Today before posting my ‘crackaccino and prose’ banner and having at it, I decided to re-read Hemingway’s A Clean, Well Lighted Place. I’ve been pondering Hemingway lately; I’ve been pondering him as a life-long and beloved antipode. I am a bit of a medievalist, though a highly atypical medievalist in my thinking and it shows in my prose. I say atypical because what I share with my antipode is a stark anti-mysticism. Unlike Tolkien and Lewis, I cannot romanticize chivalry, but rather see it as the first brainwashing the weak succeeded in throwing upon the strong. Do not make assumptions about who I deem weak and who strong. I am talking about the kind of strength Dickens gives Molly in Great Expectations, when the young men are foolishly flexing their muscles, when Jaggers talks about her hands, the scarred hands of a maid. It is not only that she killed, but the tedium of her work, that gives her strength.
Hemingway puts this at stake in A Clean Well Lighted Place. The young working waiter grows frustrated with the old man because of his work, impatience, and need for sleep (here I digress again—I take shots at Hemingway because he can take it. Were he alive and taking this to his face I am sure he would be giving it back and making it painful. That’s fine. I’ve tangled with bigger bouncers than him, taken the heat, given as much as I got, and come away on my feet. A gristly hippy is something to be). But I do not dismiss Hemingway—friends close, enemies closer, I take his point—the young waiter who wants to go home is not in the end faulted over his work, but his inability to value reflection. Hemingway is writing about someone who experienced war, but it is not this alone which defines what is heroic in the story.
Instead, it is a circumstance that Hemingway is calling heroic—a situation. For a “clean, well lighted place”, a place that is “bright” within the story’s symbolism does not mean an antiseptic place. It does not mean one needs a fluorescent light and a white table, a trim lawn and a bright sun. The shadows the leaves cast across the café matter supremely, and the café lamp gathers its brightness not from wattage, but contrast.
Hemingway is calling heroic that which glows in despite and does not necessarily condemn the darkness. This can only happen under the right conditions. The older waiter, also a worker, but not hurrying to bed, understands this. The prayer to nada/nothing toward the end of the story is significant certainly, but subordinate to the theme of ‘right conditions for reflection’. It is an individual’s conclusion (and, incidentally, it is the type of Hemingwayesque conclusion from which I diverge. A certain type of medievalist diverges at the satire of the church and Lord’s Prayer, because said medievalist looks at a time when that artifice was in its infancy along with its horror, and looks to a material something that may have existed before, that ironically, Hemingway appears to generally efface).
But for the accurate outline of the right situation for a certain type of reflection, that clean, well lighted place, that set of possibilities and conditions—as say, the way an overcast sky and the smell of rain drifts across a kitchen table—for that I thank my antipode, toast him with a black coffee, and get to work.