The Wisdom of the Heart: Henry Miller on the Art of Living
By Maria Popova
Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980) — voracious reader, masterful letter-writer, champion of combinatorial creativity, one disciplined writer — spent a good portion of his career freelancing for various literary periodicals. In April of 1939, Modern Mystic magazine commissioned him to write a piece about the work of psychoanalyst E. Graham Howe. Two years later, the essay was republished in the eponymous volume The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) — a collection of Miller’s short stories, profiles, and literary essays.
In the piece, like in all memorable profile writing, Miller uses the synthesis and critique of his subject’s ethos as a springboard for his own and, ultimately, for broader commentary on the culture of the time and the universality of the human condition.
He begins with a riff on Howe’s book War Dance:
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 aspects of life, good and bad, right and wrong, yours and mine, the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, ‘the dance of life,’ metamorphosis. One can dance to sorrow or to joy; one can even dance abstractly. … But the point is that, by the mere act of dancing, the elements which compose it are transformed; the dance is an end in itself, just like life. The acceptance of the situation, any situation, brings about a flow, a rhythmic impulse towards self-expression. To relax is, of course, the first thing a dancer has to learn. It is also the first thing a patient has to learn when he confronts the analyst. It is the first thing any one has to learn in order to live. It is extremely difficult, because it means surrender, full surrender.
Life, as we all know, is conflict, and man, being part of life, is himself an expression of conflict. If he recognizes the fact and accepts it, he is apt, despite the conflict, to know peace and to enjoy it. But to arrive at this end, which is only a beginning (for we haven’t begun to live yet!), a man has got to learn the doctrine of acceptance, that is, of unconditional surrender, which is love.
Later, Miller turns to the illusory nature of what stands between us and this complete surrender:
‘Normality,’ says Howe, ‘is the paradise of escapologists, 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. The desire for a lasting external security is uppermost, revealing itself in the endless pursuit of health, happiness, possessions an so on, defense of what has been acquired being the obsessive idea, and yet no real defense being possible, because one cannot defend what is undefendable. All that can be defended are imaginary, illusory, protective devices.
Miller zooms in on the “key words in howe’s doctrine of wholeness” — balance, discipline, illumination:
For the awakened individual, however, life begins now, at any and every moment; it begins at the moment when he realizes that he is part of a great whole, and in the realization becomes himself whole. In the knowledge of limits and relationships he discovers the eternal self, thenceforth to move with obedience and discipline in full freedom.
Writing at the time surround WWII, Miller reflects on a cultural era not at all dissimilar to our own today, a transitional period he calls “an equinoctial solstice of the soul”:
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.
In an argument reminiscent of Joan Didion’s definition of character as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life,” Miller turns from the personal to the political, a direction consistent with his then-lover Anaïs Nin’s contention that understanding the individual is the key to understanding mass movements:
Those who are trying to put the onus of responsibility for the dangers which threaten on the shoulders of the ‘dictators’ might well examine their own hearts and see whether their allegiance is really ‘free’ or a mere attachment to some other form of authority, possibly unrecognized. … Those who are preaching revolution are also defenders of the status quo — their status quo. Any solution to the world’s ills must embrance all mankind. We have got to relinquish our precious theories, our buttresses and supports, to say nothing of our defenses and possessions. 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!
Returning to our relationship with the present moment, Miller summarizes Howe’s proposition:
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.
Real love is never perplexed, never qualifies, never rejects, never demands. It replenishes, by grace of restoring unlimited circulation. It burns, because it knows the true meaning of sacrifice. It is life illuminated.
The Wisdom of the Heart is a beautiful read in its entirety — highly recommended.
Published October 9, 2012