Sunday, October 7, 2018

ERNEST HEMINGWAY AND THE ART OF MINDFUL LIVING

Ernest Hemingway went out in style—with a double-barrelled shotgun. In saying that, I don’t wish to be seen to be making light of suicide. In my own family, I lost a grandmother, a great-aunt, and a great-grandfather, and possibly one or two others as well, to suicide. Those left behind after the suicide of a family member or close friend ordinarily struggle with a particularly difficult grief, yet I learned long ago that it is always wrong to pass any form of judgement on the deceased in relation to their decision to end their life.

In his final years Hemingway was beset with physical and psychological troubles and was not helped by an American government that incessantly trailed him with FBI agents, in both Cuba (where he lived in the 1940s and '50s) and the United States, and which in 1960 basically told him to denounce the Castro regime and leave Cuba or face the consequences, namely, being declared a traitor by Washington authorities.


Hemingway refused to denounce the Castro regime. He had declared his solidarity with Cuba in January 1959. He wrote that he believed completely in the 'historical necessity' [sic] of the Cuban Revolution. He knew that the Castro regime was far from perfect but he had also lived through the years when, for all intents and purposes, the American Mafia, in cahoots with the CIA, ran Cuba. At least Castro got rid of the Mafia from Cuba, even if they went elsewhere, and he gave the Cuban people universal health carea damn good thingand a decent education system. (No, dear reader, I am not a Commie. I simply believe in giving credit where credit is dueand putting the boot in as well when that is necessary.) 

Anyway, Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary left the Cuba they loved for good on July 25, 1960, leaving behind thousands of books, personal papers and memorabilia. Hemingway found his own solution to his troubles on July 2, 1961. Even on that last fateful day, the dreadful J Edgar Hoover’s agents were located just 150 metres from his house in Ketchum, Idaho.

Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway.
Havana, Cuba, May 1960.

Local fishermen erected this monument
in memory of Hemingway at Cojímar,
a town east of Havana.

My wife, youngest son and I were recently in Cuba for a holiday. It was a great trip and we travelled all over Cuba. I loved the people, the architecture of the buildings, the mountains and valleys, and the music. The hotels we stayed in were grand and we also stayed with some delightful Cuban families in their own homes. The people we met were happy for the most part, despite many problems, made much worse by the American embargo. That the latter continues to this day, after almost 60 years, is a disgrace. It does not speak well of the United States. 
The embargo, which has been condemned by the United Nations with overwhelming support every year since 1992, has been called a sustained act of genocide against the Cuban people—and it is. The accumulated cost of the embargo to Cuba over almost 60 years amounts to close to 934 billion United States dollars.

The Cuban people, especially in Havana, revere Ernest Hemingway, and while we were in Havana we went to Hemingway’s former home and farm Finca Vigía (now a museum), the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he resided in 1939, the hotel La Terraza de Cojimar at Cojímar, the little port town 9.6 km east of Havana where Hemingway kept his fishing boat, the Pilar, which was the inspiration for the village Hemingway depicted in The Old Man and the Sea, and the restaurant-bars El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, where Hemingway ate and drank (mostly the latter, its seems). In all these places, and many others, there are photos and other memorabilia recalling Hemingway’s presence in Cuba. Books or parts of his novels were written on the island. Copies of those books, as well as many biographies of the man and his life in Cuba, can be purchased in Havana book shops and elsewhere in Cuba.

Entrance to Finca Vigía

My wife and son outside Finca Vigía

Yours truly at the top of the tower at Finca Vigía

Hemingway’s writing style has been much written about and discussed. A former journalist and war correspondent, Hemingway is the master of the short, unadorned sentence, direct speech and simple dialogue. He uses no unnecessary words. His vocabulary is often tight but expressive and charged with meaning, even when reduced to only a few words. Sentences tend to be arranged in sequence rather than in a logical pattern. Take, for example, this exchange from chapter 10 of For Whom the Bell Tolls(Some of that novel, which arose out of Hemingway's own experience, was written in Cuba.)

