Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Henry Miller’

21 JANUARY, 2015

To Paint Is to Love Again: Henry Miller on Art, How Hobbies Enrich Us, and Why Good Friends Are Essential for Creative Work

By:

“What sustains the artist is the look of love in the eyes of the beholder. Not money, not the right connections, not exhibitions, not flattering reviews.”

One particularly icy winter day not too long ago, I reluctantly retired my bike, took the subway into Manhattan, and gave up my seat to a kindly woman a few decades my senior. We struck up a conversation — an occurrence doubly delightful for its lamentable rarity on the New York City subway. For this radical act we were rewarded with an instant kinship of spirit — she turned out to be the wonderful artist Sheila Pinkel, visiting from the West Coast for a show she was having at a New York gallery, and bonded over our mutual love of Henry Miller, lamenting how much of his magnificent and timeless writing has perished out of print — things like his beautiful reflections on the greatest gift of growing old and on money and on the meaning of life.

Right before I hopped out at my stop, Sheila mentioned one particular book that had made a strong impression early in life, but which she had been unable to find since — Miller’s 1968 lost gem To Paint Is to Love Again (public library). Naturally, I tracked down a surviving copy as soon as possible and was instantly enchanted by this rare and wonderful treasure trove of Miller’s paintings — for he was among the famous writers who were drawn to the visual arts, producing such lesser-known treats as J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustrations, Sylvia Plath’s drawings, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age etchings, Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors, and Nabokov’s butterfly studies — enveloped in his devastatingly honest and insightful words on art, sincerity, kindness, hardship, and the gift of friendship.

With his characteristic blend of irreverence, earnestness, and unapologetic wisdom, Miller — who began painting at the age of thirty-seven in 1928, while he was “supposed to be at work on the great American novel” but was yet to publish anything at all, bought his first watercolors and brushes in the midst of poverty, and was soon painting “morning, noon and night” — explores the eternal question of what art is and what makes one an artist.

Henry Miller: 'The Hat and the Man' (Collection of Leon Shamroy)

Somewhere between the great scientist as a master at the art of observation and the writer, whom Susan Sontag memorably defined as “a professional observer,” Miller places the painter:

What is more intriguing than a spot on the bathroom floor which, as you sit emptying your bowels, assumes a hundred different forms, figures, shapes? Often I found myself on my knees studying a stain on the floor — studying it to detect all that was hidden at first sight. No doubt the painter, studying the face of the sitter whose portrait he is about to do, must be astonished by the things he suddenly recognizes in the familiar visage before him. Looking intently at an eye or a pair of lips, or an ear — particularly an ear, that weird appendage! — one is astounded by the metamorphoses a human countenance undergoes. What is an eye or an ear? The anatomy books will tell you one thing, or many things, but looking at an eye or ear to render it in form, texture, color yields quite another kind of knowledge. Suddenly you see — and it’s not an eye or an ear but a little universe composed of the most extraordinary elements having nothing to do with sight or hearing, with flesh, bone, muscle, cartilage.

In this art of seeing Miller finds the essential question of what a painting really is:

A picture… is a thousand different things to a thousand different people. Like a book, a piece of sculpture, or a poem. One picture speaks to you, another doesn’t… Some pictures invite you to enter, then make you a prisoner. Some pictures you race through, as if on roller skates. Some lead you out by the back door. Some weigh you down, oppress you for days and weeks on end. Others lift you up to the skies, make you weep with joy or gnash your teeth in despair.

Henry Miller: 'Man and Woodpecker' (Collection of William Webb)

But in contemplating this spectrum of the viewer’s emotional experience, Miller counters Tolstoy’s idea of “emotional infectiousness” between artist and audience and writes:

What happens to you when you look at a painting may not be at all what the artist who painted it intended to have happen. Millions of people have stood and gazed in open-mouthed wonder at the Mona Lisa. Does anyone know what was going on in Da Vinci’s mind when he did it? If he were to come to life again and look at it with his own two eyes it is dubious, in my mind, that he would know himself precisely what it was that made him present her in this immortal fashion.

And yet the intensity of the artist’s own emotion, Miller argues, is the true lifeblood of art and of optimism about the human spirit:

To paint is to love again. It’s only when we look with eyes of love that we see as the painter sees. His is a love, moreover, which is free of possessiveness. What the painter sees he is duty-bound to share. Usually he makes us see and feel what ordinarily we ignore or are immune to. His manner of approaching the world tells us, in effect, that nothing is vile or hideous, nothing is stale, flat and unpalatable unless it be our own power of vision. To see is not merely to look. One must look-see. See into and around.

