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Inside the current: a Taoist reading of 'The Old Man and the Sea.'

IF WORKS LIKE Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa detail Hemingway's respect for proper action and precision of thought and movement, then The Old Man and the Sea is an important key as to why that precision matters at all. Santiago's internal monologue affords us a unique running inter-pretation of each action, each natural occurrence, and each human response to them. A great deal of scholarship interprets. Hemingway's 1952 novel in terms of Christian symbolism,(1) with Santiago representing at times a Christ-figure, a failed Christ-figure, or a simple apostle wrestling, like Thomas, with doubt and the "inseparability of suffering and Grace" (Hamilton 141). Such interpretations began when the book was published, and Carlos Baker informs us that for a brief but intense period clergymen modeled sermons around the story (505).

Such scholarship helps elucidate Hemingway's own troubling relationship with the Christian faith; surely many critics have agreed with Kathleen Verduin that The Old Man and the Sea is a "culmination of Hemingway's lifelong involvement with Christ," although it is "neither allegory nor complete confession of faith" (37). But as any invocation of a Christ-figure must include reference to martyrdom and a belief system which was, for Hemingway, problematic at best, this mode of thinking imposes a particular symbolism on a story which Hemingway repeatedly insisted was understandable and rich enough to be meaningful and complex on its own terms.

Towards rethinking The Old Man and the Sea free from the binaries of God-and-Humanity Nature-and-Humanity, or any system which sees the novel as primarily oppositional--primarily related to competition, defeat, and victory--I want to examine the relation of Hemingway's short classic to Taoist thought and writing. My reading will rely heavily on Eastern philosophical traditions, specifically on the Taoism of Lao-Tzu and the I Ching. I am not suggesting that Hemingway consciously plotted his novel from an Eastern philosophical perspective. His religious terrain was convoluted but always solidly Western;(2) and his 1941 trip to China was to analyze the Sino-Japanese War (Baker 365).(3) It is impossible to know whether Hemingway was familiar with Taoist thought. Instead, I will argue that striking similarities occur between The Old Man and the Sea and several Taoist texts as regards interpretation of (and placement in) the natural world. Moreover, Hemingway depicts Santiago as a spiritual traveler who wishes to remain in the Tao, or path, of correctness and right action.

Taoism is a fluid concept that has carried many connotations in the roughly 2,200 years since the appearance of the Tao-te Ching (ca. 200 B.C.), the classic text of this philosophical tradition. Tao may be roughly translated as "die path," or "the way," and refers to the passage of the spiritual initiate who attempts to remain balanced or centered in the World, neither a slave to emotions, nor an automaton resistant to the constant changes of which our lives are comprised. As Livia Kohn points out, the Tao-te Ching:

describes the Tao as the source of all being. It is nameless, formless, not

beginning, not ending, ineffable, unknowable, transcendent yet immanent,

weak yet powerful, original yet developed, subtle yet huge. It

encompasses all opposites yet is part of all.... Nothing definite can be

said about the Tao. It is vague and elusive, dark and obscure, existing

before time and called at most the mother of the universe. (165)

The Tao, or way, is the source of the "ten thousand things," the world of everyday occurrence and individual experience. Later thinkers, expanding on this definition, characterize the Tao "as continuous change and transformation ... going-with-the-flow as the proper form of mystical realization" (Kohn 165). Because it refers to the constantly changing, the Tao is necessarily difficult to define, at least to the Western "Mind bent on observability: "One might say that it is the absence of definition that constitutes the fundamental characteristic of Chinese religion .... By definition, the Tao is indefinable and can be apprehended only in its infinitely multiple aspects" (Schipper 3).

The familiar yin-yang symbol of Taoist thought arises from this notion of continuous change; the light and dark are not in opposition, but rather work in dynamic tandem.

Each section contains the seed of its opposite to remind us that change is ever-occurring. No thing is merely one thing. There is light in the dark, motion in stillness, male in the female. The Taoist world-view relies on philosophical dualism to make sense of the everyday in relation to the spiritual (and vice versa, because in Taoism there is no lasting or essential difference between the two):

[T]he basic dualism is between the Tao and the world, between nature

and culture, purity and defilements. The original Tao first produces the

myriad beings [ten thousand things], but then it is transformed.... The

beings it brought forth go their own way and develop consciousness and

culture. Their understanding of themselves opposes them to their source.

