Telling It

“I see the boys of summer in their ruin

“Lay the gold tithings barren,

“Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils …”

Great store is set today by grit: telling it like it is, calling it as you see it, just “telling the damn story”. But where is the magic if you only speak of what is, and ignore what was and what will be? Time at the heart of being. It’s the tone of prophecy that sets Dylan Thomas apart from the other kind of poet. The magic of his words, that always seem to say more than you can decipher. That seem to do things you cannot explain.

Ruining summer by bringing in the frost. Pointing out the maggots when the flowers are out for all to enjoy. The prophetic poet is not looking to be popular. Wailing over the sound of boys playing, the lazy summer buzz, the poet sees death in everything. The flowers are bright and make up the whole scene, but soon enough they must die.

“Flower, flower, all all and all.”

The flower connects the human being with the earth. It is alive, but of the earth. It is living but is of matter only, and without the spirit, and so is of the earth.

The flower, as plant, stands between the mineral – the dry unaliveness of earth – and the animal – the spirit clothed in flesh for as long as it walks here. The flower is all, tells us all, because it stands at the very centre of creation.

The flower blooms in its garden, our living world, which stands in the midst of the dry earth around and above the fires that roil beneath the surface; the flower and its all-embracing idea exist only in our hemmed-in world of the living. All beyond is darkness and death, dryness and desert. The poet reminds us of the smallness of the flower, and the smallness of life. Why?

Because beauty is only beauty when small and fragile, precarious and evanescent. And the poet’s business is beauty. And so he gives us the sublime – the eternal darkness before and after death, and the vast deserts where life cannot thrive – so that the beautiful can stand out for us in its moment.

And yet … our living life, our fluid spirit, is in the world which is also dryness and death. You cannot have one without the other. But it is so much easier to focus on life, and put thoughts of death aside. And so you tell it like it is, and talk only of “the working world.” Of the ceaseless activity of the human spirit.

And talk of the working world brings its own worries and fears. Unspoken but present. All the answers are supposed to be here. We’ve been honest haven’t we? Called it as we saw it? Told it like it is? But something is missing …

“Fear not the working world, my mortal …”

Remember you are mortal, the poet is saying. Look past the working world. “This too shall pass” is the lesson. And with awareness of mortality comes freedom and vision. The working world will do what it will, but it can only hold you for so long. And then you will be free, as you were free before. And with this knowledge, you cannot but be free now.

I read an article that suggested that “the cities of nine / Days’ night whose towers will catch / In the religious wind / like stalks of tall, dry straw” could be read as a prophecy of 9/11 … Please no, not this. This is not the kind of prophecy we find in Thomas. He does not prophesy the events of the working world. His prophecy is certain: that you will die, and all this will die. And so gives meaning to life above anything those who live and die distracted in the cities’ bustle can give you. Here, by his “breakneck of rocks” looking out by the sea the poet is troubled, “at poor peace,” that he cannot reach those “eternal waters away,” cannot reach those who, for all their working cares, cannot see the reality of life and death. When the poet presents to us the rhythms of nature, he is showing us this reality of death in life.

The poet does not see everything, is not a seer. He is himself limited by the tools he has chosen: his words. “Shut, too, in a tower of words …” he sticks to what he knows, which is words. He is not an expert in nature or the human soul, but in words. But we have a lot still to learn about words, and so we can learn a lot about life by listening to the poet and seeing where the words go, and how they brush up against lived life.

The poet is not a seer, he just gives the impression of being one. This is his art. And words, his tools, are powerful and can often seem all-encompassing. As if all truths could be spoken. Tell it like it is, call it like you see it …

Perhaps the poet does try to say everything. But it is only in his failure to do this that he succeeds in the business of being a poet. Poetry is not about putting things neatly. It is not about spelling things out once and for all. It is about instilling in the mind of the reader a kind of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and providing fragments of a language by which this uncertainty might be navigated.

Certainty is the enemy of art. The poet points to the signs of death at the heart of life, and the readers’ certainties are shaken. And possibilities for new creation are opened up, again and again, at each reading.

