Thursday, January 31, 2013
Hemingway Loved Cats
I learned tonight that Hemingway loved cats, which prompted me to some armchair literary criticism.
I have been a fan of Ernest Hemingway for many years. I read The Old Man and the Sea and I was hooked. I had no idea what it was about, I just knew that there was something more that he wanted to say with that piece that floated beneath the surface of the novella. While working in the Hole in the Wall Bookstore at Wall Drug on a boring summer day, I happened across a copy of his, The Dangerous Summer. It was odd to find fiction of this sort in a store devoted to literature about the Western Portion of the USA. With wanton disregard for the strict policy against reading the merchandise, I began browsing the introduction to the text, and learned of Hemingway's suicide. I think I decided then that he was a tortured man. It would be many years before I finally read Hemingway in a college course and began to understand his writing in its historical context. For me, Hemingway has always smacked of sadness, disappointment, and broken dreams. Even at its most positive, his writing is wistful, never satisfied, full of longing. That, to my mind, is part of his allure.
As a result of my own reading, I was a little taken aback to find that Hemingway lore is surrounded with an aura of machismo. To my mind, the idea of a passionate yet haunted cat-loving man is not incompatible with the idea of a mountain-climbing, lion-shooting, fisherman. I am not sure why it comes as a shock to many to learn that Hemingway was a cat lover. Dog owners, unless the dogs are of the lion-tracking variety, are not well-suited to leave on safari. Someone has to care for the dogs. Cats, on the other hand, tend to care for themselves. They can be left alone for weeks and hardly notice the absence of their owners. All of the cat and dog debate aside, however, that Hemingway loved his cats simply reiterates to me something that I have always assumed of Hemingway as a result of his writing.
Ernest Hemingway was the instantiation of the idea that the entirety of human life is to be experienced in the passing of a limited number of days, and should those days be marked by pain, he who lives them has been cheated. For him, it seems to me, life was mostly bitter, punctuated by episodes of pleasure that served principally to momentarily anesthetize one to the bitterness and exacerbate the experience once the pleasure had passed. And I love his writing because he is so gloriously yet tragically wrong. Life is good, though punctuated by evil, and is worth living principally because good and evil alike serve to reflect the goodness of life as yet unseen, and intensify one's desire for beatitude yet to come.
Hemingway's cats, "purr factories" and "love sponges," as he called them, made something miserable more pleasant, even bearable. For me, Hemingway's cats serve to prove that in a world created solely to make me happy, I can hope to be even happier when it ends. Here's to hoping that Hemingway found in death what he could not seem to bring himself to believe in life. Rest in peace, Ernest.