A Smokestack or a Button

“What strikes me now as the most wonderful proof of my fitness, or unfitness, for the times is the fact that nothing people were writing or talking about had any real interest for me. Only the object haunted me, the separate detached, insignificant thing. It might be a part of the human body or a staircase in a vaudeville house; it might be a smokestack or a button I had found in the gutter.” (50)

He was unwilling or unable to grasp the big ideas of the day. The big conversations bored him, circling too wide as they did of what was vital: the ordinary “thing”. The ordinary, common thing that was the source of it all, it seemed to him.

He was fascinated with the trivial and mundane, the small, the ugly. The ordinary. The things that are reproduced so easily, the day-to-day. Unpretentious things, that laid no claim to being unique.

He seemed nothing as an intellect, talking nonsense about ovaries and buttons – whatever came to mind. Sometimes, drinking with friends, someone would say “Henry, you should write a book!” But Henry knew how ordinary his ideas were. You don’t make ideas: ideas are never your own. What’s your own is your voice, the form you give the ideas that come to you. Ideas are ordinary things, unpretentious objects, reproduced so easily. And yet Henry could not give them what they needed, that vital expression.

All Miller wanted was the ability to express himself: “Whether I die today or tomorrow is of no importance to me, never has been, but that today even, after years of effort, I cannot say what I think and feel – that bothers me, that rankles.” (13)

Ideas come to you – you only have to look and listen! But your voice is something else. You have to work on this. You have to practice, undergo a process, writing and writing – until finally, as if suddenly, one day your voice comes up from inside you. “Things take place instantaneously, but there’s a long process to be gone through first. What you get when something happens is only the explosion, and the second before that the spark.” (43)

Plenty of practice: plenty of powder. Then a spark and the explosion, the voice.

(Page numbers refer to Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn, Harper Perennial, 2005)

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