Boxers and bullfighters

The Lost Generation, a term coined by author Gertrude Stein to refer to the loose community of expatriate writers and artists living in France after the First World War, came to symbolize the strife and boredom of a generation who came of age in the midst of violent global cataclysm. Theirs was an existential struggle, their quest a search for fulfillment and peace after having been stripped of their youthful innocence by the world-swallowing maelstrom of machine guns and chlorine gas. Literature produced by these expatriate writers and their contemporaries, including Ernest Hemingway’s quintessential Lost Generation novel The Sun Also Rises in 1926, were defined primarily and most visibly by an existential ennui, a sense of impotence in both romance and cultural efficacy, and a debilitating nostalgia for the childlike simplicity of which they were so prematurely robbed.

In Hemingway, these themes are made most evident by the trials of protagonist Jake Barnes in his quixotic pursuit of Lady Brett Ashley, but the ideas are not exclusive to works produced some eighty-five years ago. Even today, similar themes are prevalent in as unlikely a place as the music and lyrics of contemporary indie rock band The National. Lauded by critics for their obsessive attention to detail and inventive, moving lyricism, frontman Matt Berninger and his company of perfectionist musicians have carved a modest niche for themselves in the popular musical landscape so often dominated by much more superficial fare. These universally-accessible themes of ennui, impotence and nostalgia that came to define the Lost Generation not only serve as important foundational elements in Hemingway’s most beloved classic, but also retain cultural relevance even today in the modernized form of The National’s brilliant lyrics on their 2007 album Boxer.

Hemingway’s novel was one informed by the expatriate community he associated with at the time, whose exploits were immortalized in his posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast. Much like his protagonists Jake Barnes and Robert Cohn, while in Paris the author “fell among literary people”,1 a crowd of poets and novelists who came to represent the artistic endeavors and cultural identity of their entire generation. The daily activities of Jake Barnes mirrored, in a way, the sort of experiences Ernest himself might have thought exemplified Parisian expatriate life: dining in cafés, spending nights in dance clubs, vacationing to Spain for outdoorsy recreation. The entire novel could, in this way, serve as a time capsule for Hemingway’s time in Europe, a fictionalization of the reality of his adventures and a reflection of their concerns and societal zeitgeists. Jake, much like Ernest, was a man moulded out of adolescence in the chaotic furnace of world war, having been wounded both emotionally and—in Jake’s case if not Hemingway’s—physically by the horrors of combat. The cultural aftermath of this heretofore unparalleled atrocity was what inspired the themes present in The Sun Also Rises, and Jake’s struggle to cope with these uneasy realities was very much Hemingway’s own.

In addition to superficial similarities like tales of drinking to excess and late-night rendezvouses of questionable morality, the prose of Hemingway and lyrics of Boxer have more in common than one might expect. While they themselves may not have experienced the tragedies firsthand, the psyches of songwriter Matt Berninger and his bandmates were doubtless shaped in part by televised horrors in a similar vein at the outset of the millennium. Unfathomable violence inflicted upon thousands of helpless innocents, along with the reactionary American military engagements to follow soon thereafter, were impetus enough to leave any witness feeling lost, stripped of their innocence. Perhaps the similar tone and themes noticed in the music and lyrics of The National are indicative of a new Lost Generation for whom these musicians are voice, a tribe of socially-aware but powerless young people warped by evils of an impossible scale beyond their understanding or control.

This impotence and frustration at a lack of societal efficacy is evident throughout their album Boxer, and—in a fashion we’ll see is reflected prominently from Hemingway’s novel—shown in large part applied to romantic and interpersonal relationships. “Falling out of touch with all my / friends are somewhere getting wasted,” intones Berninger at the outset of “Green Gloves,” bemoaning his detachment from his peers and later mentioning his inability to control their actions that he might protect them from harm or separation.2 This theme of alienation from friends is extrapolated upon best in the chorus of the album’s first single, “Mistaken For Strangers,” when Berninger relates that “You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends, / when they pass you at night / under the silvery, silvery Citibank light.”3 In both these quotes, and others throughout the album, he aims to convey a sort of impartiality on the part of his compatriots, a strangeness and inability to fully connect with them due to his own limitations and stunted interpersonal skills.

