'The Wisdom of the Heart' by Henry Miller (1941)

A Selection from 'The Wisdom of the Heart' by Henry Miller, 1941.

Tom Schiller's 1975 documentary on Henry Miller, 'A guided tour of the pictures and artefacts of his bathroom.'

Creative Death:

...the great spirits on whom [D.H. Lawrence] fed and nourished himself, whom he had to reject in order to assert his... own vision, were they not like himself men who went to the source? Were they not all animated by that same idea which Lawrence voiced over and over again-- that the sun itself will never become stale, nor the earth barren?

Who were his predecessors? To whom... did he acknowledge his indebtedness? Jesus certainly, and Nietzsche, and Whitman and Dostoyvsky. All the poets of life, the mystics, who in denouncing civilization contributed most heavily to the lie of civilization. 

Strange as it may seem today to say, the aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware. In this state of god-like awareness one sings; in this realm the world exists as poem. No why or wherefore, no direction, no goal, no striving, no evolving. Like the enigmatic Chinaman one is rapt by the everchanging spectacle of passing phenomena. This is the sublime, the a-moral state of the artist, he who lives only in the moment, the visionary moment of utter, far-seeing lucidity. Such clear icy sanity that it seems like madness. By the force and power of the artist’s vision the static, synthetic whole which is called the world is destroyed. The artist gives back to us a vital, singing universe, alive in all is parts.
This final reality which the artist comes to recognize in his maturity is that symbolic paradise of the womb, that "China" which the psychologists place somewhere between the conscious and unconscious... .

When we trace back the roots of the artist's evolution, we rediscover in his being the various incarnations, or aspects of hero which man has represented himself to be-- King, warrior, saint, magician, priest, etc. The process is a long and devious one. [...] Escape is the deepest wish. Escape from death, from the nameless terror. And the way to escape death is to escape life. This the artist has always manifested through his creations. By living into his art he adopts for his world an intermediary realm in which he is all-powerful, a world which he dominates and rules. This intermediary realm of art, this world in which he moves as hero, was made realizable only out of the deepest sense of frustration. It arises paradoxically out of lack of power, out of a sense of inability to thwart fate. 

All his failures are but the reflection of his frail human encounters with inexorable reality. [...] ...with each realistic failure he falls back with greater intensity on his creative illusions. His whole art is the pathetic and heroic effort to deny his human defeat. He works out, in his art, an unreal triumph-- since it is neither a triumph over life nor over death. It is a triumph over an imaginary world which he himself has created. The drama lies entirely in the realm of ideas. His war with reality is a reflection of the war within himself.

..the artist, when he recognizes his real nature, his destined role, is obliged to accept the responcibility of leadership. [...] He can tolerate nothing but the dictates of his own conscience.  

  We may image man forth as a sacred tree of life and death and if, further, we also think of this tree as representing not only the individual man, but a whole people, a whole Culture, we may begin to perceive the intimate connection between the emergence of the Dionysian type of artist and the notion of the sacred body.
Pursuing the image of man as tree of life and death, we may well conceive how the life instincts, goading man on to ever greater and greater expression through his world of form and symbol, his ideology, cause him at last to overlook the purely human, relative, fundamental aspects of his being-- his animal nature, his very human body. Man rushes up the trunk of livingness to expand in a spiritual flowering. From an insignificant microcosm, but recently separated from the animal world, he eventually spreads himself over the heavens in the form of the great anthropos, the mythical man of the zodiac. The very process of differentiating himself from the animal world to which he still belongs causes him to lose sight more and more of his utter humanness. It is only at the last limits of creativeness, when his form world can assume no further architectural dimensions, that he suddenly begins to realize his "limitations." It is then that fear assails him. It is then that he tastes death truly-- a fortaste, as it were.
Now the life instincts are converted into death instincts. That which before had seemed all libido, endless urge to creation, is now seen to contain another principle-- the embrace of the death instincts. Only at the full summit of creative expansion does he become truly humanized. Now he feels the deep roots of his being, in the earth. Rooted. The supremacy and the glory and the magnificence of the body finally asserts itself in full vigor. Only now does the body assume its sacred character, its true role. 

