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Henry Miller on Art, War, and the Future of Humanity

“It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.”

In the heat of World War II, Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980) — voracious reader, masterful letter-writer, champion of combinatorial creativity, one disciplined writer — was living in Beverly Glen, California, and wrestling with the soul-stirring questions that war inevitably brings to the surface. It was then he penned “Of Art and the Future,” a wide-ranging essay on war, art, technology, the role of women in society, and mankind’s future, eventually published in Sunday After the War (public library) in 1944. In 1959, it was included in The Henry Miller Reader — also featuring Miller’s wonderful “The Wisdom of the Heart” — where he contextualizes it with a caveat: “The war was still on, my royalties from Europe were cut off, and I was in the doldrums.” Still, the essay offers a timeless and immeasurably timely lens on the triumphs and tyrannies of the human spirit.

Miller begins by considering the continuum of time:

To most men the past is never yesterday, or five minutes ago, but distant, misty epochs some of which are glorious and others abominable, Each one reconstructs the past according to his temperament and experience. We read history to corroborate our own views, not to learn what scholars think to be true. About the future there is as little agreement as bout the past, I’ve noticed. We stand in relation to the past very much like the cow in the meadow — endlessly chewing the cud. It is not something finished and done with, as we sometimes fondly imagine, but something alive, constantly changing, and perpetually with us. But the future too is with us perpetually, and alive and constantly changing. The difference between the two, a thoroughly fictive one, incidentally, is that the future we create whereas the past can only be recreated. As for that constantly vanishing point called the present, that fulcrum which melts simultaneously into past and future, only those who deal with the eternal know and live in it, acknowledging it to be all.

He articulates the era’s familiar fear of technology:

The cultural era of Europe, and that includes America, is finished. The next era belongs to the technician; the day of the mind machine is dawning. God pity us!

Vintage illustration for Homer’s ‘The Iliad and the Odyssey’ by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

In a prescient contemplation, all the more true and urgent today, Miller considers the state of war and peace:

In the future we shall have only “world wars” — that much is already clear.

With total wars a new element creeps into the picture. From now on, every one is involved, without exception. What Napoleon began with the sword, and Balzac boasted he would finish with the pen, is actually going to be carried through by the collaboration of the whole wide world, including the primitive races whom we study and exploit shamelessly and ruthlessly. As war spread wider and wider so will peace sink deeper and deeper into the hearts of men. If we must fight more whole-heartedly we shall also be obliged to live more whole-heartedly.

He then goes on to echo his then-lover Anaïs Nin‘s poignant meditation on individuals and mass movements:

This war will bring about the realization that the nations of the earth are made up of individuals, not masses. The common man will be the new factor in the world-wide collective mania which will sweep the earth.

Miller considers the role and responsibility of inventors and “geniuses” in moving society forward — something astrophysicists Neil deGrasse Tyson recently discussed on Colbert — with equal parts optimism for human nature and caution of power-warped human intentions:

The problem of power, what to do with it, how to use it, who shall wield it or not wield it, will assume proportions heretofore unthinkable. We are moving into the realm of incalculables and imponderables in our everyday life just as for the last few generations we have been accustoming ourselves to this realm through the play of thought. Everything is coming to fruition, and the harvest will be brilliant and terrifying. To those who look upon such predictions as fantastic I have merely to point out, ask them to imagine, what would happen should we ever unlock the secret patents now hidden in the vaults of our unscrupulous exploiters. Once the present crazy system of exploitation crumbles, and it is crumbling hourly, the powers of the imagination, heretofore stifled and fettered, will run riot. The face of the earth can be changed utterly overnight once we have the courage to concretize the dreams of our inventive geniuses. Never was there such a plentitude of inventors as in this age of destruction. And there is one thing to bear in mind about the man of genius — even the inventor — usually he is on the side of humanity, not the devil. It has been the crowning shame of this age to have exploited the man of genius for sinister ends. But such a procedure always acts as a boomerang: ultimately the man of genius always has his revenge.

One could easily see him as a champion of today’s 99%:

What is now at the bottom will come to the top, and vice versa. The world has literally been standing on its head for thousands of years.

Vintage illustration for Homer’s ‘The Iliad and the Odyssey’ by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

Two years before Races of Mankind, Miller makes an eloquent case for abolishing racist sensibilities:

We have talked breathlessly about equality and democracy without ever facing the reality of it. We shall have to take these despised and neglected ones to our bosom, melt into them, absorb their anguish and misery. We cannot have a real brotherhood so long as we cherish the illusion of racial superiority, so long as we fear the touch of yellow, brown, black or red skins.

