Saturday, July 28, 2012

Old Man and the Sea - Merely Sublime

My eighteenth summer is completely detatched from the rest of me.  As a memory, as an event, as anything else that could possibly boast extension in the world, those months don't exist.  Instead, they're floating around in a haze, suspended, formless, and dreamlike.  I had "dropped out" of high school, quit my first job after two weeks, didn't have anything approaching a trade skill, and I was blissfully unaware of the concepts time and money.  So I did what came naturally - I buried my face in books.  It was the summer of Shakespeare and Hemmingway.  A Midsummer's Night Dream, Hamlet, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises . . .

But it's the Old Man and the Sea that stands apart.  I read it one morning as I sipped at my first cup of coffee, waiting for the afternoon to roll in and bring with it the GED.  It was warm, the coffee tasted like dirt, and Santiago dreamed of lions.  He awoke that morning, took a piss behind the shack, and walked up the road to wake the boy.  They talked about Joe DiMaggio.  He set off in his skiff with the sunrise and the Gulf was blue and gray.

Watching the rest of the novel unfold, I remember two distinct sensations.  The first I imagine is universal - I became completely saturated with Santiago's identity.  For those of us that enjoy the novel, it goes well beyond any weak notions of empathy or the human condition.  We just are Santiago for those few pages, adrift in the ocean and looking for something we can't see.  The second was a small but fierce pang of jealousy, because at least Santiago knew what he was looking for.

It's that first sensation, I think, that causes intelligent readers to mistakenly say that The Old Man and the Sea is full of symbolism.  The starkness of Hemmingway's language also tends to lend the imagery a surreal and looming quality that sometimes tricks the mind.  But there is no allegory here, no this-for-that sort of puzzle, no hidden message.  The lions don't mean anything, the sharks don't mean anything, the birds don't mean anything, and the carcass isn't partuclarly meaningful.  It would in fact destroy the integrity of the novel to find out that there was an equation driving it, or a moral behind it.  The Old Man and the Sea is merely sublime.  The elements of the story, the pieces of Santiago's experience in this world, are so well defined and so painstakingly apt, that without any effort at all the reader transcends the words on the page and sees his own experience reflected back at him.  We fill the ocean with our own darkness, we exchange the marlin for a woman, we fight off the bankers and the panhandlers and the layerofferes and the cancers and the depressions and the addictions and the bad bets and the binges - and we come back empty-handed.

Every fuckin' time.

(Just in case you're thinking, hey wait a minute, that's an allegory -- You're wrong.  It's something else.)

So I finished the book and drove down to an ugly pale brick building to take the GED.  (If you're not familiar with the acronym, it's a General Education Diploma, and you go and take this test and get a piece of paper that stands in for a high school diploma.  Those of us that have one usually call it the Good Enough Diploma.)  There were about ten of us in a little science classroom, and I was the youngest by at least a thousand years.  Two of them I remember very clearly.  One was a huge, hard-edged, hard labor type of dude with a bald head and Yeti shoulders.  Filling out the little circles on the card he looked like a bull trying to thread a needle.  The other was an absolutely worn out woman who looked about eight months pregnant and looked at the papers in front of her as if the were in Greek.  I was a little embarrased by my presence there; I felt like a spoiled prick on a lark in the midst of real people who had to fight for the things I pissed on.  It was a fleeting feeling, though, and I was quite proud of myself when I finished the six hour test in two and strutted out the door.

The scores came by mail a few weeks later, and along with some good ACT numbers they got me in to St. Cloud State University.  College.  I can't remember my expectations with perfect clarity, but they were probably something like - O that glorious haven of thoughtful minds, where the patrons of the morrow dwell . . .  It's fun remembering thoughts like that.  All that naive stuff that you try to edit out later on.  What glories my pen shall etch, what victories attain!  Which sky shall see, which hour ordain, the rise of mighty me?

Alright, enough emasculation.  Hemmingway wouldn't have it.  Lost the thread here anyway.  I'll end this installment by quoting Bob Dylan:

"Sometimes it's not enough to know what things mean;
sometimes you have to know what things don't mean."


If you like the blog you might like the book.  Link's over there ---->