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Vision and Judgement

“I don’t know, let’s see.” – Alfred Korzybski

Gilles Deleuze has a problem with judgement. The problem is that judgement has too prominent a place in the way human beings interpret and evaluate the world.

We use judgement to make important decisions. We judge in order to decide what has value and what does not, and what should be valued more than other things.

Whatever problem you might have with judgement, it might seem impossible to dispense with it entirely, since we use it make sense of the world. To renounce judgement would be to cast aside the means for distinguishing between things in the world.

But Deleuze thinks there are other ways to determine values, and to give meaning to life.

The problem with judgement is that it really doesn’t help us decide our principles and values. Instead, it is what happens when you’ve already decided on your principles. You make judgements when you have “pre-existing criteria” to ground them on.

The problem with judgement is it stops anything new coming into being. How can you create new principles when you’ve already settled for the ones you’ve been given?

Deleuze is using this word “judgement” to refer to this limited way of thinking about the world. You accept the pre-existing conditions for judgement, the conditions you were taught as a child, and as you get older you become more adept at building arguments from these, to prove to others and to yourself of the “right” and the “wrong” of various objects, behaviours, and modes of existence.

A problem with judgement is that it is so often used against other people. If you have certain pre-existing ideas about what the world ought to be like, and you meet someone who doesn’t fit into that view, you can create brilliant arguments to prove that that person is in the wrong, and even that that person is of less value as a human being.

It is much more difficult to turn such arguments against yourself. You’ve known your “pre-existing criteria” all your life, and so you’ve had plenty of time to rationalise your own existence within them.

Judgement isn’t a useful tool for self-analysis. It is a weapon to be used against others. Us versus them: the kind of thinking that is used to justify war, prisons, and every form of self-imposed human misery.

One of the reasons we might feel we need judgement is that life is so difficult. It is a struggle. But Deleuze suggests that it is a mistake to think of life as a struggle against others, of you against the world. The real struggle is with yourself.

So you need something other than judgement if you are going to get through the struggle.

What judgement hides is the truth of the human soul: love and hate. We don’t tend to question our deepest beliefs, or ask where they came from. The root of any principle you hold is an emotional one, an instinctual relation between the body and the world – but judgement can’t drill down and examine those roots. It must start with the principles and work up.

The root of your principles is emotional: love and hate. It’s not easy to accept this. Perhaps you pretend you love everyone and everything – and yet still you, or others on your behalf, must deal out judgement and punishment. You tell yourself you don’t want it to be this way, that others must suffer, but that this is what reason dictates. You ignore the fact that there’s hatred at the root of this, and that, by accepting that others must be neglected or punished, you have willed it this way.

The alternative is to drill down and think about how you feel about things. What do you love? What do you hate?

Admitting what it is you hate is a good way to resist judgement. If you know that you hate somebody and for that reason you demand that they be made to suffer, then you are demanding something evil. You might resist making such demands, now that your real motives are visible to you.

It is a lesson that might sound paradoxical, and yet it is ancient wisdom. And it has hardly ever been tried. The lesson: look into your heart to discover what you hate, in order that you might learn compassion.

The lesson then is one of honesty with oneself. Self-knowledge is achieved not through judgement but though vision – through seeing what you, yourself, are. An individual, a body, in the world. And just as vulnerable to the weapons of judgement as every other body out there.

What then is the alternative to judgement, if decisions are to be made? If life is to have value and meaning? Perhaps it would be wisest to say, “I don’t know, let’s see,” as we begin to put the struggle for the vision of the self before the business of judging others.

(I’ve been reading Gilles Deleuze’s essay “To Have Done with Judgement,” in Essays Critical and Clinical, translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco.)

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Fantasy and Reality in Andy Warhol

Your “aura” is something you have before you open your mouth, says Andy Warhol. People see you and make an impression of you in their minds. If it’s very favourable or very unfavourable, then perhaps you seem to have an “aura”, a presence that fascinates or repels them. And then you open your mouth.