He then presents a vision for the future of the city, strikingly aligned with today’s notion of global citizenship:

The city, which was the birth-place of civilization, such as we know it to be, will exist no more. There will be nuclei of course, but they will be mobile and fluid. The peoples of the earth will no longer be shut off from one another within states but will flow freely over the surface of the earth and intermingle. There will be no fixed constellations of human aggregates.

Miller’s addition to history’s famous definitions of art mirrors Joan Didion’s conception of writing as power. He writes:

At the root of the art instinct is this desire for power — vicarious power. The artist is situated hierarchically between the hero and the saint.

[…]

To put it quite simply, art is only a stepping stone to reality; it is the vestibule in which we undergo the rites of initiation. Man’s task is to make of himself a work of art. The creations which man makes manifest have no validity in themselves; they serve to awaken, that is all.

Despite his own profound passion for books, Miller envisions a future where the bound page no longer is:

In a few hundred years or less books will be a thing of the past. There was a time when poets communicated with the world without the medium of print; the time will come when they will communicate silently, not as poets merely, but as seers. What we have overlooked, in our frenzy to invent more dazzling ways and means of communication, is to communicate.

Nearly two decades before Marshall McLuhan’s seminal treatise on how new communication media shape our desires and cultural norms, Miller makes a similar observation:

No, the advance will not come through the use of subtler mechanical devices, nor will it come through the spread of education. The advance will come in the form of a breakthrough. New forms of communication will be established. New forms presuppose new desires. The great desire of the world today is to break the bounds which lock us in. It is not yet a conscious desire. Men do not yet realize what they are fighting for. This is the beginning of a long fight, a fight from within outwards.

In contemplating the era’s political landscape — an observation at once timeless and timelier than ever, with the urgency of this season’s election — he laments:

Often, when I listen to the radio, to a speech by one of our politicians, to a sermon by one of our religious maniacs, to a discourse by one of our eminent scholars, to an appeal by one of our men of good will, to the propaganda dined into us night and day by the advertising fiends, I wonder what the men of the coming century would think were they to listen in for just one evening.

Ultimately, however, Miller’s characteristic faith in the human spirit remains unabated:

Myself I cannot see the persistence of the artist type. I see no need for the individual man of genius in such an order. I see no need for martyrs. I see no need for vicarious atonement. I see no need for the fierce preservation of beauty on the part of a few. Beauty and Truth do not need defenders, nor even expounders. No one will ever have a lien on Beauty and Truth; they are creations in which all participate. They need only to be apprehended; they exist externally. Certainly, when we think of the conflicts and schisms which occur in the realm of art, we know that they do not proceed out of love of Beauty or Truth. Ego worship is the one and only cause of dissension, in art as in other realms. The artist is never defending art, but simply his own petty conception of art. Art is as deep and high and wide as the universe. There is nothing but art, if you look at it properly. It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.

Complement Sunday After the War with Miller on the secret to remaining young at heart, the meaning of life, and his eleven commandments of writing.

BP

The Wisdom of the Heart: Henry Miller on the Art of Living

“On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”

The Wisdom of the Heart: Henry Miller on the Art of Living

Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980) — voracious reader, masterful letter-writer, champion of combinatorial creativity, one disciplined writer — spent a good portion of his career freelancing for various literary periodicals. In April of 1939, Modern Mystic magazine commissioned him to write a piece about the work of psychoanalyst E. Graham Howe. Two years later, the essay was republished in the eponymous volume The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) — a collection of Miller’s short stories, profiles, and literary essays.

In the piece, like in all memorable profile writing, Miller uses the synthesis and critique of his subject’s ethos as a springboard for his own and, ultimately, for broader commentary on the culture of the time and the universality of the human condition.

He begins with a riff on Howe’s book War Dance:

The art of living is based on rhythm — on give and take, ebb and flow, light and dark, life and death. By acceptance of all aspects of life, good and bad, right and wrong, yours and mine, the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, ‘the dance of life,’ metamorphosis. One can dance to sorrow or to joy; one can even dance abstractly. … But the point is that, by the mere act of dancing, the elements which compose it are transformed; the dance is an end in itself, just like life. The acceptance of the situation, any situation, brings about a flow, a rhythmic impulse towards self-expression. To relax is, of course, the first thing a dancer has to learn. It is also the first thing a patient has to learn when he confronts the analyst. It is the first thing any one has to learn in order to live. It is extremely difficult, because it means surrender, full surrender.

