Ernest Hemingway and Allen Josephs: Coming of Age in Spain
Today I am delighted to publish the following interview with Professor Allen Josephs, who teaches literature at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. Allen has been exploring Spain, its language and culture and Ernest Hemingway’s work for fifty years, going deeper into his subjects as the years go by. This newest book by Josephs, On Hemingway and Spain: Essays and Reviews 1979-2013, is stunning in its breadth and depth. It will not surprise you as you read Josephs’ essays and reviews that he considers his greatest Hemingway adventure has been “learning how to write.” His enthusiasms are contagious, and it is a great adventure to read him!
Enjoy – Allie
AB: Your new book, Hemingway and Spain: Essays and Reviews 1979-2013, is in some ways, an autobiography of your life during those thirty-five years. You have had the privilege of doing the work that you love, and being an “academic maverick”. In one of your essays, you write that Joseph Campbell has had a profound impact on your life and career, even referring to him as a “spiritual father”. The more I read your work, the more it seems to me that you were chasing adventure and mystery – through travel, the study of foreign cultures and ancient history, literature, and that you were working to shape these experiences into a body of work and a world view. Your experiences remind me of another professor-adventurer, Indiana Jones (whose creator George Lucas was also influenced by Campbell’s symbolic blueprints). How has your career as a Professor of Spanish and American literature facilitated this path?
I was chasing adventure and mystery, absolutely. When Indiana Jones came out, I just smiled and said yep. I had already decided that my world would not be the library. Rather my library would be the world, especially the Hispanic world. Concentric circles: Hispanic world: Spain: Andalucía: the plaza de toros. I guess old Indy just reinforced that modus operandi. What really galvanized the whole process was my passionate love for Spain and things Spanish: food, wine, language, literature, the bulls, and of course the great passionate people of Spain and Latin America. It wasn’t always exactly a “privilege,” it came at a price: time, money and a lot of work. But like all “obsessions,” there was really no choice. Once you set out on the road to your bliss, as Joseph Campbell makes clear, there is no turning back. Being professor of Spanish, and later American literature, didn’t facilitate the path–the path led there as the only way, or the best way, of making a living as I pursued the dream. And there were lots of disappointments along the way as well as envy and other unpleasantry endemic to the academential world. The university has been both a facilitator and a roadblock. But I have to make a living and that was the natural way to do it, as it allowed me to turn an “obsession” into an academic specialty and to share it all with my students. I think of my friend, Ian Gibson, Lorca’s biographer, who opted out of the academic sinecure and was always somewhat bitter about it afterwards. He did sacrifice but he also missed a lot of headaches.
AB: You wrote White Wall of Spain when you were in your late 30’s and I sense that you grew enormously by doing the research and writing for that book. The depth of your quest to really know Spain is palpable in that book. It is a dense read, not at all like a guidebook. (We had the privilege of reading your book while we were living in Spain, and you can’t imagine how much it added to the richness of our experience). Tell me about that time in your life, and how it felt to be so immersed in your research of the ancient world?
AJ: White Wall–the title from a verse of Lorca, Oh blanco muro de España–was exactly as you sensed, Allie, an attempt to understand Spain, especially the southern part, Andalucía. I had spent a number of years studying the work of Federico García Lorca and in order to understand his deep cultural allusions, I had to do work–lots of work–in the fields of ancient history, archaeology, depth psychology (Jung mostly), comparative religion and mythology (Campbell, Eliade), the occult, the list is endless, the research was endless, but always rewarding, trying to understand non-logical phenomena. Stuff like the corrida, flamenco, Holy Week processions, vestiges of antiquity that lived on in Spain. All stuff I had been immediately attracted to, fascinated by, but which I didn’t understand. White Wall started out as a collaboration with my good friend and fellow Hispanophile, Douglas Day, who taught at the University of Virginia. We had a contract with Viking, and Jackie-O was our editor (she loved southern Spain and I remember seeing her at the Feria de Sevilla, long before we met). But it all fell apart before it could come out. Jackie quit Viking, the then-recession hit the publishing world hard and our book was deemed too expensive to produce. So Doug and I separated our respective parts and my work came out in 1963 from Iowa State. I was forty and I had done what I had set out to do. Somebody asked me how long it had taken and I (always the smart ass) said forty years. It really did take twenty, from the day John Fulton (American matador and another of my maestros) first recited Lorca to me until 1983. In those days I sometimes worked ten or twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and I loved it.
