WASHINGTON, D.C.--We had a poster in our Spanish class, which was emblazoned with the most beautiful man I had ever seen. He had a sharp nose, the kind of nose a classmate in my year at school had—a sand-haired mien which had been captured in a series of onyx-backed, beautifully rendered photographs in the literary magazine I run—and which I envied, and thin calves, and a back which slanted in great symmetry around the tomato colored curve of a cape. Though I hardly slid by with borderline A’s all four semesters of my short-lived stint with the Spanish language, the words printed at his feet were ones I understood; September 5th, it read, a bull-fight, followed by the man’s sonorous share of syllables.
The text on the poster was the color of a rhubarb crisp overdone and the paper that of the accompanying crust and thought it was set in a wooden frame which appeared almost fake—an imposter of an imposter—the poster had to it the same honest and archaic charm whose presence in a similar poster had earlier that week turned my family’s favor to a certain dark salmon walled apartment on Airbnb.
My sister is writing an essay this week on Ernest Hemingway, a man whose works she has not cared to read. Finding her apathy and my passion for such assignments a convenient intersection, I sit posed with an old copy of The Sun Also Rises, and proceed to marvel at the parallels I discover as existing between the scenes unfolding within and without the novel’s tangerine-colored cover. “We often talked about bulls and bull-fighters,” I read to myself as across the table my sister scrolls mindlessly through an Instagram feed on her i-Phone. She has a document open on her laptop titled ‘Hemingway report’ in which she has capitalized the H in Hemingway and not the ‘r’ in report, an asymmetry whose evasion of Microsoft Word’s militant typographic scrutiny strikes me somehow as remarkable.
“I had stopped at the Montoya for several years. We never talked for very long at a time. It was simply the pleasure of discovering what we each felt. Men would come in from distant towns and before they left Pamplona stop and talk for a few minutes with Montoya about bulls. These men were aficionados. Those who were aficionados could always get rooms even when the hotel was full. Montoya introduced me to some of them.”
I think as my sister proceeds to write some choppy and carless sentences along the lines of “Ernest Hemingway was a famous writer who wrote about the post-war uncertainties following the first World War,” about our upcoming trip to Spain, what my father has said about bullfighting having been outlawed where we will be staying, which is Barcelona, but mostly I think about the word ‘bull’ itself.
While Merriam Webster defines a bull as a noun connoting “a male bovine,” the phrase has long been linguistic shorthand for ‘bullshit,’ a fact Urban Dictionary confirms. “Short for “bullshit,” or “bullcrap, “meaning rubbish,” the listing on the site, posted by user KerrAvon on October 10, 2003, reads, offering the following example: “That’s complete bull.” Returns for search of the longhand, bullshit, prove clearer. “Bullshit,” says Wikipedia, “is a common English expletive which may be shortened to the euphemism bull or the initialism BS.” Urban Dictionary offers up, “A blatant lie, a flagrant untruth, an obvious fallacy. Or, the excrement of cattle,” and the similar, though vaguer, “Something far from the truth.”
I think, as she attempts and fails to decode Hemingway’s use of symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants without the consolation of Shmoop.com, why it is that this phrase should sound to me imperative. The answer to this strange and sad question proves the same as have the answers to many similar such questions posed in the wake of this past November. That answer, of course, lies in the realm of the many and varied moral transgressions of then Presidential candidate and now President Donald Trump. It lies, specifically, with his apparently limitless capacity for deceit, his most recent exercise of which proved to land with all the grace of a hydrogen bomb at the yearly shamrock ceremony this past Friday.
“As we stand together with our Irish friend,” Trump spoke this Saint Patrick’s Day, “I’m reminded of that proverb—and this is a good one, this is one I like; I’ve heard it for many, many years and I love it—“Always remember to forget the friends that proved untrue. But never forget to remember those that have stuck by you.” Followed by cordial statements by visiting Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, Trump’s comment about his personal connection with words from the Emerald Isle seemed a diplomatic and out of character display of tact. The only problem? The phrase wasn’t one to which he has, or even could have, a personal connection, and, yes, you’ve guessed it: it wasn’t even Irish.
