Love, Death, Bravery, Immortality: Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”

Part I: Review

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bells Tolls (1940) tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American dynamiter fighting against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.  His mission is to fall in with a band of guerrillas and destroy an enemy bridge.  Do not read the rest of the paragraph before reading the book.  He falls in love with a young woman whom the band shelters and succeeds in his mission, but he is severely wounded and covers the others’ escape.

I never read Hemingway until now.  I cannot explain why.  I have heard Metallica’s track, of course, and Corey Stoll’s portrayal of the man was one of the great delights of Woody Allen’s already all-ar0und delightful film, Midnight in Paris (2011).

Perhaps I will not be misunderstood when I attribute the read to a certain instinctual belief that now was the time.  The title itself suffices to attract a man’s attention.  Its words bring doom, that fearfully sacred thing (mysterium tremendum), unbearably and yet enticingly near–a virtue of poetic language.  The words are indeed, as I distantly remembered, a line from a poem.  Hemingway takes the title from Meditation 17 in John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I would love to attempt a lengthy comparison of doom in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Chris Nolan’s Inception (2010), or just the magnificent score that Hans Zimmer wrote for it.  Zimmer has introduced another “fanfare of terror” into the art form, as Richard Wagner might put it.

A lengthy comparison, however, would necessitate a proportionately lengthy exploration of the themes.  In short, I say: the bells’ doom tolls for all men in each man and each man in all men; the horns’ doom blares for one man himself alone.  “Non, Je ne regrette rien [No, I regret nothing]” does not express the idea of Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima that “all are responsible for all.”

The sole flaw of the book, in my opinion, is its pace.  Ostensibly, the action of the novel is the demolition of a bridge, but little progress is made toward that goal over many chapters.  I found the slightness of the progress to be a source of aggravation.  Perhaps, on a second reading, I would find the novel’s tensions more well-balanced.

Also, Hemingway punctuates the progress of little actions with long speeches.  The monologues and dialogues themselves are well composed, surely better composed than one would expect of people in that situation, but that is rather a virtue than a vice.  I need only let that book of war, Homer’s Iliad, make the point for me.  More significantly, however, the speeches are essential to the novel, because in them Hemingway develops his themes to the greatest extent.

Part II: Love, Death, Bravery, Immortality

I should say something about the style.  The novel is in Hemingway’s style, as I have heard others speak of it.  My discussion of the themes may have indicated as much.  Hemingway’s style has a sparseness similar to Cormac McCarthy’s, a similar duality of finite surface and infinite depth  The two novelists, I might add, similarly feature men who might might wander the cosmos in their self-knowledge but whose actions draw them into deadly entanglements.

But I find them to have these differences: Hemingway’s prose is tense, and he puts the narrative center of weight in the active man; McCarthy’s prose is dry, and its narrative weight rests centrally in the cosmos.

In McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain, Eduardo tells John Grady in their final confrontation:

In his dying perhaps the suitor will see that it is his hunger for mysteries that has undone him.  Whores.  Superstition.  Finally death.  For that is what has brought you here.  That is what you were seeking.

That is what has brought you here and what will always bring you here.  Your kind cannot bear that the world be ordinary.  That it contain nothing save what stands before one.  But the Mexican world is a world of adornment only and underneath it is very plain indeed.  While your world […] your world totters upon an unspoken labyrinth of questions.

“Very plain indeed,” Eduardo says.  Are the “cities,” Mexico and America, then both “of the plain?”  That is, are they both “plain?”

I cannot suppose so, neither for Hemingway nor McCarthy, no more than for Melville, with Captain Ahab’s “pasteboard mask” metaphysics, nor me.  The labyrinth of questions already shows the mysterious depths beneath the ordinary surface.  The deed of seeking and hungering for those depths is undoubtedly “the living act [of] some unknown but still reasoning thing [that] puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.”

Unknown, but not unreal.  There is a dream within a dream, in Inception, and a dream within that.  On the one hand, what deep things a man might come to know in such dreams, and in what depths might he dwell!  On the other hand, what reality does a dream have if the dreamer flees death and does not bravely face it?  The flight might be made for love, and yet it does love a great dishonor if flees the death of the beloved and clings to a memory of her instead of her herself!

I have to count it as miraculous when Cobb repents the dishonor.  He has struggled so desperately to preserve his wife from death, but he releases the memory that he has substituted for her and is at the same time released from it.  He does this in the deepest part of the architecture of his mind, and yet in a tall skyscraper in it, perhaps  compressing into one still image Gandalf’s fight “from lowest dungeon to highest peak.”

Bravery completes love, inasmuch as love must not turn from death.  A brave man, like Robert Jordan, may face death without love, but love transfigures death for him.  Death does not mark the end of his mission, successful or failed, in service of a political ideal; it marks the end of the time of union between himself and his beloved, a time graced by love, that is, intensified by the gift of love.  When death comes, they at least had that time, and how great it was.  So Robert Jordan thinks to himself, and Hemingway seems to offer his confirmation.

The brave man indeed rises to a “strange perfection,” if not the same perfection that Arkadius lyricizes.  About life after death, however, he might ask with Arkadius: “Can anyone tell/On this zenith of mankind/If heaven or hell/Is just joyful thinking?”

Robert Jordan mingles with many characters who are steeped in Catholicism.  According to this steepled religion, heaven and hell are not just wishful, “joyful” thoughts.  One of the more understated observations in the novel is that obscenities proliferate only in societies in which things are held sacred.  Sacrileges will fade with the sacred in irreligious societies.  The person who enjoys a good profanity is in need of fearful mysteries.

Arguments for and against immortality impress almost no one, not even the philosophers who make them.  But Robert Jordan impresses upon his beloved the conviction that, though he dies, he will live on in her, that they are now, in a word, the same.  Some philosophers observe that love suggests immortality.  For example, in Plato’s wine-soaked dialogue, Socrates asserts that a lover survives in his or her offspring.  Again, Gabriel Marcel alleges in one of his dramas that love means that the beloved, the beloved “at least,” shall not die.

The difference between the philosophers, professional or amateur, and Robert Jordan is: bravery.  His beloved is not his child but the woman that he wishes to marry.  She may perhaps die as he might.  But bravery completes love, inasmuch as love desires the union of the lover and the beloved not just for some time but forever.  Love transfigures life.  With bravery, a lover surpasses death through love and finds immortality in his beloved.

Hemingway’s brave lover, it seems, sees the victory of love already and does not pay heed to death, as if death could separate what is already the same.  The only greater meditation on love and immortality that I know is Arkadius’ later album Crogacht [Bravery] (2009).

I thoroughly enjoyed Campbell Scott’s narration in the Simon & Shuster audio edition.

Note: Hemingway narrates some scenes of sex.  The sexuality is not explicit, but it is obvious.


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