AB: In one of your essays, you discuss why Pablo Picasso, Federico García Lorca, and Ernest Hemingway use toreo as an intentionally central theme of their art. You also state that you believe The Sun Also Rises to be fundamentally a book about the spiritual transformation of Jake, catalyzed by his encounter with bullfighting and the corrida of Pamplona. Is it fair to say that the world of toreo – with its primitive ritual, danger, and connection to the natural world – provided a bridge for these artists to the ancient world?
AJ: Yes and they said so. It is the only thing left, they said. Once an American reporter was nagging the great matador, Juan Belmonte, about why he killed bulls, and Belmonte, who stuttered and didn’t speak English, said: “T-tell him, it’s a sp-sp-spiritual exercise!” Anybody who wants to understand how and why will have to read my Ritual and Sacrifice in the Corrida. It took me an entire book to explain it properly. But the short answer is that it is spiritual and the matador is a long-gone ancient priest from the Old Testament days.
AB: Would you explain your theory that the ancient world and modernism are simply two sides of the same coin?
AJ: Well, it’s only a certain part of modernism that harks back to the old days. Some modernists–say, Hemingway, Lorca and Picasso–hated the modern world and recognized the dangers it holds. They were very clear about it–in their work. Hemingway both in and out of his work was fond of quoting an old Cheyenne chief who said, “Long time ago good, now heap shit.” And Lorca called New York Babylonia. The real answer is quite complex and I refer the reader to my essay on those three in “On Hemingway and Spain.” But the secret is the anachronistic nature of the bullring.
AB: Can you describe the concept of duende? Would you agree that duende is at once a universal concept, yet at the same time, fundamentally Spanish?
AJ: I think duende is more an archetype than a concept. Which of course is why it’s universal. Andalucía, especially before the civil war, was a very archetypal place. Julio Caro Baroja, the great Spanish ethnologist, likened an Andalusian pueblo to a living museum, stretching from the Neolithic to the present, and Julian Pitt-Rivers compared the pueblo to a pre-Athenian Greek city-state. Duende is a nocturnal, lunar, feminine, Dionysian state of mind. To the 21st century logical mind that sounds like mumbo jumbo, but it’s not. It’s what Hemingway and Robert Jordan were discovering in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Spain, especially Andalucía, before the civil war, was still living at least partially in antiquity. The mystery cults of antiquity, most notably the fertility cults, and the dancing, existed in Spain back then, and they live on today in flamenco and in certain religious practices such as the pilgrimage known as El Rocío, which is what the chapters “Dancer of Gades” and “Goddess” in White Wall are about.
AB: I was surprised to discover that you admire the work of Cormac McCarthy, who has long been a favorite of mine. In one of your essays, you say that Hemingway, Faulkner and McCarthy “wrote against the modern world and their message is not to be taken lightly.” Each of these writers understands the essentially tragic nature of human life and they have all been very successful. Why do you think, for some people, tragedy is so satisfying? Why does that kind of story nourish us? Is it necessary?
AJ: It’s one of the great paradoxes of human life. It all goes back–always back–to the mystery of catharsis. Once I spent several weeks in Greece, studying the mysteries, visiting the sites, the museums. And when I got to Madrid, right across from my hotel at the Teatro Español, was Salvador Távora’s production of The Bacchae by Euripides, the greatest and most enigmatic of the Greek tragedies, in a flamenco version. Aside from the exquisite synchronicity, it was the single most moving piece of theater I had or have ever seen. The corrida is pre-representational tragedy. We are always looking for catharsis, particularly a collective catharsis. The plaza de toros hosts the only tragedy in which the audience–the público–is the chorus. The corrida tells the story of the puny man’s victory over the forces of nature. In Greek tragedy, the forces of nature–the gods, the furies–win. Either way, two sides of the same coin, it is or was a story we want to see and hear again and again, like a child listening over and over to the same tale. Our lives–all our lives–are tragic: we all die. Tragedy and the corrida are both attempts to deal with that finality–tragedy in a dark way, the corrida in a triumphant way, unless of course the matador is caught. And then you have tragedy of a different order. The main difference is that the corrida is real, while tragedy is representational. And yes I think it is necessary.
