For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway is one of those authors who I have often heard about throughout the years, whether from friends, colleagues, or professors while I was in college, and beyond, but sadly, I took no interest in him… at least until now. He is an author renowned for an adventurous, sometimes turbulent, life and seems to seep into every crevice, however small or large, of our literary discussion(s) in some form or another. He trickles in so far that even my editor, while we were finishing work on Lines in the Sand, made an offhand joke and comment one day while we were engaged in a hearty discussion of some particular phrasing he wanted to strike from the narrative… and I didn’t.
“Well, you’re not a Hemingway writer, that’s for sure,” he had said and I could feel the mirth oozing from the computer screen as I read his email. I won that good natured debate and my “flowery” language stayed right where it was. Needless to say, as I’m sure we have all heard at one time or another, Hemingway has often been accused of having a rather blunt, lean, spare, and tight (I’ve even heard boring) writing style. But, For Whom the Bell Tolls departs from these characteristics somewhat in the sense that it contains extensive passages concerning the intimate thoughts and feelings of his main character, Robert Jordan, as well as secondary characters, most notably Pilar, the woman of Pablo (I love that phrasing, always gives me a giggle, so macho manly, very Hemingway). However, that is not where I would like to focus this discussion as I feel there are more important aspects of this story that merit more attention rather than Hemingway’s writing style which has been critiqued throughout the years to a grand, lengthily metaphorical death.
I have to admit (and not in the least bit reluctantly), I was immediately taken with this story. It had the feel of a grand adventure in a far away land akin to such tales that Jack London related (one of my all time favorite authors) or films such as Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone or The Eiger Sanction. I thoroughly enjoyed the mountainous setting, with the bridge that is scheduled to be blown above a gurgling river, the isolated guard stations manned by gruff, brutish looking fellows who rolled their own cigarettes, the Spanish guerrilla fighters, the drone of fighter planes overhead, the gypsies with their odd customs and manners, even how a wine bowl was used as a communal dipping source while sitting around a rough, wooden table, the centerpiece of the partisan’s hiding place, a cave perched on a ridge. I found myself wishing I could dip my cup with the rest of them, how marvelous, striking, and picturesque. But as I read further, I began to divine and note the more intimate, serious aspects of humanity that Hemingway was trying to convey, particularly when concerned with warfare, violence, dignity, honor, and duty. And I began to feel as if these notions were very important to him, indeed, an integral part of his personality and beliefs.
His story deals with many themes, among the most prominent being death, camaraderie, suicide, with some political ideology thrown in, especially during the conversations involving fascism, more particularly with the conversation between Robert Jordan and the others when they are in the cave eating. That conversation dealt with the topics of homesteading and taxes in the United States. Interesting for sure and food for sidelong thought, however, I would like to take a look at the other themes that I feel are more important, chiefly, warfare and how it relates to my own experiences when confronted by the organized effort of killing. I feel that both what is written in Hemingway’s story, and my own, are in many ways universal. Indeed, I feel that the notions Hemingway expressed are globally encapsulated within the human experience when confronted with war. It is also my feeling that Hemingway was innately aware, either learned through his experience and observation in life or merely felt deeply within, of what can happen to human beings (in that universal sense) when challenged with the violence of warfare. He tapped into a dark part of not only his own humanity, but something which lives, dormant yet ready to awaken at the slightest of triggers, in all of our collectiveness, something I would hope we, as a human community, would recognize, but which I feel is sadly often overlooked.
Out of all the chapters, each one brimming and jubilant within their own unique personalities, implications, suggestions, and intrigue, one stood out and resonated quite strongly within my soul and psyche. More so, it literally screamed off the page with a deafening voice and I found myself wincing and grimacing, my stomach twisted in saddened, repulsed knots as my captivated eyes took in the words. That was Chapter Ten, the chapter in which Pilar relates the horrific events of the members of her village, the brutal execution of the townspeople who were both confirmed and merely suspected fascists. And while I understand that Hemingway loosely drew from actual events that took place in the town of Ronda, Spain in 1936 to portray the scene, it matters little because there is an overall, arching theme here that warrants a more in depth, close inspection of the human psyche when faced with the prospect of killing without inhibition, without obstacle, with an abandonment of both moral and literal law.