The main agent of this degeneration is attachment to sensual experience,

from which cultural sophistication and luxury develop.... The superficial

truth of this world is ultimately false; real truth is only in the Tao ...

(Kohn 167-8)

To arrive (or rearrive) at that "real truth" calls for a special kind of awareness. One must actively seek the Tao in the myriad occurrences which make up the phenomenal world. This is not simple detachment, but an awareness of the Tao in all things; a mindfulness. Or, as the Tao-te Ching itself would have it:

Knowing the male, keep the female;

be humble to the world.

Be humble to the world,

and eternal power never leaves,

returning again to innocence.

Knowing the white, keep the black;

be an exemplar for the world. . . .

Knowing the glorious, keep the ignominious;

be open to the world.

Be open to the world,

and eternal power suffices, returning again to simplicity. (Cleary 13-14)

In The Tao of Art: The Inner Meaning of Chinese Art and Philosophy, Ben Willis asks "Is the Tao, then, the same thing as God?" He answers his own rather plaintive question with qualifications: "The answer is `yes' if we are willing to accept God as Life, Supreme Spirit and the Source of Life, and `no' if we imagine He is the Ruling General or the Great Business Executive in the sky" (16).

Taoism walks a line between strict dualism on the one hand and full integration of body and mind (or earthly and spiritual elements) on the other. There is always tension between these two because experience is Always in motion; we forever fluctuate between ontological separation and reconciliation, in both the worlds around us and within us--the world of the mind in the world of the body. For the Taoist, there is a linguistic and ideological distinction between body and mind, but "they are not understood as fundamentally different in nature" (Kohn 169). Moreover, Taoist philosophy is absolutely bound up with common (as in everyday) experience, the immediate sensory phenomena which we may filter and interpret, and to which we may train ourselves to respond in the correct, proper, and balancing way. As Richard Wilhelm, the pre-eminent introducer of the I Ching (the oracular "Book of Changes" in the Taoist tradition) into Western society, puts it:

Reflection on the simple fundamental facts of our experience brings

immediate recognition of constant change. To the unsophisticated mind,

the characteristic thing about phenomena is their dynamism. It is only

abstract thinking that takes them out of their dynamic community and

isolates them as static.... The opposite of change is neither rest nor

standstill, for these are aspects of change. The idea [is] that the

opposite of change is regression, and not cessation of movement...

(Wilhelm and Wilhelm 25-6).

"The Tao which can be told is not the eternal [true] Tao," goes the familiar opening passage of the Tao-te Ching, pointing out the distinction between the "ten thousand things" and the force which moves them. Perhaps not surprisingly, Taoism has produced, like most lasting systems of thought, a body of artistic work attempting to codify and represent that which the system itself admits is unsayable. Like Taoism, Willis writes, "art is also concerned with being, with the reality state. It is not only deeply involved with truth, harmony and beauty by its traditional interests, but also with nature, with the spirit of things.... It was no coincidence that the ancient Taoists looked on art with special interest" (17), because the artistic impulse corresponds with the Taoist impulse to interpret and respond to common experience in a frankly visionary fashion. But Willis locates Taoism's most fascinating property when he extends its conception of eternal flux and change to an examination of the natural world:

[T]he seasonal, evolutionary, physical and biological changes and stages

of the natural world are a rich creative process, and ... all of the

universe is in a constant state of creative renewal, as even physics

circuitously proves. Cyclic ebb and flow as found in nature and human life

is not merely a mechanical, mindless accident of the universe, but a

living, growing, changing, harmonizing state of infinite creative activity

and infinite quiescence. In a physical world imbued with spirit, the vital

energy generated from the latter is the sempiternal life force, the

intelligent activator, the creator, the transformation dynamic of all that

we can observe about us in nature. Beyond doubt here is the creativity of

transformation in its most primal and elemental form. (19)(4)

Taoism, then, is a primarily creative principle, urging us to envision the fluctuations in our own lives as cyclical, patterned after the changes in the natural world, and therefore indicative of inner as well as outer harmony.

As Willis points out, this concept of "harmony" has implications for art. We may speak of formal harmony in the arts, and even suggest that artistic representation itself represents a kind of intrinsic Taoist leaning; in ordering and arranging words or images or sounds or any number of materials, we rebuild our experience into a coherent representational or referential form. But to equate this tendency solely with artistic impulses--to perceive the artist as somehow "more Taoist" than the farmer, for instance--would be to miss the point entirely. Right action and right thinking, those two fundamental concerns of Zen Buddhism as well as Taoism, can be cultivated in any milieu, in any setting, and in any life, from the most high-minded to the most seemingly "simplistic": "This amounts to much more than the wedding of art to a universal system. It involves ... the whole basis of being, mind, and reality" (Willis 21).

