“Try going in reverse”: Henry Miller’s advice to writers

“For him who is obliged to dream with eyes wide open all movement is in reverse, all action broken into kaleidoscopic fragments. I believe, as I walk through the horror of the present, that only those who have the courage to close their eyes, only those whose permanent absence from the condition known as reality can affect our fate. I believe, confronted with this lucid wide-awake horror, that all the resources of our civilisation will prove inadequate to discover the tiny grain of sand necessary to upset the stale, stultifying balance of our world.” (Black Spring)

Henry Miller describes two types of dreamer: one with eyes open, the other with eyes closed. Because they are dreaming, their perception is fragmented and disordered. Those who want to save us from our fate using reason and science are eyes open type dreamers: they see “reality”, but what they call reality is in fact just a “kaleidoscopic” dream-world. And all the empirical evidence that they cite – and all the deductions they make from it – this is just more dreaming. It’s “in reverse”, and it will only lead in the wrong direction, to more horror.

And then the eyes closed type dreamer. She cares nothing for reality, closes her eyes against it, looks inward. And so isn’t dazzled by the kaleidoscope, and isn’t fooled into thinking that the dream is reality. The eyes closed dreamer knows the dream as dream. Expects no logic but dream logic. Knows only the appearances of things, which transform themselves as they will. Nothing is “in reverse” for the eyes-closed dreamer. Everything is as it should be.

Eyes open or closed you are dreaming.

Miller’s contempt for “reality” comes out in his practical advice for writers:

“What few young writers realise, it seems to me, is that they must find – create, invent! – the way to reach their readers. It isn’t enough to write a good book, a beautiful book, or even a better book than most. It isn’t enough even to write an ‘original’ book! One has to establish, or re-establish, a unity which has been broken and which is felt just as keenly by the reader who is a potential artist, as by the writer, who believes himself to be an artist. The theme of separation and isolation – ‘atomisation,’ it’s now called – has as many facets to it as there are unique individuals. And we are all unique. The longing to be reunited, with a common purpose and an all-embracing significance, is now universal. The writer who wants to communicate with his fellow-man, and thereby establish communion with him, has only to speak with sincerity and directness. He has not to think about literary standards – he will make them as he goes along – he has not to think about trends, vogues, markets, acceptable ideas or unacceptable ideas: he has only to deliver himself, naked and vulnerable.” (Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch)

We are separate and atomised, each dreaming our individual dreams. And we want to be united with other human beings. Following established literary standards – the ways that human beings have communicated with each other in the past – helps a writer to move in step with humanity. Write “acceptable ideas” and you will be accepted. But this method is too “eyes open” for Miller. It’s to be lulled into forgetting that you are dreaming. Instead you should close your eyes, discover what you have to say and say it. Instead of connecting to humanity via the official dreamt up standards you make actual “communion” with your fellow human being, by writing directly, from the heart.

New ideas don’t exist yet in the real world, they must be created. And they can only be created if we’re brave enough to close our eyes and look away from the world. Since the individual is unique, this is where you’ll find the unique ideas. Inside yourself and in your dreams.

But this means that there are no standards, no signposts to tell us where to turn, how far until we arrive. So we just have to experiment.

“The main thing is to hook up, get the wheels turning, sound off. When your brakes jam, try going in reverse. It often works.” (Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch)

You already see the world fragmented, disordered, and “disarranged.” So write it that way.

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Nowhere Under the Sun

“This is the sun of the high plateau that bakes the land dry and leaves one nowhere to hide.”

Ma Jian’s Red Dust is a book about escape, and discovering that there is no escape. A flight from something is always a flight towards something else. In Ma Jian’s case he escapes the red walls of Beijing, the rules and practices he found so restrictive, to encounter his own freedom. But he discovers that, like the desert sun, freedom is unrelenting. Every decision you make will have consequences that you cannot escape and that you are responsible for.

“I don’t want to read, or speak, or move, or think . . . Live your own life . . . Sky beyond the sky . . . Empty, everything is empty . . .”

Living, empty and new, moment to moment. Look at that bright sky. It’s enough to have escaped the red walls of Beijing. He hadn’t thought very much about what to expect on his long journey. We’ll see him lost in the desert at night, almost dying of thirst, unprepared for hot sun and violent sandstorms . . . Ma Jian is no survivalist. At first he doesn’t care if he survives or not. The essential thing was to escape. The essential thing is to be free. It’s only his close scrapes with death early in his journey that make him realise his life is something to cherish too.

At the very beginning of his journey, he’s looking out the train window: “The neat fields outside the window flick past like pages of a book.”

As if the story of his journey is already written down. As if each moment he heads away from Beijing is of such monumental significance that pages are dedicated to it. He hasn’t written his story yet, and not could he write anything in this moment. His mind is empty. Already empty as if he was already weary and thirsty is the searing heat of the desert sun.