It doesn’t matter who you are. There’s fantasy at work here: their initial impression of you created something in their mind that wasn’t you at all. They’ve made up all kinds of stories about you – what kind of school you went to, what kind of thing you do for a living, what and how much you like to drink – even if only unconsciously. We all do this all the time with people we just met, as long as they make any impression at all, whether good or bad.

It’s not your fault you burst their bubble. You didn’t write those stories in their mind. You might say your aura did, but it’s more accurate to say they did it to themselves.

And so you open your mouth, and reality kills the fantasy. For better or for worse.

There’s nothing magical about reality. This is why Warhol thinks fantasy is so great. We should be able to hold onto fantasy for as long as possible. Warhol says that we should all remain babies until we are 40 years old, and only then learn the facts of life.

That way, the fantastic part of life, the magical part, could last so much longer. The disappointment would come at one blow, and then be done with.

If there were no opportunity to create fantasies at all, there would be no let-down. Warhol says that he gets bored of meeting celebrities. They never live up to the expectations you had of meeting them, and they’re so easy to meet anyway – for someone like Warhol. The people he likes is to meet are those people he never thought he’d meet in a million years.

He gives an example: in 1972 he met The Singing Lady he’d always listened to on the radio. He’d never even thought about the possibility of meeting her, and so the meeting was something entirely new. It hadn’t been made old through preparation and expectation. He’d had no opportunity to create a fantasy about meeting her.

No fantasy, no let-down.

This method of avoiding fantasy to make reality more bearable would inform his casting choices too, he says. I don’t think he’s talking about his own films here, which, to my knowledge, are all depictions of real life and don’t tend to involve acting. I think he’s talking about if he were to work on a Hollywood film.

He says he would take care to choose the wrong person for the role. Professional actors – the “right” people for the roles – are too predictable, he says. You’re expecting something great and you get it, but it’s the same old thing and so it’s a let-down.

Better to choose an amateur. Amateurs are great, Warhol says, because you never know what they’re going to do. There are no expectations, so whatever happens is new and great.

Perhaps we could say: professional actors are people who have spent a long time creating an “aura”. We go to see their films because we know what to expect from them. And when they don’t deliver it’s a crushing disappointment. When they do deliver it’s a disappointment too, but we don’t tend to consciously notice that. We don’t realise that what we really want is reality, and that seeing these same Hollywood films over and over leaves us empty.

Amateurs don’t have these Hollywood auras, because they’re real. Their appeal will come from what they do, not from any expectation you have of them. What you will see will be real, for better or worse.

What Andy Warhol seems to be saying is: fantasy and reality are both great. Fantasy is what we live for, but reality is what surprises us and makes life worth living. Modern life is a mixture of both, and that is what makes it so painful and so interesting.

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Henry Miller’s Christmas

Unexpected Cheer

Henry Miller always said that he couldn’t write stories: his books are huge spiral-formed stream-of-consciousness works that can’t really be called novels. And he tends to depict the grim and obscene realities of life rather than giving a sentimental view of things. So I was surprised, when I read Chapter 6 of Nexus for the first time, to discover that here we find a rather sweet story about a Christmas spent with his family.

Miller vs Christmas

It starts predictably enough, with Miller explaining why he’s always hated Christmas and pouring scorn upon it as he does all the other traditions Americans are supposed to hold dear. Like them, he couldn’t seem to escape it: “Christmas Day always found me in the bosom of my family – the melancholy knight wrapped in his black armour, forced like every other idiot in Christendom to stuff his belly and listen to the utterly empty babble of his kin.”

Even those of us who tend to enjoy Christmas can probably relate to Henry’s disgust with it: we’ve probably all had Christmases at times when life wasn’t so good for us, when the idea of going home to be jolly with the family seemed impossibly forced, when the commercialism of Christmas made the event seem rotten, when it might have seemed a better idea to cancel all plans and stay in bed all day. And Henry Miller’s life isn’t going well at the time this story is set: he is in a disastrous ménage à trois with Mona and Stasia, his writing is going nowhere, and he is without any other kind of meaningful work.

