Friday, May 10, 2013

The Death of Ernest Hemingway

"Now sleeps he with that old whore death ... Do thee take this old whore death for thy lawful wedded wife?" (Ernest Hemingway, as used by Norman Mailer for the epigraph the first chapter of A Fire on the Moon, entitled "A Loss of Ego")

"Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies." (Sri Ramana Maharshi, recollecting the sensation when "the shock of the fear of death drove [his] mind inwards.")

On July 2, 1961, 38 years after he had gone to Pamplona for the first time to witness the "definite action" of "violent death", and 65 years after Ramana Maharshi overcame his fear of death "once and for all", Ernest Hemingway put a shotgun in his mouth and killed himself. Norman Mailer was in Mexico:

He was sick in that miasmal and not quite discoverable region between the liver an the soul. Hemingway's suicide left him wedded to horror. It is possible that in the eight years since, he never had a day which was completely free of thoughts of death.

In fact, he was not ready to accept that it was suicide.* Officially (and to secure a Catholic funeral) the death was treated as an accident, and Mailer was willing to provide an account of how that might have been true. Writing in Esquire in December of 1962 (Pres. Papers, p. 104-5), he "wonder[ed] if the deed were not more like a reconnaissance from which he did not come back". His argument depended on the possibility that the act of putting the barrel in his mouth and pushing the trigger into the "no-man's-land" of the first quarter of an inch where the gun will not go off and then towards that "division of a millimeter" to "the point where gun can go off" was a kind of existential experiment.

Hemingway, Mailer speculated, could "move the trigger up to that point and yet not fire the gun", and doing so would allow him to "come close to death without dying". His duende, then, would no doubt be circling close by. This was the core of Mailer's hypothesis—that "morning after morning, Hemingway [went] downstairs secretly in the dawn", his soul and liver sick with drink and pills and electrotherapy, and by exploring what Heidegger called his "ownmost possibility", i.e., the possibility of his own death, he "felt the touch of health return ninety times" out of a hundred, "ninety respectable times when he dared to press the trigger far into the zone where the shot could go." Then, on July 2, 1961, Mailer proposed, Hemingway said to himself

Look, we can go in further. It's going to be tricky and we may not get out, but it will be good for us if go in just a little further, so we have to try, and now we will ... gung ho, a little more, let's go in a little gung ho more ho. No! Oh no! Goddamn it to Hell.

There will be some who say: Nice, but it still is suicide.

Not if it went down that way. When we do not wish to live, we execute ourselves. If we are ill and yet want to go on, we must put up the ante. If we lose, it does not mean we wished to die.

It is said that Swami Vivekandanda died while meditating. "According to his disciples, [he] attained mahasamadhi," "the act of consciously and intentionally leaving one's body at the time of enlightenment. ... [T]he yogi finally casts off their mortal frame and their karma is extinguished upon death... [The] duality of subject and object are resolved and the yogi becomes permanently established in the unity of full enlightenment." "Here come I, eternity," Mailer imagines Hemingway's final defiant cry. "I trust you no longer. You must try to find me now, eternity. I am in little pieces." UFO theories notwithstanding, Sri Ramana Maharshi, whose "absorption in the Self [had] continued unbroken" for almost six decades, appears to have passed into eternity by natural causes.

*Update 22.09.13: Mailer's reaction is, at least partly, I suspect, an example of our desire to interpret Hemingway's suicide as the end of the "tragedy" of his life. I think Orson Welles provides the definitive dismissal of this view already in 1974, in an interview with Michael Parkinson: "He was a sick man ... He was was not well mentally ... In other words, the Hemingway we are talking about did not choose his death."


Anonymous said...

Hemingway took the easy way out. as many of us do. play with the trigger long enough and it will eventually go off. death and fear of death is a nice excuse. like all the other uncertainties that save us from lots of bitter commitments and realizations.

Thomas said...

Frankly, I think calling suicide "the easy way out" is the easy way out of understanding it. According to Wikipedia, Hemingway 'was treated with electroconvulsive therapy as many as 15 times in December 1960, then in January 1961 he was "released in ruins."'

Anonymous said...

and what is your understanding of suicide? i'm not sure if one can find it on wikipedia, but there are SO many people just around us who are "released in ruins" and do not put a gun in their mouth on a daily basis. in any case, understanding is a subjective judgement, isn't it?

Thomas said...

I guess I interpreted your remark as an objective judgment about all suicides, not your subjective understanding of Hemingway's in particular. I think everything depends on how the ruins looked to Hemingway himself.

Anyway, these last few posts have been an attempt to get at the problem of existence through "the encounter with nothingness". Since both Hemingway and Ramana understood their project in terms of their mortality, it was necessary to write about their deaths. In Hemingway's case it means considering the possibility that Mailer suggests, namely, that (and apparent) suicide is sometimes an existential act.

I forgot to mention in this post that only three years earlier he had suggested, though somewhat jokingly I suppose, that the best "intellectual training" for a writer would be a failed suicide attempt. He was trying to explain how difficult writing is. To me, it makes sense that a person whose identity is as tied to writing as Hemingway was, and who finds himself "ruined" in precisely that sense, would want to end it. Or, as I tried to suggest, perhaps Mailer is right: he was trying to survive his own suicide in order to be able to write again.

Ramana describes his own "death experience" precisely as a kind of living through of the death of his body. I guess, what I'm really doing here is comparing literary and mystical solutions to the problem of existence. Perhaps the easy way out of the conundrum of existence is not suicide, but becoming a writer? Or becoming a guru?

Anonymous said...

yes, i agree that becoming a writer is another easy way out... :)it is quite a perfect little space to pass subjective judgments and solve the "riddles" of existence back and forth. i'd say going through with existing hour after hour is the most difficult thing to do...

Apelles said...

Hemingways suicide was inevitable. Everything that could have been done to,help him was done. But life stresses, mental illness and the family history of 5 suicides was too much.

Thomas said...

Well, there's reason to think that a lot of things were done to him that did not help.