Sunday, September 23, 2007


Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899 - July 2, 1961)

There are times when I think Dan Bern's I Need You is the best real love song ever written, but this usually occurs during moments of weakness and moral depravity when I have temporarily forgotten about songs like Zep's Ten Years Gone and Long Long Long by the Beatles.

So I Need You is not Ten Years Gone, but it is still a great song. The first verse (set on top of a melancholy chord progression of C / Am / F / C), in which Dan is wandering around Key West missing his girl, goes something like this:

Walking around the happiest place in the world,
And all I do is wonder if your hair is still curled.
South of Brownsville, Texas, south of Miami Beach,
And all it means to me is that you're further out of reach.

Everywhere there's sand and sun, blue sky, water, too,
And I need you.

From a purely musical standpoint it is not remarkable; the whole song only has about six chords total and it is nearly all just straightforward fingerpicking or strumming (depending on whether you have the live or the studio version).

Lyrically, however, it resonates with me because (1) it is a great love-is-going-to-end-me song of resigned desperation; and (2) it mentions my boy Ernest Hemingway a few times. And I think we can all agree that a song with a decent, well-placed literary reference is bad-ass.

Last summer my brilliant, literary daughter and I were listening to a lot of Dan Bern, and I had just finished reading The Sun Also Rises (for about the fifth time) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (for the first time) as September came to a close. The end of September and the thought of an approaching bleak and colorless autumn had, as usual, depressed the hell out of me, so she and I -- using Dan Bern as inspiration -- planned a trip to Key West in search of sand and sun and blue sky, and we thought we'd make a pilgrimage to Hemingway's house while we were there.

Upon bad advice, we flew into Miami and drove the rest of the way to Key West. The drive unfortunately was not really as scenic as promised due to endless road construction and significant traffic. I think it took us about 65 hours to get there on the crowded two-lane roads in our sad little rental car. Nevertheless, we finally arrived and made it up to our room at the Crown Plaza La Concha on Duval. It was January but it was still hot and good beach weather.

Interestingly, even in winter in the town where the sun rises and sets on the southernmost point of the United States, beer vendors selling cheap beer out of what appear to be hot-dog carts line both sides of Duval Street (which is essentially the main drag), and the law is such that it is acceptable to carry open containers of beer around outside.

A Key West sunset (cell-phone picture) taken from the edge of Mallory Square.

Most of the bars have broad entrances and windows that open widely onto the streets, and at night as you walk around you'll find lots of the typical shitty cover bands and guys playing and sweating over acoustic guitars, chording mindlessly through Jimmy Buffett and Van Morrison favorites surrounded by excessively tanned rednecks with bad tattoos singing along at the front of the stage amidst dozens of empty Bud Light bottles and ashtrays full of half-smoked cigarettes.

Drag queens stand on the corners in groups and invite passersby to buy advance tickets to late-night drag shows in what are almost always packed houses, and college kids selling bicycle tours swarm around the town. Magicians, escape artists, and acrobats fill Mallory Square at the northern end of Duval Street every night at sunset and work for tips from the crowds that gather to watch.

Key West at some point in the not-to-distant past probably had the charm of Savannah, but no longer. Take away the mindless tourists and I think it would be an extraordinary place, for there is still magic there. The floods of people walking the streets entirely unaware of the hidden magic of the town further obscure it, robbing the town of its real identity and making it like Myrtle Beach and every other tourist town in America. Awash in the obscuration is the house of Ernest Hemingway.

I Need You has a couple lines about Hemingway's house and the "boxing in the back," but that hasn't been the case for decades. Hemingway was not a boxing aficionado (to borrow a word that I saw for the first time in The Sun Also Rises), but he did love boxing, and he did have a boxing ring behind his house in Key West until one of his four wives (don't ask me which one - Pauline, maybe) had it replaced with a swimming pool when Hem was out on an overseas frolic covering the Spanish Civil War.

If I ever make enough money, I am going to try to buy Hemingway's house in Key West, just because I think the pool looks inviting.
Hemingway's Key West house is located at 907 Whitehead Street, and the property is bounded on the north by Olivia St. with trees and a brick wall all around the perimeter of the property. Whitehead runs north and south, parallel with Duval, the latter running the entire length of the island. You can find Sloppy Joe's at the corner of Green and Duval; purportedly Sloppy Joe's opened in 1933 and has been situated at its present location since 1937. Legend has it that Hemingway frequented Sloppy Joe's. I doubt Hem would find it suitable these days. The Key West Sunset Ale they serve there is $4.00 a glass and it tastes like vulture piss.

