AMST 246: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner

Lecture 17

 - Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, Part II


Professor Wai Chee Dimock continues her discussion of For Whom the Bell Tolls by analyzing the contrast Robert Jordan draws between “distant homes” and the on-site environment of the Spanish Civil War. She juxtaposes his invocations of Paris and Missouri to the rooted communities of the guerillas, and reads analogies of racial and ethnic conflict–specifically, the references to the Moors in Spain and persecuted blacks in America–as a point of tension, an ironic commentary on the coexistence of the distant home and the on-site environment. She concludes with a reading of the American Civil War as a temporally distant home which Jordan tries to recuperate in the present moment of European conflict.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner

AMST 246 - Lecture 17 - Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, Part II

Chapter 1: Distant Home vs. On-Site Environment [00:00:00]

Professor Wai Chee Dimock: We’re going to move on now and follow up on what we talked about last time, which is the sevenfold permutation.  It sounds kind of intimidating. But it’s actually what we’ll be talking about in the four classes devoted to For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Last time we talked a lot about voluntary versus involuntary association, including the idea of the involuntary foreigners – that both Americans and the Spanish actually can be involuntary foreigners. The Americans – because of the simple fact that they don’t have perfect command of the language, and also that they are recognizable as foreigners, as outsiders in their community.  But the Spanish can also be outsiders in their own community because of two things, because of print illiteracy, and also because of technological illiteracy.  In these two ways, both of them are stuck with some kind of involuntary association.

Today we’ll move on to the next way to map the contents of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’d like to think of it as an extended structure. Hemingway is a writer who not only starts out with a pattern, but keeps elaborating on that pattern.  In many ways, it really is a kind of a musical structure, theme and variation. And the paradigm of distant home versus on-site environment – that actually is a structure running almost throughout the entire For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Plugged into that is a kind of play between the comic and the tragic. But really the main theme today, would be the relation between distant homes and on-site environment.  I have seven candidates for distant homes. One is inParis, which is very odd because already we’re inSpain, a foreign country to American readers, yet there’s still another foreign country,France, which makes a cameo appearance.  And then there are five locations, both spatial locations and temporal locations in the United States that are the distant homes for Robert Jordan.

We’ll talk about why each of them is involved, and the relation between that distant home and the immediate Spanish setting. But first of all,Paris.Pariscomes up in the context of Robert drinking the absinthe that he carries with him.  Right before that, he has asked for wine and there’s not a lot of wine left.  Maria wants to give him wine, but Pablo says there’s not much left.  He doesn’t get to have the wine from the locals.  Instead he pulls out this bottle of absinthe.  Nobody there has seen this, so he tells us them that this is medicine.  The gypsy wants to taste what this medicine tastes like.

Chapter 2: Paris as a Distant Home [00:03:14]

“Robert Jordan pushed the cup toward him. It was a milky yellow now with the water and he hoped the gypsy would not take more than a swallow. There was very little of it left and one cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, of all the chestnut trees that would be in bloom now in this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of bookshops, of kiosks, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, of the Butte Chaumont, of the Guarantee Trust Company and the Ile de la Cite, of Foyot’s old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the evening; of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea changing liquid alchemy.”

This is as beautiful a praise song to Paris as I’ve seen. But what is odd about this praise song of Paris is that it actually is not pointing to all the monumental tourist attractions of Paris, no Eiffel Tower in there, no Arc de Triomphe. Instead it is the chestnut trees– actually they’re horse chestnuts in this picture. But chestnut trees, all overParis, a common sight.  Kiosks, again, very common.  Parc Montsouris is actually kind of out of the way, and it’s not very spectacular.   It’s just a park.  This Stade Buffalo, I have to look it up, it might not even be there now.   It’s a cycling track.

Then, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, it’s also not– I mean it’s a nice park, but I don’t think it’s that famous.  It’s more of a neighborhood park. It’s on a hill.  There’s this hilly structure. This is the butte that gives the park the name. And the Ile de la Cite is the island in the middle of the Seine. It’s a very beautiful place. But once again, it is a neighborhood, rather than a major tourist attraction.  The Notre Dame cathedral is not there.   Finally, the Hotel Foyot, legendary, maybe, but it’s also a place that you might walk by every day without paying much attention.

