury (after which he was shipped home, where Brett nursed him back to health and they fell in love), to make love to her.  It is never made explicit whether his injury is physical or entirely psychosomatic, nonetheless, it has rendered him impotent, and this failing haunts him, (he believes) preventing him from being with the woman he loves.  To function – he comes to believe through his dislocated definition of masculinity – as a man.**

Consequentially, the book swells over with an almost obsessive meditation upon manhood and what it takes to remain ‘hard-boiled’ in the face of great emotional suffering.  Hence Jake’s obsession with those most masculine of men: bullfighters, and his preoccupation with boxing, and fishing, and fighting.  He is a character who has been rocked to his very core, and is trying to rebuild an image of himself that he thinks (wrongly) will restore him to himself.

Jake’s unwillingness to speak, to reveal his pain, is not bravado; in a world of survivors numbed by trauma, Jake is a state of post-traumatic anesthetization.  He cannot bring himself to verbalise his experience, so he shuts it out instead, blocking his pain and sorrow from consideration.  As the scene with Jake and Brett continues, the impediment that lies between them again rises to the surface:

‘Don’t talk like a fool,’ I said.  ‘Besides, what happened to me is supposed to be funny.  I never think about it.’

‘Oh, no.  I’ll lay you don’t.’

‘Well, let’s shut up about it.’

‘I laughed about it too, myself, once.’  She wasn’t looking at me.  ‘A friend of my brother’s came home that way from Mons.  It seemed like a hell of a joke.  Chaps never know anything, do they?’

‘No,’ I said.  ‘Nobody ever knows anything.’

I was pretty well through with the subject. (p.23)

Although Jake can never verbalise this in a straightforward manner – this is first-person, ‘I’ narration, and he is someone actively trying to avoid being too introspective, wary of the agony it brings – his trauma instead comes out in the imagery Hemingway uses to describe Jake’s experience of Paris and Spain.

In Paris we repeatedly see Jake erupt with rage and frustration, to become knotted up in self loathing by the men he repeatedly observes with Brett, and what, perhaps, he suspects these proxy relationships say about him, the lover she wants but cannot be with.  He prickles at the sight of the flighty, carefree young men with whom Brett dances at the club, obsessing over their clean, white, unblemished (presumably unmanly appearance), repeating the stunned observation ‘And Brett was with them’ as he struggles to block it out.  The men are in fact revealed to be gay, and one might well reason that subconsciously this is what infuriates him most: what they perhaps reflect about him if these are the kinds of men Brett is drawn too.

More revealing, however, in Spain Jake’s internal turmoil is made manifest in the echoes of war that play out in the chaotic, metaphorical eruption of the fiesta:

At noon of Sunday, the 6th of July, the fiesta exploded.  There is no other way to describe it.


The marble-topped tables and the white wicker chairs were gone.  They were replaced by cast-iron tables and severe folding chairs.  The cafe was like a battleship striped for action.


Before the waiter brought the sherry the rocket that announced the fiesta went up in the square.  It burst and there was a gray ball of smoke high above the Theatre Gayarre, across the other side of the plaza.   The ball of smoke hung in the air like a shrapnel burst, and as I watched, another rocket cane up to it, trickling smoke in the bright sunlight.  I saw the bright flash as it burst and another little cloud of smoke appeared. (p.132)

For Jake, the Fiesta exploded.  A cafe is described stripped down like a battleship.  The ball of smoke from a firework hangs in the air like a shrapnel burst.  People spew out everywhere, rockets are described  firing off on every other page.  It’s chaos and spectacle.  A mass of cheering and shouting and eruptions.

This is war.

Hemingway, through the expansive, imagistic allusion of our traumatised focal character, is sublimating the horrors of battle into this chaotic revelry.  Jake cannot discuss his post traumatic stress, nor how this pain has echoed out into his relationship with Brett, and so it is made manifest here, in this heady bacchanal.

Over the course of this frenzied vacation, Jake will lose himself amongst the festivities, coming to see his fears and longings and self-loathing literalised in this social upheaval.  Although seemingly keeping his cool, trying to remain ‘hard-boiled’, just like all of the other characters on this journey, he remains lonely and yearning and lost.  The end of the book therefore returns us to that same image of two broken people, pressing against each other to keep the sorrow at bay.  Jake and Brett sit close together, back in the exact position they began this journey: two mournful lovers in a taxi cab, staring into each other’s eyes, lamenting the wreckage they have left in their wake, and talking of their hopes for the future, if only they could repair themselves.