What we call wisdom of life here attains its apogee-- when this fundamental, rooted, sacred character of the body is divined. In the topmost branches of the tree of life thought withers. The grand spiritual efflorescence, by virtue of which man had raised himself to god-like proportions so that he lost touch with reality-- because he himself was reality-- this great spiritual flowering of Idea is now converted into an ignorance which expresses itself as the mystery of Soma. Thought retraverses the religious trunk by which it had been supported and, digging into the very roots of being, rediscovers the enigma, the mystery of the body. Rediscovers the kinship between star, beast, ocean, man, flower, sky. Once again it is perceived that the trunk of the tree, the very column of life itself, is religious faith, the acceptance of one's tree-like nature-- not a yearning for some other form of being.

Their isolation, in the heavens of thought, is what brings about their death. 

When we look at an Olympian figure like Goethe we see a gigantic human tree that declared no "goal" except to unfold its proper being, no goal except to obey the deep organic laws of nature. That is wisdom, the wisdom of a ripe mind at the height of a great Culture. It is what Nietzsche described as the fusion in one being of two divergent streams-- the Apollonian dreamer type and the ecstaic Dionysian. In Goethe we have the image of man incarnate, with head in the clouds and feet deeply rooted in the soil of race, culture, history. [...] He was deeply religious withhout the necessity of worshipping a god. [...] Goethe's work... fell from him like ripe fruit from a tree. [...] His life and work assumed grandiose proportions, an architectonic amplitude and majesty, for in both his life and his work there was the same organic foundations. 

At this lofty point when Goethe appears, when man and culture are both at peak, the whole of past and future spreads out. The end is now in sight, the road henceforth is downward. After the Olympian Goethe the Dionysian race of artists sets in, the men of the "tragic age" which Nietzsche prophesied and of which he himself was a superb example. The tragic age, when all that which is forever denied us makes itself felt with nostalgic force. Once again the cult of Mystery is revived.  Once again man must re-enact the mystery of the god, the god whose fertilizing death is to redeem and to purify man from guilt and sin, to free him from the wheel of birth and becoming. Sin, guilt, neurosis- they are one and the same, the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The free of life now becomes the tree of death. But it is always the same tree. And it is from this tree of death that life must spring forth again, that life must be reborn. Which, as all the myths of the tree testify, is precisely what happens. "At the moment of the destruction of the world," says Jung, referring to Ygdrasil, the world-ash, "this tree becomes the guardian mother, the tree of death and life, one 'pregnant.'"

The tree of life now knows its death. The Dionysian art of ecstasies now reasserts its claims. The drama intervenes. The tragic reappears. Through madness and ecstacy the mystery of the god is enacted and the drunken revellers acquire the will to die- to die creatively. 

Reflections on Writing:

I began in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and emotions and experiences. Even now I do not consider myself a writer, in the ordinary sense of the word. I am a man telling the story of his life, a process which appears more and more inexhaustible as I go on. Like the world-evolution, it is endless. It is a turning inside out, a voyaging through X dimensions, with the result that somewhere along the way one discovers that what one has to tell is not nearly so important as the telling itself. It is this quality about all art which gives it a metaphysical hue, which lifts it out of time and space and centres or integrates it to the whole cosmic process. It is this about art which is 'therapeutic': significant, purposelessness, infinitude.
From the very beginning almost I was deeply aware that there is no goal. I never hope to embrace the whole, but merely to give in each seperate fragment, each work, the feeling of the whole as I go on, because I am digging deeper and deeper into life, digging deeper and deeper into past and future. With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief. I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as man.

On the surface, where the historical battles rage, where everything is interpreted in terms of money and power, there may be crowding, but life only begins when one drops below the surface, when one gives up the struggle, sinks and disappears from sight.

The real problem is not one of getting on with one's neighbor or of contributing to the development of one's country, but of discovering one's destiny, of making a life in accord with the deep-centred rhythm of the cosmos. To be able to use the word cosmos boldly, to use the word soul, to deal in things 'spiritual'- and to shun definitions, alibis, proofs, duties. [...] One can only go forward by going backward and then sideways and then up and then down. There is no progress: there is perpetual movement, displacement, which is circular, spiral, endless. Every man has his own destiny: the only imperative is to follow it, to accept it, no matter where it lead him.