Red Dust is a book about coming to life as an individual. At the start of the book Ma Jian is a Buddhist. He likes Buddhism because it “teaches man to transcend the material world and view life and death as trivial.” In this way it’s unlike Christianity, which “urges man to cherish life and fear death.” But his scrapes with mortality teach him to cherish life too. The gratitude he finds in himself for those who save his life, who give him water to get his blood moving again, meat that gives him the strength he now feels in his bones. To live freely is to live dangerously, and to live dangerously is to cherish every moment of your life. This moment so valuable that I would perish now if that were the only way to truly savour it. My mind in this moment and what is to come is of no significance. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow . . .” Every moment a work of art, a page in a great book . . .

On his journey, Ma Jian learns to reconcile the lessons of Buddha and Christ: Have no fear of death, and your fearlessness will allow you to truly cherish life.

(I’ve been reading Red Dust by Ma Jian. It’s translated into English by Flora Drew and was published by Vintage in 2002.)

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Lessons from Los Alamos

Albert James Connell ran the Los Alamos Ranch school, which William S. Burroughs attended when he was a boy. “Many of Connell’s ideas were taken on board by Burroughs, such as that there was no such thing as an accident: if something went wrong, it was someone’s fault, probably yours.” (Barry Miles)

So Burroughs went his whole life with the paranoid’s idea that there’s intention behind everything. Sometimes it’s something big, like a political conspiracy:

“The subject must not realise that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct.” (Naked Lunch)

Bureaucratic institutions cover up their function – to control you – by appearing incompetent. You’ll have to wait, the system isn’t responding, please take a seat … And the people who make up the rules and designed the system remain out of reach, protected by the many “mistakes” that the bureaucrats will make as they process your request. And you sit and wait, docile and patient, or ranting at “incompetence” until you wear yourself out, never getting to the real cause of the problem.

Or the control agent might be something more local, subjective: an “Ugly Spirit” within yourself.  Burroughs believed in possession: evil spirits can take control of your actions, you won’t even know you’re not the one in control. (“I don’t know what I was thinking …” “He came out of nowhere …”) Misfortune is never an accident, always an ugly intention behind it, evidence of possession. The demon put you there, raised your hand, pushed the button, pulled the trigger.

Ancient magic and evil forces are responsible for human misfortune:

“America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.” (Naked Lunch)

The modern troubles in America stem from the ancient evil that has existed there since the beginning. But Burroughs’s enemies need something visible that they can blame: drugs, atheists, immigrants … No, says Burroughs, the evil runs beneath the surface. The very fact you’re looking for someone to blame is proof that the deep evil is doing its work. What is this evil?

“In Burroughs’s mythology ‘evil’ applies to anything which represses spontaneity.” (Robin Lydenberg)

And this always comes back to the “Algebra of Need”, the name Burroughs gives to a mathematical understanding of the way need functions. Increase the need for something beyond a certain point and you have an absolute need, and the subject loses control because he or she has no choice but to pursue that need. “Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control. In the words of total need: ‘Wouldn’t you?’ Yes you would.” (Naked Lunch, quoted by Lydenberg)

Evil arises with necessity. When you absolutely need to do something, when you have no choice, when you “can do no other”, you are subject to – possessed by – evil. Control systems operate by making things necessary, and the way to make things necessary for a human subject is to tap into their needs, and make them need those things absolutely. (Human beings already come into the world with an “eating habit”, and leaders have always exploited this need to control their citizens.)

An unqualified evil for Burroughs is “sending,” which is a compulsive need to transmit thoughts to others for the purpose of control. “A telepathic sender has to send all the time. He can never receive, because if he receives that means someone else has feelings of his own could louse up his continuity.” Burroughs and his wife Joan would experiment at home with telepathic sending, sat in different rooms while they took it in turns to visualise an image, for the other to write down. Joan turned out to be a very powerful Sender. But it’s the Senders who use it continually, as a method of control, that Burroughs was worried about.

The Senders want to make it so that the only thoughts you have are the ones they send you, and the only thoughts they have for you are the mindless images that they conjure up again and again, in no meaningful order, purely for the purpose of sending. The Sender is sending messages for the sake of continuing to send, and through this they maintain a state of equilibrium where nothing can ever change – the Sender can feel in total control because no one else has a chance to have a thought of their own that might “louse things up”. The Sender doesn’t want to understand others, but to eliminate their free will altogether.

They might be evil, but we can understand their desire to Send. Blocking out the world with a mind-numbing procession of images might seem desirable where there is so much suffering in the world. Burroughs asks us to imagine applying for God’s job:

“‘You are responsible for every groan, every scream. You have to feel everything, every murder, suicide, depression, psychosis, all, all, all.’

“Now, most applicants don’t make it twelve hours.

“And those that do? How to they do it?

“Mostly by turning of the feel line . . . Disqualified.” (Last Words)

Turn off the feel line. This is how you survive, but you cut yourself off from understanding this way. Give up being an artist, it’s too painful. The young Burroughs destroys his diary and vows never to write again. The result of a good American education. Disqualified.

(I’ve been reading William S. Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles, and Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs’ Fiction by Robin Lydenberg. Also Burroughs: Naked Lunch and Last Words.)