The unsayability of the Tao bears some relation, from a literary standpoint, to contemporary critical mistrust of logos, the word as privileged utterance. As Zhang Longxi observes, spiritual teaching commonly relies on exegeses and commentary related to the sacred texts, but "the ideal way of teaching... would be teaching by concrete examples in life rather than by precepts couched in words; a way of teaching that is effortless and wordless, totally absorbed and quietly implemented, just like the way Heaven regulates all things to perfection without saying a single word" (14). A Buddhist story tells of a monk who points to a water jug on the floor and asks his acolytes, "Who can tell me what this is without saying the words `water jug?'" The apprentices construct elaborate phraseology in numerous failed attempts to describe the water jug, until finally one comes to the front of the room and, without saying a word, kicks the jug over, sending water in a thick wave across the floor. The monk congratulates the young apprentice for knowing when words will not do: in short, for knowing when to be silent and act. This is the difference between saying the word Tao and recognizing it in the "ten thousand things" which comprise the world. Knowing when to be silent, knowing when to stop thinking and talking and simply be, is perhaps the state to which the Tao leads us.

In 1951, as Ernest Hemingway put the final touches on The Old Man and the Sea, he showed the manuscript to friends, as he had done with previous works, "assuring and reassuring himself that they would find it as moving as he did" (Baker 492). Charles and Vera Scribner were among the first to see it, as was A.E. Hotchner. Hemingway's later comment--that they had all noted a "`mysterious quality' not visible in his other work"--speaks to what many critics have identified as the complex knotting of spiritual and physical concerns in the novel.

Hemingway's often-quoted letter in response to Bernard Berenson's praise of the novel is worth quoting again:

Then there is the other secret. There isn't any symbolysm [sic]. The sea

is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a

fish. The sharks 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. (SL 780)

The last comment is especially telling for our purposes, because it directly refers to seeing the "beyond" in the commonplace.

I propose to trace three major tenets of Taoist thought in the text of The Old Man and the Sea: 1) the idea of balance between apparently oppositional forces, and the embedding of one always in the other; 2) the connection between miner and outer landscapes or geography, a being-at-one with one's immediate surroundings; and 3) the acceptance of change and cyclic movement as the pre-eminent forces in earthly and spiritual life.

To consider balance: Santiago has been salao, "the worst form of unlucky," for eighty-four days. But he understands that even bad luck holds the kernel of good: "Eighty-five is a lucky number," he tells the boy. "How would you like to see me bring in one that dressed out over a thousand pounds?" (OAMTS 11). To mistake this for mere pride or boasting is to miss the philosophical underpinning of Santiago's seeming optimism. As long as Santiago remains a fisherman, the positive is embedded in the negative; luck is located in the depths of no-luck.

Santiago's world is dualist in a very immediate sense: he has a connection with the sea born of a lifetime spent in communion with it, and often performs a kind of psychic transference with the creatures he hunts. Of the marlin he thinks, "I wonder if he has any plans or if he is just as desperate as I am" (35). Later, during the sharks' attack on the marlin: "He liked to think of the fish and what he could do to a shark if he were swimming free" (86). And, in a seemingly contradictory construction which occurs with, some frequency, he thinks, "I wish I could feed the fish.... He is my brother. But I must kill him and keep strong to do it" (43).

The tension between Santiago's respect for the marlin and his need/desire to kill his "brother" has generally led criticism of The Old Man and the Sea down two paths. The first sees Santiago as some variation on a Christ-figure, as noted above. The second posits the novel as an explication of the "fighter code" so prevalent in Hemingway's fiction, and sees Santiago as either a "loser" who went out too far, or a "winner" who breaks his losing streak and re-defines himself as a fisherman.(5) This latter school of thought often finds itself directly at odds with the former. For example, Wolfgang Wittkowski dismisses the Christian interpretation as incompatible with Santiago's pride and fighter code:

Confrontation and victory in competitive sport serve here as the model,

the ideal, and ultimately the metaphor... The fully conscious pride of the

fighter and killer is unmistakable. Though it is also combined with

humility and modesty, the seeming humility of comparing oneself with,

stronger persons [DiMaggio] and not weaker ones does not destroy pride,

but ennobles it.... For [Santiago] humility is not a primary virtue. It must

adapt itself to pride, that is, subordinate itself to it. (4)

