The Very Last Love in the World

Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “The Backbone Flute” is a poem about desire, the mystery of where desires come from, and how they can fade and be forgotten. And it’s about the suffering of an artist, a poet, whose desires seem too wide for the world.

The poet depicts himself at work where

“the nails of words

“nail me to paper”

Nailed to paper in the dim light of his study. But we should not just imagine the poet here hunched over his writing paper, but also leaving his house, out in the street, still carrying the grey darkness of the study with him. The words, his own words, are still driven through him. Crucified, he is held in position. Boris Pasternak wrote of Mayakovsky: “His way of carrying himself suggested something like a decision when it has been executed and its consequences are irrevocable. This decision was his very genius . . .” The poet has created himself according to his own decision, his own genius, and his very being is now determined by this decision, the decision made in the dark of his study. He’s heavy with his genius.

Outside, the streets are full of “gaiety.” Light and laughter threaten to penetrate his self-enclosing gloom. Nature turns green and gold with spring. “Flowers and grasses, turn gold in the sun!” But, being crucified, the poet can only look inward at his own words, his own suffering:

“I desire only one poison –

“to drink the deep draught of verse.”

And by this draught the poet’s gloomy genius is hardened, impenetrable.

He leaves his study and steps outdoors, to visit the woman he is in love with. She is a creature who has forgotten how to desire, with “the gaping hollows of two deep graves” for eyes. He feels he might fall into these graves, but he saves himself, “juggling with words” as he “totters above” first one abyss, then the other.

He wants to save his beloved from her own emptiness: “Find your youth in my soul,” he tells her. It’s strange that one who spends his days nailed to paper, hidden from the warmth of the life-giving sun, blind to the cheerfulness of the street, should feel he has a youthful soul, a soul so overflowing with youth that he has enough to spare to save the soul of another. But this is something of the magic of the “crucifixion” of the writer: he’s reborn, resurrected, and thereby immune to nature’s cycle of birth and decay.

She, however, is dead (even as she lives.) And the world is loveless: people have forgotten even that the sky is blue. Perhaps the poet’s love is the last love in the world, and the flush of his cheek is the last red in the world:

“the very last love in the world

“to dawn like a consumptive’s flush.”

The poet doesn’t expect his reader to understand. To him, we are all like this woman: dead to our desire. There is no desire left in the world, and you must go beyond the world, be otherworldly, to find your desire. The poet is superhuman in comparison to his lover, and in comparison to everyone else, all of us:

“If you carry your faltering steps to a bridge,


“how good to be down there –

“then it is I,

“the Seine pouring under the bridge,

“who call you,

“baring my rotted teeth.”

Reborn with spring, the poet is the shadow of nature. A dark imitation. A river to call you down to your destruction. The work in the dark study, the dark magic of the crucifixion, has created this power in him. You are empty of desire, and so the poet can create desire within you. You are unable to resist. Stripped of your own desire, you are a blank canvas to be sketched upon:

“then it is I, climbing high,

“expectant and stripped like the moon, who make you yearn.”

You have forgotten how to desire. And so the poet will draw you down to despair, or raise you up to sublime yearning. The poet says: if you have no desire of your own, then I will create desire in you. I will lend you my youth, or make you desire death, or make you weep at the expectation of an impossible desire. You will see the world as I see it because, empty of desire, what is there in you to offer the least resistance? You’ll be filled, an empty vessel.

But perhaps the poet, like us, is not his own master. Perhaps not godlike after all. The only godlike one is God Himself. After all, it was God who put him in this position, and made him desire the woman he now loves. Made him want to nail himself to paper and give away his youth, rather than enjoy the joys of spring. The poet despairs and addresses God, God the greatest of all artists:

“remove that cursed woman

“whom you have made my beloved!”

But “the streets are too narrow for the storm of joy.” If God makes us desire, then why did He make the world, the streets, so narrow? Too narrow for this joy that the poet feels. There’s a moment in the poem “The Cloud in Trousers” when Mayakovsky expresses the same thought: God, if you are so good, then

“. . . why didn’t you see to it

“that one could without torture

“kiss, and kiss and kiss?!”

What use is this desire to kiss and kiss in this world so empty of desire, so narrow and constricting? Why must a poet drive nails into himself and shroud himself in darkness to communicate with the woman he desires?

Perhaps the answer is: God loves artists most of all. And He knows that an artist must suffer. And so he blesses His favourites with desire, knowing the suffering this will bring. It’s fitting that the instrument the poet chooses is his “own backbone”: the backbone God gave him. “The backbone flute”: an imperfect instrument, and one that only a poet, one meant for suffering, would dare to try to play. Needs to try to play, inspired by God to desire his own crucifixion.

