Henry Miller has made a vow not to alter a line of what he writes because perfection is no longer his object. He wants to get to know his own mind, with all its faults and weaknesses, and share with his readers what he finds.
It’s not just that he finds the contents of his own mind to be so interesting. What’s interesting is the fact of imperfection itself – imperfection being something that human beings all share, and which troubles most of us. We feel we need to be better than we are, even the best that we can be, but perfection seems to be unattainable. It is possible to spend a whole lifetime searching for this perfect version of yourself, never really beginning in life because you feel, in your imperfect state, to be less than yourself, and therefore unworthy to take part.
By giving us as full a picture of himself as he can, with all his imperfections on show – physical, moral, spiritual – Miller is offering his readers an impetus to liberate themselves from their stifling compulsion to be perfect. Or to put it another way: he’s suggesting that you might want to seek out a new sense of “perfection.”
For example, if you’re interested in being a writer, you might compare the perfection of Turgenev with that of Dostoevsky. Or compare both of those with the perfection of Van Gogh, found in his letters. The latter is a “triumph of the individual over art.” Imperfect by conventional literary standards, but the (im)perfect author uses the medium to achieve something beyond the literary: something spiritual and real rather than merely artistic.
In their quest for perfection, a writer might be tempted to leave out whatever is messy and uncomfortable, whatever doesn’t fit with a pre-established literary ideal. The way things should be is decided beforehand – literary conventions and traditions to be followed and developed – saving the author the trouble of looking very hard at the way things are in their own heart, in their own life as it is lived. Only the best authors look deeply and bring out all the delicious imperfections of life. There are “elements in the air,” invisible, which shape us and motivate us and are difficult if not impossible to accurately describe. Some amount of failure is inevitable, and the writer might come across as clumsy and inept in places, as they try to express what has never been expressed before.
Miller is not talking about realism here. That is to say, he’s talking about realism of a specific kind, and not the focus on empirical detail and “reality” that has become the focus of many modern authors, before Miller’s time and since then. Everything reduced to what is seen or heard, sometimes tasted or smelled, faithfulness to the observable facts. Miller is interested in faithfulness of a different kind: “faith” in its more conventional sense, meaning faith to the heart or spirit. He wants to describe what is in the human soul.
What motivates Henry Miller? He seems to get fired up by calamity, by “disaster” and “frustration.” Rather than being put out by misfortune, he enjoys it. For Miller, it’s never about creating the right material conditions – let alone the perfect ones – required to flourish. It’s about looking within and getting to know the imperfections you find there so that you can live with them.
When he was first in Paris he was so miserable he was like “a ghost at a banquet.” External forces could have crushed him, just like they can crush any of us. Henry Miller is emphatically not advocating the American Dream, or the view that you can “just do it” if you want it enough. You have to be ready to fail, and even accept that this is the most likely outcome. If you’re going to have even the smallest chance to really succeed as an individual, you’re going to have to hit rock bottom first.
This is why so many so-called “successes” are so boring: it came to them too easily. They are outwardly and materially successful, but the spiritual journey was never completed. And it’s not surprising, given the world we live in: we do not look after our poor, those who have not made it yet. We do not give people breathing room to dream, and those who go off the track are threatened with sickness and starvation. Get a job, pay your way. The culture in which we live denies the central importance in every life of the “long dark night of the soul.” And so those who are successful are those who rush for the prize immediately. The most direct, simple, and trivial solutions to immediate problems are favoured in the world as we currently find it, leaving no room for anything new and truly transformative.
If instead you try something different, and if you eventually, after years or even decades, come out the other side, if you have suffered through your long dark night, as Henry Miller had by the time he materialised leaving his ectoplasm behind, it won’t be anything physical that will have changed. It will be something spiritual, something almost unsayable. This is the very thing that Miller wants to say, that he spent his whole life trying to say right. To describe the nature of that change that makes a human soul into the soul of an artist.
(I’ve been reading Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.)