Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Hemingway's Alcoholism and Depression

I've been watching Ken Burn's series about Ernest Hemingway on PBS, and this quote from Ernie stuck out:
When you work hard all day with your head and you must work again the next day, what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whiskey?
"Change your ideas". "Make them run on a different plane". He's talking, of course, about perceptual framing; about shifts of perspective. It's not some mysterious woo-joo. We all viscerally realize, at some bleary, blurry, unconscious level, that shifting/reframing is the underlying truth of the human experience. Some people (most often accomplished people) get a little closer to this recognition than others, and Hemingway came damned close.

What he missed, alas, is that we don't need alcohol, or any other external thing, to reframe. We're the framers. We internally frame the world, despite our demented and persistent efforts to coax the world into framing us. That ass-backwardness leads to amnesia. We forget that we possess the ability to reframe at will, and so we get stuck. And frozen perspective accounts for nearly all human darkness, most notably depression. Depression is the clinical term for "frozen perspective".

If your perspective grows stuck and you're desperately evading depression (as Hemingway eternally was), and you've tried lots of hearty world action (as Hemingway certainly did), but you can't keep muscling the world into actively changing your perspective for you - misconstruing yourself as the passive receiver of perspective - until eventually you ruminate/marinate yourself into a state where you're good and entranced/frozen/stuck, then, as I wrote here,
We may grow quite desperate for liberation - for an escape from the monotonous world we've framed via a monotonous perspective. To rouse ourselves from depression, or to attempt, in our desperation, to stay ahead of the stuckedness, we clutch at straws. Things like booze, drugs, gambling, casual sex, and the other addictions serve as blunt instruments for forcing cheap momentary wisps of relief; of freedom. It's a last resort for those who've lost all interest in re-tuning their own perspective, and find themselves burdened and bored by a burdened, bored existence in an apparently burdensome, boring world.

A violent kick to the head is hardly an apt substitute for real liberation. It's not subtle, nor entirely pleasant, and you must contend with repercussions, rebounds, and a build-up of tolerance. But at least you’re temporarily jarred out of the monotony of a frozen perspective. If this is your sole avenue of relief, it will come to feel like salvation.

In the long run, dependence on kicks to the head just heightens the monotony; the freezing. You're imprisoned more and more tightly as you distract yourself from your innate facility for swapping in a different perspective. Reliance on a head kick reinforces the wrong-headed assumption that perspective is dictated by conditions "out there", rather than by your own choices "in here". So your entire life comes to center on some chosen kick (which becomes, itself, a monotonous freeze). You cling to this means of momentarily shaking things up to glean pitifully faint sniffs of the full freedom you’ve chosen to spurn.
It didn't work out so well for Hemingway, whose dependence on kicks to the head just heightened the monotony; the freezing. With all that said, let's do one more pass through his surprisingly self-aware quote:
When you work hard all day with your head and you must work again the next day, what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whiskey?
Just reframe, Papa. It’s your move. You have free latitude to write your story from any angle. You, of all people, should have known that. 


Adalsio said...

An inspiring post, Jim, and one with advice that is all too sensible and wise, but ultimately elusive for many. They'd be the ones who feel like they're being prescribed a mindfulness exercise to fend off a machete-wielding psychopath. Indeed, it was William Styron who said it was preferable to have his arm amputated without anesthesia than to endure another day of depression.

Jim Leff said...

Yep, I know about depression. And it’s true that in the throes of it, a tad of perspective will neither hold much attraction nor be likely to “stick” amid the whirling vortex of total ruminative obsession. Every thought, every input, feeds the tornado. A black hole might be a better metaphor. It sucks in literally everything.

But menacing as it is, it’s built on faint whisps. Like any creative project, a depression is the product of staunch commitment; of focus. At the starting stages, the tight grip of ruminative obsession feels like mere caprice. That’s the point when the recognition of other perspective choices is fruitful.

Once it’s tightened and strengthened into a vortex, you just wait until you get bored. Then the winds suddenly cease and the paralysis ends. It’s projected “out there”, but this is an inner process; a dislodging of frozen perspective. And it’s available in any moment. We’re free.

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