America is more known for its literature than its philosophy, but there is a philosophical truth revealed in some of our best literature: the soul’s need for an uncrowded space. Hemingway has long been one of our most celebrated authors, not only for his cult of personality but for his spare prose. He rarely says more than needs to be said. In his story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” Hemingway describes a café late at night, with an old, deaf man lingering and keeping the wait staff. The two waiters are talking, one is eager to get home, the other unhurried. The scene is not overcrowded. “They sat together at a table that was close against the wall near the door of the café and looked at the terrace where the tables were all empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind. A girl and a soldier went by in the street. The street light shone on the brass number on his collar. The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him.”
We have here Hemingway’s characteristic prose, but we also have a description of a type of space. It is a space that the unhurried waiter tries to explain to his friend. “You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are the shadows of the leaves.” The waiter wanting to get home believes that the old man could just as easily go to a bar. The older, unhurried waiter knows better. “Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. 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. What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.”
What was it that the old man and the unhurried waiter knew? That there are feelings and thoughts that cannot be had in crowded or loud spaces, when it is the middle of the day or where it is the middle of a party. Big thoughts need quiet and space, a “clear, well-lighted place.” And for the biggest thoughts, sometimes it should also be an empty space, or close to empty.
Cormac McCarthy, whose recent death prompted widespread reflection on his significance, was famous for an austere lifestyle, especially early in his career. He preferred to eat beans and bathe in a lake rather than take a normal job that would interfere with his progress as a writer. Even after he could more easily afford better food and lodging, he was notorious for turning down speaking opportunities. He knew the importance of an uncluttered life, an uncrowded space, where one can make something meaningful.
McCarthy is widely revered for the philosophical depth of his writing, and his work reflects his awareness of the importance of a space empty enough to have room for the big thoughts. As one observer put it, “nearly all the lives in McCarthy’s world are lived close to the bone, often in isolation.” McCarthy set much of his work in the open spaces of the west. Blood Meridian, perhaps his greatest work, involves so much desert landscape, vast and often empty. “The kid looked at the sky, pale blue, unmarked save where the sun burned like a white hole.” McCarthy found this kind of spare environment, sometimes inhospitable to life, the most hospitable for posing philosophical questions about life.
Clutter can conceal the truth. Sometimes we need an uncrowded space to see anything at all. In Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the main character, Phaedrus, was a former college instructor. He had once been faced with a student who has been assigned an essay about the United States, but she had completely stalled out. “She wasn’t bluffing him, she really couldn’t think of anything to say, and was upset by her inability to do as she was told.” Phaedrus had an idea. “Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman.” Unfortunately, this didn’t work. “He was furious. ‘You’re not looking!’ he said. A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn’t looking and yet somehow didn’t understand this.”
He found a solution. “He told her angrily, ‘Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.” It worked. “She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five-thousand word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana.” Phaedrus was inspired. He soon assigned students an hour of writing on the back of a thumb, then a coin. Students in those classes were less blocked and more original.
Pare it down. “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” Thoreau wrote, and he built his cabin stripped of all but the essentials in order “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” This message runs throughout a strain of American literature. It is also practical advice for philosophical reflection—reflection on the meaning of life, our place in the world, and what comes after. Virginia Woolf was right that a writer needs a room of one’s own, but all of us need an empty room for certain experiences and thoughts. Those who would ponder the eternal will not likely do it in a space full of ephemera. Those who would make time for reflection will not find it in a full Outlook calendar.
Americans have more possessions than maybe anyone, ever. There appears to be no ceiling on the market for storage spaces. We have a minimalism movement precisely because we can see the need for it. But it is not just physical. We see ads on Instagram and television and we hear them on the radio. We drive past billboards on the way to work. We stop at a dozen traffic lights. We have nearly nothing uninterrupted. Our devices give us access to endless information and amusement. Our environment is cluttered in nearly every way.
There are things that a full room can do for us. It can reassure us. It can offer comfort. It can offer luxury and pleasant distractions. A full room can be cozy and a crowded refrigerator reassuring. A room can be full of company. We can be and feel less alone. A full room can teach us to share.
But though an empty room can have negative associations, there are times that we need its empty space, need to have nothing between us and the big questions. Sitting at slot machines has a numbing effect and we live much of our lives that way. Rushing from one thing to the next hinders reflection. Even good times can challenge us. Barbie struggles to think well about death while on the dance floor with her friends.
In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway’s main character is a writer and big game hunter slowly dying of infection. He is angry at his wife, a wealthy woman who has treated him well, but realizes he is wrong to be. “Nonsense. He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook.” He had come out on safari “because there was no luxury and he thought he could get back into training that way. That in some way he could work the fat off his soul the way a fighter went into the mountains to work and train in order to burn it out of his body.” He realizes now it is too late and he will die without writing about many things important to him.
Most of us need to “work the fat off the soul.” What is required is a clean, well-lighted space without clutter or excessive adornment. A space of empty simplicity. We can think of the monk or nun in his or her cell. A space which is healthily empty, which is uncrowded. That might be an actual physical space, but it might also be a space each week or even each day when we create the spare conditions needed for contemplation. The need for such space is clear, if only we allow an unhurried waiter to teach us how to look.
Image credit: “The Dining Room in the Country” by Pierre Bonnard