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Posts Tagged ‘Henry Miller’

21 MARCH, 2013

Henry Miller on the Mystery of the Universe and the Meaning of Life

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“This is the greatest damn thing about the universe. That we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it.”

More than merely one of the most memorable, prolific, and disciplined authors of the twentieth century, Henry Miller was also a champion of the wisdom of the heart, a poignant oracle of writing, a modern philosopher. But hardly anywhere does Miller’s spirit shine more brilliantly than in the 1974 gem This Is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn: Conversations with the Author from the Henry Miller Odyssey (public library) — not a book in the traditional sense, but “a transmutation, a reduction of the hours and hours of film and tape” that filmmaker Robert Snyder began recording in 1968 as the basis for the 1969 documentary The Henry Miller Odyssey. The book itself, as Snyder puts it, “is only a skimming of the film of the man” and “couldn’t be more than an invitation to the man’s work.”

Anchoring the biographical anecdotes are Miller’s many meditations on writing, creativity, and the meaning of life. Among the most poignant is this hand-written “memo to self,” dated 9/17/1918, in which Miller adds to other famous wisdom on the meaning of life:

What are we here for if not to enjoy life eternal, solve what problems we can, give light, peace and joy to our fellow-man, and leave this dear fucked-up planet a little healthier than when we were born.

The book ends with Miller’s grandest reflection on the eternal mystery of the universe, something great minds from Galileo to Montaigne to Neil deGrasse Tyson have pondered. He observes:

No matter what you touch and you wish to know about, you end up in a sea of mystery. You see there’s no beginning or end, you can go back as far as you want, forward as far as you want, but you never got to it, it’s like the essence, it’s that right, it remains. This is the greatest damn thing about the universe. That we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it. And it’s meant to be that way, do y’know. And there’s where our reverence should come in. Before everything, the littlest thing as well as the greatest. The tiniest, the horseshit, as well as the angels, do y’know what I mean. It’s all mystery. All impenetrable, as it were, right?

Complement This Is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn with Miller’s meditations on creative death and the art of living.

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07 DECEMBER, 2012

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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30 NOVEMBER, 2012

Henry Miller’s Reflections on Writing

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“Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.”

Why do writers — great, beloved, timeless writers — write? George Orwell had his four motives. For Joan Didion, it is a matter of ego and self-revelation. David Foster Wallace, perhaps ironically in retrospect, wrote purely for the fun of it. For Charles Bukowski, it was an inextinguishable inner burning.

From The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) — the sublime anthology of Henry Miller’s short stories, profiles, and literary essays that gave us his insights on the art of living and the future of mankind — comes a fantastic, timeless essay titled “Reflections on Writing,” in which Miller examines the psychological, emotional, and social roots of the impulse to create literature.

Miller begins by relaying his journey of discovery, that essential and infinite process that helps us transmute information into knowledge and wisdom:

Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become the path himself.

I began in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and emotions and experiences. Even now I do not consider myself a writer in the ordinary sense of the word. I am a man telling the story of his life, a process which appears more and more inexhaustible as I go on. Like the world-evolution, it is endless. It is a turning inside out, a voyaging through X dimensions, with the result that somewhere along the way one discovers that what one has to tell is not nearly so important as the telling itself. It is this quality about all art which gives it a metaphysical hue, which lifts it out of time and space and centers or integrates it to the whole cosmic process. It is this about art which is ‘therapeutic’: significance, purposelessness, infinitude.

From the very beginning almost I was deeply aware there is no goal. … With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief. I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as man.

In describing his initial attempts to analyze and imitate the writing of his literary heroes, but failing to produce “good” writing himself, Miller depicts failure as a kind of creative catharsis, an essential prerequisite for discovering one’s own purpose:

My huge failure was like the recapitulation of the experience of the race: I had to grow foul with knowledge, realize the futility of everything, smash everything, grow desperate, then humble, then sponge myself off the slate, as it were, in order to recover my authenticity. I had to arrive at the brink and then take a leap in the dark.

He goes on to make the case for a “condition of sublime indifference,” nestled with the Bradburyesque insistence on writing with joy — a necessary antidote to the “tortured genius” myth of creativity, one Bukowski has also famously debunked. Miller writes:

On the surface, where the historical battles rage, where everything is interpreted in terms of money and power, there may be crowding, but life only begins when one drops below the surface, when one gives up the struggle, sinks and disappears from sight. Now I can as easily not write as write: there is no longer any compulsion, no longer any therapeutic aspect to it. Whatever I do is done out of sheer joy: I drop my fruits like a ripe tree. What the general reader or the critic makes of it is not my concern. I am not establishing values: I defecate and nourish. There is nothing more to it.

[…]

Paradise is everywhere and every road, if one continues along it far enough, leads to it.

On words vs. language:

I do not believe in words, no matter if strung together by the most skillful man: I believe in language, which is something beyond words, something which words give only an adequate illusion of. Words do not exist separately, except in the minds of scholars, etymologists, philologists, etc. Words divorced from language are dead things, and yield no secrets.

