Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon and the Fear of Death in War

By Barker, Christopher | WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon and the Fear of Death in War


Barker, Christopher, WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts


Introduction: Death in the Afternoon as Literary Education1

For readers who have never gone to war and who were not raised on first-hand accounts of war, a literary Virgil can be a useful guide to the difficult questions posed by war. Borrowing from psychoanalysis, sociology, political theory, and other disciplines, a scholarly literature has sprung up to frame and analyze our experiences of war, mortality, trauma, and responsibility (e.g., Wyschogrod 1985; Confino, Betts, and Schumann 2008; Roper 2009).2 Much of this literature follows a common assumption that we need new strategies to deal with a world of war and suffering that is radically new and unprecedented in scale and duration (Marwick and Emsley 2001). In response to accounts of total war and the "death-world" of the concentration camps of the Second World War, for instance, Edith Wyschogrod has called for a thoroughgoing re-interpretation of our basic concepts of self, temporality, and language. For Wyschogrod, it is the very formlessness of man-made mass-death that requires us to think differently about death in war. The change fundamentally disrupts the "authenticity paradigm" of the Western literary canon's representation of death. In the old paradigm, a good man dies well, and the value of his individual life is shown in his glorious and honorable death (1985, 2-3). Lacking these guidelines, we must now "redraw" the boundary protecting the individual from a world of anonymized, mass-death (15).

Below, I argue that the world of mass death is not a new one, that Ernest Hemingway's writings help us to understand the massively important human experience of the fear of dying and violent death, and that his non-fiction book, Death in the Afternoon, has a central place in carrying out this task. However, using Hemingway's book in this way requires a radical reorientation of the scholarly reception of the text. Even sympathetic Hemingway scholars view Death in the Afternoon as a non-serious text. Experts on the bullfight like John McCormick and amateur critics like A.L. Kennedy take Hemingway to task for romanticizing the bullfight (McCormick 1998, xii, 240, 257; Kennedy 1999, 9). Others charge that Hemingway does not truly or authentically know the culture, language, and rituals that he lionizes (Herlihy-Mera 2012). Even or especially the most important literary critics of Hemingway's writings quickly distance themselves from the bullfight, which they characterize as a "blood-drunken" or "hysterical" celebration ofviolence (Baker 1963,143; Young 1966, 97; also West 1944; Kinnamon 1959,55).

While the recent essays collected in Miriam Mandel's A Companion to Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon do much to dispel the loosest among these criticisms, there is a factual basis to the criticism of the bullfight's cruelty-on first and perhaps second glance, it is a cruel display where as many as five horses can be killed in an afternoon?for mere sport, as Hemingway has a café waiter remark in The Sun Also Rises (1954, 201).3 The aim of this essay is to recapture Death in the Afternoon's place in the movement from the experience to the understanding of violent death, and to explain why Hemingway views the bullfight as an educative ritual. More broadly, the essay shows how self-understanding can be achieved by restaging our experiences so as to create critical distance and space for reflection. It is offered to the reader, and especially to the veteran, in a spirit of intellectual modesty: the scholar's role is not to tell anyone what their experience was or what it means, but instead to show that Hemingway was preoccupied with questions about the authenticity paradigm and that he found a solution that is, in the reading adopted in this paper, as compelling or even more compelling than the one that he developed in his novels.

The Bullfight in Overview

Death in the Afternoon invites the reader to "look at the bull and the bullfighter" (Brand, quoted in Sanders 2010, 79). …

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