“But a man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” – The Old Man
There are few American writers universally celebrated as Ernest Hemingway. Beginning with his first two novels concerning World War One era (The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms) and his poems written as expatriate in Pairs amongst writers including Fitzgerald and Pound, Hemingway etched his name into the literary consciousness early.
His lasting indelible mark came in the form of his final published work before his death, “The Old Man and The Sea.”
When reading Hemingway I am always enamored by his brevity, his use of a realistic cadence. Without superfluousness or bombastic self indulgence, unlike yours truly. After a few pages I hear myself thinking in the voice he writes in. Feeling the brittle yellow pages. Hearing the soft motion of fan blades. Taking warm tea and appreciating memories of the ocean. It is this ability that renders Hemingway’s pros so potent. His realistic and conservative style use words as building blocks instead of fireworks. This allows his works to speak volumes in totality and never distract in piecemeal.
For those of us, myself included, who decided not to read, “The Old Man and The Sea” in high school (thank you spark-notes) the main plot line, as one might expect, is about a old man and his adventure at sea.
Santiago, the old man, is a Cuban fisherman whom has not caught a fish in eighty-four days. The stories opens with a discussion of his plight with his close friend Manolin; a young boy who has learned everything he knows about fishing from the old man.
This first plot point and the continued use of juxtaposition between the state of the old man and his perceived state of the boy is Hemingway’s way of critiquing himself.
Although Hemingway often uses young characters as idealistic and fatalistic examples in his work, this is not one of those cases. The boy is a backdrop for the text. He holds all of the virtues that Hemingway commonly associates with youth such as vitality, earnestness, dedication, emotion, and toleration. But, in opposition to Hemingway’s norm, no trouble befalls the boy. With the exception of his consternation over the state of the old man. This represents Hemingway’s dismissal of youthful virtues as pure folly.
In all of Hemingway’s early work he seems dead set on destroying the passions of youth. Love and honor are his enemies. The ending to, “A Farewell to Arms” demonstrates this well, much to the displeasure of Bradley Cooper. (Sorry) Yet in this short work, written on the back nine of his career and eventually earning him a Pulitzer and contributing to his Nobel (holy shit by the way), he seems to embrace his enemy.
It is my understanding that the entire story is allegory for Hemingway coming to terms with his literary success and furthermore how little it actually meant to him. What is left over afterward, as in this story, is the skeleton of his highest ambition. I don’t know about you but receiving a Pulitzer for that might make me consider eating a bullet. (To dark?)
Once the old man is far out to sea it does not take him very long to hook a gigantic fish. This draws a direct correlation with Hemingway’s early success in “The Sun Also Rises” and effectively becoming a cult figure for the Lost Generation.
The significance of the Lost Generation is that it marks the end of the first stage of our America history. Our idiot education system and paper mache patriotism likes to gloss over this fact. That “We the people” leapt from the shores of our own continent and did something that the founding fathers would have though suicidal. Engaging a European enemy on European soil in a European war. We entered the world stage like never before and have been feeling the effects ever since.
This was a time in our history when the populace was saturated with a patriotism that did not begin with our social security number and end with our bank account. When families spoke in multiple languages at the dinner table. When the ideology of freedom and fraternity of men was more than just fodder for campaign slogans, it was America itself. Before immigrant became a dirty word. When being an American meant something more than having the biggest SUV or the nicest watch, or not having them.
The Lost Generation, a term Hemingway is credited with creating (although he credits Gertrude Stein), lived in the wake of this realization. They could no longer honestly identify with a colonial or manifest destiny or wild west American self image and if they did they did so at the expense of something far more profound. That this new America had become a citizen of the world. A part of global history in a way the few other cultures can lay claim to. The reality of this fact resonated within the cultural conscious and gave birth to a generation that, for the first time, could see themselves as members of a culture which could dominate the world.
Hemingway’s writing often follows a similar arc. He breaks the story into three acts. In the first act he introduces the characters and establishes a setting and more or less explains the plot. Never really one for mystery. In the second act he delivers the action. This story is no different.
Santiago hooks his fish and although his long fish-less drought is over all of his pains are only just beginning. For two days and nights he battles the massive fish. The rope cutting into his flesh and the weight and tension of the struggle tormenting his back.