We can understand why Henry might have preferred to just stay in bed on Christmas Day.

Christmas Dinner

In fact it turns out that he is up first, and has to work hard to drag Mona and Stasia – who were out drinking until 3am the night before – out of bed and into their clothes and into a cab. As much as he hates Christmas, Henry seems determined not to let his family down by being late for dinner.

Things seem to be going OK at first: he is surprised at how well Mona and Stasia are getting along with his family. It’s polite conversation all around the table. His only worry is how to escape: as soon as possible, but not so soon as to be rude. It’s only 3.30pm! “I wondered how on earth we would manage to keep the conversation going until it was time to go.”

It’s strange to think of Henry Miller, rebel and iconoclast, worrying about the conversation around the Christmas dinner table. But he’s worried that when the polite conversation stops the bullets might begin to fly – starting with his mother asking him difficult questions about his writing, a side of his character she cannot and will not understand.


Mona and Stasia ask to be allowed to take a nap, and so Henry is left to carry the conversation with the relatives. He seems to do OK at this, because it’s a few hours until things start to fall apart. Mona – she and Stasia having woken up now – declares that Henry is a genius, to which his mother replies with sarcasm: “He certainly is no genius at making money.”

Henry can see it’s turning into a row, but he’s glad of it. He’s finally had enough of the small-talk, the “empty babble”, and he’s hoping an argument will be “revivifying.” And those who are familiar with Miller’s other books are probably expecting carnage and chaos at this point, some kind of Christmas horror story culminating in a minor crime being committed.

Christmas Magic

Things don’t work out like that. Henry’s father ends up taking the side of Henry and his artist friends, and he and Stasia have an enjoyable conversation about painting. Henry’s mother retreats from the room for a while, defeated for the time being. The family albums come out and the rest of the evening is spent merrily. Henry is able to abandon any drastic escape plan he might have entertained when his father finally says: “Let’s have something to eat… I’m sure they’ll want to be getting home soon.”

Perhaps I was so little expecting a story with any Christmas cheer at all that my expectations were very low for this one. Perhaps a real “magic of Christmas” type story would involve Henry finally reconciling with his mother once and for all, rather than winning the day by forcing her to retreat. It always seems a shame to me, reading Miller, to think how much he apparently hated her.

And yet this story stands out, resting as it does amid so many stories of despair, for being a true story of reconciliation. If not a reconciliation with his mother, perhaps it is at least a tale of Miller’s reconciliation with Christmas itself, his usual grim expectations of the world banished for at least a few hours.

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Kierkegaard vs the Modern World

(A Review of Sylvia Walsh’s Kierkegaard and Religion: Personality, Character, and Virtue)


Søren Kierkagaard is a difficult thinker in more ways than one. Not only is his writing full of abstractions and speculative notions and references to Hegel, but he also makes a number of provocative arguments that can be rather hard to take. Reading Kierkegaard, you will be assailed for your complacent modern beliefs in objectivity, virtue, and individualism. Kierkegaard doesn’t care about pleasing his readers, at least not all of them. He just wants to get through to those few who stand a chance of transforming themselves into real authentic human beings.

Sylvia Walsh’s book (published 2018, Cambridge University Press) is valuable above all as a brilliantly clear account of some of the central ideas in Kierkegaard’s thought, bringing this difficult thinker to life for 21st century readers. But at the heart of this book is a purpose: to show that religion is necessary for the development of the individual. This was Kierkegaard’s central belief, and Walsh thinks it is essential to comprehend the truth of it today.

We live in a time where religion seems to have less and less significance. So Kierkegaard’s message goes against the grain. And there are other ideas in this book that pose a challenge to the popular ideas of our time. The three I’m going to focus on are:

  1. Personality is something that is acquired, and not everyone has one.
  2. You are not owed anything for your virtuous thoughts and deeds. (Which means: doing good works does not merit God’s grace – p.100)
  3. There is too much concern with “objectivity” in the world today.

