Henry Miller on the responsibility of the artist

Chandrika, a very dear friend of mine, sent me this quote from Henry Miller, and along with this picture, at first I thought it pretty much summed up the artist’s responsibility, process, and drive.

“Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones. The race of artists that, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread, and the bread into wine, and the wine into song. Out of the dead compost and the inert slag they breed a song that contaminates.

I see this other race of individuals ransacking the universe, turning everything upside-down, their feet always moving in blood and tears, their hands always empty, always clutching and grasping for the beyond. For the God out of reach. Slaying everything within reach in order to quiet the monster that gnaws at their vitals.

I see that when they tear their hair with the effort to comprehend, to seize this forever unattainable, I see that when they bellow like the crazed beasts and rip and gore, I see that THIS IS RIGHT.

That there is no other path to pursue.

A man who belongs to this race must stand up on the high place, with gibberish in his mouth, and rip out his entrails. It is right and just because he must…

and anything that falls short of this frightening spectacle, anything less shuddering, less terrifying, less mad, less intoxicated, less contaminating, is not ART.

The rest is counterfeit. The rest is human.
The rest belongs to life
and lifelessness.”

Henry Miller

But then I got to that last line. “The rest belongs to life and lifelessness.” It’s easy to read that and nod my head the way we used to in high school when we were reading Nietzsche: “Yeah. I totally get that. Deep, man.”

But it made me stop—what is there besides life and lifelessness? Doesn’t that pretty much cover it?

So I started letting that mush around in my head. And slowly, as I wrestled with what that third thing could be, something began to take form.

What if “lifelessness” is what we are expected to want, that dream we are all sold, the one we’re waiting around to inhabit? What if it’s that lie of the bigger, better thing (whatever it is) just around the corner that we’ll get if we’re good enough, work hard enough, and eat all our vegetables? Dream = waiting for the future = lifeless. Known.

And what if “life” is the body of habits we’ve formed, and we all have them, while we are waiting for that dream to manifest, the habitual way we react to everything we encounter instead of responding to what is happening, as it is, in this moment? These are the mindless strategies we learned as children to keep pain/fear at bay, and that we still enact as adults. Habit=dead inside to the present = life. Known.

If that’s the case, what is this third, unknown thing Miller is pointing to?

Now this quote starts to take on shape, texture, layers.

If we see life and lifelessness for what they are, how can either ever satisfy? They can’t. So we are driven to escape the traps of these knowns. Here be monsters, indeed. To tread here we must become this third thing: ALIVE.

Can you begin to picture the screaming void that is “alive,” that we’re all inches from the edge of, which is kept out of our consciousness only by the sweet smoke of the opiate of life and lifelessness? To inhabit that world, we must be willing to feel, see, touch, taste, hear what is happening right now, right in front of us, everywhere at once. We must experience life/lifelessness without being of it. And we must allow ourselves to feel what it is like to be trapped in those cages, to crush ourselves into them and feel our bones break from the effort to fit in.

To get beyond these cages we must rip our heads open. Miller gives us the map to do this, if we dare follow it: ransack the universe, turn everything upside-down; be goaded by unknown impulses; clutch and grasp for the beyond. For the God out of reach; slay everything within reach; tear your hair with the effort to comprehend, to seize this forever unattainable.

We must move in blood and tears, our hands always empty, for if we fill them we are once again prisoners of the known. Every thing we unearth can turn to habit. Every thing we unearth can be subjugated by life and lifelessness. This is why we must burn to ash all that we understand, record what we do not, and then burn that to ash, as well, for it is now contaminated by the known—it is “within reach” and it must be slayed.

This is the call of the artist, and the philosopher, when Philosophy takes its proper place on the stage—we must allow ourselves to be possessed, to be driven to tears, to ecstasy, to the blackest of nights of the soul; let ourselves shudder and feel terrified, mad, intoxicated, contaminating; for that is the only glimpse we can have of what it means to be alive. We report back from that edge, and then we must find it again. And again. And again.

The monster that gnaws at our vitals cannot be appeased—there is no way to remain in the unknown. And so we push forward, forever, starving for that edge of ALIVE that is the only taste of what is beyond life and lifelessness we will ever touch. And we hand it, blood-covered, to you.

What will you do with it?