Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine. His books include Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments, and Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Julian has written for The Guardian, Prospect, The TES and The THES. In this post he discusses Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea.
Julian Baggini on The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
As a young boy, I often found myself spending a rainy school holiday afternoon or a wet weekend watching whatever film was on one of the three channels we had to be content with. More than once that film was John Sturges's 1958 version of The Old Man and The Sea, starring Spencer Tracy. To a not particularly precocious youth, whose cultural horizons were pretty limited, it struck me as very odd movie indeed. Most of the 'action' comprised an old man sitting in his boat, which was obviously on a studio set, trying to catch, and then bring home, a fish. Dialogue comprised either Tracey talking to himself or to the fish, which refused to talk back. Yet it was all strangely compelling. I'm sure I didn't get it, but this was before I learned that 'getting' a work of art required being able to say 'what it means', so perhaps that didn't matter.
I haven't seen the film since, and for all I know it might be quite awful. But I did later read the novella, or short story, whatever you want to call it. I had discovered Hemingway via a couple of his war novels, For Whom The Bell Tolls and A Farewell To Arms. I had found these strangely compelling too, even though I wasn't sure what they had to say either, other than the fact that men can be quite hard and war is terrible.
Remembering that odd film, I decided I'd try The Old Man and The Sea next. It was like nothing else I had read. Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it all seemed very inconsequential. The prose was sparse, the story slight, and Hemingway never authorially intervened to pass existential comment on what was going on. It seemed not much ado about not much, but yet again, it gripped me. It was only when I finished the book that the cumulative effect of the story hit me.
What the book had done was not just to create a world, but to conjure up a form of life. I had felt from the inside something of what it means to live your life in a particular kind of relation to nature, which a suburban 20th century Briton could never have experienced first hand. That someone could love and revere the sea and all that lives in it, while wanting to hunt and kill fish was not something I had previously understood. Yet Hemingway had shown me this was indeed possible.
Not that this was a romantic portrayal of a man living in close harmony with nature. The old man's life had always been a struggle and now he was struggling more than ever. You know and he knows that this is the last time he'll undertake such a bruising fight. He was not going gentle into that goodnight, but going he certainly was. Perhaps that's one reason why his struggle with the fish seems such a virtuous one: humans cannot conquer nature and nor can they just hold hands with it and skip along the lane singing la-di-da. Life consists in wrestling with nature, knowing you will lose in the end, and perhaps that's why you are justified in fighting as hard as you can before you do.
Being close to nature, fully respecting it, means acknowledging its cruelty as well as its beauty. The modern, urban human being finds it hard to do both: either nature is a gentle earth mother to be loved and embraced, or it is a savage force to be tamed. Hemingway's old man shows that, in fact, it is both.
Books like this do what argument and reasoning cannot. You can describe, as I have attempted to do, something of what the old man's form of life is like, but telling is no substitute for showing. I assume this is what philosophers like Martha Nussbaum mean when they say that fiction is important for our moral development.
For me personally, The Old Man and The Sea is one reason why I am not quite a vegetarian, despite tending that way. I hardly eat any meat because I disapprove of the way much of it is produced. But Hemingway challenged the view which was trying to get a grip on my mind at the time - that respect for animal life was incompatible with killing it. I would like to think my distaste for factory-farmed meat is not just founded on modern squeamishness, but shares at least some of the reverence for life the old man exemplifies. For that reason, I think The Old Man and The Sea is as valuable a read for people troubled by how we treat animals today as anything by systematic animal ethicists such as Peter Singer.