To the man who is pure at heart I believe that everything is as clear as a bell, even the most esoteric scripts. For such a man there is always mystery, but the mystery is not mysterious, it is logical, natural, ordained, and implicitly accepted. Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it. 

The Wisdom of the Heart:

The art of living is based on rhythm, on give and take, ebb and flow, light and dark, life and death. By acceptance of all the aspects of life... the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, 'the dance of life,' as Havelock Ellis called it. The real function of the dance is- metamorphosis. [...] ... by the mere act of dancing, the elements which compose it are transformed... . [...] To relax is, of course, the first thing a dancer has to learn. [...] It is the first thing any one has to learn in order to live. It is extremely difficult, because it means surrender, full surrender. ...full unequivocal surrender. It is the religious view of life: the positive acceptance of pain, suffering, defeat, misfortune, and so on. It is the long way round, which has always proved to be the shortest way after all. It means the assimilation of experience, fulfillment through obedience and discipline: the curved span of time through natural growth rather than the speedy, disastrous short-cut. This is the path of wisdom, and the one that must be taken eventually, because all the others only lead to it.

The whole fourth-dimensional view of reality... hinges on this understanding of acceptance. The fourth element is Time, which is another way, as Goethe so well knew, of saying- growth. As a seed grows in the natural course of time, so the world grows, and so it dies, and so it is reborn again. This is the very antithesis of the current notion of "progress," in which are bound up the evil dragons of will, purpose, goal and struggle- or rather, they are not bound up, but unleashed. Progress, according to the Westerner, means a straight line through impenetrable barriers, creating difficulties and obstacles all along the line, and thus defeating itself. Howe's idea is the Oriental one, made familiar to us through the art of jujitsu, wherein the obstacle itself is made into an aid. The method is as applicable to what we call disease, or death or evil, as it is to a bullying adversary. The secret of it lies in the recognition that force can be directed as well as feared- more, that everything can be converted to good or evil, profit or loss, according to one's attitude. In his present fearsome state man seems to have but one attitude, escape, wherein he is fixed as in a nightmare. Not only does he refuse to accept he fears, but worse, he fears his fears. Everything seems infintely worse than it is, says Howe, "just because we are trying to escape." This is the very Paradise of Neurosis... . 

...this philosophy of life..., unlike most philosophies, takes its stance in life, and not in a system of thought. [...] It is a thoroughly religious view of life, in that it recognizes "the supremacy of the unseen." Emphasis is laid on the dark side of life, on all that which is considered negative, passive, evil, feminine, mysterious, unknowable. [...] "There is no progress other than what is, if we could let it be..."

It favors the slow, rhythmic movement of growth rather than the direct method which would attain an imaginary end through speed and force. It seeks to eliminate the doctor as well as the patient, by accepting the disease itself rather than the medicine or the mediator... . 

It seems to be generally admitted by intelligent people, and even by the unintelligent, that we are passing through one of the darkest moments in history. (What is not so clearly recognized, however, is that man has passed through many such periods before, and survived!) There are those who content themselves with putting the blame for our condition on the "enemy," call it church, education, government, Fascism, Communism, poverty, circumstance, or what not. They waste their forces proving that they are "right" and the other fellow "wrong." For them society is largely composed of those who are against their ideas. But society is composed of the insane and the criminals, as well as the righteous and the unrighteous. Society represents all of us, "what we are and how we feel about life," as Howe puts it. Society is sick, scarcely anybody will deny that, and in the midst of this sick world are the doctors who, "knowing little of the reason why they prescribe for us, have little faith in anything but heroic surgery and in the patient's quite unreasonable ability to recover." The medical men are not interested in health, but in combating sickness and disease. Like the other members of society, they function negatively. [...] Here is the picture of our so-called "normal" world, obeying, as Howe calls it, the law of "infinite regress"... .

The system is threatened with disaster, but we have no thought but to hold it up, while we clamour for peace in which to enjoy it. Because we live in it, it seems to be as sacred as ourselves.