The violence began after the assault on the barracks in which the four civiles were killed as they kneeled against the stone wall. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel any particular remorse or sense of feeling toward this act. I simply felt it as a uninvolved, straightforward fact of war. And I understand that some might be quick to say that that in itself is callous on my part, but since my experience in Iraq and the changes that took place within me during my tour of duty, the assault and prompt (one might even say, dignified) execution of these men seemed to me to be a normal occurrence, something of which seemed logical and pragmatic. They were enemy sentries, they were a threat, and keeping them captive would have meant expending unnecessary energy and man power safeguarding them. In fact, it might even have been dangerous when the possibility of their escape is considered. So, it seemed quite natural that this would happen, given the situation. I know how that must sound, that perhaps my compassion for human life has grown a bit cold but, it seems to me that what happened next is far worse and crossed even my own lines of morality, humanity, and decency.
The methodology Pablo chose for the execution of the townspeople they deemed to be fascists is where the barbarism of human beings is fully exposed for all to both examine and feel disgusted by. Yes, it was a vulgar display of our brutality, but that’s not the most interesting part. I believe there was something bigger that Hemingway was attempting to display within this situation, an intimation into what truly lies behind the thin veil of civility in which we try to hide ourselves. In the beginning, most of those in the line, and outside, felt uncomfortable with what was about to happen. Some even objected. Some had never been exposed to such violence. So, the nervous reluctance, the hesitation, the question of whether the act was moral or not, justified and proper, was heavy in the air, and rightfully so. Unfortunately, but all too common, that didn’t last. It didn’t take long for the “executioners” to unleash the beast that dwells within each of us.
As I read, it was both terrifying and fascinating to watch the disintegration of human values into a pure, unadulterated blood lust. In short, what were once “decent” people transformed into what I like to call “the mob” and although my stomach convulsed with how disgusting it was to witness, it didn’t surprise me… not in the least. From my experience in Iraq and in the subsequent years that have followed, I have become more and more attuned to this type of human behavior.
While I was in Iraq, I watched members from my unit transform from what I would call ordinary, compassionate, empathetic human beings to brutish forms of their former selves, relinquishing their precarious hold on humanity in favor of becoming callous, apathetic, indifferent animals. What were once principled people had become spiritless images of themselves. I felt it as well and it was distressing to me, more distressing than experiencing another mortar attack and the fear of death. It felt as if my soul was dying, as if I was becoming hollow, what I call a “non-human,” a case-hardened, unsympathetic, inhumane, and atrocious facsimile of what a person should be. I felt as if I was being reborn into a new self, and that infant self was consumed by the shadows of nightmares which exist outside the dictates of morality, decency, and tenderness. I’ve often called this new self my Shadow Self, a reflection of me at my worst. And it was hideous to observe these new feelings in all of us as we fed off each other, (hence “the mob”) either through action or talk among ourselves. And I began to realize and feel this is typical of human beings when confronted with violence and stress while surrounded by the savagery of facing life or death every day.
I’ve come to think that human beings will often act like a mob, it seems to be contagious for some reason. In a very real sense, we are herd animals and our blood lust is never far below the surface of our civilization. And it can take any form we can visualize in our minds: the disintegration of the people in Pilar’s town, the disintegration of my fellow comrades in Iraq, and even in politics. Take for example, the recent (the second one) presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It was the general consensus afterward that Donald Trump did much better with his performance. And as I watched the news, once again, I couldn’t help but think of the mob. Let’s be honest, there was little to no substance in that debate. Most of it was pure unsullied, childish attacks of the worst kind and it reminded me of children fighting in the school yard, each willing to go as low as possible in order to make the most shallow hits on one another.
