THE INSIDE WAR: The Legacy and Lessons of Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls”.
“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be…in the meantime, all the life you have or ever will have is today, tonight, tomorrow, today, tonight, tomorrow, over and over again, I hope…” — Ernest Hemingway
Most novels are forgettable and so few achieve immortality. But Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls managed to do just that. This 471-page tome dominated the 20th century, casting a great shadow above all others, not only for its raw portrayal of human sacrifice and the callousness of armed combat, but also revealing the demonic energy that lives in the hearts of men during wartime.
The novel has many notable champions. The late Senator John McCain marked the book as his personal, life-long favorite. Hemingway’s literary colleague Dorothy Parker shined praise upon the novels release in 1940:
“This is a book about love and courage and innocence and strength and decency and glory. It is about stubbornness and stupidity and selfishness and treachery and death. It is a book about all those things that go on in the world night and day and always; those things that are only heightened and deepened by war. It is written with justice that is blood brother to brutality. It is written with a wisdom that washes the mind and cools it. It is written with an understanding that rips the heart with compassion for those who live, who do the best they can, just so that they may go on living.”
But 1940 was a different world. It would be another five years before we Americans split the atom and conducted our Trinity Test in Los Alamos, New Mexico, forever changing modern warfare. Land combat was the order of the day and Fascism was on the march. The International Brigades that landed ashore in Spain to defend the Republicans suffered heavy losses.
The premise of For Whom The Bell Tolls is deceptively simple. Our protagonist, Professor Robert Jordan, is a detonation specialist on a clandestine mission to destroy a strategic bridge that could alter the Spanish theater against Franco’s brutal Loyalists. It’s Robert Jordan’s stoicism and silent resilience that defines the traits and tribute once revered as the example par excellence of what it meant to be a hero. Clifton Fadiman of The New Yorker in 1940 wisely commented: “[The book] is written with only one prejudice — a prejudice in favor of the common human being.” Jordan muses as the philosopher warrior he has become, “for what are we born if not to aid one another?” There is a war waging beyond the mountains where Jordan and his brigade of fighters had found temporary safety. But Hemingway lures us to the ‘inside war’ of the individual facing the threat of death. There is cowardice everywhere — and it must be defeated. It’s the individuals conscious where the first war must be fought.
The novel opens with John Donne’s Meditation XVII: “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 bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
This entire literary enterprise is a blueprint of how to meet modern challenges; with responsibility, self-sacrifice, and calm in the face insurmountable doom. Unlike other sprawling war stories such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked And the Dead or James Jones’s The Thin Red Line, Hemingway employed his famously sparse style to achieve a literary masterpiece.
This should be required reading for every American. Tragically, it is not. Why is that?
The answer lies in the years after Nagasaki and Hiroshima were leveled and Hitler had swallowed his last bullet. In the following decades after World War II, the study of literature took an odd turn. In graduate school, I studied Literary Theory (yes, capital LT). For those unfamiliar with this discourse, Literary Theory is an assortment of philosophical lenses used to study and dissect the great works of literature. These literary games were certainly interesting, but had very little to do with the work itself. However, increasingly in the last decades, these avenues of thought have morphed into a form of social deconstruction.
Many of the philosophers who lauded this new hybrid of intellectualism came from the German-Franco school of thought, i.e. countries absolutely decimated by the war. Germany had no choice but to rectify its Devil’s Bargain with fascism. The French had to swallow their collective pride after one half of the country cozied up to the Vichy government while the other half retreated to the sewers of Paris as Nazi boots marched down the Champs-Élysées.
America became the sole beacon of cultural confluence, radiating a new era of hope and promise (mind you, the only other culturally powerful mix of intersectional culture would have been Cypress with its 11,000-year old history).
The philosophies of Derrida, Foucault, Horkheimer and Adorno that had crept into graduate classes now seeped into mainstream culture. The hero must be subverted. The center cannot hold. All meaning was subjective.
These European philosophers are a fascinating read, to be sure. But their ideology is diametrically opposed to the free market, opportunity-driven, social experiment of the West. To them, the West is synonymous with colonizing, racist states bent on world domination. We have found ourselves at the cross roads of a depressed hedonism. This frame of thinking is dangerously reductive (half of those that quote from said theorists are historically inaccurate). Social media has become the perfect solution to embed oneself into fallacious tribalism.
Of course Hemingway and his battered heroes have to be subverted. These ‘schools of the defeated’ couldn’t square the circle that for hundreds of years ‘the human effort’ has exponentially lowered poverty rates, tripled literacy levels, and provided access to information more than any time in history.
For Whom The Bell Tolls is critique-proof, simply because Hemingway shows and does not preach (what true artists are meant to do). Robert Jordan know what must be done, and if he can accomplish his goal and remain true without losing his nerve things could actually change for the better.
For a novel that opens with John Donne’s meditation on health, pain, and sickness, the great modern tragedy is that many individuals have isolated themselves onto an island of one, and our prestigious continent is in peril because so.