Henry Miller: 'Street Scene: Minsk or Pinsk' (Collection of Henry Miller)

He recounts the profound transformation he witnessed within himself when he “first began to view the world with the eyes of a painter” and learned a whole new way of paying attention — a way that lives up to Mary Oliver’s beautiful assertion that attention without feeling … is only a report.” Miller writes:

The most familiar things, objects which I had gazed at all my life, now became an unending source of wonder, and with the wonder, of course, affection. A tea pot, an old hammer, or chipped cup, whatever came to hand I looked upon as if I had never seen it before. I hadn’t, of course. Do not most of us go through life blind, deaf, insensitive? Now as I studied the object’s physiognomy, its texture, its way of speaking, I entered into its life, its history, its purpose, its association with other objects, all of which only endeared it the more… Have you ever noticed that the stones one gathers at the beach are grateful when we hold them in our hands and caress them? Do they not take on a new expression? An old pot loves to be rubbed with tenderness and appreciation. So with an axe: kept in good condition, it always serves its master lovingly.

Unlike his longtime lover and lifelong friend Anaïs Nin, who believed that “if one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects,” Miller extols the gladdening assurance of the old:

I have always cherished old things, used things, things marked by the passage of time and human events. I think of my own self this way, as something much handled, much knocked about, as worn and polished with use and abuse. As something serviceable, perhaps I should say. More serviceable for having had so many masters, so many wretched, glorious, haphazard experiences and encounters. Which explains, perhaps, why it is that when I start to do a head it always turns into a “self-portrait.” Even when it becomes a woman, even when it bears no resemblance to me at all. I know myself, my changing faces, my ineradicable Stone Age expression. It’s what happened to me that interests me, not resemblances. I am a worn, used creature, an object that loves to be handled, rubbed, caressed, stuffed in a coat pocket, or left to bake in the sun. Something to be used or not used, as you like.

Henry Miller: 'Girl with Bird' (Collection of Leon Shamroy)

Noting that he never dares to call himself a painter and yet he does paint, Miller considers the psychology behind this ambivalent attitude — something at the heart of Ann Truitt’s insightful meditation on the difference between “doing art” and being an artist — and writes:

I turn to painting when I can no longer write. Painting refreshes and restores me; it enables me to forget that I am temporarily unable to write. So I paint while the reservoir replenishes itself.

This, of course, is a strategy that many celebrated creators used — Madeleine L’Engle read science to enrich her writing and Einstein, who termed his creative process “combinatory play,”, is said to have come up with his greatest physics breakthroughs during his violin breaks. But it also makes sense under more formal psychological models of how creativity works, all of which require some form of incubation period, or what Alexander Graham Bell called “unconscious cerebration” — a stage during which “no effort of a direct nature” is made toward one’s creative goal and the mind is instead allowed to perform its essential background processing.

This notion comes very much alive in Miller’s account of those early days when he first became besotted with painting and its singular way of seeing the world:

Though my mind was intensely active, for I was seeing everything in a new light, the impression I had was of painting with some other part of my being. My mind went on humming, like a wheel that continues to spin after the hand has let go, but it didn’t get frazzled and exhausted as it would after a few hours of writing. While I played, for I never looked on it as work, I whistled, hummed, danced on one foot, then the other, and talked to myself.

[…]

It was a joy to go on turning [paintings] out like a madman — perhaps because I didn’t have to prove anything, either to the world or to myself. I wasn’t hepped on becoming a painter. Not at all. I was simply wiggling out of the strait-jacket.

He draws a further contrast between painting and writing in their respective effects on the creator’s psyche:

I enjoy talking to painters more than to writers… Painters give me the impression of being less used up by their daily task than writers or musicians. Also, they use words in a more plastic way, as if conscious of their very substantial originals. When they write … they reveal a poetic touch which writers often lack. Perhaps this is due to living continuously with flesh, textures, objects, and not merely with ideas, abstractions, complexes. Often they are mimes or story tellers, and nearly always good cooks. The writer, on the other hand, is so often pale, awkward, incompetent in everything except the business of putting words together.

