Camus and Hemingway: Suicide, Sisyphus, and the Leopard

Ben Stoltzfus, University of California, Riverside

Should a person commit suicide or not? To die or not to die, that is the question Albert Camus asks in The Myth of Sisyphus.[1] His essay relates not only to Ernest Hemingway’s life, it also generates answers that even the leopard of Kilimanjaro might understand.

To begin with, Camus believes that the world is absurd, that we are born by chance, live by encounter, and die by accident. Although we crave happiness on earth and immortality after death, the disproportion between desire and fulfillment defines the absurd. An absurd world is a world without necessity, without purpose, and without essence. Whatever meaning it has, we ourselves have to provide it. Existentialists believe that, because there is no a priori morality, men’s choices and actions fill the void that was left by the disappearance of God. However, says Camus, man’s forlornness should not be construed as a source of despair. On the contrary, God’s death should be viewed not as tragedy but as a liberation, and it is this newly found freedom that gives men and women the strength to invent themselves. In an absurd world all choices are possible, even suicide.[2]

In Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed, Kirilov is obsessed with the idea of freedom and, in due course, he kills himself in order to prove that God does not exist. By philosophizing his suicide he believes he is liberating himself from the chains of God’s commandments. He dies in order to prove his freedom, and Camus views Kirilov’s reasoning as an important prelude to the absurd. Henceforth, says Camus, no one need duplicate Kirilov’s suicide.

It is ironic, therefore, that Hemingway, after leading a full life of writing, travel, and adventure, should have taken his own life, a gesture that some critics construe as weakness, cowardice, and a mortal sin. The flip side is that killing, oneself included, as a deliberate choice, requires the kind of strength and courage that only a seasoned professional can muster. Hemingway was a consummate hunter and he liked to kill.[3] That, and his experience as a young man on the Italian front during World War I, had brought him face to face with death. He knew what death was, he had written extensively about it in Death in the Afternoon, a book on the corrida (the bullfight), also an extended meditation on death as a ritual performance that is both mythic and artistic. The bullfighter, says Hemingway, is an artist, and his performance is to be admired for its elegance, courage, and precision.[4] It is not a bloodletting, as so many uninformed spectators allege, but a dramatic confrontation of life and death, a reenactment of the most elemental aspect of the human condition, namely, that death regulates life. The corrida, says Hemingway, has a message for all men: fear can be overcome, cowardice is odious, craft is everything, and, when allied with courage, the performance can ennoble life (DA 213). Hemingway’s suicide has to be viewed in this context.

However, Camus says that it matters little whether we die at twenty or at fifty. Why not commit suicide right away and be done with it? And yet, although suicide is theoretically possible because in the context of the absurd there are no sanctions to proscribe it, Camus rejects it. And he does so because the idea of the absurd leads him to postulate three premises: freedom, passion, and rebellion (MS 145). In the final analysis suicide is redundant because it destroys all future choices, it negates the individual’s emerging passion for life, and it contradicts a person’s nascent rebellion. Camus wants to exercise a person’s freedom, he realizes that he loves the world passionately, he feels free to create himself, and he is in revolt against all forces that debase human beings. Death in its various disguises dehumanizes, and suicide represents an alliance with the absurd that he is now rebelling against. Instead of concluding that the absurd leads to nihilism, Camus believes that it is an invitation to live. Freedom and passion color life with meaning, hope reappears on the horizon, and purpose is a mountain that invites ascent.

Sisyphus has become Camus’s metaphor for twentieth-century man—for all those who persevere despite the knowledge that everybody is mortal. Sisyphus rolls his rock upward knowing that purpose, dignity, and happiness are the fruits of endeavor. He has chosen his cause (the rock) and he is committed to it. Despite all difficulties he pushes upward toward the summit, aware that when he reaches the top the rock will roll down into the valley and he will have to begin the ascent all over again (MS 193–98). Such is the inevitable labor of human beings and of their successive generations. Some individuals, however, reach higher peaks than others, and the Nobel prize was Camus’s reward for his efforts as it was Hemingway’s. Not all men are equally endowed although many are insufficiently rewarded. Still, it is the effort that counts and it is the struggle toward the heights that gives meaning to life in a world without purpose. The absurd is not an obstacle, it is a catalyst. We live in a world in which death is the arbiter of life: we create meaning, we invent ourselves, and we act out the dramas of our existence. For writers, the theater of language, be it comedy or tragedy, determines success or failure.

