On my recent flight to Florida I took a break from reading Moby-Dick and switched to my favorite Hemingway book, The Old Man and the Sea. Maybe it was because I was on my way to the warm, sunny Gulf of Mexico, but after Melville’s overblown descriptions of the deep, dark sea and the deep, dark creatures that dwell within it, Hemingway’s terse yet elegant description of the waters of the Gulf stream were a joy, flowing through my mind like those very waters I approached. I read non-stop during the flight and finished the book (ok, it’s pretty short) just before we landed.

I think there’s a lot to be learned in comparing these two books – not an accident, I think, as Hemingway wrote to a publisher that Melville was one author he was still trying to beat. Did he? Hmmm . . .

Santiago is the eponymous Old Man (I’ve always wanted to use the word eponymous), an aging fisherman who has struck a run of bad luck – 84 days without a fish. His luck has been so bad that he’s lost his helper and his student, a boy named Manolin. Manolin’s father insists the boy join another boat, and so he does so, though he still takes care of the old man each morning and each evening. Once the boats sail, there is nothing Manolin can do to help the old man. For over a month Santiago has gone out alone, with only his oars, his sail, his meager fishing gear – and a lifetime of experience.

Today, a lovely day on a lovely warm ocean in the month of September (“The month when the great fish come – anyone can be a fisherman in May”), Santiago’s luck changes. He hooks a great fish – not just any fish, but the largest marlin the old man has ever seen. If only he had the boy, Santiago could bring this great fish in and change everything. But Santiago doesn’t have the boy. He has only himself.

old man and the sea

Santiago is a romantic:

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

But he’s also a realist:

“He is a great fish and I must convince him, he thought. I must never let him learn his strength nor what he could do if he made his run. If I were him I would put in everything now and go until something broke. But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able.”

To me this passage carries all the weight and all the difference between The Old Man and the Sea, which I love, and Moby-Dick, which still haunts me. Santiago does what he does out of love of life, love of the sea and his part in it, love of the act of living. He realizes that the fish is neither good nor evil – the fish merely is. The fish’s strength comes with no malice, no evil intelligence, no conspiracy with the fates. The fish simply is. Nature simply is. Nature is indifferent to our suffering – and in the end, that in some sense makes nature even scarier, and makes our struggle that much sweeter. We bring meaning into this world. We depend on ourselves, our will, our intelligence, our ability to think through our pain, to overcome our adversity, to remain resolute in the face of defeat. We willingly take on the struggle that the indifferent universe poses. We choose.

By contrast, Ahab wants vengeance – vengeance on an animal that was only trying to defend itself. I’m still torn on the issue of how Melville characterizes Moby Dick. I believe, I think this is true, that Moby Dick is made a monster in the secondhand tales and hearsay, but in the actual flesh (remember we don’t meet the whale in person until the final three chapters of this long and complex book), Moby Dick seems like an animal – clever, yes, but hardly malicious, and graceful, like Santiago’s fish – until finally (out of, I believe, desperation to end the persecution) Moby Dick crushes himself against the Pequod, both sinking the boat and almost certainly killing himself.

If this is really Melville’s opinion of the whale, then Ahab is sadly deranged, and in an interesting way the mirror opposite of Santiago. Ahab sees evil intent where only indifference lies. Ahab, who comes so close to self-realization, self-actualization, self-choice, falls back on the ideas of fate and destiny, God and prophesy, and we as mere pawns in a game whose outcome is already decided. Melville refuses to choose. I simply can’t come to grips with this failure. It haunts me.

Santiago seems at first glance to fail nearly as completely as Ahab. Yes, Santiago does finally kill his fish (hope I didn’t give anything away there), but then the fish is devoured by sharks on the way back home. Santiago ends his journey with nothing but a skeleton, a boatful of ruined gear, and an old and devastated body. But Santiago has won. The boy, Manolin, upon spotting the great skeleton, upon seeing Santiago’s wrecked boat, upon finding the old man exhausted and starved, makes a choice. He will stay with the old man. He will fish with the old man. The old man will teach Manolin all he knows: about fishing; about life; about the struggle against indifferent nature, the struggle to know and test and experience our own selves. And what more could any of us ask for?

Santiago, a great fan of “the baseball” asks Manolin to “think of the great DiMaggio”. I say, think of the great Santiago.

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