Chapter 8 of Henry Miller’s Nexus is about the role that other people can play in the life of an artist, for better or worse. Life can seem lonely for an artist, without anyone in the world who understands you, and Stasia wants to leave New York for this reason.
She is disgusted with the “beehives” of New York: the skyscrapers that house all those “monsters”, as she calls the people of the city. She wants to go back to Nature.
She remembers her innocence: “I was so aware. Often I got down on my knees – to kiss a flower … Yes, I knew how to commune with Nature.”
Getting away from the monstrous people of the city is everything now. She doesn’t seem to care about finding like-minded souls, people who might recognise her struggle as an artist. In fact, it is such souls that she blames for her loss of innocence. They told her she had talent, that she was an artist. And with those words they took something away from her:
“The flowers no longer spoke to her, or she to them. When she looked at Nature she saw it as a poem or a landscape. She was no longer one with Nature. She had begun to analyse, to recompose, to assert her own will.”
It made her believe that the truth lay in what was artificial, and so of course she was soon attracted to the idea of city life. She was now far away from the flowers and trees, from the things that previously had really inspired her.
While Stasia seems to believe that escaping human society altogether might solve her problems, we know that Henry will never quite come around to this view. For all he might have craved a bit more peace and quiet in later life, hiding away in Big Sur, he remained to the end of his days a social animal. And for now he seems to think staying in the city is the answer. After reading the biographies of a number of writers he dearly wishes to emulate, artists who struggled on until they eventually found success, he asks himself:
“And I, was I to add my name to this host of illustrious martyrs? To what further depths of degradation had I to sink before acquiring the right to join the ranks of these scapegoats?”
He seems to believe in this moment that he is on the right track. Since all artists before him have suffered, then he must accept his suffering here in New York. And one day his purgatory will be over and he will be allowed to become what he is, a writer just like those he admires.
There is talk of going to Europe, but this will mean more suffering too. What’s important is to take your punishment, wherever you happen to be, until the time is ripe.
In a way, Stasia appears to have been right in this case, and Henry wrong. Henry did have to leave New York to become an artist. Later he will say that if he had never left for Paris he would have remained forever in the gutter. You can’t just wait for change to occur: at the vital moment you have to make it happen.
But while Stasia wants to commune with Nature, Henry wants to commune with artists:
“Stasia’s words came to mind – the need to meet a kindred spirit, in order to grow, to give forth fruit. To hold converse (on writing) with the lovers of literature was fruitless. There were many I had already met who could talk more brilliantly on the subject than any writer. (And they would never write a line.) Was there anyone, indeed, who could speak discerningly about the secret processes?”
It’s the secrets of writing that Henry can’t get access to here in New York, any more than Stasia can get access to Nature, pure and unspoiled. New York is artificial, full of critics and experts, with nothing of the real human spirit. Since it’s in the depths of the human soul that real art and literature are created, he needs to get down beneath the surface if he is to discover how this creation can occur.
Henry sits in the public library, barely glancing at the book in front of him, dreaming about the novels he will write. He is writing “in the head”, since he isn’t able to put pen to paper just yet. The critics and professors of literature wouldn’t call this writing at all. But Henry doesn’t believe that you should go to the critics and professors if you want to discover the secrets of becoming an artist.
And since Henry doesn’t know yet who you should go to for such secret knowledge, for now he will sit in the library and commune with himself.
(Image is from Pixabay.)