As the U.S. churns and burns with its long barely dormant rage, agog at losing its self-righteous air of superiority to other countries with “less,” one can’t help but think of how completely amused Henry Miller would be by the nation caving in on itself and its so-called “principles.” Looking at America from a far away viewpoint, as has been the privilege of many a white male expatriate (with writerly tendencies), one can only chuckle to himself about just how absurd it is that anyone is still trying to fight for “it.” For what, exactly? The joint has been a festering turd for quite some time, reaching too many apexes of that turdishness to count. The irony, of course, is that it was “founded” precisely to avoid the very things that have been taking place there since its inception–the one that comes after the point where Native Americans were already the original inhabitants of the country. Miller, one of the few sensible people from New York City who genuinely despised it, also bore just as much contempt for his “native” land of the United States (though tragically ended up back there in 1942, at least evading a return to living in the odious NYC).
His most succinct elucidation of that ire–as well as the many reasons why the U.S. has always blown and it ain’t nothin’ new–comes in the form of The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, written over two volumes detailing a road trip he took with artist Abraham Rattner (though he did ask Anaïs Nin to join him first) along for most of the ride. Having long kicked around the notion of writing something that would serve as “a loaded gun to the head of America,” Miller finally did so when his ode to Greece, The Colossus of Maroussi, was rejected by enough publishers for him to take the suggestion that maybe audiences would be more amenable to reading something about America from the perspective of an expatriate. My, how they had no idea what they were in for.
Setting off by car in October of 1940 (the book was officially commissioned in August), Miller tackled just about every part of the U.S.’ patchwork, all of it, ultimately, coalescing into one grand conglomerate of depressing sameness. One that can serve as no inspiration whatsoever to the artistic spirit. Or to anyone who has a spirit, really. Ruminating on one of the so-called artistic hubs he encounters, Miller balks, “New Hope is one of America’s art colonies. I have a vivid recollection of my state of mind on leaving the place. It framed itself thus: no hope for the artist! The only artists who were not leading a dog’s life were the commercial artists… The others were living like ex-convicts. This impression was confirmed and deepened as I travelled along. America is no place for an artist: to be an artist is to be a moral leper, an economic misfit, a social liability. A corn-fed hog enjoys a better life than a creative writer, painter or musician. To be a rabbit is better still.”
Or, to transcend into a refugee, in constant flight from the U.S., the purported “land of the free” and “home of the brave”–when we all know, in fact, it is the land of the economically shackled and the home of the milquetoast moral majority. Miller, instead, is the one who is looked upon as the psycho for wanting to continue to stay away even with the onset of the war. Of this Miller comments, “When I first returned from Europe I was frequently reminded of the fact that I was an ‘expatriate,’ often in an unpleasant way. The expatriate had come to be looked upon as an escapist. Until the war broke out it was the dream of every American artist to go to Europe–and to stay there as long as possible. Nobody thought of calling a man an escapist in the old days… With the outbreak of the war a sort of childish, petulant chauvinism set in. ‘Aren’t you glad to be back in the good old U.S.A.?’ was the usual greeting. To this you were expected to say ‘You betcha!’” Of course, Miller is basically just trying to keep himself from vomiting out of disgust the entire trip.
Of America’s so-called “newness”–and the benefit of having different “ideals” from the ones that our “forefathers” fled from–Miller seethes, “A new world is not made simply by trying to forget the old. A new world is made with a new spirit, with new values. Our world may have begun that way, but today it is caricatural. Our world is a world of things. It is made up of comforts and luxuries, or else the desire for them. What we dread most in facing the impending debacle [in this case, it was WWII], is that we shall be obliged to give up our gew-gaws, our gadgets, all the little comforts which have made us so uncomfortable. There is nothing brave, chivalrous, heroic or magnanimous about our attitude. We are not peaceful souls; we are smug, timid, queasy and quaky.”
In short, half-life, liberty (if you can afford the price) and the pursuit of materialism is all the U.S. has ever been about. And all it will continue to be about once people resign themselves yet again to existence in America as it always has been, the same way they did after the 2008 financial crisis. Because when enough people are making money, the cud-chewing silence returns. For since time immemorial, it is the gaping mouth of the U.S.’ sole desire to produce nothing, and in mass quantity. To consume and to numb with that consumption so as to ignore that no amount of protests, hemming and hawing or conviction about the meaning of the Constitution will alter the soullessness of that place.
Miller tries his best–and would have succeeded were it not for an average American unwillingness to comprehend–to explain that the lie of America is one that is only as powerful as people’s irrational clinging to it. But no, “We are accustomed to think of ourselves as an emancipated people, we say that we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudices and hatred. This is the melting pot, the seat of a great human experiment. Beautiful words, full of noble, idealistic sentiment. Actually we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?”
His words ring with perhaps even more truth now than they did then. And will likely go just as unheeded as the bovine whims of Americans are led inevitably back to trusting some self-serving leader that will promise them, once and for all, to provide salvation and a return to preeminence. But again, one must ask: when was the U.S. ever truly preeminent in any way that mattered?
One is referring to, naturally, art. In case some U.S. readers are unseasoned in the concept, art is the highest and only pursuit that might one day carry weight. And even if it doesn’t, at least you weren’t pushing paper (whether tangibly or digitally) your entire life with nothing to show for it but a paid off mortgage. To that end, Miller rebukes, “Is it that the great goal of American manhood is to become the successful businessman? Or just a ‘success,’ regardless of what form or shape, what purpose or significance, success manifests itself in and through? There is no doubt in my mind that art comes last in the things of life which preoccupy us. The young man who shows signs of becoming an artist is looked upon as a crackpot, or else as a lazy, worthless encumbrance. He has to follow his inspiration at the cost of starvation, humiliation and ridicule. He can earn a living at his calling only by producing the kind of art which he despises.”
If one wants to look into the U.S.’ heart (a blank void) and ask what is ailing it–blackening it so–racism is undeniably there, sure. But it is something else altogether as well. Something that has always been lacking. And maybe if more people turned to it, ethnocentricity might not be such a fixation. America isn’t just without God (as evidenced by a president who holds the Bible upside down and backwards), it is without art. And a country that does not place any emphasis on it whatsoever will of course be doomed to fall into the sinkhole it belongs in. Miller would not be surprised by the state of it today, but it might actually make him keel over anew from laughter. ‘Cause that place is a fuckin’ joke. And the air conditioning only makes you titter at it all the more through chattering teeth.