You can easily walk to the Hemingway house if you stay anywhere on the western part of the island. The house, which consists of two storeys and hell's own amount of expansive porches, is surrounded by palm trees and other rain-forest-looking vegetation that gives the place an exotic Jurassic Park look and feel.

This is a view of the back of the house from the vantage point of someone changing into their bathing suit. The house more or less looks the same from all sides.
Upon entering the front of the house, the first site encountered is the stairway seen below. Note the two "Old Man and the Sea" pictures on the left, with the marlins leaping dramatically out of the water. I did not learn the provenance or history of these paintings, but I think it is safe to assume that they were added after Hemingway's untimely demise.

Center Staircase in the Hemingway House

Downstairs there is a lot of Hemingway memorabilia, and naturally upstairs that is the case as well. There are a hell of lot of books and bookshelves in the place, and I tried to read the spines of each book in there to see if I could recognize anything interesting or pick out any discernible patterns.

I was most interested to see if I could locate a copy of Beryl Markham's West With the Night, because Beryl knew Hemingway in Africa and while they weren't exactly pals, Hemingway read Beryl's book and commented that it made him ashamed to be a writer. I'm pretty sure that if I could have found Hemingway's copy of West With the Night, I would have stolen the fucking thing.

This inscription was found inside Hemingway's copy of Stella Benson's The Poor Man, which was published in 1922. It reads: "For Hem . . . tell me how you like it."

Right next to the Hemingway house stands a carriage house in which Hem reportedly wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Green Hills of Africa, among others. The losers that volunteer at the Hemingway house will tell you that his writing studio (seen immediately below) looks exactly the same today as it did when the old man himself used to sit in at his typewriter and bang out his rather terse but effective prose.

I suspect this is true with the exception of the anachronistic electric fan on the left side of the picture, and maybe even the Thompson's gazelle (or whatever the hell that is) whose decapitated head appears on the far wall and appears to stare inquisitively into the room. Certainly the Escher-like placement of the painting of Hemingway's writing studio that hangs over the bookshelf on the right was added later. A wrought-iron barrier prevents entry into Hemingway's writing studio today. As if somebody would really steal something out of there. 

Hem's Writing Studio

When Hemingway was alive, a catwalk of sorts connected the main house to the second floor of the carriage house. The catwalk no longer exists; instead, metal stairs lead to the writing studio, which is not nearly as cool. The picture immediately below shows the view from the entry way to the writing studio back to the main house, which is pretty much the same view from the electrical building where the main breakers were located back to the main headquarters thing at Jurassic Park.

The View of the Main House from the Writing Studio

Among the items of memorabilia are a few paid checks written on Hemingway's account with the National Bank of New York. The check below was made out to Carlos Gutierrez, who I'd be willing to bet is the father or grandfather of this guy. The stamp on the check reads "RECIBIDO - June 14, 1934 - THE FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF BOSTON - SUCURSAL DE LA HABANA," indicating that Carlos took the check and probably deposited it with his bank in Cuba, which was a branch of the First National Bank of Boston.

A check made out to Carlos Gutierrez

*  *  *

I started reading Moby-Dick and The Old Man and the Sea simultaneously, and while the beginning of Moby-Dick is much more literarily auspicious and seems to foretell the coming of a great sea adventure, it kind of peters out (as discussed in the last post) and leaves the reader ready for voyage but wanting of a vessel.

The Old Man and the Sea is much the opposite. Written exactly 100 years after Melville wrote Moby-Dick (1851 and 1951 respectively), the beginning of Hemingway's story reads like one of those short stories you have to read in 9th grade like The Most Dangerous Game or The Scarlet Ibis or even The Cast of the Armadillo, which is a very touching story about a burrowing Argentinian creature with a broken limb.