(Quotations are from Vladimir Mayakvosky’s The Bedbug and Selected Poetry, translated by Max Hayward and George Reavey, published in 1975 by Indiana University Press. The quotation from Boris Pasternak is found in the introduction, written by Patricia Blake.)

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Hegel, Theodicy and Contradiction

This is a paper I presented at the “Hegel’s Conception of Contradiction: Logic, Life and History” conference in Leuven on 17th May 2013. In retrospect, it seems strange to talk about theodicy without also discussing God and the problem of evil. A quick google search for “theodicy” brings up the following definition: “the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil.” Well, Hegel is arguing for a sort of providence: the whole of human history, and all the suffering and evil that goes with it, is a necessary preparation for the end of history, where our deepest human needs can finally be realised.

I compare Raymond Geuss’s views with those of John W. Burbidge. Geuss seems to take a conventional view of what Hegel’s “end of history” looks like: it’s a world where post-Revolutionary liberal ideals have been put into practice and actualised in society. For Burbidge it’s more complex: at the end of history new conflicts arise again and again, new ideas about what’s best for society challenge the old ones: but from the “launching pad” of these conflicts we’re able to find, each time, a way to be “at home” in the world through compromise. Whether Geuss or Burbidge is right, Hegel’s “theodicy” means a vindication of the providence that he finds to be evident in history, an assertion that the suffering, conflict and evils of history prepare us for the better state of affairs that waits for us at its end.

Theodicy and Contradiction in Hegel

In this paper I’m going to discuss Hegel’s “theodicy”.  This is a term that Raymond Geuss makes use of when describing Hegel’s philosophy of art and philosophy of history.  In his essay “Art and Theodicy”, Geuss describes Hegel’s view:

“As human beings we have a fundamental – in fact Hegel calls it an ‘absolute’ – human need to be genuinely ‘at-home’ (either ‘zu Hause’ or ‘bei sich’) in the world, where ‘the world’ includes not just the natural universe, but also the social, cultural and political world in which we live.” (Geuss p.80)

We can find evidence that this is Hegel’s view in Hegel’s “Preface” to his Philosophy of Right:

“To recognise reason as the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to enjoy the present, this is the rational insight which reconciles us to the actual.” (Philosophy of Right, p.12/26-7)

“What Luther initiated as faith in feeling and in the witness of the spirit, is precisely what spirit, since become more mature, has striven to apprehend in the concept in order to be free and so to find itself in the world as it exists today.” (Philosophy of Right, p.12/27)

Geuss describes this need for reconciliation with the world as a “human” need; for Hegel, “it defines what it is to be human”:

“Hegel claims that the need to be-at-home in the world is ‘absolute’ in that it is not relative to any other set of possible human purposes.  We humans want to satisfy this need for its own sake, i.e. just because we are human and it defines what it is to be human.” (Geuss p.81)

So on Geuss’s reading of Hegel what defines us is a need to be reconciled with the world.  Now, what form does this reconciliation take?  Well, as we just saw, it is a reconciliation with the natural and the social, or political, world.  I’m going to focus on the social and political aspect in this paper.

To be reconciled with the social, or political, world, we need the world to be more or less as we think it ought to be. Hence:

“This absolute need gives rise to an associated set of expectations about how the world ‘ought’ to be, a set of expectations that aren’t automatically satisfied in human life as we know it.  Especially in more complex human societies humans will easily fail to find their social world comprehensible or will feel alienated from it.  Oddly enough, then, being ‘at home’ in our world, although part of what we absolutely need, is not, at least for inhabitants of the ‘modern world’, our ‘natural’ state, i.e. it isn’t the state we would find ourselves in if we, as it were, failed to exert ourselves.  Philosophy, art, and religion are for Hegel all forms of what Hegel calls ‘absolute spirit’; they are, he thinks, just various ways of trying to satisfy our absolute need.” (Geuss p.81)

The point is that the need to be “at home” becomes something ethical; what I mean is that this human need we have amounts to a need to make the world live up to our ethical ideals.

Theodicy is something that teaches us that our absolute human need will be met.  Philosophy, art and religion serve as theodicy if they teach us that our good actions will lead to good results.

Geuss tells us that there are: “Two conditions that must be satisfied for there to be a fully satisfactory theodicy, namely that

“a) in a world that is basically rational, good, and commensurate to us,

“b) the ‘theodicy’ shows us that (a) is the case”. (Geuss p.83)

So, it is not enough for a theodicy to make it seem that the world is good and rational; it must also be the case that this is in fact so.

Geuss does distinguish between “true” and “false” theodicy: a false theodicy convinces us that we live in a rational and good world where this is not the case; whereas a true theodicy describes an actual rational and good state of affairs.  For example, ancient Greek art dealt in false theodicy, because it made the world appear good even though slavery existed, and for Hegel no society can really be good where slavery exists.  But true theodicy is possible in the modern state:

“Because post-revolutionary society is fundamentally rational and good – the right principles are publicly recognised and are in the process of being fully implemented – condition (a) above is satisfied and ‘true’ theodicy is possible; because the process of construction of the fully free and rational society is not yet complete and because people still cling to old-fashioned abstract conceptions, philosophy is needed and has an important social role to play both in guiding the constructive activity and in ‘reconciling’ people to that task and the world that is coming into being through it. ” (Geuss p.84)

So, Geuss’s Hegel tells us that we live today in a state that is rational and good (here in the West at least, Hegel would probably say); though there are improvements that could be made, nevertheless we have in our political constitutions and bills of human rights all the principles we need to make things match up more closely with our ideals.  In other words, we have the right ideals, but we don’t always, or yet, live up to them.  Making the world a better place is a matter of “exerting ourselves”, rather than a matter of inventing new and revolutionary ideals.  For example, we recognise homelessness and unemployment as problems because we believe people have a right to a home and meaningful work; solving these problems is a practical question, since we all agree at least that they are indeed problems that need to be solved.  That is the Hegelian view as someone like Geuss sees it, I think.

If we take this view, then we can see the Philosophy of Right as setting out the political ideals that we still strive toward today; Hegel teaches us what the ideal state looks like – no slaves; everyone has a right to property; the state is sovereign; and so on – and the task of a theodicy, as we might find in philosophy, art or religion, would be to reconcile people to their duty to try to maintain these ideals, or bring them about, as the case may be.  The point is that we can recognise in the state our own ideals and so be reconciled to whatever work we have to do within the state; some of this work will maintain the state as it is, some of it will make things even better.  Philosophy, art and religion show me that if I and others like me get on with our work within the state, we will collectively make the state a better place and so will find satisfaction in our work.

Now, Geuss describes three theses of theodicy:

“a) weakest thesis: the world isn’t (metaphysically) set up so that it will systematically thwart our deepest interests.

“b) strong thesis: the world is actually set up so as (on the whole) to foster the realisation of at least most of our deepest (rational?) interests most of the time.

“c) strongest thesis: the world is metaphysically constituted so that the realisation of our deepest human interests (eventually) is virtually ensured.” (Geuss p.88)

Hegel takes the third position, ‘c’, according to which the world is “metaphysically constituted” so that in the end we will find satisfaction of our “deepest human interests”.  All this means is that whatever ideals we have which are not satisfied right now will eventually be met.  In other words, we work not just for ourselves and our contemporaries, but also for our children or future children, grandchildren, and so on.  We can say the world is “metaphysically constituted” in this way because it is really the case that we live in a state of affairs where things will (almost certainly) get better if we exert ourselves.  Any philosophy that shows this to be true is a theodicy in the “strongest” sense.  So:

“The final result of a theodicy is to show us that life as we know it in our world is inherently worth living; this satisfaction of our absolute need should generate in us an affectively positive optimism.” (Geuss p.89)

And the function of this optimism is that it encourages us in our activity in the state (our work, civic duties, and so on).  Good things come to us if collectively we work to make the world a better place: this is what a theodicy shows us.

As I’ll explain, I like a great deal of what Geuss has to say about Hegel and theodicy.  Hegelian theodicy is indeed about reconciling ourselves to meaningful activity; and Hegelian theodicy does, I think, consist in the “strongest thesis” that the world is really constituted so that our deepest interests will almost certainly be met (in the long run) if we exert ourselves.

However, by identifying our deepest interests with the post-Revolutionary ideals described in the Philosophy of Right, Geuss’s Hegel takes too fixed a view of the ideals that we strive towards.  Geuss’s Hegel – and I should add here that I’m fairly sure Geuss’s Hegel is not Geuss himself – Geuss’s Hegel seems naive, since the picture is of a modern society in which we are all agreed in our ideals, and we just have to work towards achieving them.  Geuss’s Hegel is a conservative, in the broad sense of the term, since everything we take to be ideal in politics is found in the nation state.

I think this conservative and naive version of Hegel neglects his own law of contradiction, which Redding describes:

“The law that Hegel calls ‘the law of contradiction’ states that ‘everything is inherently contradictory’.  It is a law, Hegel says, that expresses the ‘truth and the essential nature of things’.” (Redding p.200)

If everything is essentially contradictory, the picture seems to become more complicated than the one Geuss has described.  Remember that if everything is essentially contradictory, then, for Hegel, everything is changing, or at least susceptible to change, since contradictions have a tendency to resolve themselves.  So any ideal state of affairs would not be an end state toward which we strive, but only the beginning of a new state of affairs which in turn would eventually be sublated.

