The Clutches of Totalitarianism in Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot”

George Orwell’s occupation in his critique of totalitarian authority in 1984 is equally shared by Samuel Beckett, in Waiting for Godot. Written within the space of two years, both works engage with the escalation of tight control by exclusive central authorities, as they infiltrate the multiple strata of civil society; where matters climax with the obliteration of the “individual space” and “personal consciousness”.

Orwell’s mystified overarching central author – “Big Brother” – finds in Beckett’s “Godot” a complementary echo; even as Beckett’s representation of this binding authority is more enigmatic: for Godot is “not seen” and is obscure as he is shapeless, unlike Big Brother, who makes ritualistic appearances on the mass network of telescreens. Though Winston Smith – the skeptical subject citizen – is in doubt as to whether there is a “real” person called Big Brother, the body / form which corresponds to that appellation is ritualistically present. Not so in Beckett’s play, though: for Vladmir and Estragon are merely “aware” of an obscure Godot, whose bidding they eagerly await.

Vladmir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky

Vladmir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky

In their pseudo-clownish play and tramp-like attire, Vladmir and Estragon are both hopeful and fretting of Godot’s arrival. This binary response, at one level, is a recurrent motif which adds to the surface “absurdity” of the play. However, the play is not without a valid intervention with the power and overarching influence of a totalitarian grip. While the hopeful and wishful wait for Godot continues, every entrance is viewed with awe-infused distrust and fear, lest that it is Godot that has finally arrived. The “salvation” of which the subject is inculcated with a hope and the dual responses instilled in the subject defines the author’s hegemonic role. Godot demands and has earned both the “consent” and the “fear” of the subject. He is both an “approval” as well as a force “bewared”. In 1984, Orwell presents the concept of “double-think” – where one’s thought or conceptualization is arrested and inverted, to form a variable which is antithetical to what it, on the surface, is claimed to be. The “Ministry of Love”, therefore, becomes the state organ of imposing surveillance, monitoring civilian movement and in punishing the offenders of the state agenda. The “Ministry of Peace”, likewise, propagates war.

While Winston Smith of 1984 is a silent dissenter of the system who braves a futile resistence against it, Vladmir and Estragon of Beckett’s play are in lumpen servitude, being policed of their thoughts and being in no position to either conceptualize or rationalize. Their existence, therefore, is in a fossilized space, where they fail to form “concrete ideas” of time, space and action. In the repetitive cycle of almost banal and futile rituals, Vladmir and Estragon cannot think “new thoughts” and cannot reason or think beyond the frozen space and their imploded expectations, as they await the arrival of a never-arriving Godot. The repetitive cycle of sniffing a boot, or of smelling a hat, of repeated tiffs and make ups are all carried out with mechanical effect in a space allocated for their “stay” by Godot.

Regimentation ahoy.

Regimentation ahoy.

The fable of totalitarian control, as presented by Orwell, is accentuated as a more vibrant, ritualistic representation in Beckett’s play. The “unconscious” subject status, as projected by the combo under study, is a more compelling and relevant study for peoples whose “ability to think” is policed by state arms and maneuvers. The desired effect of subjecting the “dissenter” to the iron grid of “Room 101” – where O’Brien, the state agent, “appropriates” you from your state of being a dissenter – is already reflected in Vladmir and Estragon. As much as the empire-building totalitarian overlord is “benevolent”, so has he to be “feared” and “respected”. One must not waver from the space this all mighty, over-imposing hand designates you, even as the fulfillment of that promise of “deliverance” is delayed and deferred. One has to subdue the growing sense of isolation and discomfort, in keeping ignited your faith in the “word of Godot”. These are among the crucial injections which Vladmir and Estragon – in an unconscious drive – have already internalized. The policed state of their thoughts are resonant in how they express an urge to move, but stay immobile; and in other instances where they contradict by action the impulse of their need.

