Clutter

A young Henry Miller looks around the home he now shares with his wife Mona. He turns to his library:

“Every book on the shelves had been acquired with a struggle, devoured with gusto, and had enriched our lives.”

Henry and Mona’s new home is more than they can afford. It is a paradise, simple and clean. Miller gives us an impression of space, wide polished floors, and an absence of clutter and disorder of any kind. A phrase that struck me: “not one object too many.”

I feel shame at my own clutter, my own unread books, piles of papers, books acquired too easily, pages held on to for no reason I can fathom … It’s a tottering teetering mess of shelves, bags, and boxes, strewn with crumpled and torn pages, and old forgotten books half-buried underneath.

A twisted instinct to gather all these things to me and hold them here. It all has some purpose: each book, each scrap of paper. Each speck of dust. Every atom of the world has potential meaning, and Miller ends his chapter by talking about how he would read the world, both at home and when out for his daily walks. He would read everything, a glutton. He would devour his books and then, out for a walk, he would read everything he saw: faces, buildings, street scenes … All of these stored away like passages from a book. With hindsight he can say he was storing all this up for his future work, but at the time did he know what he was doing? He was proceeding like all those full of life, seekers of joy, artists: alive, senses open, led along wherever life would take him. The natural state for an artist: chaos. The natural state for one who has learned to live in the moment.

Miller’s new home, tidy and ordered, is an oasis amid the chaos, a moment’s respite. Life throws up these flashes of calm sometimes, a blessing to anyone whose time on earth must otherwise be entirely chaotic.

(I’ve been reading Plexus by Henry Miller.)

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William Burroughs and Facts

William Burroughs tells Allen Ginsberg: “I am about to annunciate a philosophy called ‘factualism.’ All arguments, all nonsensical considerations as to what people ‘should do,’ are irrelevant. Ultimately there is only facts on all levels, and the more one argues, verbalises, moralises the less he will see and feel of fact. Needless to say, I will not write any formal statement on the subject. Talk is incompatible with factualism.”

What Burroughs is saying might be counterintuitive and difficult to grasp because ordinarily you might think of facts as something spoken. “Give me the facts!” But “facts” in Burroughs’s sense are seen and felt, the things you know because you’ve experienced them. What you’re normally encouraged to think of as facts – the things you’re told are true by politicians telling you what should be done, by popular scientists and theorists trying to explain devilishly complicated ideas in as few words as possible, by philosophers and mystics trying to transmit the meaning of life – these statements are the opposite of facts. Such spoken “facts” are in fact insane utterances, jumbled confusions of real experience, jumbled because real experiences are distorted as they are bound together into words and sentences that cannot adequately express them.

To take an example, Burroughs found Ginsberg’s attempts to describe his own mystical experiences inadequate, confusing as they do the various levels of experience to produce something untrue:

“Al’s dichotomy between ‘regular life’ and visions is not only unnecessary, it is inaccurate. I mean it does not in fact exist. ‘Either … or’ is not an accurate formula. Facts exist on infinite levels and one level does not preclude another. Insanity is the confusion of levels. Insane people do not have visions worth hearing about because they are afraid to see. The insane are too much concerned with ‘regular life’: that is with money, sex, food, digestion, illness, and the impressions they make on others. These ‘facts of life’ frighten the insane, and no man can detach himself from what he fears. In consequence the visions of the insane are unspeakably dreary.”

By listening to what are ordinarily called “facts” – the things we’re told are facts – a counterfeit reality is created. You take those verbal “facts” that you’ve accepted as true to be the building blocks of reality, and from this a kind of “common sense” is born: when you say you’re being “realistic” – doing what must be done, concerning yourself with the money you need for a good life, putting idealism to one side – you mean you’re basing your decisions on the facts of life as you see them. But where did you get your facts from?

And so there is a danger that your realism is grounded upon untruth, an unreality fabricated out of a confused mixture of levels inadequately verbalised. And that you get a simplistic, either/or view of the world. For example, we learn that being “right” means avoiding what is called “criminal” – and yet, even while you stay within the letter of the law, you might continue to do what is unethical in order to survive.