In arguing for the value of making peace with mystery, Miller echoes Rilke and John Keats’s concept of “negative capability” with a sentiment later articulated by great scientific minds as well, including Richard Feynman and Isaac Asimov. Miller puts it beautifully:

Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it.

He zeroes in on the quintessential purpose of the writer with breathtaking poetic precision to convey an ethos reminiscent of his once-lover Anaïs Nin’s:

It is the stuff of life, the very sign of livingness. One gets nearer to the heart of truth, which I suppose is the ultimate aim of the writer, in the measure that he ceases to struggle, in the measure that he abandons the wills. The great writer is the very symbol of life, of the non-perfect. He moves effortlessly, giving the illusion of perfection, from some unknown center which is certainly not the brain center but which is definitely a center, a center connected with the rhythm of the whole universe and consequently as sound, solid, unshakable, as durable, defiant, anarchic, purposeless, as the universe itself. Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life.

Miller adds to history’s keenest definitions of art:

I believe that one has to pass beyond the sphere and influence of art. Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself. Most artists are defeating life by their very attempt to grapple with it. They have split the egg in two. All art, I firmly believe, will one day disappear. But the artist will remain, and life itself will become not ‘an art,’ but art, i.e., will definitely and for all time usurp the field. In any true sense we are certainly not yet alive.

On the fluidity of facts:

Between subjective and objective there is no vital difference. Everything is illusive and more or less transparent. All phenomena, including man and his thoughts about himself, are nothing more than a movable, changeable alphabet. There are no solid facts to get hold of.

Contributing to other famous writerly meditations on truth vs. fiction, Miller notes:

Fiction and invention are of the very fabric of life. The truth is no way disturbed by the violent perturbations of the spirit.

Thus, whatever effects I may obtain by technical device are never the mere results of technique, but the very accurate registering by my seismographic needle of the tumultuous, manifold, mysterious and incomprehensible experiences which I have lived through and which, in the process of writing, are lived through again, differently, perhaps even more tumultuously, more mysteriously, more incomprehensibly. The so-called core of solid fact, which forms the point of departure as well as repair, is deeply embedded in me: I could not possibly lose it, alter it, disguise it, try as I may. And yet it is altered, just as the face of the world is altered, with each moment that we breathe. To record it then, one must give a double illusion — one of arrestation and one of flow. It is this dual trick, so to speak, which gives the illusion of falsity: it is this lie, this fleeting, metamorphic mask, which is of the very essence of art. One anchors oneself in the flow: one adopts the lying mask in order to reveal the truth.

Putting the routine of writing in wonderfully introspective and soulful terms, he stresses the generative role of what William Gibson has termed “personal micro-culture,” attesting to the notion that creativity is merely the combinatorial expression of one’s lived experience:

Just as life begins at any moment, through an act of realization, so the work. But each beginning, whether of book page, paragraph, sentence or phrase, marks a vital connection, and it is in the vitality, the durability, the timelessness and changelessness of the thoughts and events that I plunge anew each time. Every line and word is vitally connected with my life, my life only, be it in the form of deed, event, fact, thought, emotion, desire, evasion, frustration, dream, revery, vagary, even the unfinished nothings which float listlessly in the brain like the snapped filaments of a spider’s web. There is nothing really vague or tenuous — even the nothingnessses are sharp, tough, definite, durable. Like the spider I return again and again to the task, conscious that the web I am spinning is made of my own substance, that it will never fail me, never run dry.

He echoes the Japanese ethos of wabi-sabi, a philosophy of finding beauty in impermanence and decay:

In an age marked by dissolution, liquidation seems to me a virtue, nay a moral imperative. … I have always looked upon decay as being just as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth.

Miller ends with a poignant, poetic meditation on authenticity and the life of purpose:

I had to learn to think, feel and see in a totally new fashion, in an uneducated way, in my own way, which is the hardest thing in the world. I had to throw myself into the current, knowing that I would probably sink. The great majority of artists are throwing themselves in with life-preservers around their necks, and more often than not it is the life-preserver which sinks them. Nobody can drown in the ocean of reality who voluntarily gives himself up to the experience. Whatever there be of progress in life comes not through adaptation but through daring, through obeying the blind urge. ‘No daring is fatal,’ said René Crevel, a phrase which I shall never forget. The whole logic of the universe is contained in daring, i.e., in creating from the flimsiest, slenderest support. In the beginning this daring is mistaken for will, but with time the will drops away and the automatic process takes its place, which again has to be broken or dropped and a new certitude established which has nothing to do with knowledge, skill, technique or faith. By daring one arrives at this mysterious X position of the artist, and it is this anchorage which no one can describe in words but yet subsists and exudes from every line that is written.

The Wisdom of the Heart is an absolute treasure in its entirety. For more timeless wisdom on writing, revisit Miller’s 11 commandments and complement with Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, Joy Williams on why writers write, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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