Ernest Hemingway once hit out at critics who had analyzed his Nobel-prize winning The Old Man and the Sea:
“There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”
So was Papa right? After all, it can be argued, he wrote the novella. He is the maker, shouldn’t he know what he has put into his own writing? If he wanted the book to be loaded with symbols, he would have, correct? Who better to tell us what the text means?
And yet the insights of Freud and Lacan and others about how stuff in the unconscious can be manifested in unintended ways gives us pause. Some Freudian literary critics have tried viewing the text as the dream (the expression of the unconscious) and comparing it to the author’s biography (looking for links between the two).
When considering how what is in the mind of a writer is translated into the work, there are several layers. There is the personal experiences of the maker, everything that has happened and has been recorded by the mind, that may surface in different ways. Then there are the social and cultural images and ideas that have been implanted.
All of this ends up being transferred from the author to the page–whether or not the author is completely aware of what is happening.
The English author and mystery writer Dorothy Sayers has a marvelous little book, The Mind of the Maker, in which she compares the process of artistic creation with that of God’s relationship to man (through the Trinity). What is in God’s mind (the Word) is made real (in the Son) and is connected to man by the Holy Spirit. What is in the author’s mind (the Word) becomes real (the book or film) and is connected to the reader’s mind by the act of reading or watching.
So despite Hemingway’s protestations, it is very possible that there are deeper meanings in The Old Man and the Sea, some he intended (and is being disingenuous in denying) and others he did not intend.
And once released from the mind of the maker, and connected to the reader, the doctrine of free will suggests that the book takes on a life of its own.
Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders