Henry Miller and Being in the Moment

(Some notes on the text and related thoughts as I read Indrek Männiste’s Henry Miller: The Inhuman Artist Chapter 3. Where I write about Zen I’m recalling – however imperfectly – something from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. There’s a Miller quotation from Tropic of Cancer, and another from The Colossus of Maroussi which is quoted by Männiste himself.)

Indrek Männiste compares Henry Miller’s ideas to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Miller’s “traditional present” is Heidegger’s “metaphysical ground” of modernity.

Heidegger: the metaphysics of an age determines the self-understanding of those who live in that age. In the case of modernity, everything is understood through a positivist, scientific outlook.

Miller: modern men and women understand themselves in the moment, but this moment is always part of a linear progression. The modern self-understanding: life takes place in the “traditional present”. I’m at a point in the story of my life; we’re at a stage in world history. Every moment leads to the next one, and you can evaluate a moment based on the outcome. And you can look back at the past to determine how far you’ve progressed and evaluate the moment that way. Modern politicians congratulate themselves on their work because they see how far we’ve come – in terms of wealth, human rights, and so on.

As soon as you start to talk about the moment in time any differently – denying the importance of this progression of moments through time – in the modern world it starts to sound like you’re talking nonsense, because you’re trying to talk outside the bounds of the metaphysics of the age. Miller often slips into this kind of nonsense when he’s trying to describe the possibility of escape from modern life into the “full present”. (“Not one of us is intact, and yet we have in us all the continents and the seas between the continents and the birds of the air.”)

Trying to explain what Miller means by “full present”, one way is to turn to Zen: being in the full present is what Zen teachers are telling you to do when they say things like “When eating, eat!” You don’t eat because you are hungry or because you need energy, or if you do you should forget about this in the moment and just dwell in the activity of eating. Zen teachers remind their students to be present to themselves, and in this way become free of the ego. Everything in Zen sounds like a contradiction because it’s an attempt to break the modern programming through which we understand ourselves.

Escaping into the moment can bring us peace, and we need peace. “We need peace and solitude and idleness. If we could all go on strike and honestly disavow all interest in what our neighbour is doing we might get a new lease of life. We might learn to do without mines, without explosives, without battleships . . .” So even the escape into the moment can be a means to an end, a step on the way to progress, the way to a new kind of society.

But Miller didn’t know whether such a change could occur, and probably thought it unlikely. The escape into the moment and the peace it brings to the individual is an end in itself, it’s simply the way a living creature ought to live. Especially an artist, who ought to be more alive even than anyone else.

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