Similarly, Gerry Brenner sees in Santiago's struggle with the marlin a deep and sinister pathology, centered around "self-vindication, revenge, and self-glorification." This stems from Santiago's "need to prove himself": "His need to show him self extraordinary removes his conduct from the category of self-validation and puts it into the category of the arm-wrestling flashback--a self-glorifying power trip" (55, 56). Christoph Kuhn, echoing Charles Taylor, argues that The Old Man and the Sea "has more in common with Nietzsche's notion of tragic affirmation than with the Christian themes of sin, punishment, and salvation" (224)

The singular nature of The Old Man and the Sea's protagonist has, to a demonstrable extent, gone unnoticed due to the critical emphasis on the "Hemingway code." But Santiago is not Jake Barnes, silent and grim in his war-induced impotence; nor is he Robert Jordan, whose talents lie in destruction and martial knowledge. In a letter to Charles Scribner--the first referring to Santiago's tale by the phrase which became its title-- Hemingway articulated exactly what the story meant to him as a writer: "This is the prose that I have been working for all my life that should read simply and seem short and yet have all dimensions of the visible world and the world of a man's spirit. It is as good prose as I can write as of now" (SL 738). Santiago's self-reflective quality--his articulation of his own essence as he unravels the mystery of his sea-life, his visible world, and the world of his spirit--makes him unique among Hemingway's protagonists. Readings which focus on Santiago as a thinly disguised Hemingway (writer as martyr, proving himself, among the sharks) or yet another spokesman for the platitudes of the "code" are, it seems to me, quite missing the point.

Definitions of Santiago as a fighter and killer underscore his pride, just as strict Christian interpretations of The Old Man and the Sea underscore his humility and martyrdom. Both interpretations center around victory and defeat. Such readings miss the patterns of symmetry and complementarity Hemingway sets up: all sea-dwellers--and here we must include Santiago--have a purpose, a reason to be in the ocean and doing what they do. Santiago reads the behavior of feeding dolphins as well as any native marine creature:

The old man could see the slight bulge in the water that the big dolphin

raised as they followed the escaping fish. The dolphin were cutting

through the water below the flight of the fish and would be in the water,

driving at speed, when the fish dropped. It is a big school of dolphin, he

thought. They are wide spread and-the flying fish have little chance. (24).

Even Santiago's banter with the marlin shows evidence of this connection. As his commentary progresses, Santiago's articulation of the killing impulse changes from outer-directed statement to a more balanced vision of what is actually taking place on (and in) the water. In rapid succession Santiago delivers three observations on the act of reeling in the marlin: "Fish... I'll stay with you until I am dead" (38); "Fish ... I love and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends" (39); and "If he will jump I can kill him. But he stays down forever. Then I will stay down with him forever" (44). The first is a blatant threat, or, more precisely, a promise. The second is another threat, but delivered with an observation of union, equality of stamina, and mutual regard. The last, somewhat more cryptic,,reinforces Santiago's connection to ocean life, the trace of the one located in the other. Linked by that fishing line, Santiago and the marlin might be an embodiment of the ancient yin-yang symbol: Santiago in the air, the marlin in the water, yoked together by the fishing line. The struggle is between equals: "I am a tired old man. But I have killed this fish which is my brother..." (71).

Not only can there be luck in salao, there can even be life in death. Santiago's meditation on his own mortality and his connection (perhaps even equation) with the sea-dwellers comes in his meditation on the turtle's heart: "...a turtle's heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too and my feet and hands are like theirs" (26). In fact, Santiago works through his salao with a philosophy that is not so much a direct reference to Taoist thought as an embodiment of it.

Against such connection, Brenner suggests that Santiago's "capitalistic consciousness"--his role as a fisherman in a fishing community--is at odds with any connective awareness of ocean life:

For all his professed and portrayed beneficence, he plunders nature's

bounty, as oblivious as his fellow fishermen to any obligation to be a

trustee of his renewal, guarantor of its welfare, or spokesperson for laws

to ensure its survival... once again showing his lack of transcendent

wisdom and revealing his self-centered preoccupations. (66)

Yet, I would argue, the Santiago who begins the battle with the marlin is not the Santiago who finishes it; nor is the Santiago who returns to shore with the marlin's plundered skeleton the same man who set out to sea. If at the book's beginning being salao is a shameful thing (it certainly is for the fishing community), by the book's end that very word is shown to be part of a value system for which Santiago has little regard. Santiago's path, his tao or way, is the ocean itself. His sojourn on its waves is not, at its heart, commercial--we never see him truly impoverished--but spiritual.

