I’ve just been reading David Dobbs’ article on Hemingway… thinking about Hemingway’s despair at the end, when his words didn’t seem to work any more. And maybe it’s true — if you read some of his later things, they perhaps don’t seem as beautiful and as — he seemed to like the word “true” but that’s not quite it — so sensually and emotionally vivid, maybe… as did his best early work. I recently reread both Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls and I felt that the former (written much earlier in his life) was the better book, though anyone would have been proud to have written either. Personally, never could get into The Old Man and the Sea (too depressing for my temperament, maybe) but then, I did enjoy his last big work of import, Moveable Feast, and people often say that in that, he reclaimed some of his youthful skill. (Which to a psycho-diagnostician suggests a speculation: maybe Feast worked because he was writing about himself when he was young, and so he had to become, psychologically, himself when he was young, and when he did that, a kind of “counterclockwise” time-machine effect took hold, and he literally thought more and felt more like he did as a young man? In other words, it wasn’t that he wrote as if he were young again, but that when immersed in the memories of his earlier years in Paris, he literally became young again?)
So you want to know what happened to him, you look around you.
You see it in their eyes, the long-time alcoholics (“rummies,” as Hemingway called them and, probably with self-awareness and self-contempt, himself.) It’s not just the preoccupation with alcohol (telltale sign: you visit a new acquaintance’s home and bring a gift bottle of wine and he zeroes in on the wine, not on you), or the other things, the bad manners or the insensitivity or the rudeness that a full-blown drunken state brings. It’s something more instant that you pick up, something that if you’ve grown up around it, you recognize it from forty feet away. It’s the wet, vacant, staring quality to their gaze.
I see it in the waiting room where I do psych evals. From a bright outside, as I walk into the back door of the agency and look into the dimly lit waiting room twenty feet away, he’ll be sitting in the chair and will turn when I come in and even though my eyes haven’t adjusted to the dark room, I pick it up. Yeah, he’s the one. The referral sheet says, “screen for substance abuse problems,” and sure enough, he’s got the drunkard’s stare. The stare that causes bar fights when an old guy is too slow to avert that wet-eyed glare when the younger, tougher, fragile-egoed but equally drunk young ‘un catches it from across the room, starts the “what’re YOU starin’ at?!” dance and God help the old guy if he doesn’t look down, defeated and cowed. But in the clinic, it merely says, yeah, be sure to ask him twice and directly about his drinking. Don’t accept “no more than anybody else” (another diagnostic sign.) Don’t accept vague, moving you off the subject responses about why things never worked out so good and he’s 45 and unemployed for five years and never gets along with anybody or shows up just fine but the jobs just ain’t there.
It’s not belligerence, you figure out after awhile. It’s deadness. A kind of deadness not of the whole man or the whole mind, but of some faculty of alertness, of the feeling part, of something that makes emotions feel present and vivid for other people, but not for him. So when he’s staring at somebody and they glance back, the little warning twinge, the “look away now, sonny” feeling, just doesn’t flash anymore. It’s shorted out, dissolved away, somewhere in the old cranium. So he just stares.
Not that he can’t feel — he can feel plenty, depression, mainly, and thirst. But he can’t feel the subtle things, his nervous system cannot keep up so good with the signaling systems of other people. He’s half asleep when they are signalling. So instead, he stares, as if to ask, “am I missing something?”
A chronic state of being just a little bit numbed.
Everybody writes about Hemingway’s sense of losing his gift, but seldom do they write in the same paragraphs about the alcohol. The copious quantities. The multiple bottles of wine every day, and beer and hard stuff, and it was something that got more and more into his writing. Read his mid-life masterpiece, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and you see it. The drinking together, bowl after bowl of wine, it’s what they do. The highlight of the day for heroes hiding in caves. You see it also in the younger man’s characters and stories, but then it’s the drinking of a young, strong, invulnerable-feeling body. By the time he’s writing later, that body is more vulnerable. But the thirst’s still there, a driving force. That, and the yearning for a vividness, an aliveness, and the words to say it, that perhaps he could remember having once experienced, but not quite locate anymore.
And sometimes you think you can spot it — as the freshness goes out of his sentences. As the true petrified into Hemingwayian truthiness. A man writing as if he still felt things, but are they perhaps just the memories of the feelings of his younger self? Emotional phantom limbs? What the cool pebbles in the stream felt like when he was young, before the neuropathies took the vivid and complex sensations away, leaving only wetness, and sharpness, and cold.