Although superficially each of the characters with which Hemingway populates his book look bright and cheery, calling each other ‘Chaps’ and collapsing into bed with each other, they are all revealed to be drifting, self-loathing people, all screaming beneath the masquerade.  And so, throughout The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway lets the shadow of that terror and revulsion pass beneath the revelry like a fish under the surface of the water, motivating them all, haunting their every waking thought, but, like their trauma itself, never able to be acknowledged and overcome.

brassai group in a dance hall 1932

IMAGE: Group in a Dance Hall, 1932, photo by Brassai

* Inasmuch as it is ever possible to do something so transitory and perfunctory as label something your ‘favourite’ anything …even though it is.

** Indeed, if you want to be really smutty about it (and let’s why not) The Sun Also Rises is also a bit of a crude double entendre: the other thing that ‘rises’ (or fails to rise) is the thing he’s been obsessing about the whole book: his ‘manhood’.

Alone Together: The Bat-Family and Narrative Trauma

Posted in comics, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by drayfish

Batman Crew Rooftop by Damion Scott

IMAGE: The Batman Crew by Damion Scott

Last month the comic book iteration of the ongoing Batman saga suffered a savage blow when the most recent incarnation of Batman’s protégé, Robin, was killed in action.  In this current version of the narrative, the boy wonder was Bruce Wayne’s own son, Damian Wayne (his mother was Talia al Ghul) – thus his death marks not only the loss of Batman’s partner in his crusade for vengeance, but also the devastating personal tragedy of losing a child.*

DC comics decided to symbolically acknowledge the enormity of Wayne’s grief by stripping away some of the primary narrative devices with which the comic book medium communicates.  Written by Peter J. Tomasi and illustrated by Patrick Gleason, Batman and Robin #18 (the first in that series set after the murder of his son) was an issue that made the bold choice to be conveyed entirely in silence.

Gone were speech bubbles and narration.  The cacophony of internal monologues and explosions and fisticuffs fell away.  Batman was depicted alone in a sorrowful quietude, trying to fill the numb, yawning hush that enveloped him by beating down a gauntlet of thugs, using them to tangibly manifest his rage and self-loathing, and brutalising himself for the selfish folly of adding another victim to the altar of his quest for vigilante justice.

It is a powerful vignette in the history of Batman, a reminder of the familial trauma that first set Wayne on his subversively heroic path – inspiring him to remake himself into a symbol of fear – and offering new proof of the ultimately sacrificial nature of this Sisyphean quest.  Damian is, of course, not the first loss that Batman has faced in his expansive, multifaceted career.  Indeed, another Robin – hot-headed street kid Jason Todd, had already similarly been killed, savagely beaten down by the Joker (only to be subsequently brought back from the dead)**; Batgirl was gunned down and paralysed, also by the Joker (although she appears to be currently healed); and one-time ill-fated Batman replacement Jean-Paul Valley, or Azrael, eventually gave his life in the pursuit of justice (Joker wasn’t involved as far as I know, so maybe that one will stick).  But even with the tragic evidence for Batman’s ruinous journey continuing to stack up, Wayne still finds himself surrounded by those who choose to join him in his fight.

It is also a tale that (silently) speaks directly to a strange incongruity at the centre of Bruce Wayne’s psyche: his justified fear in endangering those dearest to him, and his irrational longing to nonetheless share a fundamentally solitary calling.  And it is this repeating pattern, this seemingly unavoidable gravitational pull toward creating a makeshift crime-fighting (sometimes literally) family, that reveals a wonderfully complex and irrational contradiction at the heart of the Batman mythos…

Because when one thinks of the image of Batman, the picture that springs to mind is often the lone vigilante, waging a one-man war on crime – a stark, solitary silhouette cutting the skyline from his perch above, and abstracted from, the human community he seeks to protect.

He works alone.  Solitary.  One man against the cold unfeeling void…

And yet…  There’s Alfred.  And there’s Robin.  And Nightwing.  And Batgirl too.  And Oracle.  And Azrael.  And Red Robin.  And Huntress.  And both Commissioner Gordon and his moustache.  And the Birds of Prey.  And Catwoman, sometimes.  Even Superman gets a guernsey on occasion.  …Indeed, from what I understand, the storyline in which Damian died was actually part of a continuity where Wayne has effectively corporatized the Batman identity, turning the urban legend of ‘The Batman’ into a worldwide, crime-fighting industry with a sprawling staff.***

Even in the most recent Nolan film – part of a brooding trilogy that depicts Wayne as a broken, sorrowful figure, alone on an introspective quest for peace that is literalised in the disquiet of Gotham’s criminal underworld – Batman still manages to pick up a sidekick.  In the figure of John Blake (real name ‘Robin’), a devoted police officer who becomes disenfranchised by the bureaucratic restraints and deceit of a corrupted legal system, who decides to follow in the wake of the resurrected Batman, eventually, perhaps, going on to take up his mantle…

Likewise in Frank Miller’s acerbic take on the dénouement of the Batman saga, The Dark Knight Returns (1986), the colourful sprite fighting alongside the Goya shadow is an integral, unavoidable part of the equation.  Just as the gristled, alcoholic, almost burnt-out Wayne is reconditioning himself to reclaim the cape and cowl, he is soon training Carrie Kelley, the tenacious thirteen year old, to likewise take up her predecessors’ tragic mantle as the new Robin.

