How not to get gored

Edward Said

  • The Dangerous Summer by Ernest Hemingway
    Hamish Hamilton, 150 pp, £9.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 241 11521 3

Readers of American writing have been struck by the prevalence of what Dwight Macdonald once called ‘how-to-ism’. This is not simply a matter of guides to gadgetry, or to cooking, or to doing things like marrying wealth and achieving peace of mind, although writing on all these subjects is more plentiful in America than anywhere else. What I have in mind is the practical, instructional attitude which is to be found in a great many canonical works of high literature: Moby Dick, for instance, can be seen as a manual of what to do if you want to go whaling, as well as an encyclopedia of everything pertaining to ships and the sea. Cooper’s novels are full of practical hints about forest and Indian life, Twain is stuffed with South-Western and Mississippi River lore, as is Walden of New England nature and Faulkner of the South; in Henry James the tendency takes the form of connoisseurship. In all these cases the implication is that reality cannot stand on its own, but requires the services of an expert to convey or unlock its meaning. The converse of this is no less true, that Americans seem interested not so much in reality as in how to approach and master it, and for this expert guidance is necessary.

A useful way of understanding this peculiar structure of perception is to see it as a substitute for the feeling of historical depth and continuity. To foreground information and expertise is in many ways to say that what matters can be pushed up to the surface, and that history, insofar as it is out of easy reach, is better forgotten or, if it can’t be forgotten, ignored. Experience of the here-and-now – the relevant – is therefore given priority. To the extent that the writer is able to provide such experience, to that extent his or her claims are felt as important, urgent, impressive. As a result, in no other literature is the writer so much a performing self, as Richard Poirier has observed, and in no other literature is such a premium placed on raw data and its virtuoso delivery.

The American interest in ‘fact’ derives from the same complex of attitudes. One can see it not only in the regularly contemptuous dismissal of opinion and interpretation, but also in the much more interesting cult of ‘objectivity’ and expertise, the spread of consultancy as a profession, and the institutionalisation of the ‘news’, which in America, it is believed, has been definitively separated from the burden of subjectivity. By the late 20th century the commodification, packaging and merchandising of reality which constitute the knowledge industry have come to predominate almost to the exclusion of actual content. Note, for instance, that documentary films are not really popular in America (unless they are English) and are rarely made, whereas 24-hour news channels are increasing in number. The assumption underlying the worship of news is that a tight little product, billed as pure ‘information’ with all opinion removed and flashing across our vision for no longer than thirty seconds per item, is convincing beyond question. That this form of news is ‘fact’ few people will dispute: what gets excluded is the tremendously sophisticated process of selection and commodification which makes bits of information into unassailable ‘fact’.

The continued pressure of such attitudes on American literature and society makes for genuine eccentricity in both. The great American classics are not, I believe, comparable either to the French or the English, which are the product of stable, highly institutionalised and confident cultures. In its anxieties, its curious imbalances and deformations, its paranoid emphases and inflections, American literature is like its Russian counterpart, although it would be impossible to extend these analogies into matters of political style.

In such an unusual setting it is not surprising to discover that one of the greatest American books of the 20th century is Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, first published in 1932. Hemingway’s reputation is now somewhat in eclipse, although the effect of his stylistic innovations on other writers continues. Remembered for his macho divagations (and to a certain extent discredited because of them), Hemingway was always a relentless expert and purveyor of expertise on such interesting subjects for early 20th-century Americans as war, Europe, fishing, hunting, bohemia and bullfighting. Departing from the almost incredible purity of line and severity of vision in his earliest short stories, Hemingway’s later fiction is regularly disturbed by displays of knowledge, showy bundles of information. He seems to have had one eye turned towards an audience eager for news about the world of cafés, about Paris, World War One, Pamplona, Biarritz, and in his writing he took pains to convert his style of living into knowledgeability – with very mixed results. For my generation, the post-war Hemingway had already become Papa – tiresome as well as unsufferably affected. Until, that is, in 1959, he contracted for, and subsequently published in Life Magazine, a series on the summer-long competition between the two greatest of living Spanish bullfighters, Antonio Ordoñez and Luis Miguel Dominguin. Then the magisterial qualities of Death in the Afternoon were recalled.