[…]

Life, as we all know, is conflict, and man, being part of life, is himself an expression of conflict. If he recognizes the fact and accepts it, he is apt, despite the conflict, to know peace and to enjoy it. But to arrive at this end, which is only a beginning (for we haven’t begun to live yet!), a man has got to learn the doctrine of acceptance, that is, of unconditional surrender, which is love.

Later, Miller turns to the illusory nature of what stands between us and this complete surrender:

‘Normality,’ says Howe, ‘is the paradise of escapologists, for it is a fixation concept, pure and simple.’ ‘It is better, if we can,’ he asserts, ‘to stand alone and to feel quite normal about our abnormality, doing nothing whatever about it, except what needs to be done in order to be oneself.’

It is just this ability to stand alone, and not feel guilty or harassed about it, of which the average person is incapable. The desire for a lasting external security is uppermost, revealing itself in the endless pursuit of health, happiness, possessions an so on, defense of what has been acquired being the obsessive idea, and yet no real defense being possible, because one cannot defend what is undefendable. All that can be defended are imaginary, illusory, protective devices.

Miller zooms in on the “key words in howe’s doctrine of wholeness” — balance, discipline, illumination:

For the awakened individual, however, life begins now, at any and every moment; it begins at the moment when he realizes that he is part of a great whole, and in the realization becomes himself whole. In the knowledge of limits and relationships he discovers the eternal self, thenceforth to move with obedience and discipline in full freedom.

Writing at the time surround WWII, Miller reflects on a cultural era not at all dissimilar to our own today, a transitional period he calls “an equinoctial solstice of the soul”:

There is an illusion of ‘end,’ a stasis seemingly like death. But it is only an illusion. Everything, at this crucial point, lies in the attitude which we assume towards the moment.

In an argument reminiscent of Joan Didion’s definition of character as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life,” Miller turns from the personal to the political, a direction consistent with his then-lover Anaïs Nin’s contention that understanding the individual is the key to understanding mass movements:

Those who are trying to put the onus of responsibility for the dangers which threaten on the shoulders of the ‘dictators’ might well examine their own hearts and see whether their allegiance is really ‘free’ or a mere attachment to some other form of authority, possibly unrecognized. … Those who are preaching revolution are also defenders of the status quo — their status quo. Any solution to the world’s ills must embrance all mankind. We have got to relinquish our precious theories, our buttresses and supports, to say nothing of our defenses and possessions. We have got to become more inclusive, not more exclusive. What is not acknowledged and assimilated through experience piles up in the form of guilt and creates a real Hell, the literal meaning of which is — where the unburnt must be burnt!

Returning to our relationship with the present moment, Miller summarizes Howe’s proposition:

An attempt, in short, to arrive at a total grasp of the universe, and thus keep man anchored in the moving stream of life, which embraces known and unknown. Any and every moment, from this viewpoint, is therefore good or right, the best for whoever it be, for on how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.

He brings it all back to love:

Real love is never perplexed, never qualifies, never rejects, never demands. It replenishes, by grace of restoring unlimited circulation. It burns, because it knows the true meaning of sacrifice. It is life illuminated.

The Wisdom of the Heart is a beautiful read in its entirety — highly recommended.

BP

Henry Miller on the Beautiful Balance of Giving and Receiving

“It’s only when we demand that we are hurt.”

In The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) — which gave us her timeless and ever-timely meditations on self-publishing, what maturity really means, the difference between Paris and New York came — Nin shares a letter she received in the summer of 1942 from Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980), with whom she’d been closely involved creatively, intellectually and, for a long time, romantically.

Miller, passionately articulate as ever, gets to the heart of the paradox of altruism and the beautiful osmosis of giving and receiving.

He writes:

By choosing to live above the ordinary level we create extraordinary problems for ourselves. The ultimate goal is to make this earth a paradise.

[…]

For me it is no problem to depend on others. I am always curious to see how far people will go, how big a test one can put them to.

Certainly there are humiliations involved, but aren’t these humiliations due rather to our limitations? Isn’t it merely our pride which suffers? It’s only when we demand that we are hurt. I, who have been helped so much by others, I ought to know something of the duties of the receiver. It’s so much easier to be on the giving side. To receive is much harder — one actually has to be more delicate, if I may say so. One has to help people to be more generous. By receiving from others, by letting them help you, you really aid them to become bigger, more generous, more magnanimous. You do them a service.

And then finally, no one likes to do either one or the other alone. We all try to give and take, to the best of our powers. It’s only because giving is so much associated with material things that receiving looks bad. It would be a terrible calamity for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being, to make him give of his riches. Of what good abundance then? Must we not become strong in order to help, rich in order to give and so on? How will these fundamental aspects of life ever change?

