Hemingway: To Be or Not To Be

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People were always asking Ernest Hemingway, the quintessential Twentieth-Century American author, about the symbolism in his stories and characters, as if seeking for some Holy Grail. But true to form, he’d simply wave the questions away; but in a letter to his friend, Bernard Berenson (written on Sept. 13, 1952, published in Ernest Hemingway : Selected Letters 1917-1961 (1981) edited by Carlos Baker) Ernest expanded his response stating “Then there is the other secret. There isn’t any symbolysm [sic]. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.” True enough. But then sometimes the boy and the old man are one and the same and the sea is life and the sharks are death and one man’s greatest fear of questioning death.

So do I and all the others who sense a deeper, personal meaning lies beyond the simple, eloquent words and recurrent undertones in Hemingway’s literature disrespect the man by not being satisfied with the bromide he wanted us to adopt? If he were here with us now, perhaps that would be true. Yet it is the very fact that he is NOT here (and why that is) which appears to lend credence to our suspicions. Back and forth, throughout his life, Hemingway tossed and turned a mythic coin where on one side bellowed that suicide was cowardice and on the other side, seductively urged that suicide was the reward earned by those heroic enough to stare it down by living their lives to the fullest and knowing when to simply (albeit un- gracefully) bow out. For all his turmoil, picking at the scab of the legacy of self-inflicted death that ran rampant in his bloodline, one can never say that Hemingway hadn’t lived a rich and courageous life and appears to have died in peace despite the noise, mess and shock of gunpowder and bullet, Ernie was ready for the silence.

Having lost more than a handful of friends to death by their own hand, I know the sense of emptiness and despair that visits those who’ve loved and been left behind, too often without a clue as to why. It is not something that I have (nor would) ever consider for myself for reasons from the profound to the trivial. Yet, I neither condone nor condemn Hemingway’s choice to end his life and instead am merely grateful that he left so much for us to remember him by, that causes us to think, to pick, to turn over in our hands and minds, and to be inspired by his tremendous ability to live every single moment.

One final thought, for those of you who think this post is rather morbid, I invite you to read through the lyrics to that iconic theme song from the 1970’s movie and television series, M*A*S*H”, sub-titled “Suicide Is Painless”. Mike Altman, the son of the film’s director, Robert Altman, was sensitive and wise in the way that only a 14-year-old can be when he penned these words that can best be summed up by remembering:

Life is a choice we make each and every day.

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