For Kierkegaard, personality is something that was sadly lacking in the modern individuals of his day. And Walsh demonstrates that he would find the situation today no better. The modern view – and arguably even more so the postmodern – would have it that personality is something given, wholly given by the social forces that shape you. Against this view, Kierkegaard argues that having a personality is not something guaranteed at all, it is something you acquire individually and only by hard work, and is in fact something that very few people achieve in a whole lifetime.

In an age of individualism, particularly in a consumerist society, personality is taken for granted. Everyone has their dispositions, likes and dislikes, and so on. But to define an individual based on shallow traits in this way is to be too objective about things, as if an individual was just made up of characteristics that you can put into a spreadsheet. Real individuality has to do with “inwardness” – in other words with the very real subjective struggle of the individual. And the precise nature of any individual’s struggle can never be wholly communicated to anyone else.

“By a person or personality he means a solitary I or distinctive individual, which every human being is originally created to be and has as one’s specific purpose in life to become.” (2)

The reason personality is so lacking in the modern age is that people tend to neglect this realm of subjectivity, and believe that everything important is objective and empirically verifiable. There is nothing “solitary” in the modern age – nothing that cannot and should not be brought into the cold light of the public eye for scientific cross-examination – and so the idea of undergoing any kind of personal, secret, and unique spiritual trial is not something that would ever seriously occur to most people. Without an awareness of the subjective side of things, it is impossible to even become aware of the possibility – let alone the necessity – of the greatest human task: to struggle inwardly to acquire and develop a personality.

Objectivity is a big problem then, for Kierkegaard, since it distracts us from the realm of the personal, which must be taken seriously if we’re ever to undergo the spiritual trials required to develop ourselves. But before I say more about objectivity, let’s look at the concept of “merit.”

Another unpopular view that Kierkegaard holds is: no reward is owed you for your good behaviour. For Walsh, this is what makes Kierkegaard different from most virtue ethicists. A virtue ethics will usually teach what virtues it is necessary to hold in order to live the “good life”. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, does not think that it is possible to avoid either evil or suffering in this life: as a Christian thinker, he believes that we are all sinners and so cannot avoid evil except by God’s grace; as an existentialist he believes that life is an ongoing difficult task, and so suffering is unavoidable. According to Walsh, this is a point of view he shares with Martin Luther:

“According to Luther, human beings do not merit salvation at all but receive it wholly on the basis of God’s grace. Nor is divine grace earned by becoming virtuous via human agency, which in his view is enslaved to sin and can do no good on its own.” (78)

Kierkegaard does recommend cultivating a certain kind of attitude and behaviour in order to be a good Christian – “morality, inwardness, obedience, continuity, service to the unconditioned, unity of the self …” (73) – he just doesn’t think that the reason for being this way is to ensure personal happiness. Eternal happiness is, in the end, guaranteed anyway to everyone, whether they make an effort or not, since “the eternal is essentially present in every human being.” (149) And even if you are one of the few that makes an effort, the only reason you found the strength to do so was by God’s grace.

By taking merit out of the equation, God’s grace becomes something mysterious: it’s not a balance sheet of rights versus wrongs, with the total determining whether you receive eternal happiness or eternal damnation. The nature of grace is something you only get a sense of in a personal and subjective way. A secret that cannot be communicated between human beings because it does not have the objective character of a ledger of accounts.

Once again, we come back to objectivity. Reading Walsh, I get the impression that objectivity is the big issue for Kierkegaard. She tells us that Kierkegaard believed that both objectivity and subjectivity must be taken into account when thinking about how to be a good Christian, but that modern times are so biased in favour of the objective that Kierkegaard decided to go entirely the other way, in an effort to redress the balance.

