by Simons Chase
From the high vantage point of the Finca Vigía, I can see San Francisco de Paula, the small village outside Havana where Ernest Hemingway lived for decades up until his departure from Cuba in 1960. It looks the same as it did then except now his home is a museum. Set against a flawless sky and the sea in the background, multiple shades of green treetops fan out in gentle layers and give way to the hardness of Havana’s skyline. Tiny drifts of sweet-smelling smoke lift through the trees and scatter in the Caribbean breeze.
Tranquility is a common sensation in Cuba, and here it blooms with little effort. San Francisco de Paula is a typical Cuba town. Animals power most transportation and agriculture, and happiness does not appear to be diminished by material deprivation.
Despite an increase in tourist visitors in recent years, this place still pulses with the remnants of Hemingway’s creative energy in a way that is wholly different from the rest of the Caribbean’s industrial tourism machinery. Few artists of Hemingway’s stature have their homes preserved, and even fewer are as well preserved as the Finca.
Standing next to his writing table, you can perceive his immense natural abilities – and something way more than luck (Hemingway was superstitious) – that produced the Old Man and the Sea, the novella that is attributed to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, and numerous other works. The place provokes reflection by relinquishing the abstractness of school room academics. When something studied becomes experienced, the inward landscape reveals some hidden qualities – a land I could walk through – and a freight of details that are both physical and conceptual.
For years now, since first reading Hemingway in high school, then after encountering the work again while studying English in college, I’d searched for the extra meaning in Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. The theory explains his minimalist style and penchant for using simple language and short sentence structure to push complex narratives below the surface of the text, thereby placing demands on the reader to perceive the subconscious underpinnings of his work.
Today, I had hoped to add a new aspect to my understanding of Hemingway’s work.
Over my years of travel to Cuba, I had gotten to know Julio, an employee at the Finca, and was delighted to accept his offer to photograph the interior pages of some of Hemingway’s books that are stored in the museum’s library. We had agreed to meet at the Finca on my next visit. Julio approached me wearing a tan pseudo suede jacket and cockpit sunglasses. We exchanged a few words in Spanish, and I handed him my phone and headed over to the Finca Vigia’s veranda to wait for him to return.
Soon the place empties of its visitors except for a few people who are speaking in a churchly voice near an open window on the sun-exposed side of the house. “I think he was a bullfighter,” whispers one of the visitors.
With my phone returned and a nod from Julio, I set out to find a place to view the catch. Descending down the hill to the parking lot, nature-made sounds from the surrounding gardens give way to the salsa of a Cuban band. An African-Spanish synthesis of percussion fills the space under a large Ceiba tree in the parking lot. A squall of consumption surrounds a pop-up rum bar. Tourists standing at the bar sway in sympathy with the music. Others are clutched around a table sharing the experience over lyrical vocals and the instruments’ sharp sounds. Chinese miniskirts, baggy sweats and kitschy straw hats sparkle with tiny threads of sunlight that penetrate the tree’s embracing canopy.
Someone said there are few things better than having something good to drink. So over a rum cocktail made from mechanically squeezed cane juice, I sit down in a plastic chair next to the bar and explore the images of the private notes of the Nobel prize winning author.
The first image is a mystery. It’s a written note about his observation of a feline sexual encounter. Hemingway loved cats and had dozens of them as pets in his Key West home and at the Finca.
His writing in this note wasn’t the complex, below-the-text narrative I was hoping to find. But I thought the date may suggest an explanation. It could be that this writing reveals more about his mental state in 1957 than any complex meaning in the words themselves.
According to new analysis by Dr. Andrew Farah in his book, Hemingway’s Brain (2017), Hemingway experienced successive concussive blows and other minor brushes with death that likely resulted in medical conditions similar to postconcussive syndrome (PCS) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Hemingway’s repeated head trauma, combined with the effects of decades of alcohol abuse, led eventually to his permanent dementia. CTE is cited as the culprit in the National Football League’s (NFL) $765 million settlement (2013) with former players with head injuries.
Farah’s analysis breaks with previous scholarly conclusions about Hemingway’s supposed bi-polar disorder condition. Farah constellates primary historical documents, injury history and evidence found in Hemingway’s own writing (based on original hand written manuscripts) to explain the author’s failing capacity to write and the parallel disintegration of personality that unfolded in the final decade or so of his life. Farah’s conclusions fit so neatly that his analysis is a new reference point for any researcher hoping to navigate the waters of Hemingway’s psyche.
According to Farah, many signals echo that Hemingway was progressively being denied access to his cognition by 1957 including disinhibition, paranoia and regression that is evident in uncharacteristic references to adolescent sexuality. In other words, by 1957, he was more like what we made of him than what he was.
Hemingway’s emotional dyscontrol escalated during the 1950’s and with it came his most sexually charged writing. Garden of Eden is his most erotic novel, and this note appears to be another example of this trend.
Correspondence from the author’s friends and editors describe his slow dissolution and diminishing macho mental armoring that would eventually collapse into his suicided, shotgunned end in 1961. Hemingway sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic in the year leading up to his death, but PCS and CTE were not recognized medical conditions at that time. According to Farah, Hemingway’s electroconvulsive treatments were the standard of care for depression but were useless or even harmful because depression was only a symptom of PSC and CTE.