Santiago has attained what the Buddhists call satori or enlightenment, the state wherein all actions can be chosen and performed according to centeredness, or being-in- the-way: "He was too simple to know when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride" (9). Readings of The Old Man and the Sea which rely on the "fighter code" cannot reconcile the humility which allows pride; in a Taoist reading the seeming contradiction is essential. It is not contradiction, but balance, the yin and yang which always fluctuate and which follow each other constantly.

Even Santiago's body comes into balance with his surroundings: his eyes "were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated" (6). Hemingway's description of Santiago's physical features in terms of the natural world find a corollary in the Taoist vision of the body as geography. Kristofer Schipper notes in The Taoist Body that the ancients "recognize[d] a deep relationship between a physical setting and the nature of its inhabitants." Quoting from the Huai-nan Tzu, Schipper writes, "Each region produces its class of beings.... [I]n every case (men)[sic] are the image of the wind (of their environment)" (101). Knowing the changes and spontaneity of the universe is knowing, the changes within one's own makeup. In a text from the second century A.D., the Book of the Center [sic], we find-an elaborate mapping of the body as a representation of the natural world: head as mountain, kidneys as lakes, breasts as sun and moon, and so forth (Schipper 105-6). The outer flesh and the inner essence, in Taoist thought, are so bound up with one another that to see them as separate entities diminishes our connection with both of them.

Confucius reportedly took up the I Ching only in his seventies, as "only those advanced in years regard themselves as ready to learn from it" (Wilhelm and Wilhelm 8). Hemingway's description of Santiago at first emphasizes his age, but only insofar as its markers correspond to Santiago's life of fishing: "The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun wrings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords" (5-6). Santiago's outer image replicates the natural world--his scars are "old as erosions in a fishless desert" (6). Fully aware of the connection between his spiritual direction and what his body can endure, Santiago's constant fight against sleep, and his cramping left hand are both manifestations of the vessel which rebels ("I hate a cramp, he thought. It is a treachery of one's own body" [45]). We are never told how long Santiago has been fishing, but we do not need to know. We are meant to understand that all his previous life has been preparation for this marlin: "Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for" (36).

The I Ching speaks not only of knowing the proper course of action, but of willingness to accept nonaction when the time comes to wait. Significantly, Santiago has lost his appetite in the novel's beginning, and will lie to the boy rather than accept food from him. Both major schools of thought on The Old Man and the Sea read this loss of appetite as indicating a lack of will or desire. But from a Taoist perspective, it may be read more constructively as a clearing of the inner in preparation for the spiritual test, rather than as a loss of vitality or stamina. In Taoist funerary rites, as in various ceremonies from numerous belief systems, participants prepare for the ritual by fasting. Taoism, however, places a special emphasis on the emptying of the container: the fast "represent[s] the `passage,' the journey in this closed universe, where one accumulates transcendent forces by completing cycle after cycle" (Schipper 76). Furthermore, Confucius saw the fast as a physical representation of the emptying which must occur before true attention can be paid to the Tao: "Concentrate your will. Do not listen with your ears, but with your heart. Do not listen with your heart, but with your ch'i [life-energies].... The ch'i are `empty' and responsive to all beings. The Tao is found in that `void' and that `void' is the `fast of the heart'" (Schipper 202). "Empty the belly, fill the mind," goes the proverb, an idea supported by a passage from the I Ching concerning hui, the hexagram of Waiting and Nourishment:

All beings have need of nourishment from above. But the gift of food

comes in its own time, and for this one must wait.... The rain will come in

its own time. We cannot make it come; we have to wait for it.... Strength

in the face of danger does not plunge ahead but bides its time, whereas

weakness in the face of danger grows agitated and has not the patience to

wait. (Wilhelm and Baynes 24)

Balance and precision are an obsession with Santiago. He hangs his bait lines carefully:

so that at each level in the darkness of the stream there would be a bait

waiting exactly where he wished it to be for any fish that swam there.... I

keep them with precision [he thought]. Only I have no luck any more.

But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day. It is better to be

lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.

