Henry Miller and The Dance of Life

By Jeffrey Shea

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, 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.’ The real function of the dance is- metamorphosis.

Henry Valentine Miller was born in Yorkville, New York, in 1891. His family moved to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the 14th ward and then finally to a part of Brooklyn known as Bushwick, the place he would later refer to as “the street of early sorrows”. Years later, in 1940, whileliving the life of an expatriate writer in Paris, France, a day-to-day,rollicking bohemian existence, he wrote the passage above. It would be his final year in Europe, the place where he first found acceptance, where arich cultural landscape would nurture and mature his work. But it was adifferent burgeoning caldron of culture, life in New York City during theearly 1900’s, the same era that gave birth to Jazz music, which would bearthe greatest influence on the man and his uniquely American art.

At around the same time that young Henry Miller was racing through the streets of New York throughout Brooklyn to Coney Island on his bicycle, Jazz music began to capture the attention of the world. In 1934, Louis Armstrong reached deep into his heart, exposed his soul to the world and harkened forth a uniquely melodic message of life. His was a singsong of soulful notes; a musical distillation of the human spirit resonating deeply with all the pain and joy that could be experienced in depression era America. With supreme musical sophistication, every detail of his intimate knowledge of the human condition burst forth. And as Jazz music rang true with life’s celebration song, the world listened as it struggled with the inevitability of a Second World War. Henry Miller too was listening.

In those formative years in New York City, a young Henry Miller struggled with the experiences of first love, fought against the shackles of judgment and religion, and was visited by a silent suffering. He heard clearly what Louis Armstrong was trying to say. The free, unashamed spirit of Jazz music infused Miller with a desire to question his own beliefs. And years later, the structure and spirit of his own art would reflect some of the same principles he first encountered in Jazz music. In his own way, he would embrace those very same ideals, which were born of love, an acceptance of the paradoxes of life, the duality of man, and a pure intention to communicate the unadulterated truth of the human condition. And it was no accident that New York City, the most formidable living human Metropolis the modern world has ever seen, would be the fertile soil for its musical maturation.

This environment gave birth to the rich human landscape and insight that would populate Henry Miller’s work. And it was the improvisational spirit of Jazz music that Miller would attempt to capture within his narrative. As he wrote once in reference to the structure of his most well known book, Tropic of Capricorn, “In telling this story I am not following a strict chronological sequence but have chosen to adopt a circular or spiral form of time development which enables me to expand freely in any direction at any given moment. The ordinarychronological development seems to me wooden and artificial, a synthetic reconstruction of the facts of life. The facts and events of life are, for me, only the starting points on the way towards thediscovery of truth. I am trying to get at the inner pattern of events.”

Self-liberation was one of those ‘inner pattern of events’ that Henry Millermost vehemently sought to communicate through his art. Like the many artists who influenced him, Bocaccio, Whitman, Emerson, Thoureau, Maeterlinck, Heraclitus, Nietzsche, Doestoyevsky, Knut Hamsun, James Joyce, and DH Lawrence, Miller believed most emphatically in Life, above all else.

And what influenced his blustering, no holds barred style most? Miller oncewrote, “Everything I read on Zen Buddhism, everything I read about China, India, Tibet, Arabia, Africa, and of course, the Bible, the men who wrote itand especially the men who made the King James version, for it was thelanguage of the Bible rather than its “message” which I got first and whichI will never shake off.”

Miller’s style, often stark and acerbic even brutal in its frankness, cansimultaneously alight upon the senses with gentle enchantment. Like many ofhis mentors, he viewed religion as a self-deluding human construct.Consequently, his faith became a pursuit and exploration of a critical andfresh interpretation of life. He celebrated the trivialities of existence and railed against arrogance, intolerance, and the false prophets of fame, fortune, acquisition and possession. He believed that only through a complete acceptance of the paradoxes of life, could one realize what it is to find peace and joy. His was a most Eastern way of thinking. And throughout his brilliant dialogue, he continually suggests that man need only embrace enmity, celebrate the unknown, enlist the service of the unconscious, connect with the soul and recognize the innate fertility of Death, to find bliss.

This attempt to present an unabashedly truthful interpretation of life slithers throughout Miller’s entire corpus of work like a giant serpent giving life to what is his unique autobiographical confession and fusing the work of the writer ineluctably to the man, to the very soul of the artist. From his first serious attempt at writing during a three week vacation from a job as employment manager at Western Union to his later essays written in the mountains of Big Sur, California, Miller had one objective in mind, to tell the truth of life in a bold, unflinching voice. He lived a life inextricably tied to art and his entire body of work represents a full and complete expression that spans more than sixty years and blazes new trails in artistic achievement.

During much of his own lifetime, the writing of Henry Miller was brandedobscene, his voice too vulgar, too egocentric, far too truthful and direct for proper society. Nonetheless, we now know that his style and voice were revolutionary and his use of the obscene and the irreverent as literary devices to awaken the reader was more celebration than rebellion. There was no state of human existence, no intimacy that went unexplored. His recurring themes of suffering, loss and transformation, drive narratives that stand as testaments to the celebration of life. Miller gave so completely of himself to his art that it became his life. As he once paraphrased, “in order to truly follow the path, a man must first become the path himself.” He fully   accepted all that life would offer him, pain and suffering, joy, ecstasy andbliss and he found inspiration in even the vilest of human acts, his own sense of morality eventually vanquished through a self-immolation of the experiences of life.

Henry Miller believed that the spirit of man is in the act of ‘becoming’ andthe expedient, life, should be appreciated as much for its lessons as for its rewards. He bore witness to the miracle of Louis Armstrong, the young man who mastered the entirety of musical influences that came before him and  transformed those sounds into brave new utterances, a language that previously existed only in dreams. And like Armstrong, Henry Miller took in all that came before him by way of tradition and history in literature and consumed it wholly. With the same voracious appetite that allowed him toabsorb the multitude of stories that existed in his New York City, the truesoul of America, he consumed and then transmuted the very essence of his own experiences into a uniquely truthful and unbridled song of life. A lifeaffirming melody that ensures us all, that there is indeed no such thing as Death, instead, there remains only one continuous chain of life forevertransforming, becoming, and giving birth to yet more life.

But the point is that, by the mere act of dancing, the elements whichcompose 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 the first thing any one has to learn in order to live.

Jeffrey Shea is a freelance writer from Worcester, Massachusetts.


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