Monday, July 7, 2014

The Sun Also Rises on The Festival of San Fermin: aka The Running of the Bulls



Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly  to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton.        The Sun Also Rises

The big news this year for San Fermin aficionados is the upcoming release of a new edition of The Sun Also Rises, first  published in 1926, with Hemingway's alternate opening. Not with Robert Cohn, as above, but, as Patricia Cohen in the NYTimes explained: "Originally, Hemingway began his tale of the Lost Generation by introducing its beautiful and heartsick embodiment, Brett Ashley: 'This is a novel about a lady.' ”

Wow. That would have put a whole different perspective on this post World War 1 tale of searing hopelessness.

Each generation finds The Sun Also Rises, which limns the fervor of the Festival of San Fermin as experienced by the brittle, crushed, shredded souls who lived through the Great War. Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley & crew are always talking about water of some sort—to bathe, to drink, to quench the bottomless thirst for humanity & connection that was destroyed in the trenches. They are the Lost Generation, which doesn't seem as much of a cliche this year, the centennial of the start of World War 1, when attention is focused on just how devastating that world event was.

The Feast Is Not in Honor of Bulls
The festival's roots are in Roman times. Wiki tells us:

Fermin is said to have been the son of a Roman of senatorial rank in Pamplona in the 3rd century, who was converted to Christianity by Saint Honestus, a disciple of Saint Saturninus. According to tradition, he was baptised by Saturninus (in Navarra "San Cernin") at the spot now known as the Pocico de San Cernin, the "Small Well of San Cernin." There is no written record of veneration in Pamplona of the Saint until the 12th century. Saint Fermin, as well as Saint Francis Xavier, are now the two patrons of Navarre.

Bullrunning appears in 17th and 18th century chronicles together with the presence of foreigners and the first concerns on the excessive drinking and dissolute behavior during the event. The Giant's Parade was created by the end in the mid of the 19th century. The first official bullring was constructed in 1844. 


Here is a schedule of these year's ceremonies that are held from July 6 to 14. The "run" started because bulls to fight in the evening were kept in off-site corrals, and had to get from point A to point B.  Good overview article in Newsweek.

I Happen Upon Pamplona, Iruna in Basque
In 2002 I did a tour in Spain & Portugal performing with a small acapella group from the Upper West Side.  I knew the itinerary included singing at Santiago de Compostela and the Bilbao Guggenheim (where I had to suffer the Jeff Koons Puppy in person).

I did not know that some of the group was planning to get up at 4:00 am to drive over from San Sebastian,  Donostia in Basque, and I went along.

This was quite a journey for me. The Sun Also Rises startled, rattled, and rocked my college world. And now I was making my way through the endless sea of red and white, looking for the sophisticates of Jake and Lady Brett, only to find hordes and hordes of drunk English college boys.

My friends and I didn’t even try to see the actual run, but went to the bullring, where they enter at the end of the three minute run.

We found good seats right above the door of the ring, and saw the bulls charge in at incredible speeds to a deafening roar from the crowd. The pulse of the entire scene is enormous. Blood is hot and pumping everywhere. When the fever of the run is over, there is a playful time with baby bulls and cows in the ring. The sun rises further and further, and it gets hotter and hotter still until you find a cool wineskin to drink from.

I got separated from my friends amidst the pandemonium of leaving the bullring. I made my way through the narrow, stone streets packed with people moving in every direction at once. I managed to break through a particularly bad body jam, turned a corner, and was amazed to see 6 Gigantes--30 feet figures of a Moor, an Indian, a King and Queen--literally towering over the chaos, with a majestic stillness and quietness. It was eerie and beautiful, medieval and carnival all together.

The Festival of San Fermin is so much more than the bulls. It is a mélange of folklore and Catholicism--people go to the main Mass each day, and the procession of the saint is important. I was struck by how many families were there. The Basques and the Spanish are very elegant people, with strong family bonds.

Everything about Pamplona shouts of life and it takes on the inherent difficulties of the human condition: like the crazy hubris to goad and run with bulls to the darker side of cruelty to animals. I can't defend bullfighting, but I believe in primal forces, not all of which can be "civilized" or intellectualized out of humanity. And, no one ever said humanity is smart. 15 runners have died since they started keeping records, in 1923.

Hemingway took it all in, and couldn't let it go. He did what he could: he wrote to underscore the frailty of our lives:

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes.” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”



(My photos of The Feast of San Fermin, Pamplona)

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