Although Hemingway does not develop his thinking as systematically as Camus does, his life and career illustrate many of the ideas that Camus explores in The Myth of Sisyphus. The leopard epigraph for The Snows of Kilimanjaro is Hemingway’s metaphor of the writer committed to his craft. Although the epigraph states that no one knows what the leopard was seeking at that altitude, Hemingway’s writings suggest that he knows exactly what the tropic presence of the leopard signifies.[5] Indeed, there is a connection in Hemingway’s mind between hunting and writing. In Green Hills of Africa there is a clear link between hunting big game and literary success. The fourth and fifth dimensions to which he alludes represent the summit of writerly achievement because he is as hungry for artistic perfection as the leopard is for prey.[6] It is only the symbolic altitude of Kilimanjaro (the House of God) or its sudden blizzards that can interfere with the sought-after prize. The skill it takes to shoot a kudu or, as in The Old Man and the Sea, land the biggest marlin is not unlike the craft of fiction: the bigger the prize, the better you appear to be, and your self-esteem goes up accordingly. In Hemingway’s mind the analogy between hunting and writing is evident, and it is not by chance, in Green Hills of Africa, that he juxtaposes hunting and achieving a fourth and fifth dimension, a form of writing that is “much more difficult than poetry” (GHA 27).[7]

Ultimately, the leopard’s death and Hemingway’s death are reminiscent of the effort that Sisyphus puts into rolling his rock toward the summit. In order to survive the writer must write just as the leopard must catch its prey. We know the high premium that Hemingway placed on achievement. His personal and public dignity depended on recognition and success. Like Gustave Flaubert he believes that producing a work of Art is like climbing a high mountain. The artist ascends, persevering, even if it means dying in the snow, near the summit, “in the white pain of desire.”[8] Flaubert also compares his writing style, prose particularly, to Sisyphus rolling his stone (C447). The irony in The Snows of Kilimanjaro is that Harry has gone to pot as a writer. He is nowhere near the summit and he dies on the plain because he did not take the necessary field precautions that would enable him to survive. He goes to Africa to work the fat off his soul, but his lack of attention to detail (mechanical failure of the truck, thorn scratch that turns gangrenous) eventually kills him. As Harry lies dying, reminiscing about the highlights of his past, Hemingway transforms Harry’s failure into his own success. Harry, like the leopard, may ascend to the House of God in death but Hemingway gets there in life, and it is this real and, at the same time, metaphorical achievement that allows Hemingway, the knowledgeable African hunter, to triumph as a writer. He knows what he is seeking at the higher elevations and how to get the prize.

Indeed, Hemingway’s life and work are a testimonial to his ability, endurance, and tenacity. Jake Barnes perseveres despite his impotence. Frederic Henry survives despite the war. Francis Macomber regains his courage. Robert Jordan remains committed to Maria and the cause for which he is fighting. The old man of the sea demonstrates that, despite his age and bad luck, he is still El Campeón.[9] We could argue that Hemingway’s female protagonists are less fortunate or less admirable than their male counterparts, but the fact remains that selected personae embody praiseworthy characteristics: courage, nobility, skill, endurance, fidelity, and faith—traits that are manifest against all odds, even when a man ends up with nothing. In his life and in his work Hemingway had explored and come to terms with the three premises of the absurd (freedom, passion, and rebellion), he had endured as long as he could, and he was “fraid a nothing,”[10] not even death. Like many of his characters, Hemingway knew what death was and, like them, he had done his share of killing. The old man of the sea’s determination to kill the marlin despite “his power and his beauty” (OMATS 94) echoes the tone in Green Hills of Africa where the highest satisfactions derive from the shooting of the biggest and most beautiful animals. Hemingway’s entire oeuvre is an ongoing dialogue with death, and he and his killers usurp the role of God (or nature) because, whenever they kill, they assert the power of man.

This Nietzschean striving for the Übermensch, when coupled with the idea that “man is a rope … stretched across an abyss,”[11] manifests a human will that opposes the existential void. Life may be nada but the will to confront the nothings that dehumanize it is an important dimension of Hemingway’s code hero. Hemingway is fascinated by death and his work is one continuous dramatization of it. The corrida in The Sun Also Rises and in Death in the Afternoon stages death as spectacle, life as tragedy, and the matador—man the artist—as the mediator between the two. Hemingway also compares writing with the corrida. Courage, skill, and endurance are the attributes of the bullfighter as well as the artist, and the writer capable of bringing his life’s work to term manifests all three. Art, says André Malraux, is a revolt against fate because, after the writer’s death, only the voices of art remain—“the voices of silence” that speak through the work that survives.[12]

