It’s the little blinking red light on the dashboard signaling a hiccup in the system. It’s the bridge that collapses under the weight of all the gears churning inside your head. More specifically, it’s the blank look on your face right now asking me what the hell I’m talking about. I suppose now would be more than appropriate — actually, necessary — to clarify what I am describing here, or better yet, what I have been meaning to say thus far. But the very question of what I mean necessitates more than just a response to what I am describing. It also requires communicating my description of something in a way to which others can relate. In other words, what does it mean to get everyone on the same page of something I am describing?
What we end up with are two questions: one, what does it mean when we describe something and what does it mean to translate that description to others? That is to say, what are we really doing when we describe, label, or categorize something as is? We might say we are making a judgment or taking a perspective on an object of interest. Thus, for some, an object of interest may appear a certain way, and for others, that same object may appear in a different way. But how are we to reconcile all the various descriptions, judgments, and perspectives? Is it still the object of interest with which we are really concerned? Or could our very descriptions, our language, and the words we use to somehow encapsulate the object of interest be the actual crux of the matter here?
What emerges from these questions is a divide between language and the objects that language supposedly represents via descriptions, labels, and categories, or simply put, words. And these words, of which we use an innumerable amount and in countless combinations, seem to jeopardize our grasp of the actual object in its essence, or the truth. It is like what Nietzsche says, “With words it is never a question of truth” (116). Our conversations end up being only conversations about our language. So that when one fails to follow the language of what the other is trying to say, it is not the object of the conversation that is obscure, but the colored, contextualized, presupposing, and goal-oriented words we use. And to get lost in the heavily assuming language we use might make us come to a full stop, flashing our little red lights, to show that the language we encounter problematically jars with our own. Or we might try to wrestle with that incongruity, pushing our minds to rebuild the broken bridge between the language we use to describe objects and the languages others use to describe the same object.
Hemingway makes so vivid this idea that every conversation is essentially just us conversing with language about language in his short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” The story stars two waiters who are preparing to close their cafe for the night but are stuck with their last customer — a deaf old man slightly drunk from all his orders of brandy. The waiters exchange many words about this old man as they wait for him to finally pay and leave. Much of the dialogue is written without the conventional “he said,” “she said” labels before or after every verbal piece, so it is often ambiguous as to which of the two waiters is actually speaking. But it turns out that those labels aren’t necessary given that the waiters are marked by their different languages. And by languages, I don’t mean Spanish versus Russian or Bostonian dialect versus Californian dialect. I mean the language that betrays the speaker’s underlying assumptions, motivations, and background, which all in turn shape the way they understand and describe objects.
Hemingway assigns each character a role in this conversation about conversation. We’ve already established that the interlocutors are the two waiters who each speak through their respective colored glasses of reality. But the deaf old man also demands our attention for being two things: deaf and the subject of the waiters’ conversations. The first exchange between the two waiters brings to light the role that deafness plays in this conversation about conversation:
“Last week he [the deaf old man] tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.
“He was in despair.”
“How do you know it was nothing?”
“He has plenty of money.” (Hemingway)
Unable to hear, the old deaf man cannot answer for any of the questions and assumptions the two waiters make about a recent event that supposedly occurred in his life: his attempted suicide. He is like the silent universe that is inevitably mum about the truth, so to speak, to all those who inquire by poking and prodding for the truth. In this way, the deaf old man is the object whose truth will not be known regardless of how much the waiters make an effort to guess what it is.
So far, all that is known about the deaf old man is filtered by the waiters’ interpretations, which are subsequently expressed by their words, their language. That is, what we are left with are mere descriptions of an old man who supposedly tried to commit suicide, was in despair about nothing, and has plenty of money. And this train of thought, going from suicide and despair to nothing and money ends up revealing more about the waiter who spoke rather than the old man.
Readers can never be too sure of what kind of man this deaf old man is. Did he really attempt to commit suicide? Were his motivations truly despair? And was his despair really because of nothing? For all we know, the waiter who made these descriptions could be spinning a narrative to fit the picture he may already have of this deaf old man. In a later section of the dialogue, one of the waiters (it is not clear whether it is the same waiter who made the initial commentary about the old man) claims that the old man “must be eighty years old,” to which the same waiter or the second waiter immediately follow-ups saying, “Anyway I should say he was eighty” (Hemingway). The waiters are actively constructing an idea of this old man with their language, which becomes the truth accepted not only by the waiters accept but also by unsuspecting readers.