The disposition of the painter and the writer, Miller observes with the warm wryness of someone very much aware that he is first a writer, differs not only in their psychic state during creation but also in how each relates to their finished work:

To paint is to love again, live again, see again. To get up at the crack of dawn in order to take a peek at the water colors one did the day before, or even a few hours before, is like stealing a look at the beloved while she sleeps. The thrill is even greater if one has first to draw back the curtains. How they glow in the cold light of early dawn! … Is there any writer who rouses himself at daybreak in order to read the pages of his manuscript? Perish the thought!

And yet Miller notes that many celebrated writers were also “painters, musicians, actors, ambassadors, mathematicians,” of which he observes:

When one is an artist all mediums open up… Every artist worth his salt has his [hobby]. It’s the norm, not the exception.

Henry Miller: 'Marcel Proust' (Collection of Henry Miller)

For Miller, part of the allure of painting lies in its superior, almost primitive sincerity, of which only children and the rare adult artist are true masters — for the same reason that children have a wealth to teach us about risk, failure, and growth. Miller writes:

For me the paintings of children belong side by side with the works of the masters… The work of a child never fails to make appeal, to claim us, because it is always honest and sincere, always imbued with the magic certitude born of the direct, spontaneous approach.

[…]

Paul Klee … had the ability to return us to the world of the child as well as to that of the poet, the mathematician, the alchemist, the seer. In the paintings of Paul Klee we are privileged to witness the miracle of the pedagogue slaying the pedagogue. He learned in order to forget, it would seem. He was a spiritual nomad endowed with the most sensitive palps… He almost never failed, and he never, never, never said too much.

Paul Klee: Senecio (1922)

Miller compares his own way of learning to that of children:

We all learn as much as we wish to and no more. We learn in different ways, sometimes by not learning…. My way is by trial and error, by groping, stumbling, questioning.

Noting that very few American painters excite him at all — among the exceptions he admiringly cites Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock — Miller condemns the toxic effect of consumerism, something he had spiritedly condemned three decades earlier, on the creative spirit:

To paint is to love again, and to love is to live to the fullest. But what kind of love, what sort of life can one hope to find in a vacuum cluttered with every conceivable gadget, every conceivable money maker, every last comfort, every useless luxury? To live and love, and to give expression to it in paint, one must also be a true believer. There must be something to worship. Where in this broad land is the Holy of Holies hidden?

[…]

The practice of any art demands more than mere savoir faire. One must not only be in love with what one does, one must also know how to make love. In love self is obliterated. Only the beloved counts. Whether the beloved be a bowl of fruit, a pastoral scene, or the interior of a bawdy house makes no difference. One must be in it and of it wholly. Before a subject can be transmuted aesthetically it must be devoured and absorbed. If it is a painting it must perspire with ecstasy.

Echoing Nietzsche’s conviction that a full life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, he adds:

The lure of the master lies in the struggle he engenders… [In America] for everything which taxes our patience, our skill, our understanding, we have short cuts… Only the art of love, it would seem, still defies the short cut.

Decades before Lewis Hyde’s now-legendary manifesto for the gift economy and half a century before its modern-day counterpart, Amanda Palmer’s manifesto for the art of asking, Miller writes:

Certainly the surest way to kill an artist is to supply him with everything he needs. Materially he needs but little. What he never gets enough of is appreciation, encouragement, understanding. I have seen painters give away their most cherished work on the impulse of the moment, sometimes in return for a good meal, sometimes for a bit of love, sometimes for no reason at all — simply because it pleased them to do so. And I have seen these same men refuse to sell a cherished painting no matter what the sum offered. I believe that a true artist always prefers to give his work away rather than sell it. A good artist must also have a streak of insanity in him, if by insanity is meant an exaggerated inability to adapt. The individual who can adapt to this mad world of to-day is either a nobody or a sage. In the one case he is immune to art and in the other he is beyond it.

Henry Miller: 'A Bridge Somewhere' (Collection of Howard Welch)

Miller traces this purity of intention back to one of his first mentors and greatest influences, the painter Lilik Schatz, who never condemned Miller’s lack of technique in painting but had no tolerance for “lack of feeling, lack of daring.” Miller quotes Schatz’s memorable advice:

Do anything you like, but do it with conviction!

