Hemingway’s horses

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

The novelist Thomas McGuane makes an odd comment in the lead essay of his elegant nonfiction collection, Some Horses (1999).

Surveying modern writers, McGuane notes that “Hemingway’s curious lack of interest in the horse, his insouciance at the goring of the picadors’ horses and the replacement of their bowels with sawdust that they may continue the job cause me to wonder at him anew.” McGuane is referring to Death in the Afternoon (1932), Hemingway’s great and important work on the Spanish bullfight, and it seems that he either has missed Hemingway’s point, or is making a subtle point of his own.

Hemingway intended Death in the Afternoon as “an introduction to the modern Spanish bullfight” that “attempts to explain that spectacle both emotionally and practically.” He wants “only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it,” and adds that he is not writing the book “as an apology for bullfights, but to try to present the bullfight integrally.” Similarly, I intend to introduce Hemingway’s literary study of the horse in the bullfight, I hope with honesty, not to apologize for Hemingway, but rather to present his work “integrally” in its multiple contexts.


The Horse and the War 

The most important context for Death in the Afternoon is the Great War of 1914-1918, in which Hemingway served as a driver for the American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps in France, and about which he wrote arguably his three greatest works of fiction: In Our Time (1925), The Sun Also Rises (1928), and A Farewell to Arms (1929). Hemingway and his contemporaries universally regarded the Great War as the first modern war — a catastrophic expression of the new century that not only signaled the end of Western civilization, but that also produced unprecedented carnage and a “lost generation.”

War casualties, as they came to learn, approximated 8.5 million military deaths, 12 to 13 million civilian war deaths, and more than 21 million men wounded.

In addition to the human dead, moreover, some 375,000 horses from Britain alone perished in the War: “most obediently, and often most painfully, they died,” to quote the beautiful memorial at the Church of St. Jude in London.

Equines from other countries died in equal numbers. The role and fate of British horses became widely known and were documented even prior to the armistice by Captain Sidney Galtrey in The Horse and the War  (1918), Galtrey’s tribute to “the hundreds of thousands of horses and mules that have been gallantly aiding the Empire’s Cause.”

Hemingway used the grotesque slaughter of horses and mules in Symrna—“they just broke their forelegs and dumped them into the shallow water”—as the opening metaphor for the War in In Our Time, and he invokes this incident at Smyrna on two separate occasions in Death in the Afternoon. 


Modern Literature 

If the Great War provides the overarching context for Death in the Afternoon, modern literature provides its immediate context for at least two reasons. First, literary figures who merely had deplored Victorian sentimentality before the Great War vilified it afterward: propaganda had whored language, and piety had whored emotion, to invoke Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920): only simple, direct, and ruthlessly honest writing could redeem them. Second, writers trying to make sense of the War’s barbarism and chaotic aftermath turned to the Western legacy of ritual and myth — notably T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land (1922).  Drawing from their own training in the Classics and from sources such as Sir James Fraser’s The Golden Bough, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, and Jessie L. Western’s From Ritual to Romance, they explored how ritual, and often violent ritual, had begat the literary genres of tragedy, comedy, and romance, and how humanity had used ritual and those genres for millennia to understand, explain, and affect the world it inhabited.

The major writers of the modern period, in addition, held a closely related and deep commitment to the redemptive power of literary art, a commitment that led them fully to embrace organicism—the organic relationship of form and theme and of whole and part—as the fundamental aesthetic principle governing their work. The impressive bloodline of this principle traces from Emmanuel Kant and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, through Richard Wagner and the French poets Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry, to its culmination in such great modern poets and novelists as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and others.  A deeply organicist work, Death in the Afternoon not only insists upon organic unity in art and in the art of bullfighting, but also incarnates the principle of organic unity in its own design and execution.

Like many works that do so, moreover, Death in the Afternoon incorporates a running commentary on art, mainly through the traditional device of an imaginary dialogue, in this case between the “author” and an “old lady.”

Two of Hemingway’s points, clearly analogues for each other, are salient. One, Hemingway expresses contempt for authors, such as the author of Virgin Spain, who mask incompetence with mysticism. “If a man writes clearly enough,” he notes, and rejects mysticism, “any one can see if he fakes.” Two, Hemingway expresses admiration for the best bullfighters because “bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”

Because bullfighting is far more dangerous than writing and other arts, while also being easier to fake, it imposes a stringent code of honor on its practitioners: a bullfighter must display not only artistry, but also physical and moral courage. For these reasons, Hemingway concludes, the two great causes of failure in a matador are “lack of artistic ability” and “fear.”

