Sometimes a work of literature is so strange and powerful and mysterious that the best I can do is put it in the middle of the classroom and lead my students as we circle it in wonder. That's what happened this morning when my Concepts of Nature class discussed Ernest Hemingway's short story "Indian Camp."
We've just been talking about poets who guide readers toward a particular element of nature in order to extract moral lessons. Hemingway's story also provides a nature guide: the father who leads his very young son into the woods to expose him to one of the wonders of nature, except instead of having a kum ba yah moment or joining hands to sing about the circle of life, the boy watches his father using a jack-knife and fishing line to perform a Caesarian section without anesthesia.
"Her screams are not important," says the father. "I don't hear them because they are not important."
The boy hears the screams and sees the blood and gore and he does what any small boy would do: he looks away, refuses the knowledge of messy natural processes, but he can't avoiding seeing the corpse of the man who slits his own throat rather than endure the woman's screams.
(Cue "The Circle of Life.")
Birth and death are part of the same cycle, so why does the father want to show his son one natural process but shield him from the other? What kind of father takes his small son to observe a C-section performed without anesthesia? How did the mother feel about having a boy in the audience? And what possible lesson did the father hope to teach his son?
At the end the boy joins his father in a canoe on the lake, with the sun coming up and the fish jumping and the water warming the boy's cold hand, and "he felt quite sure that he would never die." Probably not the lesson the father intended.
And what about us? We circle the story; we hear the screams; we see what we can see, but then we turn away, some in wonder, some in disgust, unsure of exactly what we have just witnessed. The circle of life may be amazing, but sometimes it just ain't pretty.