Cultural imperialism, Afro-Cuban religion, and Santiago's failure in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

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Author: Philip Melling
Date: Fall 2006
From: The Hemingway Review(Vol. 26, Issue 1)
Publisher: Chestnut Hill College
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,051 words
Lexile Measure: 1450L

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In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway was profoundly affected by the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria and sympathetic to the idea that the sea was protected by saints and orishas. Secular faiths carry no remit in the novella and those who sail the Strait of Florida without ritual acknowledgement or acts of propitiation run the risk of being punished. Such is the fate of Santiago. His faith in baseball and his allegiance to the New York Yankees is an illustration of how mass culture was used by the United States to win Latin American hearts and minds in the post-war era and of the way such culture functioned as an instrument of social control in the fight against Communism.


AT A CRITICAL MOMENT in his battle with the sharks in The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago reaches under the stern for an oar handle "sawed off to about two and a half feet in length" and "from as high up as he could raise the club" he hits a galano across "the base of the brain" (OMATS 105). The shark slides down the fish, but other sharks appear and Santiago is left to wonder how much damage he could have inflicted if he had "used a bat with two hands" (106). His desire for a baseball bat is of crucial importance. Instead of wanting to dramatize an indigenous style with sacred tools (the symbolic, wooden axe of the Afro-Cuban god Chango comes to mind) Santiago wishes to replicate the actions of an American hero whose baseball exploits were the stuff of adventure in the local tabloids--Joe DiMaggio. Santiago's actions in the boat bring DiMaggio's personal history to mind. A fisherman's son from San Francisco, DiMaggio as a boy sneaked away from home to practice his batting technique with "a broken oar as a bat on the sandlots nearby" (Talese 246). Santiago lacks DiMaggio's genius with the bat but his actions are those of a baseball scholar and a dutiful fan. During World War II, DiMaggio "was the most talked-about man in America" and in one of the popular hits of the day, Les Brown's band reminded the fans how important the baseball star was to the war effort. As the song cried out: "Joe ... Joe ... DiMaggio ... we want you on our side" (Talese 251).

Santiago's fixation with Joe DiMaggio is not a casual one. Carefully nurtured, it is a creation of the movies, radio programs, newsreels, and mass circulation newsprint which, during the post-war period, became an integral feature of the new diplomatic landscape of the United States. Nearly "all the techniques later employed for influencing cultures" outside the U.S., says Reinhold Wagnleitner, "were tested in Latin America" during the 1930s and 1940s. "The Latin American strategy," initially designed to counter fascist influence, became the "central basis" for "later American cultural policies" in the fight against Communism. "The obvious appeal of popular culture" he argues, was based on "a Madison Avenue approach" and under the Department of State popular culture became "one of America's potent weapons" in the battle to win the hearts and minds of Latin America (Wagnleitner 62, 63).

One result, agrees Julio Garcia, director of the Havana Film and Television School, was the "colonial decimation" of the Latin American film industry,

   The American studios claimed it was due to market forces, but
   of course it wasn't.... In the 1930s and 1940s there were lots of
   great films being shown in our cinemas, then it dropped right
   off.... If we wanted some of their hits they would force us to
   take nine other films of lower quality. The glossy-produced
   films with big budgets were always put in the best cinemas, so
   Latin films screened in the less well-kept theatres. The public
   therefore assumed their own films were inherently inferior.
   (quoted in Payne 10)

Cultural imperialism buttressed economic imperialism during these years and cultural diplomacy, often conducted through the work of multinationals, lay at the heart of American foreign policy (Payne 10).

Jeremy Tunstall has shown that 75% of films watched by Cubans in 1948 were Hollywood productions (289). The newspaper industry also operated in a similar way. Between 1949 and 1963, America's export of books and printed material to Latin America multiplied ten-fold. Under the Media Guaranty Program (1948-1967), mass circulation newsprint became a daily feature of Latin American life (Wagnleitner 74). During these years, ordinary Cubans like Santiago were weaned away from their traditional faiths and, as Emily S. Rosenberg has written, "gravitated to the simplified messages of popular culture" (215): the language of American sport, music, film, and entertainment, all potent weapons in the fight against Communism. Latin American audiences were pandered to by a celebrity culture which did nothing to "combat injustice, poverty and ignorance," but "offered ethnocentric solutions disguised as internationalist ones.... dignified by the name of rationality" (Rosenberg 86). Mass culture may have been democratic "in the sense that it appealed to a cross section of the social classes," but, as Rosenberg notes, it was oligarchic and "carefully contrived and narrowly controlled" as an instrument of economic and cultural influence (36). Furthermore, even though Cuban society at this time included a substantial black population, the role models presented to Latin American audiences were uniformly white. Few if any discussed the morality of such intervention, let alone the moral, economic; and political stagnation of Cuba in the 1950s that America's support for Batista helped create.

