People Separated by Invisible Walls of Individual Achievements

In “Nighthawks” unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.
Edward Hopper

Hopper has rendered the interior with great attention to detail, painstakingly delineating salt and pepper shakers, napkin dispensers, cups, and coffee machines. The arrangement recalls a lab set-up, spread out for perusal by an observer, whether passerby or viewer… The people in the scene seem isolated from each other, as well is from outside world. There is no direct communication taking place between the couple inside their glass cage.
Ivo Kranzfelder, “Hopper (Vision of Reality)”, Taschen, 2001, p. 147 – 150


Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, 1942

Many Americans are psychologically separated from one another by a strongly felt necessity to prove themselves. They feel that the inability to do this makes them nothing, miscarriages of the creation. They can seem individualistic but they are just hooked on proving their personal ontological value through achieving financial and social success. Such people, as if, feel that they have the right to existence only if “they made it” – proved their worth. Nobody knows who laid this burden on these people’s shoulders, but it is there, as if some god waits from them the proof that they are respectable human beings because they are materially succeeded in life.

Let’s start with the giant “glass box” (“the bar’s bubble of glass…hermetically sealing off the people from the city” [Rolf G. Renner, “Hopper (Transformation of the Real)”, Taschen, 2002]), opposing the night street and anonymous building on its other side. Compositional contrasts between restaurant and street refers to the “free time” – the time to socialize, to be with other people without instrumental connotation. But are we capable of being with others without melting into one (common) identity based on similarity? Are we able to be with others as others, as creatures having their own internal world, who are interesting exactly because they are different? In other words, are we able to deal with others without automatic projection of ourselves seeking in the others similarity with us and only upon finding it feeling ourselves excited, comfortable, happy to be with somebody (with our identity in the others)?

Here lies a crucial difference between democratic and totalitarian communities. In a democratic (pluralistic) community dissimilarity is not just “tolerated”, it’s welcomed. Human uniqueness is celebrated, and different opinions, worldviews and tastes look for each other to complete one another, as masculinity and femininity in Plato’s concept of Androgyny. In a totalitarian community, on the other hand, people don’t exist as different individuals with their unique perspective on life, they are psychologically glued to one another, become psychologically fused and blended, become one, the undifferentiated mass with the same worldview, similar tastes and dreams, with a common will. What we see in “Nighthawks” is neither democratic nor a totalitarian community, but instead a theater of people’s mutual alienation.

We, Americans, as a rule are not totalitarian people, fanatics of dogma, who demand that all people should follow the same worldview. But at the same time we are not, really, democratic people either – who enjoy in one another the otherness/dissimilarity. We are somewhere in between. Besides being inside the general glass box of the night cafe, the figures of Hopper’s “Nighthawks” are also inside their own visually indiscernible glass boxes isolating them from others. Look at the man/back (man’s back) on the left – there is no any interest in him/it in rapport with somebody/something else or any openness for contact. But even the man and woman representing a couple, are concentrating on their own separate tracks of thoughts. Yes, their two hands are adjoined and that‘s why we are sure that they are couple, but there is no noticeable contact between their souls. The uncertain (intended or casual?) touch between their hands is rather a “declaration” of their couple-hood than its realization. They are in separate glass boxes. The waiter can be saying something or is right after or before it. But look how protruded his head, as if he makes extra-effort to communicate – he is, psychologically, as if a prisoner trying to establish contact through a wall between two cells. Besides, he is, obviously, not saying anything special, just waiter routine.

But what sort of alienation can be between these people? Can it be result of some human or social conflict, of some animosity, of adversary social energies? Can it be that people harbor some bad feelings inside them for whatever reasons it may be? There is no indication of any of that. So, what separates people without really separating them in some human, meaningful sense of having some reason for being distant?

Let’s look at other objects in the night café. There are two identical coffee machines (couple of cylinders without being a couple); there are six stools and a counter that don’t know about each other’s existence, the door to the restroom that doesn’t give a damn about its presence in the world. There are salt and pepper-shakers, cups and napkin dispensers, and the two sides of the restaurant’s glass wall which don’t know that they’re two sides of the same building. All these objects are instrumental, utilitarian things – they are beyond relations. They’re just in dead, indifferent proximity to one another. Here is the answer to what kind of alienation lies between the protagonists of Hopper’s painting. People unconsciously imitate the inanimate utilitarian objects around them; instinctively/passively adopt them as their “role models”. They identify with them. They become like them because their civilization is dedicated to things, to their usage, to their production/sales, to playing with them, studying them, admiring them, collecting and inventing and reinventing them. Transparent glass boxes surrounding the inhabitants of Hopper’s painting (their psychological isolation from each other) are their unconscious imitation of the ontological indifference of the artifacts of our civilization where we‘re comfortably stuck forever between a totalitarian and democratic community. Unconscious identification with artifacts can be specifically our, American complex.

So, what these people, Hopper’s nighthawks, are “hawking” after? Not much. During their free time they, it seems, unconsciously, worming themselves up – for looking for job even more intensely, for looking for success, for respect, for opportunity to prove their socio-financial value. They are instinctively concentrating on this main goal/task, may be, even meditating in the direction of its realization.

May be, representation of human beings as psychologically stuck between totalitarian and democratic mentality, is one of the main creative achievements of Edward Hopper. They cannot make this transition (from totalitarianism to democracy) because they are deeply distracted from it (kidnapped from it by belonging to “industrialization”, to financial success, “technological development”, “technical progress”, technical toys and all the other new things that have appeared in people’s lives since Hopper’s “Nighthawks”).