For their sincerity and integrity of conviction, Miller held painters in high regard his whole life. He describes them as “all lovable souls, and some … possessed of a wisdom altogether uncommon.” Even though these impressions were based on Miller’s friendships with a number of prominent artists, including Man Ray and Beauford Delaney, he remains most moved by the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz, a man of “vigorous, youthful spirit” and “unique way of looking at things”:

No one had ever talked painting to me the way Stieglitz did. It wasn’t his talk alone either, but the look in his eyes which accompanied it. That he was not a painter amazed me…. If ever the artist had a friend, a spokesman, a champion defender, it was in the person of Alfred Stieglitz… He was one of the very few Americans … whose approach to a work of art inspired reverence for the artist, for his work, for art itself. Lucky for us who come under his spell that he was not a painter, that he had created for himself the role of interpreter and defender.

Miller’s deep appreciation for such champions of the artist echoes, coincidentally, what Georgia O’Keeffe — the love of Stieglitz’s life, and a legendary artist whose own career was sparked by a friend’s unflinching faith — once wrote of the only true measure of success in art. In a sentiment that Robert Krulwich would come to echo half a century later in his magnificent commencement address on the importance of “friends in low places,” Miller extols the enormous spiritual value of such supporters:

Usually the artist has two life-long companions, neither of his own choosing… — poverty and loneliness. To have a friend who understands and appreciates your work, one who never lets you down but who becomes more devoted, more reverent, as the years go by, that is a rare experience. It takes only one friend, if he is a man of faith, to work miracles.

Henry Miller: 'Young Boy' (Collection of Henry Miller)

But Miller’s timeliest point is his word of advice and admonition to young artists, heeding which is doubly important in our networked and networking age preoccupied with how large an artist’s Twitter following is or how “successful” her Kickstarter campaign:

How distressing it is to hear young painters talking about dealers, shows, newspaper reviews, rich patrons, and so on. All that comes with time — or will never come. But first one must make friends, create them through one’s work. What sustains the artist is the look of love in the eyes of the beholder. Not money, not the right connections, not exhibitions, not flattering reviews.

Miller intuits with great poetic precision what we now know empirically about grit being more important than “genius”:

To win through by sheer force of genius is one thing; to survive and continue to create when every last door is slammed in one’s face is another. Nobody acquires genius — it is God-given. But one can acquire patience, fortitude, wisdom, understanding. Perhaps the greatest gift [is] to love what one does whether it causes a stir or not.

In yet another stroke of prescience, Miller reveals himself as an early proponent of the pay-what-you-wish model of funding creative endeavor — the model that makes Brain Pickings possible — and adds:

Who knows what is good for man in this life? Poverty is one of the misfortunes people seem to dread even more than sickness… But is it so dreadful? For me this seemingly bleak period was a most instructive one, because not being able to write for money I had to turn to something else to keep going. It could have been shining shoes; it happened to be water colors. To make water colors for money never gave me the least qualm. I set no price on my labors. Whatever the buyer chose to offer, whatever he thought he could afford, no matter how ridiculous the sum, I said yes… I earned just enough to keep my head above water. It was like writing songs and getting paid to whistle them.

Henry Miller: 'Clown' (Collection of Hoki Miller)

Having written about the beautiful osmosis of giving and receiving nearly three decades earlier, Miller closes with a wonderfully touching personal anecdote — the kind found in Charles Bukowski’s beautiful letter of gratitude to his first patron. Illustrating the mutually ennobling effects of this kindness economy, Miller recounts one such early friendly spirit to whom he owes his creative destiny:

All this good fortune — of being able to work like a dog in happy poverty — was the result of a chance encounter with Attilio Bowinkel who ran an art shop in Westwood Village. One day I entered his shop to buy two tubes of paint. I asked for the cheapest water colors he had. When he asked me if that was all I needed I told him frankly that that was all I could afford at the moment. Whereupon the good Mr. Bowinkel put me a few discreet but pertinent queries. I answered briefly and truthfully. Then he said, and I shall never forget it: “Choose what you like … paper, paints, brushes, whatever you need. It’s a gift.” A few days later he came to the Green House to inspect my work. I blushed when I showed him what I had on hand. He didn’t say whether they were good or bad but on leaving he took a few with him, and the next day, on passing his shop, I noticed two of them in the window, beautifully framed. They were sold that very day, to Arthur Freed of M.G.M., a collector of modern European paintings… In Attilio Bowinkel I found a friend and a saviour.

To Paint Is to Love Again is hard to find but well worth the effort — it is indeed the kind of book that might one day possess you to do something as crazy as telling a stranger on the New York subway about it. Complement it with Miller on the art of living, the secret to remaining young at heart, the greatest thing about the universe, and his eleven commandments of writing.

