Gabriel Garcia Marquez v. Hegel, Hume and Burke

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”: Marquez meets Hegel, Hume, & Burke
by C.H. Newell

In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the titular old man is received as an oddity in the town where he washes ashore.  The townspeople lock the man up in a chicken coop, judge him based on his strange appearance, and eventually the character Elisenda makes money off him by charging people to see the “flesh-and-blood angel” (Marquez 420).  In locking the old man up, the townspeople display a lack of total self-consciousness in that Hegel describes it as recognizing both the consciousness of oneself and that of others.  Their subsequent unfair judgement of the man in determining whether or not he is an angel, despite a lack of communication, is reminiscent of David Hume depicting beauty and deformity not as qualities in things perceived, but instead as qualities in those using their perception.  Finally, even after Elisenda has made money off the old man, she is resentful of having him around and is relieved to see him fly away, which calls to mind Edmund Burke’s descriptions of pain and pleasure.  Applying these three theorists to Marquez’s story, the townspeople represent an overall human fear of otherness.  Their treatment of the old man is as an absolute other, using him only to their gain, as well as the fact Elisenda is relieved to see him go even after her financial gain.  Even further, the parallel between the old man and the sick child of Elisenda and Pelayo suggests a socially constructed difference between the other who is young versus one who is old.

At first when Pelayo discovers the old man laying in the courtyard and fetches Elisenda, they “overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar” (Marquez 419).  This sense of recognition is a direct link to Hegel.  Once they get past a sense of shock seeing this old man with his enormous wings, Elisenda and Pelayo do recognize him as “familiar”.  In other words, after a few moments the old man is no longer an “unessential, negatively characterized object” (Hegel 631).  Even once the old man talks to them in an “incomprehensible dialect” they still recognize it in familiar terms as having the tone of a “strong sailor’s voice” (Marquez 419).  Therefore, Elisenda and Pelayo, though unsure of his origins, recognize the old man now as similar to themselves.  However, the townspeople become involved and a neighbour woman dubs the old man as an angel.  The old man now is no longer a “we” to the couple or the people of the town.  His status as other is reaffirmed.  By caging the old man in the chicken coop, the town as a whole acts only “for itself but [not] for another” (Hegel 633), which is conditional for self-consciousness.  Rejecting the old man does not simply cast him as the other, it also affects the town and the people itself by degrading their own consciousness.  When the debate becomes about whether or not the old man truly is angel, Marquez’s story moves into the realm of Hume and his conception of beauty and deformity.

After the neighbour woman tells Elisenda and Pelayo the old man is an angel, she also says “[h]e must have been coming for the child” (Marquez 419).  Regardless of his status as angel, the otherness is still present and in this sense comes as a deformity; the role of an angel is meant to be holy, though, Marquez presents it in the mouth of the neighbour woman as almost perverse.  David Hume describes “beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter… not [as] qualities in objects, but belong[ing] entirely to the sentiment” (491).  Despite Hume’s belief that there are “certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings” (491), the beauty or deformity of something perceived is in the eye of the beholder.  Such is the case in “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”.  The old man is by all accounts in “pitiful condition” (Marquez 419).  At the same time, the townspeople judge him according to foolish and unfair conditions.  For instance, the priest is reluctant to call the old man an angel and sees him as an “impostor” because he did not “understand the language of God” after being spoken to in Latin (Marquez 420).  On the contrary, he does not think to speak to the old man in Greek perhaps.  In this case it is obvious the town, specifically the priest here is only interested in judging the old man according to their own “pretensions” and what “pleases or displeases” them (Hume 491).  They could not even be bothered to make sure he is understood before throwing him in a coop, subjecting him to judgement and what essentially amounts to public humiliation.  Moreover, after Elisenda and Pelayo begin to profit off the old man as a sort of freak show oddity he ends up becoming a burden to them, taking away the pleasure in their lives.

Once they start to charge money for people to see the old man, billed as an angel, Elisenda and Pelayo “had crammed their rooms with money” and had a “line of pilgrims waiting their turn to enter… reach[ing] beyond the horizon” (Marquez 421).  While most people would be pleased, the couple do not return much kindness to the old man in gratitude for their financial windfall.  Edmund Burke writes that “[p]leasure of every kind quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference” (456).  Once the good weather passes and other attractions such as a “woman who had been changed into a spider” (Marquez 422) come to town, Elisenda and Pelayo become indifferent to the old angel.  He does not even get invited into the house, but is viewed as a charity case after Pelayo drapes him with a blanket and lets him “sleep in the shed” (Marquez 423).  Later the old man is “in so many places at the same time” and makes the couple’s life into a “hell full of angels” (Marquez 423).  Finally, once the old man flies away at the end Elisenda “lets out a sigh of relief” (Marquez 423).  This process is very much like Burke’s explanation of positive pleasure.  Elisenda is relieved after the old man’s presence has “run its career” and their life is set “down very nearly” where the old man found them in the first place (Burke 456).  On one hand, Elisenda’s reaction to the old man departing their home is positive as her sigh of relief was also “for him” (Marquez 423).  On the other hand, Elisenda does not derive her pleasure from “a removal of pain or danger” (Burke 456).  Elisenda experiences “delight” from the removal of pain (Burke 457) out of simple selfishness and not wanting the old man as an “annoyance in her life” (Marquez 423).  At the same time, the sick child Elisenda and Pelayo worried about in the beginning of the story is no longer an issue, whereas the sick old man has taken precedence.  This suggests that their personal pain was alleviated by focusing on the old man, as well as that caring for the old versus the young is more of a burden.  Although the child belongs to Elisenda and Pelayo, the entire town could have cared for the old man.  Instead, Elisenda and Pelayo keep the old man in a chicken coop, then in the shed, and later find him annoying after he is in their home.  Whereas the sick child does not appear any more as a burden, the old man who happens to get better in the end is seen as an “indifferent” other who causes only “grief” (Burke 457) even though he technically contributes to the familial economy.  Burke’s description of how we experience pain and pleasure is illustrated well by Marquez through Elisenda and her indifferent reaction as the old man heals, becoming more active then eventually leaving.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” demonstrates the indifference and at times cold treatment of a town towards an old sickly man with large wings protruding from his back.  In the beginning, the old man is recognized in a familiar sense.  However, this quickly changes once the entire town becomes aware.  At first they question his status as an angel, and whether or not he is worthy of being called one of God’s own creatures.  Then the old man is locked up and later used as a commodity of entertainment for the townspeople.  By the end, the “flesh-and-blood angel” (Marquez 420) is treated like a leper, left out in the coop then in the shed, and the town is glad to see him disappear into only an “imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea” (Marquez 423).  Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness as socially constructed presents the townspeople as rejecting their own self-consciousness by denying the old man his own after locking him up.  Even more, once the town subjects the old man to judgement over his status as an angel they determine his beauty and deformity in similar terms as David Hume.  Lastly, when Elisenda sighs in relief to have the annoyance out of her life, she expresses the indifference, joy and grief inherent in our passions as described by Edmund Burke.  These three theorists in conjunction with “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” produce a reading of Marquez which points to the human tendency to treat people different from ourselves as an ‘other’.  More than that, the lessons in Marquez’s story teach us that the judgement of others as different and as ‘other’ do not extend from them, but rather these judgements come from within us and emerge from a point of ‘I’ instead of ‘we’.  Like the townspeople of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”, often our society labels the different, the old, and many times the sick as ‘other’.  We experience them through our own pain and pleasure, which ultimately informs how we see them.

Works Cited

Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

David Hume’s Of the Standard of Taste