Like Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Hemingway’s posthumous Moveable Feast (1962), and many other nominally “nonfiction” works written by the moderns, Death in the Afternoon uses the vehicle of nonfiction for serious artistic inquiry and has more formal and thematic complexity than is generally assumed (it also, incidentally, invokes Stein by name on its first page). A massive, heterogeneous book of over 500 pages, Death in the Afternoon comprises twenty numbered chapters; over 130 pages of illustrations and captions; 90 pages of explanatory glossary; several pages of reactions of individuals to the bullfight; “a short estimate of the American, Sidney Franklin, as a matador”; schedules for bullfights in several countries; and a bibliographical note. The book also advances a powerful and subtle thesis: the bullfight is not sport; it is tragedy.

The complexity of the book begins with the title, “death in the afternoon,” which conjures its implicit contrast: “love in the afternoon,” or sexual assignation. Thus, the title and its ghost title together invoke the dance of love and death, eros and thanatos, the complex dance that defines human experience, as the moderns knew from classical myth and Freud alike. And the title and ghost title together also invoke another complex dance, the dance of comedy and tragedy, the literary genres and cultural modes that, in their deepest senses, not only represent love and death, but also double for them.

Death dominates Hemingway’s book (though the erotic simmers beneath its surface). “I was trying to learn to write,” Hemingway says at the outset, “commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all the most fundamental is violent death.” A hundred pages later, in the book’s most famous line, he explains why: “all stories, if continued far enough, end in death and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.”

The bullfight, then, provides Hemingway a compelling subject: the bullfight not only revolves around death, it also suffers death; a performing art, a spectacle, the bullfight leaves nothing behind save myths of its actors and memories of their performance. It is as if “a writer’s books were automatically destroyed at his death and only existed in the memory of those that had read them.”


Horses and Spectators 

In the opening sentence of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway reports: “At the first bullfight I ever went to I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the horse.”

The sentence introduces not only the subject of the opening chapter — the death of the horse in the bullfight — but also the theme of spectator reaction to the death of the horse that pervades the book and reaches culmination in the reported reactions of fifteen unnamed individuals, ranging from a four year old American boy to a thirty year old alcoholic nymphomaniac, and concluding with an Englishwoman who “cried as though they were her own horses or her own children who were being gored.” In each case, Hemingway identifies and considers the individual’s actual experience with horses. On the basis of this evidence, he concludes that experience with horses does not correlate with reaction to the goring of horses.

Indeed, Hemingway discusses in his opening chapter the pleasures of horses that he has owned and ridden, and of racehorses that he has followed and backed. He also describes his great discomfort when seeing horses injured on the street or in the hunt, but he adds (with the “insouciance” noted by McGuane) that “in the bullring I do not feel any horror or disgust whatever at what happens to the horses.” Pondering this apparent indifference, Hemingway tests a hypothesis that will infuriate horse lovers, fascinate literary scholars, and leave conflicted those of us in both camps.


Tragedy and Comedy 

The bullfight, Hemingway argues, “is not a sport in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word. . . . Rather, it is a tragedy,” played out by bull and man, ending in “certain death for the animal.” It is “based on the fact that it is the first meeting between the wild animal and a dismounted man.” As Hemingway elaborates, the Spanish bullfight is a tragedy that opens with a mounted picador who lances the bull, not only weakening the bull’s neck muscles, but also prodding the bull to gore and lift the picador’s horse, and thus weaken the bull’s muscles even further. Following this first act, the “dismounted” man, the matador, enters the arena to fight and kill the bull. The matador himself may be wounded or killed, a critical point for Hemingway, but the bull will die in any case.

Hemingway first attributes his lack of horror (and he extends this to other spectators) to his sense that “the death of the horse tends to be comic while that of the bull is tragic.” He immediately proceeds, however, to complicate this hypothesis. The death of the horse is not tragic, he argues, because the tragedy centers on bull and man. But neither is the death of the horse exactly comic, because a horse being gored has ceased to look and act like a horse, and because death is never comic. The tendency toward the comic, rather, owes to “the strange and burlesque visceral accidents which occur.” Using “visceral” literally, Hemingway is describing when the guts of the gored horse spew out into the ring, sometimes spraying spectators (McGuane is right to be appalled). Not comedic (rooted in love), but also not tragic (rooted in death), such visceral accidents are instead a “burlesque of tragedy.”


The Integrity of Art 

Hemingway is making an important point about ritual, tragedy, and the integrity of art, one with profound moral implications for spectators and actors alike. It involves the organic unity of the bullfighting ritual, the tragic nature of the ritual, and the moral imperative for the ritual to have integrity.

Hemingway believes that “the tragedy of the bullfight is so well ordered and so strongly disciplined by ritual that a person feeling the whole tragedy cannot separate the minor comic-tragedy of the horse so as to feel it emotionally.” An “aficionado, or lover of the bullfight, . . . has this sense of the tragedy and ritual of the fight so that the minor aspects are not important except as they relate to the whole.”

