The pains of meaninglessness in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises


Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is classic Hemingway – hapless, often timorous, not daring characters caught in the usual web of events that only appear gargantuan and menacing because the people do not rise above them. People regularly go to bars and drink and meet and chat with people, either feigning order, pretending to be fine or desperately masking the anxieties both inside and outside themselves.

The story revolved around Jake Barnes, the apple of his eyes Lady Brett Ashley and their friends and flings as they tarried on parts of Europe (from France to Spain), displaced in America after the First World War.

In this novel, I can see Hemingway’s perennial themes: a sense of loss, a sense of and a spiritual defeat, and the ever-gnawing instability both in terms of mere location, in emotional states and sense of purpose and most of all, in relation to the world.

Forced by circumstances to settle elsewhere than his homeland American country, it seemed that to Jake, travelling could douse the flame of instability perpetually hectoring him. Then it came as quite a surprise that when eagerly invited by Robert Cohn, his boxer friend, to go with him to South America, Jake said retorted that “you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another” (19). Later, we can see that these words of wisdom from Jake himself will prove to be applicable and veracious to him.

Also, it was the circumstances that made him see Lady Brett Ashley one night in a dancing-club somewhere in Paris. A past romantic acquaintance, the two had the successful continuation of this curtailed affair hanging all throughout the novel, only sustained and consummated as its biggest storyline – it ending up to nothing and serving as the biggest flop of all foiled romances and all other failures in the story.

Earlier in the novel, Robert Cohn and his fiancée Frances kicked off and perhaps foreboded the succeeding cases of haplessness in the novel. Regarding this, Frances had a sick outburst with Jake:

“I wouldn’t marry him if he doesn’t want to. I wouldn’t marry him now for anything. But it does seem to be a little late now, after we’ve waited three years, and I’ve just gotten my divorce” (54).

And then we will meet Bill Gorton, Jake’s writer friend, and Michael, Brett’s replacement to the Count she just split with, and they all crossed paths starting in France all the way to Spain where they attended a week-long fiesta highlighted by bull-fights they will eventually enjoy. In Spain, the five went together on a superficially merry vacation trip deeply troubled by the each one’s personal anxieties and resulting to casual scuffles. In Spain, each of the males was suddenly smitten with Brett, but most prominently Robert Cohn. His petulance eventually annoyed Brett and the rest of the group and caused him to depart earlier from Spain. Michael, Brett’s most “legitimate” partner also had his share of insecurities. Of course there is Jake, the narrator whose feelings for Brett is no secret to us. All these romantic longings for Brett were simultaneously dashed for the boys when she got captivated by one of the bull-fighters, Romero. At this point, Hemingway was not yet done brutally gashing all romantic hopes and fervor. In the end, we would find out that Brett and Romero would also split apart and Brett would return perhaps to the solace mystically provided to him by Jake. However, there was no ultimate reclamation either for Jake or for Brett. Jake won’t actually have Brett and Brett won’t find something enduring and if ever she does, will arguably balk at its face and eventually lose the chance of obtaining it. After their escapade in the week-long fiesta in Pamplona and Jake was all by himself again, he received a telegram from Brett asking him to go to her in a hotel in Madrid. Approaching the end of the novel, one can easily think that this is our desired ending, our expected ending.  But Brett would say that she is “going back to Mike. He’s so damned nice and he’s so awful. He’s my sort of thing.” Hemingway was perhaps feeling for Jake at this point but we know these words would truly shatter him. Yes, Brett “would not look up” when she said those words and Jake “could feel her shaking,” but the suggested ambivalence does not give an affirmation for Jake. It only reflects the troubling uncertainty that Brett cannot set straight for herself, and perhaps, for Jake as well, more hurtfully, for the two of them. And Hemingway would end the novel, as teasingly as possible, as open-endedly as possible, but maintaining that atmosphere of ambivalence and uncertainty that forever tortures his characters:

“The driver started up the street. I settled back. Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. “Oh Jake,” Brett said, “We could have had such a damned good time together.” “Yes, I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

This “could have” from Brett and more importantly, more strikingly, that question mark from Jake at the end, mustering in words all the possibilities they failed to nab, all the uncertainties and trepidations they failed to outgrown and overcome and at the end bitterly resulting to a romantic failure that perhaps would haunt both of them for most of their lives. This “could have” was eternally confined to the terrain of thought and for the entirety of the novel and perhaps even in the unwritten future for the two, they will be unable to actualize it, to gather all their guts and volition and emotions to trample on all their doubts and insecurities.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway limned the seemingly innocent but actually torturous paths led by characters in a span of time and space where darkness is spelled in and reinforced by indecision and purposelessness paving the way for inaction and most painfully, failure. It is perhaps no coincidence that Hemingway puts his characters on quite a protracted journey to further signify that looming transience, that instability that chased them and which they were never able to get away from. This is not just the harrowing effects of expatriation after a terrifying war. This is not just the tragedies, however seemingly petty, caused by displacement from one’s country. Perhaps more vitally and more poignantly, this is the tragedy caused by displacement from one’s self, arguably as a result of a war and other sordid social circumstances that sapped out all the potentials for conviction and trust and faith to be held by individuals with a strong heart and unperturbed will and ultimately will propel them to act and do things that will make them happy and make them feel that they had led a life with meaning.

