A Phenomenological glimpse at Hemingway’s ‘Old man’

A novella by the present day publishing industry’s standards, “The Old man and the sea” is arguably one of the most read works of Ernest Hemingway. This gem of modern literature which does not present an elaborate and intricately woven plot carries deep undertones of philosophical merit beneath the seemingly simplistic exterior unburdened by traits of voluminous vocabulary or grandiose sentential flow. The work may be viewed as hailing the human spirit which endures the trials and tribulations of a harsh world, and perseveres unrelentingly in hope to savour the sweetness of triumph. The novel can be studied and commented on from a multitude of thematic perspectives, based on a great many aspects of the story such as its thematic imagery, how characters portrayed may be studied from angles of class politics, and a great many other vantages. As one reads the novel, one striking element is how the image of the protagonist, the ‘Old man’, Santiago becomes a central point to understand the physical, bodily hardships of the trade of the Cuban fisherman. One may even suggest that the physical realities that surround the community in which Hemingway places Santiago may be understood by means of deducing how significance is built in the narrative which describes the Old man’s body at certain instances in the novel. The story narrated of Santiago may appear indicative of some faint trait of ‘existential’ writing which presents life in the grimness of mere existence. However the zest for life that can be read through the character of Santiago and his aspirations, though an aged fisherman whose ‘glory days’ as a bold seafarer have long left him, infuses the story with a sense of yearning for what can be celebrated in ‘life.’

As the narrative switches between the third person authorial voice and Santiago’s own ‘first person’ monologues, it is interesting to note that the tonality of the text does not seem to undergo a dramatic shift. The consciousness it represents seems very unitary though the narrative voice changes. Looking at the text of “The Old man and the sea” from a point of phenomenological contemplation, the image of Santiago’s body while braving the menaces of seafaring can be considered a focal point with great significance.

Phenomenology was developed by Edmund Husserl in Germany as a philosophical method to perceive phenomena as acts of consciousness and how they may be understood as ‘objects’ which are reflected upon and analyzed. Adopting a ‘first person’ view point to study phenomena as how it would appear to the speaker’s consciousness as well as how it would be to any other consciousness is also an essential. Therefore the ‘objectification’ of phenomena within the consciousness could seem the approach by which a phenomenological interpretation is possible. In this respect the ‘Old man’ Santiago may be viewed as presenting a series of phenomena just much as his body may be looked upon as an object which Hemmingway has portrayed in the light of an image which could be given a phenomenological reading. In this regard a rather interesting line of discussion as to how the ‘body’ may be read in terms of its situational placement in a context of art and aesthetics is provided by Richard James Calhoun (1963) in the article “Existentialism, Phenomenology, and literary theory” brings up the theoretical dimensions of phenomenology propounded by Maurice Merleau-Ponty who was a contemporary and an associate of the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Calhoun states that Merleau-Ponty as a Phenomenologist was consistent in his outlook and works and subscribed to the ideas of Husserl. In his article Calhoun states- “One of his more interesting ideas in this respect is his view of the body as an expression of our modes of existence, as the means of our communication with the world and the means by which we have a world”. What can be applied to a reading of Hemmingway’s character Santiago from what Calhoun states of Merleau-Ponty is certainly not uni-faceted, to suggest that only the old fisherman’s physical frame has validity in being considered the ‘object’. Rather, one may suggest that ‘the body’ encompasses the faculties such as ‘speech’ which are integral to the character’s physical expressions. However if one is to narrow down the focus simply to the physiological element, it could be said that what is narrated by Santiago of his body, posits his physical frame as a means by which expression is achieved. Consider for example the following extract from The Old man and the sea. “His left hand was still cramped, but he was unknotting it slowly. I hate a cramp, he thought. It is a treachery of one’s own body”(p.40) One may easily argue that the above lines do not narrate descriptions of the body itself, but ‘a condition of the body’ and the Old man’s consciousness of it. However as ‘an image’ the Old man’s body is evoked in the narrative and places emphasis on Santiago as an object which in the above extracted lines is mainly presented in relation to a phenomena that is near entirely bound within the character’s parameters of his physical frame. And thus one may argue that the body, as an image presents what may find affirmation with Merleau-Ponty’s ideas as stated by Calhoun. Therefore Santiago’s body and the cramp which is called ‘a treachery’ expresses a facet of the Old man’s existence. The narrative of the story where elaborate detail is provided by Hemingway on how the Old man in his skiff baits fish and pulls them in shows how the fisherman’s physical frame is an essential focus of the story, and by which the world in which Santiago is found can be understood by the reader in relation to a man’s physiological aspect. Bodily pain caused by one’s environs may render an understanding of the world in which ‘the body’ is found, and subsequently such a surrounding may be dubbed as salubrious or pernicious with value judgments.

Hemingway presents both the beauty of the sea as well as how it is injurious to the Old man. “He did not truly feel good because the pain from the cord across his back had almost passed pain and gone into a dullnesss that he mistrusted. But I have had worse things than that, he thought. My hand is only cut a little and the cramp is gone from the other.” (p.49) Through such descriptions it is evident that it is Santiago’s physical body that is the focus point to communicate to the reader of the precarious conditions posed by the sea environment. And the body appears the object which becomes a phenomena to be studied to understand the world surrounding it. Calhoun’s articles further expounds Merleau-Ponty’s conceptions by stating-“It is through the body’s relations to a situation that the first meanings come which the intellect may later codify in symbols.” The narrative of The Old man and the sea has at its core much that would relate to Merleau-Ponty’s perspectives. The Old man’s situation is perceptible to the reader by understanding how Santiago’s physical state relates to the phenomena that surrounds him. If one considers first extract from the story looked at in his article, the cramp in the Old man’s left hand is dubbed ‘a treachery.’ Relating to what is cited from Calhoun’s article, it could be said that the cramp at its physiological level is perceived by the Old man as a bodily phenomenon and subsequently transfigured by his intellect to be assigned a codification with value judgment. The instances that may be studied from a perspective of phenomenology are numerous in The Old man and the sea; and thus a thematic study of the novel would certainly provide insight into how the human body may take a pivotal space in creating ground for the reader to relationally understand the world crafted by Ernest Hemingway.


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