After living in Paris for ten years, Henry Miller begrudgingly returned to New York at the cusp of World War II. He was back in the country that had rejected him as an artist, surrounded by the sordid details of his past. He thought maybe by experiencing it cross-country, the American way of life could be redeemed somehow. With a $500 book advance that didn’t last him past the Holland Tunnel and a car that broke down every few miles, he began the trip and the book that became The Air Conditioned Nightmare.
Through his travels he finds only a few rugged individuals left, tucked away in remote places, untouched in their solitude. The rest of the country sickens him with industrialism, commercialism and poverty - a vast expanse where art can barely exist amidst the exploitation.
“… the middle classes pay admission to gape and criticize, vain about their half-baked knowledge of art and too timid to champion the men whom in their hearts they fear, knowing that the real enemy is not the man above, who they must toady to, but the rebel who exposes in word or paint the rottenness of the edifice which they, the spineless middle class, are obliged to support (Miller, 132).”
Miller is such a voice of the future it’s hard to remember he wrote this in the forties, until he mentions such things as the sentimental emptiness of the music. His title brings to mind the fake oxygenated A/C air that you experience in Vegas among a cacophony of blinking chinging slot machines and theatrical facades of gritty cities like New York and Paris all swept clean and serving bad food which looks delicious but never tastes good.
“Disney has all kinds of temperature – a temperature to suit every fresh horror (Miller, 41).” It’s in the kind of headache I get whenever I’m in a mall, surrounded by the vomit of over-manufacturing where nothing is of great value but it all sparkles and lures you and makes you feel you don’t have enough.
And then there is poverty. Poverty is both hidden away and on every street corner. I wear a mask over my own poverty, using small spurts of cash to look as though I am a success while the next day I am sitting in the waiting room of the low income clinic surrounded by homeless people who yell out their ailments, “I’m bleeding everywhere! Isn’t anyone going to help me?”
“America is no place for the artist: to be an artist is to be a moral leper, an economic misfit, a social liability (Miller, 16).” It’s in the blank stare I get when I tell people I am a writer, and I get the feeling that they think I’m too lazy to get a real job. It’s the realization that no one will really give a damn until you either make a lot of money or gain the public’s recognition.
“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 he is a painter the surest way for him to survive is to make stupid portraits of even more stupid people, or sell his services to the advertising monarchs who, in my opinion, have done more to ruin art than any other single factor I know of (Miller, 129).”
Art that I despise - the publishing world for example, disturbs me with its Disneyfied fictions, all historically cozy with a multicultural hero and the reminder that things were simpler then. And when you do read a book set in our times it comes off as soulless, hopeless, desperate, all in all a barren future. Technology picks up where we leave off.
“We are mental dinosaurs. We lumber along heavy-footed, dull-witted, unimaginative amidst miracles to which we are impervious. All our inventions and discoveries lead to annihilation (Miller, 228).”
We are both brought together and separated by thick layers of technology, while amidst the hamster wheel, the rat race, the treadmill that promises comforts, security and gadgets you never use – the sound of self becomes faint and far away. And yet, self in all its complexity has more to offer than cog in a machine.
“… A state which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished (Miller, 25).”
The artist – unfiltered, pure, while not in the act of kissing someone’s ass is depressingly rare. No one bought Henry Miller’s book when it came out. The war had begun and patriotism was the new religion. He didn’t give a damn, but on the other hand, he did. Much more than he could handle. He was a believer in life, art, love, existence.
It’s painful to read of Miller’s wasted energies at the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company or as the hapless bartender never left alone with his thoughts with no time for sleep, unable to write a word. To be an artist in America you have to become a warrior. You have to build a skin so thick that hundreds of rejections won’t get through it – rejections of your work, your energy, your identity. You have to let go of any pride or vanity, reject all the comforts you’ve been trained to crave, let go of any and all of societies material markers of adulthood. You can never expect community, support or friendships to last. You will be a nomad even if you never move. Life will be up and down and all over the place. But life would have no flavor without a voice.