“Such a day it may be when first you encounter Dostoevsky. You remember the smell of the tablecloth on which the book rests; you look at the clock and it is only five minutes from eternity; you count the objects on the mantelpiece because the sound of numbers is a totally new sound in your mouth, because everything new and old, or touched and forgotten, is a fire and a mesmerism.” (BS 10-11)
Before Henry Miller first read Dostoevsky he heard the name: “The Jew who pronounced his name for me had thick lips; he could not say Vladivostock, for instance, nor Carpathians – but he could say Dostoevsky divinely.” (BS 11) Miller was enchanted, and even when he came to read Dostoevsky’s words themselves, and even long afterwards, when he had become familiar with Dostoevsky’s many books, he never forgot all that was contained for him in that first utterance of the writer’s name.
I first encountered the name “Henry Miller” reading Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. At least this was the first time the name came to mean something to me. Because I encountered Miller in this work of philosophy, Miller was a philosopher for me before he was a writer of novels. Deleuze and Guattari tend to do this to the artists they write about: they philosophise them, turn them into philosophers. Miller seemed to have something important to say about desire. The following is a passage from Miller’s “Hamlet” essay, quoted by Deleuze and Guattari:
“What could I mean except that from this intellectual world in which we are swimming there must body forth a new world; but this new world can only be bodied forth in so far as it is conceived. And to conceive there must first be desire . . .” (AO 328)
Miller seemed to be saying something that I’d not seen clearly enough before then: whatever is created – a work of art, a new world – emanates from desire, arises because something new is desired. And because it is so easy to find contentment in what already exists – or if not contentment, then at least a hope that things might improve if we leave things as they are – there needs to be a deliberate shift in an individual’s consciousness, towards a desire for something new, before anything new can be created. This is from Miller’s Black Spring:
“I believe, as I walk through the horror of the present, that only those who have the courage to close their eyes, only those whose permanent absence from the condition known as reality can affect our fate.” (BS 124)
The state of affairs we call “reality” is stultifying, trapping us in hope and contentment. Only by absenting yourself from reality can you find your own desires, to find the gap or “crack”, the void from which something new can be created.
How to break reality open, to escape, to make a space for creativity? One way is to listen out for sounds, strange clues to new possible realities. A strange new name perhaps – “Miller” or “Dostoevsky” or something else – that can lead to a new way of thinking. A glimpse of light in the fog of everyday reality.
AO = Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Published in 2004 by Continuum.
BS = Black Spring by Henry Miller. Published in 2012 by Alma Classics.