“It seems to me that you harbour some semantic confusions on the subject of crime. ‘Crime’ is simply behaviour outlawed by a given culture. There is no connection between ‘crime’ and ethics: the sadistic atrocities of the Nazi S.S. were not ‘criminal.’ I do not see a connection between lying and violation of the law. In fact there is more lying in the course of a ‘regular job’ most of which require a constant state of pretence and dissimulation. The necessity of continual misrepresentation of one’s personality is most urgent in such lines as radio, advertising, publicity, and, of course, television. Personally I find pushing junk a great deal more restful and less compromising from an ethical standpoint.”

The key thing is to pay attention to what is in fact true at the deepest level, so that you can see where the facts stand on all levels. It means an honesty with yourself. So that even a criminal can be ethical, if he is true to himself, and true to others. The deepest element is “love,” though the early Burroughs here would never have admitted it. (Famously, the final word Burroughs wrote in his journal was “LOVE,” a final realisation of the meaning of life, the course he had been following all along.) You follow your heart and walk without fear, and you can see and feel the facts, and your relation to them, and be certain of your place in the world.

(I’ve been reading The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945 to 1959, edited by Oliver Harris.)

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Notes on Deleuze and Guattari: A Thousand Plateaus

Segmentarity is when we divide things up, into segments. There are countless ways you can divide things. It depends what you’re trying to do.

Segmentarity works “in a circular fashion,” in ever wider circles, or “in a linear fashion.” When circular the segments proceed outward, like me, my street, my town, my country, the world, the galaxy … So when I’m right at the centre I belong to the outer circles too. Linear segmentarity, on the other hand, means you “proceed” from one point to the next, moving on to one segment and leaving another behind. I leave my street, and go to another street to enter my workplace. Circularly, I’m still in my town, my country … But linearly I’ve moved because I’ve moved to another street.

Linear segmentarity means you’re here, and not there. Anything can be divided into segments, you just need to want to do it. So society is divided up: home, work, school, and so on, describe different places for activity. When you’re in school, you’re not at home, and so different rules apply. “You’re not at home anymore,” Deleuze and Guattari write: this is what they tell you when you’re at school, or when you’re in the army. You’re here, and not there, and so different rules apply.

“Man” and “woman” describe segments too. “Be a man!” is intended to remind you what side you belong to, what segment you stand upon. Again, so that you know what rules you’re supposed to be following. If you feel that people need rules to follow, dividing things up is a method for justifying these rules. Divide and conquer.

In our society, we do this to ourselves, we know how the segments are divided. And many of us know that these divisions are man-made, but we treat them often as if they were the work of Nature, and unalterable. Because if it turned out we were making all this up ourselves, and that we were capable of making new division and new rules, what sense would there be in following the rules we have?

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Notes on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling after reading Joakim Garff

Abraham would have been terrifying because if we had met him we would never have glimpsed his inner life. We would not have seen the man of faith. We would have seen a man who was prepared to murder his son.

Traditionally, when the story is told, the faith of Abraham is emphasised. Abraham had such faith that he would not withhold from God even his own son. God rewards him for his faith.

The Bible tells us: God never intended to let Abraham murder his son, he was just testing Abraham’s faith. But Abraham didn’t know this at the time. He was preparing to murder his son.

It would have been hard for Abraham to explain his actions to anyone but God Himself. But being a man of faith, Abraham never felt he had to.

But what is terrifying is that Abraham would have been in all outward respects indistinguishable from a maniac. If a man today planned to murder his son, and told us that God had told him to do it, we would not praise that man as a man of faith.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard posits such a man. He is called “the sleepless man”. He hears the story of Abraham told at church. He’s so possessed by the story he cannot sleep. He resolves “to do just as Abraham had done”. The pastor gets wind of this just in time, calls the man “abominable man, scum of society” and sees to it that he’s arrested. The man will spend the rest of his days in a mental institution or awaiting the death penalty. (263)

Kierkegaard’s point is that the pastor is caught in a contradiction: he wants to praise Abraham but will not praise the man who would do as Abraham did. (264)

The inner life is not easy to recognise by any outward signs, is the message of Fear and Trembling. No-one can know the faith that drives Abraham to plan this terrible act except Abraham himself. In the same way, the pastor cannot know whether it is faith that drives the sleepless man to his own monstrous resolution. You either praise neither man, or both. (264)

