Hemingway on his three fears

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

6:15 a.m. If I learned anything from the first two parts of the Burns / Novick series on Hemingway, I don’t know what it would be. I have been more aware of what it had to leave out, than of what it said that I hadn’t known. But I am struck by how much he feared being alone. A writer, afraid of being alone, when his very writing life depends upon being alone? But of course, that’s an example of words misleading.


Fear of being alone, fear of death, fear of the dark: three fears you do not understand.

It’s true. Do you, now? And did you, during 3D life?

It depends what you mean by the word “understand.” If you mean understand abstractly, that’s one thing. But if you mean, understand viscerally, that’s another. Intellectually, abstractly, I understood why I was afraid of the dark and afraid of death: I had been killed, in 1918, in the dark, out of nowhere, when that Austrian shell full of scrap metal blew me out of my body. So my body associated darkness with danger – with danger out of nowhere – ever since. But rational knowledge only goes so far. You don’t get rid of a fear like that just because you become aware of it and become aware of where it came from.

No, because that only gets you to the “how” of it rather than to the “why” of it. The fear came as a result of specific events, but the same events on a different person might have, maybe even must have, produced different results.

Yes, but I didn’t really understand that. The cause-and-effect was so plain, I never got to the “why” of it. Why did that cause produce that effect? I stopped at realizing what had happened, not at why what had happened had produced one effect rather than another.

So, now? Can we take them one by one?

No, your initial instinct, to group the three, is better. They reinforced each other.

Okay then, go about it your own way.

You will notice, you began with wondering about my fear of being alone. I went immediately to link fear of death and fear of the dark.

Meaning, you’ve figured it out.

Well, you know, I’ve had enough time! And I’ve chewed it over not only in non-3D, but by interacting with a good number of people in 3D, many of them thinking they were only thinking about me.

Writing that, I got all choked up. So many people loved you. I thought of Morley Callaghan, after he heard that you had killed yourself, thinking about you, remembering you day and night until his wife pointed it out to him and he sat down to write his memoir of your relationship.

Here’s what you people usually don’t realize.

“You people”?

Yeah, I heard that as soon as I said it. I don’t mean it as a slam. I mean, people in 3D who think about the connection between 3D and non-3D and sort of scheme it out in their minds.

People like your mother.

No, people who think about these things, not just feel about them, or accept the opinion of others. You try to understand – and that’s good, of course; what else did I ever try to do, but understand and then express? But in thinking about death and connection you tend to make separations where there aren’t any separations. I don’t mean to imply that I was any different. If anything, my thinking about the subject was more fragmentary and more self-isolated.

Like the thinking you did about the soul, writing in the African night in the early 1950s.

You pointed out, I didn’t have  a lot of the concepts that would have made things clearer to me. But there was always my mother in the way of it, you know. I wasn’t going to become like her. [Hemingway’s mother was mystically inclined in a way that he rejected.]

A friend got me her question to Edgar Cayce and Cayce’s answer. But I imagine you and she will have come to terms by now. I mean, she has been dead since 1951, and you since 1961, and the passage of time in the non-3D isn’t the same as it is in 3D, but it isn’t nothing, either.

But that’s what I’m trying to say. “You people” in 3D underestimate the extent to which we in non-3D rely on you, because you can still change, you can still remember us, think about us, interact with us, and it gives us a point of departure.

I think you mean, some place to use as springboard.

You can’t jump if you don’t have anything to jump from. Your remembering us is more a form of interacting with us, though you don’t realize it. It lets us see ourselves from other points of view – points of view that didn’t exist when we did our immediate “past life review.” In other words, it is a continuing process, and helps us.

Kind of a big thought.

Live with it, examine it, see where it takes you. It may rearrange your mental furniture in surprising ways. Almost all of you will never interact with the culture the way Ken Burns and his team are doing; most of the work will be done anonymously. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a real contribution. And like everything, the more consciously you do it, the more useful it is for you.

This would be a diversion (from a diversion) but I am put in mind of prayers for the dead. I wonder if this is the original thought behind that idea, that degenerated into praying to God for mercy upon sinners. But, the thought is a diversion. You were saying that you have linked your three fears, and understand them now.

What is fear of death, when you look at it closely, but a specific form of fear of being alone? If it were only fear of ceasing to exist, well, maybe some people feel that,  but obviously any suicide had come to the point of seeing anything – even oblivion, if that’s what had to follow – as preferable to continuing as they were. I think for most people, fear of death is mostly fear that they are going to go through some unknown process and they’re going to have to go through it alone.

Not fear of judgment, and then heaven or hell?

Sure, but they’re afraid of facing that judgment alone.

I’ll have to think about that. Anyway, so –?

In one moment, that 18-year-old boy learned a hell of a lot about life and death. Now, I’m not saying that everything I “learned” in 1918 was true, but it was true for me. It shaped the life I let from there.

Okay, I can see that. And those lessons were that life is fragile and precious, first of all.

I already knew it was precious. I enjoyed life from the time I was born. What I learned, though, was that I wasn’t invulnerable in the way I had assumed. So in a way, it taught me that death is always about a heartbeat away from life (for anything could happen) and at the same time, that micro-second moment of death-and-life was almost even more precious than life itself. It was a glimpse of immortality as a fact of life. Now, bear in mind, I couldn’t have told you this then, nor in 1961. As I said, I’ve had lots of conversations with lots of people, and the seeing myself reflected in so many people’s minds has given me new understandings.

I get it. People have puzzled as to why your fascination with the dealing and receiving of death. I personally was puzzled that somebody who had died and returned could be afraid to die again. But if you were fascinated by something about it that you could feel but not understand, naturally you would do puzzling things, think in ways others would find puzzling.

Puzzling to me, too, when I wasn’t taking it for granted because the feel of it was so general.

I think you mean, because you were taking the mood for granted, because it was your mood; you were inside it.

Writing isn’t any easier when you have to dictate across the static.

I’m smiling. Okay, so – somehow we have written through almost an hour – can you give us your three fears in a nutshell? If not, we can do this again, of course.

It isn’t hard. If you live mostly in your head, but what you live is centered in the world around you, that’s a terrific dependence, you see? Yes, I could go out into the wilderness or onto the sea and concentrate on the physical world around me, but I’m still in the center of this processing machine, this thinking, pondering, analyzing, feeling, absorbing machine. I read all the time, and put together elaborate trips with friends. I studied things, and studied people and studied myself. It was all me interacting with not-me. Not that I would ever have thought about it in these terms, but that’s what it  amounted to. Can’t you see that always being in the center like that left me feeling alone, made me want human warmth around me?

You remind me so much of what I have read of the young John F. Kennedy (one of your big fans, as you know), who needed people around him, who devoured the world with his curiosity, although he didn’t seem to be afraid of death, having lived with it as a continuous probability from an early age.

As you know (you would say, “as you suspect,” but in fact you know), he and I share strong bonds, and we felt them in life, although he, young enough to have been my son, naturally felt them stronger than I did. I influenced his youth; he could not have influenced mine.

I guess maybe we will continue this next time? I don’t know if my side-trails prevented us from doing it all at once, but in any case it is always good to connect with you. and it is very satisfying to think that our connecting with our heroes or role models or whatever may help them as well. Not to mention the family we belong to biologically. Thanks, papa. Next time.


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