36. Harris or Hemingway?

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“Festivals also suspend that everyday, non-festive attitude which is prone to a consideration of things in terms of objects… therefore opening up a different space: the space of what is meaningful in itself, without reference and insertion into a previously constituted system.”
Silvia Benso

In her dazzling polemic Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, Jay Griffiths bemoans a palpable shift in modern culture away from festivals and towards more banal, isolated and staged consumptions of time away from work.

“People today take nuclear-holidays, one family, a couple, at the most a small group of friends, who go away for a special time-off, a playtime of their own. In one way, these holidays replace festival-time in being non-work happy-days, but there is a crucial difference. Traditional festivals meant a whole village or community taking time off together, furthering a sense of community.”

A Village Fair by Pieter Brueghel the younger c.1616 - 1635
A Village Fair by Pieter Brueghel the younger c.1616 – 1635

Just as we saw with Silvia Benso’s thoughts in the last post, another threat to festivals are those events that “become ceremonies, parades, masquerades at the service of regimes”, which Griffiths gives illustration through the medium of the Great British royal ceremony, such as seen in the annual Queen’s Opening of Parliament:

“But this ain’t no festival; no one’s drunk for starters. This is pageantry, the enemy of carnival-time and festival. Festival wants people’s participation; pageantry wants the people’s partition.”

Griffiths also adroitly brings in that third member of the UK’s power triumvirate, Religion, to be held accountable alongside the Government and Monarchy:

“Festivals are ahistoric, pageantry keeps its history alive and the historicist Christian church sticks like glue to pageantry – each reflects the other, hierarchical, male-dominated and anti-erotic.”

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So, if festivals aren’t holidays or pageants, what else besides a lack of male-dominance and prudishness are they in Griffiths’ eyes? Or as she puts it, “How could you characterize festival-time?” Obviously, she has the answers:

“First, they are almost always tied to nature’s time. Second, they have an ahistoric quality, not tied to specific events in a recorded past. Third, they transform work-time to play and have a quality of reversal, turning the tables on ordinary social relations, or expected behaviour. Fourth, they are characterised by an earthy vulgarity, deeply sexual in their traditions and symbols. And lastly, they emphasize a community of people and a locality of land.”

Before segueing into natural literary fits for Griffiths’ list of festival qualities, we should also remember Gadamer’s thoughts in that festivals provide a space for “true participation” and “being outside oneself” to allow for “the positive possibility of being wholly with something else.” And, to be thoroughly comprehensive Benso’s thoughts should also be recalled:

“Festivals also suspend that everyday, non-festive attitude which is prone to a consideration of things in terms of objects… therefore opening up a different space: the space of what is meaningful in itself, without reference and insertion into a previously constituted system.”

Ticker tape

Armed with a burgeoning list of festival attributes we can now descend into the merry-making worlds of Harris and Hemingway.

The Sun Also Rises, or Fiesta, was written by Ernest Hemingway in 1924 and in it’s sparse narrative style it ushers in a new era of writing. The Iceberg Theory, attributed to Hemingway, sees his work as only presenting what is on the surface. No unnecessary context, description or interpretation is given which creates both a terse, hard, and always-to-the-point focus to the prose but also a distance between the characters and the reader. Although we know clearly and bluntly what happens in a Hemingway novel we are never given an inside track on the thoughts of the protagonists or secondary characters.

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From the off we are made a vicarious consort to Jake Barnes and his hedonistic journalistic life amongst a claustrophobic circle of decadent, lost and empty friends. The sense of disillusionment following the First World War pervades the narrative as we witness scene after scene of ostensible sociability fuelled by alcohol and dissatisfaction, with minimal expression given by Hemingway save to keep the action and dialogue flowing. A brief hiatus appears at the beginning of chapter five where Hemingway breaks slightly from the modernist furrow, that allows no unnecessary description, to present a momentary break in the clouds as Barnes walks out in the morning to do as the Parisians do and breakfast in a café with a coffee and brioche. The style is still scant though in it’s approach:

“There was the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the coffee and then smoked a cigarette. The flower-women were coming up from the market and arranging their daily stock. Students went by going up to the law school or down to the Sorbonne. The Boulevard was busy with trams and people going to work. I got on a S bus and rode down to the Madeleine, standing on the back platform. From the Madeleine I walked along the Boulevard des Capucines to the Opéra, and up to my office. I passed the man with the jumping frogs and the man with the boxer toys.”

