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Lee on Literature: The Old Man and the Sea

September 30, 2011, 1:00 pm
By LeeMiller

This past week, 30 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in the Sea of Cortez, sport fisherman Richard Biehl of Travers City, Mich. landed a 1,200-pound blue marlin measuring over 13 feet long.


Along with an experienced Mexican crew aboard the local charter boat “Go Deep,” Biehl fought the fish for the better part of 28 hours, carefully negotiating the marlin with a line that could easily break from a fish over 60 pounds (aka 60-pound test). The giant hooked at 8:20 am, and Biehl fought to exhaustion. At 9 pm, one of the Mexican crew took over. Out of food and water, the men resorted to eating ice from a drink chest as they patiently settled in for the night. The monster fish jumped out of the water at first strike and then again at sunset, when the men stared at its size with awe.


At sunrise, Biehl took over again, and by 9 am the crew decided to throw a “snag set” out in the water to see if they could hook the fish with extra lines. The plan worked, and with multiple lines, the crew was able to pull the defeated giant alongside the 31-foot power boat. They gaffed the fish and the fight was over. The crew tried to pull the marlin aboard through the transom door, but could only get it halfway, so they motored back to port with half of the fish hanging out the back. Biehl described the experience as “the hardest thing I ever did in my life. I’ve shot bull moose and trekked out with 200 pounds on my back, and it doesn’t even compare. It was the greatest experience of my life.”

 

This same excruciating battle with nature is the cornerstone of Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 classic, The Old Man and the Sea. In the fictional story, an old and disregarded village fisherman, Santiago, battles an 18-foot blue marlin far out at sea off the coast of Cuba. Santiago hooks the fish from a worn, 14-foot skiff, battles for two and a half days, feeling awe as the giant jumps out of the water several times. After a tremendous test of wills, Santiago finally lands the fish. The marlin is so large that Santiago must tie the fish to the side of the boat and tow it back to the village port. During this journey, sharks attack again and again, leaving Santiago with a huge carcass when he finally makes it back home. He cannot defeat nature.

 

In many ways, The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway’s sharpest metaphor for his own personal philosophy of life—the hunter and adventurer’s respect for vitality. Santiago experiences a close proximity to nature, risk and death, and through it lives more and gains a more profound understanding of life. The material aspects of catching the record fish are erased by sharks, just as in real life material successes come and go and ultimately have little meaning. It is the village’s attitude that changes: Santiago goes from an unlucky, washed-up pariah to the village’s most respected person because he practices the highest form of living. But this last expression of will, outlasting the great blue marlin, breaks Santiago. The strain of the battle pushes Santiago between a dream state and reality. And when he returns to the village, he immediately goes to sleep with a deep sense of ultimate deterioration.

 

The simple power of The Old Man and the Sea confirmed Hemingway’s lifetime body of writing. Two years after publication, Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1954). He lived for only seven years after the award. Hemingway had seen the first steps of deterioration, weakness and death viciously played out in nature so often that he surely recognized his own imminent loss of life. Hemingway did not believe in enduring a slow and steady death; he did not put faith in meaningless last days. So clearly does he articulate his respect for vitality, for life’s great experiences and adventures, that Hemingway’s suicide in 1961 was unsurprising.

 

One hopes Richard Biehl will cherish this great taste of nature, this rare perspective of life, that Hemingway so clearly articulates in The Old Man and the Sea.

 

 

Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of Mrs. Sona Choudhury’s spiritual journey in 20th Century India.

 

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