Friday, November 11, 2011

Hemingway: "I spend a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I won't kill myself."

Ernest Hemingway, author and the original, literary self-created image of a macho man, killed himself July 2, 1961. Yet after fifty years it's still unclear why Hemingway -- dressed in a favorite robe for his final exit -- fulfilled a kind of predestined end for himself.
For months his wife, Mary, publicly claimed he accidentally shot himself cleaning guns at six in the morning. Others knew better: He offered a much more likely warning to those who partied with him: "I spend a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish," he told Ava Gardner, "so I won't kill myself."
When the written word finally failed him, he was devastated. He could not compose a single sentence for a presentation volume for Kennedy's inauguration in January, 1961. His fear of failure contributed a creeping sense of illness -- the edges of dementia have been suggested over the years since his death -- but specific causes have been a mystery.
A new, full examination of Hemingway's ultimate decision appeared in the Independent, UK, based on psychological research indicating Hemingway's bipolar mood disorder, depression, chronic alcoholism, repetitive traumatic brain injuries, the onset of psychosis. The twentieth century's most celebrated literary tough guy had a death wish, instilled at an early age from a doting mother and a bullying father.
Here's an excerpt from the lengthy article by correspondent John Walsh, in which he identifies Papa Ernest's restlessness and macho personality as "a galloping parody of masculinity":

... Some answers were offered in 2006 by a long article in the American Psychiatry magazine, called "Ernest Hemingway: A Psychological Autopsy of a Suicide". It was by Christopher D. Martin, whose official title is Instructor and Staff Psychiatrist at the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston Texas. ...
He had no trouble in diagnosing the author as suffering from "bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, traumatic brain injury, and probably borderline and narcissistic personality traits". He notes that many in the Hemingway family –- his father and mother, their siblings, his own son and his grand-daughter Margaux -– were prone to manic-depression (Margaux's was the fifth, or possibly sixth, suicide in four generations) and suggests that it was Ernest's manic episodes that drove him to his astonishing feats of creativity. But he locates the writer's trauma in two childhood experiences.
It seems that it was his mother Grace's habit to dress him, as a child, in long white frocks and fashion his hair like a little girl's. It was a 19th-century custom to dress infants alike, but she took it to extremes. She referred to him, in his cute lacy dress, as "Dutch dolly". She said she was his Sweetie, or, as he pronounced it, "Fweetee". Once, when Ernest was two, Grace called him a doll once too often. He replied, "I not a Dutch dolly ... Bang, I shoot Fweetee".
But she also praised him for being good at hunting in the woods and fishing in the stream in boys' clothes. It was too confusing for a sensitive kid. He always hated her, and her controlling ways. He always referred to her as "that bitch". He'd spend the rest of his life in a galloping parody of masculinity. Dutch dolly indeed. He'd show the bitch there was no confusion in his head.
"I shoot Fweetee." The trouble was, he also wanted to shoot his father. Clarence Hemingway was a barrel-chested, six-foot bully, a disciplinarian who beat his son with a razor strop. Ernest didn't retaliate directly. He bottled it up and subsumed it into a ritual, in which he'd hide in a shed in the family backyard with a loaded shotgun and take aim at his father's head.
Martin speculates that, when Clarence shot himself, Hemingway, aged 29, felt terrible guilt that he'd fantasised about killing him. Unable to handle this, he took to blaming his mother for his father's death. "I hate her guts and she hates mine," he wrote in 1949. "She forced my father to suicide."
After Clarence's death, Hemingway told a friend, "My life was more or less shot out from under me, and I was drinking much too much entirely through my own fault". ...

(Photo by George Karger, Time Life/Getty)

"The pure products of America go crazy": William Carlos Williams' pronouncement -- though not specifically aimed at Hemingway -- is a good analysis of the psychodrama of Hemingway's life, and the highwire act he performed in the glare of the camera lights. It's a supreme irony that at the end, as the river of creativity dried up, Hemingway couldn't handle the ultimate silence that echoed in his thoughts.
As with some other writers who try to silence that deafening roar with drugs, alcohol, and obsession, the sound Hemingway was trying to erase with the sound of a shotgun blast was the ultimate tolling of a single bell. At the end, it was the only sound Hemingway could really hear.

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