In So Many Words

Brad Leithauser considers the power of sparse verbiage in literature. He takes Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as an example:

His hero, the aged fisherman Santiago, was once a figure of legendary prowess and strength up and down the coast of Cuba. … Santiago is also, explicitly, a Christ figure, and the sea he journeys on is saline as well as, potentially, salvational; he sails the waterways of the human soul. Of course, Hemingway understood that linking Santiago and Jesus would irk readers. Some critics lambasted him for heavy-handedness, or even for blasphemy. Still, Hemingway, showing his typical belligerence toward critics, wrote the following sentence to describe the moment when Santiago makes a sound—“Ay”—as marauding sharks arrive to feast on the fish that Santiago has so painfully, miraculously secured: “There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.” You can almost hear the author declaring “And screw you …” to his critics as he set the words down.

And you can hear something else, far nobler. For this is the moment of the book’s greatest daring. It’s what might be called the incarnational instant, the one in which Santiago enters the body of Christ, or Christ the body of Santiago, and the divine flesh gasps, as it did on the Cross, at the agony and the betrayal of earthly existence. I first read the sentence in my teens, and still recall self-defensively closing my hands as the words struck home.