Visiting Hemingway’s house

[In January, 2011, my friend Charles Sides and I drove down to the Florida keys for a vacation courtesy of Neil and Lina Rogers, who let us stay in their house. On our first day there, we went on to Key West and toured the Hemingway house.]

Friday, January 7, 2011

Seems odd to realize that yesterday was our first full day in the Keys. Now we have nearly 2 weeks ahead of us with nothing planned and nothing we need to do. And I bought several books, of varying quality.

Sonny Hemingway’s Ernie.

Jack Hemingway’s A Life Worth Living.

The Breaking Point, by Stephen Koch

Hemingway In Love And War by Henry S. Villard and James Nigel

Hemingway Goes To War, by Charles Whiting

Strange Tribe, by John Hemingway

Given that I chose them intuitively, may I assume that they were chosen for a purpose, papa?

There is the Law Of Accident and the Law Of Necessity, as you know. Not every sparrow falls in exactly a given place, even if the sparrow’s fall is noted.

Meaning — I take it — that whatever books I chose, I’ll get something out of them.

You will, or you won’t, and that aspect of things will much matter. You connected with the space, didn’t you?

I did sort of, in a slipshod way as usual. I mean, we took the tour through the house, we saw the study, I glanced at the swimming pool, I felt for the right books to buy in the gift shop, and that was about it.

No it wasn’t. Think.

All right, I get it. Slow down, you mean. And that is what has been wrong these past couple of months, isn’t it? Too revved to communicate here in this way.

There is an art to anything. You can’t go fly fishing by rules that work for —

I dried up on the analogy. I don’t know fishing.

No, you don’t — and you’re forgetting that you’re supposed to be letting stuff come through, not providing it.

I am indeed. Boy am I rusty. Okay, let’s try recalibrating. [Pause]

We got our tickets and went to the living room — after a timely stop at the restroom on another part of the grounds. The guide came in, welcomed us, and started his spiel. In the living room I noticed the photo of Gregorio Fuentes, in particular, after it was pointed out. And the furniture was original, they said. I noticed the size of the room, the height of the ceiling, the light and air of the room. And I remember thinking — realizing — that Hemingway had actually lived there, that he had been there.

We crossed to the room at the front of the house on the opposite side of the central hallway, the dining room, which was dominated by photos on the walls, as I remember. The Hemingway wives, etc. Started to notice — or had I noticed right away? — the disrespectful undertone in the guide’s “funny” comments.

But if that was the dining room, what was the other room on that side behind it? Then the kitchen, then upstairs to the master bedroom. My memories aren’t very specific. Wasn’t I paying attention, or was I paying attention in a different way, to different things?

Is that a rhetorical question or a real one?


When you try to absorb the atmosphere of something, you are blanking your mind of specific associations and thoughts — in fact, thought interferes with the process. The memories are there, of course — they are there for everything in your life — but they are not memories of words or thoughts (which you were not recording or registering) but of connection. If the thing was recorded in one mode, how could it be played back in another? If you think, you remember thought. If you feel, you remember feelings. If both, both.

Let’s skip to your study, then.

You were at first disappointed that you could go only a couple of feet into it before you were stopped by the metal barrier. But this had its advantages. No one else was in there too. The room was empty of people. It was a composition of scene. And people’s energy did not disrupt the built-up energy that the reconstructed scene creates.

I don’t quite understand that. If you had left the room and it was as you had left it, I could imagine that your presence had left an imprint. Not so easy to imagine that, given that you left before 1940, and it was only reconstructed as a model of your writing life decades later, after Pauline’s tenure and the new owner, etc. But this is assumption on my part, and I begin to see it.

Yes, you’re getting it. My imprint on that room does not depend upon the visual cues left around or deliberately placed, any more than a ghost’s appearance depends on a photograph of him remaining on a wall. We leave our energy on our surroundings as we live, or, to put it another way, we merge our energies with the world, continually. It is one more way in which people are not as separate from the world as they think they are.

Now, you can see the assistance that visual cues provide. Auditory cues, too, would help if there were any. Recorded voices or sounds help to produce that composition of place. But neither visual or auditory nor any other kind of cue – smells, for instance – are necessary; it’s just that they can be helpful.

When I went to Salisbury Cathedral in England, I could feel Bertram connecting to it — Bertram within me, let’s say — and I could certainly feel his awe at the base of the spire, which apparently was not in place when he was there. For that matter, I seemed to feel his irritation and perplexity at how they had cut up the interior by adding little boxes — rooms on a human scale. Plus there was the experience of hearing a couple conversing in German and realizing that’s what the people of his day sounded like, to his Norman-French-accustomed ears.

And I well remember walking through London by the Nelson column, actively trying to allow David to re-experience London, wondering if buses and radios etc. were part of his experience – that is, if he could register them, I having a different and far less sophisticated idea of the nature of communication then. And we walked down to the embankment at the river – I suppose “we” is about the best way to say it – and I looked at one monument that said, merely, “July 1, 1916,” and I – he? – was filled with this ghastly flood of grief, indignation, etc. when I didn’t even know what battle it referred to, or why the monument should have needed nothing beyond the date itself.

As I said in A Farewell To Arms. After a point, after enough suffering, words like “glory” and “sacrifice” can’t mean what they are used to mean, and only dates and other concrete specific markers retain meaning – and that partly because they have meaning only to those who know why they have meaning, where words like “valor” don’t mean anything specific to they sound as though they do, and people think they feel or understand something when in fact it is merely abstraction. David didn’t respond to the conventionally worded tributes, did he? For one thing your own overlay of thought and reading – secondhand memory, call it – got in the way. But mainly, he wouldn’t be in the mood to hear patriotic speeches, and was in the mood to connect who he was then and now with who you were at the moment (which was “now” to you then and now is “then”).

Now, when you went through the house, in feeling for my presence you were not listening to stories about dead people, you were doing something entirely different. You were there, in that moment, willing to connect with me in that moment. That couldn’t be a sensory experience; I am not there anymore. But it can be a non-sensory experience, because I am a part of the place not in any metaphorical sense but as a real living (though not living in 3-D) person. All the visual cues are designed for people trying to imagine what it was like, and they do assist in the process. But imagining can be either (or both) of two processes.

You can imagine as a sort of what-if exercise, in which you assume that the people who lived there are dead and you are alive, and so it is only a sort of petrified memory that helps you to fantasize a story.

Or you can imagine as an extension of your senses, in which you assume that the dead remain there non-physically (but not only there, of course, not tethered there, so to speak), available for you to interact with non-physically. In that case, imagination is not story-telling, or fantasizing. You did not wander around thinking that you were hearing me talk to you, or were even talking to me then. You went around in an open and receptive state, open to the interesting physical cues like photos on the rooms themselves, but open as well to whatever might come in between the lines.

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