Although death is an important leitmotif in Green Hills of Africa, the landscape is equally significant. Hemingway loved Africa and he felt at home there, “and where a man feels at home, outside of where he’s born, is where he’s meant to go” (GHA 284). There was game, plenty of birds, and he liked the natives. “That, and writing, and reading, and seeing pictures was all I cared about doing.… That and ski-ing” (GHA 285). The fact that Hemingway’s heightened sense of well-being depends in part on killing animals underscores the Nietzschean motif of the superman. But killing aside, Hemingway’s primal contact with nature is an essential part of the “moveable feast” that regulates his pleasures. The natural world is an important trope for Hemingway and Camus, and both authors use nature as an objective correlative: their landscapes situate characters not only in space but also in time where beliefs, attitudes, and values are defined.

Fishing, hunting, skiing, and boating occupy Hemingway and his protagonists in significant ways. To participate in these activities is to eschew the city, society, and the mundane in order to engage in pleasures that can only be fulfilled when in touch with mountains, hills, valleys, plains, rivers, and seas. Although not as consummate a sportsman as Hemingway (Camus was a star soccer player), Camus’s work is nonetheless marked by lyrical passages in which the sea, the sun, and the earth can rejuvenate a person because they engender meaningful contact not only with nature but also with the inner self.

Although the environment is an elemental force in the works of both writers, its corollary is death. Hemingway and Camus use the landscape and death contrapuntally in order to emphasize first one and then the other. Their themes oscillate between the pleasure principle and reality. However, the pleasures of nature and the specter of death are often conjoined, and this melding enriches their symbolic language with layers of ambivalence.

There is arguably less ambivalence in Camus’s writing than in Hemingway’s. Indeed, Camus’s categorical rejection of suicide is theoretically at odds with Hemingway’s death by suicide. Nonetheless, despite this fundamental difference, certain themes in their oeuvre are so similar as to belie the opposition. The “moveable feast” syndrome, using death as its backdrop, is an element they both share.

Like Hemingway, Camus’s Caligula, in the play Caligula, blends nature and death into a plot designed to teach all of Rome that life is absurd and that he, Caligula, with his deadly imperial freedom, has usurped the power of the gods. I am not implying that Hemingway wanted to teach the animals or his readers lessons in the absurd. I am saying that he took pleasure in killing and that killing enhanced his sense of worth and well-being because he too was usurping the power of God (DA 233). The killing of animals in the bullring or in the wild appealed to Hemingway in ways that he sometimes trivializes, such as in the joke of killing birds and hyenas (GHA 36-37), or which, at other times, he prefers not to verbalize: “Killing is not a feeling that you share” (GHA 120). Nonetheless, both Hemingway and Camus reveal an awareness of death that heightens their feeling for life.

Near the end of Caligula, the Roman emperor and his patricians play a game of “exquisite corpse.” It is a group poem whose theme, assigned by Caligula, is death. A number of inept lines are interrupted by Caligula’s insults and whistle until it is Scipio’s turn to recite his lines: “A quest for happiness that purifies, / A sky where the sun is streaming, / Unusual and savage celebrations, my delirium / devoid of hope! …”[13] Caligula’s response is that Scipio is too young to understand the true lessons of death. But what are these true lessons if not the passion for life that flows from the absurd? Once we accept the inevitability of death and understand that we are free to invent ourselves, we are also authorized to partake of life’s pleasures. Once these lessons have been internalized we can experience pleasure whenever and wherever we are in touch with simple, physical, and elemental realities. The narrator of Camus’s essay Nuptials[14] derives as much joy from swimming in the sea as Hemingway’s narrators do when fishing and skiing. Mara, one of the characters in Camus’s play The Misunderstanding, will rob and kill in order to buy happiness on the sunlit shores of the Mediterranean where she imagines it can be found.[15] Death’s urgent lesson for Camus is that as long as man is alive he should enjoy his honeymoon on earth. Although The Plague demonstrates that there are other demands on man’s allegiance, such as commitment, the text also makes clear that the idea of commitment loses its purpose unless there is something worth fighting for. At the height of the plague and of his exhaustion, Dr. Rieux goes for a swim in the Mediterranean and it is this contact with the sea that revives him and makes it possible to continue the struggle.[16] The plague is a detour, sometimes a permanent one, in man’s quest for happiness, but men who are committed must endure in this never-ending confrontation.