AB: The concept of “ecstasy” turns up often in your writing, whether you are writing about toreo, Spain, Lorca, or Hemingway. It is an important word, I think, and essential to understanding Hemingway. Is ecstasy the other side of tragedy? And is ecstasy always connected to the sacred? What happens if a culture loses touch with these two aspects of art?
AJ: Ecstasy is always connected to the sacred, yes. Ecstasy removes us from banal profane historical time. Ecstasy is the entrance into sacred time, where you are beside yourself–ex-stasis, outside where you stand. Hemingway understood this very well in For Whom the Bell Tolls and I go into in some depth in my book on For Whom the Bell Tolls. It involves tantric sexuality and physics, among other things. Ecstasy is what we always seek, it was the basis of ancient religion and is still the basis of shamanism–you have to get outside yourself to get to the spirit world. If we lose touch with this dimension, we replace it somehow, with meaningless and casual drugs, say.
AB: In 2002, you published the book, Ritual and Sacrifice in the Corrida: The Saga of César Rincón, which follows a young Colombian matador from the “slums of Bogota” to the bullrings of Madrid. It is a story about your life and his, and Spain is almost written as a character in the book. It reminds me of the book, Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning, but is much more informative and less romantic. You said it took almost 10 years to write, because, like Hemingway, you lived it first. What were your favorite moments in the making of that book? Is it typical for an aficionado to follow the career of one matador?
AJ: It is not unusual to “follow” your torero. My favorite moments were his great triumphs, such as his performance in Madrid in May 1995. But there were so many great moments that you just have to read the book in order to understand. Some of the great moments, too, were small epiphanies, such as my experience in the prehistoric cave of the Magdalene in southern France, from whence I was transported to the Eastover School library in the fifth grade when I learned about “Magdalenian man.” Such small moments of unexpected insight defy description. But they are all part of the glorious process of learning, which underlies everything. I always tell my students there is no such thing as teaching, only the sharing of learning. Writing this book and White Wall were formative learning experiences for me.
AB: What other matadors besides César Rincón have captured your interest?
AJ: No one like César–he became part of my life. And then there’s John Fulton, not very successful as a matador, but a fine artist and the best friend and mentor ever. I and all his many friends miss him sorely. When I was a young aficionado Paco Camino and El Viti. I’m still in contact with Viti.
AB: Your most recent book about bullfighters, Beyond Death in the Afternoon: A Meditation on Tragedy in the Corrida really touched me. How did you come to write it?
AJ: It’s a reprint in book form of an essay I did as I was finishing the Rincón book. I got very interested in the notion of tragedy in its many guises and wanted to see how far I could go. It’s one of my favorites and when Ed Renehan at New Street Communications said he wanted to publish it separately, I said, hell yes! (Ed is the publisher of On Hemingway and Spain, where the essay also appears). In some ways it’s my favorite essay—like picking your favorite child—because I was out there, writing on my own, and the essay wrote itself as we say. It was my friend Robin Gajdusek’s (RIP) favorite too, and he was a wonderful deep Jungian critic who understood what I attempting to say. Hemingwayistas all know Robin’s name and splendid work.
AB: Is toreo really on its way out? Why or why not?
