Tourism and Cohn

As I read through The Sun Also Rises, I found myself interested in Cohn. My initial assessment of him was one of limited perception, someone who lives in fantasy and can’t see out of that (while the others live in disillusionment or boredom or a state of indeterminacy, as Tyler suggested in his post). The apex of Cohn’s story arc (and the climax of the book I would argue) is the fight scene in the bar wherein the building tension between Cohn and Michael (a contest centered on Brett’s time and attention) is released and our narrator Jake gets punched for concealing Brett’s shifting intimacy with other characters. This stems from Cohn’s obsession with Brett and his inability to accept that she’s moved on to another lover— a frustration that can’t be resolved with physical violence either. Again, Cohn really differs from the others in the group: he contrasts with Jake’s listlessness and indifference, and Michael’s drunken anger and frustration. Cohn gives us an image of someone who experiences emotion that isn’t alcohol induced-- emotion that is all consuming, that is uncontrollable (as in the fight scene), and that dictates his movement through the world. Cohn’s perception of this world is skewed. He cannot see or accept Brett for how she is (which arguably Brett herself has trouble seeing and accepting herself, as in the final resolution chapter), nor can he deal (healthily) with that reality when he sees it.

I bring all this up because he is cast as the most transatlantic character. Jake pays particular attention to Cohn’s Jewishness throughout the text, especially in the first few chapters, which maybe brings up questions of his family’s homeland and origins for a post-war audience (?). And Cohn is directly connected to the theme of travel and tourism. Cohn transatlantic imagination is established in the first two chapters as he reads Hudson’s “The Purple Land” and tries to convince Jake to visit South America with him. The book “recounts splendid imaginary amorous adventures of a perfect English gentleman in an intensely romantic land.” Jake reflects that Cohn “took every word of “The Purple Land” as [literal]” (17) and by Cohn’s own admission he confesses that the imaginary space of this transatlantic text is what convinces him of traveling (18). In their conversation, Jake connects and refutes the idea of travel with escaping one’s own mind through distraction: “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that” (19).

Obviously, this scene prefaces a travel narrative in which people are trying to escape themselves through different means. Indeed, it is the trip Cohn takes to San Sebastian with Brett (during which he falls in love) which builds up narrative/character tension. In foreign lands, then, is the potential for something new, for some development and progression. But the narrative doesn’t really progress as the group visits Spain, or at least the characters don’t progress with the narrative. Nothing really happens as they travel, even though Cohn falls in love and punches some people. The group continues to go to bars and have homosocial interactions that sometimes go well and sometimes don’t. Jake sees the world and reports it to us, but it is in the same place with the same problems as when he began (and he is the same person). There is a tension, then, between movement and stasis that isn’t resolved one way or the other. Arguably this is founded on the idea of (transatlantic) tourism, the visiting of foreign locales.