And that’s really the main point: that all those names– I don’t even think it is Hemingway name-dropping, because those names actually are not recognizable to most of us –these are just the neighborhood features, the local features, of various Parisneighborhoods.  These are the things that people would walk by every day and just take them for granted.  That is what Parismeans for Hemingway. He did spend– well, for Hemingway and also for Robert Jordan– Hemingway did spend several years in Paris. He wrote about it in A Moveable Feast.

And he wrote very well in Paris. He said that he could actually write about Michigan best when he was in Paris. He said this in A Moveable Feast.  It was Hemingway’s home in a sense that it’s a place where a writer could write.  There really is no better definition of home. Home is a place where you can work without self-consciousness, where you have a work routine. And you can count on being able to produce something every day.  So it’s kind of a minor variation on Hemingway’s kind of total obsession with writing. You don’t have to think about it. It’s just there every day, and you can just do the same thing every day. So that is the security and the everyday-ness ofParis that is contrasted with the on-site environment, which is violent and unpredictable, and where he’s so obviously a foreigner. Even though Hemingway was a foreigner in Paris, the fact that he was able to write so well in Paris meant that that, actually, the foreignness was bracketed by his very productive relation to his own craft. Here in Spain, it’s a totally different relation.

We’ll look at what comes after that invocation in his own mind ofParisthat is brought on by the absinthe. “The gypsy made a face and handed the cup back. ‘It smells of anis but it is bitter as gall,’ he said. ‘It is better to be sick than have that medicine.’ ‘That’s the wormwood,’ Robert Jordan told them. ‘In this, the real absinthe, there is wormwood. It’s supposed to rot your brain out but I don’t believe it. It only changes the ideas. You should pour water into it very slowly, a few drops at the time. But I poured it into the water.’ ‘What are you saying?’ Pablo said angrily, feeling the mockery. ‘Explaining the medicine,’ Robert Jordan told him and grinned. ‘I bought it in Madrid. It was the last bottle and it’s lasted me three weeks.’ He took a big swallow of it and felt it coasting over his tongue in delicate anesthesia. He looked at Pablo and grinned again.”

We’ve seen how aggressive the locals can be when it comes to harping on Kashkin. This is a foreigner just like Robert, rare name, dead, who works the explosives. The questions from the locals is very well matched by what I would say is sort of the good-natured aggression, but nonetheless aggression on the part of Robert. These people know nothing about Paris. They’ve never been outside of Spain. They’ve never been outside of the local community.  It seems that some of them, many of them, have never been toMadrideven because these are the local guerrillas. They stay put in their own small community.

Even Madrid is in many ways a foreign country to them.  Robert Jordan, the American, knowsParis, he knows the capital ofSpain, he knows this liquor that they’ve never tasted.  He’s fooling them into thinking that it’s medicine. And he’s drunk the last bottle of absinthe inMadrid.  A lot of this, just like the print illiteracy that he comes upon, that he just discovers without meaning to, this is his actively highlighting the fact that he is much more a man of the world than they are, and there’s no competition. This is a very well traveled man just by the nature of what he’s doing, he’s well traveled.  These people are completely rooted in their own environment. Although – I should also say that it is an entirely open question by the end of the novel, which is the better fate?  Whether it’s the well traveled person who has a better future, or whether it’s actually people who are rooted in their environments who have a better future?   I think it’s very much an open question by the end of the novel.

At this moment though, this is the moment when Robert has his little victory over the locals. He’s able to show them all the things– highlight, dramatize to them– all the things that he knows that they don’t know. So the first invocation of a distant home has the effect actually of bringing out an edge to say the least. And Pablo certainly recognizes that– an edge, a tension between Robert and the locals who are otherwise his comrades. They’re on the same side of the war. It has a funny effect on both sides. It does something to Robert. It does something to the locals.

