'The Time of the Assassins' by Henry Miller (1956)

A selection from The Time of the Assassins by Henry Miller (1956). Note: some of the essays that make up this book were first written just after the war.


How like the wanderers of the heavens are the poets! Do they not, like the planets, seem to be in communication with other worlds? Do they not tell us of things to come as well as of things long past, buried in the racial memory of man? What better significance can we give to their fuguitve stay on earth than that of emissaries from another world? We live amidst dead fact whereas they live in signs and symbols. [...] They are trying to detach us from our moorings; they urge us to fly with them on the wings of the spirit. They are always announcing the advent of things to come and we crucify them because we live in dread of the unknown. In the poet the springs of action are hidden.[...] His apprehension of things is similar to that of a man from a fourth-dimensional world living in one of three dimensions. He is in our world but not of it; his allegiance is elsewhere. It is his mission to seduce us, to render intolerable this limited world which bounds us. But only those are capable of following the call who have lived through their three-dimensional world, have lived out its possibilities.

The signs and symbols which the poet employs are one of the surest proofs that language is a means of dealing with the unutterable and the inscrutable. [....] To ask the poet to speak the language of the man in the street is like expecting the prophet to make clear his predictions. That which speaks to us from higher, more distant, realms comes clothed in secrecy and mystery. That which is being constantly expanded and elaborated through explication.... is at the same time being compressed, tightened up, through the use of the stenographic calligraphy of symbols. We can never explain except in terms of new conundrums. What belongs to the realm of spirit, or the eternal, evades all explanation. The language of the poet is asymptotic; it runs parallel to the inner voice when the latter approaches the infinite spirit. It is through this inner register that the man without language, so to speak, is in communication with the poet. [...] It is his unique use of the symbol which is the warrant of his [Rimbaud's] genius. This symbology was forged in blood and anguish. It was at once a protest and a circumvention of the dismal spread of knowledge which threatened to stifle the source of the spirit. It was also a window opening upon a world of vastly more complex relations for which the old sign language no longer served.
Everything that Rimbaud voiced in his writings proclaimed this truth, that 'we live not in the midst of facts, but of profundities and symbols.'

What interests me extremely in Rimbaud is his vision of Paradise regained. Paradise earned... . What defeats me is his life, which is at such utter variance with his vision. Whenever I read his life I feel that I too have failed.

One must pass through the flame in order to know death and embrace it. The strength of the rebel, who is the Evil One, lies in his inflexibility, but true strength lies in submission which permits one to dedicate his life, through devotion, to something beyond himself. The strength of the one leads to isolation, which is castration, while the strength of the other leads to unification, which is lasting fertility.

We know how the monument which was erected to him in his native town of Charleville was decapitated by the Germans and carried off during the last war's invasion. How memorable, how prophetic, now seem the words which he flung at his friend Delahaye when the latter referred to the indubitable superiority of the German conquerors. "The idiots! Behind their blaring trumpets and beating drums they will return to their own country to eat sausages, believing it is all over. But wait a little. Now they are all militarized from top to toe, and for a long time they will swallow all the rubbish of glory under treacherous masters who will never let go of them … I can see from now the rule of iron and madness that will imprison all of German society. And all that merely to be crushed in the end by some coalition!"

'The golden birds which flit through the umbrage of his poems!' Whence came those golden birds of Rimbaud's? And whither do they fly? They are neither doves nor vultures; they inhabit the airs. They are the private messengers hatched in darkness and released in the light of illumination. They bear no resemblance to the creatures of the air, neither are they angels. They are the rare birds of the spirit, birds of passage who flit from sun to sun. They are not imprisoned in the poems, they are liberated there. They rise with wings of ecstasy and vanish in the flame.

Conditioned to ecstasy, the poet is like a gorgeous unknown bird mired in the ashes of thought. If he succeeds in freeing himself, it is to make a sacrificial flight to the sun. His dreams of a regenerate world are but the reverberations of his own fevered pulse beats. He imagines the world will follow him, but in the blue he finds himself alone. Alone but surrounded by his creations; sustained, therefore, to meet the supreme sacrifice. The impossible has been achieved; the duologue of author with Author is consummated. And now forever through the ages the song expands, warming all hearts, penetrating all minds. At the periphery the world is dying away; at the center it glows like a live coal. In the great solar heart of the universe the golden birds are gathered in unison. There it is forever dawn, forever peace, harmony and communion.

Man does not look to the sun in vain; he demands light and warmth not for the corpse which he will one day discard but for his inner being. His greatest desire is to burn with ecstasy, to commerge his little flame with the central fire of the universe. If he accords the angels wings so that they may come to him with messages of peace, harmony and radiance from worlds beyond, it is only to nourish his own dreams of flight, to sustain his own belief that he will one day reach beyond himself, and on wings of gold. One creation matches another; in essence they are all alike. The brotherhood of man consists not in thinking alike, nor in acting alike, but in aspiring to praise creation. The song of creation springs from the ruins of earthly endeavor. The outer man dies away in order to reveal the golden bird which is winging its way toward divinity.