There is no doubt more than one way to account for contradiction in Hegel’s theory of history and politics, but I’m going to suggest one that takes us in a slightly different direction from Geuss.  During questions, perhaps we can discuss how we might square the law of contradiction with Geuss’s view, or a view like it, a view according to which the Philosophy of Right describes the ideals towards which we strive in order to fulfil our needs.  (I don’t think it’s very useful for modern philosophers to read the Philosophy of Right in this way, which is why I don’t wholeheartedly subscribe to Geuss’s reading of Hegel; I think the Philosophy of Right can only turn out to be out of date if we try to use it as a guide to the way political life should be.)

In his Hegel’s Systematic Contingency, John Burbidge describes what he takes to be Hegel’s view of history:

“Here is no purposive development, organising events to produce an order that matches what reason tells us it ought to be.  Reason works with universals, not simply the abstract universals of moral laws, but also the concrete universals where many components are fitted into a coherent whole.” (Burbidge, p.3)

If history has no purposive development, then it does not move towards an ideal.  So Burbidge seems to be taking a very different line to Geuss’s.  Whereas Geuss suggested that we can be sure that our purposeful activity will help us move towards our ideal, Burbidge emphasises the fact that, for Hegel, we cannot know where our actions will lead:

“Indeed there is no way of knowing what will happen once we introduce these radically new events into the turbulent cauldron of human affairs.” (Burbidge, p.3)

As you’d expect, Burbidge looks at Hegel’s Lectures on World History for Hegel’s view of history.  In this work he finds an important concept that is central to his understanding of Hegel’s view:

“What is interesting about these key passages from the Lectures on World History and from the two Logics is the recurrence of another phrase.  This similarity is lost in translation, however, for our translators have adopted different conventions.  Let me remind you what they wrote.  In Nisbet we have: ‘The particular interests of the passions fight and wear themselves out.’  In Miller, reason ‘exposes the means to attrition,’ while from Geraets and his colleagues we have: ‘mutual friction.’  All these English expressions translate either the German verb, sich abreiben, or its cognate, die Aufreibung.  The English terms that most closely capture its sense would be ‘abrade’ or ‘abrasion,’ perhaps even ‘chafe.’  While the Lectures on the Logic of 1831 omit this phrase, it does talk of objects coming into conflict with each other.  The image that comes into mind in all four passages is that of stones on a wind-beaten shore grating against each other until all awkward edges are rubbed away and smooth circles emerge.” (Burbidge, p.5)

“Because we are passionately committed to our causes, we do not surrender, but wage war with each other, struggling for a dominance that is never achieved.  In the process we are worn down until, together with our opponents, we find a modus vivendi, a  way in which all of us can find satisfaction, even if our primary purposes have been frustrated.” (Burbidge, p.5)

“The universal structures of social intercourse, then, are not the products of social planning, says Hegel.  They emerge from the struggles of the participants: between the landed gentry and the agents of commerce; between the workers and management; between Francophone and Anglophone; between parents and teenagers; between analytic and continental; between suburb and inner city; between fundamentalism and secularism.  Out of these struggles emerge the conventions and customs by which humans create great societies.” (Burbidge, p.6)

The picture of world history in which “abrasion” plays a key role is a picture quite different to the one Geuss presented.  Geuss’s Hegel seemed to be talking about a state in which everyone works together in order to get to a set of shared ideals.  Since being “at home” in the state means making the state a place where one’s ethics can be realised, and this ethics is found embodied in the principles of the state, every person must work towards the ideals of the state if they are to be happy.  That seems to be Geuss’s Hegel’s view.  But if Hegel’s view, as Burbidge suggests, is that we not only don’t know what the consequences of our actions will be, but furthermore, will inevitably be frustrated in our desires, then it seems more difficult to view Hegel’s philosophy as a theodicy.  Burbidge’s Hegel might seem to be offering the very opposite to a theodicy, since he seems to be saying that it is guaranteed that our desires will be frustrated.  However, Burbidge insists that his Hegel has us move towards happiness:

“And so we move toward happiness, toward the end of history.  But … passion is not so easily disposed of.  We continue to be individuals with our particular interests.  The resolutions of past conflict oppress and confine us.  We become restless.” (Burbidge, p.6)

So Burbidge’s Hegel seems to present us with a limited form of theodicy: philosophy can assure us that we will move towards happiness, but this happiness will not last forever, and eventually, sooner rather than later, we will arrive at a new conflict which will require a new resolution before we can be happy and arrive at the end of history again (only to, sooner or later, have to begin the process once again).

