Paris in the 1930s was a place where you could simply be an artist. It didn’t matter if you produced any significant work or not. For example, Henry Miller tells us that an acquaintance of his, called Sylvester, will never be a writer “though his name blaze in 50,000 candle-power red lights.” Success doesn’t make you a writer.
What makes an artist is the quality of the madness and fire within. It goes without saying that this isn’t some objective criterion. Miller is telling us what he sees, what he likes, what he doesn’t – what it was he found in Paris, in those rare artists who fired him up and inspired him to go on instead of giving up.
More than anything, it was the city itself that lit a new fire in him. Brassaï describes the “very air” of Paris as “saturated” with art and literature. This compared to New York which, like everywhere else in America, was sterile when it came to art. Where you would have to conform to an established type and become a “man of letters” or give up on any dream of being a writer. Where there was no soil in which new artistic forms could grow. Miller didn’t know how to create the plots and characters required to make conventional novels … And so back home in New York he could only see in himself his failure to shape up, the impossibility of a misfit like him ever becoming a writer.
The desire to succeed in becoming a writer – this burned in him and haunted him. “Becoming” here is very important. It’s not about finishing a book you can be proud of, though that would be a good start. It’s about transforming yourself into a new kind of being, one for whom writing becomes something possible and even natural. Who can write about anything, be it “a smokestack or a button,” and create a new kind of music. This is what it means to be an artist: to be able to open your mouth and sing.
It’s easy to get lost in dreams when you’re thinking in this way, with your eye on the promised result, on the vision of yourself, seen in the mirror while you sit at the typewriter, as the prolific artist. In his “Work Schedule” of 1932-1933, Miller reminds himself: “Forget about the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.” You have to proceed step by step and focus on the matter of the moment. Write a book, and then another, and only long after you’ve done this a few times will you find you have become what you set out to be.
“Patience, for Time’s nature is treacherous …”* It’s counter-intuitive, but the trick is to slow down because time is running out. If you try to rush you will get lost in other people’s dreams, and live a whole life without ever having had a dream of your own. “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.”
If you can do this, then however bad things get you might find you can one day say like him: “I have only physical, biological problems.” Your soul will remain intact, and that’s no small thing.
Brassaï tells us a story of Miller’s experience of Paris as a process of cleansing his soul by wandering the streets, hungry and desperate. But underneath the very real suffering he underwent – and not everyone survives an ordeal such as this, homeless and hungry, let’s not forget – he knew exactly his purpose, and his heart was light. “What was life for if not for wandering through?” We might say Miller had discovered the meaning of life, and now he had a reason to write, a reason to survive so that he could one day communicate this idea to others.
(* “Patience, for Time’s nature is treacherous, / And at the end companions part.” – from Malcolm C. Lyons’ translation of The Arabian Nights.)