Chapter 3: America as a Distant Home [00:12:12]

And that’s not even America.  Parisreally doesn’t have any kind of special connotation, I don’t think, to the locals, in the sense that Robert is not really never considered a Frenchman. But when it comes to invocation of the United States, it’s a different story. They all know that that’s something that he has a relation to.  In this sequence, we’re starting out with the most benign, at least the most innocuous invocation of theUnited States.  This isMissoula,Montana, where Robert Jordan is from, and where he’s thinking that he will go back to after war and that maybe he’ll take Maria with him. And this is actually a good moment to think about exactly the nature of that romance between Robert Jordan and Maria.

“Why not marry her? Sure, he thought. I will marry her. Then we’ll be Mr. and Mrs. Robert Jordan of Sun Valley, Idaho. OrCorpus Christi,Texas, orButte,Montana. Spanish girls make wonderful wives. I’ve never had one so I know. And when I get my job back at the university she can be an instructor’s wife and when undergraduates who take Spanish IV come in to smoke pipes in the evening and have those so valuable informal discussions about Quevedo, Lope de Vega, Galdos and the other always admirable dead, Maria can tell them about how some of the blue-shirted crusaders for the true faith sat on her head while others twisted her arms and pulled her skirts up and stuffed them in her mouth.”

I began by saying that this is relatively benign, but in fact there’s no such thing as the benign invocation of the distant home in Hemingway. Even from beginning to end, there’s something very odd about the tone of that invocation. The first part of it is– the first little bit of it about going back to all the cities that were kind of the heartland of America, and then the particular job that he had. He was a professor at the university teaching Spanish. And kind of the joke about people coming in, informal discussions, I would say that actually is kind of a benign irony in the sense that we all tend to be ironic about things actually that we are quite attached to.

I noticed yesterday. I was talking about a writer that I love who writes about food. And I said, she’s cornered– she has two books out on food– and I said she’s cornered the market on food writing. And the person who I was talking to really looked at me. But I actually love this author. But that’s just my way of not being too attached, showing some critical distance. So the first part of that is just the kinds of the typical professional irony towards something that you really actually do want to go back to and have some yearning for.

But in the midst of that, Robert just can’t stop himself from importing something else to that otherwise benign environment.  So we’re made aware, ahead of time, that Maria was once raped. We have no idea when that happened. This is Hemingway’s way of telling the story, giving bits and pieces of the story one at a time. This particular importation of something that happens inSpaininto an otherwise innocent American environment has the weight not only of darkening the textures of that otherwise innocent college town, but also completely changes his relation to the local setting. It’s not even just a place where he’s having trouble with Pablo. That’s the least of the problem. They’re much more deeply rooted problems.

This is another spin on the idea of being rooted in your community. Usually when we think of being rooted in our community, we just think of having stayed there for a long time, maybe having been there for generations or at least within the life of a person, many, many years. And usually it’s a good thing. But there’s another way in which being rooted in your environment means that all the dark episodes from the past are visited upon you, or all the feuds, or the old angers, old hatreds, are constantly being reactivated. Sometimes just in memory, and sometimes reenacted in the bodies of people who are otherwise young. Maria is a very young girl.

What is being visited upon her is not personal. It really has nothing to do with her. They don’t mean to rape Maria. They make raping her as a symbol of something else.  This is the other– this is the hazard of spending all your life and being rooted in one particular community. It’s that ancient angers can be inherited by people who are relatively young.

I would say this is the basic dynamics of the relation between theUnited StatesandSpain. It’s that there’s a kind of a spill over in both directions, something very violent spilling over into the American context. And then we’ll see another way in which the violence of the American context will spill over into the Spanish setting. And this is still a relatively benign instance. But, once again something not quite right.

Chapter 4: Gypsies and Moors in the On-Site Environment [00:18:41]

“Yes”– and talking about gypsies. And I should say that Hemingway actually is surprisingly far-sighted about the problem of the gypsies. They’re now called Roma, and it’s a huge problem in the sense that the European Union is recognizing the fact that the Romas actually have always been oppressed by various national governments.  It’s quite an issue now in Europe.  Hemingway back when he was writing about Spanish Civil War already seemed to have caught on.