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On “beautiful” poetry


For the sake of submitting to a rather pressing query of a buddy here at Facebook, I will find some time to elaborate on my personal take on what is “beautiful” poetry.

This is truly, at the beginning, a difficult question to answer, a difficult requirement to satisfy. For of all the preaching of post-structuralism, especially dating back to Nietzsche and all the problematic encounters with different understandings of and positions regarding the aesthetics, the function of and the nature of poetry, this seemingly innocent and easy question becomes unwieldy.

But let me attempt to simplify things, and do away with the ornaments I sometimes feel necessary. Let me approach the aesthetic merits of a poem in terms of the two aspects we all know and I feel, embrace: form and content. It should be a different matter altogether, the issues inherent between these two, i.e. what should be deemed primary by the poet, or to begin with, should there be a primary consideration after all, are not these two supposed to go together, complement each other. As I state above, these considerations will not be dealt with exhaustively here, but its mere mentioning serves to show the surrounding surface that I tread on as I try to construct my view on the “beautiful” poetry.

In terms of content, there are hardly configurations or prescriptions. Poetry can be about anything – feces to blank spaces, Bill Gates to war armaments. Always, it is the form of a text which indicates its being poetic, of it being tagged as a “poem.” This is the more delicate matter which could require much of our finicky attention.

(As a subsequent insertion though, I feel like in terms of content, an important thing to consider is the position of the poet with respect to her subject matter. For my preference would be on the poet who consciously creates poetry about things and sees her poetry as necessarily implicated and participatory to the larger scope of things where her subject matter is likewise subsumed. Given this conscious knowledge of the poem’s (and the poet’s) absolute implication and participation in everything external to it, the poet can take better advantage of his craft if she launches her poetic productions as an active response to its external environment.)

In terms of form, a poem becomes such if it is able to defamiliarize that which its aims to talk about at the beginning. Deriving this from the school of Russian Formalism and acquired and rewritten by succeeding poetic movements and practitioners, my personal rendering of this term is that is materializes the abstract and lends a new light in viewing the seemingly already concrete so that the readers can gain a new experience of this material object. I cannot speak of technique for this is something which my present dispositions do not exactly promote, much more adhere to. Say, we can speak of visual contortions, line breaks, caesura, inclusion of pictorial elements and other “innovations” that have been ushered or tried to be ushered in the past decades. But I cannot claim that any of these “techniques,” when employed and employed well will instantly constitute “beautiful” poetry.

I think I would like to rest this case by concluding with regards to the “affective experience” the poem brings about to the readers. However, this “affective experience” I am citing here should not be likened to the thing New Criticism criticized in favor of the text’s “organic unity” they so valued. I am talking of affective experience as informed by the reader-response theory and concepts such as intertextuality, the often notorious post-structural open-endedness and a generally humanist tone that privileges the human agency and its capacity for choice. To me, the beauty of poem would lie on its effects on the readers. If the reader was able to make something out of the poem; that is, if he was able to gain some insight that might change her perspective or more preferably, spur her into action; if the readers fight against the poem, destroy it, wrap it in her arms, kill it, torture it, own it, reshuffle it and rewrite as new, perhaps the poem succeeds at being beautiful.

Lastly, I do not intend, and will never intend to sound or appear teleological here. If not for the grammatical conventions I am sometimes forced to comply with, I would not prefer doing this: “I.” For in speaking here of the constitution of a beautiful poem, I do not want to be like the sermons at some obscure mountains of the ancient times, or our elementary school textbooks, or the Law, or the State. You know where I am coming from. So let us start the discourse now!

Genuine depressions are better than fake joys


 

Today, I bought Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises at the SM North Edsa Branch of Book Sale. Someone retorted to this, saying that Hemingway is a depressant. I was restless at the back of a haggard bus, standing and waiting to triumphantly pass by a heated early Friday night rush hour. My sister and I just came from UP Diliman where she would take an admission examination next week. And after a frantic searching for the Math Building, the venue of her test, we eased ourselves off with a detour to SM North before going home. I dropped by National Book Store first to look for Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, the book whose title story I quote often and silently established as a personal favorite.  Since I started earning a fairly regular money for myself, I began eyeing a copy of this one. It was nowhere to be found in Baguio book stores and I remembered seeing one in SM North so I returned with anticipation earlier. Sadly, the book costs a little over 500 pesos and despite my wish to have a copy, my frugality prevailed and let this chance to pass. Depressing.

