Essay review: “Henry Miller’s Inhuman Philosophy” by Indrek Männiste (in Henry Miller: New Perspectives, Bloomsbury 2015, pp. 9-20)

Miller is a writer, not a philosopher. So he “has” a philosophy, he doesn’t “do” philosophy, says Indrek Männiste. A philosophy, in the sense that Miller has one, is something “intuitive” that affects how one lives one’s life “day to day”. It’s a “metaphysical sense of life”. (9)

Miller thought academic philosophy to be “dull and lifeless”. Ideas had to be “wedded to action”, otherwise they were of no interest. Miller doesn’t have a philosophy in the sense of an abstract set of ideas with no direct practical application. But Männiste thinks that if we take philosophy in the sense of an “intuitive relation to reality” then Miller must have had a philosophy. So the question is not “whether” but “how” Miller’s ideas relate to a philosophy. (9)

Männiste thinks that there are some basic ideas in Miller that we cannot grasp unless we understand the theoretical framework in which they’re embedded. Miller had a philosophical theory of sorts and we have to understand it if we’re to understand him fully. It’s a theory of time (“traditional present” versus “full present”), a theory of humanity (“human” versus “inhuman”) and a theory of the transcendental (the “China-concept”). In his essay, Männiste explains the meaning of Miller’s concepts, as he sees them. We’ll see that Männiste believes that Miller’s philosophy is a practical philosophy for artists. (10)

Part of what drove Miller to write as he did was his (largely negative) reaction to modern life. He was interested in “the possibility of the life of the modern artist” in modern times. Some things that made life difficult for the artist in Miller’s day were “a linear notion of time and history, progress, modern technology . . .” Such things can seem all well and good until you look and see the madness that they produce: anxiety at the passing of time, sacrifice of the individual to economic and technological progress, and so on. (10-11)

Männiste points out that Miller isn’t opposing any one particular philosopher when he opposes these aspects of modernity: he’s reacting to “a general trend of the modern Western world.” However, Männiste does pick out August Comte and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as philosophers Miller might oppose: Comte’s positivist account of the human condition ignores the complexities of the condition of the artist, while Miller see Hegel’s “linear account and the universal notion of freedom not as a victory, but indeed as the defeat of humanity.” (11)

Miller thinks that instead of seeing history as a linear progression of which you are a part it’s better to see the past as dead: “I am a carcass getting an injection of new life”. What is to come is not a continuation of the past but something entirely new. A “discontinuation of his life”: a death and a rebirth. (11)

Miller read Oswald Spengler and was hugely influenced by him. He thought that instead of being one of the “historical men” (as Spengler called them) – men who measure time objectively “with clocks and calendars” – it’s better to use your own “inside chronometer” to decide how long a moment lasts: “The moment is over when one no longer wishes to dwell in it, not when the clock or calendar says it’s another minute or day,” Männiste writes. Referring to W.B. Yeats and James Joyce, he writes that Miller “refused to dance ‘to the cracked tune that Chronos sings’” and “wants to awake from the ‘nightmare of history’”. (12-13)

Miller distinguishes between two senses of the “present”. On the one hand we have the “traditional present”, which is the present understood as a continuation of the past. An example of this is the ghost in Hamlet: it is something from the past that refuses to be buried, haunts the present and therefore shapes the present. Similarly we are all haunted by the past, and we make decisions in the present based upon what happened in the past. (13)

On the other hand we have “the full present”, which is (in Miller’s words) “the eternal here and now, the expanding infinite moment which is flame and song”. The full present is what you have when you decide for yourself how long the moment lasts, you dwell on it until you are done with it. The moment passes because you decide to let it pass, and not because the clock has moved on. The full present is the present “in which we move not within definite cultural limits but within unlimited human ones based on the realisation of our own potentialities” (in Miller’s word again, quoted by Männiste). The full present has to do with your own potentialities, rather than what is dictated to you, because you decide how long the moment lasts based on what you’re trying to do. For example: an artist trying to capture a moment in writing or painting holds onto that moment, dwells on it, and in a sense dwells in her vision as she tries to communicate it. (13-14)