These were the issues at the back of Hemingway's mind when he told the people of San Francisco de Paula who met him at Havana airport in 1959 that his sympathies were with the Revolution and that he did not want to be "considered a Yankee" (Fuentes 274). We must set his comment against Santiago's advising young Manolin to "have faith in the Yankees" (OMATS 14), a remark made at a time when the Yankees in question, the New York Yankees baseball club, had a reputation for racial profiling. Under its manager, Casey Stengel, the Yankees club in the 1950s was well-known for its opposition to players of color and notorious for its refusal to field a multi-ethnic squad. Stories in the media about the "racism" of the "Yankee organization" were commonplace, writes Jules Tygiel, citing Jackie Robinson's description of "the Yankees management" as "prejudiced" (294, 295). Despite the fact that The Old Man and the Sea was written at a "high point" in a cultural movement that stressed the importance of barroquismo (an expression that incorporated a diversity of styles) and a philosophy of resistance to North American culture and art, Santiago's advice disqualifies him as an agent of lo cubano or Afro-Cuban cultural perspectives resisting the hegemonic influence of the United States (Martinez 289, 281).

Transmitted on Cuban television in the weeks following Hemingway's receipt of the Nobel Prize, a rarely seen interview reveals his desire to preserve the integrity of Cuban life. (1) In carefully considered, colloquial Spanish Hemingway tells how he has always tried to engage with the local community and "understand the sea" and its "influence" on the daily life of those who use it. The presence of the sea, he stresses, is what he has "tried to put into [his] writing ... especially the sea on the north coast of Cuba" and its interactions, over the years, with settlement and culture. Hemingway also talks about the fishing village of Cojimar and the importance he attaches to its survival: "a very serious thing" he says, in a rapidly changing world. Cojimar's situation may be "serious" because of the decline in the local fishing industry, together with the effects of increased competition and the rising costs of both inshore and deep-sea fishing methods.

However, there are also issues of history to consider and cultural practices not in decline. For example, Hemingway had an extensive interest in anthropology dating back to his reading of James Frazer's The Golden Bough in the 1920s. In the library at the Finca Vigla, he also kept a copy of Cultural Anthropology by Melville Herskovitz and may have been influenced by the views of Herskovitz on family life and religious faith (Brasch and Sigman Item 3079). Herskovitz argued that the coastal settlers of the Caribbean islands had evolved through a practice of "transculturation" (Duany 22), an historical process incorporating the characteristics of African and European culture. This type of collaboration, claims Herskovitz, grew out of the relationship between faiths and religions of African origin--Santeria, Payo Malombo, Payo Monte, Abakua--and the Catholic Church. These diverse beliefs harmonized around the practice of saint worship. Santeria, one such hybrid form of religion, says Diana H. Gonzalez-Kirby, "flourished rapidly" in the "minor" communities of northern and western Cuba. Villages like San Francisco de Paula and Cojimar were a living example of "the syncretisation of African belief" (Gonzalez-Kirby 42).

In 1949 Hemingway asked Malcolm Cowley to send him a copy of Margaret A. Murray's Witch-Cult in Western Europe, noting what he called the "considerable witch-craft practised in the neighbourhood especially in Guanabacoa" (SL 681). What Hemingway probably meant by "witch-craft" were contemporary vestiges of the religion originally practiced by Yoruba slaves brought to Cuba from southwestern Nigeria in large numbers between 1820 and 1860. During the 19th century, Santeria emerged as a compromise faith bringing together Yoruba beliefs and various facsimiles in the Catholic Church. According to Rafael Martinez and Charles Wetli, in Santeria each god or goddess--Yemaya, goddess of the sea; Eshu, the trickster deity; Eleggua, the orisha who controls the laws of chance; Ochosi, the god of the hunt; Babalu-aye, patron of the sick and elderly--was twinned with a Catholic saint and given control of "a specific domain" and the "unique powers" peculiar to it (33). In Santeria, the most significant African deities are the Seven African Powers, many of whom are represented as protectors of those who rely on the sea or live in close proximity to it (Martinez and Wetli 33).

Although there is little evidence to suggest that he was a formal practitioner, Hemingway was intrigued by Santeria. It suited his superstitious nature--the dressing-up, the out-of-body experiences and precognition, the rabbits' feet and occasional fondness for earrings, the need to touch wood three times, the use of numbers, and the prayers for help (Fuentes 84). At the Finca, Hemingway showed a fondness for the "divine mascots" and figurative statues that, according to Migene Gonzalez-Whippler, are often suggestive of primordial life in Santeria. He was also fond of different types of stones, especially the chinas pelonas and otanes used to attract the attention of the orishas and thought to contain magnetic properties. In apparent emulation of a common practice in Santeria, Hemingway carried his favorite stones around with him as if he was seeking the approval of a "spiritual guide" and acknowledging the orisha with a "good-luck charm" (Gonzalez-Wippler 1982, 18).

