American Life Unlimited

Chapter 1 of Henry Miller’s Nexus is about, among other things, the mystery of Dostoevsky and the monotony of New York City.

He finds a line he’s scribbled in his notebook, which he thinks is “probably from Berdyaev.” It says: “After Dostoevsky man was no longer what he had been before.” He starts to think about how Dostoevsky might have transformed the world. He sees the evidence in the parallels between the characters he’s read about in Dostoevsky and the characters he’s met in New York.

“American life, from the gangster level to the intellectual level, has paradoxically tremendous affinities with Dostoevsky’s multilateral everyday Russian life. What better proving grounds can one ask for than metropolitan New York, in whose conglomerate soil every wanton, ignoble, crack-brained idea flourishes like a weed? One only has to think of winter there, of what it means to be hungry, lonely, desperate in that labyrinth of monotonous streets lined with monotonous homes crowded with monotonous individuals crammed with monotonous thoughts. Monotonous and at the same time unlimited!”

It’s difficult to see what Miller’s point is, and he doesn’t go into much detail. But it’s interesting that he saw this parallel. It fits in with the broader point he would make elsewhere, that true literature must be connected to life, and the great authors are the ones who make this connection, by writing works that speak directly to the human spirit. The height of ambition would be to write a book to end all books, so that that writing would no longer be necessary and life could just be lived. This was, in a way, what Miller was hoping to do with Nexus: at long last finish telling the story of “Mona” so that he could be done with writing and spend the rest of his life living and painting.

Miller would never have become a writer in the first place if he hadn’t believed that there exists an essential connection between life and literature, and that the act of writing brings with it a new and deeper mode of living. Not all are born to be writers, but for those that are writing is a necessary part of life. The whole of life, you might say, in the sense that writing is the essence of a writer’s life, giving meaning to every other part. By striving to fulfil his ambition to be a writer, Miller was also striving to live his truest life and be his truest self. No wonder he saw the shadow of great literature in the lives of the ordinary – and extraordinary – people that surrounded him.

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4 Responses to American Life Unlimited

  1. jamienauthor says:

    New York is a great place to set a novel because of its characters. But of course it’s so easy to fall into the trap of cliched figures. Very interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lily Pierce says:

    “By striving to fulfil his ambition to be a writer, Miller was also striving to live his truest life and be his truest self. No wonder he saw the shadow of great literature in the lives of the ordinary – and extraordinary – people that surrounded him.” While reading, I remembered a meme I saw recently–“I don’t read because I have no life; I read to have many lives.” It is intriguing to think that reading is experiencing many lives, yet writing about those many lives may be a subconscious or conscious effort to work out one’s own life.

    Liked by 1 person

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