Hemingway is nearly a favorite. The depression, the terseness in his characters’ expressions, the seemingly inevitable failures, the seemingly perpetual absence of light and hope and everything fancy – and so I replied back to that someone who remarked of Hemingway’s depressions, Better to have Hemingway’s depressions than false joys in the TV, in Eat Bulaga or Showtime for instance or in cute boys signing incomprehensible Koreans over at MYX.

 

 

 

 

So: how do we get there? On Communism


“Communism should be defined not only by the abolition of property but also by the affirmation of the common – the affirmation of open and autonomous production of subjectivity, social relations, and the forms of life; the self-governed continuous creation of new humanity. In the most synthetic terms, what private property is to capitalism and what state property is to socialism, the common is to communism” (Michale Hardt, Reclaim the Common in Communism).

Do not try this everywhere


The adamant has spoken

Fingerprints have been eroded

by clean hands in a crime scene

The phone lines have disconnected

The weather reports do not report

The color of the sky –

pale orange on a pregnant

mid-morning, the handkerchief

has fallen to the canal,

The river reeked like a raccoon,

The bank accounts have been

reduced to an element of a story,

The passion of the Christ has saved

Earth from a dull decade,

The blood on the screen typified

how movies make money.

The sequence of sins told the

presumed predictability,

of a comma, and the gestures

we all don’t expect.

To be continued has died,

On its tomb is a reckless writing:

Do not rest in peace.

Continuations miff reality.

TV series will end soon.

In opulent verses where writers

are muted, the more ambiguity,

the more meaning.

The absence of breaks is

a manic illusion.

The ships are rocking the boat

and lives are lost out of hastiness.

or avarice.

Twitching bodies don’t know

profundity. Intellectuals

do not make sense. The economy

is in a waste land. T.S. Eliot

is in heaven. And Jesus Christ

needs new versions everyday.

The elocutions will never

cross the bridge.

Words are more opaque

than grisly cylinders.

Gaps are not bridged.

They run in sickly circles.

The more lines, the less dormancy.

The more words, the greater ambiguity.

Making sense is rigorous.

And often, rigor is purposeless.

Make things. Dress clocks.

Watch sweat, kiss soils.

Never write a treatise, an article,

Or a poem.

*This poem first appeared here. In the Facebook page of a Baguio-based group of writers working to bring literature beyond the walls of bars, cafes and the academy.

Doubt is perennial


We were mopers at our worst, stolid thinkers at our best.

When I was tired and sleepy and waiting aimlessly for the motions of the clock, I will not hit the sack. Idioms, idioms, they are becoming safe and boring ways of redressing the expected. What is the point of sleeping but succumbing to the limitations of our body, exposing ourselves to the ghosts of what we avoid – unspoken dreams we won’t utter to ourselves while looking at mirrors lest we want this terrible guilt that make us less credible even to ourselves.

What is the point of staying awake? It is this: living. Breathing, and waiting for sunrises and cuckoos whose point of origin we do not have an idea of, and these: drinking glasses of water and reading the hell out of those who purport to be arcane and magnanimous, and writing words and attempting to make way through the endless bombardments of everyday.

Do I know the limit of wakefulness?

Sometime soon, I shall give up, and opt to recline, and then doze off, and then find out that I again is looking forward to more hours of imagined somnambulism, cathartic smoking, body-breaking and rule-bending with my activities, my outreaches, my sometimes hopeless whispers to the wind.

Does the wind carry what we throw at it?

Let me hear you answer. Are we really living? Are we really thinking? There was this advertisement saying that impossible is nothing. With all seeming positiveness, with all its radiation of motivation and inspiration, who shall not take heed? But what was it saying exactly? What is impossible but a word, what spurs us to keep on pushing the envelope of possible further. But please buy their shoes, it will help you breach past the designated “impossible.” To put things in quotes, like: “this,” is to make us reread and think twice about that word – its source, its situation, its meaning. It seems like the way we think is usually shaped by these advertisements, and by what we hear from rostrums, from the pulpit, from who’s in front the chalkboard, from who’s inside the enshrined national office. I am lost for coherence. But at least, I do not pretend to be stating a unity. This is why we are falling apart. Not all of us are willing to participate in the silent game of making believe and pretending that things are all going fine, that things are as smooth as long lost pasts we only encounter in books and novels. But this is what we have: falling apart and incongruity. There are no shrouds big enough to prevent the explosion of sad events.