Similarly, in The Sun Also Rises, Jake considers himself at odds with others he encounters during his time in France and Spain. In addition to claiming he “wished [he] felt religious”,1 Jake is told by Bill in Chapter 12 that, being “an expatriated newspaper man” he “ought to wake up with [his] mouth full of pity” .1 Despite claiming to be “fonder of [him] than anybody on Earth” ,1 Bill goes on to tell Barnes that as “an expatriate, [he’s] lost touch with the soil” and has “become obsessed by sex” .1 This final charge may have hit closer to home than Bill ever intended, as Jake’s primary frustration throughout the novel is his inability to act on strong romantic feelings he harbors for his longtime friend and love interest Brett Ashley. Due to a war injury that rendered him sexually impotent, Jake is frustratingly unable to fully express his admiration and attraction for the enigmatic Lady Brett, who—despite her claiming to reciprocate his affections—admits in private to Jake that “there isn’t any use my telling you I love you” .1 Regardless of whether the obstacle separating the pair was her fiancé or the impossibility of physical intimacy, Jake is subjected to bear witness to a seemingly infinite parade of Brett’s suitors and lovers over the course of the story, all the while feeling “dragg[ed] around from the end of [her] coat” .1 In perhaps the most moving moment in the entire novel, in their final conversation together Brett states her belief that “we could have had such a damned good time together,” to which Jake helplessly and tragically replies, “Yes […] isn’t it pretty to think so?” .1 Here he fully appreciates the futility of their empty reminiscing on what might have been between them and tacitly acknowledges the painful reality of his predicament.

Perhaps the most relevant of Boxer‘s dozen tracks to this sense of detachment and interpersonal impotence is “Slow Show,” a ballad which has seen several varying iterations over the years and opens with Berninger’s discomfort at some unknowable social gathering:

Standing at the punch table, swallowing punch.
Can’t pay attention to the sound of anyone.
I made a mistake in my life today,
Everything I love gets lost in drawers.
I want to start over, I want to be winning,
Way out of sync from the beginning. 4

At the outset, it has already been made clear his discomfort at social interaction and, near the end of the excerpted lines, his frustration in romance with some anonymous lover. His yearning for a fresh start imply a different sort of limitation hinders Berninger’s ability to express his feelings for someone, and his mea culpa and admission of miscommunication shed some light upon the nature of the obstacle. Despite this, however, he later confesses his desire to “hurry home to [her and] / put on a slow, dumb show for [her]” and—at the end of a song in a segment memorable enough to have been lifted from one of their earlier songs, “29 Years”—he mentions having “dreamed about [her] / for 29 years before [he] met [her.]”4 Here again we see the romantic longing and admiration with an inability to follow through, a pain which apparently both Matt Berninger and Jake Barnes are more than familiar with. And, much as Jake longs to ultimately hold Brett as his own, to reign her in from her promiscuity and worldly adventures to become his “own true love” ,1 so, too, does Berninger suggest that one “tie [his] woman to [his] waist / [and] give her room to tie the other.”5

However, this romantic impotence to follow through on emotions and take control of situations—both figuratively in relationships and taken quite literally when applied to the bedroom—was representative of the powerlessness these artists of the Lost Generations felt after witnessing some of the worst atrocities of human civilization. This impotence was reflective of the Lost Generation’s inability to control the world around them, to protect those they loved and measure whatever artistic or personal successes they might achieve against any form of real-life political or cultural efficacy. Interestingly, both incarnations of the Lost Generation chose to represent this impotence with the metaphorical romantic relationship or unrequited affections. Both Europe in the 1920s and the United States today are cultural landscapes largely apathetic to the aspirations and messages of artists, and this is a frustration shared by both Matt Berninger and The National as well as their original Lost Generation thematic ancestors.