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04 AUGUST, 2014

Henry Miller on Money and How It Gets That Way

By:

“The dilemma in which we find ourselves today is that no matter how much we increase the purchasing power of the wage-earner he never has enough.”

Henry Miller was not a man shy of strong opinions, having pondered such existential questions as the art of living, the joys of growing old, the future of humanity, and the meaning of life. But there was one inevitable, essential aspect of existence to which he’d never given much thought until his friend Ezra Pound, upon reading Miller’s controversial novel Tropic of Cancer in 1935, inquired about it: Miller received a postcard from Pound, penned “in his usual cabalistic style,” asking if he had ever considered the issue of money, “what makes it and how it gets that way.”

The question, at once simple and riddled with complexities, gave Miller pause. In the year that followed, he collected his “meditations and lucubrations” on the subject in Money and How It Gets That Way, originally published in Paris in 1938 and reissued in America as a limited-edition chapbook of 1,500 copies eight years later, shortly after the end of WWII — a time when the question of money was even more loaded, uncomfortable, and urgently pressing, making Miller’s angle of playfulness and poignancy all the more compelling. Only a few copies of the chapbook, which features illustrations by Jack Wright, are known to survive. The essay was eventually included in the anthology Stand Still Like the Hummingbird (public library), which also gave us Miller on originality.

After a brief history of how money was invented, Miller considers “the axiomatic” nature of the concept:

Money has no life of its own except as money. To the man in the street, unaccustomed to thinking of money in abstract terms, this obvious truism may smack of casuistry. Yet nothing could be more simple and consistent than this reduction to tautology, since money in any period whatever of man’s history has, like life itself, never been found to represent the absence of money. Money is, and whatever form or shape it may assume it is never more nor less than money. To inquire therefore how it comes about that money has become what it now is is as idle as to inquire what makes evolution.

[…]

Money, then, whatever its real nature, reveals itself to us through form. Just as hydrogen and oxygen reveal their presence to us in varying forms and yet are not themselves, either separately or combined, such as water or peroxide, so money, whether in specie or counterfeit, is always something inclusive, coexistent, consubstantial and beyond the thing manifest. In a profound sense money may be said to resemble God Almighty.

This worship of money, Miller argues, effects a particular deterioration of the soul. A man of wide and cross-disciplinary interests, he crafts an apt metaphor out of the biological process of heart-rot — a fungal disease that decays a tree’s trunk and branches from the inside out, which scientists first began studying about a decade before Miller’s treatise. With his signature blend of intellectual wisdom and irreverent wit, he writes:

To borrow an expression from the arboriculturist, we might add that gold has a tendency at times to bring about a condition of “white heart rot.” That is to say that, though outwardly all may seem well, the eye of the forester can detect beneath the bark the disease which lurks in the very heart of the tree and ravages it mercilessly. White-heart-rot has been frequently compared to tuberculosis in the human organism; it is encountered chiefly in metropolitan areas among city trees. In finance it is recognized as “inflation.” If the disease has not completely eaten the tree away cement may be administered to preserve what life is left. With dying currencies the treatment employed is to amass gold, or to ship it frantically from one country to another. Whenever, therefore, gold is amassed in unusual quantities, or when its movements become erratic and frenetic, the indications are that the money of the countries in question is diseased.

This rotting of the psyche, Miller suggests, is rooted in a dynamic that springs from the religious concept of guilt and has to do with the notion of debt:

The evolution of the idea of money is closely associated, for reasons which must be apparent to even the most casual observer, with the development of the notions of sin and guilt. Even in the earliest periods of trade we find rudimentary principles at work such as would lead us to believe that primitive man had evolved methods of exchange which sui generis implied the existence of debt. It was not until Ricardo’s time, however, that a formula was arrived at which expressed the relationship between debtor and creditor beyond all caviling. With almost Euclidian simplicity Ricardo summed it up thus: “a debt is discharged by the delivery of money.”

But what compounds these symbolic complexities is also the fact that money itself has become an abstraction — something Miller argues was brought on by the invention of double-entry bookkeeping, which led money to be “regarded not in terms of pieces of money but as an abstract symbol of wealth”:

With the invention of double-entry bookkeeping … the reality of money began to diminish until in our day it has almost disappeared entirely.

