Above and Below

seagull-1511862_960_720

If Henry Miller’s Nexus begins in a slough of despair, in its final chapters the rays of hope begin to emerge. The day he’ll leave for Europe is approaching, and knowing he will be leaving soon makes his remaining days in New York seem rosy.

He’s out for a walk, taking in his surroundings: “The river below, the seagulls above. And above the gulls the stars invisible.”

He’s still not keen on New York itself: his mind is more concerned with those stars far above. The city streets he still finds repulsive. Down here are the beat and broken people of America: “Once again the weary pedestrian wends his way homeward, pockets empty, stomach empty, heart empty.” Above is hope: the possibility of escape from these shores, to Europe and beyond.

For now, it’s just he and Mona who will escape: the rest of humanity can follow later. For now, he just needs to regain body and soul so he can write his book, the “real” book, that might just shake up the world enough to save its shattered people.

Looking across at the city he sees a vision of the city become a huge “orchestra pit” which “is rising, all sixty-four players donned in spotless white. Above, the stars are beginning to show through the midnight blue of the domed ceiling.” They were up there all the time! Even in these skies! Even here in New York City!

But though the stars can shine even here, the people of New York won’t know how to make use of them: “The greatest show on earth is about to be ushered in, complete with trained seals, ventriloquists, and aerial acrobats.” The same old tacky affair that Miller detested, that sapped the spirit, that he would find himself morbidly drawn to from time to time nonetheless: the spectacle, the show, the price of the ticket, the promise of a momentary escape into an idiot’s fantasy …

Everything waits for Henry in Europe: “Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato … Hegel, Marx, Lenin …” Everything? It will turn out that Henry had everything he needed right here, all the inspiration he required. “As above, so below”: Henry seems to have forgotten this piece of wisdom for the time being. He can see nothing of the stars among his fellow Americans.

Yes it was all here, even in America, but he was missing a “body” and a “soul” able to make use of it. He’ll find that body and soul in Europe, then return to find the light that was here in the earth all along …

(Image is from Pixabay.)

Posted in Literature | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Notes on Susan Sontag’s “On Style”

beaded-2137080_960_720

There’s always a distance between the work of art itself and the reality it represents. This distance is “inhuman,” says Susan Sontag: it’s artificial, belonging to the representation and not coming directly from lived reality.

But Sontag wants us to understand that the art work’s distance is not a retreat from reality, but a movement towards it. For too long art has been thought of as something aristocratic, standing aloof from the concerns of the everyday world. And the distance between representation and reality seems to confirm this. Not so, says Sontag: the fact that there is distance does not mean that there is no connection between art and life.

If the work of art is moving towards reality, then why would there be any distance in the first place? This is a difficult question to answer, because it all depends on the artist in question. An artist is born, for whatever reason, with a certain distance between her and the world, and this is why she must create: to bridge the gap.

“Every style is a means of insisting on something,” writes Sontag. Style means “repetition” and “redundancy”: we can observe an artist’s style to discover what particular obstacles she encounters between herself and the world, what her mind gets stuck on. Art reflects the obsessions that make an individual.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

Posted in Philosophy, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Arthur Machen’s “Meditations of a Tavern”

grapevine-2831430_960_720

In Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams, Lucian Taylor is a struggling writer prone to daydreaming.

He deliberately seeks out obscure books, to learn the most useless knowledge he can find. He is sick of modern society and its day-to-day – the obsession with money-making and stupid utilitarianism. And his choice of literature is a reaction against all that.

He reads medieval occultists and alchemists, and he is often seen pacing up and down in his garden, muttering to himself, dreaming strange dreams in the daylight. Modern human beings have faded and shrunk for him, so that they seem little more than flies that buzz about him. It’s his own peculiar dreams that sustain him, and he cares nothing for the dream of modern society.