The politico-philosophical bent in both Orwell and Beckett can be effectively juxtaposed with the likes of Franz Kafka, and has arguably influenced a host of artistes of the post-1950s, of whom Pink Floyd is one. In their 1980 album “The Wall”, there are elements which strongly resonate Orwellian and Kafkesque influences. The act’s preoccupation with the dissemination of dominant ideology is seen in the way the “regime” is diagonally placed with the interests of the individual – and in how “justice”, as well as “education”, is portrayed as regimental proxies. For Beckett, the ultimate status of state subjection – in the state where the individual has no clue about who, what or where s/he is – is manifested in the fable of the pseudo-tramps. For he who knows irony, Waiting for Godot is more relevant a gift, if the copies of 1984 suddenly run out in your local bookstore.


Execution — An Orwellian Reading of the Capital Punishment

Based on his Burmese days, George Orwell writes an autobiographical short story titled ‘A Hanging’. In this story, what is focused on is the judicial hanging of an unnamed man of Indian origin. The story is concerned with the man’s being marched to the gallows under heavy security, of the tense atmosphere that prevails, the moment of the actual hanging and the various comments made by the officials as an afterword to the course of play.

As the prisoner is frog-marched to the gallows, a dog appears from a corner and it starts jumping at the prisoner in familiar greeting. The dog keeps on at the procession, and is ordered to be held back. The dog is never identified as being owned by the prisoner, but the text strongly suggests a close relationship between the two. The moment the man is hung, and as his body hangs loose under the platform on which the gallows stand, the dog runs up to the prisoner – now dead – sniffs at him and retreats with a whimper.

Eric Arthur Blair; or, George Orwell

Eric Arthur Blair; or, George Orwell

The narrator – presumably Orwell’s persona – is part of the ‘law-enacting’ official machinery. As he walks behind the prisoner to the gallows, the procession comes across a puddle of water in the middle of the way. Here, the prisoner steps aside to avoid the puddle. At this point, the narrator has an epiphany which re-locates his subjectivity from the thereunto detached, aloof composure he assumes. With the conscious move made by the prisoner in avoiding the puddle, the narrator reflects as to how wrong a hanging is – as to how ethically and morally depraved it is to consciously put to death a man whose heart is beating as well as any other; whose reflexes are functioning and whose life is yet vigorous and healthy.

After the man is put to death, the chief official in charge of the hanging sighs in relief – his relief stems from the fact that the prisoner was killed with the ‘first attempt’. There are times, we are told, where the hanged does not die the first time around. A surgeon, he adds, sometimes has to go underneath the scaffold and pull the hanged man from his legs in order to make him breathe the last. There are other times, he further notes, where technical flaws cause a delay in the death-meting process. One who is successfully noosed at one go, therefore, is considered a moment of relief.

The need to enforce the capital punishment and the endorsement of its necessity has been raised as a point of debate from time to time. In the most recent past, the Kahawatte murder cases in Sri Lanka, various cases of rape and child abuse (on which, not to mention, the collective mainstream media thrived) as well as ‘bigger enough’ news stories such as the Delhi rape victim has brought the ‘capital punishment debate’ into the fray. As I have written earlier to this very space, capital punishment cannot be justified on any grounds as an expedient to crime; and it should definitely not be thus adopted in a situation where the law and the law enforcing mechanisms lack in efficacy and transparency as it is in Sri Lanka. The law in Sri Lanka is not equal to all; nor are all citizens equal in its face. With a state machinery that is politicized to the core and with no independent Police (and other primary offices of law enforcement), the enforcement of capital punishment can be a cardinal error in policy.

Orwell’s position in the short story cited above is an ethical concern from a humanitarian standpoint. The ethical and moral judgment is meted in a way where it reflects on the different positions of the several stakeholders at the hanging. For the detached, official (and Orwell’s persona suggests he is a bit holier-than-thou to the others) the insensitivity and lack of empathy in the judicial long arm is clearly visible. From an official’s view point, in hanging the man lies, his ‘duty’; a duty yet which blinds him to the moral depravity of office.

The awaiting noose

The awaiting noose

The relief the official feels at the hanging being efficient is a revealing moment – for, here is a man who is unsettled by a misfired execution and for whom the clinical finishing off of a man’s life is therefore the desired result. The guilt and exasperation he feels at the possible ‘misfiring’ of the execution is a suggestion that the official, too, is unnerved by his ‘duty’; and who, therefore, takes refuge in the fact that he is performing a ‘duty’ to keep his wits straight. The one person who is gleeful and unperturbed is the young lieutenant/soldier – an agent, as Orwell seems to suggest, who has been brainwashed to be indifferent to the ethical debate.

