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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