Hemingway’s commitment to his writing was total but his involvement in sociopolitical causes, compared to Camus’s, was minor.[17] Indeed, Hemingway’s service on the Italian front during World War I seems to have contributed to a certain distancing: “If you serve time for society, democracy, and the other things quite young, and declining any further enlistment make yourself responsible only to yourself, you exchange the pleasant, comforting stench of comrades for something you can never feel in any other way than by yourself. That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written it that way” (GHA 148). Hemingway survived his wounds on the Italian front, but instead of nudging him toward social commitment, the way Camus’s early brush with tuberculosis had, Hemingway’s experience with death reinforced his commitment to himself and to writing. Whereas, in my judgment, Hemingway is the better fiction writer, Camus is a much more interesting thinker. The point in all this is that the confrontation with death leads Hemingway to commit himself to writing, and for Camus, to commit himself to writing and to the sociopolitical arena.

Camus’s death (an automobile accident) is as absurd as Hemingway’s, that is, both events underscore the absence of providential purpose, at least one we can discern. Camus, the nonbeliever, died at the height of his creative powers whereas Hemingway, a professed Catholic, died in a state of so-called mortal sin. How are we to resolve his alleged Catholicism and suicide as a deliberate choice that contravenes the teachings of the church? Jean-Paul Sartre maintains that choices define a person’s essence. If Hemingway’s suicide represents a deliberate choice, then that act contradicts earlier professions of faith. It is the final chapter and there is no turning back. In Sartre’s play No Exit, Garcin “suffers” because desertion, his final act before he dies, marks him as a coward. Estelle also “suffers” because she cannot undo her infanticide, and this act defines her essence as a murderess. This hell on earth, this death in life is the punishment for their bad faith.[18]

Hemingway’s suicide is an indelible act, and in retrospect it defines his entire life. His death is not an aberration, nor is it an act of bad faith. On the contrary, it is consistent with a life style that he chose to exercise up to the very end. Successive choices create an essence, and this essence, when lived authentically, is sufficient for any man. Hemingway chose to become a writer, he exercised his craft with consummate skill, he lived his life passionately and, when his body and mind could no longer live up to his expectations, he pulled the trigger. To commit suicide is to take matters of life and death into your own hands. If physical and intellectual debility destroy everything that makes life worth living, who is to say that the fateful shot early Sunday morning, July 2, 1961 (Baker 714), was not an assertion of courage, mastery, and control? Surely, Hemingway preferred death to the indignities and infirmities of old age, and it is this shot that still resonates with M’Cola’s laugh—M’Cola, the gun bearer in Green Hills of Africa—whenever Hemingway killed birds and hyenas. Whenever he killed, the joke was on the animal; whenever he missed, the joke was on Hemingway (36–37). But the tragedy of Hemingway’s death, whichever way we look at it (he is now the animal, and he does not miss), is that the joke, ultimately, is on him because M’Cola’s laughter invites speculations about Hemingway’s ego, his selfishness, callousness, and insensitivity. However, I leave this reverse scenario for others to explore. More interesting, I think, is the drama of life and death that Hemingway pursued against a backdrop of natural settings, a drama that allowed him to explore the full range of his physical prowess and writerly genius.

Before he died Hemingway was neither physically nor intellectually capable of doing what he had always done so well. Old age and his various accidents had caught up with him. His passion for life, his freedom to choose, and his revolt against death, attributes that had shaped his life and his work as long as his energies were intact, all were weighing him down. At the end, life had stopped being “a moveable feast.” Metaphorically speaking, a new ascent toward another summit was beyond him. Writing well, shooting big game, and killing large fish were no longer possible. This is perhaps a form of pride, but Hemingway had always been proud of his achievements. However, as with the leopard of Kilimanjaro, prey was now beyond his grasp. Baker phrases it aptly when he says that for years Hemingway’s maxim had been: “‘il faut (d’abord) durer.’ Now it had been succeeded by another: ‘il faut (après tout) mourir’“ (714).[19]

If death is the sovereign remedy for the misfortunes of life and you are obsessed, as Hemingway was, with pride, honor, and dignity and, on top of that, if you are an artist who, like the bullfighter, can no longer perform, then killing, even if it is the self, must have singular appeal. To lose your memory, one of the most important elements in writing, would be unbearable. It is not difficult to imagine Hemingway, the artist, administering death in the arena of life, in order to dramatize his life and his death. Using the corrida as metaphor it is possible to envisage Hemingway playing the dual role of matador and bull simultaneously, a consummate artist and sacrificial animal.

