Henry Miller on the Meaning and Mystery of Life
“This is the greatest damn thing about the universe. That we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it.”
By Maria Popova
More than merely one of the most memorable, prolific, and disciplined authors of the twentieth century, Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980) was also a champion of the wisdom of the heart, a poignant oracle of writing, a modern philosopher. But hardly anywhere does Miller’s spirit shine more brilliantly than in the 1974 gem This Is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn: Conversations with the Author from the Henry Miller Odyssey (public library) — not a book in the traditional sense, but “a transmutation, a reduction of the hours and hours of film and tape” that filmmaker Robert Snyder began recording in 1968 as the basis for the 1969 documentary The Henry Miller Odyssey. The book itself, as Snyder puts it, “is only a skimming of the film of the man” and “couldn’t be more than an invitation to the man’s work.”
Anchoring the biographical anecdotes are Miller’s many meditations on writing, creativity, and the meaning of life. Among the most poignant is this hand-written “memo to self,” dated 9/17/1918, in which Miller adds to other famous wisdom on the meaning of life:
What are we here for if not to enjoy life eternal, solve what problems we can, give light, peace and joy to our fellow-man, and leave this dear fucked-up planet a little healthier than when we were born.
The book ends with Miller’s grandest reflection on the eternal mystery of the universe, something great minds from Galileo to Montaigne to Neil deGrasse Tyson have pondered. He observes:
No matter what you touch and you wish to know about, you end up in a sea of mystery. You see there’s no beginning or end, you can go back as far as you want, forward as far as you want, but you never got to it, it’s like the essence, it’s that right, it remains. This is the greatest damn thing about the universe. That we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it. And it’s meant to be that way, do y’know. And there’s where our reverence should come in. Before everything, the littlest thing as well as the greatest. The tiniest, the horseshit, as well as the angels, do y’know what I mean. It’s all mystery. All impenetrable, as it were, right?
Complement This Is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn with Miller’s meditations on creative death and the art of living.
Published March 21, 2013