It’s worth pausing here to note that Miller expressed these concerns in 1936, decades before credit and charge cards became the dominant Western mode of payment — practice that further abstracts money and removes it from its source, to say nothing of recent modalities like crypto-currency, abstracting the transactional exchange of goods and services further still.

And yet, noting that money evolved out of the gold standard, Miller laments the “great pity” of the shift away from it, “for gold is capable of making a greater appeal to the imagination than any other symbol known to man.” But perhaps the very allure of concepts like crypto-currency lies in their ability to stir the imagination in new, differently compelling ways. Still, despite this — or because of it — Miller’s words ring with double poignancy today:

To have money in the pocket is one of the small but inestimable pleasures of life. To have money in the bank is not quite the same thing, but to take money out of the bank is indisputably a great joy. The pleasure then is in the handling, not the spending necessarily, as some economists would have us believe. It is very possible, indeed, that the coin or specie came into existence to meet this very human need…

Here, Miller makes an interesting point about the concept of price — perhaps the most artificial abstraction of all:

A price is a piece of goods, a commodity as we say, expressed in gold or any other metal that is acceptable to the public conscience, without the necessity of being weighed on the spot. Price has value only to the extent that there is a mobile cash quantum to back it up. Anything which can inflate to-day and collapse to-morrow has neither weight, substance nor value. It is not even gas, because gas after all answers to all three of these descriptions. This is to my mind the best proof of what thinking in money leads to, which is the collapse of thinking, or, as Sir Isaac Newton expressed it, “a vacuum in extenso.”

And so we get to the difference between money and wealth and the disconnect between being rich and being wealthy. Long before the concept of “the hedonic treadmill” was coined, Miller describes it with immeasurable wisdom and wit:

Money … is only theoretically related to wealth. In the realm of theory it is true that “action and reaction are equal and opposite,” but money is more than a theory, and wealth, even if it is not money, is at any rate something real. What is needed above everything is a clear conception of money.

The dilemma in which we find ourselves today is that no matter how much we increase the purchasing power of the wage-earner he never has enough. If he has enough money to own a Ford he wants a Packard; if he has a Packard he wants a Rolls Royce, and if he has a Rolls Royce he wants an aeroplane… Men imagine that they need money, that if they had it they could satisfy their desires, cure their ills, insure their old age, and so on. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For if it were so that money could accomplish all these miracles, then the happiest man on earth would be the millionaire, which is obviously an untruth. Naturally those who have not enough to eat, nor place to sleep, are just as miserable as the millionaire, perhaps even more miserable, though it is difficult at times to tell with certainty. As always, the golden mean obtains. He is sure to be more happy who has eaten well and slept well and has besides a little money in his jeans. Such men are rare to find for the simple reason that most men are incapable of appreciating the wisdom of such a simple truth. The worker thinks he would be better off if he were running the factory; the owner of the factory thinks he would be better off if he were a financier; and the financier knows he would be better off if he were clean out of the bloody mess and living the simple life.

Money, then, is best used as a dynamic method for inhabiting the present moment, rather than a static symbol of wealth to amass and hold on to for future use — another manifestation of Miller’s philosophy of flux. He writes:

Money is one of the insoluble problems of life. Men of theory will tell you that it is unnecessary, but men of theory are generally very ignorant fellows. Often they have never had any money, and if they had it they wouldn’t know what to do with it. The last thing in the world to occur to their minds would be to spend it. And yet that is the chief satisfaction which money affords. Whoever has money let him put it in circulation!

Money and How It Gets That Way is, sadly, well out of print but well worth the hunt. Complement it with John Armstrong on how to worry less about money and Paul Graham on how to get rich, then revisit Miller on growing old, the meaning of life, and his irreverent notice to visitors.

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26 JUNE, 2014

The Measure of a Life Well Lived: Henry Miller on Growing Old, the Perils of Success, and the Secret of Remaining Young at Heart

By:

“If you can fall in love again and again… if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical… you’ve got it half licked.”

“On how one orients himself to the moment,” 48-year-old Henry Miller wrote in reflecting on the art of living in 1939, “depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.” Over the course of his long life, Miller sought ceaselessly to orient himself toward maximal fruitfulness, from his creative discipline to his philosophical reflections to his exuberant irreverence.

More than three decades later, shortly after his eightieth birthday, Miller wrote a beautiful essay on the subject of aging and the key to living a full life. It was published in 1972 in an ultra-limited-edition chapbook titled On Turning Eighty (public library), alongside two other essays. Only 200 copies were printed, numbered and signed by the author.