‘What are you going to do with us?’ one asked him.
‘Shoot thee,’ Pablo said.
‘When?’ the man asked in the same gray voice.
‘Now,’ said Pablo.
‘Where?” asked the man.
‘Here,’ said Pablo. ‘Here. Now. Here and now.’
‘Have you anything to say?’
‘Nada,’ said the man. ‘Nothing. But it is an ugly thing.’

Hemingway's study in Finca Vigía


Hemingway's study in Finca Vigía
Vestibule and room where Hemingway
received his family and friends at 
Finca Vigía

In Hemingway’s famous short story ‘The Killers’, the author makes effective use of tight, machine gun-like exchanges such as the following to create an atmosphere of impending doom:

‘What's he going to do?’
‘Nothing.’
‘They'll kill him.’
‘I guess they will.’
‘He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago.’
‘I guess so,’ said Nick.
‘It's a hell of a thing.’
‘It's an awful thing,’ Nick said.
They did not say anything. George reached down for a towel and wiped the counter.
‘I wonder what he did?’ Nick said.
‘Double-crossed somebody. That's what they kill them for.’
‘I'm going to get out of this town,’ Nick said.
‘Yes,’ said George. ‘That's a good thing to do.’
‘I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it. It's too damned awful.’
‘Well,’ said George, ‘you better not think about it.’

His themes and ideas arise from and out of the story and its imagery, as opposed to being thrust upon the reader as is the case with many writers. The emphasis is on action rather than introspection (although the latter is there as well). His aim, in his own words, is to record 'the way it was'. He is a master of mindfulness, recording what happens more-or-less as it happens or as it happened not that long ago. Even when one of his characters recalls something that has already happened, the remembrance of the event generally takes place in the context of the character remembering in the present moment what has already happened. That is the essence of mindfulness, along with remembering to stay present in the present moment, from one moment to the next, and remembering what is present.


Some of the 8,000 books in
Hemingway's library at Finca Vig
ía 

The 'Pilar' aFinca Vigía

Listen to these words from chapter 11 of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway contrasts the directness and immediacy of life itself, experienced mindfully, with an experience of life that falls short of that:

You only heard the statement of the loss. You did not see the father fall as Pilar made him see the fascists die in that story she had told by the stream. You knew the father died in some courtyard, or against some wall, or in some field or orchard, or at night, in the lights of a truck, beside some road. You had seen the lights of the car from down the hills and heard the shooting and afterwards you had come down to the road and found the bodies. You did not see the mother shot, nor the sister, nor the brother. You heard about it; you heard the shots; and you saw the bodies.

In chapter 13 of the novel, the combatant Robert Jordan, a young American fighting in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, and Maria, a young woman who has been captured by the Fascists, have just made love in the heather. Shortly thereafter, we get these words from Hemingway, words that are more openly philosophical than is usual for him:

You have it now and that is all your whole life is; now. There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you will never get, you will have a good life.
 A good life is not measured by any biblical span.


My wife and son at La Terraza de Cojímar

Hemingway lives on at La Bodeguita del Medio

A life-size bronze statue of Hemingway
at the end of the bar in El Floridita

Each one of us is an inlet and an outlet of life's self-expression. Life is forever renewing itself, and expressing itself, as the present moment—from one moment to the next and ever onwards. Life is this moment and life is the reality of our very selves. We are the action of life that is always taking place. We live in the eternal now—the present moment forever renewing itself. The past? It exists only as a present memory. The future? It exists only as a hope. 

Life is endless movement—from one moment to the next. Any meaning we find must be found in the moment-to-moment experience of the eternal now, which is that ‘present’ which is forever renewing itself in and as each new moment. Eternity—the eternal now—is not the present time plus all the past and all the future, nor is it a postmortem experience. It is a present—indeed, ever-present—reality. In truth, there is no time after time after time. The eternal now transcends time altogether. There is a ‘present’ in the present as well as a ‘present’ beyond the ‘present’. Of course, in a very real sense the eternal now and the so-called temporal now are one and the same! Everything is—here now! Life is eternal, and we are alive in eternity—now! Well, at least we should be.

So, cherish this present moment. It is more than enough, even though it is so fleeting and ephemeral. Nevertheless, seize the moment—and live.