In Despair about Nothing
Man is often plagued by the question of his own existence. Existentialism is a subjective philosophy that is centered upon the examination of mans existence, emphasizing the liberation, responsibility, and usually the solitude of the individual. It focuses on individuals finding a reason for living within themselves. The philosophy forces man to make choices for himself, on the premise that nothing is preordained, there is no fate.Men must find a truth in themselves, a truth that they must be able to live for. Existentialism is in harsh contrast to a belief in a higher power or a god. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place is a story by Ernest Hemingway about men in successive stages in the philosophy of existentialism, revealing ultimately how the philosophy will fail them.
Nothingness is a condition man is faced with when his life has no meaning, when there is no reason to exist. It is the hollowness or emptiness man experiences when he feels that his life has no significant meaning. If there is nothing to believe in, then life is nothing. The older waiter in the story recognizes the existence of nothing: Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y pues nada y pues nada (202). As existentialists, men are forced to make all decisions in their lives for themselves, with nothing to believe in except for the positive result of their choices.Existentialists are plagued with dread over their potential confrontation with nothingness, an anxiety that comes with the impossibility of finding ultimate justification for the choices they must make. In contrast, men of religious faith have little fear of nothingness because they believe that there is a reason behind decisions they make based on the intent of their higher power. Light, cleanliness and order play important roles in the story. The artificial light and good order of the caf represent the truth, or reason for existence, that the existential man has created for himself. Darkness, in contrast, represents the nothingness of life.
The soldier in the story is an example of the first stage of existentialism in Hemingways denunciation of the philosophy. The soldier does not believe in a higher power, nor does he recognize the existence of nothingness. What he does know is that there is something missing in his life, something to feel good about. That is why the soldier has joined the army in the first place. At first he believed it would give him something to believe in. He believed it would give him a purpose in life, living to die for his country. It would give him a feeling of patriotism, of honor, of courage. But something is missing. The soldier has not found his existential truth for himself. The army isnt it. The soldier is left tormented with the hollow feeling of nothingness, a hollowness that he attempts to temporarily fill with immediate sexual gratification. The younger waiter recognizes the soldiers need: What does it matter if he gets what hes after? (199). But the experience will only leave the soldier feeling more empty.
The young waiter is aware of the nothingness of an existential life but does not quite know how to deal with it. The waiter desperately uses his relationship with his wife as his truth, or reason for living: I have a wife waiting in bed for me (200). He acts as if he is certain of his role in life when he says, I have confidence. I am all confidence (201). But in reality he does not. The young waiter is in a hurry to leave the caf and the company of the old man: I want to go home to bed. What is an hour? More to me than to him (201). He wouldnt want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing (200). The young waiters confidence in his own existence is not strong around the old man because he sees nothingness in the old man. He sees it and is fearful that he may soon feel it. The mere presence of the man shakes the weak foundation of his existence. The young waiter is eager to leave so that he can continue to fool himself on the validity of his existential life.
The older waiter is the best example of a successful existentialist in the story. He is very aware of the nothingness and has found his truth: It was all nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order (202). The older waiters reason for existence is his occupation because there may be some one who needs the caf (201). Because there is a need for the caf, there is a need for the waiter, thus validating his life. The pleasant light and cleanliness of the cafe represent the order and pleasantness that the waiter has created for himself by finding his truth. However, much like the younger waiter, the older waiter seems to rely desperately on this truth: It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. 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 (202). The waiter tells himself that he does not fear the nothingness when he says, What did he fear? It was not fear or dread (202). However, the older waiter has trouble sleeping: 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 (202). Once again light is used in the story. But this time it is not the artificial light man has created. It is natural light, which represents the truth of a life with a higher power. A truth that the older waiter is afraid to face, for it would destroy the truth that he has constructed for himself. By sleeping during the daylight, ignoring the truth of the daylight, and mocking religion, the older waiter helps to subdue his fears of confronting his own nothingness.
The old man in the story represents the final stage in the ill-fated belief of existentialism. It is suggested that at one time the old man had a valid existence that he created for himself and did very well: He has plenty of money (199), He had a wife once too (200). Now, however, he has no wife, has no job and has even lost his hearing. From an existentialist point of view he has no reason to exist. Nor does it seem that he has any potential to have a reason to exist. Faced with the ultimate nothingness, the old man tries to kill himself: Last week he tried to commit suicide, one waiter said (199). Ironically, the old man is saved by his religious niece for Fear for his soul (200). The old man sits in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light (199). The man sitting in the shadow of the tree represents living in the nothingness. He lives inside of the nothingness surrounded by the artificial light, or artificial truth that he has created for himself. The only relief he has is to numb the sting of the emptiness he feels inside with brandy.
Nothingness is a feeling that man, no matter what his beliefs, is faced with from time to time. However a man of religious faith can fall back on the belief that his life is in the hands of his creator. It is comforting to know that there is a higher power that has a master plan to life. An existentialist must rely upon himself for a reason for living. However, as Hemingways story suggests, it is hard to find a personal truth to believe in strongly. Existentialists are more prone to face and succumb to the nothingness that comes with the emptiness of a life without religious faith.