Sunday, 4 September 2016

Ernest Hemingway in Cerebus

Cerebus Vol 14: Form & Void (2001)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
(from A History of Ernest Hemingway in Comics: Part 2 by Robert Elder, 2 September 2016)

Cerebus #251–265 (2000-2001)
Other literary luminaries, or their doppelgangers, have appeared in Dave Sim's 300-issue run of Cerebus, including Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein.

The title character -- a humanoid aardvark who starts as a barbarian and becomes a prime minister, a pope, and finally, an outcast -- is the vehicle for Sim's exploration of philosophy, religion and gender politics.

In this story, "Form & Void", Cerebus treks home with his love, Jaka, and they encounter his idol, author "Ham Ernestway". This Hemingway avatar depicts the author at the end of his life, nearly subverbal as he fights a losing battle with depression. His icy wife Mary, always at his side, works to protect his legacy.

This spare story arc near the end of Cerebus' 300-issue run is part comic book, part obsessive notebook of Sim's Hemingway-related citations and tangents published at the back of each issue. The research Sim conducted for this arc is staggering, and he goes to great lengths to prove that Mary Hemingway kept a handwritten journal from her 1953 safari in Africa that’s since been lost or destroyed in favor of her typed and edited manuscript.

Sim's references rely heavily on Hemingway’s posthumously published The Garden of Eden and its depiction of gender ambiguity. On one page in Cerebus, an older Hemingway begins to disrobe, revealing women's lingerie.

The text quotes Hemingway: "Mary is a sort of prince of devils... She always wanted to be a boy and thinks as a boy without ever losing any femininity... She loves me to be her girl, which I love to be – not being absolutely stupid, and also loving to be her girl since I have other jobs in the daytime."
Sim goes farther than most scholars and biographers in claiming that Hemingway was bisexual.

"If all of the Garden of Eden manuscript pages were ever published, I'm sure Hemingway would become a de facto bi-sexuality poster boy," Sim says.

Below, a longer Q&A with Sim about Hemingway and Cerebus.

Q: What inspired you to put Hemingway in Cerebus?

A: I took Norman Mailer's word for it that Hemingway was the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the Literary World and decided that I would "do" him as the "capo di tutti capi" ["boss of all bosses"] literary presence in Cerebus -- all without having read of word of his fiction. If he's good enough for Mailer, he's good enough for me.

Q: Did Hemingway's writing have any impact on your work?

A: I'm a huge fan of the very early Hemingway, but ultimately decided that most of his work was "The Emperor's New Clothes". Not much "there" there. The lower-case in our time I would rate the highest [in our time was Hemingway's short story 1924 collection printed in Paris. His 1925 expanded edition, printed in New York, was upper-cased as In Our Time -- ed.]. Some parts of Men Without Women. I'd rate Fitzgerald and Mailer higher than I do Hemingway.

Q:  Even though you weren't a fan of Hemingway's work, what was your understanding of the author's popularity during his lifetime? What was his appeal?

A: The adventurer! All the frontiers would be explored in the course of Hemingway's lifetime and he was one of the last to travel to exotic locations and write about them and his choices were very astute: he made Kilimanjaro, bullfighting, the running of the bulls at Pamplona and the Spanish Civil War, among others, his own.

It must've been both a great joy and a great burden to be Hemingway, probably both simultaneously, and in a way that mixed very badly with atheism and alcohol. His "black ass" was largely self-inflicted, I think.

Q:  Scholars have linked Hemingway's "black ass" moods, as Hemingway himself put it, to his family's generational struggle with clinical depression and a legacy of suicide. Since you wrote the "Form & Void" story arc, how have your views on mental illness changed?

A: They haven't. We all go through periods of "black ass" in our lives and it's up to us to pull ourselves out of it. Hemingway didn't, which was a failure on his part. Period.

Q: In the end note for "Form & Void" and in "Tangent", you wrote that Mary Hemingway murdered her husband, and should be brought up on "first degree murder" charges. It's been some time since you wrote that -- was this hyperbole, or do you believe it to be true? Is the failure to prevent the last of several suicide attempts the same as murder?

A: The fact that she left the keys to the gun chest in plain sight suggests to me that she knew what she was doing and she knew what the result would be. So, it seems to me definitely premeditated. That having been said, it was Hemingway who unlocked the gun chest, loaded the weapon and pulled the trigger(s).

Q:  In 2012, you told the Comics Journal: "I think Hemingway was completely bi-sexual…" which is a bolder statement than his biographers have made. What you led to the conclusion that Hemingway was bi-sexual?

A: Two things: first, Mary Hemingway's Africa diary where it was clear that he was fantasizing that she was a young boy -- his "kitten brother"... Second, The Garden of Eden book which he wildly "over-wrote" to the tune of hundreds of pages trying to explain his sexuality in such a way as not to sound gay. He couldn't do it and gave up trying. If all of The Garden of Eden manuscript pages were ever published, I'm sure Hemingway would become a de facto bi-sexuality poster boy.

He wanted to be all man and all woman and he wanted his wives to be all man and all woman. Mary documented that in her journal, he snooped and read it and had to add his own entry after doing so, knowing that Mary's journal would be read, in order to "clarify" things for posterity. I think he thought that everyone was like that: all man and all woman and that he was the only one who was honest about it.

Robert Elder is the co-author of Hidden Hemingway.


Anthony Kuchar said...

I really enjoyed Form and Void a lot more than I though I would. Probably one of the most impactful Cerebus books.

I'm speaking from a point of ignorance here(on the subject of Hemingway), but was Mary generally not well thought of by most biographers?

I watched a documentary on Hemingway on youtube and they only devoted less than 5 min about her near the end, and it mostly focused on her excessive drinking.

