Henry Miller: Soul and Mind

In Chapter Two of Nexus we see the limits of Henry Miller’s patience with abstract arguments. His friend, a lawyer called John Stymer, is, like Miller, fascinated by Dostoevsky, and thinks that a “new phase of existence” arrived for humanity after the great author’s death. Stymer says that when Dostoevsky died the human “soul” died also, and now all we have left is “mind”. What he means by these terms isn’t exactly spelled out, but it seems that Stymer understands the soul to be something that permitted human beings a certain capacity for greatness, while the mind can respond to life only weakly, by retreating into a defensive position, with survival – or denial of death – its core purpose.

Stymer’s argument is reminiscent of Oswald Spengler, another writer Miller admired. With the death of the soul of a culture – a culture’s capacity to create new things – a civilisation can only decline, until some new possibility emerges from the ruins. This period of decline Stymer calls going “underground”, and likens it to a seed falling into soil. (A very Spenglerian metaphor.) The seed is not yet capable of anything, but wait and, with a bit of luck, it will grow into something with an organic purpose and character of its own.

Stymer thinks that Dostoevsky brought about the death of the soul by exploring every possible aspect of it. In his writing he explored its every avenue until he found dead end after dead end. The soul is “done for” because Dostoevsky has shown us its limitations. We retreat into the infinite depths of mind.

Mind, in its mission of self-preservation, always takes the easy way. Religions of the mind “give us a sugar-coated pill to swallow” by telling us stories that skirt around the hard fact of death. The politics of the mind gives us a similar pill, by pretending that we can be protected from harm by punishing those we call “criminals”, and thereby distracting us from the fact that we are all “tainted with the notion of sin.” Stymer ends his speech by proposing that the clue to the new way of being that will emerge from the soil of the mind might be found here: perhaps something so simple as turning to face the facts of death and human sin might open up the new possibilities for humanity that would bring it to life – or bring life to it – once again. He thinks that, by facing death and sin, we would discover they are made by man and not by God, and therefore we would be able to overcome them once and for all.

Miller is spellbound for weeks after hearing this speech. Stymer has put into his mind this notion of “man the criminal” or “man his own criminal”, and of “man taking refuge in his own mind”, and it starts Henry Miller’s own mind racing. He says: “It was the first time, I do believe, that I ever questioned the existence of mind as something apart. The thought that possibly all was mind fascinated me. It sounded more revolutionary than anything I had heard hitherto.”

And then he hears that his friend the lawyer has died. And with Stymer’s death, Miller’s fascination with his ideas dies too. “With that I stopped worrying about the mind as a refuge,” he writes. Perhaps the death of his friend put all these abstractions into perspective. Perhaps by this time he had made all the use he could of the inspiration these ideas had lent him. It is interesting to read how Dostoevsky put the seed of an idea into Stymer’s mind, who then dropped seeds into Miller’s, which would eventually grow into pages of literature. But as for the metaphysical debate itself, Miller sums up his feelings for it with the final words of the chapter:

“Mind is all. God is all. So what?”

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