Penal policy has to seek as to how ‘recyclable’ the human spirit and human resource is. A prison sentence can only be justified if it serves the good of both the society and the condemned. As the famous wall of that perniciously infamous dungeon spells it: “Prisoners, too, are human”. Then, why shouldn’t the policy and the purchase suggest it so?

A Midget in XL — The Need to Dress Down Jane Austen

Philip Larkin quite memorably captures the “burden of tradition”:

“Man hands on misery to man
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can
And don’t have any kids yourself”

Knightley as Elizabeth: Kiera Knightey in a still from the latest "Pride and Prejudice"

Knightley as Elizabeth: Kiera Knightey in a still from the latest “Pride and Prejudice”

Perhaps, one of the writers who has been largely misinterpreted – in terms of actual literary and political significance – and overrated is Jane Austen. As an early 19th century middle class female writer who addresses the middle class sensibility of her day and who rarely dares the water-tight, proto-Victorian middle class walls she has earned too much mileage courtesy of contemporary middle class scholarship. For the researcher who arbitrates on 19th century fiction, Austen has produced a corpus that calls out for legitimization – for in Austen there is a writer who has produced six published works and other scraps which has a sufficient bulk to make two careers: the researcher’s and Austen’s. There are several other female writers of Austen’s time and of times after who can then be added to this legitimized “canon” of female expression. But, Austen’s significance as a writer is by no means justified by such purposes.

In recent discourses on the subject, Austen has been elevated and fetishized as a path-breaker in nineteenth century female writing. In Sri Lanka in particular (and I suspect the fruits of wisdom parroted out here are gleaned and culled elsewhere) Austen is a predominant focus among course designers and syllabus-makers. An Advance Level syllabus without a Jane Austen text is inconceivable. She is copiously read and all kinds of “progressive” injections are inserted into her narratives – which, to be fair by the readers, are largely predictable, unexciting, limited in worldview and repetitive – making both the students and the teachers look extremely dumb. As an undergraduate and graduate student, the classes I have sat in have read and re-read Northanger Abbey and Emma, without either the mental or moral satisfaction of engaging in a book that has some substance to offer. For my Advanced Level, over a decade ago, Pride And Prejudice was a prescribed text. While admitting that among Austen’s books Pride And Prejudice is somewhat “tolerable”, my attention was detained by other more engaging texts set for the same examination: RK Narayan’s The English Teacher (by no means Narayan’s best, but a better read than Austen) and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

As a teacher, time and again I have had to work with both above texts, as well as Sense And Sensibility and Mansfield Park. While my conviction of that unalterable gap between Austen’s class, environment, worldview and preoccupations and mine only grew firmer, the wider corpus only made me see how overrated and hollow her writing in reality was. Part of our problem is we read too much into supposedly “paradigm-defining” scholars who – for the satiation of their own academic and marketing projects – make mountains out of molehills. One example that comes to mind is the relevant chapters on Austen in The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Slightly dated, but by no means less contemporary in Sri Lankan study circles (published in 1979), the book deals with what the writers identify as “the woman writer and the nineteenth century literary imagination”. The writers inject a radicalism into Austen and revamp both her life and creative profile into a “phenomenon” – all based on retrospective speculation of a time 180 years before. The only satisfaction in Gilbert and Gubar is that they annotate a range of critics on Austen – mainly her contemporaries and early 20th century writers; and mainly negative commentaries – which, in an age of Austen euphoria, can be crucial for our better information.

Market Ambition creates addiction.

Market Ambition creates addiction.