Many of his own dreams concern the ancient Roman settlement that would have stood on this site, now the location of a small Welsh town and its environs. It’s while imagining ancient Roman life that he has his “Meditations of a Tavern.” He can see the Roman tavern packed full of drinkers and serving boys, and most of all he is concerned with the smells, colours, and sounds of the place. The Latin sounds beautiful to him, the wine jars are described in all their various colours, each reflecting in its own way the sunlight that comes in through the open door. And it’s here we get the dazzling description of the exterior of the tavern:

“Outside, the vine tendrils shook on the white walls glaring in the sunshine; the breeze swept up from the yellow river, pungent with the salt sea savour.”

And, aside from the sounds and smells and colours, he notices the gestures of the people here: they move their hands when they speak. He realises that this has nothing to do with expression – the Latin language is adequate to getting their meaning across to each other. It’s something else, which doesn’t quite become clear until his reflections on literature toward the end of this section of the book.

I’ve mentioned Machen in one of my posts about Henry Miller; Miller was very taken by Machen, and writes about him in Nexus. He admired Machen’s reflections on literature, as something that expresses the inexpressible, almost against the will of both writer and reader. Machen writes:

“As the chemist in his experiments is sometimes astonished to find unknown, unexpected elements in the crucible or the receiver, as the world of material things is considered by some a thin veil of the immaterial universe, so he who reads wonderful prose or verse is conscious of suggestions that cannot be put into words, which do not rise from the logical sense, which are rather parallel to than connected with the sensuous delight.”

Just as the gestures of the drinkers in the tavern add something to the words they speak, though extraneous to the sense, so something is always added to the greatest literature, something that we struggle to explain, but which adds to the experience of the work.

Machen and Miller weren’t the only ones to chase this special something. Kathy Acker writes of the difference between expression and communication, and how the key to writing, for her, was focusing on the latter. Writing books, for Acker, is like writing an email to a friend: you write with the reader in mind, as a loving gesture to them. You’re trying to get something across to the other, to share something. It’s this human motivation, for communication, that spurs good writing.

Expression, on the other hand, is something inhuman. Something solitary. I have this great truth, I myself, and I must express it. Unlike the desire to communicate, the desire for expression can eclipse the other, the other people that, in truth, you are writing for.

Miller took a long time finding success as a writer, and no wonder: he was following Machen’s dream, struggling to express the inexpressible. I wonder whether it all became possible for him when he realised that it’s not about expression at all: that if you honestly put down the words as they come, if you wrestle with the communication side of the matter – as if writing a letter to a friend, and Miller was a prodigious letter writer – if you take care of the basics, then the rest, the unknown and mysterious element, will follow.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

Posted in Literature, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Book Review: Significant Other by Isabel Galleymore

bee-191629_960_720

Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other is about the modern human being and her relationship to nature.

When the poet is “walking with the ocean below” she is walking with the ocean. She asks the ocean questions, to which “the ocean blinked” in response.

This is what you get when you anthropomorphise nature: the shock of an alien response, when nature turns out to be only itself, and not your dream of it.

Say you took that step, or say you fell,

wouldn’t she move you miles in herself?

The ocean has her own purposes. Or none at all. If you let her, she will pull you into her until you can no longer breathe, until finally, lifeless, you are washed up on the shore.

The human individual is something opposed to nature. But that leaves us alone, to find our own answers. And what is a human being taken alone, in herself?

Even among human beings there is otherness.

I turn your words although

the line you spoke was simple

Language is something strange because it belongs not just to me but to all of us, and intention is often hidden behind use. And yet we must struggle with questions of meaning in order to make sense not just of others, but of ourselves.

The human individual is nothing without what is strange and other.

“I am most like myself when likened.” Because really there is no other way to be yourself. “They say it’s because I’m afraid to be alone.” But those who believe they are alone and free of others are only fooling themselves.

Galleymore is telling us throughout this book: you really only learn the deepest truths about yourself from the study of what is other than you.

Every one of these poems has some natural element in it – the ocean, a starfish, a bee – and in every poem nature has something to tell us about ourselves. The poet observes and reflects upon nature, and invites her readers to reflect upon it too.