And people loved it.
Oh, what a glorious coliseum we had and whether that arena is in ancient Rome with blood being spilled viciously in the sand or whether the participants are wearing suits and brandishing microphones, it’s the same. The mob loves a good show and the thirst for either metaphorical or literal blood is intoxicating to the masses. I feel that this is what Hemingway was trying to convey in this chapter. It’s profound, solemn, and if the content is truly allowed to be digested, also extremely frightening. But it seems to me that this is a natural condition of human beings, at this point in our evolution. We are indeed, as a whole, very much an animal, an animal who is still craving blood, both literally, symbolically, and it seems as if even though our technology has evolved, we are still very much a childlike race, still arduously climbing the bottom rungs of the evolutionary ladder. I think Hemingway understood this and he was trying to funnel these concepts to the reader in the hopes of shedding some light on how lost we can be while mired within our coarseness. I don’t feel he was being cynical about it, merely putting it on display for examination within our own determination.
As a side note to this, I understand that some think of this novel as an anti-war story, that it is making a statement about the effects of war and what it can do the human psyche. While I feel some elements may ring true to that notion, I don’t necessarily think that Hemingway had in mind to make a definitive, concerted effort for that case. I only think he was stating his view and that one could take it or leave it, plain and simple.
In contrast to this, another theme I found interesting was that Hemingway used modern warfare machinery to dismantle the concept of what it means to engage in combat. I got the sense that he felt modern armament had destroyed a sense of romanticism involving the honor and dignity of defeating one’s enemy on the battlefield. My instincts told me that Hemingway felt a certain “honorable sportsmanship” to facing one’s enemy on equal terms and perhaps that stems from his love of hunting, a “sport” he adored and engaged in throughout his entire life.
Scattered throughout the story are numerous scenes and passages where the partisan guerilla fighters led by both Pablo and El Sordo feel completely hopeless in the face of such potential devastation, especially when the airplanes arrive. But it’s more than a feeling of hopelessness. With the appearance of such weaponry, Hemingway seems to want to impart a feeling that in modern warfare the best soldier could not win, only the soldier with the biggest gun would. And I think he was condemning, or at least critiquing, that notion. An example of this is when Fernando, one of the partisans, says that the soldiers using those weapons are simple brutes, that they lack “all conception of dignity.” Another is when Anselmo says, “We must teach them. We must take away their planes, their automatic weapons, their tanks, their artillery and teach them dignity.”
Throughout my life, even before I went to Iraq, I have often felt the same. I can remember seeing Braveheart for the first time. I remember thinking to myself that what was taking place before my eyes was a more honorable way to face an enemy. On that type of battlefield, you have to look your enemy in the eyes, confront them one on one. It has always seemed more intimate to me, the way (if indeed we must use violence to solve our problems, of which I am adamantly opposed) one’s mettle is tested on a level that is more intrinsically elemental. For example, I’ve always thought that by being able to push a button in some remote location, miles away from the actual death that button will produce, there is a “dehumanizing” of warfare that takes place leading to an dangerous objectification without having to suffer the consequences of the action. Removing oneself from the actual act of killing makes warfare much more easy without a sense of gravity, of repercussion. I feel that without having to face death, death becomes merely a word, nothing more. I think it is this notion that Hemingway was trying to get across when he employed the use of “dignity.” And in some ways you could also use “honor.” There is no honor in obliterating someone from afar.
Overall, it was a fantastic story and there are many more elements worthy of discussion. These two I felt particularly impacted by and as a final parting thought, I’d like to say that no man is a coward for not wanting to participate in the act of killing. We can see how quickly it degenerates him and it is in our best interest to find a way to live comfortably among each other. In honor of that, let us dip our cups in the wine bowl and chat by the fire as one.