Scripting Interiors

Looking at language and the inner sensory experience through Edward Hoppers “Nighthawks” (1942)

Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” is arguably one of the most iconic paintings in American art. The late-night scene of a few silent figures in a lit diner on a deserted street is not only hauntingly nostalgic of everyday American life, but also lullingly poignant. It has offered its viewers a moment of silent contemplation and reprieve from an ever-changing, bustling world since its debut in 1942.

Edward Hopper, American Realist painter (1882-1967)
Edward Hopper, American Realist painter (1882-1967)

The painting is commonly thought to evoke feelings of loneliness, solitude, emptiness and isolation, however Hopper himself denied that being his intention,

“I didn’t see it as particularly lonely. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

Edward Hopper

In fact, the more you look at the painting, the more you may realise that YOU are the one who is alone, standing in the dark street, on the outside looking in. The figures on the other hand are inside, together, in the warmth of the light, protectively sealed off from the world by a pane of glass. There is no door for us to enter, we can only turn the corner and continue into the unknown, darkness of the night skirting around the reflections of light on the pavement from inside.

Detail of the characters inside the diner
Detail of the characters inside the diner

Even though we are cut off from them, we are invited to ponder the lives of those characters inside. What is their story? Why are they there? Where have they come from? This curiosity implicates a desire to somehow become more intimate even with perfect strangers, and yet the smooth, cold surface of the glass reminds us that while we may look in, we will never completely know who they are.

It is a special kind of loneliness that is at once consoling in the knowledge that there will always remain some part of us that is sacred, untouchable to others, and heartbreaking in that we could never fully express our interior world to those on the outside, though we may try.

However destitute an image the painting is, there is also a subtle optimism. Considering that the painting was completed shortly after the attack in Pearl Harbour, at the height of WWII, an emphatic display of ordinary, everyday life, maybe even boredom, may well have offered a welcomed sanctuary in uncertain and frightening times. After all, it is the last light shining in the middle of the night on a dark street. Likewise, there is something touching in the fact that despite their apparent estrangement and solitude, they are alone together– a theme that seems to characterise Hopper’s hermetic life in the New York metropolis and his turbulent marriage to Josephine Nivison Hopper, rife with mutual domestic violence and attachment.

Hopper with his wife, Josephine Nivison Hopper
Hopper with his wife, Josephine Nivison Hopper

“Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.”

-Edward Hopper

The term “loneliness” is too broad a word for this painting as each person that views it, and even the artist himself, experiences loneliness in such a distinct way as to render the word ultimately vague at best. Just as there is no way for us on the outside to know what the characters inside the diner are actually thinking, it may well be the case that there is no way to truly communicate our inner sensory experience through language alone. Even if we use language to connect our internal world with the external one, we rely on words to do it, which raises the question: is there a word for every thought and feeling?

The expression “A picture is worth a thousand words” is revealing of the limits of language to efficiently convey a range of complex ideas and meaning. It also hints at the inherent ineffability of our perceptual experiences. Being rendered speechless by a work of art, or any other experience for that matter, is an indication of the failure of language to adequately describe the variety, intensity and subtlety of what we experience through the senses. And yet these experiences can be so emotionally charged that we desire to communicate them in some way, despite the difficulty of putting it into words. It is simultaneously this desire and the lack of words at our disposal which create a sort of glass pane between our interior experience and the outward expression of it, where words merely allude to the richness of the experience.

Parody of “Nighthawks” by Banksy (2005) depicting a football hooligan on the outside trying to break in. ​
Parody of “Nighthawks” by Banksy (2005) depicting a football hooligan on the outside trying to break in.

“All sensory language is just a pale reflection of our sensory world; even the best writers and poets will never be able to communicate all of that which is perceivable.”

-Bodo Winter, “Sensory Linguistics: Language, Perception and Metaphor”, pg. 38

However ineffable our perceptual experiences may be, there is a large amount of research that shows that some senses are more efficiently coded into language than others. Namely, what are termed the “distal senses” of sight and sound show more lexical differentiation than the “proximity senses” of touch, taste and smell. So much so that the respective end points of ineffability are sight, as the least, and smell, as the most. Researches have even deemed smell a “muted” sense as odours and aromas are generally easily recognisable but difficult to label.

In a hierarchy of the senses, it follows that our reliance on vision not only makes it perceptually dominate but also linguistically. This means that by being better able to articulate our visual perceptions of colour, shape, space and distance, the outer world is more easily scripted. By contrast, the non-spatial, interior world of taste and smell remains largely unutterable, not for lack of profundity but of language.