Miller begins by considering the true measure of youthfulness:

If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power. If you are young in years but already weary in spirit, already on the way to becoming an automaton, it may do you good to say to your boss — under your breath, of course — “Fuck you, Jack! You don’t own me!” … If you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you’ve got it half licked.

He later adds:

I have very few friends or acquaintances my own age or near it. Though I am usually ill at ease in the company of elderly people I have the greatest respect and admiration for two very old men who seem to remain eternally young and creative. I mean [the Catalan cellist and conductor] Pablo Casals and Pablo Picasso, both over ninety now. Such youthful nonagenarians put the young to shame. Those who are truly decrepit, living corpses, so to speak, are the middle-aged, middleclass men and women who are stuck in their comfortable grooves and imagine that the status quo will last forever or else are so frightened it won’t that they have retreated into their mental bomb shelters to wait it out.

Miller considers the downside of success — not the private kind, per Thoreau’s timeless definition, but the public kind, rooted in the false deity of prestige:

If you have had a successful career, as presumably I have had, the late years may not be the happiest time of your life. (Unless you’ve learned to swallow your own shit.) Success, from the worldly standpoint, is like the plague for a writer who still has something to say. Now, when he should be enjoying a little leisure, he finds himself more occupied than ever. Now he is the victim of his fans and well wishers, of all those who desire to exploit his name. Now it is a different kind of struggle that one has to wage. The problem now is how to keep free, how to do only what one wants to do.

He goes on to reflect on how success affects people’s quintessence:

One thing seems more and more evident to me now — people’s basic character does not change over the years… Far from improving them, success usually accentuates their faults or short-comings. The brilliant guys at school often turn out to be not so brilliant once they are out in the world. If you disliked or despised certain lads in your class you will dislike them even more when they become financiers, statesmen or five star generals. Life forces us to learn a few lessons, but not necessarily to grow.

Somewhat ironically, Anaïs Nin — Miller’s onetime lover and lifelong friend — once argued beautifully for the exact opposite, the notion that our personalities are fundamentally fluid and ever-growing, something that psychologists have since corroborated.

Miller returns to youth and the young as a kind of rearview mirror for one’s own journey:

You observe your children or your children’s children, making the same absurd mistakes, heart-rending mistakes often, which you made at their age. And there is nothing you can say or do to prevent it. It’s by observing the young, indeed, that you eventually understand the sort of idiot you yourself were once upon a time — and perhaps still are.

Like George Eliot, who so poignantly observed the trajectory of happiness over the course of human life, Miller extols the essential psychoemotional supremacy of old age:

At eighty I believe I am a far more cheerful person than I was at twenty or thirty. I most definitely would not want to be a teenager again. Youth may be glorious, but it is also painful to endure…

I was cursed or blessed with a prolonged adolescence; I arrived at some seeming maturity when I was past thirty. It was only in my forties that I really began to feel young. By then I was ready for it. (Picasso once said: “One starts to get young at the age of sixty, and then it’s too late.”) By this time I had lost many illusions, but fortunately not my enthusiasm, nor the joy of living, nor my unquenchable curiosity.

And therein lies Miller’s spiritual center — the life-force that stoked his ageless inner engine:

Perhaps it is curiosity — about anything and everything — that made me the writer I am. It has never left me…

With this attribute goes another which I prize above everything else, and that is the sense of wonder. No matter how restricted my world may become I cannot imagine it leaving me void of wonder. In a sense I suppose it might be called my religion. I do not ask how it came about, this creation in which we swim, but only to enjoy and appreciate it.

Two years later, Miller would come to articulate this with even more exquisite clarity in contemplating the meaning of life, but here he contradicts Henry James’s assertion that seriousness preserves one’s youth and turns to his other saving grace — the capacity for light-heartedness as an antidote to life’s often stifling solemnity:

Perhaps the most comforting thing about growing old gracefully is the increasing ability not to take things too seriously. One of the big differences between a genuine sage and a preacher is gaiety. When the sage laughs it is a belly laugh; when the preacher laughs, which is all too seldom, it is on the wrong side of the face.