AJ: It is, I’m afraid. The politically correct fascists will not let it live. The modern world is so full of fear and hatred and control that it cannot let something which it cannot comprehend exist. It’s all about non-loving, non-spiritual control and power. But that attitude is also killing education, religion and a host of other things. Hemingway knew it, Faulkner did, McCarthy does. Then too factors inside are destroying toreo, most notably greed and economic privation, again two sides of the same coin. We aficionados will do everything we can, but I’m not optimistic. When Hemingway was writing Death in the Afternoon he knew we were headed for extinction and that was one of the reasons he wrote it.
AB: Do you think Hemingway was happy in Cuba? Do you think he would have preferred to live in Spain?
AJ: He loved Spain more than any country in the world and said so. But not under Franco. So there was no choice. Cuba was the most Spanish of the colonies, so it was a good place for a while until totalitarian politics came along and he was forced to leave. Also there was the great fishing. He lived in Cuba longer than in any other country, including his youth in the US.
AB: I have a healthy respect for how truly difficult it is to master a foreign language. What’s your professional opinion on the level of Hemingway’s Spanish?
AJ: Not very good. Heavy gringo accent in the recordings, not much grammar. His letters in Spanish are full of errors. The poor Spanish does not help For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is a great novel in spite of Hemingway’s Spanish. What’s amazing is how well he understood toreo without much linguistic sophistication. His instincts were very sharp.
AB: Do you have a favorite feria to attend in Spain?
AJ: Sevilla now. It’s the least spoiled. Before that I loved Pamplona. I went 25 different years between 1963 and a few years ago. And of course Madrid with its maddening public is still the most important ring in the world. Madrid with all its faults is still the capitol of the world.
AB: Could you explain why Hemingway chose not to use his position as a writer-celebrity to influence politics?
AJ: He knew better. He was not, decidedly not, a political person. Read his correspondence with his Russian translator, Ivan Kashkin, in which he avers that a writer must stand against any government. His one foray into politics—during the civil war—did not turn out as he wished and by the time he sat down to write For Whom the Bell Tolls, he was over it.
AB: You’ve worked for over 40 years, not just in Spain, but in Latin America as well. What can you tell us about the general perception of Hemingway in the Hispanic world?
AJ: In 1987 I did a lecture tour of Latin America, a week in Salvador (in civil war), a week in Mexico, then a week in Chile (Pinochet years), a week in Colombia (including Medellín in the cartel years), and finally a week in Venezuela. My job, as well as giving lectures, for the U S Information Service (USIS, what we jokingly called USELESS) was to talk to teachers, professors and writers about Hemingway and American culture in general. I knew going in that Hemingway was respected and influential–García Márquez said he had two maestros, Hemingway and Faulkner, and that he read the former to combat the influence of the latter–but I hadn’t realized that he was actually revered. In Cuba he’s almost like a saint. Curiously it’s in Spain where you get some negative feeling about Hemingway, as well as much positive. In general, Hispanic culture respects Hemingway because Hemingway respected them and their values, as no other writer of his time did. He injected Spanish concepts into American Literature.
AB: In your essay, “History, Reminiscence and the Occasional Presence of Snow” you state that “Death in the Afternoon was one of Hemingway’s most incisive works, not merely because it was the first intelligent treatise on toreo in English, but because it was his artistic credo.” You’ve also written that Hemingway “discovered his style and toreo in the same cathartic and ecstatic moment.” Can you please embellish on this point a little for someone who might not have the same exposure to Hemingway and Spain?
AJ: The key is in the taurine vignettes from In Our Time and in Death in the Afternoon. In the latter he says that he went to Spain to see bullfights and to try to “write about them for myself”. Interesting phrase, to write about them for myself. That’s what the vignettes were. He had just had all his early work stolen, quite possibly the best thing that ever happened to him. He seems to have discovered in the bulls exactly that “sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion” that became his hallmark (Death in the Afternoon 2). Ezra Pound’s ideas on imagism and T. S. Eliot’s objective correlative, are closely related, but they both lacked the stimulus Hemingway got from the bulls exactly when he most needed it. The catharsis of the corrida purged the loss and the ecstasy of the corrida, the epiphany of it, crystalized his style.
