“Try going in reverse”: Henry Miller’s advice to writers

“For him who is obliged to dream with eyes wide open all movement is in reverse, all action broken into kaleidoscopic fragments. 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. I believe, confronted with this lucid wide-awake horror, that all the resources of our civilisation will prove inadequate to discover the tiny grain of sand necessary to upset the stale, stultifying balance of our world.” (Black Spring)

Henry Miller describes two types of dreamer: one with eyes open, the other with eyes closed. Because they are dreaming, their perception is fragmented and disordered. Those who want to save us from our fate using reason and science are eyes open type dreamers: they see “reality”, but what they call reality is in fact just a “kaleidoscopic” dream-world. And all the empirical evidence that they cite – and all the deductions they make from it – this is just more dreaming. It’s “in reverse”, and it will only lead in the wrong direction, to more horror.

And then the eyes closed type dreamer. She cares nothing for reality, closes her eyes against it, looks inward. And so isn’t dazzled by the kaleidoscope, and isn’t fooled into thinking that the dream is reality. The eyes closed dreamer knows the dream as dream. Expects no logic but dream logic. Knows only the appearances of things, which transform themselves as they will. Nothing is “in reverse” for the eyes-closed dreamer. Everything is as it should be.

Eyes open or closed you are dreaming.

Miller’s contempt for “reality” comes out in his practical advice for writers:

“What few young writers realise, it seems to me, is that they must find – create, invent! – the way to reach their readers. It isn’t enough to write a good book, a beautiful book, or even a better book than most. It isn’t enough even to write an ‘original’ book! One has to establish, or re-establish, a unity which has been broken and which is felt just as keenly by the reader who is a potential artist, as by the writer, who believes himself to be an artist. The theme of separation and isolation – ‘atomisation,’ it’s now called – has as many facets to it as there are unique individuals. And we are all unique. The longing to be reunited, with a common purpose and an all-embracing significance, is now universal. The writer who wants to communicate with his fellow-man, and thereby establish communion with him, has only to speak with sincerity and directness. He has not to think about literary standards – he will make them as he goes along – he has not to think about trends, vogues, markets, acceptable ideas or unacceptable ideas: he has only to deliver himself, naked and vulnerable.” (Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch)

We are separate and atomised, each dreaming our individual dreams. And we want to be united with other human beings. Following established literary standards – the ways that human beings have communicated with each other in the past – helps a writer to move in step with humanity. Write “acceptable ideas” and you will be accepted. But this method is too “eyes open” for Miller. It’s to be lulled into forgetting that you are dreaming. Instead you should close your eyes, discover what you have to say and say it. Instead of connecting to humanity via the official dreamt up standards you make actual “communion” with your fellow human being, by writing directly, from the heart.

New ideas don’t exist yet in the real world, they must be created. And they can only be created if we’re brave enough to close our eyes and look away from the world. Since the individual is unique, this is where you’ll find the unique ideas. Inside yourself and in your dreams.

But this means that there are no standards, no signposts to tell us where to turn, how far until we arrive. So we just have to experiment.

“The main thing is to hook up, get the wheels turning, sound off. When your brakes jam, try going in reverse. It often works.” (Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch)

You already see the world fragmented, disordered, and “disarranged.” So write it that way.

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One Response to “Try going in reverse”: Henry Miller’s advice to writers

  1. Therese says:

    Going in reverse does work. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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