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Hiatus aside, the plot steadfastly traces a few weeks of Barnes’ life and follows him as he travels across the border into Spain and to Pamplona for the annual running of the bulls and festival of San Fermin with two friends, Robert Cohn and Bill Gorten. At Pamplona they are joined by the thirty-four year old Lady Brett Ashley and her companion, Mike Campbell. All stay at the Hotel Montoya for the duration of the seven-day long festival. At the hotel the owner, minimalistically referred to as ‘Montoya’, meets his old client Barnes and they exchange views as to which of Barnes friends are aficionados of bull-fights. Hemingway allows himself space for clarificatory exposition:

“Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about the bull-fights. All the good bull-fighters stayed at Montoya’s hotel; that is, those with aficion stayed there. The commercial bull-fighters stayed once, perhaps, and then did not come back.”

The play Hemingway makes at this point is to distinguish between those bull-fighters and spectators who authentically immerse themselves in the activity at hand and those who cynically partake of it to make a living – it’s work – or those who regard it as a mere spectacle with no difference in attitude as when they regard a pageant. In the story, Barnes and his friends, Bill Gorten and Brett Ashley, get swept up in the passion and authentic spirit of the festival, whereas Robert Cohn and Mike Campbell become consumed with jealousy and obsession for their love of Brett. The love triangle becomes complex though as we are increasingly made aware of Barnes’ love for Brett as well, although both she and he agree that they can never be due to a war injury to Barnes that has rendered him impotent. Both resign themselves, however, to what cannot be unlike Campbell and Cohn. Not stopping at a quadrangle, Hemingway ramps up the earthy and erotic nature of the story, if one follows Griffiths fourth festival time requirement, because Brett begins a liaison with the much admired, for his bull-fighting skill and good looks, Pedro Romano, the nineteen year old matador.

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Throughout their whole time at the festival the circle of friends seem to drink their way from breakfast onwards throughout the course of each day in a dissolute attempt at Bacchanalian revelry that sees them joining together in joyous community with the other festival participants at times and at others observes their pathetic and wretched torturing of themselves and each other.

“The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.”

Hemingway’s bitter expression of his characters exploits during the festival bites hard at Gertrude Stein’s encapsulation of the ‘lost generation’ and is wrought with pathos on their collective human condition. However his, albeit slight, descriptions of Barnes et al during the fiesta do exemplify Griffiths’ thoughts on festival time with Lady Brett Ashley’s fling with a young matador upsetting her traditional norms of repressed social behaviour to the nth degree.

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As well, the overall experience of a timeless festival embedded in the land and community comes over in wafts of dust, fifes, drums, and flowing wine, with the locals rallying to give their all across the seven days. The circle of friends, of course, are desperate to authentically partake and absorb themselves into this culture as a means to escape the rootless nihilism of their own existences. Benso’s suspension of the everyday and Gadamer’s self-forgetting to be “wholly with something else” are giving dramatic form in the frantic abandonment of the friends as they hurl themselves into situations beyond the everyday and beyond themselves so that, presumably, they might feel something rather than the numb futility of their own lives.

So, although Hemingway presents certain key attributes of festival as espoused by Gadamer, Benso and Griffiths, one might sense that I’m not wholly convinced as to the beneficial utility of Fiesta in drawing out the positives. With fingers crossed let’s look at Joanne Harris’ equally successful novel, Chocolat.

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It is quite easy to regard the whole of Chocolat as a rich and always scented festival-like immersion. Unlike Hemingway, Harris delights in description and conjuring the reader’s senses to leave them salivating whilst also moving the plot forward and providing the inner workings of two narrators. The charismatic, gentle, culinary-gifted and psychological-insightful Vianne Rocher vies with the guilty, repressed, self-serving and embittered Father Reynaud. In both, though, Harris cannot contain her delight in mouth-watering descriptions that take the reader deep into an exotic fairy-tale toned festival of sensuous images of food:

“I like these people. I like their small and introverted concerns. I can read their eyes, their mouths, so easily: this one with its hint of bitterness will relish my zesty orange twists; this sweet-smiling one the soft-centred apricot hearts; this girl with the windblown hair will love the mendicants; this brisk, cheery woman the chocolate brazils.”

“The air is hot and rich with the scent of chocolate. Quite unlike the light powdery chocolate I knew as a boy, this has a throaty richness like the perfumed beans from the coffee-stall on the market, a redolence of amaretto and tiramisu, a smoky, burnt flavour which enters my mouth somehow and makes it water. There is a silver jug of the stuff on the counter, from which a vapour rises. I recall that I have not breakfasted this morning.”