(22-3 [emphases mine])

The Old Man and the Sea contains writing as precise as any of Hemingway's descriptions of bullfights or big game hunting. Each of Santiago's movements has a dear, exact, and often defined purpose, as in this passage from early in the book:

He shipped his oars and brought a small line from under the bow. It had a

wire leader and a medium-sized hook and he baited it with one of the

sardines. He let it go over the side and then made it fast to a ring bolt in

the stern. Then he baited another line and left it coiled in the shade of

the bow. He went back to rowing and to watching the long-winged black bird

who was working, now, over the water. (24).

Hemingway never used this kind of account carelessly. We cannot know how many times Santiago has performed these exact motions in just this way. His repeated, ordered action embodies his connection with his inner landscape, and arranges outer reality to match the inner. Like any visionary, Santiago has a vast repository of ritual and ceremony at his disposal: "It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so and respected it" (28); "Then he will turn and swallow [the hook], he thought. He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen" (31).

From this standpoint, Santiago's brief reference to Christian prayer is especially interesting. Virtually all readers agree that the reference cannot be anything but superficial:

"I am not religious," he said. "But I will say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail

Marys that I should catch this fish, and I promise to make a pilgrimage to

the Virgin de Cobre if I catch him. That is a promise."

He commenced to say his prayers mechanically. Sometimes he would

be so tired that he could not remember the prayer and then he would say

them fast so that they would come automatically. Hail Marys are easier

to say than Our Fathers, he thought. (47)

As Wittkowski observes, this passage points up the ultimate paradox of engaging in a Christian reading of The Old Man and the Sea. The sea is Santiago's dwelling place, not the Christian realm; the movements he makes are a direct response to his environment, and therefore a "right" response. Santiago needs no prayer, and by the novel's end, he knows it. His connection, his ritual and awareness, are enough.

The richest section of the novel may be the shark attack which all but doses it. If The Old Man and the Sea is made to support a Christian reading, this is the martyrdom; if a victory/defeat model, this is where one or the other is played out. The shark attack occurs right after Santiago's meditation on sin--"If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?" (78)--a passage which Wittkowski finds particularly compelling:

"I am not religious," he says. But, when Santiago does want to involve

himself more deeply in matters of consequence, the simple fisherman

is dependent upon the traditional concept of sin.... As with the iceberg,

beneath the surface of these awkward sentences lies the mass of

Hemingway's philosophy of killing. The explanation ends abruptly, of

course, for nothing can be accomplished through the concept of sin.

[W]hen he finally does return home empty-handed, after 87 days, he

has repeated his record streak of bad luck. (9, 16)

Similarly, Gregory Green sees Santiago's capture of the marlin as inconsequential beside the shark attack, which he reads as the novel's true, pessimistic core. Santiago possesses Nietzsche's "Will to Power" without the youth or strength to implement it. In Green's view the statement "I went out too far" sums up the central truth of the work: "The capture alone is useless, non-productive. Yet it is only when the promise of capture presents itself to Santiago that he comes to understand that without the child he can never win.... It is the child alone who knows neither destruction or defeat" (17). But Santiago can never recapture the youth represented by Manolin: "The time has passed and to endure is the best he can expect, undefeated but utterly destroyed" (18).

Hard upon Santiago's consideration of sin comes an observation which elucidates the shark attack and allows a more positive reading than Wittkowski's or Green's: "Besides, he thought, everything kills everything else in some way. Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive. The boy keeps me alive, he thought. I must not deceive myself too much" (79). Here again is balance and flux. Santiago's explicit understanding of them illustrates his acceptance of change as natural and proper.

A lexical construct commonly translated as "No Blame" appears frequently in the I Ching. This somewhat cryptic phrase, when it appears in Taoist oracular statements, refers to the placement of all things in their wonted order, the "rightness" of a particular situation, and the opportunity for further spiritual progression (Wilhelm and Baynes 291). Significantly, Santiago's interaction with the fish never implies a concern with "fairness": he will curse, he will strike and slash, but he never thinks of blaming the sharks for being sharks, for performing as sharks are meant to perform. Glen A. Love adds an ecological dimension to Brenner's reading of Santiago's capitalistic imperative, arguing that The Old Man and the Sea contains no unique vision of the natural world to set it apart from, for example, Green Hills of Africa:

[Nature is) a "great sea with our friends and our enemies," creatures

judged, in Santiago's anthropocentrism, according to how they serve or

hinder him. The friends are those which promote Santiago's freedom and

happiness, the enemies those which restrict that freedom and happiness.