Stones and shells are important to an understanding of Santeria. "The power of the orishas," say Rafael Martinez and Charles Wetli, resides in stones and Santeria's ceremonial structures recognize the need to propitiate the gods through ritual acts such as the bathing and feeding of stones or the placing of stones close to the body (33). In Santeria, ritual power is "seated" in stones, agrees Joseph Murphy, and transferred to the "head of the devotee" at the moment of initiation. "The juxtaposition of head and stones" lies at "the heart of the santeria mysteries," particularly in the ceremony of "asiento." Here, the transfer of power from orisha to initiate is dramatized when stones are placed over the head of a novice (iyawo). The act of "seating" the stone fixes "knowledge" inside the head, enlightening those who require the benefit of its "spiritual power" (Murphy 87). Hemingway scholar Larry Grimes says that stones were allegedly placed above the entrance to the Finca during the time Hemingway lived there. If true, this may suggest that Hemingway sought power through ritual practice, "seating" the stone at the head of his house in order to signify spiritual favor (Grimes).

Hemingway's desire to acquaint himself with the history of witchcraft contrasts sharply with Santiago's interest in baseball scores in the local newspapers. The contrast between Santiago's needs and Hemingway's intensifies the further we go beyond sight of land (where the protection offered by Joe DiMaggio has no power). As the journey progresses, DiMaggio's influence is in inverse proportion to the spiritual potency of the African Powers. In Santeria, each orisha requires a ritual of propitiation in the form of a sacrificial offering (blood, corn, coffee, or water), before the "devotee's problems" can be addressed in the material world. Interestingly, Santiago's world contains all the "magical properties" on which the orishas spiritually depend, including herbs, blood, wood, and stone (Murphy 134). Santiago is given what Joseph Murphy calls "unique" opportunities to honor the gods, but even though their demands are modest, he turns them down (116). Santiago avoids all contact with the ebos of Santeria and those sacrificial moments when "gifts" are made available--a broken oar, deep water, yellow weed--as a route to propitiation (Murphy 15).

On his return to his village at the novella's end, even though he is physically exhausted and possibly dying, Santiago still plans to hunt again. He tells Manolin:

"We must get a good killing lance and always have it on board. You can make the blade from a spring leaf from an old Ford. We can grind it in Guanabacoa. It should be sharp and not tempered so it will break. My knife broke." (OMATS 115)

This passage illustrates the distance that exists between Santiago as a commercial fisherman at a time of crisis and the Adamic solitary whom critics have invested with "mythic beliefs." (2) Rather than propitate the orishas and invoke their power to subdue a rude and lawless world, Santiago seeks a weapon made from a cast-off American auto part for aid in vanquishing sharks. He has yet to learn that in Santeria, only an orisha such as Oggun--father of sacrificial acts and an ironworker symbolized by a sacrificial knife and the spilling of blood--can change the sharks' behavior. And Oggun can only bestow his gifts through spiritual devotions and ritual acts of propitiation of the kind Santiago fails to perform.

Santiago also ignores Olokun, the great orisha of "sea depths who protected the ancestors on their terrible journey from Africa" (Murphy 1-2). In Santeria, Olokun is honored with a song:

   Olokun, Owner of the Ocean
   Grandfather Olokun
   We bow before you father Olokun (Murphy 1-2).

But Santiago does not "bow." He has "strange shoulders" (OMATS 15) which served him well in his early life as a child-adventurer to Africa and later as an arm wrestler when he fought the Negro from Cienfuegos. But Olokun is propitiated with simple things--shells, stones, cigars, rum, and acts of salutation--not feats of strength. Protection can be sought by utilizing basic commodities of everyday life such as coffee and paper. Santiago has an abundance of both--the paper he sleeps on, the coffee he drinks--but does not use either material to invoke the African Powers.

Santeria is a "hybrid" religion, a "syncretism of black and white worlds" available to all people, irrespective of race and gender, and offering "opportunities" for propitiation through symbols, icons, objects, and dates (Murphy 116). Yet Santiago's life is a drama of missed opportunity and deliberate avoidance. On the one hand, he regards the eating of turtle meat as morally abhorrent. On the other, he eats turtle eggs "all through May" in preparation for "the truly big fish" that run "in September and October" (OMATS 34). The decision he makes is inconsistent as well as intriguing. Santiago relies on eating turtle eggs for strength rather than propitiating Yemaya with turtle meat (the guemilere), as he should do on her feast day (8 September). Nor does he sacrifice to Agallu and Oshun, the orishas that protect seas and rivers (Murphy 41). The avoidance seems wilful as Santiago goes to sea during hurricane season and needs all the help he can get. Santiago has "no mysticism about turtles"; instead, he relishes their voracious energy and wishes he could share their physical powers. Combative behavior and physical strength are important to him but spiritual appeasement isn't.