“ ‘Yes,’ Anselmo said. ‘The gypsies believe the bear to be a brother of man.’ ‘So also believe the Indians in America,’ Robert Jordan said. ‘And when they kill a bear, they apologize to him and ask his pardon…’ ‘Do you have any gypsy blood?’ ‘No. But I have seen much of them and clearly, since the movement, more. There are many in the hills. To them it is not a sin to kill outside the tribe. They deny this but it is true.’ ‘Like the Moors.’”

It is not a sin to kill outside a tribe. Usually, I mean for most of us, the injunction is against killing, period. So there’s just no qualifying after that. But according to Anselmo, it is completely OK for the gypsies to kill anyone outside of the immediate tribe. So it’s a straight ethnic divide. Within your own tribe, you don’t kill anyone, or you don’t kill anyone unless you’re under serious provocation. Outside of your tribe, you’re free to kill anyone. So that’s an incredible charge to level against the gypsies.

What is weird is that Robert then comes up with this analogy. It’s that the gypsies are just like the Moors.  This might not make any sense to us right now. But it turns out that this is actually one result of the deep cultural roots in Spain– gypsies and Moors both with long histories. This is a beautiful instance of the Moorish architecture inSpain. You guys know that the Moors from Africa, from North Africa, actually were the rulers in Spain for 800 years. It was in 1492 – the same year thatColumbusdiscovered the New World – that was the year the Moors were expelled fromSpainalong with Jews. The Moors and the Jews were the two persecuted ethnic groups in Spain.

When Isabella of Castile expelled the Moors fromGrenada, there was this policy throughoutSpainto try to erase Islamic book learning.Cordobawas a huge center of learning throughout the Middle Ages. And people from all over Europe would go to Cordoba to study. Arabic science was very, very advanced. Arabic Moorish architecture was beautiful.Cordobahad bath houses, more public baths than any other city inEurope. It was basically a beacon of enlightenment in Spain, in all of Europe. And when they were destroyed by the Catholic forces, by the Catholic monarchs, there was much of an attempt to try to erase all of that. It wasn’t successful. So we still today, if we were to go to Cordoba or Toledo, we would still see lots of Moorish architecture. So there’s one sore point in Spanish history. It’s that they really have done this to a very glorious civilization.

There’s another sore point that is more immediate to the Spanish Civil War.  This is reported by the American poet Langston Hughes who was there along with Hemingway. And Langston Hughes was really struck by the presence of the Moors in the Spanish Civil War.  He wrote several pieces about the Moors, after sometimes seeing them in the hospitals and actually having this very uneasy kinship between himself and the Moors. This is from his essay General Franco’s Moors.

“The Moorish troops were colonial conscripts, or men from the Moroccan villages enticed into the army by offers of what seemed to them very good pay. Franco’s personal body guard consisted of Moorish soldiers, tall picturesque fellows in flowing robes and winding turbans. Before I left home, American papers that carried photographs of turbaned, Mohammadan troops marching in the streets of Burgos, Seville, and Malaga. And the United Press dispatch from Gibraltar that summer said “Arabs had been crossing the Straits of Gibraltar from Spanish Morocco to Algeciras and Malaga at the rate of 300 to 400 a day… General Franco intends to mass 50,000 new Arab troops in Spain.”

Given the past history, given the uneasy relation between the Spanish and Moorish population ofNorth Africa, for General Franco actually to use the Moorish troops as very active combat units against the Spanish Republican side, that is about the worst he could have done. It was successful actually. He won the war. But it was about the worst case of being tone-deaf. He was probably about as tone-deaf as anyone could be who won at the end. But that’s what happened.

There were indeed many pictures of the Moors crossing over from Africa just paid to fight theSpanishRepublic. Here are his Moorish body guards, and they’re engaged in more active combat.  Still, I don’t know what motivates Robert to make that analogy between the gypsies and the Moors. It couldn’t really be just blindness or just callousness. I think there’s some intentionality in there. But it’s hard to know why he would want to bring up this very sensitive issue for the Spanish.

