Saturday, February 13, 2010

What the locust has eaten

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law,
do by nature things required by the law,
they are a law for themselves,
even though they do not have the law,
since they show that the requirements
of the law are written on their hearts,
their consciences also bearing witness,
and their thoughts now accusing,
now even defending them.

Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)

Ernest Hemingway carried his readers to far more places than most men witness in a lifetime, from war in the Pyrenees to the African Savannah. As he wrote of exotic places, he also wrote of human emotion and motivation. His characters appear real even though they are often privileged and self-obsessed. When I read Hemingway as a youth, I noticed how his tragic heroes, though they were flawed, were never the source of their own undoing. In Hemingway's universe, mere men may have been created equal but his protagonist's existence is altogether stellar, tragic, and accidentally so. Hemingway, it seems, would blame the sun for Icharus' destruction rather than holding Icharus to account for his ambition. We are most blinded by our own weaknesses, so the blindness of Hemingway's heroes makes them seem autobiographical. The reader is swallowed by the writer's pity for his broken creatures. We see their faults, but we sympathize with weaknesses we might otherwise revile because we recognize them as human.

Recently, it occurred to me to read "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" again. We searched the house for the book until we were satisfied that we no longer possessed it, and then Lisa checked it out from the local library. Hemingway begins his story on the last day of his protagonist's life. Harry knows he is dying. Although Harry has lived a bawdy and selfish life, he does not regret hurting people who trusted him as much as he regrets that he will never live to write about it all. He knows that he has eroded as a person, but he believes that by writing, he might redeem himself. As he drifts into unconsciousness, Harry's vignettes seem to be a catharsis of Hemingway's own unwritten memories and imaginations. As Harry comes to an end, his regrets fall short of remorse, and true to Hemingway's prose, Harry feels cheated.

In the preface of his story, Hemingway frames Kilimanjaro as "Ngàje Ngài," or the House of God. He writes, "Close to its western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude." If you have not read "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," its fewer-than-30 pages accelerate toward this summit and the answer to this riddle in ways the reader would not expect. It is well worth the read.

As I read the story again, I was stricken by the religious symbolism. Harry's demise begins with a scratch from a thorn bush: From Genesis 3 through Hebrews 6, thorns are a symbol of the curse of sin. Harry is merely scratched, and he does not understand the severity of his wound: likewise the deceptiveness of sin. By the time Harry knows he is badly infected, it is too late.

As Harry's leg succumbs to gangrene, it symbolizes the creeping moral decay of his life to the point where he is useless, feels nothing, and is repulsive to others. As a symbol, gangrene is powerful expression of self-loathing. Yet the imagery takes on religious overtones, as well. The Apostle Paul, speaking of his own sin, asks, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" Romans 7:24 (NIV) The prophet Isaiah quotes, the Lord, saying, "And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind." Isaiah 66:24 (NIV)

In the story, a hyena personifies death or the messenger of death. Likewise, Isaiah speaks of the destruction of Babylon saying,

Hyenas will howl in her strongholds,
jackals in her luxurious palaces.
Her time is at hand,
and her days will not be prolonged.

Isaiah 13:22 (NIV)

As Harry passes, he finds himself in a vision where he is flying above the savannah. He sees a vibrant earth lush, green, full of life symbolizing his past potential. In his vision, he sees "a new water he had never known of;" perhaps this is Hemingway's allusion to what might have been. As Harry continues climbing he sees clouds of locust symbolizing the erosion of all this potential and the squandering of his life. The prophet Joel wrote long before Hemingway,

What the gnawing locust has left,
the swarming locust has eaten;
and what the swarming locust has left,
the creeping locust has eaten;
and what the creeping locust has left,
the stripping locust has eaten.

Joel 1:4 (NASB)

In the end of his vision, Harry realizes he is approaching Kilimanjaro – the House of God – unrepentant and having already condemned himself by his own standards and expectations.

Some believe Kilimanjaro symbolizes the pinnacle of Harry's aspirations, and in a sense this is true. Yet Hemingway drew early attention to Ngàje Ngài, and so there must be an accounting. Harry, like the frozen leopard in the prologue, is unequipped to make the ascent into the House of God though he is drawn there in his vision by primordial impulse.

The heart of man was designed to fellowship with God. Yet hamartia both separates us from our Creator and causes us to fall short of our potential. The Apostle Paul wrote, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Paul also writes:

We will all stand before God's judgment seat. It is written:

"'As surely as I live,' says the Lord,
'every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.'

So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.
Romans 14:10-12 (NIV)

In this regard, Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" employs religious symbolism to speak universal truth.

Yet Paul carries us where Hemingway cannot. Paul tells us that although we fall short of God's glory, we "are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." Though Paul felt tormented by his wretchedness, asking, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" He answered his question, declaring, "Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!" The prophet Joel speaks of reconciliation to God saying,

Then I will make up to you for the years
That the swarming locust has eaten,
The creeping locust, the stripping locust and the gnawing locust,
My great army which I sent among you.

"You will have plenty to eat and be satisfied
And praise the name of the LORD your God,
Who has dealt wondrously with you;
Then My people will never be put to shame.

"Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel,
And that I am the LORD your God,
And there is no other;
And My people will never be put to shame . . .

. . . And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD
Will be delivered;
For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
There will be those who escape,
As the LORD has said,
Even among the survivors whom the LORD calls

Joel 2:25-27, 32 (NASB)


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