Santiago's Darwinism is moderated by a sentimental attitude toward marine life and the moral polarities that define natural adversaries and conflicts. He loves the loggerhead turtles who eat the poisonous Portuguese man o' war jellyfishes that foul his lines and sting "like a whiplash" (OMATS 33). The marlin who are his "friends" and "brothers" are enemies of the sharks that bring "salao" (7). The spiritualities that govern the sea are of secondary importance to the secular qualities of animals and the characteristics he ascribes to them. Physiological processes, moral innateness, blood lines, and transfusions of energy, not religious belief, are the reasons why Santiago eats turtle eggs to cure the "welts and sores on his arms and hands" (OMATS 32-3). Strangely, he does not invoke Babalu-aye, the African orisha who heals "skin diseases", especially leprosy and the skin cancer from which Santiago suffers (Martinez 34). In Santeria, Babalu-aye is represented as an impoverished old man who like Santiago lives alone in a wooden shack. The patron saint of those with arthritic problems, Babalu-aye can be propitiated with everyday things like pennies and water. Santiago could easily access this orisha, but does not even try.

If propitiation has any meaning for Santiago, it lies outside an Afro-Cuban community of saints. Instead, he seeks assistance from imperial faiths old and new as well as from celebrities in popular culture and popular Catholicism. His idea of partnership is non-egalitarian, based on a concept of self-help and private alliance with baseball stars and Catholic saints whose elite status inspires devotion. In Santiago's world, the "church" of , baseball is not dissimilar to that of Rome (Chidester 219-238). The appeal of each relies on deference and the excitement generated by ritual events in metropolitan centers of power. African deities fall outside this particular theater. Faced with a choice between a Catholic icon or a facsimile of African or rural origin, Santiago prefers the Christian one. For this reason, he says "ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Mary's" (OMATS 60) to bring luck when he hooks the marlin, and then claims he will make a pilgrimage to the Virgin de Cobre should he bring the fish in. In Santeria, the Virgin of Cobre corresponds with the orisha Oshun, patroness of love and sister of Yemaya, goddess of the sea. Santiago does not disclose the correspondence, but instead tells us that "he is not religious" (OMATS 60). It is difficult to explain the remark, bearing in mind that the man who makes it is a Cuban fisherman and that Havana Harbor, its fishermen and sailors, are protected by the Virgin de Regla and her twin, Yemaya. Santiago remains silent on the correspondence between saint and orisha, as if he is unable to embrace the "mental bridge" offered by Santeria to those who "live," as Joseph Murphy puts it, "in two worlds" (121). Santiago has, it appears, no interest in the syncretism of a conquered race. Instead, he pledges an allegiance (of sorts) to the Catholic Church and the inspiration he receives in the newspapers from saints of baseball such as Joe DiMaggio.

Resisting the influence of the African Powers--Yemaya, Eshu, Eleggua, and Ochosi--Santiago shows no interest in the talismanic properties of stones, beads, and cowry shells. On the contrary, he sees in baseball an antithesis to Afro Cubanismo. He venerates players of light skin, not just Joe DiMaggio, but Mike Gonzalez and Adolfo Luque, "white" Cubans who, because of their skin color, were given dispensation to play in the majors during and after World War I. Crucially, he ignores dark-skinned Cubans and black players excluded from the majors but welcomed in Cuba and the Caribbean. In Cuban baseball, says Donn Rogosin, "race mattered little" and blacks and whites "competed as equals" in the winter leagues (154). During this period, "the extensive, sustained interaction between Cuban and Negro league baseball.... was of enormous significance" (Rogosin 155, 156). The Negro leagues hosted the Cuban Stars, comprised of both dark and light-skinned Cubans, some of whom, like Mike Gonzalez, also played in the major leagues. In Cuba, blacks and whites from the United States frequently played alongside each other. Cuba "became a traditional and important conduit of baseball information between white and black American players" (Rogosin 156). It created a racially-mixed community and gave black players such as John Henry Lloyd, Ray Dandridge, Willard Brown, and Willie Wells the opportunity to become full-time professionals and compete on equal terms with white players like Ty Cobb.

Santiago's racial attitudes come alive in his memory of arm-wrestling with a Negro in a tavern at Casablanca. The contest is remembered at a point in the story when Santiago is at a low ebb. It is his second day at sea without sleep. He has eaten little and is unable to haul the marlin back from the depths to which it has taken the line. Rather than invoke the orishas, he turns to his memory "to give himself more confidence." The decor of the tavern interior--the walls are "painted bright blue" and made of wood--contrasts with the "huge," menacing shadow cast by the Negro and the way the shadow moves on the wall as the hanging lamps shift in the breeze. This arm--wrestling match with "the strongest man on the docks" takes place over a day and a night and only concludes when the "negro" is beaten, his hand forced "down and down until it rested on the wood." The "negro" is a "great athlete" but he ends up ruined psychologically, his "confidence" "broken." Santiago, therefore, gains in "confidence" at the expense of the black community(OMATS 64-66).