This so-called ‘proverb,’ internet sleuths have uncovered, are actually lines belonging to a poem by a man CNN identifies as “a Nigerian banker who wrote the poem in college.” The irony for Trump? Not only is the poem, posted by Alhassan in January 2013, too young to merit use of the description as something with which he’s been familiar for “many, many years,” better yet, is a sentiment expressed by a Muslim, a member of the group Trump has systemically targeted both on the campaign trail and into his stay at Pennsylvania Avenue.
The irony of Trump’s usurpation of his speech was not lost on Alhassan, who told CNN, “I have heard a lot about Trump. Especially the fact that he victimized some of my people, some Muslims.” Many were quick to take to twitter to rebuke not only Trump’s fake proverb but also the heavy helping of bullshit with which he presented it, among them Irish-Americans bewildered at so blatant a disregard for their holiday and culture. “Have literally never heard this in my entire life,” tweeted Dublin-based journalist Christine Bohan; “With all due respect to the president's reputation for scrupulously checking his sources,” said @theirishfor, “I don't think this is an Irish proverb.”
While my sister grapples with Hemingway’s symbolism-wrought landscape, I come to the full and frightening realization that Trump’s lies, unlike those of the rational sort, are not well-intentioned, or even calculated fabrications, but rather blatant and dangerously careless utterances with no regard whatsoever for their mendacity’s purpose.
I decide, as I reacquaintance myself with the hooves beating on Hemingway’s cobblestone-bedded Pamplona, that like the running of the bulls, the triumph of deceit has been a stampede, that Trump’s time on the political scene has been “a spectacle with unexplained horrors” alongside which we long have been jogging. Birtherism, statistics which jump their calculated upper bounds by thirty million and the preposterous claim that Americans in New Jersey cheered on September 11, 2001 as the Twin Towers collapsed to rubble stomp on in a sickening crescendo of hooves.
That Trump’s falsehoods venture far into the realm of what one Urban Dictionary user calls a place “distinguished from a lie . . . [which] simply does not care whether it is true or false,” is a fact which has left few contented to stand behind the avenue’s barriers. Whether it is in absolute terror of or in riotous celebration at the barbarism which for decades has, at least in American society, been forced under wraps, liberals and conservative alike have joined in observance of the macabre sport.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner pointed to this phenomenon in the New Yorker’s February 20 live stream, where, agreeing with novelist Salman Rushdie that Trump is, indeed, a spectacle, he said, “That 77 minute press conference, you couldn't turn it off. You wanted to—you wanted to die—but it was mesmeric."
As my sister continues her essay, now a page double-spaced on a Word document, I find new relevance in the following passage: “Outside the ring, after the bull-fight was over, you could not move in the crowd. We could not make our way through but had to be moved with the whole thing, slowly, as a glacier, back to town. We had that disturbed emotional feeling that always comes after a bull-fight, and the feeling of elation that comes after a good bull-fight.”
That the New Yorker recently published an article entitled “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” in which various studies were plucked from Harvard and Stanford studies of the 1970s to demonstrate that it is emotion and not the presentation of facts which sways the mind for or against a position or cause is far from surprising.
Both F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said that “No amount of fire or freshness can change what a man will store up in his ghostly heart,” and my friends, who on the steps of the Cal engineering library earlier today agreed that it was not any set of numbered reasons that had led them to fixations with certain selective colleges, but rather a “feeling,” which had inclined them so, confirm what is a conclusion at which most liberals would balk: that our choices are encouraged and reigned not through the presentation of facts, but rather through the less calculable and more unpredictable influence of personal emotion.
