Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"The Old Man and the Sea"

Opening sentence:

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish"
I read Hemingway's book while reclined on the couch on the second floor of my Aunt Jane's house atop a small mountain above the Arkansas River in northern Little Rock. One naturally constructs such sentences after reading Hemingway.

The book is short. I read it fast after saying a downstairs goodnight, then discovering it during an upstairs meander away from the straight path towards bed.

The book is about a man fishing well because he is a fisherman. It is a man fishing well because excellent is the right thing to be.

Because every person decides - again and again throughout their life - whether or not to be excellent in everyday circumstances, i.e. away from the adoring, self-confirming crowd: therefore every person reads The Old Man and the Sea through the prism of their own answer to the question of "Why?", as in: Why strive? Why be excellent? Why do the right thing? Thus:

"[The Old Man and the Sea] has, for instance, been read as a Christian allegory, a Nietzschean parable of overcoming, a Freudian dream of Oedipal wish-fulfillment, and a Humanistic saga of triumph in the face of absurdity." link
Ernest Hemingway, 1952:
"There isn't any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know."
Look again at that last sentence. When you know what? Why, the answer to "Why?", of course!

We know Hemingway read Ecclesiastes. He took from it the title for The Sun Also Rises. I see echoes of Ecclesiastes in The Old Man and the Sea.

The author of Ecclesiastes tries many things in a search for meaning: wine, women, song, wealth, conquest, building great structures, and whatever else he could think of. He concludes all such striving after meaningfulness is vanity, and is ultimately hopeless. He concludes there is nothing better under the sun than that a man look back at the end of the day and say to himself: My work was good. In other words, the man is saying to himself: I did the right thing today. If a person believes his conscience is touched by God, and is supernaturally urging him to do the right thing, and if the person then does the right thing: he or she can do no more. It is good.

At the end of the day, Hemingway's protagonist has no food, no wine, no wealth, and in fact nothing tangible to show for his efforts ... except scars, fatigue, and a fish skeleton. If he was searching for tangible meaning, all his effort was vanity. Yet, Santiago can look back on his day(actually a couple of days) and say: My work was good.

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