AB: One of the essays in your new book is titled, “Hemingway’s Out of Body Experience”, which Hemingway first experienced on July 8, 1918 in WWI. During your research on this topic, you write about a long conversation you had with Leicester Hemingway about this subject. What did you learn?
AJ: That Hemingway most certainly had such an experience and that it was very important to him at the time. Les killed himself a few months later and I could only reflect that I had heard a tragic undertone in his conversation with me. Sometimes he seemed on the verge of cracking. At that time nobody was talking about the Hemingway curse, but I think Les was very aware of it.
AB: Who is your favorite Hemingway character and why?
AJ: Nick Adams, Jake Barnes, Robert Jordan, Pilar, old Santiago, a surfeit of riches. How is one to pick? I don’t think I have a single favorite. If you forced me to pick one of those, I might have to say Pilar, who was based on the flamenco great, Pastora Imperio. Or Santiago, but there I’m influenced by having spent a long afternoon with Gregorio Fuentes, who was one of the models for the old man, even though he wasn’t old when Hemingway borrowed his biography. Bob Lewis (RIP), then President of the Hemingway Society, and I went out to see him at his house in San Francisco de Paula, the village right below the Finca, and we took, on very good advice, some cigars and a bottle of Havana Club rum. You should have seen his eyes light up. Gregorio was now old and he looked just like the old man and his eyes “were cheerful and undefeated,” especially when he saw the rum and the cigars, “and they were the same color as the sea” (Old Man and the Sea, second page). We sat on his front porch and opened the rum and he lit up a cigar and shortly began to remember and to tell about his childhood in the Canaries and the lions on the beach in Africa and how it was to pilot the Pilar and his great friendship with Hemingway. In the character of Santiago Hemingway got to triangulate Spain, Africa and Cuba, a triangle that was already personified in Gregorio. Many of Hemingway’s characters are syntheses like that. Or they personify some aspect of a culture, such as Juanito Quintana (Montoya in The Sun Also Rises), whom I knew in Pamplona and who really was a great aficionado and a great friend to Hemingway.
AB: You and H.R. Stoneback have presented a great case for re-examining The Sun Also Rises, and in fact, all of Hemingway’s work as deeply spiritual. You found a spiritual home in Spain and Stoneback discovered himself and his true work in Paris and in France. Each of you has examined Hemingway’s work within the context of the countries, landscapes, and cultures of Spain and France. Did you know each other at the time you were making these commitments to your chosen countries, and did you discuss it? How lucky for readers that each of you has spent your lives following your bliss!
AJ: Yes and no. We were both already deep into our respective cultural territories when we met around 1974, but we obviously recognized very quickly that we were on similar paths. And of course we influenced each other because we talked for days on end sometimes, and he took me to parts of France and I took him to Pamplona and we had some adventures together in lots of other places. Just recently we were scoping out where the secret virgin woods in “The Last Good Country” is. And there was time in Bimini with Don Junkins and Robin Gajdusek and Bob Lewis, and others, forming the Nick Adams Society which Lewis cemented in stone in the North Dakota Quarterly. We have been friends and colleagues now for forty years. But the most important thing Stoney and I have in common, is the spiritual interpretation of Hemingway’s work. That’s what will last I think. Beyond all the reminiscences, the adventures, the trips, the discussions, the readings, the dinners, the wine, the camaraderie, beyond all that will be–I hope–the numinous quality, the mystical nature of the writing of Ernest Hemingway. That’s what we try to pass on to our students and readers.
AB: Was Hemingway actually courageous, or was he working out questions of courage and masculinity in his life and writing?
AJ: I don’t know what the difference is. He was clearly courageous but courage comes at a high price and that price is part of any courage beyond the spontaneous act. Everybody is afraid. That’s why we run with the bulls. Not that I run anymore and I was never good at it. The non-cowards got eaten by the saber-tooths and their genes dried up. The trick is all about how you work it out. So courage and working out questions of courage become the same thing and I think Hemingway was acutely aware of that convergence. And it’s not a gender thing. Who is braver than Pilar?
