Ernest Hemingway? Leonard Cohen? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Benjamin Blood? Rumi? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: It is impossible to avoid all pain and suffering during a lifetime, but I believe that our setbacks have a larger meaning and purpose. The famous author Ernest Hemingway reportedly said the following:
We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.
I would like to use this statement in an article, but I have never seen a good citation. Would you please help me?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Ernest Hemingway wrote or said this precise remark.
An interesting precursor appeared in an essay about “Compensation” in an 1841 collection by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Siegfried, in the Nibelungen, is not quite immortal, for a leaf fell on his back whilst he was bathing in the Dragon’s blood, and that spot which it covered is mortal. And so it always is. There is a crack in every thing God has made.
Another precursor appeared in an 1860 book titled “Optimism: The Lesson of Ages” by philosopher Benjamin Blood who echoed Emerson’s words and added the notion of light entering through the cracks: 2
It frequently happens that the souls of men outgrow the love of their own peculiar merits, and they long to exchange, even for merits of less worth.—“There is a crack in every thing that God has made;” but through that crevice enters the light of heaven. Every thing is blessed, but every thing is unfortunate as well.
QI conjectures that the statement under examination was constructed via an evolutionary blending of a well-known quotation from Hemingway together with a lyric from the influential singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.
In 1929 Hemingway published a novel set during World War I titled “A Farewell to Arms”, and he discussed the universality of human pain and resilience. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 3
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
In 1992 Leonard Cohen released the album “The Future” which included the song “Anthem” containing the following lines echoing Emerson and Blood: 4
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack, in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
The words of Hemingway and Cohen appear to have been merged to yield: “We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” As shown further below, this quotation with an ascription to Hemingway entered circulation by 2013. Breakage typically causes cracks, and light symbolically represents spiritual strength and insight.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Cohen’s memorable lyric line with the word “crack” has often been compressed via the removal of the repetition. For example, a music reviewer in a San Bernardino, California newspaper in 1993 wrote the following: 5
For as dour as his lyrics may seem, Cohen is, of course, one of the world’s great romantics, and he couldn’t savor love without the threat of despair. As he sings on “Anthem”: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
In 1995 Coleman Barks published his translation of selected writings by Rumi, a 13th-century poet and Sufi mystic. A poem titled “Childhood Friends” mentioned light entering a wound: 6
Let a teacher wave away the flies and put a plaster on the wound.
Don’t turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That’s where the light enters you.
And don’t believe for a moment that you’re healing yourself.
In July 2009 Julieanne Reed retweeted a message from Marlene M. Linke. The message was reminiscent of Cohen’s lyrics but employed the word “broken” and referred to friendship: 7
RT @mmlinke1 Friendship is delicate as a glass, once broken it can be fixed but there will always be cracks(that’s how the light gets in)
In August 2009 a message in a Google Group reprised Cohen’s words and included an addendum about “broken hearts”: 8
There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. The light gets into us through our broken hearts.
In February 2010 a tweet from John Withum provided a closer match to the quotation under investigation. It employed the word “broken” instead of “cracked”, but, interestingly, Cohen was credited instead of Hemingway: 9
“Everything is broken. It’s how the light gets in.” -Leonard Cohen
In August 2010 the musical group “Queen Caveat” shared a thematically germane tweet: 10
All of us are Artists. We are all broken, but… the light wouldn’t pierce the wound of the fracture if we weren’t broken enough. –QC
In April 2012 a tweet from Kahlil Ashanti ascribed a statement to Hemingway that began with a statement matching the modern saying: “we are all broken”. The overall tweet fit the thought communicated in the 1929 citation: 11
‘we are all broken but some of us get stronger in the broken parts’ -Hemingway #postsecretplay
In June 2013 the modern saying ascribed to Hemingway was tweeted: 12
We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in. ~Ernest Hemingway
In 2014 the “Rolling Stone” website published “Readers’ Poll: The 10 Best Leonard Cohen Songs”. The song “Anthem” was ninth on the list and the magazine reprinted some lines: 13
Leonard Cohen has written a ridiculous amount of great lines over his long career, but few can compare to “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” It’s the key line on “Anthem,” one of the standout tracks from his 1992 disc The Future.