Among Austen’s critics is DH Lawrence and a rabid condemnation of Austen is as a “middle class” painter of “garden scenes”. In actual reality, the corpus of Austen texts show that the writer’s views and opinions are stunted by her confinement to a middle class education and home and is merely a reinforce of patriarchal norms that she had internalized as an individual. “To marry” is her ultimate advice for the young women in her novels: but, marry “intelligently”. Her novels – canonized and elevated as they today are – read more as the early 19th predecessor of the modern cheap romance. The scandalous, good looking rake (Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility, Frank Churchill of Emma, Wickham of Pride and Prejudice), the patriarchal saviour (Brandon [S&S], Knightly [E], Darcy [P&P]), the uncouth, atypical, undesirable female figures (which cut a convenient contrast to Austen’s chosen heroine) such as Lucy Steele (S&S), the Bingley Sisters (P&P) etc become clichés and types as one runs through the light corpus. Moving from garden to garden, ball to ball, lover to lover, and in the company of narrow-ranged, domesticated company and ample smelling salts, Austen’s young women are eternally engaged in a “journey of maturity” which culminates with the following truths: (1) marry, but one who is financially and socially stable; but also with intellectual empathy, (2) do not make radical choices, (3) maintain domestic stability. On the contrary to those who radicalize her, in Austen we see a writer who is conscious of the limitations imposed on women by her early 19th century English middle class, but one who vows to “survive” the system by “improvement”, than by “radical transformation”. She is what one might call a reactionary reformist, and is hardly a visionary radical.

Today, Austen’s world is no longer tangible to the widening student population of Sri Lanka who are forced to read the mediocrity which we pass on for the “glory” of Victorian authorship. Austen’s domesticity is both an impediment and a burden for readers who – by instinct – expect something more relevant and politically resonant from their syllabus. A Sri Lankan reader of 2013 has much to gain from a translation of a Sujeewa Prasannarachchi book or a Ganga Shainy Gamage novel than a menopausal Jane Austen.

Kafka’s “Great Wall of China”: a Parable of Hegemony and “Nation Building”

[Initially written for and carried in The Nation]

Written in 1917 and first published posthumously in 1931, Franz Kafka’s short story ‘The Great Wall of China’ is an intriguing parable on “nation building”. The story unfolds as a reflection of a mason who had been employed in the construction of the Great Wall – a fortress, as everyone was told, which was meant to hold off the “Northern invaders” – and of how the project had been executed over the years. The narrator, in retrospection, tells us that the wall was always built in piecemeal portions, one labor gang given the feasible task of building a hundred feet of the wall for a five year period. At the end of five years, the labor unit is transferred – and as they are relocated, they would go past other partially built segments of the wall (which, though incomplete) would bear witness to the substance of the laborers’ dedicated effort; and which would kindle them into “believing” in the grand project of which they are a part.

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

The wall, which is never completed and built in piecemeal segments, is a metaphor for the “nation building” processes which enslave the energy and the consciousness of the masses. The Mason in the story, therefore, is a representative of the citizen’s psyche, which has been subjected and hegemonically arrested by the state. We are told by the narrator that the foundation of the Great Wall was laid about fifty years prior to the actual program – when the government declared masonry as the most crucial vocation in the country. The narrator records how the lives of the people and their career aspirations changed, where schools of masonry and masons became the lynchpins of society.

The metaphoric value of the masons and masonry are not lost on our contemporary society either – where, through carefully meditated militarization, the state has rearranged the definitions and allowances of civil society. In the closing stages of the North-East Civil War and in its immediate aftermath, the only vocation of mileage was the office of the “patriotic”. The soldier – elevated to Homeric heights as the infallible executioner of the “nation-bound” values of the “nation-loving” government – was set as a default by whom everyone had to prostrate. The narrator of Kafka’s short story makes a very crucial observation: if the state’s prerogative was to wade off the Northern invaders – of whom many grotesque and demonic pictures have been drilled into the populace through school and education – why did they administer the wall’s construction in sections, with gaps everywhere?

Akin to the “nation building” machinery, the wall, too, has meaning only if partially constructed and left inconclusive. For example, if the government’s developmental operations are to end at a particular destination one loses hegemony. The mustering of a “national consciousness” towards a “national goal” is dependent on the painting and promise of colorful dreams and enigmas of sorts. If the project is to cease with the “Southern Highway”, that politician has failed. One has to therefore extend the Southern Highway and have it off shoot into a whole network of highways that will connect all nooks and corners of Lanka in one unceasing channel.