In his art, Hemingway achieved the fourth and fifth dimensions to which he aspired. However, the debility of old age and his inability to continue writing (he had undergone shock treatments at the Mayo Clinic) had curtailed his freedom and virtually eliminated his passion. All he had left was rebellion, the third element in Camus’s triad. Hemingway had constructed his life vigorously, but at the end, his body and his mind were spent. No further achievement seemed possible and there were no summits on the horizon, except perhaps the “House of God” toward which, like the dying protagonist in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, he could aspire. This melding of art and life, of triumph and defeat, of a winner at the end of the line, is the sublime, although tragic, image of Hemingway in his final hour.

His famous Gulf Stream passage in Green Hills of Africa, whatever else it is, can be read as a paradigm of the absurd and of Sisyphus’s eternal and renewable defeat: “and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing—the stream” (150). Despite the absurd, Hemingway’s achievement proves that there is a difference between dying at the age of twenty and dying at the age of fifty. Both his life and Camus’s demonstrate that Sisyphus’s endeavors can fill the void with meaning and purpose.


[1] Albert Camus, “Le mythe de Sisyphe,” Essais (Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade, 1965) 89-211. All subsequent references to this edition are cited in parentheses following the abbreviation MS. “A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.” The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Random, 1955) 5. Lest the word “man,” above and in the text, be construed as politically incorrect, I wish to remind the reader that Webster’s defines man as 1) a human being; a person, whether male or female. 2) the human race; mankind: used with the or a. Camus and Hemingway use the word “man” in its universal sense, one that does not exclude women. My use of the word is also in keeping with Webster’s definitions.
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[2] Although Camus always denied that he was an existentialist, both he and Jean-Paul Sartre believed that the world was absurd and an absurd world is one without a priori purpose. The fundamental difference in thinking between the two men was that Sartre believed that because God is dead everything was allowed, whereas Camus believed that although all things were theoretically possible, not all actions were acceptable. See “L’homme révolté,” Essais 413–32.
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[3] See Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (New York: Scribners, 1935) 272, in which Hemingway exalts the hunt and the pleasures of killing cleanly. Henceforth GHA in the text. See also Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (New York: Scribners, 1932). “Killing cleanly and in a way which gives you aesthetic pleasure and pride has always been one of the greatest enjoyments of a part of the human race” (232). Henceforth DA in the text.
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[4] “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death” (Hemingway, DA 91). Also, “I know no modern sculpture, except Brancusi’s, that is in any way the equal of the sculpture of modern bullfighting. But it is an impermanent art as singing and the dance are” (DA 99).
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[5] Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories (New York: Scribners, 1970) 3. Henceforth SK in the text.
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[6] In S/Z Roland Barthes opposes the two terms readerly and writerly in order to call attention to the difference between denotation and connotation. The fourth and fifth dimensions to which Hemingway alludes are activated by the resonance and ambiguity of words and meanings whose connotations transcend denotation, that is, the one-on-one relationship of the signifier to the signified. See S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974) 4–5. See also Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977) 67.
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[7] See also DA 192: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
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[8] Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance (Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade, 1991) 2: 431–32. Henceforth C in the text. Flaubert capitalizes the A of Art in order to give the word a religious connotation.
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[9] Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (New York: Scribners, 1952) 70. Henceforth OMATS in the text.
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[10] Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (New York: Scribners, 1969) 12. Henceforth Baker in the text.
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[11] Frederick Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and No One, trans. Marianne Cowan (Chicago: Regnery, 1957) 7.
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[12] André Malraux, Les voix du silence (Paris: Gallimard, 1951) 628. “Although not immortal, this voice of survival raises its sacred song above the endless orchestra of death.” My translation.
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[13] Albert Camus, “Caligula,” Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles (Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade, 1962) 100. My translation.
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[14] Albert Camus, “Noces,” Essais 55–60.
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[15] Albert Camus, “Le malentendu,” Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles 109–80.
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[16] Albert Camus, “La peste,” Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles 1427.
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[17] Neither Robert Jordan’s commitment to the Republican cause in For Whom the Bell Tolls nor Philip Rawlings’ similar commitment in The Fifth Column compare in scope with L’homme révolté, Camus’s extended meditation on the historical, metaphysical, and sociopolitical implications of the absurd.
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[18] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Huis clos,” Théâtre (Paris: Gallimard, 1947) 122–81.
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[19] In Death in the Afternoon (104) Hemingway says “there is no remedy for anything in life. Death is a sovereign remedy for all misfortunes.”
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