True at First Light Themes

Themes

The theme at the very heart of Hemingway's African pilgrimage centers on matters of religion. Religious motifs and images are so pervasive that the subject should be allotted much more than the brief space allowed here for such analysis. Statistical survey of key passages and allusions dealing with religion reveals at least 85 such occurrences. Likewise, references to the marijuana- effect Christmas Tree that Miss Mary quests for so assiduously amount to more than 30. And there are many references to the "Birthday of the Baby Jesus" and other formulations, some serious, some hilarious, involving the words "Baby Jesus"—e.g., when they go to dig up the magic Christmas Tree, Hemingway says they are "working for the Forestry Department of Our Lord, the Baby Jesus." There are dozens of such "Baby Jesus" references; and there are dozens of citations of the Mountain-God Kilimanjaro. As Sports Illustrated noted long ago, when it published portions of this manuscript in 1971-72, religion comes up "repeatedly, often in a humorous connotation; but at heart it [is] no laughing matter." Some Hemingway commentators have found that the weakest part of the book is Hemingway's new religious mythology, and dismissed it as humor, as comic play, that diminishes the effect of the work. But they have missed the point; as is always the case with Hemingway, religion is a serious matter. Hemingway did not go to Africa, and Pilgrims do not make pilgrimages, just for laughs.

In any case, there are, no doubt, dissertations, essays, and books already in progress on Hemingway's "New Religion" in True at First Light. Some of these studies will most likely see the "new religion" as a rejection of Christianity, or as Hemingway's farewell to Catholicism, which had informed his life and work since his conversion to Catholicism when he was a teenager. Other studies of the question may be sophisticated enough, it is to be hoped, to recognize that Hemingway's vision of Catholicism in relation to his African tribal religion is subsumptive, that beneath all the comic play with religion, there is a syncretic religious thesis at work, a syncretistic drive to reconcile, to localize and thus truly universalize his fundamental Catholic beliefs.

Under the rubric of syncretism True at First Light might seem to some students of Church history to be an adumbration of post-Vatican Two trends, and Hemingway might be seen as a kind of forerunner, a prophet of ecumenical inclusiveness and new modalities of worship. Here, for example, is Papa describing what Mary calls "Papa's religion": "We retain the best of various other sects and tribal law and customs. But we weld them into a whole that all can believe." All on one page "Papa's religion" is described as a "new religion," as a "frightfully old religion," as a religion that Papa makes "more complicated every day," and as a "revealed" religion rooted in Papa's "early visions." Whatever is serious, whatever is jocular, one theme remains constant: the syncretistic drive to reconcile the local and the universal.

Yet, in spite of all the syncretistic emphasis, Catholic themes familiar from Hemingway's earlier work persist—such as the rejection of certain aspects of Protestantism. For example, one rather unpleasant character who wants to convert to Hemingway's "new religion" is a Protestant, educated by Protestant missionaries. Hemingway notes that he has "strong black shoes to prove his Christianity." He tells Hemingway he is not Catholic. Hemingway replies: "I thought you were not of that faith from the shoes." The Protestant says: "We have many things in common with the Catholic faith but we do not worship images." "Too bad," Hemingway says. "There are many great images." When this character, renamed Peter by Hemingway, wants to convert, he will have to take off his Protestant shoes and learn to appreciate images. Later, when he tells Hemingway proudly that he never speaks "of the Baby Jesus except with contempt," Hemingway warns him: "We may need the Baby Jesus. Never speak of him with disrespect." And what else would Papa say, in a book that tends toward Christmas and the "Baby Jesus" on every other page?

There is much more in the religious design—throw in Gitchy Manitou, the Great Spirit, the Happy Hunting Grounds, add sacred trees and mountains and African religious ceremonies, animistic and Muslim references, meditations on the soul, pilgrimage allusions involving Rome, Mecca, and Santiago de Compostela, and the reader will have some notion of how rich the religious mix is. But readers who have not studied the omitted portions of the manuscript should tread cautiously before drawing firm conclusions about this serio-comic melange, and should remember also that Hemingway is always serious about religion, which is precisely why he jokes about it. Never preachy, True at First Light rides on the syntax of spirituality, moves in religious rhythms that alternate between mystical meditation and epiphanic moments and the self-deprecatory mockery of Papa, leader of the "new religion."

One striking example may be seen in the sequence of movements that begins with the death of Mary's lion. First, there is ceremonial drinking; then, Hemingway writes, "I drank and then lay down by the lion ... and begged...

(The entire section is 2157 words.)