Concussive injuries of Ernest Hemingway: First major (WWI blast-type); second major (Paris skylight); third major (London car accident); fourth and fifth major (WWII blast and impact); sixth (Cuba car accident); seventh major (fall on Pilar); eighth and ninth major (Africa plane crashes) – Andrew Farah’s in Hemingway’s Brain (2017)
In the distance on the unkept boundary of the property, near the debris of the previous popup bar, a woman approaches from the village. It is never easy to guess the age of Cubans over fifty years old because the hard-earned benefits of caloric restriction and the burdens of forgotten stresses work on people’s faces in unpredictable ways. Her youthful buoyance and firm center of gravity on the rocky terrain betray her advanced age. She was unfamiliar with the new, invisible commercial boundaries created by the rum and music operation. While her withered sandals and lean frame gave the impression that she had swallowed the whole communist worm, up close her eyes blazed with vitality. The woman was hungry – the revelry had gone on for too long by hours – and the unfamiliar scene had stirred her curiosity.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms
There is no question that the Hemingway family suffered from genetic vulnerabilities for risks related substance abuse, depression and other psychiatric disorders. Hemingway’s son, Gregory (or “Gloria” after his sex change operation) suffered from lifelong mental illness.
According to Farah, in 1957 Hemingway advised Gregory to have electroconvulsive treatments. He believed the treatment had aided Gregory’s older brother, Patrick. In a letter, Hemingway writes to Gregory, “Even though you feel better now, the doctors have convinced me that it would be wise to take the same treatments Patrick had, and which did him so much good, so that you would not have a recurrence of that suicidal feeling and get rid of your anxiety state. They say that treatment cannot possibly do your brain any harm.” (John Hemingway, Strange Tribe).
Like many artists, Hemingway was a keen observer of the world. Taking notes was his favorite way of capturing moments, recording events and tracking expenses. Evidence of obsessive note taking can be found all over the Finca. Besides the many notes and marginalia written inside his books, he recorded his weight and blood pressure on the walls of the bathroom adjoining his favorite room for writing (these artifacts remain today). And on his fishing boat, the Pilar, he kept meticulous records of the particulars of the fish caught on the boat.
The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener, a pocketknife was too wasteful, the marble top tables, the smell of café crème, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed. For luck, you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit’s foot in your right pocket, the claws scratched in the lining of pocket, and you knew your luck was still there. – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast.
The notes that detail furniture inventory in “Jinny’s Room” no doubt date to his time living in Paris while he was married to his second wife, Pauline. Virginia “Jinny” Pfeiffer, the younger sister of Pauline, was a source of controversy in Hemingway’s life. At first, he was supposedly more attracted to Jinny than Pauline but shifted his attention when he discovered Jinny’s preference for women. Yet Jinny and Hemingway remained friends for decades.
The inventory for his “work room” and “dining room” contain a reference to a famous piece of art by Joan Miro, a surrealists living in Paris when Hemingway was there. The two were friends during Hemingway’s time in Paris, and he purchased the piece, La Ferme, on a (struggling artist) payment plan for 5,000 francs, insisting, “It has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there. No one else has been able to paint those two opposing things.” The art hung in the Finca’s dining room. I assume the “25,000” refers to the value Hemingway is assigning to it at the time he wrote the note.
Alberto Quintana was one of Heminhway’s closest friends. He stayed at the Hotel Quintana on visits to Pamplona numerous times between 1924 and 1931. It is believed that Quintana was the inspiration for the character of Juanito Montoya, owner of the Hotel Montoya, in the novel The Sun Also Rises (1926). The reference to Lieutenant Roget likely pertains to a film from the period. Roget is played by actor Wayne Morris in Stanley Kubrick’s World War I film, Paths of Glory (1957) . Though the film’s war theme is related to the author’s main subject matter, there is no know connection between Kubrick and Hemingway.
It was after my second cocktail, and the relief from a tired sun, that I was able to access some earlier thoughts about Hemingway’s work. On an artistic level, the sea represents both beauty and treachery for Hemingway. And in his mental landscape, the capriciousness of the sea parallels the randomness of life and requires man to demonstrate his worthiness through noble action. Adherence to this stoic belief underpins one of Hemingway’s most iconic statements from the Old Man and the Sea, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
I was reminded of a photo of Hemingway standing with shotgun posture in the Finca. Less easy to dismiss is the scar on his forehead. It was one of the many concussive blows he received over the years – this one from a skylight that fell on his head when he pulled the wrong cord to flush the toilet after a night of drinking.
The shotgun pictured here appears to be his favorite and was possibly his most potent weapon: double-barreled 12-gauge Boss. Silvio Calabi, Steve Helsley, and Roger Sanger argue in the book, Hemingway’s Guns, that Hemingway never owned a Boss, and that the suicide gun was actually made by W. & C. Scott & Son.
“They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
As I depart the Finca, a song from the Cuban band lingers in my mind, Guantanamera/Yo soy un hombre sincero/De don de crece la palma….. and I thought about how, for Cubans, music is a social experience, and the old woman wasn’t a beggar.