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The Greatest Gift

Father Zossima tells his followers that the greatest torment is discovering the meaning of love too late to profit by it. You’re on your deathbed, in your dying brain you seem already at the gate of Paradise itself, and soft as a dying breeze it’s dawned on you that the greatest thing in life is to be able to give all you have to help another human being, to be overflowing and have everything to give and to give it – but now on your deathbed in your final ruin you have nothing left to give, nothing to sacrifice, nothing to share with your fellow human beings, not even a breath of your own to spare. The greatest gift in the world is living love, and what does it mean to be alive with love? Alive! It is to see another as your friend, his needs as your own, and to give wholeheartedly to help him. “It will come to pass that even the most corrupt of our rich will end by being ashamed of his riches before the poor …” He will be ashamed because he will realise how foolish he has been, that he had rejected the greatest gift – living love – in favour of power and worldly riches.

“He taught that life is a great joy and not a vale of tears,” is how Zossima is remembered. A great joy because whatever the hardships you suffer in your poverty, they are nothing compared to the lightness of heart you find in the living love that led you to give your riches away.

“The time is at hand,” is the tone of Zossima’s message. With Christianity you’re always on the cusp of the new world, Heaven on earth, these past 2000 years have been nothing but passing shadow before the cloud passes and the sun of truth shines again.

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The corners of rooms everywhere

There’s a shadow in the corner of my room. Sometimes as I sleep, peering at my room through my eyelids with the vision of dreams, it crawls near, sits down on the bed, and watches me. Night creeping close to me. I wake and it’s gone: I’m out of bed and looking there it’s always dark in that corner. But it’s still and silent. It’s sat there still as a predator listening to my breathing, heavy in the silence.

My landlady laughs a lot. Sometimes in my dreams I suppose she’s talking to the dark …

I’m sat here trying to write – and in my sulk I close my eyes and I seem to go right up and peer closely into the laughter, which sometimes seems a response to some moment of my secret anger, and I feel her laughter mocking and I’m irritable and irrational, and sometimes I hear the dog howling. And it won’t stop: I hear the landlord shout on at it for about twenty minutes.

She came into my room today. When I saw her she’d been stood there a while. Her smirking smile. White hair. Callous grey eyes. I asked her what she wanted, but she just nodded down to the landlord. I asked her what she wanted, but she just asked me if I kept my door locked.

It’s hard to explain this. I see things now only with the vision of dreams. I see now only with eyes closed.

But the shadow I know for sure.

And I know now that there are shadows in the corners of rooms everywhere.

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Reading Toynbee A Study of History

A society is a group whose members have shared problems.

“There is no such thing as society” would be true if there were no shared problems, if each individual had only his or her own problems to worry about.

“There is no such thing as society” is clearly false, since there are a great number of problems that human beings currently share. Destruction of the planet through global warming is one of these problems.

Arnold J Toynbee thought that “Western Christendom” was a society, distinct from “Orthodox Christian”, “Islamic”, “Hindu” and “Far Eastern” societies. This is because they each had their own distinct set of problems to contend with.

But he saw that beyond the “cultural plane” of Western Christendom were also “economic” and “political” planes. These latter planes extend further that Western Society, to encompass just about the whole world –– so, existing on these planes, we belong to a global society beyond our local one. There are problems that we share with the whole of humanity. Today this is especially apparent, with the threats of global warming and nuclear extermination.

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Spengler and Destiny

I’ve been reading Oswald Spengler again, and what he writes about destiny. If you’re going to discover your destiny – the destiny of your culture, of your family, or your own personal destiny – you need to get out of the habit of thinking about cause and effect. This seemed absurd the first time I read Spengler, but I think I understand it now.

If you think that everything is grounded in cause and effect, then you’ll make the ostensibly logical step from “x caused y” to “if x hadn’t happened, then y wouldn’t have happened.” This is often a mistake, especially when dealing with human life. Human life has a destiny, which in short means: if not by this cause, then by another.

Spengler gives Napoleon as an example. Paradoxically, Napoleon’s role in history was to allow for the dominance of the British spirit, which led to the expansion of the British Empire. Spengler tells us that in Napoleon’s time there were only two powers with really the same level of imperial ambition: Britain and France. The stage was set, and the creation of an empire “on which the sun never sets” was inevitable. Determinism is false, and events can go one way or another – Napoleon might have been victorious, and never met his Waterloo – but destiny is certain, and whatever the events certain trends are inevitable. If Napoleon had been victorious then it would have been the French who would have had the greatest Empire in the 19th century. But he was defeated and, since the time for empire was ripe, his downfall meant the dominance of the British Empire.

This is important: it wasn’t Britain’s destiny that was realised in the British Empire, but the destiny of the West, which means the destiny of West European and North American Civilisation. Even as Britain and France fought, they were working together to bring about the next step in the decline of the West . . .

Strange to call it a decline, of course, when you’re talking about the success of Empire building. But Empire building is always a sign of the death of a culture. There is nothing new to be created, and so the civilisation just expands, sharing the relics of its past, spreading its already dated ideas of freedom, technology, ambition . . .

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