As the story progresses, the waiters’ descriptions of the deaf old man begin to reflect more concretely the character and values of each waiter. One of the waiters is in a hurry to close the café and come home to his wife before three in the morning while the other is unhurried and unnerved by any timely obligation. Upon observing the hurried waiter’s successful attempt to finally get the old man to leave the café, the unhurried waiter asks “What is an hour?”, to which the hurried waiter replies, “More to me than to him [the deaf old man]” (Hemingway). In response, the unhurried waiter says, “An hour is the same” (Hemingway). What is so remarkable about this minute exchange is that how well it exemplifies what it means for language to be distinct from that which it describes. The question by itself, “What is an hour?” seems to anticipate on face value, the essence of an hour, of time. But the response that the first waiter gives answer a different question; that is, he answers “What is an hour to me?” His understanding of time is relative to himself, which in effect replaces time, the object of interest, with himself. It is no longer the object that is inspiring its descriptions, but the waiter himself. The unhurried waiter, however, nullifies the label that the hurried waiter assigns to the object of time. That time is more to one than to another is purely arbitrary. For “An hour is the same” to whomever and whenever. There is nothing more to the object that makes it any more special to a particular person. Rather, it is the labels, the language we use, for describing these objects that makes them appear as such.
Perhaps most indicative of this idea of the autonomy of language is the conversation the unhurried waiter has with himself. At this point, the hurried waiter has left the café for home and the unhurried waiter is left musing on how good and necessary it is to have a clean, well-lighted café. Contrary to his hurried colleague’s opinion, the unhurried waiter deplores the absence of such a café, which he thinks leaves him with no dignity and “a nothing that he knew too well” (Hemingway). The idea of nothing makes its entrance again in the latter half of the short story. We’ve already seen it mentioned during the exchange about why the deaf old man was driven to despair. But in this case, the use of the term nothing is different. The waiter calls all things, including man, a nothing and contrasts it with light, cleanness, and order. Though the waiter does not specify what he means by this nothing, he prefaces it earlier while conversing with his colleague saying, “Each night I am reluctant to close up [the café] because there may be some one who needs the café” (Hemingway). There is a twinge of loneliness, a kind of emptiness, in this nothing upon which the waiter constantly dwells. But not much can be said as of yet until further on when the waiter says the following in his head:
Some lived in it [the nothing] 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 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. (Hemingway)
The waiter uses the term nada, the Spanish equivalent for nothing, as not simply a thing that exists but surrounds us, is us, and pervades the very language used for acknowledging and declaring allegiance to God. But what’s important to note here is also the phrase “pues nada.” It is recognized as a muletilla, which is a word that serves as a filler or verbal crutch. There is no meaning to a filler word, just as nothing is devoid of any meaning. They are arbitrary terms that illuminate nothing about anything, just as the language and the labels we designate for objects reveal pretty much nothing about the actual object itself.
The very repetition of nada further reinforces this nothingness by rendering the term meaningless and arbitrary. The waiter replaces nearly every significant word in the Lord’s Prayer with nada. But this act of replacement is more than just to emphasize nothingness in human lives, but also to devalue and forget the terms themselves — to strip all significance and meaning from all the terms that previously held so much command and presence and leave the words empty like husks. It is a brilliant demonstration of what we end up with when we acknowledge the divide between language and objects and realize there is no real substance to the terms and the languages we use to describe objects, except for the meaning that we fabricate and pretend to see as true. What we end up pledging allegiance to is neither God nor some heavenly kingdom. Instead, we “Hail nothing full of nothing” because “nothing is with thee” (Hemingway). Humans do not possess anything more than illusions of what is real. As told by Nietzsche, “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions” (117). Not only have we fabricated our truths, but we’ve gone so far as to forget that they are fabrications! We trap ourselves, it seems, in this cycle of lies — of conversations about conversations — believing ourselves to have hit upon the pot of golden truth.
With so much nothingness in the world and in ourselves, it is no wonder the unhurried waiter loses his dignity, feels lonely, and ultimately, empty. And so, he seeks solace in a clean, well-lighted place and hopes that this diversion from the darkness of nothingness can last, quite frankly, 24/7. And perhaps this is one way Hemingway is telling readers to cope with this fabricated reality in this silent universe. But I beg to differ. It is not so much about finding solace, as if our lives are completely worthless and all our foundations must be broken down, as it is about exploring the breadth of our constructions. We might have a ceiling to our endeavors, but we have such long hallways that are endless and diverse in all the ways we make something out of nothing. It is true that conversations are nothing more than just that: conversations. But our ways of having those conversations are plenty. And questions of “What do you mean?” and “How do you mean?” will continuously appear as little blinking red lights and collapsing bridges, so long as we don’t try to anchor ourselves to the object. Because we can’t. And, well, that’s okay.
Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Harry Youtt, n.d. 11 Nov 2016. < http://www.url-der.org/a_clean_well_lighted_place.pdf >
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” 1873, p. 114-123.