AB: Can you direct readers to the best Hemingway biographies?
AJ: Well now, I don’t like most of them, especially the tendentious ones. My fallbacks are Baker, who used the facts from the correspondence. And his student, Mike Reynolds, whose five volume bio is huge, in both senses of the word. The current immense letters project is going to be a very one-sided but nonetheless definitive autobiography.
AB: You have spent a lifetime studying Hemingway’s life and work. Has your feeling for Hemingway changed over the years? How? Have you ever tired of him?
AJ: I don’t know if my feelings have changed. They’ve deepened. I connected pretty quickly with his work at a tender age because he was writing about things that interested me. But I didn’t start fishing because of Hemingway and I didn’t like the corrida because I read Death in the Afternoon. It was the other way around. I loved fishing from the age of twelve and I read Death in the Afternoon because I had liked corridas.
But there’s another factor involved. I loved the way it sounded. From the beginning. The Old Man and the Sea, which I read in high school, changed the way I looked at “literature.” The style, the ecstatic style, is what really got me. Took me a while to figure out how and why, but that’s the great secret: the style and the substance become fused. Toreo and writing are the same. Fishing is writing, writing is fishing. “Big two-Hearted River” is as deep as the Gulf Stream. As the Gulf Stream goes, so goes the planet. Hemingway is a proto-ecological writer and his deepest source is Ecclesiastes. Simple.
AB: Hemingway lived most of his adult life abroad and deeply identified with the countries he lived in and visited yet he is regarded as one of the greatest American writers. Why?
AJ: Yeah, he said he wouldn’t trade counties with Faulkner but that Faulkner had done a great job on his. Both of them hated the modern world and their hatred took opposite directions. Faulkner went inward, Hemingway went outward and claimed that his ultimate county was the sea. But their message is pretty much the same. Faulkner peered into our local past, Hemingway rejected us altogether and said in Green Hills of Africa that we “had made a bloody mess” of America. They are our two greatest writers, but one is centrifugal and the other centripetal.
AB: In your book, Hemingway’s Undiscovered Country, you travel through Spain, researching the locations Hemingway wrote about in For Whom the Bell Tolls. That must have been a fabulous trip! Like your other writing, you pulled Hemingway’s experience, and in some ways, the actual land of Spain into your own experience before writing about it. What were some of the things you learned in the process of writing that book?
AJ: Actually I have visited the area a number of times since 1963 or 1964. But when I did the For Whom the Bell Tolls book, I got serious and systematic. I enlisted experts and traversed it thoroughly. Of course it was fun, it’s what I love to do. My idea–probably from being terrified about being wrong or not really knowing what the bloody hell I was talking about–is that in order to write about something, you can’t just guess or speculate or suppose. You need to know. So you go and find out.
AB: Could you tell me about watching your first bullfight. What your impressions were, what age you were, and where it was? Is your first bullfight important, as Miriam Mandel suggests? Why?
AJ: I was twenty. It was in La Linea de la Concepción, next to Gibraltar, in December of 1962. I had no idea how I would react but I was curious. And I liked it, although it wasn’t until about my fourth one that I really got hooked, although maybe I was hooked the first time and just did not realize it. After all, I kept going back. The worm bit me as the Spanish expression has it. In any case, it changed my life. Instead of striking out to see the rest of Europe, superficially, I decided to go deep in Spain. Best decision I ever made. I owe everything in my professional life to Spain and by extension to Latin America.
AB: Bulls have fascinated human beings since the beginning of time. One cannot help feeling the awe in the vivid depictions of bulls left on cave walls by ancient cave painters. Can you give readers a brief history of the origins of our relationship to bulls?
AJ: Oh, Allie, this is the book I have not yet written. But hope to write. Cattle is what we have always lived with–the stock market–and as Don Hector and John Grady agree in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, completely within the Spanish concept of life–the only measure of a man’s wealth is cattle and the only way to handle cattle is with horses. All the early gods were bulls, including El, the predecessor of Yahweh. The history of humanity is intimately connected to cattle. From the beginning and as deeply as anything in our culture, but nobody knows it, because we are all too busy avoiding life.
