The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway)

Posted: February 10, 2017 in fiction
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I have only ever read this book for school assignments, I have refused to purchase it, and reading it for my students this week has not changed my dislike.

Before he was The Old Man, he was Santiago el Campeón, a Cuban sailor who made runs to the coast of Africa. Once in a bar in Casablanca he won an arm-wrestling match that had lasted twenty-four hours and made his fingernails bleed. But generally, he watched the lions on the shore and was happy. Now he’s an old fisherman. He’s lost none of his strength and courage, the determination to win. After all, arm-wrestling is generally won not by the stronger competitor but by the one who wants it more. I was never very good because I never could care very much about competitions of strength.

The old man has been eighty-four days without catching anything. His apprentice has been sent to another boat, so even though Manolin takes care of him on shore, at sea he is alone. So now, Day 85, he catches a tuna and throws it in the bottom of his boat. Then, one of his hooks farther down gets something big. It’s an eighteen-foot marlin, and it tows him out to sea for the next two days. The first night he eats the tuna. The second night he catches a dolphin, which he eats about half of, along with the two flying fish he found inside it. The third afternoon the marlin circles a bit, and he brings it in for the kill. It’s too big for his boat, so he straps it alongside. That afternoon he kills four sharks and seriously wounds two more, as they come for his fish, but after it gets dark he can’t see them any more and by this point he’s too tired and weak to do anything about it. By the time he gets home, all he’s got is a big old marlin skeleton.

It’s utterly depressing. This is a book about someone who has never been defeated in his entire life being destroyed by the thing he loves most. Despite his persistent unreflected-upon Catholicism, he has a real animistic view of nature – all the animals are his friends, the sea is his lover, even the stars are his friends. He has a strong love for life and the world, even though when considered independently of his perspective it doesn’t care about him. Hemingway makes him a Christ figure, the suffering servant who kills the brother he loves in order to feed the community, and I know this is the classic Modernist view of things. I’m more interested in how the old man compares himself to Icarus – he wasn’t defeated, he destroyed himself by letting the marlin pull him out too far.

Which means, consider the third implied comparison: Is Jesus Icarus? Jesus doesn’t take a middle path; he calls others to a higher standard of social and personal morality, starting from his Sermon on the Mount comment “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Like Icarus, Jesus aims high, only instead of looking for personal glory or whatever it was about the sun that entranced Icarus, he aims for the good of the entire community. But his goals are too high. Frankly, the god of the Old Testament always aims too high. Moses brought down a huge list of commandments, the drunk people were fornicating in worship of a golden calf, he breaks the list and goes back up the mountain and comes back with only ten. By the time of Jeremiah, this same god says that if ten is too much, they can follow just one commandment and he’ll save them from Nebuchadnezzar, but that one was too much. Many Christians have this idea that they are expected to follow this list of rules, but it was always aimed a little too high. It’s common to see Jesus as the one who makes everything easier and doable, who stops us from being Icarus because he gives people grace, forgiveness for taking the middle road between godliness and devilishness. But our stories of Jesus, the ones that made it into the New Testament, characterize him as perfect. He aimed for the sun and fell into death and infamy, though both were only temporary. For Icarus, death is the end. There is no recovery from defeat. For Jesus, there is always a victory coming.

Which is true for the old man? Is this the end, or is there a future victory waiting for him? For me, it feels like the end. All his optimism and confidence carry him through the catching of the fish, but when the sharks come, despair enters his heart for the first time. There is nothing he can do. The sea will not allow him to take this victory. It’s like this whole experience was intended to teach him that he has reached the limit of his power. He’s no longer the champion. Instead, he’s like that guy in Casablanca – they had a rematch once, but it ended quickly because he had lost his confidence. Now that the sea has beaten him, he’s going to expect to be beaten and he’s going to die a loser.

In real life, none of us are gods. We have to learn how to lose. The old man hasn’t had to learn to lose gracefully, so I think this defeat will destroy him. Me, on the other hand, I’ve been beaten so many times I can’t count. There are some ways that this has shaped me – for example, I don’t like competition and tend to avoid situations where there is a winner and a loser – but I haven’t adopted this as my identity. I’m not of the Beat generation. I fall, I get back up, I keep going. Sometimes in a new direction, but always forward.

I’ve been thinking of this in terms of my profession, lately. In our culture people think that teachers can never be happy or fulfilled doing anything else, as if we all feel this sacred calling, as if we were nuns or something. I’ve gotten past that. Teaching is a job, and though it’s one I do well, I don’t think it’s the only one I could enjoy. There are lots of ways to help people; teaching them to communicate is only one, and it’s not even the one I spent six years in college for. I went to school to help people understand, and I’ve spent the last ten or eleven years teaching them to speak. Giving people a voice is a powerful thing, but my lack of explicit training in it means that my professional life is dogged by uncertainty. There must be a better way than the one I’ve worked out on my own, but I’m little motivated to go research teaching strategies or get the MA in TESOL or education that would qualify me for the work I’m already doing. As I think about it, I realize that I feel like my life is being controlled by forces that I don’t understand and therefore cannot manipulate, specifically, money. I’d like to study economics or finance or accounting or something so that I stop panicking when I think or talk about money, so that I can use it to make my life better instead of feeling like it’s a dirty stranger that lives in my wallet. I want to make money familiar to me and I want to learn to make better choices with it. I’m sick of being so goddamn poor all the time.

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