But there’s a problem with Kierkegaard’s argument. He re-tells the story of Abraham and Isaac 4 times, and the final time he suggests that Isaac could have noticed the “shuddering” of his father as he “clenched” his left hand “in despair”. By these signs Isaac would have known that his father ultimately lacked the faith to carry out the task. (257)

If Isaac can read the state of his father’s faith from his outward appearance, then there is some connection between a person’s inner and outer life, between his inner feelings and outward behaviour. And so there is in principle something that we can observe, something outward, by which we could distinguish the man of faith, acting on God’s command, from the maniac, driven by some inexplicable madness to copy the actions of Abraham without the justification that Abraham had (the command of God).

Garff points out that Kierkegaard never really clarifies the connection between the inner and outer life in his book. Fear and Trembling is not supposed to offer such an explanation because it starts off from a faulty premise: that inner and outer life are wholly separate. And because this premise is faulty, Kierkegaard can’t help but contradict this premise. (265)

By defending the sleepless man where the pastor and most other sane people would condemn him, Kierkegaard makes it seem that he is “the implacable defender of inwardness”, of the principle that only God can judge the intentions of human beings. But Garff seems to suggest that if Kierkegaard ever intended to argue this he didn’t do so for long. Garff tells us that the absurd and contradictory argument in Fear and Trembling is a sign that Kierkegaard is going to move in his later work towards a philosophical position where inner and outer are connected. (265)

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard was either deliberately writing from a philosophical position he didn’t really hold, or else he really did believe what he wrote but later moved on and rejected these views. Either way, we should not take Fear and Trembling to be the ultimate statement of Kierkegaard’s philosophical position.

(Numbers in brackets refer to pages in Joakim Garff (2005), Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, trans. Bruce H. Kirmmse, Princeton University Press.)

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Notes on Confucius’ Analects Book 17 Chapter 6

“Respectfulness, tolerance, trustworthiness in word, quickness and generosity.”

Respectfulness

Has something to do with not being too persistent in your interactions with others. If you want someone to act in a certain way, and they refuse, then you know when to let the matter drop. Even if you’re certain you’re in the right, you owe it to others to let them find their own way. Finding one’s own way is something valuable in itself, and you rob others of their own peace of mind if you don’t allow them the dignity to choose for themselves.

Respectfulness concerns the rules about who you should offer advice to, who you should be gentler and more tactful with, and so on. For example, you would approach your boss with criticism in a different way than you would tell off your own children. But even (especially!) with children, respect is important, it’s just there are different rules for being respectful.

How to be respectful is something determined by culture, and you need to be aware of those unwritten rules. You learn awareness of rules by making mistakes, and gradually correcting yourself. This is why it will take you 40 years to become “free from doubt”.

Tolerance

Continues from the concept of respectfulness in that it describes the way you should be when others do not follow your principles. Live and let live. Not everything can be correct as you see it.

It’s wise to be tolerant, because we are all still learning. Even you can be wrong sometimes. How foolish you would feel if you were to shout and shout and then discover you were in the wrong.

And even if you turn out to be right, the other person will be less resistant to change if you take a more flexible, and less confrontational, approach. Your flexibility can be an example for others. We all need to be able to bend like reeds sometimes.

Trustworthiness in word

It’s only fair that what you say should match what you do. If you don’t keep your promise, then you’ve told a lie, even if you didn’t mean to do so at the time. The promise retroactively becomes a lie. So take care what you say!

Quickness

Acting quickly is important. But only as quickly as you safely can: you don’t want to rush into error.

You’ll get faster in time, as you become more competent and more certain of yourself. Don’t rush into false self-certainty: allow it to develop step by step.

Generosity

Generosity without giving anything away. Meaning: you don’t spend anything you can’t afford. The superior person lives by her generosity. It’s her very being, her very style, her very comportment. She expresses herself in her generosity. The superior person has more to lose by not giving than by giving. What she gives most of all is herself. The superior person is like an artist in this respect.

(I’ve been reading The Analects by Confucius, translated by D.C. Lau.)