To Dave: With all due respect, do you think this kind of posthumous speculation on Hemingway's sexuality is appropriate? I see all the time articles like Shakespeare was gay, or Abraham Lincon was gay or Jesus was gay. Isn't this similar to the sort of thing (feminist historical revisionism)that you dislike in academia?

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

Dave's statement "We all go through periods of 'black ass' in our lives" indicates that he doesn't know anything about the ailment of Depression. "I've been depressed, we've all been depressed, just cheer up."

I recall John Huston saying in a Playboy interview that he believed that Hemingway had periods where his mind was his own, and that in one of those periods he killed himself as he found the other periods intolerable.

-- Damian

Jeff Seiler said...

Damian--Speaking as a degreed psychologist, I can say that there are two kinds of depression--acute depression (comes and goes) and chronic depression (tends to stick around). Either can be crippling. One does not have to have chronic depression to experience the "black ass".

Pure conjecture here: Dave Sim has suffered from acute depression occasionally throughout his adult life. He is, to the best of my knowledge, not a trained psychologist, bt I'll bet he could speak from personal experience to acute depression and the "black ass".

And, I'm pretty sure that Dave has never said or written "just cheer up".

But, hey, Damian, you go on hatin' for as long as you can...

al roney said...

@Jeff - Damian may be just referring/extrapolating from this quote contained in the post:

Q: Scholars have linked Hemingway's "black ass" moods, as Hemingway himself put it, to his family's generational struggle with clinical depression and a legacy of suicide. Since you wrote the "Form & Void" story arc, how have your views on mental illness changed?

A: They haven't. We all go through periods of "black ass" in our lives and it's up to us to pull ourselves out of it. Hemingway didn't, which was a failure on his part. Period.

As you know, people who are clinically depressed cannot just pull themselves out of it.

It just doesn't work that way. I took Dave's quote as demonstrating some lack of knowledge when it comes to mental illness.

I also have a wee bit of experience in the field - 10 plus years of inpatient psychiatry, and family members who suffer from depression of the clinical kind.

If folks could just pull themselves out of it we could eliminate the need for all the hospitals, wards, psychiatrists, psychologists, aids and anyone else involved in the profession.

I don't see that happening.

Jeff Seiler said...

Al: Yes, you're correct that it is very, very difficult to just "pull yourself out of it", when it comes to chronic depression. Chronic depression is usually a function of a biochemical imbalance in the brain chemistry, which imbalance is extremely hard to correct for and nearly impossible to cure.

Acute depression, however, is something from which it is possible to pull oneself out of. Acute depression is usually a result of some setback in life--a death in the family, loss of a job, loss of a long-time pet, financial setbacks, etc. In those cases, one can ride it out and then pull oneself back up, or one can wallow in it, ad infinitum. When my father died, somewhat unexpectedly, I pretty much took six months off of nearly everything, but then pulled myself up out of it.

Not sure if I had the "black ass", but I was certainly no fun to be around.

Having said that, I am well aware that Hemingway probably had chronic depression (perhaps, bipolar disorder cycling heavy towards depression--else, how explain his ability to type out all those stories and novels--but that is purely speculation on my part), but suicide (even if facilitated by one's embittered spous), is still a failure.


Jim Sheridan said...

Hemingway' s family has had a run with depression, no?

"Snap out of it" is a normal response if you're irritated with a person who shows some symptoms. Study of the field might produce a more measured and logical response.

Dave Sim said...

Hi Ashton - I would guess that, of Hemingway's biographers -- or "biographers" in my case -- I'm probably the only person who actually read Mary's HOW IT WAS just as I'm sure that I'm the only "biographer" to read the typescript of her diary on file at the JFK Library. It wasn't until I did that I got an actual picture of Hemingway in my mind that dovetailed with the known facts. Which I didn't get from reading his most highly accredited biographers or Hemingway writing about himself. Mary wasn't a terrible writer, in my opinion -- as a stylist and in terms of engaging the reader -- but she wasn't a great writer. What she was was a very OBSERVANT person when someone or something interested her. And she was very, very interested in Hemingway.

Jim & Jeff&al&Damian - The Hemingways also all drank pretty good and alcohol is a depressant. My parents both drank themselves to death. When I quit drinking in 2003 I definitely stopped having mood-swings and occasional depression. If you just REALLY TELL YOURSELF "Cheer the eff up" instead of having a drink to feel better...well, it works for me. If you tell clinically depressed people that they can't pull themselves out of it, they definitely won't pull themselves out of it. But I think that just makes you depressive enablers. IMHO. "You live in North America. Anything you complain about is just WHINING compared to the real problems that people in most of the world face." IMHO

Dave Sim said...

Anthony II: I think it's appropriate to speculate on Hemingway's BI-sexuality based on a) Hemingway's decision to write in Mary's diary what he did about her "kitten brother" entry. And b) his decision to write GARDEN OF EDEN.

DID he actually write in Mary's diary what she said he did? That's another question. All that exists is the typescript of the diary, the handwritten diary disappeared at some point. Did Mary make it up? No, I think I know Hemingway's writing when I read it and what he wrote -- to posterity, knowing that he couldn't destroy the diary or tear the page out or cross out what she had written without basically rewriting his self-image as someone who only wrote "truly and good" -- seems to me exactly what a "busted" bi-sexual would write in that situation in 1953.

I mean, I'm in the same situation with a hermaphrodite title character. That definitely makes speculation about my sexuality (or lack of same) open season. Am I a hermaphrodite?

But, I agree with you that it's WAY overdone in our society -- from Batman and Robin on out. :)

That's just how a Feminist Theocracy is going to behave.