Silver jug with steam.fw

Harris plays on her twin protagonists with alternating narration and rivalry building as the events unfold towards the climatic “Grand Festival Du Chocolat” on Easter Sunday, staged by Vianne, as far as Father Reynaud believes, in direct opposition to the values of the church. The puritanical church is set against the pagan seductions of gluttony and a battle ensues to win the hearts and minds of the two hundred villagers of Lansquenet. A few of Reynaud’s more loyal, or sycophantic, parishioners such as Caroline Clairmont even distribute flyers to every household declaring boldly “CHURCH, not CHOCOLATE, is the TRUE MESSAGE of EASTER!”

Against this plot-line, Harris weaves a more intricate story that shows a variety of characters exemplifying a version of Gadamerian self-forgetfulness that allows for “the positive possibility of being wholly with something else.” Armande Voizin’s overly mothered and closeted grandson, Luc Clairmont, breaks free of Caroline’s debilitating and emotionally twisted shackles to meet in secret with the ‘problematic’ Armande and gets to know her in her last few weeks of life. Josephine Muscat finds the courage to leave her abusive husband, the charmless café owner Serge Muscat, to live and work temporarily with Vianne but more importantly to regain her inner confidence.

Amidst the catalogue of character developments is, perhaps, the most pertinent example of being “wholly with” someone else: the relationship between Armande and Vianne. Without speaking directly each recognises themselves in the other and knows that the other is identically different from everyone else just as they are. Their difference unites the two as they reject the ‘civilising’ norms of the church under Reynaud’s guiding hand. However, as the story develops their lives are drawn tighter together with the real festival occurring not at the Easter Sunday chocolate festival but rather two days earlier at Armande’s eighty-first birthday meal.

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Harris’ portrayal of the two women at the celebratory party weaves a vignette of decadent sensuality, abandonment and sensitivity:

“Armande, in high spirits, supplies much of the conversation. I hear Luc’s low, pleasant accents, talking about some book he has read. Caro’s voice sharpens a little – I suspect Armande has poured herself another glass of St. Raphaël”

After a brief interlude recalling her mother’s views on her delight in all things culinary, Vianne turns her focus on her own presence as the master-chef and equal participant of the party:

“I catch Caro watching Armande with a look of disapproval. I eat a little. Steeped in the scents of the cooking food for most of the day I feel lightheaded this evening, keyed-up and unusually sensitive, so that when Josephine’s hand brushes against my leg during the meal I start and almost cry out. The Chablis is cool and tart, and I drink more of it than I should.”

Wine.fw

Griffiths distinction between sober pageantry and the festive over-quenching of thirsts with alcohol has been resolved by Harris with both Armande and Vianne enjoying this particular aspect of the birthday bash. However, more than this, in Vianne’s noting of her light-headedness and being “unusually sensitive” we get signals from Harris that this scene is very different from previous ones. Vianne, for all her sensuous enjoyment of life, has up until this moment been in cool, calm, control of her emotions and physicality. With Armande’s carousing setting the tone, Vianne finds herself letting go as well as she starts to become in Gadamer’s words “wholly with something else”:

“Colours begin to seem brighter, sounds take on a cut-glass crispness… The glasses and silverware glitter in the light of the lanterns hanging from the trellis above our heads. The night smells of flowers and the river.”

Lanterns.fw

The freely flowing Chablis and the spirit of Armande influences all the guests and makes the party a wonderful occasion, with even Caroline becoming slightly drunk, but for Vianne it is more than just a party. There is a suspension of the everyday as described by Benso and an “opening up of a different space: the space of what is meaningful in itself, without reference and insertion into a previously constituted system.” The night of Armande’s eight-first birthday is lining up for Vianne to become a unique moment that stands outside of everything we have witnessed in the first few weeks. To seal the festive deal, Harris brings in Griffiths’ earthiness, community and “locality of land” by having Michel Roux, one of Reynaud’s ostracised travellers make love with Vianne in the garden of Armande when everyone else has wandered back to their homes or fallen asleep:

“For the moment, the simple wonder; at myself lying naked in the grass, at the silent man beside me, at the immensity above and the immensity within. We lay for a long time,…”

To show that the scene is a unique episode in Vianne’s time at Lansquenet, Harris writes a closure sentence at the end: “When I awoke, Roux was gone, and the wind had changed again.” The plot gets driven forward in the next chapter. However, the night of Armande’s birthday is definitely the example of festival, in the midst of a festive novel, because not only are Benso’s Gadamer’s and Griffiths’ thoughts on festival reflected in the evocative thirteen pages, but also we can see Vianne allows herself to be open to the alterity of the other people within this chapter to experience new things that she has before closed herself off from.

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Possibly, I have made my own choice a little too transparent as to whether Harris or Hemingway present the better illustration of festival. However, I don’t feel too bad about this because as Benso makes in the next post there is much work to be done and now is not the time for misunderstandings.

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