All we can say is that it seems that it’s very easy for an involuntary foreigner to say something that is wounding to the locals, maybe without intending it to have the extent of the insult, the extent of the injury that is actually the actual outcome of saying something like that. Robert probably had no idea that mentioning the Moors would create those kinds of connotations, those kind of just edginess on the part of the Spanish here is, but that’s what he’s doing.

Once again, the kind of a spilling over, thinking about Native Americans with their own very uneasy history in the United States. Think about Native Americans, thinking about gypsies in Europe, and thinking about the Moors. Three ethnic groups all with uneasy histories behind them. And it is the invocation of all three of them in the same breath that makes that particular exchange especially uncomfortable, if not downright hurtful.

Chapter 5: Lynching in the Distant Home [00:26:56]

Let’s just look at a more serious instance of this kind of distant home being a kind of irritation to the immediate environment. So all of a sudden out of nowhere, Robert Jordan suddenly starts talking about lynching in Ohio. This is completely uncalled for. This is in the context of talking about the execution of the fascists. And out of the blue, Robert just mentions this lynching that he was a witness to, and about the effect of drunkenness on people in general.

“ ‘It is so,’ Robert Jordan said. ‘When I was seven years old and going with my mother to attend a wedding in the state of Ohio at which I was to be the boy of a pair of boy and girl who carry flowers.’ ‘Did you do that?’ Said Maria. ‘How nice.’ ‘In this town a Negro was hanged to a lamp post and later burned. It was an arc light. A light which lowered from the post to the pavement. And he was hoisted, first by the mechanism which was used to hoist the arc light but this broke.’

This is a bizarre description of lynching to say the least. It’s stuck in the middle of this long story about execution of the fascists. And not only that, but it seems that much of the focus is on the mechanism of hoisting this person up who’s about to be lynched, and on how unreliable this mechanism is. It breaks once and then he has to be done over again. So what we can say is that there’s a slightly out of focus nature to the invocation of the United States. The proper focus really ought to be on the act of lynching itself. Anyone telling the story– it would have been on the act of lynching. And instead, it is out of focus so that it somehow is just focused on the mechanism of hoisting the person up. There is a deliberate blurriness that suggests that this is really how theUnited Stateslooks to the Spanish locals, that they can’t get the focus right. It’s somehow off.

That off focus is dramatized by Maria’s response which is completely inappropriate, showing the highest degree of ignorance – just to say “how nice.” She has no idea. She’s completely out of it. She doesn’t get any of it.  And, even to us, the reference to the lynching might seem out of the blue while reading For Whom the Bell Tolls right now.

But lynching actually was a big issue all through the 1930s. Even though the actual number of lynching had declined at that point. It was highlighted, it was brought to the public consciousness for a number of reasons. One is this very famous song that I think that you guys probably have heard, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, 1939. It’s a collaboration between a black singer and actually the songwriter was Jewish, Abel Meeropol.  This is one of the first instances of a black-Jewish collaboration resulting in this classic song in the jazz repertoire.  These are the lyrics of Strange Fruit. And you can see why that image would lead to those lyrics. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves, blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the tops of the trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant South, the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. The scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh. Then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck. For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

The lyrics– Billie Holiday is the one who made the song famous, but really it was Abel Meeropol who composed them in the first place.  The power of the song really just comes from the contrast, the alternate rhythm, between the kind of cliche image of the South, you know the pastoral South, the magnolia, the smell of magnolia, and then the smell of the burning flesh. It’s that alternate rhythm that generates the peculiar power of this song.

That’s partly why lynching was such an issue on everyone’s consciousness in the ’30s. But there were also other issues. And in fact, the song is a great song, but it’s also slightly misleading in a sense that it’s suggesting that lynching was strictly a Southern phenomenon, which actually wasn’t the case. And so all we have to do is to look at this New Yorker cover on March 19, 1938.  Very late for this to be on the New Yorker’s cover, this racist– just the Northern population being flabbergasted at how lazy and drunken blacks are, because they were migrating in large numbers to the North.

