I’m having serious issues with the tenth commandment. I am coveting someone else’s words. Few authors make me covet their work – at various times Dostoevsky, Philip Roth, Shakespeare, Kerouac, T. S. Eliot and Kafka have made me slip into paroxysms of jealousy and desire. Yet one author stands above the rest for me – Henry Miller.
Miller has a strange and glorious cosmology, mixing mortality and philosophy into a down and dirty humanism. Miller has the ragged and romantic streets of 1930's Paris as a back drop to much of his writing and he takes full advantage of the squalor and decadence to state his case on creating art and being human. Look at this writing:
When the eyes waggle then will I hear again Dostoievski’s words, hear them rolling on page after page, with minutest observation, with maddest introspection, with all the undertones of misery now lightly, humorously touched, now swelling like an organ note until the heart bursts and there is nothing left but a blinding, scorching light, the radiant light that carries off the fecundating seeds of the stars. The story of art whose roots lie in massacre.
I read that and I honestly don’t feel worthy to hold the moniker of writer and think my voice is not Art. An anger and frustration wells up inside me and again a voice from the grave sings to me. Henry has felt the anger and frustration and fought back with a vengeance. He is more alive now, even though he is dead. He is dead and lives. I live and part of me feels dead. Yet he fights and dances on my living corpse on a Sunday morning when his immortal words out live his worn out and decaying flesh.
Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty . . . what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse . . .
Henry was persecuted and prosecuted for his blasphemy that being honestly human is the most difficult of tasks. Yes, he used naughty words, but the repulsion to the dirt, the rejection of the dirt is the rejection of the dust and Earth where Henry rots and dances. The fight to be human and to create art out of being human and out of surviving is the dance against death, against inevitability, against the dust we sprang from and to which we again descend. As usual, Henry writes it and it is not off key:
If there were a man who dared to say all that he thought of this world there would not be left him a square foot of ground to stand on. When a man appears the world bears down on him and breaks his back. There are always too many rotten pillars left standing, too much festering humanity for man to bloom. The superstructure is a lie and the foundation is a huge quaking fear. If at intervals of centuries there does appear a man with a desperate, hungry look in his eye, a man who would turn the world upside down in order to create a new race, the love that he brings to the world is turned to bile and he becomes a scourge. If now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that wound and sear, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defense left are his words and his words are always stronger than the lying, crushing weight of the world, stronger than all the racks and wheels which the cowardly invent to crush out the miracle of personality. If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what is really his experience, what is truly his truth, I think then the world would go to smash, that it would be blown to smithereens and no god, no accident, no will could ever again assemble the pieces, the atoms, the indestructible elements that have gone to make up the world.
Did he know when he was furiously writing out those words seventy years ago that his page would explode in my face and wring tears out of my eyes? Is existential desperation required to write words that explode and wound? I want to feel desperate. I read Henry’s stare down on art and beauty and my world transformed.
I’m not scrounging for meals or food. I’m slathered comfortably into my suburban home surrounded by loving wife and children. My extended family wraps around the outside of my cozy shell of existence, insulating me from Henry Miller’s rotting Paris. Yet . . . Yet . . .yet I want to blaspheme. I want to rip the skin off of the face of society because underneath I don’t think I’ll find a skull and certainly no brain.
Ogden, Utah is the scrubbed up and prettified version of 1930's Paris, but it is worse than Paris, because the rot, the decay, the putrefication hides behind gleaming scrubbed houses and manicured lawns. Miller spoke and I finally inherited those X-ray glasses off of the back of the comic books and I can see. I was blind and now I can see. The facade of clean brick turns to dust to reveal a burned out, toxic waste site that would make the EPA run screaming from the room.
Maniacally we work. Manically we consume. The economy is rotting because we don’t consume, but the human locust leave nothing living behind its consumption, other than the rotting carapace shells of the growing insect and the defecating waste. Like good little locusts, every Monday we parade our consumptive trash to the curb so that the waste and destruction we are committing is toted away in a communal exercise of denial that is known as "garbage day." Consume and show your patriotism. Consume and be happy. Consume and consume, don’t tread on me, I’m eating my own tail. The serpent has come to the American Eden and offers up no fruit, but begs Eve and Adam to consume themselves out of existence. Obligingly we fall. Just make it look like paradise, even though it is a rotting swamp, and we will consume. We will walk through the Garden of Wal-mart and eat whatever the serpent would have us eat. If we keep eating the forbidden fruit of consumption, maybe we will never realize that we have left Eden and paradise is the fantasy of the deluded.
I’m a little monkey typing on a keyboard. Pounding letters onto a screen and no one is listening. The absurdity of me sitting here and typing in the cool fall light about the desperation I feel with existence, with the consumptive rot I see around me as I realize that the writer screaming at the world doesn’t have a place to stand and my body is drawn and quartered, pulled in four directions at once, leaving my heart to beat once or twice in the dust before it is done, but it is the only drawing and quartering ever done as a suicide. I can’t let go of my paycheck. I can’t let go of my comfort. My toes turn blue grasping at physical comfort and solace and at human acceptance. I grasp the reigns of the horses that tear me apart, even as I feel the legs and arms pulling out of their sockets and all I can think of is there something I could bite and grasp with my teeth that would pull me into five instead of four pieces – drawn and quintupted – with my head rolling along in the dust behind the apocalyptic horsemen that have graciously pulled apart my flesh, my teeth grinningly biting into the rope that pulled off my head.
Words have become just another commodity to be consumed and eating only makes the hunger grow worse. Lives and words repeat and the hunger grows because the soul is malnourished. The skeletal soul can’t take in nourishment in the Dante-ian hell of eating without any cessation of the starvation. Words slip down the mental gullet and slip out in an explosive diarrhea leaving emptiness and hunger – nothing sticks. Words are cheap. Here are my words. You have my words. You have nothing. I’ve read and read books and all the words are gone. I remember nothing. You’ll remember nothing of this.
Being human means that we forget. Being human means that we don’t really look at what our life is. Being human means that we don’t realize our life is nothing but a feast of death, that we live by eating other life. Being human is desperate. Being human is being mundane, predictable and agonizingly the same as everyone else. Being human is to decay and grow old and die. Being human is to hurt, an agonizing schism of opposites.
Being human means that we remember. Being human means that we can really look at what our life is. Being human means that we realize our life is nothing but a feast of death, but somehow we still manage to respect life. Being human is being hopeful. Being human is being unusual, unpredictable and gloriously unique. Being human is to grow and expand and become immortal. Being human is to feel exquisite pleasure, in an orgasmic ecstacy of opposites.
Mostly, being human means to covet the beauty and try to add to the beauty we find amongst the horror of existence. Thank you, Henry.