A spectator who focuses on the horse’s suffering, in other words, exaggerates one aspect of the bullfight, removes an integral but minor element of the ritual from its controlling context and thus fails to see the ritual’s point and power. Failing to appreciate the ritual’s organic unity, the spectator fails to experience its cathartic effect.

Hemingway also points out that the visceral accidents tainting tragedy with burlesque now are occurring less frequently in the Spanish bullfight, because the law demands that a “peto,” a kind of “quilted mattress,” be used to protect the horse’s abdomen.

Yet this law, he contends, only corrupts the ritual even more deeply.  Since picadors, despite the “peto,” still must weaken the bull for the matador, they have taken to wheeling the horse’s unprotected flanks into the bull’s horns. Few horses are now killed, Hemingway observes, but nearly all are wounded, and wounded repeatedly, fight after fight, day after day, week after week. Since the suffering of the horse, in Hemingway’s view, is integral to the ritual of the classical Spanish bullfight, the “peto” introduces not only an aesthetic violation of the ritual, but also a fundamental dishonesty: the “peto” is “something designed to allow the horses to suffer while their suffering is spared the spectator.”

Later shifting from spectator to actor, Hemingway ups the moral ante even higher. Lesser matadors, he argues, employ elaborate and ornate flourishes to conceal their lack of courage and skill. In aesthetic terms, this represents “the decay of a complete art through a magnification of certain of its aspects”: violating the unity and integrity of the performance, such behavior precludes the cathartic power of the ritual for the matador and vitiates it for the spectator. Such behavior produces fake ritual and decadent art. In moral terms, then, the picador who exploits riding skills to wheel a horse’s flanks into the bull’s horns; the matador who employs ornate body “language” to conceal his fear and his inability to execute a dangerous but clean kill; and the spectator who overly focuses on the suffering of the horse and avoids acknowledging the meaning and power of the ritual and his or her own complicity in it — all are liars and hypocrites.

A triumvirate of profiteers, moreover, joins and even outdoes them: the purveyors of horses, the promoters of bullfights, and the civic authorities charged with overseeing them. While bull and man at least can share the honor of bringing the tragedy of the bullfight to its climax, “the tragic climax of the horse’s career has occurred offstage at an earlier time; when he was bought by the horse contractor for use in the bull ring.” And the adoption of the “peto” not only spares the spectator’s sensibilities, it also replaces “the frank admission of the necessity for killing horses to have a bullfight” with “a hypocritical semblance of protection which causes the horses much more suffering . . . but saves the horse-contractor money, enabling the promoters to save money and allowing the authorities to feel that they have civilized the bullfight.”

Who, then, rises above the decay and corruption? The bull who shows aggressive mettle and shrewd intelligence; the picador who rides honestly and respects his horse’s suffering; the matador who fights with bravery and skill, with “grace under pressure”; and, finally, the aficionado, who prefers “to see the horses with no protection worn so that all wounds may be seen and death given” rather than to see horses “protected” in a way that increases their suffering and leads to their eventual death but that protects the spectator from witnessing either in the ring. As self-serving as that statement initially may appear, Hemingway the aficionado is not writing this book merely to display his knowledge, but rather to share it and thereby perhaps redeem the ritual: hence, stylistically, the book’s lack of ornateness and flourishes, its rigorous clarity and directness.


The Wars Were Over           

“The only place where you could see life and death, ie, violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring.”

In thus explaining why he had turned to bullfighting after the War, Hemingway also implies how he was using the bullfight as a way to come to terms with the War. Death in the Afternoon, put differently, not only reflects the weight of the Great War on Hemingway, it also constructs a powerful and brilliantly sustained metaphor for the War’s human carnage, for a generation’s shattered values, and for lost hopes of redemption. 

Death in the Afternoon also pays pointed metaphoric tribute to the hundreds of thousands of horses who perished in the War. And though we may abhor both the bullfight and the role assigned to the horse in it, we should not understand Hemingway too easily and mistake his analysis for approval. Even Thomas McGuane, soon after commenting on Hemingway’s alleged “lack of interest in the horse,” adds that “in the First World War, men subjected to unparalleled mayhem were stricken more by the plight of the horses than anything else.”

Hemingway was no exception.


This essay first appeared in The Denver Quarterly, and we would like to thank the editors for permission to post it here.

Charles Caramello is Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of English at University of Maryland. “Hemingway’s Horses” is excerpted from a book-in-progress, Riding Late: Essays on Horsemanship, Cavalry, and the Great War.





Charles Caramello

Charles Caramello is Professor of English at the University of Maryland and John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.

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