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In praise of living

CoverFor Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

“Venceréis […] pero no convenceréis.” – “You will win […] but you will not convince.”

So said the Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno at a fascist convention held at the University of Salamanca during the Spanish Civil War.  Unamuno, as rector of the university, was presiding over the meeting, at which Falangist general José Millán Astray was also present.  Having endured various impassioned speeches by the assorted fascist luminaries, as well as the chanting of the well-known francoist motto “¡Viva la muerte!” – “Long live death!”, Unamuno rose to give this closing address:

“I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent. General Millán-Astray is a cripple. There is no need for us to say this with whispered tones. He is a war cripple. So was Cervantes. But unfortunately, Spain today has too many cripples. And, if God does not help us, soon it will have very many more. It torments me to think that General Millán-Astray could dictate the norms of the psychology of the masses. A cripple, who lacks the spiritual greatness of Cervantes, hopes to find relief by adding to the number of cripples around him.”

“This is the temple of intelligence, and I am its high priest. You are profaning its sacred domain. You will win, because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. I see it is useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken.”

The outrage that followed this shameless affront to fascist sensibilities is probably best summed up by General Millán’s cry of “Death to intelligence!” at the ageing academic, who was 72 at the time.  Apparently, Unamuno only survived a lynching because he was escorted off the premises by Franco’s wife, Carmen Polo Martínez-Valdés.  Aside from this being perhaps the single greatest instance of intellectual courage on record, it brings to the fore one of the central confrontations of the Spanish Civil war.  Fascist (and Nazi) ideology, imagery and language were obsessed with death and repression, whereas those fighting on the Republican side for the most part believed in the individual’s freedom to live life however he or she saw fit.

No book I have read on the Spanish Civil War makes this ideological juxtaposition feel more vivid than Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.  It is a novel that celebrates life, and yet it is a novel surrounded by death.  The protagonist, Robert Jordan, is a young American demolitions expert behind fascist lines who must compete simultaneously with enemy patrols and the partisan band’s own problems of disloyalty and infighting.  The odds of survival are stacked hugely against him, a fact that he is fully aware of, and yet it is from this desperate situation that he truly begins to live.  In fact, the reader is left overwhelmingly with the impression that Jordan’s thirst for life increases in direct proportion to his consciousness of death:

“Maybe that is my life and instead of it being threescore years and ten it is forty-eight hours or just threescore hours and ten or twelve rather […] I suppose it is possible to live as full a life in seventy hours as in seventy years.”

During his time in the Spanish Sierra, Jordan falls in love with María, a young Spanish partisan, as a result of which he is forced to struggle at all times with the tension that arises between his duty to the Republican cause and the overpowering emotion of his first love.  It is a tension between love and war, life and death, and is not, of course, an original idea – one that is embodied in Freud’s conception of Eros and Thanatos as fundamental psychological drivers.  It is a theme that runs throughout Hemingway’s novel and is reinforced by the author’s terse prose and the manner in which he channels Jordan’s subjectivity via a staccato stream-of-consciousness.  In fact, such is the originality of the book’s style that this central idea feels completely novel, as if the sum of human experience can be compressed into seventy hours, or the pages of a book for that matter.

The Editors

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