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Beyond A Clean, Well-Lighted Place: Absence as Evidence

By Bryce Crandall

Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” is littered with the horrors of loneliness, like a slow-burn thriller but without the catharsis of a powerful conclusion. The aches of loneliness and existential desperation are revealed subtly—almost brutal in their subtlety.

A brief recap of one of Hemingway’s most famous and analyzed short stories: a wealthy old man frequents a bar, drinking alone nightly to combat his despair over the nothingness he sees in his existence. As two waiters, one younger and one older, wait out the old man’s nightly ritual to close the bar, they converse plainly about his state of affairs. According to the young waiter, he has money; therefore, he has no need to despair let alone commit suicide, which he attempted the week prior. The young waiter grows impatient with this “nasty old man” and his non-problem, as he is eager to close the bar and go home to his wife. The older waiter recognizes the symptoms of a despair of nothingness and has a certain understanding of what the old man is doing. There is a certain need for a clean, well-lighted place to go to. The older waiter is willing to keep the cafe open, knowing the need for something to combat the nothingness and darkness that can otherwise swallow a man into itself. Soon, the older waiter will close up the bar and head off to his own place, a bodega nearby, to keep the nothingness at bay until daybreak when he can sleep.

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 all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada [...] Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine [...] He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.

In classic Hemingway fashion, the story is laid bare and there is room to wrestle with what is there. There is evidence that Hemingway’s conversion to Catholicism at a young age was not purely for marriage, as Fordham professor Angela Alaimo O’Donnell highlights some of Hemingway’s Catholic identity in her article, “Hemingway’s Dark Night of the Soul.” In fact, there is plenty to say he practiced to some degree, though he struggled mightily and even called himself “a very dumb Catholic” in a letter to his parish priest. The parody prayers of the older waiter that conclude the story let this struggle spill out into the world, and provoke us to answer for ourselves: do we exist in a vast nothingness or an eternal Something?

If out there is only nothingness, then what is this desire that wants a profound something? One that neither the believer nor the non-believer can extinguish entirely, but at best can only subdue with a clean, well-lighted place? In the poem, “Evening Land (Aftonland),” Swedish Nobel-winning writer Pär Lagerkvist examines another side of this despair of nothingness:

My friend is a stranger, someone I do not know. A stranger far far away. For his sake my heart is full of disquiet because he is not with me Because, perhaps, after all he does not exist. Who are you who so fill my heart with your absence? Who fill the entire world with your absence? You who existed before the mountains and the clouds, before the sea and the winds. You whose beginning is before the beginning of all things, and whose joy and sorrow are older than the stars. You who from eternity have wandered among the stars of the Milky Way and through the great darknesses between them. You who were alone before loneliness, and whose heart was full of disquiet before any human heart do not forget me […]

The despair of nothingness is in fact evidence of something. The absence of water produces thirst. The absence of food produces hunger. The unquenchable longing for truth, justice, beauty, unity, and love produces despair. Why is there some correspondence to everything but the longing for God? Again, examining the theme of desire as possible evidence, Lagerkvist poses:

[…] If you believe in god and no god exists
then your belief is an even greater wonder
Then it is really something inconceivably great.
Why should a being lie down there in the darkness crying to
someone who does not exist?
Why should that be?
There is no one who hears when someone cries in the darkness.
But why does that cry exist?

Any psychological or biological reasons that attempt to dismiss this cry falls inadequate, in the same sense that nothing fully explains why there is something rather than nothing. Especially in matters of the heart–longing, desire, satisfaction. To live with the assumption that fulfillment of these things is not possible is despair. Philip Larkin also has us look at the despair of nothingness in his poem, “Aubade”:

[...] But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round [...]

A brutally honest depiction of the reality of despair being this: “no sight, no sound/No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with/Nothing to love or link with/The anaesthetic from which none come round.” This is a strikingly honest and poetic perspective of existence as the atheist sees it. Most people are scared to talk this way. Others are embarrassed to say the word “heaven.” So rarely, it seems, do we discuss, or perhaps, even let ourselves think about death. “Religion used to try.” Does it still? Is memento mori insulting to the modern man?

It seems that the child is all too ready to ask and hear about heaven and hell. The adult grows more cautious in such discussions. Even among professed Catholics, talk about heaven seems a little rare for what an astounding promise it is. Certainly, there are many reasons this might be the case, as what can one really say right now? For of course, “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). And rightly so, we have not arrived. We are on our journey, conforming, converting, becoming. However, by no means is the Catholic immune from the despair of nothingness. It is easy to slip from the silence of God to the dread of nothingness, or back into the noise of modern existence, with just enough distractions to keep one from parking himself in front of that question: Who are you that fill my heart with your absence?

In 1983, the celebrated Southern Catholic writer Walker Percy wrote a satirical self-help book, drawing readers in with his usual charm and wit, but leading us to serious questions on life’s meaning and the uniqueness of our existence. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book explores our place in the universe, making us look at those things that make us human. Percy is not afraid to make us look at those things that we’d rather just not bother with:

Why is it that the look of another person looking at you is different from everything else in the Cosmos? That is to say, looking at lions or tigers or Saturn or the Ring Nebula or at an owl or at another person from the side is one thing, but finding yourself looking in the eyes of another person looking at you is something else. And why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?

Why is it so hard to truly be in the recognition of another? Fully in the presence of another? Does it take me out of the TV show of which I’m the star? Whether it’s a comedy or tragedy or whatever, at least I’m the star. But like Truman Burbank, the lead character in the film The Truman Show, whose life, unbeknownst to him, is one big staged reality TV series, don't I eventually catch on at some point, don’t I catch on to what I maybe always knew was true? My little world cannot actually be all there is. My show has grown tired. Walker Percy lays out the existential pattern that fluctuates between the mundane and transcendence.

