Deconstructing the matador

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Matador getting a close shave in a bullring. (

Here is something else from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Jake Barnes is at a bullfight in Pamplona describing to Lady Brett, as they watch, the finer points of an impressive new, young, very handsome matador’s style:

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Hemingway in bullring. (Hemingway Papers)

Romero never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line. The others twisted themselves like cork-screws, their elbows raised, and leaned against the flanks of the bull after his horns had passed, to give a faked look of danger. Afterward, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time. He did not have to emphasize their closeness. Brett saw how something that was beautiful done close to the bull was ridiculous if it were done a little way off. I told her how since the death of Joselito all the bull-fighters had been developing a technic that simulated this appearance of danger in order to give a fake emotional feeling, while the bull-fighter was really safe. Romero had the old thing, the holding of his purity of line through the maximum of exposure, while he dominated the bull by making him realize he was unattainable, while he prepared him for the killing.

I don’t know anything about Hemingway’s architectural tastes but he seems here almost to be channeling Le Corbusier, or at least what modernists claim to be the fundamentals of their style (while refusing to admit that it’s a style). “Contortions” or “cork-screws” = ornament. “Straight and pure” = simplicity and honesty. “Faked look of danger” = tradition.

But doesn’t he give the game away toward the end? He mentions that Romero “had the old thing, the holding of his purity of line through the maximum of exposure.” The old thing?! This suggests that purity of line is really not so new after all. And that Hemingway is really just waving a red cape at readers to rile them up and fake them out, diverting their attention from recognizing that this bullfighter’s style, though in eclipse for a while, was nothing new under the sun. The matador was a revivalist.

Of course, purity of line can characterize traditional architecture no less than modern architecture. It’s just more obvious in the latter. Still, the passage may have caused a lot of tingling among modern architects and theorists, and especially among literary critics who were all gassed up to declare Hemingway’s writing “modern.” Well, of course, Hemingway is not Henry James, but Papa’s style is straightforward. In other words, his style is far from anything new under the sun but rather a harking back – not so much to “old” ways as to more basic levels of prose, writing that seems to mimic how most people would assemble their sentences if they tried to write a novel.

In this, they are more akin to regular architects who just want to build a straightforward house that embraces the need to be useful but also attractive in a way that most people would like. Modern architecture (and genuinely modernist literature, such as the work of James Joyce) is a rejection of that, which is why most people are skeptical of both. Today’s modernists, unlike the modernists of the International Style that was arising alongside Heming- way’s early writing, are the real matadors of contortion and corkscrew.

So far as I know, Hemingway never wrote anything about modern architecture, or any architecture, though he did say “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.” He wrote that in his nonfictional account of bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon. Seeming to invoke the eclipse of tradition by modernism, he was actually railing against novelists whose characters spout philosophy directly as opposed to having it expressed indirectly through their actions. Mencken, who twice comes up in conversation during The Sun Also Rises, did once write about modern architecture. In “The New Architecture,” an editorial from 1931 in The American Mercury, which he edited, Mencken wrote:

The New Architecture seems to be making little progress in the United States. The traces of it that are visible in the current hotels, apartment-houses and office buildings are slight, and there are so few signs of it in domestic architecture and ecclesiastical archi- tecture that when they appear they look merely freakish. A new suburb built according to the plans of, say, Le Corbusier would provoke a great deal more mirth than admiration, and the realtor who projected it would probably be badly stuck.

Alas, Mencken turned out to be wrong.

By the way, Reflections on Ernest Hemingway, an interesting essay at by the playwright Tom Stoppard, is about Hemingway’s writing style.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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