This represents not only Hemingway’s own personal grief but also that of the men and woman, the soldiers, nurses, ambulance drivers, factory works, mother and father-less children, childless families and empty towns who suffered through the first world war. Hemingway never was one to hide his suffering. It seemed to be his life mission to illustrate the war that took from the world on a scale never before seen.
I would suggest you take the time and listen to Dan Carlins Hardcore History about World War One. The way he describes the trench warfare, the shelling, the politics and the combination of mankind’s most ancient defining characteristics (war and technology) is spellbinding. Also illuminating. Because it gives weight to the collective shock to the system which gave birth to this new American ethos of the Lost Generation.
All through Santiago’s struggle with his fish he ignores his pain and suffering. He admonishes and respects the fish which causes it. When the time comes for him to kill, after his long struggle, he feels regret at having to slaughter such a worthy and beautiful adversary. He never celebrates or feels satisfaction in his accomplishment. There would be no point because he is simply doing what a fisherman does.
This is a perfect representation of the ethos I am talking about.
After World War One American patriotism lost some of it’s sheen and pride but gained something else. A defining characteristic. Mindlessly toiling and ending up at an accomplishment, regardless of how monumental, became just par for the course. This idea is the measure of America.
Truly the only difference between the Greatest Generation and the Lost Generation is how pragmatic of an observer you are. I am sure the solider who spent two years watching his friends die in frozen trenches doesn’t consider anything great about their generation. But the politicians and historians who represent the industrialists and capitalists needed to paint the hard working, order following, heroic patriots with a better color than death at the expense of commercial liberty. So they did.
Hemingway would not let that stand. He fought the ra-ra political benevolence of the late twenties into the late fifties. He became the poster child for reality and suffered for it. This is where “The Old Man and The Sea” truly digs in. As I wrote earlier the book is not only a representation of the times on a broad theme but an allegory for coming to terms with defeat on a personal level. The final act of the book illustrates this well.
After the old man catches his fish, after the bloodshed and the sleepless nights, he pulls it to the boat and finds it bigger than he can carry. Once he ties it to the boat and sees the blood spilling into the ocean he knows his fish is doomed. On his return trip to Cuba his great accomplishment is consumed by sharks. In the beginning he fights them off using everything he has but in the end resigns himself to loss. By the time he returns to shore, broken, bloodied and exhausted, the once great fish is nothing but bones.
The duality of this image is potent. In that we can see what Hemingway feels about his career and also about the generation he made a career from and for. After all of his struggle nothing is left except a skeleton. The dream of America was more than he or his fellow Americans could bear to carry.
Hemingway and the people of his time sacrificed more than one people should and in the end were left feeling hollow about it. Because the truth is, and the proof is our Kardashian culture, the ra-ra political idiots won. They figured out how to exploit the beautiful American ethos created in that time period, one of dedication to hard work without seeking outlandish rewards, of commitment to a cause, of (the eternal American ideal) striving for something better regardless of how unbelievable it may seem. The fools who now run this country took that ideology and prostituted it into what we have become, a skeleton of our former selves. We are still blindly toiling towards the unbelievable but have substituted global sovereignty of an educated free people for a hundred thousand dollar wardrobe and unlimited beach days and blowjobs.
The danger in this is that we are no longer Santiago, we are the fish. We are no longer the hard working group of immigrants on the road to fulfillment we are the prize bleeding into the ocean. Hemingway and I share the same lament, that we have sacrificed so much and come some close only to watch what we have built be consumed by the sharks.
We are the new lost generation. We have entered the third act. When those towers fell on September 11th, I remember sitting and watching the first shark take a bite. What we can learn from Hemingway’s allegory is that we can choose to not be the fish. If we can return to the America that was built be the hero’s who we should respect instead of the idiots on television, if we can accept that it is better to end up broken and bloodied for a distant cause than seeking some plastic reward, if we can commit ourselves not to more but to better, then there is still hope that we can use the bones of the great fish to make hooks and eat another day.
I struggled with this post. There is so much I want to say but I am learning to say it instead of scream it. I am not the fish. I am not even the fisherman. I am still the boy standing on the shoreline waiting for my friends to come home and fearing them lost at sea. There is hope for our new lost generation because of this. Because even in Hemingway’s final shot at the superstructure that he felt betrayed him, he found hope in the dedication and strength of youth. Although I may fail here there will always be more like me who see not what they want, but rather what is and what they hope it could be.