Another topical direction these two versions of the Lost Generation shared was that of existential ennui, a generalized spiritual boredom and disillusionment with the world around them. Readers are introduced relatively early to this notion in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in a conversation between Jake Barnes and his friend Robert Cohn. Bored with his life in France and frightened by relationships and circumstances beyond his control, Cohn—seemingly, at first, in half sincerity—suggests to his confidant that they might take a trip to South America. When Barnes scoffs at the idea, Cohn becomes rather gloomy and serious, explaining that “[he] can’t stand to think [his] life is going so fast and [he’s] not really living it,” to which Barnes half-genuinely responds in one of the novel’s most beloved and quoted lines that “nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters” .1 The fear of a squandered life passing one by is not necessarily an uncommon idea—especially considering the twentieth-century philosophical history of the country wherein this conversation is held. To continue in this depressing vein and panic Barnes further, Cohn questions if “[he] ever get[s] the feeling that all [his] life is going by and [he’s] not taking advantage of it? [Does he] realize [he’s] lived nearly half the time [he has] to live already?” .1 Despite the negative chord this truth strikes with Jake and, conceivably, with readers, it’s a sentiment indicative of Ernest Hemingway’s and his compatriots’ mental statuses at the time this novel was being drafted. Anxiety over a lifetime squandered, of potential untapped, and a legacy unwritten are distresses shared among artists and writers of every age and every century, but especially held by those who have been routinely and violently reminded of the brief and transitory nature of human existence during their formative years—a generation of young people who have “not had much fun since the war.”.1

The existential angst of Hemingway and his contemporaries is universal enough to apply even today to the songwriters responsible for Boxer. Considering the similarities in some of their psychological and cultural influences, it should come as no surprise that Berninger, too, feels “half awake in a fake empire.”6 In addition to the album’s dozens of references to warfare and military violence—especially as a metaphor for disagreements and hurt feelings attached to romantic pursuits 7—and soldiers’ blood,2 Berninger seems to take issue with the various lifestyle expectations society imposes upon him as a working man, impositions he feels equally unable to fulfill or alter to better suit his needs. “Underline everything / I’m a professional / in my beloved white shirt” he intones in “Brainy,” a song about failing to meet standards set by societal institutions, role models, girlfriends in which he later claims to feel “out of his league.”8 A common thread being his feeling trapped in each song—stranded as a no-person “standing inside an empty tuxedo”9—imprisoned alternatively by the aforementioned expectations of societal institutions, by relationships with both women and family, or by his own “rosy-minded fuzz,” he admits to “getting tired [and] forgetting why.”10

Jake Barnes, too, is a man preoccupied with society’s expectations for him, mentioning in chapter 10 that he “wished [he] felt religious” and considers himself a “rotten Catholic” when confronted with a detachment of religious devotees on his train. This feeling of inadequacy comes into play when the expectations and norms of societal and authoritative institutions are taken into account, and becomes a debilitating obstacle when coupled with the existential malaise wrought by an inability to place one’s purpose and function in both their society and in the world at large. These parallels are indicative of the self-reflective tendencies of both protagonists—Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises and Matt Berninger’s anonymous half–author-surrogate for himself who appears in Boxer—as well as the two writers, although divorced by decades of cultural history and development, who so similarly constructed them. These are two, perhaps four, beleaguered souls who perhaps would prefer nothing more than to be able to “turn the light out, say good-night / [and have] no thinking for a little while.”6