In 2016 a newspaper in Lansing, Michigan published an article with several profiles of High School students. Each student selected a favorite quotation, and Hemingway’s apocryphal remark was one choice: 14
Favorite quote: “We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.” Ernest Hemingway
In conclusion, QI believes that this quotation was not crafted by Ernest Hemingway. Its exact genesis is uncertain, but QI hypothesizes that the 1929 statement by Hemingway and the 1992 lyric by Leonard Cohen both strongly influenced the evolution of the expression and its ascription.
Image Notes: Illuminated ball with cracks by LoganArt at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Margie Bird-Buendia whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Bird-Buendia pointed to an article on the Tumblr “fake fake fake quotes” which connected the quotation to Hemingway’s 1929 statement and to Cohen’s lyric. Thanks to Zak Rahman on Facebook who pointed out a connection with Rumi. Thanks to Jonathan Bricklin who told QI about the 1860 citation.)
Update History on July 23, 2017 the 1995 Rumi citation was added. On January 24, 2021 the 1860 citation was added.
- 1841, Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay III: Compensation, Start Page 75, Quote Page 88, James Munroe and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1860, Optimism: The Lesson of Ages by Benjamin Blood, Section 17: Compensation, Quote Page 91, Bela Marsh, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1929, A Farewell to Arms, Chapter 34, Quote Page 267, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (archive.org Internet Archive) link ↩
- YouTube video, Title: Leonard Cohen – Anthem, Uploaded on Jan 2, 2012, Uploaded by: Differance1’s channel, (Video for the song “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen), (Quotation starts at 1 minute 19 seconds of 6 minutes 10 seconds). (Accessed on youtube.com on November 15, 2016) link ↩
- 1993, January 23, The Sun (The San Bernardino County Sun), Leonard Cohen sees dark ‘Future’ by Susan Whitall (Gannett News Service), Quote Page D4, Column 4, San Bernardino, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1995, The Essential Rumi by Jalal al-Din Rumi, (Translated from the Arabic), Translations by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, Poem: Childhood Friends, Start Page 139, Quote Page 142, Castle Books: HarperCollins, New York. (Verified with hard copy) ↩
- Tweet, From: Julieanne Reed @ShekhinahShaman, Time: 11:44 PM, Date: July 5 2009, Text: RT @mmlinke1 Friendship is delicate as a glass, once broken it can be fixed but there will always be cracks(that’s how the light gets in). (Accessed on twitter.com on November 16, 2016) link ↩
- 2009 August 18, Google Groups discussion message, Newsgroup: HealthScape @googlegroups.com, From: “Nancy \(Loravara\)” lora @comcast.net, Subject: RE: [HealthScape] Re: Download link for Bite by Bite, (Google Groups Search; Accessed November 16, 2016) link ↩
- Tweet, From: John Withum @johnwithum, Time: 2:57 AM, Date: February 15, 2010, Text: “Everything is broken. It’s how the light gets in.” -Leonard Cohen. (Accessed on twitter.com on November 16, 2016) link ↩
- Tweet, From: Queen Caveat @QueenCaveat, Time: 2:44 AM, Date: August 5, 2010, Text: All of us are Artists. We are all broken, but… the light wouldn’t pierce the wound of the fracture if we weren’t broken enough. -QC. (Accessed on twitter.com on November 16, 2016) link ↩
- Tweet, From: Kahlil Ashanti @kahlilashanti, Time: 6:11 PM, Date: April 27, 2012, Text: ‘we are all broken but some of us get stronger in the broken parts’ -Hemingway #postsecretplay. (Accessed on twitter.com on November 16, 2016) link ↩
- Tweet, From: Atheist Ex-Muslim @ex_muslim, Time: 5:47 PM , Date: June 8, 2013, Text: We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in. ~Ernest Hemingway. (Accessed on twitter.com on November 16, 2016) link ↩
- Website: Rolling Stone, Article title: Readers’ Poll: The 10 Best Leonard Cohen Songs, Article Author: Andy Greene, Date on website: November 26, 2014, Website description: News and reviews of music and culture, (Accessed rollingstone.com on November 16, 2016) link ↩
- 2016 May 8, Lansing State Journal, Lansing Catholic High School, Favorite quote of a student, Quote Page 7A, Column 5, Lansing, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