Like Truman and Lagerkvist, if I’m told there’s nothing more, then why do I want something more? Percy cites Mother Teresa’s observation, that wealthy Westerns suffer from a great spiritual poverty. “The impoverishment of the immanent self derives from a perceived loss of sovereignty to ‘them,’ the transcending scientists and experts of society. As a consequence, the self sees its only recourse as an endless round of work, diversion, and consumption of goods and services.” Over and over the cycle goes, hit the mark just enough to buy into another round. This is life, I guess? “Failing this and having some inkling of its plight, it sees no way out because it has come to see itself as an organism in an environment and so can’t understand why it feels so bad in the best of all possible environments.” Like Voltaire’s Pangloss in Candide, stubbornly saying this is the best of all possible worlds, this is it, cultivate that garden and mute your heart when it gets too loud, why then does Hemingway’s old man drink alone, mocking a God he doesn’t believe is there to fight off a crushing despair?

Percy explores the desire for transcendence, the exhilarating encounter with truth and beauty, wonder and awe, as can be touched in various human experiences and vocations, but cannot seem to sustain itself. The modern person, Percy outlines, has a handful of options we tend to use to ease the fall back into the world, which he calls the problem of reentry. The fact that the options exist and are frequently utilized reveals that our hearts cannot help but desire and seek transcendence, even in the mundane. He poses, “How do you go about living in the world when you are not working at your art, yet still find yourself having to get through a Wednesday afternoon?” In general, the options look like this according to Percy:

Options of reentry into such a world are: (1) reentry uneventful and intact [the everyday and transcendent coexist–rare], (2) reentry accomplished through anesthesia [e.g. alcohol], (3) reentry accomplished by travel [to move and move some more, e.g. Hemingway and Kerouac], (4) reentry accomplished by travel [sexual], (5) reentry by return [turn around and go home–hometown], (6) reentry by disguise [play another part until it becomes true, e.g. urban cowboy might become a real cowboy], (7) reentry by Eastern window [self-negation, Eastern religions], (8) reentry refused, exitus into deep space [suicide], (9) reentry deferred [withdraw, hermitage], (10) reentry by sponsorship [life before and for God], (11) reentry by assault [activist or “lonely radical”]

Percy asks us to score ourselves based on how attractive each option presents itself as. Put in your own 21st-century items under one of the categories, and feel free to spend some time scoring yourself, but the focus here is on option 10 (conversion):

Reentry under the direct sponsorship of God. It is theoretically possible, if practically extremely difficult, to re-enter the world and become an intact self through the reentry mode Kierkegaard described when he noted that “the self can only become itself if it does so transparently before God.” This is in fact, according to both Kierkegaard and Pascal, the only viable mode of reentry, the others being snares and delusions.

The old man at the counter of that clean, well-lighted place has chosen anesthesia, among other things; for instance, a failed attempt at option 8, reentry refused (suicide). He shares Larkin’s “special way of being afraid,” that “No trick dispels. Religion used to try,” as he mocks a hole through the words that were supposed to give him comfort. One cannot concoct an encounter with the transcendent, but that is what’s needed. Not a form of reentry to keep away the despair of nothingness, but a vulnerable heart and a will to be humbled, corrected, wrong, embraced, shown mercy, restored before the One who gave you the very desire for the transcendent and fullness in heart to begin with.

Despair darkens possibilities and wants mostly to remain in itself, crushed by the weight of nothingness, but strangely comforted in being subject to nothing by one’s own despair, a familiar horror that one understands well. The world is limited to one’s understanding. It is bleak, as Larkin so brutally and poetically lays out, but it is at least my own. For Søren Kierkegaard, in his classic philosophical work, The Sickness Unto Death, this is edging closer to faith in a way:

The decisive thing is, that for God all things are possible. This is eternally true, and true therefore every instant. This is commonly enough recognized in a way, and in a way it is commonly affirmed; but the decisive affirmation comes only when a man is brought to the utmost extremity, so that humanly speaking no possibility exists. Then the question is whether he will believe that for God all things are possible—that is to say, whether he will believe. But this is completely the formula for losing one's mind or understanding; to believe is precisely to lose one's understanding in order to win God.

To reach the end of one’s own understanding, to finally turn outward from oneself, beyond the world and the cosmos, and ask with Lagerkvist, “Who are you that fill my heart with your absence? Who fill the entire world with your absence?”; that is really the beginning of faith. This becomes the most honest position, the only one that lets the Mystery remain a possibility and places itself before it. As Kierkegaard continues, “The opposite of being in despair is believing;[...] by relating itself to its own self, and by willing to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the Power which constituted it.” This is the turnabout that allows one to confront those desires, the ones that frustrate us because they seem to impossibly desire the infinite, is the first step out of despair.

The old man keeping his despair at bay in the diner should not begrudgingly and forcefully mumble through the proper words of the prescribed prayers as an anaesthetic. He should fall to his knees with all his despair and a vulnerable heart that allows the infinite Mystery to penetrate his being, even for a moment. He needs to allow himself to recognize that profoundly simple premise, that he did not create himself, and that his loneliness is a sign of his detachment from and longing for his Creator. The existential response is to allow room for and to stay in front of this Presence. The one that starts to salve the painful longing of the heart that absence wounds. He needs to sit in the Silence, which is indeed something. To slow down enough to listen, to quiet the nada nadas, and hear that the beating of his heart is an echo of the voice of Him who responds to his cry.

Bryce Crandall has been in Catholic education for over 12 years as a Theology teacher, counselor, coach, and school administrator. He has upcoming work in The Catechetical Review, and writes at the Patheos column: Grace Is Everywhere. He currently resides in Northern California with his wife and four young children, who are teaching him how to dance.


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