For example, objectivity would include “the objective standpoints of historical scholarship and speculative thought.” Academic study, including philosophy, tends to strive for the objective: What is…? questions are looking for definitions and proofs that can settle matters once and for all. The problem with this approach is that it leads one away from faith, which Kierkegaard believes is essential to the Christian character. (45)

Subjectivity, on the other hand, means “an act of isolation” and “an essential secret that cannot be distinguished outwardly or communicated directly.” (45) Subjective truth is “an objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness.” (46) You can see that Kierkegaard is emphasising an act here, a mark of character: the act of holding onto something uncertain and mysterious. Objectivity destroys the possibility of such an act by effectively making everything too easy: if you believe in God because you find it to be an objective and irrefutable truth that He exists, then you will not need to adopt the position of a person of faith, and so will lack an essential component of the Christian character.

Much is written and spoken today about the selfishness of human beings under capitalism. A common modern explanation for this is that we’re too individualistic – but Kierkegaard tells us quite the opposite. What we are lacking is real individualism. The “individualism” that we see around us is of an objective kind, based on shallow traits: likes and dislikes, and so on. Yes, human beings display selfishness, but this is because of a lack of real individuality and character, which would mean realising that material wealth has nothing to do with the highest needs of human beings. With the modern individual there’s no emphasis on “inwardness”, on the subjective struggle, on the work that every individual must do alone in order to actualise themselves as a human being. There’s good reason that inwardness is so rare, of course: as we’ve seen, for Kierkegaard the inward is a “secret” that it is the purpose of life to discover.

Walsh ends her book with some reflections on the present day:

“While differing from the modern age in some respects, the present age has seen an increase in social levelling, and a corresponding further decline in religious belief and practice. This has resulted in massive secularisation and the creation of what philosopher Charles Taylor has aptly described as a closed or immanent social and moral order dedicated to the pursuit of human happiness and individual flourishing without any sense of the presence or transcendence of the divine.” (178)

And though I am not a believer myself, I did get an overall sense from reading Walsh that in the present age we’re missing something in our secular pursuit of happiness. Kierkegaard tells us that what we’re lacking is awareness of our relation to the divine, and perhaps this is precisely it, if by “divine” you mean something personal, in other words that only you can relate to, that gives life meaning and defines you as an individual. What we’re lacking is a sense of individual meaning, when we focus on happiness too much.

And Walsh points to evidence that things seem to be going wrong: for example the growing disparity between rich and poor. It’s ironic that the kind of “social levelling” that we see today, a kind of confused belief in meritocracy, seems to be doing little to alleviate the suffering of the world’s poorest, and may in fact be making things worse.

Look around and ask yourself: does it seem that we’re focusing on what’s important? If not, then it might be worth considering that humanity lost something when it started to outgrow the concept of religion.

(Image is from Wikimedia Commons)

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Truth in Writing

Occasionally people will ask about Henry Miller: was he even a real writer? Wasn’t he a fraud who fooled the world into believing he was the real thing?

Miller’s books are, on the one hand, like nothing else that had ever come before: sprawling and spiralling things without beginning middle or end, so that nothing he wrote could ever be called a “novel” or even really an “autobiography”. Miller found himself unable to write a story and so he played to his strengths and created his own way of expressing himself in writing.

On the other hand, Miller’s books can seem derivative of the avant-garde that had arrived long before him – Dada and Surrealism, for example – so that you could ask yourself: What did Henry Miller really contribute as an artist?

Miller’s books speak to me directly as almost no other writing does. And so I know that Miller was the real thing. But it’s interesting to see that Miller doubted himself as much as his critics did.

He knew that he was capable of lies and fraud, and he spent a lot of time bluffing his way through life before he succeeded as a writer, as we see in his “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy (Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus).

The elevator attendant in Chapter 7 of Nexus is bizarrely rude to Henry. We wonder what exactly his problem is. Still, it’s strange to see Henry march back up to him and confront him with “Why do you hate me?” It seems like a sure way to start a fight.

But the encounter is quite revealing. The elevator attendant, a war veteran, has seen through him, he says. He knows a fake when he sees one, and literally has the scars to prove it. Henry is terrified and feels that the man has seen right into his soul.

