Henry Miller was born in New York City in 1891 and grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. After two unsuccessful marriages and years of odd jobs, he traveled to Paris in 1930, determined to become a writer. Over the next ten years he wrote the semi-autobiographical novels Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn, all of which were banned in the U.S. for nearly three decades due to explicit sexual passages. In 1940 he returned to the U.S. and settled in Big Sur, California, where he continued to critique American culture and challenge contemporary moral attitudes. In his final years Miller lived alone and pursued his lifelong interest in watercolor painting. He died in 1980 at the age of eighty-eight. The following is excerpted from The Cosmological Eye, by Henry Miller. Copyright © 1939 by New Directions Publishing Corp. It’s reprinted here by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Just as a piece of matter detaches itself from the sun to live as a wholly new creation so I have come to feel about my detachment from America. Once the separation is made a new orbit is established, and there is no turning back. For me the sun had ceased to exist; I had myself become a blazing sun. And like all the other suns of the universe I had to nourish myself from within. I speak in cosmological terms because it seems to me that is the only possible way to think if one is truly alive. I think this way also because it is just the opposite of the way I thought a few years back when I had what is called hope. Hope is a bad thing. It means that you are not what you want to be. It means that part of you is dead, if not all of you. It means that you entertain illusions. It’s a sort of spiritual clap, I should say.
Before this inward change came about I used to think that we were living in extraordinarily difficult times. Like most men I thought that our time was the worst possible time. And no doubt it is — for those, I mean, who still say “our time.” As for myself, I’ve thrown away the calendar by which one reckons the lean and the fat years. For me it is all gravy, one continuous, marvelous stream of time without beginning or end. Yes, the times are bad, permanently bad — unless one becomes immune, becomes God. Since I have become God I go the whole hog always. I am absolutely indifferent to the fate of the world: I have my own world and my own private fate. I make no reservations and no compromises. I accept. I am — and that is all.
That is why, perhaps, when I sit at my typewriter I always face East. No backward glances over the shoulder. The orbit over which I am traveling leads me farther and farther away from the dead sun which gave me birth. Once I was confronted with a choice — either to remain a satellite of that dead thing or create a new world of my own, with my own satellites. I made my choice. Having made it there is no standing still. One becomes more and more alive, or more and more dead. To get a piqûre [injection] is useless; a blood transfusion is useless. A new man is made out of the whole cloth, by a change of heart which alters every living cell of the body. Anything less than a change of heart is sure catastrophe. Which, if you follow the reasoning, explains why the times are always bad. For, unless there be a change of heart, there can be no act of will. There may be a show of will, with tremendous activity accompanying it (wars, revolutions, etc.), but that will not change the times. Things are apt to grow worse, in fact.
Over many centuries of time a few men have appeared who, to my way of thinking, really understood why the times are permanently bad. They proved, through their own unique way of living, that this sad “fact” is one of man’s delusions. But nobody, apparently, understands them. And it is eminently right that it should be thus. If we want to lead a creative life it is absolutely just that we should be responsible for our own destiny. To imagine a way of life that could be patched is to think of the cosmos as a vast plumbing affair. To expect others to do what we are unable to do ourselves is truly to believe in miracles, miracles that no Christ would dream of performing. The whole social-political scheme of existence is crazy — because it is based on vicarious living. A real man has no need of governments, of laws, of moral or ethical codes, to say nothing of battleships, police clubs, high-powered bombers and such things. Of course a real man is hard to find, but that’s the only kind of man worth talking about. Why talk about trash? It is the great mass of mankind, the mob, the people, who create the permanently bad times. The world is only the mirror of ourselves. If it’s something to make one puke, why then puke, me lads; it’s your own sick mugs you’re looking at!
Sometimes it almost seems that the writer takes a perverse delight in finding the times out of joint, finding everything awrack and awry. Perhaps the artist is nothing more than the personification of this universal maladjustment, this universal disequilibrium. . . . Art, it should be understood, is only a makeshift, a substitute for the real thing. There is only one art which, if we practiced it, would destroy what is called “art.” With every line I write I kill off the “artist” in me. With every line it is either murder in the first degree or suicide. I do not want to give hope to others, nor to inspire others. If we knew what it meant to be inspired we would not inspire. We would simply be. As it is we neither inspire nor aid one another: we deal out cold justice. For myself I want none of this stinking cold justice; I want either warmhearted magnanimity or absolute neglect. To be honest, I want something more than any man can give me. I want everything! I want everything — or nothing. It’s crazy, I know, but that’s what I mean. . . .
Every man who aspires to be a good French writer (or a bad one), or a (good or bad) German writer, or a (good or bad) Russian writer, any man, I mean, who hopes to make a living by giving regular doses of medicine to his sick countrymen, helps to perpetuate a farce which has been going on since the beginning of history. Such writers, and they are practically all we have, it seems, are the lice which keep us from knowing Paradise or Hell. They keep us in a perpetual Purgatory where we scratch without let. Whereas even the earth wobbles on its axis, or will change its axis from time to time, these blokes keep us forever on an even keel. In every great figure who has flashed across the horizon there is, or was, a large element of treachery, or hatred, or love, or disgust. We have had traitors to race, country, religion, but we have not yet bred any real traitors, traitors to the human race, which is what we need. The chances are slim, I know. I mention it merely to show how the wind blows.
As I say, one needs either a heaven or a hell in which to flourish — until one arrives at that Paradise of his own creation, that middle realm which is not a bread-and-butter Utopia of which the masses dream but an interstellar realm in which one rolls along his orbit with sublime indifference. Dante was the best cartographer of the soul which Europe ever produced, everything clear as a whistle and etched in black and white; but since his time not only Europe, but the whole universe, has moved into new spiritual dimensions. Man is still the center of the cosmos, but having stretched the cosmos almost to the bursting point — the scientists actually predict that the universe will explode! — man himself is practically invisible. Artificial wings won’t help, nor artificial eyes, nor escalators. . . . The whole damned universe has to be taken apart, brick by brick, and reconstructed. Every atom has to be rearranged. Perhaps just to sit quiet and take deep-breathing exercises would be better than popping one another off with slugs of dynamite. Because the strange thing is that just doing nothing, just taking it easy, loafing, meditating, things tend to right themselves. As it is we are all terrified by the thought of losing our freedom. And yet it is freedom, the idea of freedom, which is what we dread most. . . .
What do I mean to infer? Just this — that art, the art of living, involves the act of creation. The work of art is nothing. It is only the tangible, visible evidence of a way of life, which, if it is not crazy, is certainly different from the accepted way of life. The difference lies in the act, in the assertion of a will, and individuality. For the artist to attach himself to his work, or identify himself with it, is suicidal. An artist should be able not only to spit on his predecessor’s art, or on all works of art, but on his own too. He should be able to be an artist all the time, and finally not be an artist at all, but a piece of art.