If the breaking of a "fine" individual is necessary to ensure the triumph of Darwinism, the underlying need is to affirm the importance of protectorate power in the Caribbean. The belief that white individuals can invigorate themselves at the expense of people of color reminds us of how imperialism came of age in the United States. At the end of the 19th century, the United States developed an empire and acquired new lands through a process of pacification and physical control. Territory was acquired and traditional loyalties broken, says Walter L. Williams, as "religions and ceremonies" were "suppressed by government agents." This is true not only of American Indian lands but also of Africa and Asia, he argues, where swarms of "missionaries" promoted "new ways of thinking" thereby weakening "native confidence in their old ways of doing things" (237). According to Anders Stephanson, "empire as civilized domination showed the historical necessity of establishing order by means of force in the unruly sphere and thus allowing 'waste spaces' to be used in the 'interest of humanity'" (106).

Santiago mimics this procedure and puts an end to a putative negrismo by describing the contest with the "negro" as "finished" (OMATS 66). His opponent is no longer "the strongest man on the docks" and among the dockworkers, traditionally the best sports fans in Cuba (Rogosin 161); Santiago has become El Campion (66). Santiago breaks the spirit of the black community by ruining, in a public demonstration, the crowd appeal of their unofficial leader. He has stayed the course because of his splendidly exceptional talent, unlike the "negro" who is now "broken" (66). Crowd control is a by-word for success.

As he contemplates "the darkness of the sea" under his boat, Santiago invokes the "great DiMaggio" (64), a god-like figure who popularizes the imperial project of conquering others through force of will. DiMaggio has triumphed in adversity--despite the bone spur in his heel--and led the Yankees to their 84th win of the season against the Washington Senators. He appeals to Santiago because, unlike the black baseball player, Jackie Robinson, he lives outside what Lisa Brock calls "the African cultural constellation" (25). Not only is DiMaggio "great," he appears to inhibit the spread of blackness in the wider baseball community.

The impact of Africa in The Old Man and the Sea is not only displaced by narratives of white power, it is also subsumed by a memory of adolescence. On the morning of his fishing trip Santiago is awakened by "the land breeze" that comes "very early" and is redolent with the "smell of Africa" in the "morning." The wilderness Santiago wants to remember--"the long golden beaches" "the high capes," "the great brown mountains,' the sound of the surf, the native boats (OMATS 22)--is an example of what environmentalist critic William Cronon describes as the "romantic sublime," a form of subdued "primitivism" in which the "pristine sanctuary" is never "quite" what it appears. Cronon defines this type of wilderness as neither a "virgin place" nor an "uninhabited land," but one already contaminated by the presence of "civilization." Africa has been made safe for people like Santiago: its beaches tamed not by boys who sail from Tenerife on square-rigged ships, but slave masters and slave ships. The young lions he sees at dusk are his pets; he loves them as he loves Manolin, but only because they lack all semblance of adult desire and predatory aggression, natural attributes. Santiago's beach, as Cronon might put it, "hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural" (76-80).

This version of Africa has no meaning for the people of Cuba nor does it reveal the way in which slave societies were willing and able to come to terms with the sea's meaning in the aftermath of their forced emigration. Santiago's Africa--virgin land, the game preserve as romantic retreat--is, in Cronon's words, a place where we "wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world" The irony, as Cronon points out, is that only those "whose relation to the land (is) already alienated" are able to "hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature" By imagining that their "true home is in the wilderness," they "forgive" themselves for "the homes" they "actually inhabit." The "flight from history" becomes an "antidote to the human self" (80).

We are given a clue on how Santiago's own "flight" will unfold the moment he smells the Trade Winds. These winds begin life in the equatorial regions of Africa and help create a system of currents that flow westwards to the Caribbean and feed eventually into the Gulf Stream. To the west of North Africa these winds form a river of seawater, the North Equatorial Current. In the 18th and 19th centuries this current was instrumental in facilitating the transportation of slaves from the sub-Saharan regions--the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin, the Niger Delta--to the New World. The Atlantic waters that Santiago fishes are suffused, therefore, not only with the memory of slavery and the routes by which slaves might arrive in Cuba, but also with the high levels of mortality that occurred at sea and the trauma that accompanied a two month-long voyage. "Cuba", says Herbert S. Klein, was "the largest slave colony ever created in Spanish America" and by the end of the 19th century "had become a major importer" of slaves "in its own right" (38,197).