Burbidge’s view does seem to be compatible with the law of contradiction.  I should point out that not every conflict is a contradiction, since a contradiction, for Hegel, is a self-contradiction, and so, for example, if you disagree with me then we might have a conflict but not a contradiction; whereas you might say there is a contradiction in my argument if you can show that I disagree with myself.  Or to take another example: two politicians disagreeing over an issue might be a conflict; but it might become a contradiction if both these politicians are in power and so the state is simultaneously pursuing two conflicting policies.  But the point is that the fact that everything is contradictory fits with Burbidge’s view that anything can descend into conflict and require a new resolution.

In his book, Burbidge’s point is to demonstrate the role that contingency plays in Hegel’s thinking.  What is new is truly new, and was not made necessary by what came before.  Contingency is necessary:

“Not only is there no precedent that anticipates any particular event, but any reflection on its significance starts by taking note of the way it differs from what has gone on before.  Before it happened, the novelty was not even entertained as a possibility.  Although the connections and similarities between the action and its prior setting may be noticed once it has taken place, prior to its emergence there was nothing in the preceding conditions that would enable thought to predict that things would happen in just this peculiar way.  Any process of anticipating such a result would need to appeal to some general principle or rule; yet the uniqueness of the historical action rules out the presence of any such principle.” (Burbidge, p.10)

The post-revolutionary ideals described in the Philosophy of Right are not therefore principles that determine which actions are ethical, and therefore take us towards our ideals, and which do not.  Ideals such as those described by Hegel must change, and we are perhaps seeing this as our attitudes towards the nation state change.  For Burbidge it is essential that we do not see Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, or any of his other books for that matter, as a “template” to be followed by future philosophers:

“It is not surprising that, given the presuppositions we have identified, his [Hegel’s] conclusions can never become a template to be followed by later philosophers.  It is rather a launching pad for initiating new explorations of the way the contingencies of history interact with the traditions we carry forward from the past.” (Burbidge, p.15)

I suggested just now that Burbidge had a “limited theodicy”; but now I want to suggest that it is this notion of tradition as a “launching pad” that I think constitutes the real theodicy in Burbidge’s work.  Since everything is open to change in unprecedented ways – and I think Hegel’s “law of contradiction” means this must be so – there can be no theodicy conceived as progress towards a prescribed set of ideals.  Let’s look again at Geuss’s conditions for a “strongest” theodicy.  These are: the world must be good and commensurate to our aims and philosophy must show this to be the case; also, the world must be constituted so that our deepest interests are almost certainly going to be realised.  What Burbidge shows us is that our deepest interests are not met by setting up a world that fits with an ethical ideal, as Geuss’s Hegel thinks; instead, our deepest interests are served by whatever makes us most happy, even if this means the defeat of our ideals.  Burbidge’s Hegel offers a theodicy because he shows that our deepest interests are met not by the realisation of our ideals, but by the destruction of both ideals and traditions, where such destruction helps us to overcome an obstacle to our happiness; and he shows us that both traditions and ideals have a tendency to give way when we need them to.  Since we can trust traditions to disappear when we need them to, we can feel safe and “at home” in them.  Burbidge’s Hegel offers us the contradictory notion that happiness consists in not (necessarily) getting one’s own way, and offers us a theodicy by showing why it is that our ideals must always be frustrated.


Raymond Geuss, Morality, Culture, and History (Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford University Press, 1967)

G.W.F Hegel, Grunlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (Suhrkamp, 1970)

Paul Redding, Analytic Philosophy and the Return of Hegelian Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller (Humanity Books, 1969)

G.W.F. Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik II (Suhrkamp, 1969)

John W. Burbidge, Hegel’s Systematic Contingency (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

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When is it Life? Part 3. Final Part: “Life Presents Itself”

Something is wrong with Henry Miller, as he wanders Broadway, lost, unable to write. This is what we’re really seeing when Miller gives us his picture of impersonal Broadway. Broadway reflects Miller himself: inhuman, sleepwalking, living dead, an abyss for human spirit. He’s a failure and he feels it. He looks around at the world he ought to be writing about and he sees nothing but death. He can’t see the life in the individual human being for the crowd he finds us all so lost in. He decides the crowd is the problem. He in a world of machines and death, draining the life out of him, and that’s why he can’t do the work of an artist. The meatballs he chose to eat instead of that delicious pork chop, it’s all the same. “Food makes energy,” he reflects. He’s dragged on by a dogged nihilism, nothing more. A thread of life only.

“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which have to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

Imagine stopping Leopold Bloom on his way to the butcher’s that morning and asking him Miller’s question: “Why do you go on living the way you do?” He’s thinking about that delicious kidney. “Relish” is the word: he lives to enjoy. If you’d asked him that question on that morning perhaps he would have explained he was on his way to the butcher’s and no reason in particular, and that might seem a good enough answer, coming from this contented soul.

Remember Guy Debord: if you’re not connected to life, you see it as representation only. Bloom’s jolly hedonism has no justification, his answer won’t suffice. To Miller, Broadway is a giant spectacle, a representation of life. And as a mere representation, it is not life. It is death. A living death, but death all the same.

What’s the work of an artist? “His eyelids sank quietly often as he walked in happy warmth.” It’s taking the ordinary and finding the life in it, and giving that life expression. The life that presents itself. Leopold Bloom is alive and lives to eat the inner organs of beasts and fowls. James Joyce has Leopold Bloom burn with inner life as he moves along the street eyes open, alive to the people he meets, the things he sees, his own imaginings. Henry Miller, as he sat on Broadway watching the crowds, could not yet do that. He could not yet be an artist. He gives us a vision of Broadway as he saw it on that day: not as a crowd full of vibrant, living souls, souls like him who live their lives step by step, moment by moment, contented or unhappy, thinking about their next meal or remembering the meal they just finished, but as a grey crowd, confused, shadows among the bright lights. Grey and empty and confused shadow as he himself is shadow in this reflective moment. A pair of eyes, tired but still open, sat watching the other shadows pass, holding the patterns in his mind, but unable yet to find the life within.

(Quotations are from Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller, and Ulysses by James Joyce)

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When is it Life? Part 2: Miller at Epidaurus

A day for relaxation, spent reading The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller. I’m in a pleasant, empty bar where I can drink wheat beer as I sink into a comfortable chair, absorbed.

“The road to Epidaurus is like the road to creation. One stops searching. One grows silent, stilled by the hush of mysterious beginnings. If one could speak one would become melodious. There is nothing to be seized or treasured or cornered off here: there is only a breaking down of the walls which lock the spirit in.”

And so Henry Miller rides in silence as he experiences “the great peace” of Epidaurus, “the peace of the heart, which comes with surrender. I never knew the meaning of peace until I arrived at Epidaurus.”

I pause and sip, shift in my seat as I try to contemplate this peace. Absolute peace, Asclepius’s cure for all disease. And what does it consist of? Nothing, an absence. Absence of walls and absence of modern progress. Absence of the tall buildings crazy lights struggle of civilisation.

Even in New York and Paris, there had been moments in Miller’s life when he felt he’d found peace. But he realises now that this ordinary peace is a “counterfeit”. The real thing is what he is sensing now, for the first time in the spaces of Epidaurus.

I wonder at the little peaceful space I’ve created for myself in this moment, sunk into this chair, in this quiet bar cool beneath street level. It feels peaceful, calming, to sit and sip and contemplate absolute peace. Peaceful because I can take my time. Peaceful because no pressure. But this isn’t peace, Miller tells me:

“Peace is not the opposite of war any more than death is the opposite of life.” And this peace I have made for myself is an opposite: a break from work, which it opposes. This peace is valuable to me because it’s the opposite of stress and anxiety, the opposite of struggle.

You do not accept life in its immediacy, and you do not know peace, and so you keep on searching. You keep asking questions, and the answers become more and more complex, the confusing flickering light of the spectacle . . .

When I was reading Miller’s description of Broadway in Tropic of Capricorn I thought: it’s a representation only. A spectacle. I was thinking of Guy Debord: “All of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

Nothing is experienced directly. Everything is a reflection of everything else. This is where I seem to be stuck. This is where Miller was stuck as he slunk and scowled on Broadway, as he wept into his meatballs.

Hordes of bodies, identical, move along Broadway: “The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.”

How many of these people in the crowd felt happy and peaceful on that day on Broadway? Miller didn’t notice, he could only see the ants, the swarm – he was blind to the individual souls in the crowd. Ask the crowd and any answer you get will be contradictory. Any attempt to understand will end in contradiction. The spectacle dazzles and runs back over itself, we howl with laughter as we drink and recall previous drunken nights, all under the same lights, reflecting in the same dead bright beer-shining eyes. In that moment of peace we don’t see the mess, the hypocrisy, that Miller sees as he looks in from the street. In our joyful counterfeit peace, our respite, we feel whole and one. Excitement and conversation and light has the power to cure people, to grant a kind of peace, peace enough to go on, and this is what’s behind the craze for drink (and crazed we are). Drunkenness the slumber of the soul, sublime, lifting us from stress and care, making us of the body, alive – while our eyes dim and our spirits sleep. And Miller sees ants, ghosts, hungry mouths yawning above the foaming beer . . .

“I am talking of course of the peace which passeth all understanding. There is no other kind. The peace which most of us know is merely a cessation of hostilities, a truce, an interregnum, a lull, a respite, which is negative.” And so my contemplation, sipping and thinking, comes to nothing. My understanding won’t get me there, to Epidaurus. For now I have only my counterfeit peace, my respite from work and struggle.

“Why do you go on living the way you do?” Miller wanted to ask of those on Broadway. Questioning everything, even if only in his own mind, he has not yet found peace. On Broadway, Miller is still seeking understanding . . . It will take him a decade or longer to find the answer, in the peace of Epidaurus, when the answer, the final answer, will strike him once and forever:

“The peace of the heart is positive and invincible, demanding no conditions, requiring no protection.”

Broadway’s light stretches so far: Broadway encompasses the furthest reaches, and the tallest structures . . . And this mortal is mortal, locked between the buildings, hindered by his own questioning, sometimes desperate and angry, and yet perhaps there is some power of healing even now in his beginnings, his bald potential . . .

And as I finish my beer I’m left with a feeling of hope, that one day I will discover the meaning of this peace “requiring no protection”, ancient jewel: the setting sun, a thick wooded valley and beyond it a wide open space for the spirit to dwell in.

(The Guy Debord quotations are from the Black & Red translation of Society of the Spectacle.)

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When is it Life? Part 1: Henry Miller on Broadway

Henry Miller is looking around at Broadway, all the people not themselves but one great mass “cackling with a thousand different human tongues, cursing, applauding, whistling, crooning, soliloquising, orating, gesticulating . . .”

Each of these individual persons is alive, “but when they have all been added together, still somehow it is not life.” Broadway is an “it”, impersonal: “Just fling yourself into it like an ant and let yourself get pushed along. Everybody doing it, some for a good reason and some for no reason at all. All this push and movement representing action, success, get ahead.”

Broadway an inhuman force pushing along the human ants that are drawn into and through it. Something. A representation only. A spectacle, an uncaring neon reality: keep your eyes on the lights, keep moving. All along it. A billion eyes blink, you pass through life, and Broadway will remain long after you have passed on.

Miller thinks: “I am different.” He has no good reason, or no reason at all, for being here. Reason is irrelevant. He is alive, more than a wagging tongue, or a waving hand, but a living being, with eyes that persist and measure with a steady gaze, even while all others blink and blink. He can find life only in himself, not in this grey crowd stepping through the bright lights.

Miller looks at this crowd, this manifestation of impersonal electric destiny, and asks “When is it life . . . and why not now?” What is it about all this human activity, this “get ahead”, that for all its movement and noise it seems devoid of “life”?

It’s the machine-like nature of it, no one seems to know why they’re doing what they’re doing, and if you grabbed a man at random on this street and asked “Why do you go on living the way you do?” he wouldn’t have the answer. (“He would probably call a cop.”) He wouldn’t have the answer because it’s not him who’s making the decisions but something else. Even your “good reason” for being there belongs not to you but to the crowd. It was decided for you, you never chose: you followed the lights. “I’m hungry” and keep walking and soon the electric glow and clatter hum of a restaurant. Programmed responses. The machine, and each of us only a part.

Real life is organic, and self-sufficient, each living individual sustaining him or herself. Real life is not this living death you see here where unthinking they feed off each other, off the electricity and dazzle.

Henry Miller finishes his meal of meatballs and spaghetti. “To chew while thousands chew, each chew an act of murder . . .” Miller’s mind is on the spiritual today, not on the meatballs. He eats without relish as he thinks about those thousands of human mouths. Mouths belonging to “it”, to the inhuman program, to the destiny of the crowd. His own mouth, separate and alien from him, belongs to the crowd as Henry Miller retreats further upwards into himself, into the last living brain on Broadway.

(Quotations are from Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller)

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Sunflowers in the Sunset

“We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.”

So ends Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra”. It is a poem about discovering a broken dead dusty old sunflower among the junk by a river, tin cans and “busted rusty iron” debris, “under the huge shade” of a locomotive. The poet has read about sunflowers, and they come to him in visions. And so this broken down dead old thing is a revelation to him: “it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake”.

The poet sees the sunflower for what it is: through the dirt and grime he sees the golden vision beneath, the form of the living flower. But the sunflower, broken and sad with dull smut, has forgotten itself, here among the boxcars by the river: “when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive?” Ginsberg is talking about the flower, but also about himself, and the whole human race. “We’re golden sunflowers inside” but we turn ourselves into machines, slaves who believe that our value lies in the work we can do. Or who fail to “get ahead” (as some call it) and just sit sadly, accumulating the grime of modern life, like this old sunflower. Too often, we don’t see what we are inside, beneath the grime. Perhaps even less are we able to see the golden sunflower in the heart of another.

Look again at that final long line from the poem. The point isn’t just to see the golden sunflower inside each one of us, but also to stand back and see ourselves from a distance, from the outside, as black forms silhouetted against the fading light, amidst the gloom of dark modern machinery. We do not just exist as golden sunflowers, but also as shadows passing through material existence. Bodies. To gain a measure of peace, we must step outside ourselves once in a while, perhaps on a quiet evening, alone or with a friend on a riverbank, and take a look around, and by doing this catch a glimpse of ourselves, imagine and see (as we study the dark shapes around us) ourselves as we appear to the world, human bodies all alike in the grim passing-shadow machine-world that we inhabit day by day. We ourselves grey passing shadows, sweat and dirt of the world upon us, but with the form of the sunflower, the golden potential of the living human being. It is in the peaceful moments of reflection that our industrious “accomplishment-bodies” are transformed into the “mad black formal sunflowers” of the evening, and you realise, as you see yourself as the world sees you, as you see how the life inside you shapes the shadow that falls from your body onto the junk of the world, as you contemplate the mad living shadow-shapes of the spirit, your own spirit, that for all your machine-like existence, for all the worldly dust that clings and care that weighs upon you, you are capable of anything.

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That Dark and Silent Gap

“Although, to restless and ardent minds, morning may be the fitting season for exertion and activity, it is not always at that time that hope is strongest or the spirit most sanguine and buoyant.”

Reasons why I can’t write in the morning –

“In trying and doubtful positions, youth, custom, a steady contemplation of the difficulties which surround us, and a familiarity with them, imperceptibly diminish our apprehensions and beget comparative indifference, if not a vague and reckless confidence in some relief, the means or nature of which we care not to foresee.”

– all day yesterday I’d been overcoming the little doubts (and the larger ones) so that by evening I was energised, and I believed I could do anything I put my mind to –

“But when we come, fresh, upon such things in the morning, with that dark and silent gap between us and yesterday; with every link in the brittle chain of hope, to rivet afresh; our hot enthusiasm subdued, and cool calm reason substituted in its stead; doubt and misgiving revive.”

– “that dark and silent gap” of sleep – and when I wake in the glaring light of day I see my work of self-reassurance is undone and I’m too weary and afraid in this moment to try to put any of last night’s ideas into written form. And the process of forging the “brittle chain” begins again, until finally I begin to work, sluggishly, throughout the day.

“As the traveller sees farthest by day, and becomes aware of rugged mountains and trackless plains which the friendly darkness had shrouded from his sight and mind together, so, the wayfarer in the toilsome path of human life sees, with each returning sun, some new obstacle to surmount, some new height to be attained.”

The light shifts as the day goes on while I try to work in this small room. From the soft morning light to the stark midday sun to the glare of the afternoon sun as it shines directly through my wide open window, and onto my monitor so I have to pull the curtains closed in order to see what I’ve written, darkness beginning to return to this room now even though the sun still shines behind the curtains . . . And then the darkness of night, and my mind is alive again, but my body is tired and the room is hot and I must try to sleep . . .

Dickens is insightful and philosophical and vivid. Full of observations that make you see things more clearly. Another example: the moment Madeline Bray walks into the room and interrupts the plotting between her father, Ralph Nickleby, and Arthur Gride. Mr Bray starts up and “there was a gleam of conscience in the shame and terror of this hasty action, which, in one short moment, tore the thin covering of sophistry from his cruel design . . .” The designs of the father are uncovered, betrayed by human nature, the natural shame a father must feel in betraying his daughter. If not natural goodness in the man, then at least a fundamental naturalness that allows the truth of his position to shine through. Dickens makes this shine for us.

“Distances stretch out before him which, last night, were scarcely taken into account, and the light which gilds all nature with its cheerful beams, seems but to shine upon the weary obstacles that yet lie strewn between him and the grave.”

Dickens shines his light on the things he observes. Or reflects the light he finds in things, which is the same thing. He shows us life with all its beautiful and ugly details and with all the large and small obstacles that can beset us. This is why I find it so difficult to write when I’ve been reading Dickens. I see all the obstacles he describes. How complex and full of trials life is. Not least, I see the greatness of Dickens himself, the value of work like this, and the futility of trying to produce real writing of my own. Real work: that not only tells us something about life, but shines a light on life, and gives to us a light, which we can carry on our own journey, to see what life is for ourselves.

“That dark and silent gap” – sleep – and my mind runs free in dreams, building sensations and faces and stories that can only make sense in the darkness of sleep, and that dissolve with the softest hint of morning light through my open window.

Now it’s evening again and there’s little light, and here in the dark with my own thoughts perhaps before I sleep I’ll be brave enough to put something new onto the page. Keeping out of the light for now.

(Quotations are from Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens)

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