A relatively new phenomenon in the twentieth century actually was the substantial number of lynchings both in the Northeast and also in theMidwest. So this is a kind of very famous double lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith inIndianain 1930.  Again, very late for that.  And it’s because of these very sensational lynchings in the North that the NAACP actually had this regular practice of just hanging out a flag in theNew York Cityoffice announcing that a man was lynched yesterday. And that was also in the 1930s.

It was something that was an ongoing problem and very much kind of a hot button issue in the 1930s.  As a consequence of that, there was an anti-lynching bill that was trying to make its way through Congress and the Senate. And it passed in the House, but because of a filibuster in the Senate, it led to the withdrawal of the bill in February of 1938.  It was just something that just never went away. It was an unresolved issue all the way through the 1930s.

Chapter 6: Lynching and the Moors in the On-Site Environment [00:34:31]

Hemingway actually was very much plugged into the politics of theUnited Stateswhen all of a sudden he would make Robert Jordan suddenly make a reference to lynching. But just to move away from that history of lynching in the United States, back to its impact on the Spanish environment. The response of Maria and Pilar to lynching in theUnited Statesis once again entirely off.

“ ‘As I said, when they lifted the Negro up for the second time, my mother pulled me away from the window, so I saw no more,’ Robert Jordan said. ‘But since I have had experiences which demonstrate that drunkenness is the same in my country. It is ugly and brutal.’ ‘You were too young at seven,’ Maria said. ‘You were too young for such things. I have never seen a Negro except in a circus. Unless the Moors are Negroes.’ ‘Some are Negroes and some are not,” Pilar said. ‘I can talk to you of the Moors.’”

It is mind-boggling – that this should be the response to lynching in theUnited States. We can’t even say that– it would be reassuring to say that it’s just cultural ignorance or the impossibility of cross-cultural understanding that is resulting in the responses from Maria and Pilar.  It would be reassuring to be able just to say, it’s because they don’t know anything about theUnited States. But I really don’t think that that is the case. So I would invite you to think about. Why do Spanish always have such weird– and that’s putting it mildly– weird responses to violence in theUnited States? The response is never the right response. It’s always so off-key that it’s not even the wrong response. It’s just hard to believe that anyone would respond like that.

What we see right there is that this once again weird invocation of the Moors in conjunction with violence in the United States.  All we know is that when they try to make sense of something they don’t understand, when the Spanish try to make sense of something they don’t understand, the Moors are the people who come to their minds. It’s a moment where any kind of communion between Robert and Maria and Pilar, any previous communion between them is completely breaking down.

Chapter 7: Tragedy and Comedy in the Republican Misunderstanding [00:37:11]

I want to talk about another episode that has exactly the same kind of construction of incomprehension, ignorance, and incomprehension on the part of the Spanish.  This has to do with the Republican party. You guys remember that the leftwing Loyalists inSpainwere the Republicans. They are defending the Spanish Republic. So to be a Republican inSpainmeans that you are on the left. And this is the context for that conversation.

“ ‘My father was a Republican all his life,’ Maria said. ‘It was for that that they shot him.’ ‘My father was also a Republican all his life. Also my grandfather,’ Robert Jordan said. ‘In what country?’ ‘The United States.’ ‘Did they shoot them?’ the woman asked. ‘Que va,’ Maria said. ‘The United States is a country of Republicans. They don’t shoot you for being a Republican there.’ ‘All the same, it is a good thing to have a grandfather who was a Republican,’ the woman said. ‘It shows a good blood.’ ‘My grandfather was on the Republican national committee,’ Robert Jordan said. That impressed even Maria. ‘And is thy father still active in the Republic?’ Pilar asked. ‘No. He is dead.’ ‘Can one ask how he died?’ ‘He shot himself.’ ‘For avoiding being tortured?’ The woman asked. ‘Yes,’ Robert Jordan said. ‘To avoid being tortured.’”

This is where we get that mix of the comic and the tragic. It is a comedy of errors so far. For a good part of that passage, it is a comedy of cross-cultural error. Just not being able to wrap your mind around the fact that to be a Republican in the United States is a very different thing than being a Republican in Spain. So just not being able to– this is just kind of permanent blinders in the minds of Maria and Pilar.