From Pink Floyd's "The Wall"

From Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”

If the “building of the nation” entails the subjugation and contortion of an “enemy”, that enemy is best kept fluid and vague as the “invaders from the North” are in Kafka’s story. Here, the narrator has never seen the invaders infiltrate the gaps of the partly built wall, nor seen them in any concrete form, except for how they are drilled into the collective citizen psyche. Being fluid and faceless, the “enemy” will take the form of the receptacle to which he is put. The “fear of invasion” by the Tamil nation was used to such xenophobic lengths in post-independence Sri Lanka that successive governments could bend the minds of the Sinhala majority with it and use it as a shield to sustain their hegemony and other megalomania. Similarly, a “fear of invasion” by the Muslim identity is now being pumped and fuelled by elements which we can safely assume to have VIP patronage and sanction. What we see here is the bid to keep the “enemy” alive, or – in the context of Kafka’s story – to keep the wall from being completed. If the wall is concluded, the state cannot resort to the threat of that illusive “northern invader” anymore.

Kafka’s ‘The Great Wall of China’ is also preoccupied with the question as to “what is a nation”. In the second half of the narrative – which is popularly known as “A Message from the Emperor” – the narrator focuses on the vagueness and uncertainty of “national” boundaries. Akin to the mainstay of Kafka’s better known fiction, it is a revealing study of the distance between the actual administrative centre and the community’s margins (and vice versa). The message which is sent by the Emperor, the narrator argues, cannot reach the furthest end of the realm – for how could it with the messenger having so much ground to cover and merely his feet to carry him? The point is that the “message” would always be “outdated” or “deferred”. The Emperor, for his part, has technically issued a message; but, as to whether that message will be received by society at all is not guaranteed. For instance, there can be a presidential guarantee of “equality of the constitution” for all persons. But, this is just a “message from the Emperor”. Some parts of the community never receive that message; or, the message is never believed when received for it doesn’t resonate as true.

TinTin and First World Readings of the “Non-European”.

A noted educationist of Colonial Ceylon, Louis Edmund Blaze testifies as to how images of colonial Literature inspired him in his idea of “school culture”, at the establishment of a boys’ school in 1891. In a book titled KFE: The Story of Kingswood, Kandy – a memoir of the first twenty five years of that school – Blaze acknowledges the stories he had heard of English public schools (such as Rugby and Eton) as well as tales from Rudyard Kipling of being influential input in visualizing his ambition. Blaze’s emphasis, alongside other available instances, crystallizes the part played by English Literature in not only shaping the aspirations and goals of colonial Ceylonese but, also the extent to which they influenced and moulded a framework for education to operate in.

Blaze’s reference to Kipling is significant, since Kipling’s work is often seen to impart what are considered as “colonial values”, as they superimpose empire and imperialism. Values such as “uprightness”, “chivalry”, “honesty” and “loyalty” become key variables in the colonial map and Kipling’s writing often draw on this selection. As a convenient and random example, if we are to consider Kipling’s celebrated poem If, at its heart is the guide book by which any healthy colonial is to stand. Edward Said, in his Orientalism locates how the imperialist programme of Europe channels the “non-European” world through Euro-centric assumptions and convictions. In the process, Said seems to argue, the land mass and the diverse cultural plurality of the “conquest” get trivialized and undermined in order to appease European imperialist tastebuds. The career of the imperialist, therefore, is to submit the unruly non-European “other” to the benefit of “order”, “method” and “civilization”, which, by default, is the bedrock of the “superior” European culture. The legitimizing of this trajectory is officially documented: a popular instance being Lord Thomas MacCaulay’s Minute on Indian Education, in 1835.

Herge reconstructs a sacrificial ritual of the Incas with our hero TinTin caught in the midst of it all. From the “Prisoners of the Sun”.