And when we reflect, we discover the strangeness of nature. Things aren’t so simple as they first appeared, and nature is strange underneath the simple attributes humanity has bestowed upon it:

Accordingly, schoolchildren were instructed

to rip up their books, releasing

alligators from their anger,

bees from their busyness,

cats from their curiosity …

Galleymore is inviting us to see things fresh, rather than through the same old clichés. It’s important to see the real connections between things, rather than just lazily imposing attributes derived from familiar human experience.

… [T]he bridge that links

this part of earth with the next

are the final words of the final poem in Galleymore’s collection. And so fitting for a book all about the connections between things, and how the awareness of these connections can give us a deeper knowledge of ourselves.

One poem has words taken from Isabelle Stengers, philosopher of science and writer about chaos:

Each identity:

an allusion to the other

and

The reciprocal capture

between bee and flower

are lines that speak of difference, and the fact that there is no knowledge of anything in itself without knowledge of what is other than it. That goes for ourselves, as much as for anything else.

We live in a world now where everyone is connected, and it can seem sometimes that the quiet reflection required for self-knowledge has become impossible, or only possible if some radical action is taken – technology detox and mindfulness are preached in a desperate bid to save us from ourselves. We’re all acutely aware of the implications of chaos theory, so that the tiniest minutiae have now the greatest meaning, and the continual flitting from one object to the next is as essential and compelling as it is maddening.

Galleymore offers us a subtle investigation of the dialectic of identity and difference. On the one hand: the natural world is thoroughly other than us, and it is foolishness to anthropomorphise it. On the other hand: how can we get on (as writers, but especially as human beings) if we don’t liken ourselves to the things around us? That Galleymore never gives us a solution to the paradox is fitting: firstly, because there is none. Secondly, because it is the back and forth between one position and another that truly makes us human.

(The lines I’ve quoted are from the poems “Ocean,” “The Ash,” “Say Heart,” “No Inclination,” “Are We There Yet?” and “Nectaries.” The poems are all to be found in Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other, which was published by Carcanet this year.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

Posted in books, Reviews of 2019 Books | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Truth and Literature

old-books-436498_960_720

Henry Miller is obsessed with truth. And yet he wants to write literature! Literature is something other than truth. “Then to hell with literature!”

Writing his novel, Henry is all the while obsessed with the idea of the real book he will one day write. It won’t be a novel. It will be utterly unlike anything he has written so far.

Up to now, the real book has been written in the mind only, in an ink which is “invisible” as well as “indelible”. So far he has only lived this book, since he cannot yet write it, except in the mind.

He has this notion of “writing in the mind only”: an idea so crazy, an insane kind of talk born of desperation. Henry is desperate to be a writer, though he has written nothing of note. So he tells himself he is writing all the time, in the mind only. And so he is a writer after all.

Whether or not Henry really is a writer yet, he is certainly a reader. He is inspired by Arthur Machen, who writes that what is important in literature is the inexpressible which, nevertheless, is somehow expressed. “A troublesome though inseparable accident … the indefinable, inexpressible images which all fine literature summons to the mind.”

Besides what the writer is consciously doing to create sensations in the reader, something else occurs, something deeper. It seems to just happen, and yet of course it is born of the writer’s genius. The presence of genius means that the words are bound to conjure up something deeper even than what is intended. It’s the presence of this extra depth that makes a written work great and timeless.

This idea must have given hope to Henry, who himself was struggling to express the inexpressible. And people tell him again and again that he has genius, and he seems to believe it. He knows he is not a writer yet, but he has something, and so Machen’s words are another ray of hope for him.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

Posted in books, Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Broken Life (Notes on Henry Miller’s Nexus)

kaleidoscopic

Henry Miller is especially enjoying this conversation with Mona, who has just returned from Europe. It’s not just because he’s missed her so much; what he likes is that they are having his favourite kind of conversation: the “broken” and “kaleidoscopic” kind, as he calls it. He writes:

“Often, in the pauses between remarks, I would make mental answers wholly at variance with the words on my lips. An additional spice, of course, was contributed by the atmosphere of the room, the books lying about, the droning of a fly, the position of her body, the comfortable feel of the couch.”

