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

“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 (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980) 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.


A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Vintage Illustrated Verses for Innocent and Experienced Travelers

“William, William, writing late by the chill and sooty grate, what immortal story can make your tiger roar again?”

As an admirer of literary personification, a lover of vintage children’s books — especially ones with a literary slant and especially illustrated children’s verses by famous poets — and a longtime fan of Alice and Martin Provensen, I was instantly taken with A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers (public library) — a 1981 collection of playful poems by Nancy Willard that take us on a tour of Blake’s imaginary inn, inspired by Blake’s beloved Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and tenderly illustrated by the Provensens in their signature mid-century sensibility of vibrant vignettes and expressive creatures.

This inn belongs to William Blake
and many are the beasts he’s tamed
and many are the stars he’s named
and many those who stop and take
their joyful rest with William Blake.

Two mighty dragons brew and bake
and many are the loaves they’ve burned
and many are the spits they’ve turned
and many those who stop and break
their joyful bread with William Blake.

Two patient angels wash and shake
his featherbeds, and far away
snow falls like feathers. That’s the day
good children run outside and make
snowmen to honor William Blake.


Keep your whiskers crisp and clean.
Do not let the mice grow lean.
Do not let yourself grow fat
Like a common kitchen cat.

Have you set the kittens free?
Do they sometimes ask for me?
Is our catnip growing tall?
Did you patch the garden wall?

Clouds are gentle walls that hide
Gardens on the other side.
Tell the tabby cats I take
All my meals with William Blake,

Lunch at noon tea at four,
Served in splendor on the shore
At the tinkling of a bell.
Tell them I am sleeping well.

Tell them I have come so far,
Brought by Blake’s celestial cat,
Buffeted by wind and rain,
I may not get home again.

Take this message to my friends.
Say the King of Catnip sends
To the cat who winds his clocks
A thousand sunsets in a box,

To the cat who brings the ice
The shadows of a dozen mice
(serve them with assorted dips
and eat them like potato chips),

And to the cat who guards his door
A net for catching stars, and more
(if patience he abide):
Catnip from the other side.


Roast me a wren to start with.
Then, Brisket of Basilisk Treat.
My breakfast is “on the house”?
What a curious place to eat!
There’s no accounting for customs.
My tastes are simple and few,
a fat mole smothering in starlight
and a heavenly nine-mouse stew.

I shall roll away from the table
looking twice my usual size.
“Behold the moon!” you will whisper.
“How marvelous his disguise.
How like the King of Cats he looks,
how similar his paws
and his prodigious appetite–
why, in the middle of the night
he ate, with evident delight,
a dozen lobster claws.”


“Ah, William, we’re weary of weather,”
said the sunflowers, shining with dew.
“Our traveling habits have tired us.
Can you give us a room with a view?”

They arranged themselves at the window
and counted the steps of the sun,
and they both took root in the carpet
where the topaz tortoises run.


Tiger, Sunflowers, King of Cats,
Cow and Rabbit, mend your ways.
I the needle, you the thread –
follow me through mist and maze.

Fox and hound, go paw in paw.
Cat and rat, be best of friends.
Lamb and tiger, walk together.
Dancing starts where fighting ends.


William, William, writing late
by the chill and sooty grate,
what immortal story can
make your tiger roar again?

When I sent to fetch your meat
I confess that I did eat
half the roast and all the bread.
He will never know, I said.

When I was sent to fetch your drink,
I confess that I did think
you would never miss the three
lumps of sugar by your tea.

Soon I saw my health decline
and I knew the fault was mine.
Only William Blake can tell
tales to make a tiger well.

Now I lay me down to sleep
with bear and rabbit, bird and sheep.
If I should dream before I wake,
may I dream of William Blake.


My adventures now are ended.
I and all whom I befriended
from this holy hill must go
home to lives we left below.

Farewell cow and farewell cat,
rabbit, tiger, sullen rat.
To our children we shall say
how we walked the Milky Way.

You whose journeys now begin,
if you reach a lovely inn,
if a rabbit makes your bed,
if two dragons bake your bread,
rest a little for my sake,
and give my love to William Blake.

Gracing the very last page is a piece of heart-warming, aphoristic advice:

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn received the Caldecott Honor Medal, the highest recognition in children’s literature, in 1982. Five years later, Martin passed away. Alice, currently in her nineties, continues to draw.

Thanks, Wendy


Work Alone: Ernest Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Acceptance Speech

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”

“One can never be alone enough to write,” Susan Sontag observed. Solitude, in fact, seems central to many great writers’ daily routines — so much so, it appears, that part of the writer’s curse might be the ineffable struggle to submit to the spell of solitude and escape the grip of loneliness at the same time.

In October of 1954, Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he didn’t exactly live every writer’s dream: First, he told the press that Carl Sandburg, Isak Dinesen and Bernard Berenson were far more worthy of the honor, but he could use the prize money; then, depressed and recovering from two consecutive plane crashes that had nearly killed him, he decided against traveling to Sweden altogether. Choosing not to attend the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm on December 10, 1954, Hemingway asked John C. Cabot, the United States Ambassador to Sweden at the time, to read his Nobel acceptance speech, found in the 1972 biography Hemingway: The Writer as Artist (public library). At a later date, Hemingway recorded the speech in his own voice. Hear an excerpt, then read the transcript of the complete speech below:

Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.

No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.

Complement with Woz on working alone as the key to creativity and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on our essential capacity for “fertile solitude.”

Portrait of Hemingway by Yousuf Karsh


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