On Nighthawks

Edward Hopper’s painting, based on Ernest Hemingway’s superb short story (probably the best thing I read in the class in which it was assigned last semester, when I first read it), makes a compelling visual statement about how the influx of electricity into people’s everyday lives has changed their fabric. Here we see a new type of loneliness: that which hides not in solitary darkness but seeks out Hemingway’s “clean, well-lighted place” (which fends off, with its light, the Nada). The loneliness is, granted, apparently only the one man’s, but it is precisely in contrast to the other figures in the painting that he stands out so much. Despite the physical nearness, he is at a great remove. He himself is half covered in shadow, while the happy couple cheerfully wiling away the hours of night, as well as the barkeep, are in the full light. The outside, too, shows the way in which the dark is still the dominant force, but that it is being held at bay here by the electric light of the bar. The street behind the couple is dark. The painting thus shows two different moods at work: the increasingly alienated loneliness of the one man, but also the potential comfort that the electrified bar promises to those wayfaring through the outer dark. The barkeep himself is dressed in white—he himself is part of the light and cheer the place exudes (or tries to).

No doubt, Hopper’s appreciation of Hemingway’s story was (as it would likely be to any one of us) enhanced by his firsthand experience of such scenes. By the time the painting was done (1942) electricity was no longer new, but (as is also true today) its presence and effect on things could still seem strange and jarring. It seems fair to say that part of us is hardwired (electric language again… can’t escape it) to expect night to be dark and quiet, the time to sleep, or in any case not be as public or social as we are throughout the day. Murakami Haruki’s short novel After Dark deals with this contrast between what night should mean for the human animal and what, in our modern world, it actually does. This is not a moral point (the “should” is meant to be explanatory, not imperative), but one that tries to clarify the strangeness, the otherness, of the time one spends in the electrified city at night. The illusion of day that the bar provides is just that, an illusion, not day itself. People act differently at night (to put it very broadly—too broadly, but it’ll do for the purposes of this post) and now that fact is no longer hidden in the shadows of night, but illuminated by electricity.

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