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.
- 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 by Ernest Hemingway, 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 ↩