Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Rebirth of Douglas Harding

"I think Ernest hated us by the end. He deprived us of his head." (Norman Mailer)

This post will be in somewhat poor taste, I'm afraid. On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway killed himself by putting a shotgun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. That same year, the London Buddhist Society published a book by Douglas Harding called On Having No Head. It opens as follows:

The best day of my life—my rebirthday, so to speak—was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.

Over a series of posts earlier this month, I've been trying to argue that literature and mysticism are attempts to deal with the same problem, call it "existence", by different means. One natural way to think of the problem of existence is in terms of our mortality, i.e., the inevitability of our death. And here I've been comparing specifically the life projects of Ernest Hemingway and Sri Ramana Maharshi, who, I've suggested, have said strikingly similar things about death, even as they faced that condition in radically different ways.

We might say that Harding and Hemingway likewise dealt with existence in very different ways. Before he discovered that he had no head, Harding had "for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I?" Then he "suddenly stopped thinking":

Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in—absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head. (Extract at

Compare this to the "encounter with nothingness" that William Barrett drew attention to in Hemingway's "Clean Well-lighted Place":

What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was all nada y pues nada y pues nada. Our nada who are in nada, nada be thy name... [etc.]

Harding's "rebirthday" occured in 1942, when he was thirty-three. "A Clean Well-lighted Place" was published in 1933, when Hemingway was about the same age. But while Harding understood intuitively already then that he had no head, Hemingway had only just begun a longer journey, towards a much more tragic interpretation of the same idea.*

Like I say, I'm aware that all this is in terribly bad taste when just stated baldly like this. But I do think there's an important point, even a shred of wisdom, in the juxtaposition. When I get my mind all the way around it, I'll write something more sensitive.

*Update 23.09.13: I just added a footnote to a previous post on this subject. In the note I criticize Mailer's reaction to Hemingway's death as an example of our desire to interpret it as the end of the "tragedy" of his life. For good order Orson Welles definitive dismissal of this in his 1974 an interview with Michael Parkinson should be noted here too: "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."

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