Thursday, August 10, 2006

Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

For creating tremendous pathos in an economy of words, Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is almost ideal. Read the short story here.

Hemingway had a passion to boil all of life down into its simplest meaning and his short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" may be his best attempt.

It's about an old man and two waiters in a sidewalk cafe. The old, deaf man is sitting alone and drinking brandy in the moving shadows cast by tree leaves in the bright cafe light. It is very late at night, far past closing. The young waiter comments "an old man is a nasty thing," forgetting that he, too, someday will be old. The young waiter wants to get home to his wife. The older waiter understands the old man who sits and drinks away his insomnia, willing to stay until the old man leaves.

The light, the darkness; the young, the old; those at home asleep, those who can't sleep; the day, the night; the lonely, the very lonely. What is life?

The part of the story that grips me is Hemingway's description of the older waiter's understanding of the old man. The sheer emptiness of Hemingway's view of life is caught in his rendition of the "Our Father" or "The Lord's Prayer." Hemingway writes,

"Good night," said the younger waiter.
"Good night," the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and light. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was already nada y pues nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

My heart grieves at the phrases: "...a man was a nothing too..." and "...but deliver us from nada" and "Hail nothing full of nothing... ." Hemingway saw way too much evil and destruction in life and it eroded away any belief in God. I like Hemingway because he vividly writes about life "out of Eden." Hemingway describes, to use Scot McKnight's phrase, "cracked Eikons" better than any theologian ever has.

Larry Crabb writes that "no one will conclude that 'God is good' by examining life." Hemingway would agree.

Read the short story and comment.


At 8/10/2006 8:25 PM, Anonymous David said...

I read both texts of yesterday and today. Hemmingway really understood life. He understood life in its rawness and mystery and in its savagery. Without God we are hopeless. I think as church goers sometimes though I miss life. I take the Happy Meal approach, easy, convenient,pre packaged and not that expensive. Not that nutritious but not bad overall. I have settled for the acceptable life. Hemmingway was brutally honest. There is something deeply unsettling when you read him. There is a tragic undertone. Like a man describing the powerful forces of being swept out to sea in an undertow......the fear,the desperation and the panic......he lets us glimpse into his reality. Thanks for the articles. Now that I think about it the acceptable life is really luke warm and I dont think God is happy with Happy Meal Christianity. It gives his Son a bad name.

At 8/10/2006 10:26 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

I agree that we can "taste and see that the Lord is good," but that is definitely not a "happy meal." More like a "holiness meal." Thanks for your thoughts.

At 8/11/2006 6:01 AM, Blogger Jim Martin said...

I will have to read the text later today but just wanted to thank you for this post. Hemmingway's words are so raw and stark--and real. Makes me want to read him.

At 8/11/2006 6:33 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

I'm far from being a Hemingway expert, but his innovative writing style was (and is still) captivating.

At 8/11/2006 11:45 AM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

Thanks John.

At 8/11/2006 7:14 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

My pleasure, bro.'

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