Equally important, Miller argues, is countering the human compulsion for self-righteousness. In a sentiment Malcolm Gladwell would come to complement nearly half a century later in advocating for the importance of changing one’s mind regularly, Miller writes:

With advancing age my ideals, which I usually deny possessing, have definitely altered. My ideal is to be free of ideals, free of principles, free of isms and ideologies. I want to take to the ocean of life like a fish takes to the sea…

I no longer try to convert people to my view of things, nor to heal them. Neither do I feel superior because they appear to be lacking in intelligence.

Miller goes on to consider the brute ways in which we often behave out of self-righteousness and deformed idealism:

One can fight evil but against stupidity one is helpless… I have accepted the fact, hard as it may be, that human beings are inclined to behave in ways that would make animals blush. The ironic, the tragic thing is that we often behave in ignoble fashion from what we consider the highest motives. The animal makes no excuse for killing his prey; the human animal, on the other hand, can invoke God’s blessing when massacring his fellow men. He forgets that God is not on his side but at his side.

But despite observing these lamentable human tendencies, Miller remains an optimist at heart. He concludes by returning to the vital merriment at the root of his life-force:

My motto has always been: “Always merry and bright.” Perhaps that is why I never tire of quoting Rabelais: “For all your ills I give you laughter.” As I look back on my life, which has been full of tragic moments, I see it more as a comedy than a tragedy. One of those comedies in which while laughing your guts out you feel your inner heart breaking. What better comedy could there be? The man who takes himself seriously is doomed…

There is nothing wrong with life itself. It is the ocean in which we swim and we either adapt to it or sink to the bottom. But it is in our power as human beings not to pollute the waters of life, not to destroy the spirit which animates us.

The most difficult thing for a creative individual is to refrain from the effort to make the world to his liking and to accept his fellow man for what he is, whether good, bad or indifferent.

The entire On Turning Eighty chapbook, which includes two other essays, is a sublime read. Complement it with Miller on writing, altruism, the meaning of life, what creative death means, and his 11 commandments of writing.

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27 MAY, 2013

Henry Miller’s Notice to Visitors

By:

“When you come please be so kind as to check your neuroses and psychoses at the gate.”

Fame comes with a vexing flipside — the constant barrage of requests and, in the pre-digital days, the common offense of unannounced in-person visits to the famed person’s home or workspace. Managing this onslaught of generally well-meaning but suffocating adulation with the right balance of graciousness and firmness, the kind that both honors the admiration and protects one’s creative space and regimen, is an art unto itself. Hardly anyone has mastered it with more humor and heart than the great Henry Miller — he of profound cosmic insight, great wisdom about life, and creative discipline worth protecting. Shortly after he moved to California’s Big Sur in 1940 in search for a haven to write, as his literary fame and notoriety were gathering momentum in America, Miller hung the following delightful and inimitably Millerian handwritten note on his front door, included in his altogether fantastic 1971 autobiography, My Life and Times (public library):

The undersigned wishes to inform all and sundry that he has long since left the Abode of Peace, that he no longer has any comfort or inspiration to offer, and that even the migratory birds avoid this spot. Prayers are offered up daily — without charge. The garden has been transformed into an open air Vespasienne. Look toward Nepenthe when you water the flowers. If you are seeking Truth travel a little farther south : you will find it at Ojai Chez Krishnamurti. Be kind to the children – they abide. For a metaphysical treat stop at the Big Sur Inn which is also a haven for stray cats and dogs. Life along the South Coast is just a bed of roses, with a few thorns and nettles interspersed. The life class meets every Monday regardless. Refreshments are served when demanded. Those interested in celestial navigation are advised to first obtain a rudimentary knowledge of integral calculus, phlebotomy, astral physics and related subjects. The use of liquor is strictly forbidden on interplanetary flights.

When you come please be so kind as to check your neuroses and psychoses at the gate. Gossip may be exchanged during the wee hours of the morning when the gremlins have left. Please bear in mind that this is a small community and news travels fast. (Carrier pigeons are provided when necessary.) Fans and other obnoxious pests would do well to maintain silence. Questions relating to work-in-progress will be answered in stereotype fashion in the columns of the Big Sur Guide at the usual space rates. God is Love — and in the ultimate Love will prevail. Remember, man is the ruler, not Saturn! Let us do our best, even if it gets us nowhere. In the midst of darkness there is light. “I am the light of the world,” said Jesus. He said a mouthful. Light, more light!

Respectfully,

Henry Miller

The notice is currently on display at the Henry Miller Memorial Library at Big Sur and can be found in Miller’s autobiography. Complement it with Miller on creative death and the joy of urination.

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