From the perspective of Santeria, the sea emerged as an Africanized place, the natural domain of the the orisha Olokun, a Yoruba sea god with male and female personifications that determine the sea's character. This seais also rife with the spirit presences of the ancestors, whose lives and deaths must be acknowledged. Here are the souls of black folk who have the ability to rise up and walk on water, as they do in August Wilson's play Joe Turner's Come and Gone; here are the victims of slavery who "died bad" and demand recognition in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved (188). When Santiago ignores these presences he does so at his peril, especially as the dream that wakes him comes from a "breeze" with an African "smell" (OMATS 22) What Santiago does with this dream proves his undoing. He entertains a vision of Africa that is of no use in helping him complete the task to which he is firmly committed. He dreams of an Africa that seems attractive because of its cinematic and pictorial appeal. This is an Africa of boats and breezes from which slavery has been erased, as have the slave religions and the role they should occupy for any Cuban fisherman who looks to Africa for his inspiration.

We are reminded of this at a quiet moment when Santiago takes a "forward" position in the boat and, head bowed, dreams of a time when he saw the lions of Africa in "the evening off-shore breeze." "In the early dark" the lions come down onto the beach and in the dream he feels "happy" as the ship lies at anchor (OMATS 75). The dream, however, does nothing to pacify the marlin. Indeed, the Gulf Stream is the worst place to go to replace the heritage of African slavery with a vision of the sublime. Santiago is admonished: "the jerk of his right arm coming up against his face and the line burning out through the right hand." The fish jumps repeatedly. There is "a great bursting of the ocean." The speed of the line taken by the fish cuts his hands "badly" (76). We contrast this with the blood that comes "out from under the fingernails" when Santiago arm-wrestles the Negro from Cienfuegos. The strike exposes the folly of dreaming at sea.

Santiago does not know "what started" the fish (77). He can not explain the marlin's change from a fish that is "calm" and "strong" to one that appears to react aggressively to an image of Africa that lacks human presence and human remains (78). Because Santiago's sleeping position mimics the religious greeting known as foribale (salutation) in Santeria, the jolt he receives comes as a warning to those who believe in virtual faiths. The thump disputes his romanticized vision of Africa as a place of tame wilderness, the colonized Africa of civilized recreation and safari. It's as if, in the darkness below, the fish takes on the personality of the rebellious slave, punishing the man who promotes that vision with a blow to the face. The action clearly illustrates the distance that has opened up between Santiago and Hemingway, who, throughout his time in Cuba, bore witness to the spiritual significance of its waters.

Hemingway shared his belief in channels of energy and streams of life with the Yoruba people who came to Cuba from Nigeria and the Western Sudan. For the Yoruba, spiritual life was governed by the God Olodumare, the "ultimate expression of force" who channelled his energy through a "divine current" a "blood" stream of "cosmic life" known as "ashe" (Murphy 8). These ideals appealed to Hemingway, who appears to have seen little difference between divine current and physical current. For Hemingway, the sea was a primordial place and the currents of energy circulating in the Atlantic were an embodiment of what the Yoruba saw as "the ultimate destiny of all creation" (7).

Hemingway's earliest writing about the Gulf Stream and the wandering fish that travel the globe to swim in it appears in his Esquire articles of the 1930s. In the most famous of these, "On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter," written in April 1936, Cuba is portrayed as the meeting place of transoceanic streams and currents that have been in motion since men first "went on (them) in boats"(BL 228). In another article, written in August 1934, "Out in the Stream: A Cuban Letter," Hemingway describes the fish that live hundreds of fathoms below the surface and travel thousands of miles in response to the flow of "current" and "counter current." The words "connected" "connection," and "circuit" suggest that the fish "follow" "the warm currents of all the oceans." The sense of connection to this wilderness endows the fisherman with a state of feeling that transcends mere "hunting" (BL 171, 172). In "On The Blue Water" Hemingway knows that the fish are more than physical specimens. They are "strange and wild things of unbelievable speed and power and [a] beauty ... that is indescribable." The act of being "fastened to the fish as much as he is fastened to you" generates a divine energy, an appreciation of the cosmic life in the sea (231).

In "On the Blue Water," Hemingway writes that "the Gulf Stream and the other great currents are the last wild country there is left." And because all factual knowledge of the sea is at best provisional, "no one knows" the actual domain of the "unexploited." When the fish strikes, the primal "scream" of the reel creates an unimaginable "thrill," one "that needs no danger to make it real." The fish that takes the line may leave you "at the end of five hours" with nothing but "a straightened-out hook." Throughout this period, the fisherman has direct contact with the supernatural and is required to acknowledge the simplest of questions: "who can say what you will hook sometime?" (BL 228-230).