Complement with Amanda Palmer, many decades later, on the art of asking. More of Nin and Miller’s correspondence can be found in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller.

BP

Henry Miller on Reading, the Life of the Mind, and How to Fix Education

“Our whole theory of education is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water. It applies to the pursuit of the arts as well as to the pursuit of knowledge.”

Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980) was a notoriously disciplined writer. It comes as no surprise, then — given the relationship between reading and writing, and the importance of learning the parallel skills of both — that he was also a voracious reader, unafraid to acknowledge the borrowing and repurposing of ideas. In The Books in My Life (public library; public domain), originally published in 1952, he offers a singular lens on his approach to reading, using that as a vehicle for a larger meditation on our culture’s relationship not just with books, but with knowledge itself.

Miller’s insights touch on modern concerns about the brokenness of industrialized education and echo Abraham Flexner’s 1939 essay on the usefulness of useless knowledge:

In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest. All that is set forth in books, all that seems so terribly vital and significant, is but an iota of that from which it stems and which it is within everyone’s power to tap. Our whole theory of education is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water. It applies to the pursuit of the arts as well as to the pursuit of knowledge. Men are still being taught to create by studying other men’s works or by making plans and sketches never intended to materialize. The art of writing is taught in the classroom instead of in the thick of life. Students are still being handed models which are supposed to fit all temperaments, all kinds of intelligence. No wonder we produce better engineers than writers, better industrial experts than painters.

My encounters with books I regard very much as my encounters with other phenomena of life or thought. All encounters are configurate, not isolate. In this sense, and in this sense only, books are as much a part of life as trees, stars or dung. I have no reverence for them per se. Nor do I put authors in any special, privileged category. They are like other men, no better, no worse. They exploit the powers given them, just as any other order of human being. If I defend them now and then — as a class — it is because I believe that, in our society at least, they have never achieved the status and the consideration they merit. The great ones, especially, have almost always been treated as scapegoats.

But Miller’s central concern is a kind of anatomy of influence, a hope to reverse-engineer the alchemy of where a writer’s good ideas come from by honoring his sources of creative spark:

The principal aim underlying this work is to render homage where homage is due, a task which I know beforehand is impossible of accomplishment. Were I to do it properly, I would have to get down on my knees and thank each blade of grass for rearing its head. What chiefly motivates me in this vain task is the fact that in general we know all too little about the influences which shape a writer’s life and work. The critic, in his pompous conceit and arrogance, distorts the true picture beyond all recognition. The author, however truthful he may think himself to be, inevitably disguises the picture. The psychologist, with his single-track view of things, only deepens the blur. As author, I do not think myself an exception to the rule. I, too, am guilty of altering, distorting and disguising the facts — if ‘facts’ there be. My conscious effort, however, has been — perhaps to a fault– in the opposite direction. I am on the side of revelation, if not always on the side of beauty, truth, wisdom, harmony and ever-evolving perfection. In this work I am throwing out fresh data, to be judged and analyzed, or accepted and enjoyed for enjoyment’s sake. Naturally I cannot write about all the books, or even all the significant ones, which I have read in the course of my life. But I do intend to go on writing about books and authors until I have exhausted the importance (for me) of this domain of reality.

To have undertaken the thankless task of listing all the books I can recall ever reading gives me extreme pleasure and satisfaction. I know of no author who has been mad enough to attempt this. Perhaps my list will give rise to more confusion — but its purpose is not that. Those who know how to read a man know how to read his books.

(Learn how to read Carl Sagan and Alan Turing through their reading lists.)

In the preface, reflecting upon the experience of putting his list together, Miller echoes previous considerations of non-reading as an intellectual choice on par with reading itself:

One of the results of this self-examination — for that is what the writing of this book amounts to — is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more…. I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ‘well-educated’ man — yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of ‘books.’ But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully.

Reiterating his own insights on originality and offering a complement to Susan Sontag’s advocacy of direct experience over “ideas,” he continues:

The vast body of literature, in every domain, is composed of hand-me-down ideas. The question — never resolved, alas! — is to what extent it would be efficacious to curtail the overwhelming supply of cheap fodder. One thing is certain today — the illiterate are definitely not the least intelligent among us. If it be knowledge or wisdom one is seeking, then one had better go direct to the source. And the source is not the scholar or philosopher, not the master, saint, or teacher, but life itself — direct experience of life. The same is true for art. Here, too, we can dispense with ‘the masters.’

The Books in My Life goes on to explore the fabric of Miller’s intellectual life, woven of a broader discourse on creativity and knowledge. Six decades after its publication, it remains equal parts timeless and timely.

Maria Bustillos

BP

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