Somehow, despite himself, this character, wracked with inconsolable sorrow and introverted rage, inevitably amasses a family of likeminded misfits, inspired to follow him on his impossible journey to curb the felonious extremes of the social order….

In Batman and Me (California: Eclipse, 1989), Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, recalls the conception of the Robin character, remembering the intentional contrast, both aesthetically and emotionally, that the inclusion of this companion would provide:

‘The brightness of Robin’s costume also served to brighten up the visuals and served as a counterpoint to Batman’s sombre costume.  More significantly, the addition of Robin gave Batman a permanent relationship, someone to care for, and made him into a fatherly big brother rather than a lone avenger’ (p.46).

Robin (and arguably all those other companions that have followed in his wake) allowed other aspects of Bruce Wayne’s personality to be refracted and revealed through their interactions.  Batman consequentially grew in complexity and purpose, and his solitary vigil, ironically, was granted dimension by being shared.

Sure Batman is badass, and sure, some of the heroes he peripherally inspires simply want to ride alongside the smart guy in the sweet car with the nifty gadgets, but the true faithfuls, the ones who not only fight with him, but invest enough in his mission to emblazon themselves with his insignias – the Robins, the Batgirls, the Batwomans, the Nightwings (okay there’s only one of him) – those who, in the case of Dick Grayson and John Blake, are even willing to literally take on his mantle if need be; these figures are drawn to the man behind the mask, which informs and deepens the sacrificial poetry of his purpose.  And so, even in Frank Miller’s cynical vision, when the aged Bruce Wayne is walled up in his mansion like a psychotic Howard Hughes, we still see him travelling with the flash of bright colour that is the new Robin, her vibrancy and hopefulness still invading his world to offer a stark relief to his plight.

Even more than the contrast that such a character evokes, Kane foresaw that Robin would provide a compelling imaginative invitation for readers, a window through which the audience could project themselves into the Batman legend:

‘young boys reading about Batman’s exploits would project their own images into the story and daydream about fighting alongside the caped crusader as junior Batmen.  I thought that every young boy would want to be like Robin’ (p.46)

We were able to ride along with this tortured icon, to aid him in his fight, even if we could not truly share his pain.

Again and again it appears that Batman presents a flame to which his cadre of vigilante moths (and the audience that they embody) are inexorably drawn – inspired by his mission statement, no doubt, but ultimately stirred by the man himself, by his tenacity and purpose.  Whenever people get near Bruce Wayne they see a man so broken, so torn up with grief that his only means of profitably controlling that emotional maelstrom is to funnel it into an ultimately self-destructive altruism.  They, and we, feel compelled to help him, to try and save him just as he longs to save others.  But he’s certainly not going to see a psychiatrist, and his moral code is so engrained that any chance of taking solace in a healthier ‘normal life’ seems to him to be a betrayal of his social responsibility.  So instead – ultimately buying into the beneficial role that he serves – we join him in scampering across rooftops and helping kick bad guys in the face, resigning ourselves to an abstracted hope: if we can’t beat those personal demons, we’ll just facilitate smacking around some physical ones and hope that the metaphor eventually sinks in…

And so, this recent killing of Robin operates on a curiously self-reflexive and disturbingly experiential manner: the narrative itself is grieving the absence of the audience’s own invested point of view, both their unique perspective upon the depicted events and the sounding board that they would usually provide to the experience.

Both literally and metatextually, in the aftermath of this killing, Batman is left with no one to talk to – a fundamental dialogue between reader and text egregiously fractured.  Thus Bruce Wayne is left wordless, fighting through a silent void in the wake of his loss.

Batman and Robin 18 silent issue

IMAGE: Batman and Robin #18, by Patrick Gleason

* I apologise that I do not know the finer details of the ongoing story arc, but I am reliably informed that he was killed by an adult, cloned version of himself (?!)  Man, comic books love them some surreal dramatic irony…

** And there is a tragic foreshadowing, perhaps, in Damian’s decision to steal Jason Todd’s costume to begin fighting crime against his father’s initial wishes.

*** Even Bat-Mite pops in from time to time to spread anarchy in his sycophantic emulation of the Dark Knight.

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