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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Notes on The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

22 WarholThesis: “As soon as you stop wanting something you get it.” Andy Warhol says that he has found this rule to be “absolutely axiomatic.” He was always lonely and desperately wanted a friend, until one day he decided he was better off alone, and suddenly he had crowds of people chasing after him to share their problems.

He has to choose between professional psychiatric help and television. Television works better. It’s reliable: you switch it on and there’s the sounds and colours to distract you. Psychiatrists are human and so sometimes they disappoint you by failing to understand or not calling back.

“In the 60s, everybody got interested in everybody else.” And this is the problem: you can’t be a loner when everyone is interested in everyone else. Especially if you’re Andy Warhol.

It’s not just his television that saved him. He has a tape recorder too. If someone comes up to him with their problems he can just flick the tape recorder on and their appeal for help and advice, however heartfelt, becomes just a performance for the tape. And listening back to the tapes gives Andy a certain perspective on himself and on the other voices on the tapes that finally kills off emotion for him. “I think that once you see emotions from a certain angle you can never think of them as real again.”

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Henry Miller: Soul and Mind

In Chapter Two of Nexus we see the limits of Henry Miller’s patience with abstract arguments. His friend, a lawyer called John Stymer, is, like Miller, fascinated by Dostoevsky, and thinks that a “new phase of existence” arrived for humanity after the great author’s death. Stymer says that when Dostoevsky died the human “soul” died also, and now all we have left is “mind”. What he means by these terms isn’t exactly spelled out, but it seems that Stymer understands the soul to be something that permitted human beings a certain capacity for greatness, while the mind can respond to life only weakly, by retreating into a defensive position, with survival – or denial of death – its core purpose.

Stymer’s argument is reminiscent of Oswald Spengler, another writer Miller admired. With the death of the soul of a culture – a culture’s capacity to create new things – a civilisation can only decline, until some new possibility emerges from the ruins. This period of decline Stymer calls going “underground”, and likens it to a seed falling into soil. (A very Spenglerian metaphor.) The seed is not yet capable of anything, but wait and, with a bit of luck, it will grow into something with an organic purpose and character of its own.

Stymer thinks that Dostoevsky brought about the death of the soul by exploring every possible aspect of it. In his writing he explored its every avenue until he found dead end after dead end. The soul is “done for” because Dostoevsky has shown us its limitations. We retreat into the infinite depths of mind.

Mind, in its mission of self-preservation, always takes the easy way. Religions of the mind “give us a sugar-coated pill to swallow” by telling us stories that skirt around the hard fact of death. The politics of the mind gives us a similar pill, by pretending that we can be protected from harm by punishing those we call “criminals”, and thereby distracting us from the fact that we are all “tainted with the notion of sin.” Stymer ends his speech by proposing that the clue to the new way of being that will emerge from the soil of the mind might be found here: perhaps something so simple as turning to face the facts of death and human sin might open up the new possibilities for humanity that would bring it to life – or bring life to it – once again. He thinks that, by facing death and sin, we would discover they are made by man and not by God, and therefore we would be able to overcome them once and for all.

Miller is spellbound for weeks after hearing this speech. Stymer has put into his mind this notion of “man the criminal” or “man his own criminal”, and of “man taking refuge in his own mind”, and it starts Henry Miller’s own mind racing. He says: “It was the first time, I do believe, that I ever questioned the existence of mind as something apart. The thought that possibly all was mind fascinated me. It sounded more revolutionary than anything I had heard hitherto.”

And then he hears that his friend the lawyer has died. And with Stymer’s death, Miller’s fascination with his ideas dies too. “With that I stopped worrying about the mind as a refuge,” he writes. Perhaps the death of his friend put all these abstractions into perspective. Perhaps by this time he had made all the use he could of the inspiration these ideas had lent him. It is interesting to read how Dostoevsky put the seed of an idea into Stymer’s mind, who then dropped seeds into Miller’s, which would eventually grow into pages of literature. But as for the metaphysical debate itself, Miller sums up his feelings for it with the final words of the chapter:

“Mind is all. God is all. So what?”

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American Life Unlimited

Chapter 1 of Henry Miller’s Nexus is about, among other things, the mystery of Dostoevsky and the monotony of New York City.

He finds a line he’s scribbled in his notebook, which he thinks is “probably from Berdyaev.” It says: “After Dostoevsky man was no longer what he had been before.” He starts to think about how Dostoevsky might have transformed the world. He sees the evidence in the parallels between the characters he’s read about in Dostoevsky and the characters he’s met in New York.

“American life, from the gangster level to the intellectual level, has paradoxically tremendous affinities with Dostoevsky’s multilateral everyday Russian life. What better proving grounds can one ask for than metropolitan New York, in whose conglomerate soil every wanton, ignoble, crack-brained idea flourishes like a weed? One only has to think of winter there, of what it means to be hungry, lonely, desperate in that labyrinth of monotonous streets lined with monotonous homes crowded with monotonous individuals crammed with monotonous thoughts. Monotonous and at the same time unlimited!”

