Any ethics make no sense of everything, or this is what it means and has nothing else to say: not to be unworthy of what happens to us.
Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense
Ernest Hemingway’s stripped-down prose new literary voice captivated critics and readers alike. His outsized personality and macho swagger made him a star beyond the printed pages of his newspaper articles, short stories and novels. Behind the façade, however, Hemingway faces a lifelong battle against depression, alcoholism and mental health issues, all of which contributed to his death by suicide on July 2, 1961.
In the fall of 1960, Mary Welsh and Hemingway settled into a newly built house in Ketchum, Idaho. Hemingway’s instability intensified, as his worried mind became convinced that, despite his publishing success, he was on the verge of going broke. Also, he became extremely paranoid, convinced that he was under surveillance by the FBI. He threatened to kill himself several times and was unable to write. Deeply depressed, he was convinced by a doctor and his wife to travel to Mayo Clinic, where he was threatened with a new type of medication — Librium and electroconvulsive therapy. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. Upon returning home, he found keys to the gun cabinet and then shot himself in the head.
It’s a complex problem to understand Hemingway with his macho style of life, continuous suicidal life, self-destruction with four women and alcohol. At 60, he looked like an 80-year-old man. He was losing weight and feeling weaker. Often extravert types need to prove themselves and conceal insecurities.
Hemingway, a genius and undoubtedly one of America’s greatest writers, loved three things: the sea, writing and adventure. He loved the art of the word most, but it all fell into the water when it came to “Off to Floridita,” at least where Havana famous booze bars are concerned.
But if it wasn’t for that madness, we would have been deprived of his great deeds, although today it is part of a past that should somehow be redefined. Some institutions have deleted from curriculums /syllabus the reading of the novel The Old Man and the Sea. Still, generations will read it even if some have put him in the so-called cancel culture?
Personally, I think he killed himself because of all his physical degeneration. But how much did schizophrenia and genetics play a role? I don’t know. But bear in mind that in December 1928, when Hemingway was 29, his father shot himself with a family revolver, following a long period of both physical and financial setbacks.
“Is it our fault that Lawrence, Miller, Kerouac, Burrows, Arto and Beckett know more about schizophrenia than psychiatrists and psychoanalysts?”
Well, we didn’t know, but remember there were many more patients — artists, painters, musicians, and writers — who committed suicide: Thomas Dylan, Vincent Van Gogh, Yukio Mishima, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Giles Deleuze, Mark Rothko, Marta Gellhorn, etc.
When a female author dies by suicide, it defines her. From Virginia Woolf to Sylvia Plath, everything they did, everything they created during their life becomes part of a death-drive narrative. When a male author dies prematurely, it is seen as halting his creative output. Thus, we mourn the poetry that Dylan Thomas never wrote after he died at 39 in 1953, for example. The tragedy is seen as distinct from his self-destructive lifestyle. Woolf’s novels, Silvia Plath’s poetry and Kane’s plays are dubbed as being manifestations of mental illness, while Thomas’s poetry is called brilliant in spite of, rather than because of, his alcoholism and troubled life. Same story applies to Hemingway.
The Myth of Sisyphus: “Judging whether life is worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy” (Camus, 200)
French philosopher Gilles Deleuze committed suicide in 1995. He killed himself by jumping out of the window of his Parisian apartment. The general assumption is that he killed himself due to severe illness – he suffered from a weakening pulmonary ailment, he had a respiratory problem, had one lung removed, lost power of speech and writing – but still, not neglecting his suffering, the question remains: Is it possible to judge life as worthless and remain a persuasive philosopher?
The same thing happened with Hemingway, especially after the plane crash in 1955. Let’s say Albert Camus would asked himself “is such a life worth the worldly existence?”
Such a shift outlines some ethical issues between dying and death, for instance, by emphasizing that a life does not just stop, but rather closes or ends as a consequence of how it was lived. The end transforms everything in a life.
As Hemingway biographer Michael Reynolds wrote, “Hemingway was existential long before the word was current.” This was true of Hemingway’s life as well as of his writing. In fact, it is impossible to be existential in writing without being existential in life. Hemingway’s pas de trois with sex and death is well-known, but the core of his existential effort, personal as well as literary, was the quest for grace. Every Hemingway code hero—Nick Adams, Jake Barnes, Frederic Henry, Robert Jordan, Harry Morgan, Thomas Hudson, the matadors of Death in the Afternoon, the old fisherman Santiago—sought “grace under pressure,” a phrase Hemingway himself coined. This grace was cool-headedness in the midst of violence and chaos, resolve in the face of inevitable loss and failure, and poise at the approach of death. This was the grace of Hemingway looked for all his life and never found.
For many of his family and friends, Hemingway’s risky life choices, including his obsessions with hunting and the gory spectacle of bullfighting, as well as his rush to join the action during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, reflected a morbid fascination with darkness and death. As he reportedly told actress and close friend Ava Gardner in 1954, “I spend a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I won’t kill myself.”
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus claims that there is only one real problem: Suicide. And suicide is, simply speaking, a matter of life and death. Or put differently: As long as we don’t kill ourselves we must assume, after Camus, that life is worth living. However, refraining from committing suicide doesn’t tell us what makes a life flourish. After all, the alternative to being alive is nothing. Still – at least it seems so – the degree of how a life flourishes, what it achieves, its successes, etc. vary. Hemingway’s life was exactly successful, superficial overdue (not sure what overdo means here). Was he a happy man surrounded by women, booze, hunting trophies, properties like Vila de Finca Vigia and his Pulitzer or Nobel prizes? We know that he loved deeply freedom, sea, nature, his own children, and Cuba. But did he love himself?
“Celebrity is a mask that that eats into the face.” – John Updike
There are different interpretations of why Hemingway killed himself from those who claim there were genetic predispositions to those who delve into deeper mental disorders, but many questions remain. Biographers list some reasons based on medical records, correspondence, biographies and interviews that aim to shed light on Hemingway’s mental health history. Hemingway suffered at least nine concussions or severe brain traumas during his lifetime, which might explain his increased instability and volatility. The electroconvulsive therapy also may be an acceptable explanation for his psychological decline. A second explanation would be another theory which holds that Hemingway suffered from hemochromatosis, a rare genetic disorder that leads to an inability to absorb iron. Left untreated, it can lead to intense fatigue, memory loss, depression and diabetes.
But keep on mind what Hemingway said: “I’m not advocating the strenuous life for everyone or trying to say it’s the choice form of life. Anyone who’s had the luck or misfortune to be an athlete has to keep his body in shape. The body and mind are closely coordinated. Fattening of the body can lead to fattening of the mind. I would be tempted to say that it can lead to fattening of the soul, but I don’t know anything about the soul.”/ Hemingway
Maybe such way of life is worth living when the body decays and the mind loses the power of thinking. In this case, should we respectfully leave to one his own choice whether to continue life as fully capable or as an empty shell? Psychiatry does not provide any valuable explanation for why someone commits suicide. They have theories and lots of diagnosis but philosophers could ask questions as Cami or Deleuze. Unfortunately there is not categorical answer on such question’s, since the unconscious is still big riddle as it is human brain unsolved mystery for neuropsychiatrist science.
Regardless, whether his suicide was a resignation or a death turned on itself, it only can be seen as the ultimate judgment regarding the life, the ultimate response to unbearable condition. Death by one’s own hand is always an option and frequently more honorable than a life of protracted misery. Human existence is a struggle from birth till death, so the problem is not in death but exactly in life. Either/Or we could not judge from a philosophical or an ethical point of view regarding people who committed suicide.