Tag Archives: A Clean Well-Lighted Place

The meaning of life, according to a ghost

George Saunder's 2017 novel.

George Saunders’ 2017 novel.

The world’s bookshelves – not to mention its places of worship – are filled with attempts to uncover the meaning of life. Not only is it hard to find (let me know if you have), it’s also hard to write about.

In terms of fiction, at least. While philosophers and the religious can deploy a chosen strategy or belief system in their attempts to pin down and formulate it, novelists have no such overt frameworks to hang their theories on.

Sometimes it’s best approached in a roundabout way. The gangster Pinkie Brown from Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock” comes to mind in this respect, a killer whose surface actions appear to motivated by understandable criminal hatreds, but whose cold-blooded willingness to kill underlies the great empty pointlessness of his situation.

On other occasions, it’s tackled head on – the “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name…” lines that the narrator speaks in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place“; the nothingness that the old man in the cafe in the story seeks to avoid, through brandy and company.

I recently came across a more positive – or less hopeless at least – outlook in George Saunders’ “Lincoln In The Bardo”. At its core a novel about death and bereavement, one of the main characters, a ghost who’s speaking as he’s about to ascend/descend into heaven/hell, provides as clear an account of the meaning of life as I’ve read in fiction in some time. Whether it enlightens, or provides consolation, is a different matter, of course (personally, I’ve looked to poetry for that), but it reads as good as any.

“None of it was real; nothing was real.

Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.

These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and , in this way, brought them forth.

And now must lose them.”

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Finding God in a clean, well-lighted place

'Our nada who art in nada'. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place - Ernest Hemingway

‘Our nada who art in nada’.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place – Ernest Hemingway

Thinking of buying a new car? Don’t.

Trust me. Why? There is a theory that 21st century consumers value experiences, not products.

Unlike the boomer generation, the conspicuous consumers of the 1980s or the tech-fetishists of the 2000s, more of us now spend money to experience moments – as opposed to goods or services.

There’s a theory that this is a natural progression; after the agrarian, industrial and service economies we are now part of the ‘experience economy‘.

So far, so Forbes. But could the same theory be shifted from Instagram snaps of a Michelin-starred meal or a Grand Canyon sunset and applied instead to The Big Question?

Last week I wrote about Stephen Fry’s attack on, as he sees it, a maniac God. An atheist, Fry doesn’t believe in an omniscient, cloud-dwelling Creator, loving, judging and punishing.

But still God exists – because we need Him, or Her; the bearded man in the sky is a reflection of our concept of defeating death, of love without any end, of natural justice and  order.

But if God wasn’t a being, a single entity, could He still exist? Hardly, you’d think (if you were a monotheist). He either is or He’s not. Either you believe in Him or you do not.

‘Night on the Dnieper River’ Archip Kuindshi (1882) Pic: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Detail from ‘Night on the Dnieper River’
Archip Kuindshi (1882)
Pic: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

But what if – instead – God was an experience? What if, instead of spending our lives trying to attain a relationship with Him, we can connect with God through our experiences and our environment?

One man famously accumulated experiences but was not as a believer in God was Ernest Hemingway.

Having witnessed the horrors of mechanised warfare in the First World War (and being blown up by a mortar shell on the Italian front) the concept of a ‘good’ God may have too much for Hemingway to stomach (his subsequent novel about the war contains the notable line “all thinking men are atheists”).

Instead he found ‘nada’, nothing, the void. He wrote of this in his short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. At it’s end the main character, a waiter in a cafe, broods on the difficulty of sleep, of facing what waited at the day’s end.

It was a nothing that he knew too well…Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada they will be nada in nada as it is in nada.

But nada is not all.

The same waiter has just closed up, sending home his last customer – an old man who sits on the terrace nightly, refusing to leave until closing time, one of “all those who need a light for the night”.

Facing his long night, in nada as it is in nada, the old man’s light is a simple human experience –  the cafe, the brandy, the routine, the human contact. The waiter thinks:

It was all a nothing and man was a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.

Here is God, not a cosmic figure reached by prayer or met after death but a connection here and now, an enlightened personal experience in this life in this world.

The human divine – only that.

'Sunlight in a Cafeteria' Edward Hopper (1958) Pic: Yale University Art Gallery

‘Sunlight in a Cafeteria’
Edward Hopper (1958)
Pic: Yale University Art Gallery

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