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Henry Miller and Belief

“I believe in God the Father, in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son, in the blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Ghost, in Adam Cadmium, in chrome nickel, the oxides and the mercurochromes, in waterfowls and watercress, in epileptoid seizures, in bubonic plague, in devachan, in planetary conjunctions, in chicken tracks and stick-throwing, in revolutions, in stock crashes, in wars, earthquakes, cyclones, in Kali Yuga and in hula-hula. I believe. I believe. I believe because not to believe is to become as lead, to lie prone and rigid, forever inert, to waste away …”

And, elsewhere in Sexus, Henry Miller is accused of being a Romantic, because he admires “the revolutionaries of yesterday”. In fact it’s his belief in the value of belief that makes him a Romantic.

Belief, any belief, unites a man with his fellow human beings. His fellow believers. On his own, as an individual, a man is nothing. Or at best mere matter, passive and inert. You don’t become free by asserting your individuality. Freedom is not self-sufficiency, else it would be impossible to be free. The one who would be übermensch becomes neurotic because he’s trying to assert his independence from the very humanity that grounds his existence.

Miller is all for standing aloof at times. Standing at the window, looking at the New York streets at night, he spits when he thinks of all the humdrum workers sleeping to prepare themselves for another day of meaningless work. One in ten thousand might escape, he says, and of course Miller himself is one of those with the pluck to escape.

But to stay sane, you need to shift your position. Sometimes you need to just believe. Because when you believe in something, you’re allying yourself with others. Religion binds human beings together. It’s something higher than us, something that we can collectively fix our gaze upon, united in our admiration, or awe, or simple quiet acceptance, of what we see.

It’s not about setting oneself apart from the crowd, but looking for that fire in you that burns in everyone. And in belief you find the embers of the original passion that brought that belief into being, and with this you can rekindle the fire of the living human spirit.

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The Noose and the Sky

The deepest truths about a human being can be expressed only in lies. Nietzsche knew this, Henry Miller knew this. So did Sylvia Plath. Why? Because each human being is the sum of the stories she tells herself: for example the stories about what she desires, and what she has decided to do with her life. And these stories must contradict each other, and so cannot all be true at the same time. To make the stories fit together, lie upon lie is required.

The “bell jar” in Plath’s novel is a metaphor for Esther Greenwood’s own body, which seems a cage to her, imprisoning her in life, in a life without meaning. Whether she is at home in Boston or working and partying in New York, whether she is at school or in an asylum, Esther feels trapped inside herself. She’s decided she wants to free herself, and believes that suicide is the only way to do this. She has made several attempts on her own life by the time she is put into an asylum.

Throughout the first part of the novel, before she is committed to the hospital, she can’t decide what she wants to do with herself. Well in fact she decides all kinds of things, each incompatible with the last: I will spend the summer in Cambridge and take a course, I will spend the summer writing a novel, I will learn shorthand … She wants everything at once, and this is what makes her “neurotic”: “I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.”

The bell jar occasionally lifts, and she can smell the air outside. She is free from herself, her own mind and body that binds her. My favourite line from the whole book describes a moment, shortly after Esther has received shock treatment and is looking at the knife she has just used to crack an egg at breakfast: “I tried to think what I had loved knives for, but my mind slipped from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the centre of empty air.”

There’s something of the simultaneous hope and heartbreak of this book captured in that sentence. Esther identifies with her thoughts, however sad they make her, and with her decisions, however much they contradict each other. As she says at one point: “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell.” Story-telling, fabricating a life out of her thoughts and feelings, is essential to her, and it is heart-breaking to see a thought slip away from her after her treatment. As a poet she needs her thoughts. But being able to swing and soar in the empty sky from time to time allows in a kind of happiness, an ease that might save her, because it might give her a relief from the thoughts that so often end in thoughts of death. We can see hope in this empty sky.

Reading the novel I was hooked, following Esther this way and that, desiring what she desired in every moment, so that she didn’t seem neurotic to me, she seemed real. It’s the beauty of a novel like this that the realness of the main character means we feel we’re getting a sense of a life as it is lived, with all its contradictions. We’re given a real living story, a path to the truth which is the beating heart of a human being. In Plath’s words: “I am I am I am.”

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