The manifestation of “non-Europe” in colonial literature is best seen in adventure novels and stories which deal with travel, where the European protagonist often ventures into the distant and unknown lands and peoples. A series of work which deal with “lesser civilizations” – irrespective of the writers’ sympathies – can be seen in travelogues, adventure novels, colonial histories and such. This corpus extends from the likes of Herman Melville (Moby Dick), William Bligh, Rider Haggard (The Last of the Mohicans, She, King Solomon’s Mines), Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), to writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling. The diverse range of these writers, the varying concerns they showcase as well as the different backgrounds and baggage they come with only intensifies the extent to which the “colonial image” of the “lesser civilizations” have affected writing as a whole.

The “non-European other” is more graphically represented in comic books which become popular in the early decades of the last century. Among the comics that have stood the test of time – and have later been transcreated into other genres such as film and TV – is TinTin, the adventures of a young reporter with an unmistakable tuft of hair. In the many TinTin adventures, the hero(es) are brought into contact with numerous “non-European” peoples – the list extends from Native Americans to Chinese; and from Central Asians to a hidden civilization of Incas. The configurations of the non-European nationals show much prejudice, reflected in the graphics of the caricatures. The bent, bony, stooped back Arab, for instance, is a recurrent figure in a series of TinTin comics. The chaotic street scenes, maze-like housing arrangements, impoverished, browbeaten inmates of constantly terrorized, tyrannized Arab is forcefully outlined in stories such as The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Red Sea Sharks as well as The Land of the Black Gold.

The contenders for the banana —- Alcazar and Tapioca, the rival Generals who are consistently throwing each other out of office through coups, in Herge’s prototype for a ‘Banana Republic’: San Theodoras.

The Indian in TinTin is either of exotic, extravagant nobility (such as in the Maharajah of The Cigars of the Pharaoh) or of wily, scheming, evil manifestations. The Fakir who shoots darts with Rajaijah poison is a prime example, though not the only one. The evil Mitsuhirato of The Blue Lotus showcases “Japanese cruelty”, while the Chinese of the same book, iconized by the Wang family, are docile, submissive victims. TinTin and the Broken Ear takes us to the Amazonian region, where an oversimplified caricature of the tribal customs is amplified through Herge’s representation of the “Arumbayas”. The dark colour codes used in the Arumbaya episode do not fail to detain the reader’s attention. The dress, the skin tones as well as the preferred colours of these people are the same as the wild jungle that surrounds them. The two men who stand out are the two “white” men, TinTin and Ridgewell; not to mention TinTin’s dog, Snowy (who, true to his name, is white). The Indo-Javanese natives of Flight 714 are seen as primitive in their impulses and clumsy in aptitude. They need to be closely directed, but even then fail to deliver appreciable results. At the height of crisis – when a long passive volcano ignites – they abandon camp before any of the rest.

One of the most memorable TinTin characters is General Alcazar – the General of a South American-like geo-political unit (named San Theodores), who is consistently thrown out of office through militant coups engineered by his counterpart, General Tapioca. San Theodores is the imperialist stereotype of the Banana Republic with an ignorant, chaotic mass with little social or moral enhancement. Mutiny succeeds mutiny, with no room whatsoever for cultural uplift. In a varying career, spinning across four TinTin comics, Alcazar is seen playing a variety of roles, from General (The Broken Ear), rebel leader (TinTin and the Picaros), stage artist cum knife thrower (The Seven Crystal Balls), buyer of fighter planes from black market dealers (The Red Sea Sharks) etc.

The trench coat wearing “agents of dark” in The Calculus Affair represent a strong Central Asian accent, even though the actual crystallization incorporates a series of variables extracted from Fascist or totalitarian forms of government the “liberal West” was irreverent to. The names have a definite Central Asian ring, with germs of Russia’s KGB not absent in Herge’s characterization.

The Picaros from the comic of the same title.