If that were just the case, it would go no further. That would just be a moment of comic relief in For Whom the Bell Tolls.  But as is always the case with Hemingway in this particular novel, the comic suddenly morphs into something else without any warning. So all of a sudden we get the detail about Robert Jordan’s father shooting himself to avoid being tortured. And that can have only one meaning for the Spanish. It fits completely into the personal history of Maria. It fits completely into Pilar’s understanding of political history in Spain.

Chapter 8: The Civil War as a Distant Home [00:39:56]

Right now we don’t know why his father killed himself and what kind of torture he is talking about.  We have to wait a little longer to have that mystery cleared up for us. And to have that mystery cleared up, we actually have to go further into the past.   I’ve been talking about distant homes in times just of spatial locations. But there’s also a distant temporal home. In turns out that the nineteenth century is also a necessary home for Robert Jordan, especially the Civil War. It’s almost the equivalent of Paris in terms of psychological need for that home. And it’s not just any Civil War, but his grandfather’s Civil War. And this is his moment of homecoming. This is the home that will receive him and shelter him. “Remember something concrete and practical. Remember Grandfather’s saber, bright and well oiled in its dented scabbard and Grandfather showed you how the blade had been thinned from the many times it had been to the grinder’s. Remember Grandfather’s Smith and Wesson. It was a single action, officer’s model .32 caliber and there was no trigger guard. It had the softest, sweetest trigger pull you had ever felt and it was always well oiled and the bore was clean although the finish was all worn off and the brown metal of the barrel and the cylinder was worn smooth from the leather of the holster.”

This is – like Hemingway’s description of the trout fishing in In Our Time – very clean, the smoothness, cleanness of their operation.  In this particular context the smoothness and the cleanness and the worn-out-ness of that pistol suggests that this is a well-used weapon. Robert Johnson’s grandfather was a hero of the Civil War. His saber had been to the grinder’s numerous times because the blade had been so well used. So without saying anything, without using the word “glory” or “heroic” or any comparable adjective, Hemingway gives us the sense that the Civil War was the heroic moment, was the high point, in the history of Robert’s family. And it was very much vested in his grandfather.

At this point, it has receded. It has to recede, it has to be receded into the past. It belongs to the nineteeth century. But Robert Jordan wants to activate it over and over again, bring it up to the twentieth century because he needs that. And we know why he needs to bring the nineteenth century back on the next page when we know what happens to that pistol.

“Then after you father had shot himself with the pistol, and you had come home from school and they’d had the funeral, the coroner had returned it after the inquest saying, “Bob, I guess you might want to keep the gun.” OK, I should just stop and clarify that this is something we’ll be talking about, actually the narrative switches from second person pronoun, Robert Jordan addressing himself as “you.”  That “you” is Robert Jordan, and then it switches back to the third person. “He climbed out on a rock and leaned over and saw his face in the still water, and saw himself holding the gun, and then he dropped it, holding it by the muzzle and saw it go down making bubbles until it was just as big as a watch charm in the clear water and then it was out of sight.”  This passage that comes just on the opposite page from the previous invocation of the Civil War weapons of the grandfather tell us exactly why the nineteenth century and the Civil War is a necessary emotional shelter for Robert. He’s just so ashamed of his father. He wants to clean up that entire episode, drop it into the clear water so that it will be completely out of sight. He can do that to the pistol. He can’t do it to the actual history itself, but that’s as close as he can get to wiping out that history.

In this particular moment, there is no Spanish environment that is invoked. This is no mention of the immediate Spanish setting.  I think that that is suggestive as well, in a sense that really the home is for Robert, I think, and it’s a very pessimistic reading of the novel. There are basically just two homes for Robert. One is the Paris of the evening papers and the chestnut trees. And the other home for him is a home that never was a home in his lifetime, but a home that he can inherit vicariously through his grandfather. And that is the American Civil War as his spiritual home. Because this is the one place where he has affirmation of himself, that he’s not ashamed of himself, not ashamed of his family history. And so those are impossible homes for him at this point.

[end of transcript] 

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]