[O]ne finds no evidence that this testament of acceptance could

transcend its anthropocentrism to include such recognition that the

villainous shark, for example, is no less necessary to the nobility of the

sea than the marlin or the porpoise or the turtle ... (207-8)

In fact, such acceptance is exactly what does set The Old Man and the' Sea apart from other "natural visions" in Hemingway's writing, and the shark attack is the moment at which Santiago's realization comes.

The arrival of the first shark, a herald for the subsequent ones, is set in terms of rightness and the biological imperative. His "shark-ness" calls him forth: "The shark was not an accident. He had come up from deep down in the water as the dark cloud of blood had settled and dispersed in the mile deep sea" (74). Instead of reading Santiago's struggle with the sharks as defeat or martyrdom, I read it as Hemingway's acknowledgment, or at least awareness, of the cyclical nature of "luck," or change, and also of the "rightness" of shark behavior. The passage will disappoint readers in search of nobility ascribed to all the ocean's creatures, but this is because "nobility"--itself a very anthropocentric construct--is not the quality under consideration. Hemingway writes here of essence, not quality.

Santiago continues to fight even when he has little hope of victory, but victory is not so important as Santiago's emergent awareness of his situation and surroundings: "The old man's head was clear and good now and he was full. of resolution but he had little hope" (75). Santiago's dear-headed understanding of what is about to happen cannot be ignored: "Now the bad time is coming" and, significantly, "Don't think, old man.... Sail on this course and take it when it comes" (77).

This is "centeredness"--awareness without thought, action without agonizing--the ultimate Taoist goal. During his return to shore after the sharks have taken the marlin, Santiago's thoughts indicate a redirection of his energies. His thoughts return to the skiff that has taken him to and from this latest encounter:

He sailed lightly now and he had no thoughts or feelings of any kind. He

was past everything now and he sailed the skiff to make his home port as

well and intelligently as he could. In the night sharks hit the carcass as

someone might pick up crumbs from the table. The old man did not pay

attention to them and did not pay attention to anything except steering.

He only noticed how lightly and how well the skiff sailed now there was

no great weight beside her.

She's good, he thought. She is sound and not harmed in any way

except for the tiller. That is easily replaced.

He could feel he was inside the current now ... (89)

Most criticism sees this passage, especially the section detailing Santiago's refusal to notice the hitting sharks, as indicative of his failure, whether or not that failure is perceived as eventually overcome. But the Tao-te Ching points out that "Return is the movement of the Way) yielding is the function of the way" (Cleary 14). Santiago, who recognizes the "rightness" of events, does not cry for loss. Manolin, whose understanding of success or failure is bound up (like the townspeople's) with possession of the marlin, does weep.

Even Santiago's statement that the sharks beat him carries no blame; their shark-ness caused them to perform as sea-dwellers, just as his own essence causes him to perform as a fisherman. Santiago's capture of the marlin, and its subsequent recapture by the sharks, is cyclic rather than set in terms of winning and losing. Santiago's lion dreams have not changed. His lifestyle has not changed except that he has broken his losing streak; the capture of the marlin reassures him that he is a true fisherman, that his actions have been performed rightly. Once his struggle with the sharks is over, he can re-place himself in the balance of the fishing life and sail his skiff "well."

Santiago's loss of the marlin is only a failure if we define "success" 1) in terms of superiority or mastery over other beings, a view which Santiago dearly does not possess; or 2) in terms of monetary exchange, as the town certainly does, and the boy probably does (he tries to protect Santiago from visitors and weeps constantly for his "failure"). Santiago thinks of the marlin's commercial value, thirty cents a pound, only once, and fleetingly, before the initial attack of the sharks. By the novel's end, Santiago has One beyond his experience and can sleep off his fatigue, leaving the boy, who has not yet learned the essence of a fisherman's existence, awake to cry.

I agree with Wittkowski that "To find despair in the story of Santiago one has to read it into the story"(17). But to place that story in terms of victory and defeat is to reduce The Old Man and the-Sea to a simple story of action rather than a rumination on the awareness of essence and precision from which that action arises. A Taoist perspective may allow us a way out of strict hero/martyr, success-failure dichotomies and open the text to more complex discussion. The Old Man and the Sea is the story of the old man of the sea, the old man who is the sea. In his centeredness, in his path, there is no blame.