Hemingway's answer--a giant marlin or swordfish compared "to which the fish we have caught are pygmies" (BL 230)--brings to mind a spiritual role model whose "great weight" is reminiscent of the Yoruha God, Olodumare, "owner" and source of "all destinies" and the "pulse of life and death.... incarnated in the world as force" (Murphy 7-8). In Santeria, this force is dramatized through orishas of great power and extravagance that express their meaning in theatrical terms. Hemingway, in a similar vein, describes how a great fish "throws a column of spray like a shell lighting" and its "shoulders smash out of the water" as it "bursts" into life. The use of military imagery suggests Hemingway's willingness to rise to the challenge of the "indescribable" ("On the Blue Water," BL 231-232). Here, what is "strange and wild" from a western perspective is instantly recognizable from an African one. If the sea is a theater, the fish is an emissary of Chango, a warrior deity whose life principle is one of "force" and whose "dance posture" evokes a state of physical "aggression" through "violent acrobatics" (Murphy 42-3; Bailey 49). Chango, whose early life was spent at sea, is a ruler of thunder, lightning, and explosive fire reminding us of the marlin's "speed" and "force." Hemingway, "fastened" to the fish, is connected "intimately" to its "savage power." The "friction" of the line "against the water" generates, he says, a new awareness of the life below him ("On the Blue Water," BL 231, 229). In terms of Santeria, the line is alive with "divine current" a conductor whose "receptivity" puts the fisherman firmly in touch "with spiritual beings" (Murphy 8).

Santiago, on the other hand, resists the spiritual instruction of water. He lets "the current do a third of the work," but is loath to recognize supernatural circuitry (OMATS 276-7). As the fish runs from the boat and performs its acrobatics in the water, the speed of the line cuts his hand. His back is burned and he loses feeling in his left hand; the effect is similar to an electric shock. The surge of explosive energy combines temporary paralysis--"There was a moment when I could not find you" (78), he tells the hand--with heightened awareness. Santiago is pulled "down" (76), as he has been on other occasions, into a praying position. The word "friction" (77) is used to signify the electromagnetic power that fish can generate when they travel on what Hemingway in "Out in The Stream" calls "certain circuits" (BL 172).

Hemingway was probably aware of the Gulf Stream's electromagnetic properties, discussed by oceanographer Henry Chapin in his study of the Gulf Stream, The Ocean River. Co-authored with Frederick G.W. Smith and published by Charles Scribner's Sons (Hemingway's publisher) in 1952, the same year as The Old Man and the Sea, The Ocean River "gives a good picture of the state of understanding about the Stream in Hemingway's time," says Susan Beegel. "It's hard to imagine he was not aware of it," she adds, especially because Hemingway's library at the Finca shows he kept up with Chapin's work, owning a copy of a later book, The Sun, the Sea, and Tomorrow: Potential Sources of Food and Energy from the Sea (Brasch and Sigman item 6163) and subscribing to Sea Frontiers, a journal of oceanography begun by Chapin in 1954. Chapin's interest in electromagnetism and sea currents recurs throughout his writing. In The Ocean River he puts it thus:

   Currents of water in their passage through the salt water generate
   electricity, though in very small amounts.... Sea water, itself
   an electrical conductor, develops an electric current in its passage
   across the earth's magnetic field, and the greater the speed
   of the stream, the greater the electricity produced. (144).

Hemingway's apparent decision to experiment with the idea of an electric shock in The Old Man and the Sea invites us to consider the supernatural charge that water possesses in African religion. If Santiago is aware of this charge he doesn't let on. The fish shocks him and wakes him up but there is no spiritual awakening. Blood seeps from Santiago's hand and he immerses it in salt water to cleanse the wound. But in doing this, he misses once again an important opportunity to acknowledge the sea before the sharks arrive. In African Magic in Latin America, Migene Gonzalez-Wippler describes blood as an important offering given to the orishas to "replenish their powers." Blood offerings, he explains, are "the most important and indispensable" form of energy because they are "released" as "living energy' and, as such, able to nourish "the spiritual world" (Gonzalez-Wippler 200-1). Santiago's rinsing of his bleeding hand lacks devotion. With the hand "bled" ... clean" (OMATS 92), Santiago does not acknowledge the owners of fortune, Los Ibelli, the divine twins of Santeria, nor does he intend to propitiate the spiritual world with sacrificial blood. Later in the novella, the marlin's spilled blood will settle like a dark cloud in the sea and bring sharks, perhaps because it has not been returned to the sea with sacred intent--the traditional custom in Santeria--to "replenish" the energies lost with the death of the marlin and the discharge of electrical power (Martinez 34).

As the recipient of current, Santiago draws energy out of the water but prefers to recognise other "conductors" (Murphy 8). When he says that "it would be wonderful" to fish "with a radio" (OMATS 45), he signals his interest in networks of power and information that originate in the United States. His need to be stimulated by American broadcasts reassures him far more than Old World "circuits." The irony is considerable. Baseball, as expressed through the medium of the World Series, allows him to avoid any contact with Africa and its "human line of continuity with the past" (Murphy 9).