Death in the Afternoon has the patient manner of a mammoth treatise on the art not so much of bullfighting – which Hemingway considered as having arrived at a state of decadent elaboration – as of killing specially-bred fighting bulls. In the process, Hemingway also offers an idiosyncratic history of Spain and of Spanish culture, as well as an impressive grammar of the gestures, rituals, emotions and methods associated with the corrida de toros. The book is intended as an explanation (but by no means a justification) of what Hemingway regards as an exclusively male art form, not a sport. His mannerisms are often annoying – as when he invents an objecting woman with whom he carries on a hopelessly arch series of verbal duels – and his zeal for explanation often goes unchecked. What turns the book into a triumph is his ability to enter and master an alien world, engaging his reader with characters and even bulls, much as Tolstoy, it was said, could make us feel what it is like to be a horse.

The massive edifice of Death in the Afternoon stands, like a tower on a rock, on top of Hemingway’s obsession with death. Bullfighting is the art of sustaining, prolonging and containing the encounter with death, the matador’s arsenal of veronicas, pasos naturales and recibiendos lifting the slaughter of a brave animal into a structured display of exposure to and mastery over death, sculpted and clarified into three acts by such conceits as suerte, dominio, valour and honour. In its intensity and power, there is very little like this book in Hemingway’s other work, and it seems to me essential for understanding what he might have been capable of had he not been so successful as a writer of grown-up boys’ stories laden with outdoor and wine-drinking expertise. The impression he gives is of a haunted man whose cultural – and no doubt actual – incapacity for aestheticising the experience of death is remedied in the act of describing how the Spaniards do it through the corrida. Rarely in modern literature, except perhaps in writers like Kafka, does one come across such a studious rendering of the mechanics of ritualised suffering: as you read in Death in the Afternoon of the finer points of picadoring, of the various tyes of cornada, of TB and syphilis as diseases of matadors, you will be reminded of the Hunger Artist or the machine in ‘The Penal Colony’; and nowhere else do words like ‘nobility’ and ‘elegance’ have so lurid and yet so compelling an aura.

The 1959 Life articles were to form the climax to Hemingway’s return to Spain and bullfighting in 1953, after a long gap. The magazine published only a fraction of the hundred thousand words Hemingway wrote; and the present publishers have restored some but not all of what he had intended to be the account of ‘the destruction of one person [Dominguin] by another [Ordoñez] with all the things that led up to and made it’. In several ways, therefore, The Dangerous Summer is a retrospective work that re-establishes continuity with Hemingway’s earlier days. First, there is the return to Spain, where, Hemingway tells us, even the border guards now know him and his books. There is little indication here of Hemingway’s being much troubled by Franco’s politics, which is a way of saying that the work’s cloistral narrowness excludes most things except the summer’s main event, a mano a mano between the two great rivals. Second, there is Hemingway’s revival of interest, after the death of Manolete in 1949, in the art of killing bulls. Ordoñez is not only a brilliant fighter: he is also the son of Cayetano, the matador whose work in the ring had been described with such admiration in The sun also rises. Hemingway regards the son as a better fighter than the father, and indeed as a vindication of the art itself, now fallen into disrepair and dishonesty as a result of cowardice, greed, and the ignorance of spectators.