It’s difficult to see what Miller’s point is, and he doesn’t go into much detail. But it’s interesting that he saw this parallel. It fits in with the broader point he would make elsewhere, that true literature must be connected to life, and the great authors are the ones who make this connection, by writing works that speak directly to the human spirit. The height of ambition would be to write a book to end all books, so that that writing would no longer be necessary and life could just be lived. This was, in a way, what Miller was hoping to do with Nexus: at long last finish telling the story of “Mona” so that he could be done with writing and spend the rest of his life living and painting.

Miller would never have become a writer in the first place if he hadn’t believed that there exists an essential connection between life and literature, and that the act of writing brings with it a new and deeper mode of living. Not all are born to be writers, but for those that are writing is a necessary part of life. The whole of life, you might say, in the sense that writing is the essence of a writer’s life, giving meaning to every other part. By striving to fulfil his ambition to be a writer, Miller was also striving to live his truest life and be his truest self. No wonder he saw the shadow of great literature in the lives of the ordinary – and extraordinary – people that surrounded him.

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Notes on Gogol’s Old-Fashioned Farmers

The world is all “in an uproar,” says Gogol. And yet here is peace and quiet: the house of the owners of a small village in the Ukraine, with its bright garden full of trees and hanging fruits, and the pleasant smells of cooking and delicious things to eat.

Even the barking of the dogs is peaceful, so lazy are they, basking in the large garden. Even the squeaking of the old doors of the house is pleasant, each one singing its own song as it opens and closes on its ancient hinges.

The peace here is so deep, how could anything disturb it?

Gogol teases us with different tragic ends the tale might take. What if the house burned down? the old man says. But he is just teasing his wife, who is horrified at the thought, and of course the house does not burn down.

Why shouldn’t I go to war again? says the old man. And his wife scolds him for saying such a thing: he would surely be killed immediately, an old man on the battlefield. And his ancient guns would surely burst before they would fire a shot.

But of course he is just teasing his wife again, and the old man will not meet his end in battle.

And then one day tragedy strikes. The old woman has a premonition that she will die, and soon she is buried. The old man cannot understand it. He lifts his eyes and looks about and asks Why? Why have you buried her?

And there is so little to tell after that. The old man weeps, and the narrator sees that these are no longer tears of passion, but signs of “a heart already growing cold.” And when the old man believes he hears his wife’s voice in the garden calling him to the grave, he almost immediately succumbs, and is soon buried in turn.

The What Ifs in any story are interesting: what if the house had burned down? Would the couple have found a new lease of life elsewhere? And what if the old man had gone to war? Would he have perished, and his wife been the one to die of grief? In these What Ifs are the seeds of new stories, new possible worlds that the writer might have created. But more interesting for me, in this story, is the certainty that the wife feels, at that crucial point in the story Gogol has chosen to tell, that she will die. The writer is able to make us feel that we are witnessing something inevitable, an action carried out by Fate upon a helpless mortal. How does he create this effect?

It is an incident with her cat that speaks as a sign to the old woman. The cat goes missing, running away to live with the wild cats in the wood nearby. And then days later the cat returns half starved. The old woman feeds it, but when she reaches down to touch the cat it runs off: it has become an entirely wild creature now. It is this that she takes as a sign that death has come for her.

I don’t understand why the cat is a sign of death in this story. Perhaps a Ukrainian or Russian reader of the time would have understood. What is important for me is the certainty with which she reads the sign: it speaks to her directly. And the seemingly arbitrary form that the sign takes heightens this effect for me: the message appears as something just for her, something unique. We have no option but to believe that the woman has read something of Fate in the incident. I imagine how much weaker the effect would have been if something that was to me more recognisably unlucky had happened, like a black cat crossing her path, or a mirror breaking. Her belief, in its dreary familiarity, might have seemed superstitious and ill-conceived. Comical even. As it was, she could only have read this highly original sign of the disappearing cat through some definite and highly personal means, written as it was just for her.

It’s this application of the unique and concrete that gives the story its power. The cat must be a sign: so the old woman tells us. I have nothing to compare it to, this unique event, and so it speaks for itself of the mysteries of the universe. And so the power of mystery is given concrete form in Gogol’s expert attention to detail.

(I’ve been reading “Old-Fashioned Farmers” in The Overcoat and Other Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol. The translation was published by Dover Thrift Editions.)

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Notes on Gogol’s The Overcoat

Gogol’s The Overcoat is a story of a lowly government official in Tsarist Russia. His job is to copy out documents.