This is where we end. So let’s cola and smoke.

I and the Puerto Galera streets.

Funnily tragic*


*This article was first published in the Animated Me column of the July 01 issue of the Baguio Midland Courier

Last Thursday, while my friend and I were walking from the city market and going up the footbridge at Maharlika, she was helplessly victimized by a pickpocket who worked, as I assume, so nonchalantly, so deftly, in order for both my friend and I to be hardly aware of what he was just doing. Suddenly gone were my friend’s favorite Dinosaurman purse which included inside it some bills totaling to nearly a thousand pesos, her school ID and ATM card.

It was sort of funny, how in a matter of seconds, we can become poorer by a thousand pesos, and also temporarily disabled to enter the school library and full of anxiety and regret after just losing valuables in a busy, crowded place. In a society where every day we find it more difficult to survive and cope with the price of living, incidents like this are just sufficient to make us judge a day to be a bad one and make us learn a lesson in the hard way.

At the beginning, it was easy to get mad at the poor stealer. Especially when after what he has done, you felt like you have just been a bad child to your parents who break their backs in the day and hardly get a rest in the night just to send you to school and send cash allowance that you need in order to live in a far city. It was easy to blame the thief and others like him who turn to doing things like that instead of doing something more decent and lawful in order to cope with their own lives.

Then there could be a phase of self-blaming too. How, for instance, we could have been more careful with our belongings, more watchful and guarded of seemingly naïve pickpockets who are just waiting for the perfect timing while we are all rushing through the unsleeping parts of the city. How we could have tucked our wallets and gadgets inside our pockets where they are less likely to be taken by people with wrong intentions. How we could have refrained from withdrawing money from the ATM and hence, give away a lesser amount to a thief who is an expert of his “craft” when all is said and done.

However, a clearer thought can allow us to look at the roots of incidents like that and might keep us from blaming either the thief or ourselves and our carelessness. We all know how widespread and how countless are the thieves lurking in the streets we pass by every day. The fact that they have devised ways to make themselves appear less suspicious requires us to be even more cautious and careful. For all we know, that stranger sitting beside in a jeepney or that person behind us in a grocery counter is planning to steal something from us. Not even the fact that we are in a public place can assure us that we are completely shielded from those who have intents of stealing something from us.

In our society where poverty reeks at every corner, where people struggle to feed themselves, and much more send their children to school or their sick relatives to the hospital, we have all learned a variety of ways just to get through every day and find ways to live. Unluckily, stealing, among other crimes like kidnapping for ransom, smuggling goods and gambling, are just some of the means we have utilized for the sake of providing for our needs. In that sense, we are not inherently to blame at all; resorting to lawless tactics just to survive is not entirely unforgivable given the circumstances that always pressure us to do the things we do.

What we must pay more attention to is this pervading social condition that breeds thieves, smugglers, kidnappers among others. It is a social condition where people can hardly afford the things they need because they do not have jobs that can enable them to pay for what they need. We are all in a society where even having a job does not secure us to obtain all our basic needs. For in this society, most of the jobs do not provide payments commensurate to the work done by the individuals and likewise to the expenses entailed by a daily, decent living. For the record, the 426 peso minimum wage in Metro Manila is not even half of the 993 peso cost of daily living allowance for a family of six members.  Given these conditions, how can we be so surprised when a lot of people turn to stealing and other lawless acts just to provide for themselves.

In the end, this is not to condone what the pickpockets do. This is just a reminder that behind these acts are larger conditions and operations in the society that force them to resort to such acts and make anyone of us all prone to be victimized. Hence, more than cursing these criminals, we must rage against and strive to adjust the social setting where these kinds of people are bred.

As for my friend, both of us just opt to think in more humane terms: Isipin na lang natin, may sakit ‘yung nanay nung magnanakaw tapos kailangan niya ng pambili ng gamot.

This is how we succumb to funny tragedies. And unless the conditions that can force us to resort to lawlessness are terminated, we cannot stop from consoling ourselves with such humane thoughts.

In the beginning was the Word


John 1:1–3

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

In the beginning was the word

Genesis be damned

John be damned

Beginnings be obliterated

Origins be exhausted

The cross signifies the Master.

That 1859 book signifies a Tale.

And they made poetry to

capture the momentary instead

When everything collapsed

When the center could not hold

And now

They

Are

Trying to write this as the

Moment.

 

In the beginning was the Word

In the middle was war and chaos

And in the end was the triumph

Of the Cause, the oneness of the

Proletariat.

The

End

Of

History.

 

We are all trapped in medias res.

Might as well, live, indulge

Fight, live and leave

The rest.