AB: One is either struck by lightning, absolutely riveted by watching toreo, or disgusted by it. Where does the sensibility for toreo come from, if it’s not cultural?
AJ: This question is tough. I’m not sure there is an answer. Hemingway tried to answer it in a roundabout way with his “Some Reactions” appendix to Death in the Afternoon. But he also says, “The only conclusion I draw from these reactions is that some people will like the fights and others will not” (470). In the Prologue of Ritual and Sacrifice, I tell the story of acclaimed naturalist Terry Tempest Williams, who when she saw her first corrida, “was transfixed, transformed, and brought to tears, convinced she was watching a sacred ritual” (5). And of course she was watching a sacred ritual. We had a long talk at the Hemingway Conference in Sun Valley in 1996 and I tried to explain this aspect to her. It was hard for her to accept because she had been so prejudiced against the corrida, so predisposed to dislike it, especially as a naturalist, that she was quite astonished at her immediate, positive and intuitive response. Perhaps intuitive or archetypal or atavistic are words to describe what happens. Some people are very much less responsive to such phenomena. But I can’t say for sure whether we are talking about a matter of culture or a matter of genetics. I remember an American woman, much taken with American matador John Fulton, very excited about Spain, and genuinely looking forward to her first corrida. Not long into the first bull she began crying hysterically and heaving. She had to leave. John and I were nonplussed but there it was, a completely unexpected visceral negative reaction. Nothing to do for it. All three of my daughters showed interest and no repulsion when I took them to the bulls even at an early age. It’s really a go-figure situation. One final thought–and what I am about to say will perplex some–and that is that to be a real aficionado, you must love animals, and especially the bull. Killing what we love, eating what we love, making rituals and religions to atone for that paradox seem to be a permanent fixture as far back as we can trace human behavior. The real aficionado is in search of one of mankind’s oldest and deepest mysteries. Some people get it and some don’t. Those that don’t, however, have no right to suppose that they are on the moral high ground and even less to try to impose their criteria on others. That’s cultural fascism, no matter how well intended or high minded.
AB: I interviewed a professor in Spain about bullfighting and he said that ultimately bullfighting symbolizes whatever needs to be symbolized by the viewer. Do you agree with that?
AJ: No. I find that sort of relativism avoids the real issue, which is the deep meaning of toreo, a ritual sacrifice that recapitulates the oldest myths and rituals we have. Much as in the Mass. You can say that the wafer and the wine symbolize whatever we need for it to symbolize, but in fact it doesn’t symbolize anything. It is. Nor does the corrida symbolize anything. It is. In fact, and I do mean fact, it is the non-symbolic nature of the corrida that is important. The bulls are very real—real fear, real danger, real force, real pain, real blood, real death. The realest thing in the world. And the less we live in reality (instead of virtual reality) the more vital the reality of the ring becomes. There is no otherness quite like the bull. Ortega y Gasset tells the story of the matador who was being heckled by a famous actor, safe in his seat. Finally the matador, Cúchares, said to the actor with his finest Andalusian scorn: “Down here you don’t just die a make-believe death like you do in the theater!”
AB: Tell me about your first trip to Spain and what it felt like to run with the bulls?