The first paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea:

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat."
Hemingway goes on to describe the old fisherman in sadly endearing terms, and one wonders whether there are vaguely autobiographical aspects to the work:

"He was asleep in a short time and he dreamed of Africa when he was a boy and the long golden beaches and the white beaches, so white they hurt your eyes, and the high capes and the brown mountains. . . . He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them . . . ."
The story is simple: the kind and impoverished but unlucky fisherman who hasn't caught a fish in 84 days sets out to sail with courageous but innocent optimism in the hope of finally catching something to eat. Once far out to sea, he snags an immense marlin - whose strength of heart is equal to the fisherman - and the fisherman proceeds to spend the next three days and nights without enough food, water, or sleep, but nevertheless still with a strong heart he tries with increasing desperation to bring in the giant fish as it pulls the small boat farther and farther out to sea.

The Old Man and the Sea and Moby-Dick tell very similar tales of desperation upon the sea wherein a desperate man chases a sea creature whose significance may be mostly symbolic. It is astonishing that without the use of a single inkhorn term, obscure Biblical reference, or pentasyllabic word, Hemingway's work manages to be dramatically more effective.

I was saddened when I finished
The Old Man and the Sea, and this puzzled me somewhat. While I was reading the story, I kept thinking that it wasn't particularly good. I usually underline sentences or paragraphs that are moving or well written or which contain an aspect of the profound or the sublime, but I'm not sure that I made a mark in the entire book. I did not locate a single sentence worthy of an underline, yet I read on somewhat morbidly enthralled -- I think because the work as a whole is profound in its entirety.

The whole book is only about 110 pages long, double-spaced, with giant margins, as if Hem turned the thing in as a term paper for an English class, making it such that it can be read in absolutely no time and without modification to the reader's contact-lens prescription.

As far as the story goes, the tale is bleak and harsh. Day after day the poor fisherman (Santiago) suffers under the immense heat of the indifferent and unrelenting sun while the fishing line cuts and slices the skin of his time-weathered hands, and day after day the intrepid marlin fights for its life and presents a compelling case for its own survival. Both fisherman and fish fight for their life.

In the end, Santiago summons the strength and determination to defeat the marlin, but the fish is too large to pull into the boat. Santiago is far out to sea, and he is forced to secure the fish to the side of his small fishing boat. On his long and lonely voyage back to shore, sharks tear at the marlin relentlessly while Santiago strikes at them with courage, anger, and then futility. By the time his small boat crushes sea shells beneath it upon the shore, the old fisherman is exhausted and his extraordinary marlin is but a skeleton that will provide the fisherman no sustenance nor reward.

And so the book concludes:

"Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping upon his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions."
As the indifferent sun that is behind me now reflects pale and white in the corner of my computer screen, I remain baffled at the efficacy of this work of literature. In fewer than 130 pages, and in the simplest of language, Hemingway perfectly portrays great themes -- the resiliency of the human spirit and the classic struggle between man and nature -- that so many other artists have required truly epic works to convey. But plainly the book is not a work of triumph or success. It is instead a work of bleak, harsh reality.

Thus, more important in
The Old Man and the Sea than the themes of human resiliency and triumph over nature is Hemingway's expression of the universal life struggle borne by every living thing from awakening at birth until the coming of eternal darkness upon death - which by most accounts is a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise largely acceptable existence. I do not believe that Hemingway's depiction of the fisherman's bleak futility was simply for dramatic effect necessarily. I believe, rather, that this futility was how Hemingway had come to view life.

On July 2, 1961, while at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, Hemingway ended his life by shooting himself in the forehead with a shotgun. There has been (and likely will continue to be) great speculation as to what may have caused or contributed to Hemingway's suicide. There is evidence that for a number of years he fought mental illness that was compounded by alcoholism. And I read once that Hemingway believed that the electroshock therapy he received in his later years in response to his mental illness had stolen him from himself, such that the flesh and blood of the man no longer matched the soul of the person he once was.

I have read no accounts that appear definitive, but surely desperation may be attributed to Hemingway in his final hours and minutes. Still I wonder if, in his last nights and in the hours before he awoke on his last summer morning, he had dreamed about the lions.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee." - Captain Ahab, p. 519 in Herman Melville's aquatic thriller Moby-Dick.

* * *

I finally finished reading Moby-Dick about a month ago, and now I wonder why I ever started the damnable thing in the first place. The text of the edition that I have (Bantam paperback, 1981) spans 521 pages in what is probably size-6 font, which caused my contacts prescription to move 1 1/2 notches during the time that it took me to read the book.