In a painting such as Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, the resounding silence of our interior sensory world is keenly felt and is a consoling reminder that we are nonetheless together in our solitude and isolation.

An homage to “Nighthawks”, Gottfried Helnwein’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (1984), depicting fallen pop-culture icons Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and James Dean. ​
An homage to “Nighthawks”, Gottfried Helnwein’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (1984), depicting fallen pop-culture icons Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and James Dean.

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:

Nighthawks, 1942 by Edward Hopper”. Edward Hopper, Paintings, Biography and Quotes, edwardhopper.net

Richman-Abdou, Kelly. “Unraveling the Emotional Depth of Edward Hopper’s Modern Masterpiece ‘Nighthawks’”. My Modern Met, 27 August, 2020, mymodernmet.com

Winter, Bodo. “Sensory Linguistics: Language, Perception and Metaphor”. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2019, books.google.it

Wood, Gaby. “Man and Muse”. The Guardian: The Observer, Art. 25 April, 2004, The Guardian: Man and Muse

9 Comments

  1. I’ve seen this painting used as a backdrop to Sinatra’s “One for my Baby and One More for the Road”. In fact, in the depths of my memory I think I remember seeing Sinatra portrayed as the lone drinker in the foreground for a TV production of the song. Thanks for bringing this one up.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting that Hopper didn’t have loneliness in mind when he painted this. So it’s the viewers and reviewers of the painting that imbue it with loneliness? Would every viewer see it in the same way? I have no idea how I would view it because I read your words before really thinking about the image, so ….. the expectation of loneliness was placed within me in advance.
    Is this what happens with wine tasting? We read something on the back label and certain expectations are placed in us …. berry fruits, cherries even, violet aromas …. and so on. We then taste seeking out those elements, if we “get them” we are pleased, if we don’t then we are disappointed either in the wine or ourselves. Of course as you say, as humans we have a very “poor” language of/for taste, certainly inferior to our sense of colour or sound, and also with extreme variances in sensory perception as well as an inferior lexicon. Also, as Scruton says, if we see a coloured object as “blue”, we don’t just see the colour we also see the object ….. a cushion, a shoe, a dress …… and it is this seeing of the object in totality that leads to comparisons, judgements, feelings, memories, desires even. Further confusion over the nature of taste and the impact of sensory, cognitive and affective elements on our experience.
    Despite this, I am once again in awe of your analytical thinking and ability to see deeply inside works of art, as well as your ability to articulate your thinking. I’m beginning to wish for art galleries and museums to open up again …. especially those containing cubist and surrealist works of art. 👏👏👏👏

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, I’m especially pleased that you appreciate the way I articulate my thinking, because if reflecting on this painting taught me anything it’s that the gap between thoughts and words is a precarious one. Good point about expectations, you’re absolutely right, we are incredibly influenced by what others have said about a wine or a work of art before we’ve even had the chance to make up our mind for ourselves. It’s one of those things that once you hear it’s difficult to think otherwise. However, the fact that research shows we lack the appropriate words to adequately describe our senses of taste and smell is inspiration for me to continue finding ways to express them in one way or another. They are simply too potent to leave unexplored.

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  3. What an absolutely interesting post Danell. I enjoy your analysis when it comes to the senses and do believe that language is inadequate in conveying some of the deeper nuances of our emotions. Languages have evolved to allow for some understanding, but leaves some deep sensory unutterable. Alongside and beyond our five senses there is much more alive in us. My winemotion stories touch on that sense, albeit briefly. What is the deeper feeling? That is the question we must ask ourselves when experiencing anything. It’s like closing your eyes in the middle of the woods and taking a deep breath to feel it. To feel that energy.
    Additionally, language is limited by language itself. There are expressions in Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, that are difficult to translate into English and still provide the same deep meaning. Perhaps you find that in Italian. I could go on about Rumi’s poetry for example, but you get the point. I’ve typed a long enough message here. I’m sure you understand the feeling.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, I find language and the sensory fascinating. It’s true that some languages have words and expressions that don’t have a direct translation in others. With Italian I find that even if I can find a similar way of saying something in English, it doesn’t always have the same feeling. There does at times seem to be something beyond the 5 senses, but I’m not sure if it’s the synthesis of the whole experience or some kind of 6th sense. Emotions do play a big part too. Excellent example with poetry! I’m enjoying some from David Whyte at the moment 🥂

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