There’s a curious ambiguity in the narrator’s feelings for the official: on the one hand he is described as miserable: as a new-born he cried “as though he foresaw that he was to be a titular councillor.” On the other hand, when we see the man grown up there is no denying that he is content in the limited life he leads, and he is passionate about his job, having a special love for some of the words he copies, and dreaming about lines of text even when he is out on the street, so that he feels he is copying even when he is away from his desk. In sum, he is a ridiculous character, but the narrator hints that perhaps it is not so bad to be ridiculous in this way.

He is a man who lives an unassuming, solitary life. An absurd life, we might say, since it seems so devoid of meaning: his mind is only ever occupied with whatever work is put in front of him by other people, and he seems never to have pondered the meaning of life, let alone taken any steps towards wresting control of his life from the hands of others and evaluating it for himself.

A change awaits him, in the form of a new coat, and after this change his past life will seem to have been empty without it. How could life have had any meaning then, before the overcoat entered his life? (I think there have been overcoats in my life, things that changed everything forever and rendered my past life meaningless. Reading Plato for the first time at age 17.)

Suddenly, everything is shaken. A period of transition: things don’t make sense now the way they used to. He is learning to see the world differently. The coat is distracting him from his work so that he almost makes a mistake in his copying – something unheard of before now. We get no indication that he regrets the distraction: though he was at first wary of something new entering his life – the word “new” itself inspiring horror – once work begins on the coat he can hardly contain his excitement. In his past life he was an obsessive, passionate person, passionate about small things – the lines of the documents he copied out, his favourite words – and now he is obsessed with the coat. When the coat is finally finished, we’re told, it is the most glorious day of his life.

Just as we felt the passion of the man for his lines, so we feel the loss of the overcoat when it is stolen. He had sacrificed so much for it. It is really a tragedy to live in a world where one has to starve in order to save the money to buy a coat.

Finally the man dies. And the narrator gives us a summary of his life: a life lived largely unnoticed until those last days where he “appeared a bright visitant” in his shining new coat. Such a short span in which the man was truly alive.

I am left wondering what happened to that coat. How long did it continue to shine for? Perhaps it was sold after it was stolen, and ended up in the hands of another who would love and care for it. Or perhaps it slowly fell to pieces, just as, I suppose, it would have eventually in the hands of the poor official.

This tale of the emergence of this bright flash of light, this wonderful coat, and the tragic demise of the man, is perhaps a more beautiful tale than the alternative: to have had the man survive and keep the coat and for it to gradually fall apart as he struggled on in poverty. Though comical, The Overcoat is undeniably a sad tale from beginning to end, the sour taste of poverty throughout.

(I’ve been reading The Overcoat and Other Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol, published by Dover Thrift Editions.)

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Creation is Grace: Notes on Daniil Kharms

I’ve been reading I Am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary: the Notebooks, Diaries, and Letters of Daniil Kharms (published 2013) and trying to get a picture in my mind of the kind of person Kharms was.

“Creation is grace,” he writes. You can’t force inspiration: you need to be in the right place (at your desk, or out for a walk) and have the right attitude (mind focused on your work, or mind free and alert for new signs), and when the time is right the ideas will come. You’ll sweat them out, or they’ll fall on your head like raindrops.

“I’ve begun writing in my notebook every day. Dangerous, might stop living.” He keeps writing to stay sharp and alert, but it is always a compromise: how much of life can I miss out on to make sure I see the life I do live with the eyes of a writer?

The notebooks and letters, as they are presented, are fragmentary and disconnected: ideas for stories unwritten, plans made and unmade. One of my favourite parts, a to-do list for an evening in May:

For May 12, 1926

“7pm – 10:      Read Dostoevsky The Village of Stepanchivoko.

“After dinner:  Memory exercises.

“12 midnight:  Lights out.”

And the very next line:

“Lyonka came by and the plan changed.”

It’s such a wonderfully ordinary human story, of plans made and thwarted. And leaves so much to the imagination. And it tells us what these notebooks are all about: possibility. These notebooks are like a talisman for Kharms, and by clinging to them he holds close to himself the possibility that things might turn out right, that he might not fail as a writer after all. Because it’s important to be joyful, to do the thing you love for its own sake, whatever is happening in your life. So keep writing.

“I’ve got to really hurry to get the next thing written. How to speed that up?” It’s not as simple as just sitting down and writing it. Anything of value will arrive in its own time, and cannot be hurried. Hard work is the least you can do.

Kharms often appears very superstitious. He opens a Bible at random or rolls some dice to tell his fortune. He knows that something else, some power other than his own, is required for everything to come together. You can’t do it alone – no one ever has.

When you’re lost, every step you take is an experiment, every direction seems as good as any other. In Kharms’s notebooks, diaries, and letters you can see vividly the struggle of an artist as an ongoing cycle of experimentation.

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