Henry Miller on Art in Life


These were written in the 1940’s and 1950’s. What he has to say about life, and specifically about American life even then, is quite amazing and even truer today. Miller was a great writer, thinker, philosopher, humanist and astute observer of the human condition yet he had mystical sense, a cosmic vision rare among American writers and a wonderful sense of humor. He was truly unique. One of his books  THE BOOKS IN MY LIFE talks about authors by whom he was most influenced. I just remembered how unique it was and how it got me to research these different authors. One in particular, Richard Jeffries, who authored THE STORY OF MY HEART.

All of his writing always stimulates my own thoughts. What he says about the assassination of the poet in our culture explains why there is such depression, desperation, fear and lifelessness, which is the diametrical opposite of the American Dream. He states that the fate of the poet in our society is “to shovel him under”. Yet what every nation needs is “the dreamer (poet), the inspired madman…..The future always has and always will belong to-the poet.”

He goes on and states that we are all “suffering from the act, repeated daily, of keeping up the pretense that they can go their way, lead their lives without art. They never dream-or they behave as if they never realize-that the reason why they feel sterile, frustrated and joyless is because art (and with it the artist) has been ruled out of their lives. For every artist who has been assassinated thus (unwittingly?) thousands of ordinary citizens, who might have known a normal joyous life, are condemned to lead the purgatorial existence of neurotics, psychotics, schizophrenics.”

I have often remarked that I find it ironic that so many people are on anti- depressants, here in one of the world’s most prosperous and fortunate nations. There is a joylessness which is palpable, and the “light in the eyes” is quite absent in many. But the truth is, if we all had been told to pursue what we love and do that which brought us joy, [with the caveat to take money out of the equation] (and encouraged to pursue this without shame, condemnation, judgment or factoring in the bottom line), I think there would be more happiness in our lives-for isn’t happiness a by-product of a way of life and not an end in itself? Wasn’t this the central theme of all of O’Neill’s tragedies, the death of the dream, living in the past?

One of Miller’s central themes is that art in America is not an innate part of the fabric of its life and culture. Sure there is art, but the kind of art that exists and has always existed is the business of art.

One phrase that he wrote that really hit me was “the virus of security”. I suppose “give me liberty or give me death” would be the exact opposite. He was fiercely an individualist, yet he saw the almost necessary need for true community and the need to be of service to his fellows.

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