After the encounter, Henry wanders the streets in a self-pitying mood. He’s now wondering: Does everyone despise me? Have they all seen through me? He’s thinking about the many acquaintances he’s made in his life and wondering what each one of them really thinks of him.

It’s a version of Miller we’re quite used to by Chapter 7. In Nexus, so far, Miller has been mostly weak, self-indulgent, and even suicidal. He’s looking in the window of a gun shop when a hand slaps him so loudly on the back that he thinks for a moment that one of the guns has gone off.

Tony Marella is pleased to see his friend and is sorry to hear he’s down on his luck. He offers Henry food and drink, and even a job. Tony gives his friend reassurance too: you’re born to be a writer, and your time will come one day. “And just when I thought the earth was ready to receive me,” thinks Miller, along comes a friend to help him.

It’s not just the food, drink, and money that revive him. Tony has come at a vital moment because Henry doesn’t have to pretend with him. He doesn’t have to compromise: Tony knows that Henry will be a writer one day, and just wants to help his friend out.

For all that Miller may have used tricks to get by – both in his writing and in his daily life, borrowing and stealing – we see throughout Nexus what it is that he really wants: to find the truth in himself and express it to the world. He is miserable for as long as he is forced to lie and pretend and play a part, and he has to become a writer not because of the expectations of others – since almost no-one expects him to succeed anyway – but because he must do it for himself, to raise himself up to a higher spiritual level. He needs to be able to tell the truth, and to live truthfully.

Miller’s books are an answer to a serious question he posed for himself, and answered truthfully as he could: Who am I? And because he struggled honestly, earnestly, and for so long with this question, a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, he was able, finally, to write books that are really worth reading.

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Notes on Nexus, Part 3: Finding Love

Chapter Three of Henry Miller’s Nexus is about despair. Miller describes his desperate state, trapped in a harmful relationship with Mona. He spends his days doing nothing, letting “events pile up of their own accord.” He knows he needs a miracle to save him, but he cannot muster the energy to bring one about.

His despair is of his own making, and he created it out of fear. He lives always in the “now”: because the past is lost to him, and he does not dare to hope for any future. The fear from which his despair is built is terrible because it is fear of one thing and one thing alone: losing Mona. His cowardice has made him brave: he has annihilated everything and will face any danger in order to avoid the one thing he fears. He has retreated into his mind in a desperate bid for survival, believing that survival is only possible if he can keep his love for Mona alive, even if only in his own mind.

In his despairing state, he believes that pure love is impossible. And yet love is essential to life. So he has had to make do with an impure, human love, fragile, which has made a coward of him, fearing as he must for its survival. So many things can destroy an impure love: loss of feeling, sabotage by a rival, death of the beloved. Pure love means letting go and letting the loved one be, but this is impossible for beings who are “weak, proud, vain, possessive, envious, jealous, unyielding, unforgiving.” And we are all those things some of the time. And in despair it seems to Miller that that he is only these things.

But even this impure love, this all he has, gives Miller a glimpse into the deeper truth, the deeper nature of love. What love is in its purity. He can imagine the perfect and pure love, and he knows that if only he were capable of this greater love, then even death could not destroy it. He would have nothing to fear.

But though he can see this pure love in his mind’s eye, he knows he cannot reach it. He knows it is there, but it is infinitely distant. He has learned in his despair to live without true love, with only the idea of it in his mind. A literary notion of love, detached from what he actually feels in his human heart.  He is living now a “minus” life, a life lived only in the mind. A life of cold ideas without emotion. Everything of life has faded, he says, because love, which is the essence of life, seems all but lost to him.

The chapter ends with Miller admonishing his past self for having fallen into this wrongheaded thinking. Why look to the stars for the ideal of love when life is all about us? Why pray for the intervention of angels when you can go into the street and find one in human form? And yet this period of inertia was a necessary step in Miller’s development. With this fall into the very depths of despair, Miller learned something of the darkest side of human existence, the very subject matter of what he would soon write, after leaving New York for Paris.

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