"Normality," says Howe, "is the paradise of escapeologists, for it is a fixation concept, pure and simple." "It is better, if we can," he asserts, "to stand alone and to feel quite normal about our abnormality, doing nothing whatever about it, except what needs to be done in order to be oneself."
It is just this ability to stand alone, and not feel guilty or harassed about it, of which the average person is incapable.

His [Howe's] mind is, as the Chinese well say, "alive-and-empty." He is anchored in the flux, neither drowned in it nor vainly trying to dam it.

Whoever has dipped into the esoteric lore of the East must recognize that the attitude towards life set forth in these books is but a rediscovery of the Doctrine of the Heart. The element of Time, so fundamental in Howe's philosophy, is a restatement, in scientific language, of the esoteric view that one cannot travel on the Path before one has become that Path himself. Never, perhaps, in historic times, has man been further of the Path than at this moment. [...] Howe is not alone in thus summarizing our epoch: it is the opinion of earnest men everywhere. It might be regarded as an equinoctial solstice of the soul, the furthest outward reach that can be made without complete disintegration. It is the moment when the earth, to use another analogy, before making the swing back, seems to stand stock still. There is an illusion of "end," a stasis seemingly like death. But it is only an illusion. Everything, at this crucial point, lies in the attitude which we assume towards the moment. If we accept it as a death we may be re-born and continue on our cyclical journey. It we regard it as an "end" we are doomed. It is no accident that the various death philosophies with which we are familiar should arise at this time. [...] Nor is it strange either that so many varied expressions of a fourth-dimensional view of life should now make their appearance. The negative view of life, which is really the death-like view of things, summed up by Howe in the phrase "infinite regress," is gradually giving way to a positive view, which is multi-dimensional
. (Whenever the fourth-dimensional view is grasped multiple dimensions open up. The fourth is the symbolic dimension which opens the horizon in infinite "egress." With it time-space takes on a wholly new character: every aspect of life is henceforth transmuted.)

"Life is not in the form, but in the flame," says Howe. For two thousand years, despite the real wisdom of Christ's teachings, we have been trying to live in the mold, trying to wrest wisdom from knowledge, instead of wooing it, trying to comquer over Nature instead of accepting and living by her laws.

"To live in truth, which is suspense," says Howe, "is adventure, growth, uncertainty, risk and danger. Yet there is little opportunity in life today for experiencing that adventure, unless we go to war." Meaning thereby that by evading our real problems from day to day we have produced a schism, on the one side of which is the illusory life of comfortable security and painlessness, and on the other disease, catastrophe, war, and so forth. [...] We have got to become more inclusive, not more exclusive. What is not acknowledged and assimilated through experience, piles up in the form of guilt and creates a real Hell, the literal meaning of which is-- where the unburnt must be burnt! [...] We are trying to live only in the light, with the result that we are enveloped in darkness. [...] As Howe rightly says, "if we must have our ideals achieved and gratified, they are not ideals at all, but phantasies." We need to open up, to relax, to give way, to obey the deeper laws of our being, in order to find a true discipline.

Disicpline Howe defines as "the art of the acceptance of the negative." It is based on the recognition of the duality of life, of the relative rather than the absolute. Discipline permits a free flow of energy; it gives absolute freedom within relative limits. One develops despite circumstances, not because of them. This was a life wisdom known to Eastern peoples, handed down to us in many guises, not least of which is the significant study of symbols, known as astrology. Here time and growth are vital elements to the understanding of reality. [...] An attempt, in short, to arrive at a total grasp of the universe, and thus keep man anchored in the moving stream of life, which embraces known and unknown. Any and every moment, from this viewpoint, is therefore good or right, the best for whoever it be, for on how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it. In a very real sense we can see today how man has really dislocated himself from the movement of life; he is somewhere on the periphery, whirling like whirligig, going faster and faster and blinder and blinder. Unless he can make the gesture of surrender, unless he can let go the iron will which is merely an expression of his negation of life, he will never get back to the centre and find his true being. 

