Brain Pickings

Henry Miller on Creative Death

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“One aspect of our nature cannot be exalted above another, except and the expense of one or the other.”

From The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) — the same wonderful 1941 anthology of Henry Miller’s short stories, profiles, and literary essays that gave us his reflections on writing, the art of living, the future of mankind — comes a beautiful essay titled “Creative Death,” a fragment from Miller’s unfinished book on D. H. Lawrence, originally published in London’s literary journal Purpose.

Miller begins by celebrating the “livingness” that permeates Lawrence’s writing, this idea that “the sun itself will never become stale, nor the earth barren.” Like the true gift of the dog, at the heart of human life is a kind of crystalline awareness, something Jackson Pollock’s dad knew too well. Miller writes, adding to history’s famous definitions of art:

Strange as it may seem today to say, the aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware. In this state of god-like awareness one sings; in this realm the world exists as poem. No why or wherefore, no direction, no goal, no striving, no evolving. Like the enigmatic Chinaman one is rapt by the everchanging spectacle of passing phenomena. This is the sublime, the a-moral state of the artist, he who lives only in the moment, the visionary moment of utter, far-seeing lucidity. Such clear icy sanity that it seems like madness. By the force and power of the artist’s vision the static, synthetic whole which is called the world is destroyed. The artist gives back to us a vital, singing universe, alive in all is parts.

In a way the artist is always acting against the time-destiny movement. He is always a-historical. He accepts Time absolutely, as Whitman says, in the sense that any way he rolls (with tail in mouth) is direction; in the sense that any moment, every moment, may be the all; for the artist there is nothing but the present, the eternal here and now, the expanding infinite moment which is flame and song. And when he succeeds in establishing this criterion of passionate experience (which is what Lawrence meant by ‘obeying the Holy Ghost’) then, and only then, is he asserting his humanness. Then only does he live out his pattern as Man. Obedient to every urge — without distinction of morality, ethics, law, custom, etc.

Articulating a sentiment 18-year-old Sylvia Plath echoed just a few years later and speaking to the beauty of not knowing, Miller observes:

[The artist] opens himself to all influences — everything nourishes him. Everything is gravy to him, including what he does not understand — particularly what he does not understand.

Somewhere between composer John Cage’s Zen influences and legendary graphic designer Saul Bass’s vintage animation on why man creates, Miller finds the richness of the artist’s struggle:

To be is to have mortal shape, mortal conditions, to struggle, to evolve. Paradise is, like the dream of the Buddhists, a Nirvana where the is no more personality and hence no conflict. It is the expression of a man’s wish to triumph over reality, over becoming. The artist’s dream of the impossible, the miraculous, is simply the resultant of his inability to adapt himself to reality. He creates, therefore, a reality of his own…

[…]

It is not that he is incapable of living. On the contrary, his zest for life is so powerful, so voracious that it forces him to kill himself over and over. He dies many times in order to live innumerable lives.

And therein lies the crux of “creative death”:

[T]he artist in man is the undying symbol of the union between his warring selves. Life has to be given a meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning. Something has to be created, as a healing and goading intervention, between life and death, because the conclusion that life points to is death and to that conclusive fact man instinctively and persistently shuts his eyes. The sense of mystery, which is at the bottom of all art, is the amalgam of all the nameless terrors which the cruel reality of death inspires. Death then has to be defeated — or disguised, or transmogrified. But in the attempt to defeat death man has been inevitably obliged to defeat life, for the two are inextricably related. Life moves on to death, and to deny one is to deny the other. The stern sense of destiny which eery creative individual reveals lies in this awareness of the goal, this acceptance of the goal, this moving on towards a fatality, one with inscrutable forces that animate him and drive him on.

Miller offers a poetic definition of history:

All history is the record of man’s signal failure to thwart his destiny — the record, in other words, of the few men of destiny who, through the recognition of their symbolic role, made history. All the lies and evasions by which man has nourished himself — civilization, in a word — are the fruits of the creative artist. It is the creative nature of man which has refused to let him lapse back into that unconscious unity with life which characterizes the animal world from which he made his escape. As man traces the stags of his physical evolution in his embryonic life, so, when ejected from the womb, he repeats, in the course of his development from childhood to old age, the spiritual evolution of man. In the person of the artist the whole historical evolution of man is recapitulated. His work is one grand metaphor, revealing through image and symbol the whole cycle of cultural development through which man has passed from primitive to effete civilized being.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Miller uses the rainbow — a metaphor for consciousness — to return to the osmosis of life and death:

[T]he way to escape death is to escape life. … This, then, is the Rainbow — the bridge which the artist throws over the yawning of reality. … He works out, in his art, the unreal triumph — since it is neither a triumph over life nor over death. it is a triumph over an imaginary world which he himself has created. The drama lies entirely in the realm of the idea. His war with reality is a reflection of the war within himself.

[…]

In order to accomplish his purpose, however, the artist is obliged to retire, to withdraw from life, utilizing just enough of experience to present the flavor of the real struggle. If he chooses to live he defeats his own nature. He must live vicariously. Thus he is enabled to play the monstrous role of living and dying innumerable times, according to the measure of his capacity for life.

Ultimately, it comes down to completeness and cohesion in one’s self — that notion that, as David Foster Wallace put it half a century later, “what goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected” — which becomes a foundation for our mutuality and intertwinging, an idea Miller’s longtime lover Anaïs Nin once poignantly phrased as “A man who lives unrelated to other human beings dies.” Miller writes:

The trinal division of the body, mind and soul becomes a unity, a holy trinity. And with it the realization that one aspect of our nature cannot be exalted above another, except and the expense of one or the other.

[…]

In the rush upward the ‘individual’ aspect of one’s being was the imperative, the only obsession. But at the summit, when the limits have been felt and perceived, there unfolds the grand perspective and one recognizes the similitude of surrounding beings, the inter-relationship of all forms and laws of being — the organic relatedness, the wholeness, the oneness of life.

And so the most creative type — the individual artist type — which had shot up highest and with the greatest variety of expression, so mush so as to seem ‘divine,’ this creative type of man must now, in order to preserve the very elements of creation in him, convert the doctrine, or the obsession of individuality, into a common collective ideology. This is the real meaning to the Master-Exemplar, of the great religious figures who have dominated human life from the beginning. At their further peak of blossoming they have but emphasized their common humanity, their innate, rooted, inescapable humanness. Their isolation, in the heavens of thought, is what brings about their death.

The Wisdom of the Heart is a ceaselessly sublime treasure chest of Miller’s most timeless and passionately argued ideas at the intersection of literature and philosophy — highly recommended.

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