The Dangerous Summer contains within its covers not only the account of a contest between the two greatest living matadors but a couple of other contests as well. One is between bullfighting then and bullfighting now: the first a remembered but vanished art, impermanent because confined to a couple of hours on Sunday afternoons, but given presence and actuality in the prose of Hemingway’s earlier masterpiece; the second, a contemporary version of the first, struggling to gain distinction through the bravery and skill of two men who rise to eminence in a setting of underbred cowardly bulls with shaved horns, of greedy managers and mediocre fighters. The other, deeper contest is between the earlier Hemingway and the later: the earlier a man obsessed with the corrida as tragedy, with Spain and truth, with writing and death, with the possibility of rescuing some practical knowledge from a metaphysical drama that symbolised the tyrannical passage of time, for whom great bullfighting and clear prose represented a similar triumph; the later, a world-famous writer more celebrated than his material, tired, yet courageously risking self-repetition and self-parody as he seeks to resurrect dead impulses, forgotten gestures, true qualities buried beneath commercialism, hangers-on and a somnolent, degenerate Spain. Nevertheless, he starts the book with a cocky assurance – even if we allow for the edgy, awkward reference to Mary:

   It was strange going back to Spain again: I had never expected to be allowed to return to the country that I loved more than any other except my own and I would not return so long as any of my friends there were in jail. But in the spring of 1953 in Cuba I talked with good friends who had fought on opposing sides in the Spanish Civil War about stopping in Spain on our way to Africa and they agreed that I might honourably return to Spain if I did not recant anything that I had written and kept my mouth shut on politics ...

   By 1953 none of my friends were in jail and I made plans to take my wife Mary to the feria at Pamplona and then to proceed to Madrid to see the Prado and after that, if we were still at large, to continue on to Valencia for the bullfights there before getting our boat to Africa. I knew that nothing could happen to Mary since she had never been in Spain in her life and knew only the very finest people. Surely, if she ever had any trouble they would rush to her rescue.

Ordoñez is the victor of the manifest contest between the two matadors. Dominguin is reduced at the end to mechanical fighting and repeated injury – these are the main signs of his defeat. But this is a relative matter, for which English-speaking readers are quite dependent on Hemingway. What I know of pre-Manolete bullfighting I know from Hemingway, but I did see a fair number of corridas in the Sixties, enough to realise that Hemingway was right to say that the art of killing bulls had been displaced by a cult of the glamorous bullfighter, just as in music the art of composing had been displaced by the virtuoso conductor or performer. If you saw El Cordobes, Paco Camino, El Viti and the others in the Sixties, you would have to say that they were brave and often spectacular fighters, but with the possible exception of El Viti, none of them brought to mind the ‘classical’ faenas reported by Hemingway and others during the golden age. The only exception was Ordoñez, whom I saw in 1966, most memorably at a minor feria in Badajoz, a dusty and mercilessly sun-beaten town in Estremadura. Even if you disliked bullfighting, it would have been hard not to have been jolted out of your seat by his incredible authority, by the way he dominated the corrida, and the severe grace, economy and fearlessness which he brought to what Hemingway brilliantly called a great matador’s education of the bull into the moment of truth.

Perhaps because I remember Ordoñez so vividly, I was convinced by The Dangerous Summer that he had beaten Dominguin and, more interestingly, re-established a continuum between the early days and these. In Valencia, Ordoñez did a faena that ‘had the beautiful flow of the water as it curves over the crest of a dam or a falls’. For anyone who cares about such things, The Dangerous Summer is obligatory if repetitive reading, the chronicle of journeys up and down Spain, of fights in Bilbao, Valencia, Malaga, Aranjuez, of restaurants, hotels, hospitals and fincas. Atmosphere and the colour of the Spanish ferias, yes – but also patient, often ungainly description of bulls, veronicas and various styles of fighting.

