October 2014

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Dark Satanic Mills: On The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller

National character -- is this a viable concept, or simply a parlor game? The English, for example, are often called, usually by themselves, a stoic sort of people obsessed with politeness and allergic to displays of emotion or for that matter metaphysics. And yet their most successful literary export, a Mr. Shakespeare, has always seemed to me to be admirably free of the so-called English qualities. And the Americans are reckoned an optimistic, even cretinously optimistic nation, which is hard to square with the lyrics to their folk songs ("You are lost and gone forever / Dreadful sorry, Clementine..."), the invention of something called the blues, and gloomy writers as various as Hawthorne, Dickinson, Melville, Crane, Henry James, and basically all the poets, even Whitman, if you read him closely enough. (And, at the risk of overprosecuting the case, think of the so-called genre writers! The Highsmiths, the Frank Herberts! The gritted-teeth film-noir one-liners! Strange, after this, that Americans don't have the reputation for being the ghost at the feast rather than the smiling salesman.)

But perhaps artists are by their nature departures from the mainstream with which national-character theorists concern themselves. Problems still remain. Americans considered en masse are optimistic and yet wildly depressed, insufferably pious and yet insufferably worldly, individualists who energetically conform, and so on. Like a travel writer hastily typing out a conclusion, confronted with this, many would say America is a "country of paradox," adjust their collars, and move on.

But the idea of a national character isn't so easily dismissed because there's something primitive and enticing about the idea of one's own self multiplied and put on display for the world. Because this is the appeal of nationalism: you, yourself, with all your bad habits, are transformed into a million-armed monster with a world destiny. Whenever I speak to someone with inordinate national or ethnic pride, I always catch a faint glimpse of personal disappointment behind it. "Things didn't work out so well for me, but my people -- what a special group, what a talented bunch!" It's no accident, I think, that nationalism caught fire in Europe around the time bourgeois liberalism was beginning to fragment old bonds. (Watch what happens to India as the economy increasingly liberalizes.) Tocqueville said that democracy "threatens in the end to confine [every man] entirely within the solitude of his own heart." Many reject this bargain, understandably so, and leap into the largely imaginary brotherhood of nationalism.

These thoughts were on my mind as I read The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller's account of his journey through the United States, his birth country, after years of self-imposed exile. His attitude toward his American life, before heading to Europe, may be glimpsed in the title of an early unpublished novel: Clipped Wings. America, in his private mythology, is the land of spiritual waste in whose fallow soil no heroism can bloom.

Miller's critique is an odd one in that he feels disgust both for the comforts of modern life and for the failure of America to make these comforts available to all. In other words, the presence of a clean toilet arouses his disgust, or rather contempt, as does the absence of one. The 1941 innkeeper is put in a kind of bind. Either he can provide his guest, the famous writer Henry Miller, with a clean toilet, or he cannot. If he does, then America is a land of shallow material comforts that knows nothing of the Montparnasse; instead of art they have hygiene. Ridiculous! However, if the innkeeper, in anticipation of his guest's arrival, wrenches the toilet free from the floor and leaves Miller just a hole in the tiles, then brace yourself for another kind of rage. Because, Miller would write, this goes to show how America is really just a hellhole masquerading as the light of the world. The infrastructure of Bihar mated to the guff of Napoleon!

Miller holds "America" in contempt, although he takes a shine to a great many Americans and finds many American places to be beautiful and inspiring. He glorifies the South, verging on neo-confederate nostalgia, worshipping their supposed grotesquerie as an antidote to the tin hearts of the industrial north. Amidst their Spanish moss and live oak, at least the Southerners live. The southern white gentry may have been slavers, goes the Miller view, but they felt and participated in a grand evil that imparts to their lives an artistic glow unavailable to the clipped-grass suburbs of New York. There's something, he feels, Faustian about Dixie.

Miller's book reveals, as it slowly realizes westward, that he wrote it as a kind of road diary, in the heat. He adores the South, meaning the old Confederacy, for its impracticality and even, perversely, for its wrongness; he worships the West, especially coastal California and the Grand Canyon, for their ability to dwarf human concerns with the vastness of their inhuman cathedrals, their terrible stone outcroppings. At all points, under the roiling phantasmagoria of his prose, his message remains remarkably consistent: what is merely utilitarian is bad, indeed, worthy of our collective energetic contempt. The useless alone will be saved when Miller takes his dread judgment seat in the end times.

Miller admirably wears his influences on his sleeve, quoting at length such forebears as Vivekananda and Céline. Miller's evocation of Céline is unfortunate, though, because Céline was a writer who despite his many shortcomings was never one to pretend that his personal humiliations were anything other than that. (The only compliment he paid them was to transmute them into art.) When Miller describes a failure, you sense that he's enlisting himself in the ranks of the wretched of the earth, who would soon effect their revolution, as predicted in the scriptures; in other words, each failure is a slight boost in world-historical terms. Céline, however, looked forward to no revolution and had no faith that the kicked-around people of the world would rise up. (He looked forward to ethnic cleansing, but that's another story.)

Miller was no political partisan, although in his writing one does taste the flavor of the 1930s, that decade in which anyone with remote pretensions to seriousness needed to be at least perfunctorily engagé. Yet Miller's relationship to socialism goes farther back than these insubstantial blessings thrown toward the working poor -- it goes back, I would say, to that famous passage in the Communist Manifesto in which Marx describes the riotous, terrifying passage of capitalism over local ways and mores, avid as a locust plague: "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned..."

There is something conservative in Marx's pity for the elimination of old customs by the international monsters of efficiency and convenience; the words "venerable" and "holy" signal a gentler sensibility, or the glimmer of a gentler sensibility, which was perhaps obscured by his devotion to the crushing wheels of history. Miller, without deigning to involve himself in politics, stands with the solid and the holy against the profanations of modern life, which conspires to exchange your soul for deadening comfort.

Another thought. Miller was well into his forties when he published his first book, which was then promptly banned by his home country. (Isn't this the simplest, most obvious motive for his anti-Americanism?) I have noticed a malign effect that comes from achieving fame early as a writer, namely that it tends to suggest to the now-famous whippersnapper that the world is divided into artists and non-artists, the clergy and the laity, the saved and the damned. There's regard, of course, for the common folk, but it tends to come off as reflexive and insincere. Miller, however, this latecomer to letters, is truly democratic. How many writers, for example, would have transcribed (doubtless with corrections and even fabrications) the long monologue of a "desert rat," a man with a résumé utterly devoid of credentials, musing on topics as diverse as Roosevelt and the fate of the dinosaurs? Miller's generosity in this respect is conditioned on this premise: I am that.

For all his negative energy, one of Miller's most admirable qualities is his total lack of meanness. Meanness, I mean, as distinct from enmity and prejudice. His negativity partakes not at all of the miserable bickering, the rat-like grasping and spitting, on display in every internet comment section in the world. His hate is serene; it doesn't hide, flinch, shriek, throw chicken bones. When, after his Dante-esque journey through the Hell of the Industrial North and the Purgatory of Steaming Dixie, he slurs down into his bizarro promised land of coastal California, I felt that his generous sensibility had at last been physically repaid.