AJ: I arrived in November of 1962, a week before my 20th birthday. Crossing from France on my Lambretta in a downpour, I stopped at the first road house and inside was this long wooden bar spread with extraordinary food and wine. Although I didn’t know it, it was a life changing moment. I had not passed Spanish at UNC–I never went to class–but within a week I was conversing on a basic learning level and within about three or four weeks I was talking existentialism with other students in a bar in Toledo. I kept having the strange sensation that I had come home. I had my birthday in a blizzard in the mountains just out of San Sebastián and the next day took a train to Madrid (two wheels is not good in snow and ice). Eventually I motored south, seeking warmth, and finally found my way to that first “bullfight.” After I had seen about four I was really hooked and gave up the idea of going on to see the rest of Europe. I spent the winter in Torremolinos and learned a lot of Spanish, having no clue I would end up with a doctorate in Spanish (at the time I just wanted to talk to people). In July of 1963 I went to Pamplona and loved it. Pamplona in those days was utterly unique. Then in August I met John Fulton at the bar of the Miramar Hotel in Málaga and I went to Sevilla and began training with him to learn how to torear. I knew that I couldn’t understand what it meant if I couldn’t do it, at least on a basic level. I came back the next year to study at the University of Madrid and I ran with the bulls in San Sebastián de los Reyes, outside Madrid. One of the bulls caught me between the horns and butted me into the street. It took the skin off my forehead, my nose, my lips and chin, my knees and the tops of my feet. I had a concussion and several broken ribs and a small horn wound in my right hand. I never did get my shoes back and I never became a good bull runner like Matt Carney and Joe Distler and Tom Turley and Bill Hillman. I was always more interested in passing the animals with a cape or muleta, and I spent my time training, in Sevilla with John and in Madrid with David Moss. In fact there’s a photo that John Fulton took of me passing a cow, making a creditable natural, in Ritual and Sacrifice (313).
AB: At any time were you compelled to spend your life with Lorca, rather than Hemingway?
AJ: Well, I have never given up Lorca. I did three critical editions of his work and my own anthology of his poetry, plus a number of articles. And then I did my own translations of his prose and poetry and of his last play, The House of Bernarda Alba. The title of White Wall comes from him. And the probable title of my next book. I am working as we speak on a complete translation of his greatest poem, “Lament for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías.” Lorca, what I learned from him, inspired me to write White Wall and that in turn enabled me to invade American Literature and write about Hemingway from that vantage. Lorca led almost logically to Hemingway. I have never believed in national literatures, so I had no compunctions about invading American Lit. It wasn’t a question of either/or–it was both/and.
AB: What was it like to be in Moscow as the country was undergoing the waves of changes that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union?
AJ: Since it was my first trip there, I had no basis for comparison, but you could tell stuff was going on. Our group of Hemingwayistas was not ever in the usual Soviet-run turista hotels. We were always on the economy and with our Russian colleagues, none of whom was communist. The only time we were with communists was the time we visited the writers’ union. Imagine a state-sponsored union for writers!
You could really tell the difference between those who had sold out to the state and those who merely survived under it. When we went out to Tolstoy’s country house on a bus, we saw fields full of potatoes, rotting on the ground because nobody would pick them. Also the churches were being restored and we visited several. Aside from canned food, there was almost no produce to be had, mostly beets and enormous quantities of watermelons. It seemed surreal but was actually very indicative of the collapse of things. One night I wandered into a Russian wedding celebration in a bar near our hotel outside St Petersburg. Men on the far side (no pun intended). Women on the near side. I was only trying to get a bottle of water, but I got kidnapped by the women (Amerikanski!) and spent some time dancing and trying to swallow what they called champagne. I have been back to Russia and it’s very different now.
AB: Considering Hemingway’s portrayal of Soviet Russia in the For Whom the Bell Tolls, do you think that the conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book would have been permitted before the Gorbachev Era?
AJ: Probably not, not so much because of that portrayal though. For Whom the Bell Tolls is incredibly popular and an edition of it by one of our colleagues had just sold out its first run of 180, 000. Probably it wouldn’t have happened because it was not a communist initiative. Hemingway was a bestseller in Russia and probably still is. It may seem strange but Hemingway is more popular outside the US than within.
AB: What are the five best experiences of your life? Please elaborate.
AJ: Laura (and Caroline), Anna (and Lena), and Mari. And now Matthew and Gabriel. Elaborate? White Wall is dedicated to the girls, and On Hemingway and Spain is dedicated to Gabriel and Matthew and their mother and my wife, Jolee.
AB: Thank you Allen.
If you would like to contact Allen Josephs for any reason, please email him at: email@example.com
Hemingway and Spain: Essays and Reviews 1979-2013 was published by New Street Communications earlier this month, and is available online and in bookstores.