Naturally all of us who have had a modicum of schooling are familiar with the story: It is a tale about a big fucking anthropomorphized white whale to whom is attributed a menacing, violent disposition, and said whale takes a ship captain's leg off at the knee in even retribution for the ship captain trying to kill the whale in order to harvest its sperm oil, and the monomaniacal captain gets all crazy hacked off and spends the rest of his life trying to murder the whale in disproportionate retribution for what was probably a reasonable reaction by the whale in view of the attempt on his poor beastly life.

Basically, it is: (1) whale bites sailor; (2) sailor pursues whale all crazy like. I won't tell you the end unless you e-mail and ask me, but don't bother. You can imagine what happens. (The whale wins.)

There are CXXXV chapters, which by my quick calculation is somewhere between 500 and 1000. Only four (that's right: four) of the interminable chapters actually advance the plot. This I'm not kidding about. Nearly every chapter sets out to explain some highly technical aspect of the whale trade, whale anatomy, what sailors do on ships when they are bored, what tools and implements sailors use, all the neat things you can use whale oil for, and so on, ad freaking nauseam.

Below I have included the first sentences of a few of the chapters that are representative of every single chapter except the handful that actually tell the story about Ahab's pursuit of Moby-Dick (my comments in italics):
1. "Concerning the officers of the whale-craft, this seems as good a place as any to set down a little domestic peculiarity on shipboard, arising from the existence of the harpooneer class of officers . . . ." (Chapter XXXIII)
2. "Already we are boldly launched upon the deep. . . . Ere that come to pass, at the outset it is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensable to a thorough and appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow. It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera that I would now fain put before you. (Chapter XXXII)
[A systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera? Stab me in the fucking head.]
3. "I shall ere long paint to you as well as one can without canvas, something like the true form of the whale as actually appears to the eye of the whaleman . . . ." (Chapter LV)
[Please, no! Didn't we cover this in Chapter XXXII?]
4. "With reference to the whaling scene shortly to be described, as well as for the better understanding of all similar scenes elsewhere presented, I have here to speak of the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line." (Chapter LX)
[Melville's description of the "whale-line" was eleven paragraphs longer than Earl Warren's majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education.]
5. "A word concerning an incident in the last chapter. According to the invariable usage of the fishery . . . ." (Chapter LXII)
6. "It is upon record, that three centuries ago the tongue of the Right Whale was esteemed a great delicacy in France . . . ." (Chapter LXV)
The astute reader will notice that like a million chapters into the book, the author is still having trouble getting to the fucking point.

Now, all this is not to say that there aren't some great aspects to the book. For example, it is, I believe, the world's most complete compendium of whale lore ever assembled. If you want to know what the world knew about whales circa 1851, Herman Melville has compiled it for you within the covers of Moby-Dick.

Also, as an item of interest there is a fair amount of really gay stuff in the book as well. And when I say "gay," I mean really freaking gay. Larry Craig gay. Possibly even Kevin "No Wheat" White gay; hard to tell.

My perception is that the whole thing is a homoerotic allegory for one man's quest to find and land a truly gigantic, angry white penis. Surely it is no coincidence that the whale is named Moby-Dick and he's a sperm whale. (Maybe I'm just incredibly immature; and I'm not even counting all the times the word seaman appears in the book.)

Consider, for example, the following passage, in which the narrator (the ever faithful Ishmael) and others aboard the Pequod squish globules of sperm oil between their fingers:
"Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long! I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; . . . and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; . . . Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm forever!" (Chapter XCIV)
And then another digression: "Now, while discoursing of sperm, it behooves to speak of other things akin to it, in the business of preparing the sperm whale for the try-works."

And there are many, many other examples. Early in the book, Ishmael finds himself at The Spouter Inn in Nantucket and rents a room for the night from a bloke named Peter Coffin (heh heh). Due to a dearth of available rooms, Ishmael is forced to share a room and a bed with the harpoon-toting savage Queequeg, the first four consecutive letters of whose name are in common with two other prominent words in the English language, both of which are susceptible of the same connotation. (At this point I'll stipulate that I am perhaps incorrigibly immature.)