For Nadine Gordimer, Cuba and Africa have a shared "African bloodstream" and a relationship whose long history is based on "trade, ideas, values and culture" (7). In Santeria the "bloodstream" of the sea commemorates that relationship in ceremonies that dramatize "the moral ashe of the ancestors" and the powers the sea bestows on the orishas (Murphy n). The sea is a place of ceremonial instruction where the orishas "guide" and "admonish" as they see fit. In return, "the community of the present" can "look to the past for moral example" (Murphy 10). It is strange, therefore, that when Santiago takes a blow in the mouth and receives an indication that an offence has been committed, he is indifferent to the sign. The risk he takes in refusing to propitiate the orishas of the sea is close to willful.

At least Santiago is consistent throughout the novella. When he starts his journey he rows "out over that part of the ocean that the fisherman called the great well." The well goes to a depth of "seven hundred fathoms where all sorts of fish congregated because of the swirl of the current made against the steep walls of the floor of the ocean." The well is both oceanographic site and historical deposit where the "wandering fish" have fetched up, their journey shaped by a maritime process that belongs to an ancient world (OMATS 25). "The great well" has a special significance in Santeria. Migene Gonzalez-Wippler, in his book, The Santeria Experience, says that the presence of Yemaya is always much "stronger in very deep waters." In Santeria, "anything that falls within these waters is lost forever.... unless Yemaya is offered a prize in exchange for her bounty." Yemaya's "demands" are always "modest" and pennies or syrup or candles, for example, are normally "enough" to propitiate her. "The value of the gift" is always secondary to the particular "faith" that underlies it (Gonzalez-Wippler 8-9).

Santiago is not prepared to "please" Yemaya with simple gifts. The sea, to him, is whimsical. Its personality is lunar-"feminine," which makes "la mar" emotionally unstable. She kills the terns and sea swallows for no good reason and is inconsiderate to the small birds with their "sad voices" "who are made too delicately for the sea." She is "kind and very beautiful," but unpredictable and cruel. The sea's mind can not be fathomed. She "gave or withheld great favours," we are told, "and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them" (OMATS 26).

Santiago's sea is fickle, ruled by chance and "the wild or wicked things" (26). Because the sea is emotional it is best understood in references that imply control: Darwinism, baseball scores, bats, knives. Rather than fathom the ways of the sea by propitiating Eleggua (the trickster deity) or Chango (controller of force), Santiago describes the sea as a woman unable to help herself and indiscriminate in the way she chooses to bestow her "favours" (26). Ignoring the protection of Olokun, the orisha of sea depths in African folklore, Santiago subjects the sea to a mythology based on personal control. The problem is that the ability to dominate physically bears little relationship to the protection given the slaves who arrived on their terrible journey to the New World. Santiago's offense could not be worse. At moments of crisis, he purposely avoids the deep-sea gods and the help available from them through acts of propitiation.

In Hemingway's work, those who have offended the sea rarely escape its retribution. Like the orishas in Santeria, his sea is "fierce" and "generous," yet willing to "criticise the behaviour of the living and hold them to the highest moral standards," should they offend (Murphy 9). The sea has a moral and providential presence in the novel. Yet, at the end of his journey, Santiago is keen to exonerate himself. If the fish is lost, at least he has managed to kill "many sharks" and ruin "many others." If he has failed he has done so in an epic quest, one that allows him to live briefly in the shadow of Joe DiMaggio. If he goes "too far" outside the circle prescribed by DiMaggio it is only because, as he tells himself, baseball is his sustenance and he does not want to "think" beyond it (OMATS 106). Santiago shares DiMaggio's "pain"; his movements are restricted, his hands torn and bloodied from the fight. But he also emulates DiMaggio's strength. "Do you believe the great DiMaggio would stay with a fish as long as I will stay with this one?" he wonders--as if he has come of age in the Ligas and the galanos have become the Tigres of Detroit. Sometimes the fetishism knows no bounds: "I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly," he says a little earlier (64).

In The Old Man and the Sea, the quest for human perfectibility in baseball is not transferable to the spiritual landscape of the Caribbean. The popular idea of the stadium as a "church" where the primacy of Yankee life is affirmed by a theology of rules, scores, and batting averages, the play of demi-gods, and the papacy of managers like Adolph Luque, comes undone in a black Atlantic. Santiago worships America from afar. He can not attend Yankee Stadium or witness for himself the "sacred memory" of ceremonial space (Chidester 222). The way he worships is virtual yet all-consuming, the product of radio programs, magazine articles, newspapers, and the same kind of cultural diplomacy that all American governments have lent their support to since World War II.


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University of Wales, Swansea


(1.) The video of this interview, "A Day with Hemingway, A 'Sato' Cuban," was made available to the author in VHS format by Guidmar Venegas Delgado, c/o Cuban State Television., at the 10th International Ernest Hemingway Colloquium, Havana, Cuba, 23-25 May 2005.

(2.) One of the earliest uses of mythic tropes in a reading of The Old Man and the Sea can be found in a letter written by Malcolm Cowley to Ernest Hemingway on 3 August 1952 (quoted in Fuentes 391).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A155918659