The hidden core of the book, however, is the other contest, between early and late Hemingway. As a subject of expertise, bullfighting for Hemingway had had one strikingly clear advantage: there was an absolute correspondence between its basis – ‘the formal corrida’, he reminds us in The Dangerous Summer, is based on the bull’s complete ‘innocence of previous contact with a man on foot’ – and the fact that he was the first American to write about it at such length and with such knowledge. Moreover the time-period for killing a bull should never extend beyond fifteen or twenty minutes, for after that the bull learns to distinguish between an artfully-deployed cape and the solid reality of a man’s body. Thus bullfighting is not only a highly specialised art, but also an extremely limited site of intensity, irreversible in its processes, precisely calibrated in its space for manoeuvre, totally restricted in its morbid conclusion. No wonder Hemingway ends Death in the Afternoon on a sombre note of loss and achievement, attuned to the notion that ‘I know things change now and I do not care.’ What he did was to write an unsatisfactory book with regard to the real-life corrida – ‘not enough of a book’ – but an expertly wrought whole just the same: ‘The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after ... It is not enough of a book, but still there were a few things to be said. There were a few practical things to be said.’

Hemingway’s return to bullfighting then is repetition, and Ordoñez’s brilliance a consolidation of the earlier lore and practical appreciation of the form contained in Death in the Afternoon. The difference is that The Dangerous Summer much more insistently features Hemingway himself, a personality welcomed and to some extent whored after by those in bullfighting circles. In 1959, American expertise, which had once derived from ‘innocence of contact’, has become a very jaded thing. Hemingway the character, with his wine-drinking chums, his chauffeur-driven Lancia, his vanity (Dominguin and Ordoñez are described as killing bulls in the most difficult manner ‘for me’), his captive women, his hotels and servitors, intrudes everywhere. He resembles Howard Cosell, the famous American sports broadcaster, interviewing, and to some extent wooed by, Muhammad Ali. The proposition that Wimbledon is really played for Dan Maskell would be no odder than the following passage from The Dangerous Summer’s final pages, based on the often repeated notion that Ordoñez requires Hemingway for his art to be complete (Ordoñez, we are told earlier, would kill the bull ‘to please me’):

   Then he swung around and looked at the crowd and the surgeon’s look was gone from his eyes and his face was happy about the work he had done. A bullfighter can never see the work of art that he is making. He has no chance to correct it as a painter or a writer has. He cannot hear it as a musician can. He can only feel it and hear the crowd’s reaction to it. When he feels it and knows that it is great it takes hold of him so that nothing else in the world matters. All the time he is making his work of art he knows that he must keep within the limits of his skill and his knowledge of the animal. Those matadors are called cold who visibly show that they are thinking of this. Antonio was not cold and the public belonged to him now.

The innocence is gone from such descriptions, except as a recollection of an earlier, purer time when the correspondence between expert and reality was more urgent and equal, and when the writer’s performance was driven by the need for the aesthetic experience of mortality. In The Dangerous Summer the pressures of Life’s commission seem to have transformed Hemingway into a self-conscious middleman, his repetitions and garrulousness edited down to a pastiche of his famous earlier self. The audience isn’t there to participate: it is there to watch him getting Ordoñez and Dominguin to acknowledge him as the Old Man, and thereby help him to earn his money, even though, he says, ‘I had lost much of my old feeling for the bullfight.’ It is a sign of Hemingway’s ambiguous fate in this book that he survives as a well-known aficionado paying tribute to Ordoñez, and as an exhausted writer whose posthumous work calls the reader’s attention back to his strongest past performance.

Yet a curious inconclusiveness, a kind of situationless disorientation, settles upon the reader. Why was the book published now and not, say, shortly after Hemingway’s death? Who is it addressed to? Was it intended as an effort to restore Hemingway’s reputation, or to gain new attention for him? The book provides no answer to these questions and will remain, I think, a dislocated addendum to Hemingway’s earlier writing: the expertise offered by an expert witness who has gone on ‘too damned much after’. What stands revealed here is the great problem of American writing: that the shock of recognition derived from knowledge and converted into how-to-ism can only occur once, cannot be sustained. The second time around, it is dragged into the market, where the homogenising processes turn out neither art nor knowledge, but the merest ‘product’.