But the artist doesn’t do away with the traditional present altogether. Miller wrote that “the world is the mirror of myself dying . . .”, and what he meant by this (Männiste tells us) is that “modern artistic types who ‘carry within themselves profound anxieties (as a mirror of their ‘civilisation’), yet have the power to transform, to transmute them into symbols of spiritual strength, integrity, and plenitude.” Though the artist is always dying – her traditional present moving along the line of time away from birth towards her death – she can take any present moment and dwell on it and preserve it eternally as a symbol in her work. And not only in her work: in order to create an eternal moment in a work of art she must learn to dwell herself in an eternal present, to hold onto it for as long as she wants to. “We have to ‘kill’ the past and future, and embrace ourselves in the ‘present never ending’, which is the full present; an ahistorical state of being. This liberates us to being reborn in the present moment. It frees us from the foot race with time,” writes Männiste. (14)

The necessity that the artist dwell in the full present in order to create works of art grounds another distinction in Miller’s thinking: between the human and the inhuman. The human is one who dwells mainly in the traditional present, racing along in the short time span between birth and death. The artist must be inhuman: able to turn the struggles of human existence into song. The artist is human in that she has a life full of various worldly cares; but she is inhuman in that she can escape and dwell in the full present and see those things that cause us all so much anxiety in a new light, and as material for artistic work.

Männiste tells us that Miller’s “human” is Nietzsche’s “last man”: “a degraded, weak-willed individual of the Western civilisation”. We are all degraded in this way as we go about our day to day lives, struggling to achieve our ambitions or simply to survive. But the artist can escape into the inhuman to reveal the beauty in the present moment. (15)

“China” is the last of Miller’s concepts that Männiste tells us about in his essay. “China” is “a condition, or state, of being”. (16)

The country of China fascinated Miller, though he never visited it. “Miller says that ‘everything Chinese is the extreme opposite of all that we feel, think, do, believe . . . the antithesis of all that we regard the human world to be.” This is what China symbolised, for Miller. (17)

Männiste suggests that we look at Miller’s “Walking Up and Down in China” if we want to see the importance of the China-concept. “Miller draws a parallel to the Great Wall of China as a symbolic demarcation line,” writes Männiste. Miller walks the streets of Paris but he feels walled off, more in touch with the earth and his own dreams than with his fellow human beings who pass him by on these streets. (17)

Feeling walled off in this way, something inhuman is being born in Miller, something that allowed him to escape the flow of time and human progress and become an artist. “I am in China and there are no clocks or calendars here.” He’s learned to be alone in the crowd, alone with the earth. (17)

So Männiste writes: “The ‘timelessness’ of one’s true being and the essential requirement of the full present, which we saw him defend before, are now firmly incorporated into China. The ultimate self qua inhuman artist is necessarily atemporal and ahistorical for Miller.” (17)

Traditional present stands for being, which needs to be surpassed,” writes Männiste. For Miller, surpassing being is something that every artist needs to do in order to create art. “Surpassing being” means surpassing the human – surpassing the kind of being that dwells in a succession of moments, in the “traditional present” – in order to become an “inhuman artist”, dwelling in the moment of the “full present”. (18)

The artist has difficulty adapting to modern life, and so must escape from reality, the reality of the traditional present, by refusing to sacrifice the moment to the succession of time – from birth to death, clocking in to clocking out, and so on. The moment is instead preserved as a symbol in the work of art. This symbol is a reality of the artist’s own, that the artist dwells within. (18)

When I started reading Männiste I was sceptical about the notion that Miller could be said to have “a philosophy” in anything other than the broadest sense. Though I enjoy Miller’s work very much, it’s the bright moments in his work, those passages that explode in all directions as Miller really takes off, that I enjoy. Miller seemed to me to be an inconsistent writer, and this inconsistency was precisely his charm: without an inconsistent and uneven pace, it would be impossible for those explosive moments to really explode and stand out from the rest of the work. But having read Männiste’s essay I’m starting to wonder whether this inconsistency is merely the outer layer, the style, the artifice that Miller uses to get his message across, while the message itself is thoroughly consistent. Miller was instructing his readers in the practical wisdom he had learned in the process of becoming a writer, giving us a key to the processes by which we might unlock and express our innermost selves, by dwelling in the moment. There’s always a risk when you try to find a “philosophy” in something: that you’ll be heavy-handed about it, and reduce the thing you’re studying to the abstract philosophy you want to bring out, and ignore the nuances that don’t fit. But far from being heavy-handed, or concocting a “dull and lifeless” philosophy out of Miller’s work, Männiste finds in Miller a practical philosophy of creativity that reminds us of the value of Miller’s work, and encourages us to go back to it and read it.

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