Henry Miller and Twinka Thiebaud, photograph by Mary Ellen, 1975

The Cosmological Eye:

This gnawing black pain... was the reverse of his great love: it was the black unending curtain against which his gleaming pictures stand out and glow with a holy phosphorescence. He says to me, standing in his little hotel room: "I want that the pictures should look back at me; if I look at them and they don't look at me too then they are no good." The remark came about because some one had observed that in all his pictures there was an eye, the cosmological eye, this person said. As I walked away from the hotel I was thinking that perhaps this ubiquitous eye was the vestigial organ of his love so deeply implanted into everything he looked at that it shone back at him out of the darkness of human insensitivity. More, that this eye had to be in everything he did or he would go mad. This eye had to be there in order to gnaw into men's vitals, to get hold of them like a crab, and make them realize that Hans Reichel exists.

This cosmological eye is sunk deep within his body. Everything he looks at and seizes must be brought below the threshold of consciousness, brought deep into the entrails where there reigns an absolute night and where also the tender little mouths with whcih he absorbs his vision eat away until only the quintessence remains.
Here, in the warm bowels, the metamorphosis takes place. IN the absolute night, in the black pain hidden away in the backbone, the substance of things is dissolved until only the essence shines forth. The objects of his love, as they swim up to the light to arrange themselves on his canvases, marry one another in strange mystic unions which are indissoluble. But the real ceremony goes on below, in the dark, according to the inscrutable atomic laws of wedlock. [...] Phenomenon weds phenomenon in the way that atomic elements marry to make the miraculous substance of living matter. [...] There are monstrous unions too, just as innature, and they are as inviolable, asindissoluble as the others. Caprice rules, but it is the stern caprice of nature, and so divine.

I see him as he looks to himself when there is no mirror anywhere in the world: when he is caught in a stone trance and has to imagine the mirror which is not there.

The Enormous Womb:

As the dictionary says, the womb is the place where anything is engendered or brought to life. As far as I can make out, there is never anything but womb. First and last there is the womb of Nature; then there is the mother's womb; and finally there is the womb in which we have our life and being and which we call the world. It is the failure to recognize the world as womb which is the cause of our misery, in large part. [...] And yet, in this world about is not everything being engendered and brought to life?

...in the highest reaches of civilization this fear of death becomes a fear of life, as exemplified by the behaviour of the neurotic. ...when a man appears who is without it [fear]  we are at once enslaved by him.

The hero is a man who says to himself- this is where things happen, not somewhere else. He acts as if he were at home in the world. Such behaviour, of course, brings about a terrific confusion, for as you may have noticed, people are seldom at home, always somewhere else, always 'absent'. Life, as it is called, is for most of us one long postponement. And the simple reason for it is: fear.
As we see whenever a war breaks out, the fear of war is overcome the moment one is really in it.

The wisest men are those who speak of illusion: Maya.

All arrangements for a better life here on earth mean increased suffering and misery. [...] The best world is that which is now this very moment. It is the best because it is absolutely just- which does not mean that it has anything to do with justice. [...] The world becomes interesting and liveable only when we accept it in toto with eyes wide open, only when we live it out as the foetus lives out its uterine life. Aprops, has anyone ever heard of an "immortal" foetus? [...] Can any one say whether the Bushmen in Australia are leading the right life, the good life? And the flowers, do they make for progress and invention? These are little questions which often disturb the philosophers. Intellectual sabotage. But it is good to ask unanswerable questions now and then- it makes life more liveable.

...for man, the important thing is to get born, born into the world-as-is, not some imaginary, wished for world, not some better, brighter world, but this, the only world, the world of now.

Most of the active workers of the world today look upon our life on earth as either Purgatory or Hell. They are sweating and struggling to make it a Heaven for the man to come. Or if they refuse to put it quite that way themselves, then they say that it is to make a Heaven for themselves - a little later. Time passes. Five Year Plans. Ten Year Plans. (Dinosaurs, dynasties, dynamos). Meanwhile the tooth decay, rheumatism comes, then death. (Death never fails.) But it's never Heaven. Somehow, Heaven is always in the offing, always just around the corner. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow... In the midst of this crazy treadmill I refuse to budge an inch, I stand still. Stock still. Now or never!