The kaleidoscopic nature of conversation: what you say, what you think, what happens around you. It’s not just about the words spoken: “There was nothing to be established, posited or maintained. If a wall crumbled it crumbled” and the conversation would continue regardless of the sense.

You might call it getting lost in the moment: we’ve all enjoyed times like these, talking nonsense with our friends. Nothing achieved, nothing gained, just sheer enjoyment. Just living, you might say.

Mona says to Henry: “You do have a strong spiritual make-up, but there’s also more of the animal in you than most men. You want to live … live at any cost … whether as a man, a beast, an insect, or a germ …”

To a beast or an insect, conversation isn’t everything – or isn’t anything at all. Henry is like a dog pricking up his ears and wagging his tail at his master’s voice. It’s the buzz of life that’s important, the fact that something is going on. And the love in his heart for the one speaking.

(“Woof, woof, woof!” – the final words of Sexus, the first volume in this trilogy.)

And like any spirited animal, Henry is always looking for trouble. Because suffering is life too. He’s learned from Socrates the importance of “gadflies”: they can be a nuisance but they can also wake an animal from its stupor. He is happy to meet the gadflies of the world – or to be the gadfly himself.

Even when he’s not out making or getting into trouble, Henry is caught in the buzz of life. He’s distracted even while “writing”, and that’s why he can’t write. “Sometimes I would sit at the machine for hours without writing a line,” he writes. “Fired by an idea, often an irrelevant one, my thoughts would come too fast to be transcribed. I would be dragged along at a gallop, like a stricken warrior tied to his chariot.”

These ideas coming too thick and fast for him to write them down: this is the world intruding even while he’s locked away in his study. His nose darts back and forth and he wags his tail and he can’t type with his paws.

His favoured writing process is like his favourite kind of conversation: broken and kaleidoscopic. Less about the words themselves, and more about the many associations they bring up, and the sensation of this strange flow, and his enjoyment of it.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

Posted in books, Literature, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gospel of Work

machine

When Henry Miller writes that “the gospel of work” is “the doctrine of inertia” he really speaks to me. I often think about what politicians are trying to convince us of when they talk about “work” and “jobs.” It’s spoken as if it’s a piece of common sense – “people need jobs” – but there’s more to this than meets the ear. Miller is right to call it “the gospel of work”: our leaders are delivering their own spiritual message when they praise hard work, telling us how to be good and to avoid the sin of laziness.

And the work is always “hard”: “hard working people”. As if its hardness, in and of itself, is what makes the work good and virtuous. So that when you return home, worn-out from trying to please a boss you hate, you can say to yourself: At least I’m a good person.

In the modern society in which I live it can sometimes seem that work is praised above all else. The good that work does is implied but hardly ever discussed. The good is in the work itself. The effect of the work is irrelevant.

There’s a reason we can’t talk about the good that work does: not all work is good. When we’re told to work for work’s sake we’re being asked not to think about whether we’re actually doing any good in the world. Just keep yourself busy.

“The gospel of work” is “the doctrine of inertia” because: to work and to love work is to accept the conditions of life as you find them in modern society. It means you’ll never change anything about the world because you are content where you are.

Passion is something to be admired. But what about a passion for work? In many cases, this means throwing yourself wholeheartedly into the world as you find it. Is this admirable?

Look around at the world and decide for yourself: is it admirable to accept things as they are? Perhaps you think so.

For someone like Henry Miller, passion is really valuable when combined with courage and imagination, and he saw precious little of that in the America of his day. A transformative kind of passion is what you might see in an artist: someone who rejects the world as it is and must make something new. But the young Miller was far from finding this passion, either in himself or in those around him.

“Work” and “jobs” are sickening words, particularly when they come out of the mouths of politicians, because they are used to refer not to meaningful human activity, but to sweat and toil for the purpose only of earning a crust. “Work” and “jobs”, spoken with such matter-of-factness, are the murmur and rumble of the machine. The machine goes on and on and offers no alternative. Why should it? It is just a machine.