What we see in Herge’s TinTin, therefore, is a conflict of civilizations – where the naturalized value system of the European Imperialist is contested by “non-European” agencies who, for the writer’s purpose, are deemed as “evil” and as “ignoble”. To satiate the end of the comic series, TinTin and Captain Haddock essentially overcome whatever difficulties the “bad ones” throw in their way, while maintaining the European power balance and upholding its values and ethics. These values, in turn, are naturalized into the growing mind and consign in the young reader the need to be like TinTin, being perceptive to the “bent nature” of the non-European world. That, of course, is the double-edge of the text; for, among the readership are those to whom TinTin need not be the greater fascination.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Islands in the Stream”

The Bee Gees and Ernest Hemingway have two titles in common: Islands in the Stream and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway’s 1941 novel set in politically violent Spain reflects on the contending trends of communism – which, for Hemingway, seems to suggest order and discipline – and what Hemingway critics often generalize as “anarchism”. Written in the face of an overwhelming spread of Fascism, the novel reflects on the individual’s choice in sustaining meaning and relevance in a society which is in the throes of (and partly fearing) transition. The novel is centered on Robert Jordan, a young American connected with the rebel faction in the Spanish War; and is stationed as a dynamiter in the siege of a city. Notions of loss, decay and destruction consistently overarch, submitting a sense of angst for the receptive reader.

Young Hemingway’s passport photo

The Bee Gees, in their 1993 album Size Isn’t Everything, records a catchy song by the same title – a song which articulates thoughts of break up, loss and longing. The 1993 album, in many ways, is a bridge in the career of the Bee Gees, connecting them to a whole new era of pop, detracting them from the “age of disco” where the trio had scored well. Songs such as “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, for instance, indicate the transition justly, even though the song was not well received by charts outside the UK. Mysterious and ambiguous as the connection between the Hemingway text and the Bee Gees song may appear, both evoke a distinct melancholic strain which facilitates a less unobvious relation: one with John Donne’s series of Meditations, written and published in the early 1620s.

In Donne’s now celebrated words, he signifies the holistic and overarching spirit by which humankind, in many ways, stay bound. This is the very composition where Donne’s much quoted lines “No man is an island, entire of itself / Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” appear. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” it further reads; “[a]nd therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. The sentiments here constitute of a strict catholic essence, in spite of the irony where Donne, in later life, becomes a satirist of the very same faith. However, the ideas of death, suffering and the inevitability of the individual as being a part of a wider corpus – hence, the impetus and the object of a wider fate – permeate the three texts.

Young Bee Gees

Hemingway’s posthumously published work, Islands In the Stream (1970), again, evokes similar strains as already highlighted. The story is centered on the life of an artist, Thomas Hudson, and the novel is set out in three sections: it opens with a younger, romantically moved Hudson, who is a painter settled in the art-inducing outpost of Bahamas. The novel builds up through the radical changes that he undergoes, and in many ways the second and third sections of the narrative contrast with the opening. Hudson’s traumatic experiences at losing those near and dear to him (his sons succumb to death in the World War) accentuates an existentialist outlook in him, which, if at all, was docile and passive in his early years. The third section, in this regard, has a distinct echo of Jordan’s experience in For whom the Bell Tolls. The Bee Gees song, written for Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, becomes a successful hit in 1983. The song, in contrast to the novel, is a celebration of love and life – re-living, in many ways, the notion of Donne that “no man is an island”.

Dolly Parton

If at all, the opening of Hemingway’s novel has a light resonance of the air and atmosphere which the Bee Gees lyrics enhance. This, again, is more owed to the Bimini setting of the idyllic Bahamas, predating the torment and uncertainty of war and violence that would change Hudson’s life and convictions for good. Returning to John Donne’s dogmatic notion, the idea of suffering and of penance is heavily resonant in the novel – for the breakout of and the breakdown caused by the war can be traced back to humanity of which one and all – winners and losers, sufferers and inflictors – are a part. The older Hudson, again, is a deviation from the stoic outlook of his youth and he matures, questioning and reacting to the pain and impact of death. The novel culminates where he, in his own way, comes to terms with life after loss. Much alike Jordan of For Whom the Bell Tolls, who chooses the communist cause above suicide, Hudson, too, seems to find an outlet back into life.

In spite of this pedantic meandering, it can also be that the Bee Gees song titles are mere finer artistic choices, and that they do not necessarily presuppose a high and dry connection with either John Donne or Hemingway. Artists are known to borrow and copy, and freely too, where the imagination fancies and pedantic hypotheses call to be facilitated.