But what is it, exactly, they’re running from? How would they, had they the potency, improve their lot—what would change? What, really, was lost in them when they unwillingly bore witness to the more horrific abilities of Western civilization? Perhaps the most qualifying characteristic of both the Lost Generation and its spiritual artistic successors is a sense of lost innocence, a nostalgia for childlike days long behind them when the world was simpler, more moral, and easier for them to control. In Boxer these yearnings are made evident in lines glorifying the innocence and blissful abandon of youth and downplaying the advantages of maturity, unsatisfied living the “unmagnificent lives of adults.”3 Despite his “shooting up the [corporate] ladder” in the song “Racing Like A Pro”—whose lyrics, interestingly enough, have in part been borrowed from the writing of Bret Easton Ellis—these socioeconomic successes “[don’t] mean a lot to him” as he’d much rather return to the “time [when he was] a glowing young ruffian,” although those days now seem as though they were “a million years ago.”11 Berninger’s fictionalized album-self is rendered unfit for the adult world of capitalism and responsibilities, his integrity and interest in mature things stunted by some self-imposed limitations which make him feel as though “everything [he] did believe / is diving […] off the balcony”10 and becoming alien to him forever.

But what, possibly, could have made him feel this helpless? Ernest Hemingway may have the answer for him in the form of Jake Barnes’ friend Harvey Stone. After asking Robert Cohn “what [he’d] rather do if [he] could do anything [he] wanted”,1 he rebuts Cohn’s answer of “play football again” with the quip, “I misjudged you. […] You’re not a moron. You’re only in a case of arrested development.”1 In his longing for times and abilities long past, Cohn is unable to accept and fully function in the present. But what, specifically, was the impetus for this nostalgia that so limits his everyday happiness?

For Cohn, and indeed for all the characters in The Sun Also Rises and its author alike, one life experience simultaneously rendered them nostalgic, impotent, and “lost” as a generation. Jake’s war wound is perhaps of greater symbolic significance than any other object in the novel, and its daily burden of course serves as a reminder of the psychological impact of the First World War. His impotence is a cross Barnes will have to carry for the rest of his life, and the horrors witnessed both on the battlefields of Europe and on the faces of those returning from them is a toll millions of their generation would be forced to take with them to their graves. The war itself was this impetus, the war itself was the loss of innocence for so many idealistic young people, and Jake’s wound is simply a physical manifestation of the inner struggles so many coped with every day of their lives. Jake’s wound—both the physical and psychological versions—has left him incapable of functioning normally in a contemporary society he can no longer understand, incapable of romantic intimacy or of connecting in interpersonal relationships, and incapable of ever feeling secure with the state of the world or with his place in it.

These are sentiments Berninger would likely sympathize with. Curiously, and perhaps purely by coincidence, both The Sun Also Rises and Boxer feature prominently two occupations involving violence as a performance: bullfighting and boxing, respectively. Both are bloodsport in its most basic of forms, men proving their masculine worths in arenas which transform barbaric violence into a quantifiable art-form for public consumption and entertainment. Perhaps in a similar way the protagonists of the fictions discussed above feel their very lives have, in the wake of unimaginable inhumanity, become feats of strength and bravery, their daily struggles a performance designed to confirm their manhood. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises came to define the Lost Generation with its portrayal of Jake Barnes’ impotence, nostalgia, and existential angst. And in very much the same way, the lyrics of The National’s album Boxer help shape a new Lost Generation, their psyches profoundly influenced by atrocities inflicted upon innocent thousands by the wills of religious zealots. One could imagine another Lost Generation—another score of young people shaken to their psychological roots after some future horror—and consider in advance the various artistic endeavors produced by those coming of age in this time, ponder the similarities their yet-invented heroes might have to Jacob Barnes. It’s possible to predict that history might again repeat itself—but it isn’t pretty to think so.

  1. Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 1926.  2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

  2. The National. “Green Gloves.” Boxer, 2007. Source 2

  3. The National. “Mistaken for Strangers.” Boxer, 2007. Source 2

  4. The National. “Slow Show.” Boxer, 2007. Source 2

  5. The National. “Guest Room.” Boxer, 2007. Source

  6. The National. “Fake Empire.” Boxer, 2007. Source 2

  7. The National. “Start a War.” Boxer, 2007. Source

  8. The National. “Brainy.” Boxer, 2007. Source

  9. The National. “Ada.” Boxer, 2007. Source

  10. The National. “Apartment Story.” Boxer, 2007. Source 2

  11. The National. “Racing Like a Pro.” Boxer, 2007. Source