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Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Lessons for Restless Souls from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”

A younger Hemingway  stares defiantly into the camera.

A younger Hemingway (around the time of publication in 1926 of “The Sun Also Rises”) stares defiantly into the camera.

An audio version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises has been keeping me company in the car; and has convinced me that Hemingway was a restless soul, too (by “restless,” I mean another soul looking for more purpose, more truth and more life).

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Set in post-World War 1 Paris, the book tells the story of a small group of friends belonging to that demographic of people the writer Gertrude Stein once described as “the Lost Generation”; the “Lost Generation” were the many young people who in the wake of World War 1 struggled to find a sense of meaning and purpose, but they could just as well be compatriots from my own generation and younger, for whom similar epithets have been reserved. Theirs is a life of seemingly meaningless self-entertainment and luxurious wastefulness; they live in a self-absorbed bubble of discontented aimlessness.

Still, underneath the surface there is a seething current—a search for More. What Hemingway’s novel conveys is that in actuality, the so-called Lost Generation still has much promise, even if at times that promise appears misdirected.

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In an early dialogue between the narrator Jake and his pal/antagonist Robert Cohn, Cohn gives voice to his search for the More.

“I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it,” Cohn says.

Jake replies, “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.”

Cohn then tries to persuade Jake to travel to South America on the assumption that a change of scenery from their dissolute lifestyle in Paris will put an end to Cohn’s discontentment.

Jake answers, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”

“The More” cannot be answered by a change in geography; it is a psychological and spiritual condition that requires adaptation and adjustment.

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Still, later in the novel, Jake, a lapsed Catholic, finds himself in a church while touring Spain. There he begins to pray, tearfully and awkwardly stammering out words to God. Even for a somewhat cynical pragmatist like Jake, there is this desire to be better, to connect with God, and to find in that connection something that transforms an otherwise meaningless existence. Jake is looking for something that he hasn’t yet found, and that something is a dream that eludes him.

The other day I found myself perplexed while making dinner: the Massaman curry sauce I had just bought at the grocery store was nowhere to be found. I must have spent fifteen minutes looking for it in the cupboards. Finally, I stumbled upon it and discovered the source of my confusion: I had been looking for curry in the form of a bottle, not a can; that can had been sitting right under my nose and I hadn’t recognized it.

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Maybe, like Cohn, so many of us still haven’t found what we’re looking for because we’ve convinced ourselves that what we’re looking for comes packaged in a certain form.

But what if the very thing we’ve been seeking is actually right in front of us? Today. This moment. What if the thing we most want, be it more meaning, more truth or more life, is in fact right under our nose? We don’t have to be sitting in a pretty church building to encounter the More. The More is in the life you and I live today, being present to the Now which will never be again, being present to those right in front of us.

We want to be better. We want to find connection with God and with our neighbor. We want to know that this little life we live, however self-absorbed and sometimes misdirected, finds its place in The Life. We want to live—to be living—and every so often to pinch ourselves in disbelief that we really are alive.

 

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