Happy Birthday, Mr. Hemingway

Today is Ernest Hemingway’s birthday. Hemingway is one of my literary heroes, and my eternal man-crush.

Hemingway has a lot to say about wine, and alcohol in general. It’s not a secret that Hemingway loved to drink.  And he wasn’t a particularly picky drinker, either.  He’d drink just about anything. But these are perhaps his best and most well known words about wine:


If you’re a wine lover, you’ve probably seen these words before.  But you may not know that Hemingway wrote them as part of an analogy between bullfighting and wine.

The words come from Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s dissertation on the world of Spanish bullfighting in the 1920s and 30s.  Although a lot of the book is very technical, it’s also an examination and reflection on fear, courage, the meaning of life, and more importantly (at least for Hemingway) the meaning of death.

My copy of DitA

I never download Hemingway to my Kindle.  It feels disrespectful. There’s something necessarily tactile about Hemingway.  I need to hold his words in my hands.

I first read Death in the Afternoon before a trip to Spain many years ago. While we were on that trip, we had an opportunity to go to a bullfight. I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly excited about the idea, but I also knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go.  When in Madrid . . .

Bullfighting is all at once passionate, bewildering, majestic and grotesque.  And really freaking hot.  We went in July (and if you’ve ever been to Spain in the summer, you know the average temperature is only 3 degrees less than the surface of the sun).  Naturally, we sat on the sunny sweaty side of the stadium, which I quickly figured out is where they put all the tourists.  The locals bask in the shade (you can identify the folks in the picture below as locals because they’re all wearing pants in that inferno).  Things got really exciting when one of the bulls jumped the inner permitter fence and mingled with the crowd in the shade.  I was never so happy to be sitting in the sun.


Hemingway was obsessed with the line between life and death, and he saw bullfighting as the ultimate expression of fear and courage, life and death.  Bullfighting is “like having a ringside seat at the war with nothing going to happen to you.”  (Unless the bull decides he wants to sit on your lap.)  Hemingway also admired the ritual of bullfighting as the height of performance art, once saying, “bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is at risk of death.”

Me?  I can appreciate bullfighting as a metaphor for fear, courage, life and death — and the ephemeral nature of it all.  I just don’t have the stomach for it.  I’m glad I’ve seen a bullfight . . . but I don’t need to see another one.

In the first chapter of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway veers off on a lengthy tangent about wine and bullfighting.  According to Hem, the enjoyment of bullfighting as an art increases in the same way that someone’s palate and appreciation for wine develops over time.  “These things cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring.”

But the words don’t end there . . .

Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world, and one of the natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range of enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing that may be purchased.

Or there . . .

One can learn about wines and pursue the education of one’s palate with great enjoyment, all of a lifetime . . . I would rather have a palate that will give the pleasure of enjoying completely a Château Margaux or a Haut Brion, even though the excesses indulged in the acquiring of it has brought a liver that will not allow me to drink Richebourg, Corton, or Chambertin, than to have the corrugated iron internals of my boyhood when all red wines were bitter except port and drinking was the process of getting down enough of anything to make you feel reckless.

Hemingway’s point boils down to this — an appreciation for bullfighting (or wine) comes with an open mind and an accumulation of knowledge.  You may not like it (bullfighting or wine) at first, but the more experience and knowledge you gather, the more your appreciation grows.

Makes sense to me.  Bullfighting and wine are acquired and cumulative tastes. I’m constantly acquiring and refining my taste for wine.  Bullfighting, not as much.


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