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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