A not so clean, well lighted place

basement to an abandoned school, outing last march

…The principal argument, however, against attributing “Nothing” to the older waiter is in what Hemingway meant by contriving this line for the younger waiter. Bennett asserts that since the older waiter “knows and understands the ‘nothingness’ behind suicidal thoughts,” he “could not ‘stupidly’ ask ‘Why [did the old man try to commit suicide]?'” (115; see also 117). This distortion makes us think immediately of Hemingway’s suicide. We are still asking “Why?”–as Hemingway himself asked, more than once, about his father (Winner 228; Bell 339). In Darkness Visible William Styron concludes that clinical depression, even when it does not end in suicide, is an “all but impenetrable mystery” (77).[9] The older waiter’s persistent return to the question “Why?”–an effort to learn what may be known–reflects the compassionate, intelligent involvement behind his pursuit of the subject–“How did he do it?,” “Why did they do it [cut him down]?” (emphasis added). But the more important mistake in Bennett’s distortion here is his failure to realize that the older waiter neither says nor implies that “nada,” as he defines it, causes suicide. His monologue laments the loss of the traditional image of a fatherly God; what it says is what Freud says in The Future of an Illusion (had Hemingway read it?), though Freud, arguing, like the waiter, “light was all it needed,” exhibits rather more confidence in the cafe he had opened. In this- context, “a man was nothing too” has two meanings, which Hemingway, with grim humor, had recently explained in “A Natural History of the Dead,” puncturing the rhetoric of Mungo Park: our individual survival means nothing to the universe, and what happens to an untended corpse ridicules our exalting ourselves above natural law. No more than Hemingway there does the waiter here connect this atheism with suicide. Rather, he is raising the question, What are we (the human race), now that the God who marks the sparrow’s fall is gone and we are no longer immortal? The answer, “a man was nothing too,” means we are only another kind of animal, so that our “place” now is merely a refuge, a sort of wildlife sanctuary, like the cafe for the old man. The symbolic meaning of this refuge is not the older waiter’s–he is too modest (“it is probably only insomnia”); behind him, it is Hemingway who is suggesting that religion–and every other kind of home we carve for ourselves out of this harsh cosmos that doesn’t know we are here–is no more than such a refuge….

~David Kernel, Studies in Short Fiction, Fall 1992 Vol. 29 Issue 4, p561, 14p



One thought on “A not so clean, well lighted place

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5  +    =  12