(1.) See especially Yasuhijo Ogawa's The Old Man and the Sew or, the Sacred and its Metamorphosis" (Language and Culture 6:1 [1984]: 63-91); G.R. Wilson Jr.'s "Incarnation and Redemption in The Old Man and the Sea" (Studies in Short Fiction 14 [1977]:369-731); John Halverson's "Christian Resonance in The Old Man and the Sea" (English Language Notes 2 [1964]: 50-54); and Hamilton and Verduin in this bibliography. In addition, Kenneth Lynn's 1987 biography offers an overview of contemporary criticism of The Old Man and the Sea's "pseudo-Biblical" "lachrymose sentimentality ... that mixes cute talk about "baseball ... with crucifixion symbolism of the most appalling crudity" (56 5-6).

(2.) Larry E. Grimes's "Hemingway's Religious Odyssey: The Oak Park Years" (Nagel 37-58) offers a useful history of the utilitarian Protestant tradition into which Hemingway was born, and with which he struggled all his life. In addition, Baker's Ernest Hemingway. A Life Story outlines the sometimes maddeningly convoluted paths which Hemingway's religious leanings took, and through which he became something very like a spiritual free-agent.

(3.) According to Brasch and Sigman, Hemingway's library did contain several books on China, the majority of which were travel books and historical/political studies. Because these two classifications make up the greatest number of entries for China in their Composite Record, it seems fair to assume that Hemingway's interest in the country ran towards its socio-political history, not its religious tradition. Moreover, Hemingway's World War II articles on his China trip for PM magazine (collected in By-Line. Ernest Hemingway 303-39) show that the primary foci of his note-taking and research were Chinese military organization, the Sino-Japanese war, and America's emerging role as an anti-fascist power.

(4.) Actually, current study in particle and quantum physics has become less circuitous in its relation of physical law to Taoism and patterns of continuous change. Fritjof Capra's recently revised The Tao of Physics is one attempt to bridge these two strains of inquiry.

(5.) For an especially detailed survey of one aspect of The Old Man and the Sea and the winner/loser paradigm, see C. Harold Hurley, ed. Hemingway's Debt to Baseball in The Old Man and the Sea: A Collection of Critical Readings. NY: Mellen, 1992.


Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner's, 1969.

Brasch, James D. and Joseph Sigman. Hemingway's Library. A Composite Record. New York and London: Garland, 1981.

Brenner, Gerry. The Old Man and the Sea: Story of a Common Man. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Cleary, Thomas. Ed. and trans. Vitality, Energy, Spirit: A Taoist Sourcebook. Boston and London: Shambala, 1991.

Green, Gregory. "The Old Superman and the Sea: Nietzsche, the Lions, and the `Will to Power.'" Hemingway Notes 5.1 (1979):14-19.

Hamilton, John Bowen. "Hemingway and the Christian Paradox." Renascence 24 (1972): 141-54.

Hemingway, Ernest. By-Line: Ernest Hemingway. Selected Articles and Dispatches of Four Decades. Ed. William White. New York: Scribner's, 1967.

--. Ernest Hemingway. Selected Letters 1917-1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner's, 1981.

--. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner's, 1952.

Kuhn, Christoph. "Hemingway and Nietzsche." Nietzsche in American Literature and Thought. Ed. Manfred Putz. Columbia: Camden House, 1995. 223-38.

Love, Glen A. "Hemingway's Indian Virtues: An Ecological Reconsideration." Western American Literature 22 (1987): 201-13.

Lynn, Kenneth. Hemingway. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Nagel, James. Ed. Ernest Hemingway: The Oak Park Legacy. Tuscaloosa and London: U of Alabama P, 1996.

Schipper, Kristofer. The Taoist Body. Trans. Karen Duval. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Verduin, Kathleen. "The Lord of Heroes: Hemingway and the Crucified Christ." Religion and Literature 19.1 (1987): 21-41.

Wilhelm, Helmut and Richard. Understanding the I Ching. The Wilhelm Lectures on the Book of Changes. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.

Wilhelm, Richard. The I Ching or Book of Changes. Trans. Cary F. Baynes. Bollingen Series 19. 3rd edn. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967.

Willis, Ben. The Tao of Art: The Inner Meaning of Chinese Art and Philosophy. London: Century, 1987.

Wittkowski, Wolfgang. "Crucified in the Ring: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea." The Hemingway Review 3.1 (1983): 2-17.
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Author:Waggoner, Eric
Publication:The Hemingway Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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