Sunday, May 13, 2007

Henry Miller

I have been a reader and fan of Anais Nin's work for a number of years now. I was aware of her association with Henry Miller but up until now had not read anything of his. I know a few people who feel you should like either one or the other, but not both. I have heard people say a similar thing about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, (I own works by both of them), Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, and Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I find this a strange attitude to have, regardless of who they were as people, or how miserable or wonderful their relationships were, they were all passionate creators of their craft. I can understand someone liking the work of one more than the work of their lover, but to suggest that you can not enjoy both, that you must choose between the two - like taking sides - seems ludicrous to me. Especially when someone has not even read the work of the person they are criticising.

I want to copy this excerpt from Miller's book, Sexus, here, so that I can re-read it whenever I like. Not to say that I agree with everything that is written, but I certainly find it interesting and thought provoking.

He went on after a moment's reflection: 'Now painting is a little different, to my way of thinking. It takes more to appreciate a good painting than to appreciate a good book. People seem to think that because they know how to read and write they can tell a good book from a bad one. Even writers, good writers, I mean, aren't in agreement about what is good and what is bad. Neither are painters about paintings, for that matter. And yet I have the notion that in general painters are more in accord about the merits or lack of merits in the work of well-known painters than writers are with respect to writing. Only a half-asses painter would deny the value of Cezanne's work, for instance. But take the case of Dickens or of Henry James, and see what astounding differences of opinion there are among capable writers and critics as to their respective merits. If there were a writer today as bizarre in his realm as Picasso is in his you'd soon see what I'm driving at. Even if they don't like his work, most people who know anything about art agree that Picasso is a great genius. Now take Joyce, who's fairly eccentric as a writer, has he gained anything like the prestige of Picasso? Except for a scholarly few, except for the snobs who try to keep up with everything, his reputation, such as it is today, stands largely on the fact that he's a freak. His genius is admitted, i agree, but it's tainted, so to speak. Picasso commands respect, even if he isn't always understood. But Joyce is something of a butt; hs fame increases precisely because he can't be generally understood. He's accepted as a freak, a phenomenon, like the Cardiff Giant....And another thing, while I'm at it - no matter how daring the painter of genius may be, he's far more quickly assimilated than a writer of the same caliber. At the most, it takes thirty to forty years for a revolutionary painter to be accepted; it takes a writer centuries sometimes......'

'........Well supposing you say to yourself - the hell with becoming an artist, I know I am one, I'll just be it - what then? What does it mean, to be an artist? Does it mean that you have to write books or make pictures? That's secondary, I take it - that's the mere evidence of the fact that you are one....Supposing, Henry, you had written the greatest book ever written and you lost the manuscript just after you had completed it? And supposing nobody knew that you had been writing this great book, not even your closest friend? In that case you'd be just where I am who haven't put a stroke on paper, wouldn't you? If we were both to die suddenly, at that point, the world would never know that either of us was an artist. I would have had a good time of it and you would have wasted your whole life.'
At this point Ulric couldn't stand it any longer. 'It's just the contrary', he protested. 'An artist doesn't enjoy life by evading his task. You're the one who would be wasting his life. Art isn't a solo performance; it's a symphony in the dark with millions of participants and millions of listeners. The enjoyment of a beautiful thought is nothing to the joy of giving it expression - permanent expression. In fact, it's almost a sheer impossibility to refrain from giving expression to a great thought. We're only instruments of a greater power. We're creators by permission, by grace, as it were. No one creates alone, of and by himself. An artist is an instrument that registers something already existent, something which belongs to the whole world and which, if he is an artist, he is compelled to give back to the world. To keep one's beautiful ideas to oneself would be like being a virtuoso and sitting in an orchestra with hands folded. You couldn't do it! As for that illustration you gave, of an author losing his life's work in manuscript, why I'd compare such a person to a wonderful musician who had been playing with the orchestra all the time, only in another room, where nobody heard him. But that wouldn't make him any the less a participant, nor would it rob him of the pleasure to be had in following the orchestra leader or hearing the music which his instrument gave forth. The greatest mistake you make is in thinking that enjoyment is something unearned, that if you know you can play the fiddle, well, it's just the same as playing it. It's so silly that I don't know why I bother to discuss it. As for the reward, you're always confusing recognition with reward. They're two different things. Even if you don't get paid for what you do, you at least have the satisfaction of doing. It's a pity we lay such emphasis on being paid for our labors - it really isn't necessary, and nobody knows it better than the artist. The reason why he has had such a miserable time of it is because he elects to do his work gratuitously. He forgets, as you say, that he has to live. But that's really a blessing. It's much better to be preoccupied with wonderful ideas than with the next meal, or the rent, or a pair of new shoes. Of course when you get to the point where you must eat, and you haven't anything to eat, then to eat becomes and obsession. But the difference between an artist and the ordinary individual is that when the artist does get a meal he immediately falls back into his own limitless world, and while he's in that world he's a king, whereas your ordinary duffer is just a filling station with nothing in between but dust and smoke. And even supposing you're not an ordinary chap, but a wealthy individual, one who can indulge his tastes, his whims, his appetites: do you suppose for one minute that millionaire enjoys food or wine or women like a hungry artist does? To enjoy anything you have to make yourself ready to receive it; it implies a certain control, discipline, chastity, I might even say. Above all, it implies desire, and desire is something you have to nourish by right living. I'm speaking now as if I were an artist, and I'm not really. I'm just a commercial illustrator, but I do know enough about it to say that I envy the man who has the courage to be an artist - I envy him because I know that he's infinitely richer than any other kind of human being. He's richer because he spends himself, because he gives himself all the time, and not just labor or money or gifts. You couldn't possibly be an artist, in the first place, because you lack faith. You couldn't possibly have beautiful ideas because you kill them off in advance. You deny what it takes to make beauty, which is love, love of life itself, love of life for its own sake. You see the flaw, the worm, in everything. An artist, even when he detects a flaw, makes it into something flawless, if I may put it that way. He doesn't try to pretend that a worm is a flower or an angel, but he incorporates the worm into something bigger. He knows that the world isn't full of worms, even if he sees a million or a billion of them. You see a tiny worm and you say - "Look, see how rotten everything is!" You can't see beyond the worm....Well, excuse me, I didn't mean to put it so caustically or so personally. But I hope you see what I'm driving at....'

- excerpt from Henry Miller's 'Sexus' (1949), the first book of the 'Rosy Crucifixion' trilogy.

1 comment:

krankekunst said...

Would you say that being an artist is being an artist if one has done only three paintings all year, and even then not great ones, and seems to leave them places every time he leaves a place for someone especially who considers himself to be grounded who keeps moving, and keeps moving?

Furthermore, is it good for an artist to keep moving when the artist feels he is leaving everything behind (materials, too) every time he moves?

In addition, have you met artists who teach English abroad? Does it work for them to balance that life, if you have, or if they do?