New machines can be built. The conditions can be changed. But that would require human action.

Life is short, and acceptance is wisdom. There’s something philosophical about just getting on with what’s in front of you. Why cry and complain instead of making the best of what you have?

For the answer to that, look around you! When Miller did this, what he saw was “the greatest misery of the greatest number,” a machine so committed to productivity that the human soul is forgotten. And so human compassion is forgotten, and poverty is everywhere, and they drop a bomb where food and shelter was required. How could there be any wisdom in accepting this?

There’s a lot of talk about how happy and wealthy we are, in Europe and the USA. But this is “statistical wealth, statistical happiness.” What is true wealth? True happiness? Those questions are not asked enough.

It’s easy to get on with your work and remind yourself of how lucky you are. You have enough to eat, access to healthcare (perhaps) … Isn’t it sinful to complain when you have so much?

The problem with statistical happiness is that it is partial, and not absolute. Statistical happiness means: well a lot of us are OK, so it’s going well enough. This “a lot of us” is partial: what about the others? This “OK” is partial: I’m happy in a sense, but isn’t there more to life?

It’s not just the suffering of those that we neglect, but what our neglect tells us about ourselves. Is it a lack of compassion that allows me to put my own needs above others? Is it despair at the seeming impossibility of being able to change anything? Whatever the answer, we might learn something of the condition of the modern human soul by examining its ability to tolerate the suffering of others.

Keep yourself busy. I’m a good person.

And so, Miller isn’t talking just about material wealth and happiness, but about something spiritual: the treasures that we might store up in the human heart.

The “happiness” that is talked about today often comes down to something material: I am happy because I have this or that … Henry Miller claims his one “joy” at this time was knowing that he was miserable, while everyone else kidded themselves that they were happy, or that success was just around the corner. This was a spiritual joy, not just because it was a kind of one-upmanship (at least I know I’m not happy and so I know more than them), but because it came from self-knowledge, which ought to be the prized above material comforts.

It may not seem much just to know something, especially if what you know is: I am unhappy. But perhaps it is the first essential step towards changing things, changing the conditions.

Miller’s story is one of transformation. As a young man he is “evil”: aside from his contemptuous feelings for his fellow human beings, he’s also lazy and mean-spirited. There’s nothing he wishes to do, he allows himself to get dragged through life by others, and he has a secret murderous hatred of his own society.

People don’t see this side of him. They think of him as kind and compassionate but they’re wrong: he’s just too lazy to say “no” to people. He does have a sense of compassion, but it amounts to a paralysing pity: his sense of pity at others’ misfortune leads him not to go out of his way to help them (unless they ask, in which case he is powerless to refuse), but to say to himself: what’s the point? In misery he sees the general condition for humankind, a vision of the hopelessness of mortal existence.

Miller’s work is an extreme antidote to the ideology of the American dream. Under certain conditions it is impossible to succeed. Bootstraps won’t do it. All around him, the young Miller sees the evidence for this.

People stuck in jobs that drain them of the energy they would require to do the necessary work to give meaning to their lives. People without jobs, equally drained of energy by the day to day struggle to meet their basic material needs.

And even if you were lucky enough to succeed, what about the others? Leave them to their misery?

The conditions have to change, but how? This is the real dream, but it seems just a dream. How to create a new world? Miller will find the answer to this in art, a decade or so later. Somewhere in the “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy, he says to someone: I can’t get a job, I have too much work to do. By this time he has found meaningful work, in his writing, even if he is far from making a “success” of it – meaning: getting paid. The pressure to get a “job” still remains, and will remain as long as he must beg and borrow and even steal to survive, but he at least has his own sense of purpose now, a reason to resist the machine.

Even this small victory is a way off for the young Miller whose story is told in Tropic of Capricorn. For now he must continue his lesson, drifting through the world seeing first-hand the condition in which the bulk of humankind exists. And learning what this modern life is that he will one day write about.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

Posted in Literature | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments