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.

Bullets

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)

Soeren-Kierkegaard-kar

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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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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