Across the table, my sister has finished a second paragraph, having interjected a string of sentences where she speaks to Hemingway’s metaphoric mountains and in which she uses the word ‘white’ three times where I would have varied the descriptive with its synonyms such as ‘eggshell’ or ‘ivory.’ I think about November as I watch her type, about how loyally we liberals clung to our facts and figures from the primaries' start through election night's finish.
I think how, as liberals, members of a group to whom facts are important, we believed facts would save us. We believed in such a theory full stop, with no reservation. What we failed in was not a weak conviction in such a belief—journalism and protests both within and in response to the election season prove as much—but rather blindness to the equal and opposite conviction held by the right: that theory, none the weaker and probably the stronger, that emotion was their lifeboat.
I think how the presentation of facts to a group which deals not in fact but in emotion was, despite its seeming logicality, as hopeless as presenting Hershey's kisses as casino chips or Mexico's translucent butterfly-stamped bills at gas station counters at home in the States. Anyone who has tried to appeal to a friend’s reason on the topic of a boyfriend or spouse’s character, I think, has experienced on a micro scale what has on a macro scape proved responsible for the Republican usurpation of our nation’s governmental trinity.
I read another paragraph from my softbound copy. “They [the Spanish] were always very polite at first, and it amused them very much that I should be an American. Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have aficion [passion for bullfighting]. He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it.”
The scene seems to paint an allegory for the incredulity other nations feel towards what has proven our not only recent acceptance of, but our recent passion for rhetoric; the captured incredulity, I am aware, will, along with brown stone architecture and superior seafood be a force present where a year ago my math teacher, who returned with two Picasso pigeon prints for his daughters respective rooms, managed to vacation undisturbed. It is shocking to the world that we, the simultaneous parent of and posterchild for liberty should have fallen so low as to condone such a sport.
My sister stands from the table. Offers me a cup of coffee, which I decline. My mind is buzzing already, an effect produced of what has been upwards of six months' reverberation of the pounding of hooves. “It’s fine,” I say, after having perused the document, though it is not. The hooves make a sharp sound, like splitting wood, or tap shoes on a hollow black-box stage on which their dance falls dense.
“It’s an abortion, right?” she asks me. “The operation.”
“Read the story,” I say, because now I am sad, sad and not angry because anger, which is an individual thing, has fled to leave behind an emptiness, the kind of solemnity reserved instead to empty trenches and silent soccer fields.
"Shmoop says it is," she says, having acquired the website's confirmation.
She has titled her essay, corrected the lowercase 'r' in 'report,' and I am remembering, because of the hoove-sounds, a Wikipedia page I came across last week which chronicled China's instillation of a brass bull, a sculpture birthed from the same set of hands, similar, though ruddier metal than that responsible for our Wall Street standard. I return to the page as she compares what small familiarity she has acquired with the story with the plot supplied her by Sparknotes.
The sculpture, which stands in Shanghai’s Bund Square, became so popular that guards and ropes were established at its perimeter to dissuade those who wished to touch the instillation. These efforts proved futile. “Eventually,” explains the report, “the cordoning was discontinued due to the strong public desire to be close to the bull,” and I think how the reporting seems, as reporting sometimes does, to mean a good deal more than is printed.
The sound of the hooves continues, but it is the weekend, and my yellow legal pad is upstairs on my desk, and I am tired at this point, as even the journalists with more retractable high school mile times must now be. Though I am certain that for much of the crowd “the fiesta was going on,” I find myself flipping to the place in the novel where Robert Cohn, a lanky, intellectual character who once boxed at Princeton, a character whom the other characters vehemently dislike but who I find moral and so quite admire, retires himself from the buzz of the procession to a cool and dark hotel room.
The phrase “discontinued due to the strong public desire” hums in my head with the intensity the cognac must hummed with Cohn as he laid on the cool low bed, nursing, or trying to nurse his mind in that room where the shades on the terrace were open to the street sounds below. The printer is also humming, and humming loud, but it is cool in the place Cohn retires. I stop to catch my breath.