As far as I can tell, Queequeg lets Ishmael polish his harpoon and they wake up entangled like a state-fair pretzel. Melville writes:
"Taking up his tomahawk from the table, he examined the head of it for an instant, and then holding it to the light, with his mouth at the handle, he puffed out great clouds of tobacco smoke. The next moment the light was extinguished, and this wild cannibal . . . sprang into bed with me. . . . Upon waking the next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife." (Chapters III and IV.)
Indeed, there are some historical indications that Melville had the gay DNA, and there are some pretty steamy letters that went back and forth between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the latter being the author of the well-known works The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), as well as other works of questionable literary significance, such as The Maypole of Merry Mount (1837), The Gentle Boy: A Thrice-Told Tale (1839), and Feathertop (1852), these secondary works all having extremely gay titles.

Here is an excerpt from a letter Melville wrote about Hawthorne:
"A man of a deep and noble nature had seized me in this seclusion. . . . The soft ravishments of the man spun me round about in a web of dreams. . . . But already I feel that Hawthorne had dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further and further shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil in my Southern soul."
Reading passages such as this, it is hard to escape the conclusion that what Melville really wanted was Hawthorne's strong New England root and germinous seeds in the hot soil of his ass. PA-TOW!

Nevertheless, Moby-Dick does have its moments of brilliance. There are innumerable insightful passages and an abundance of poetic flourishes, all of which reveal that Melville was indeed a brilliant and tortured soul, if a bit long-winded here and there.

Recalling that the book was first published in 1851, the following passage in which Ishmael contemplates the homological similarity of the skeletal fins of the whale and the human hand is fairly prescient from a biological point of view (considering that On the Origin of Species was published in 1859):
"It is also very curiously displayed in the side fin, the bones of which almost exactly answer to the bones of the human hand, minus only the thumb."
On a more literary note, one extraordinary passage occurs in Chapter XCVI, when Melville tells of the Pequod sailing in the black of night as the useless remnants of a whale captured for its oil burned red and sinister from the try-works of the ship, its barbarous crew savagely feeding the fire as "[t]he burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed":
"Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in the words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spit round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into the blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul."
(I suspect it may be obvious even from the few passages that I have included herein, but it bears noting that Melville used commas and semicolons almost interchangeably, incorporating both liberally to allow for impossibly long sentences.)

And there is a great deal in Moby-Dick that is of a similar descriptive quality as the last quoted passage.

Unfortunately, much of the book contains little about the adventure and more about whaling and whales in general and in the very, very specific. I believe that the book could have been dramatically improved with a bit of good editing, such that the tale of the pursuit of the white whale would have been expanded, with the technical whaling stuff abridged to some degree. Read it and tell me I'm wrong.

Aside from all that, what is truly the most compelling aspect of Moby-Dick is Melville's characterization of the human condition as depicted in Captain Ahab, who throughout the tale finds himself inextricably impelled by some relentless force or agency that exceeds Ahab's ability to comprehend, much less defeat. Melville depicts Ahab as a man destined, without choice, to pursue the white whale despite the doomed captain's perfect foreknowledge that his quest will ultimately have ruinous consequences. Life, at times, appears to leave us little choice but to pursue that which we know may lead to a ruinous end.
"A strange fatality pervades the whole career of these events, as if verily mapped out before the world itself was charted. . . . This whole act's immutably decreed."
And so Ahab pursues the whale, and so indeed it was ruinous.

Ahab was consumed as perhaps one would be consumed who once held his one true love in his arms but somehow left her in the past, lost in time already passed, without hope of ever returning to her, unable to return to her, the girl and the love as unreachable as the canopy of stars; a love that would cause one to say, "On this earth, under our one moon and myriad stars, I swear you are the one I love." Such loss becomes madness that consumes; that weighs upon each waking and dreaming thought; such loss turns men to madness. Such is the tyranny of time.

And so Ahab was consumed; and I know his madness.

"Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock . . . ; then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another." And I know his woe.

Ahab was "[g]nawed within and scorched without, with the infixed, unrelenting fangs of some incurable idea . . . . He sleeps at night with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms." And I know his anguish.

Such is the tyranny of time. The white whale was Ahab's foe; inexorable time is mine. From hell's heart, I stab at thee.