Apocalypse Now: The End of History and the Twofold Present
Modernists’ dialectical visions of concurrent destruction and renovation, the decre-ation and creation of modern man and society have been thought to express an apoc-alyptic and crises-centred view of their reality.102 Since the interplay of death and rebirth has been demonstrated to play an important role in Miller’s thinking as an integral part of the quest for one’s authentic self103 he, too, seems to exhibit strong apocalyptical tendencies.104 Such a view ties Miller tightly to other modernists, for the often-shared desire “to regenerate a decadent society” has been taken to be essen-tial to the modernist spirit.105 These apocalyptic tendencies in Miller also seem to go hand in hand with his view of himself as a “modern day Christ figure”; someone who wishes not only to transform himself but also wants to “save as many people as he can from the perils of modernity.”106 Since the apocalyptic descriptions of the modern age seem to predominantly deal with the moods or feelings of the age they provide only limited explanatory power regarding the complexity of modernity in its entirety. Whilst perhaps acknowledging the overall apocalyptic mood, there are usually more specific instances or phenomena of modernity that modernists rejected or welcomed. For this reason, my aim in this chapter is precisely to reveal the content of Miller’s “perils of modernity” that permeates his thinking, and only the overcoming of which seems to make possible his further philosophical evolution as a modern artist. I argue in this chapter that at the bottom of Miller’s interpretation of the modern age as ‘dy-ing’ lies, to a certain extent, the sense of a fixed historical destiny of man. Indeed, the modern crisis,107 while it has other elements, for Miller seems to make itself known, first and foremost, as the crisis of history or the crisis of man as entrapped within history. Holding scientifically rewritten concepts of time and history as responsible, in part, for creating the unsavoury modern condition, and realizing that these rigidly construed notions are unable to o er meaningful avenues for the ‘creating’ and ‘ren-ovating’ of himself as a modern artist, he decidedly repudiates the linear view of history.
I suggest that Miller’s abandonment of the traditional notions of time and history is absolutely crucial to his philosophical transformation. Firstly, it enables him to formulate his idea of two presents, the traditional present and the full present, which he sees as a major division between the “vulgar reality” of the ‘dying’ modern age and the emerging artist’s realm. Unlike the largely abstract dichotomic pair of death and rebirth, with which apocalyptic explanations operate, the divide I emphasize has a more specific ground and as such it not only describes Miller’s goals better but it organically leads Miller to further distinct features of the modern age. Secondly, I point out that the rejection of the linear concept of history distinguishes Miller and his view of the modern crisis from several other literary moderns whose engagements with history can be seen as ambiguous at times. Furthermore, I show that in Miller’s views on history we find perhaps the strongest traces of the ideas related to the dis-cussions of history by Nietzsche, Jung and Spengler in mid-1930s Anglo-American literature. While the exact relations between philosophical accounts of history and modernist literature are indistinct elsewhere, in Miller’s works they are rich and in-separable. This philosophical basis in Miller, in turn, can be said to have contributed to his overcoming of the ‘transitional view’ of the crisis of the history of the age. To anticipate the account below, the ‘transitional view’, which was held by several senior moderns such as Yeats and Woolf, meant construing the historical present as the threshold to a new age or a new world soon to appear. The ahistorical dimension of the type of life that Miller comes to defend, however, rules out this view.
Apocalypse and modern consciousness
Even if modern apocalypse is not our main interest here we need to explain some of its key features since they help us to understand the spiritual climate in which Miller’s ideas on history were situated. Whilst apocalyptic theories have imposed themselves for many centuries on our attitude to history, social organization and sexual behaviour the reoccurrence of the apocalypse-theme in modernist discourse marks the beginning of a significantly di erent construal of the concept. Tradition-ally, apocalypticism is a view of universal history. Most often the term is used to designate[…]eschatological (end-time) views and movements that focus on cryptic revelations about sudden, dramatic, and cataclysmic intervention of God in history; the judgement of all men, the salvation of the faithful elect, and the eventual rule of the elect with God in a renewed heaven and earth.108
The traditional Judeo-Christian view of history thus depends upon an omnipo-tent God who is above history and who at certain points in time intervenes directly in the temporal journey of mankind. The modernist perspectives of history and the sense of the apocalypse as, for example, put forth in the works of D.H. Lawrence, have been characterized, however, as attempting to “retain a vision of destruction and renovation in a godless universe.”109 Thus in modernist consciousness both the individual and the cosmic process of salvation have been importantly transferred from God to man.110 Indeed, it is precisely in this vein that commentators often consider modernists as having “associated notions of the artist’s freedom[…]with no-tions of cultural apocalypse and disaster.”111 David Trotter, a noted commentator on modernism, confirms that modernists “saw themselves as inhabitants of a social and cultural system which had stagnated to the point where it was no longer susceptible to reform, but could only be renewed through total collapse or violent overthrow.”112 Other well-known modern writers who, like D.H. Lawrence, placed themselves and their generation at the very centre of such apocalyptic upheaval and change are, for example, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis and T.S. Eliot.
Modernist writers, however, were not alone in voicing these dramatic visions re-garding their historical and cultural situation. As we saw in the previous chapter, corresponding worries can be detected already in the late nineteenth century philoso-phies of Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche. In the first decades of the twentieth century Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee importantly carried forward Stirner’s and Nietzsche’s sceptical views concerning the condition of modern man in their philosophical accounts of history. In di erent ways modern literature and modern philosophical interpretations of history were both stressing the declining nature of the age and pointing out its disillusionment with the past, and its need for the new. Both literature and philosophy, at the time, were thus deeply concerned with modern man and his destiny. Still, the relationship between the works of literary moderns and the ideas of the philosophers of history is by no means self-evident or direct. Indeed, there were only a handful of writers who explicitly expressed the existing philosophies of those who “rejected the progressively linear interpretations of his-torical process and assumed either a cyclical, creatively rhythmical, eschatological, or Messianic form.”113 D.H. Lawrence was certainly one to subscribe to such a re-pudiation of the linear view of history. “Our idea of time”, Lawrence wrote, “as a continuity in an eternal straight line has crippled our consciousness cruelly.”114 While other moderns such as Yeats, Eliot and Woolf also verbalized their disa ection with the age, I will show shortly that their views regarding history and their own role in it often remained ambiguous, traditionally linear or even historicist. Miller, how-ever, positioned himself directly “above history” and was thus able to adopt a sort of hands-on approach for solving the modern crisis.
Towards the ahistorical
Miller’s discontent regarding the age finds ample manifestation in his Tropic of Can-cer (1934). “The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed them-selves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness”, wrote Miller in the very first pages of the book (CAN, p. 9). While “time” can be read here both as history and as a temporal category in a metaphysical sense, in ei-ther case the failure is evident for Miller. In the sense of history, time has failed to produce the better man and world that “our heroes” dreamt about. Miller is fighting against a notion of time that is embedded in the very metaphysics of the age, a meta-physics that is commonly taken to support the linear concept of history. Time’s role, commonly construed as rigid, it seemed to Miller, served to a great extent merely for the purpose of justifying historical developments as necessary and inevitable. Since this very notion of history has produced only madness, then, Miller reasons, the exact opposite of time and history is needed, viz. timelessness and ahistoricity.
In order to fully grasp the nature of Miller’s apparent frustration with a particular concept of time and history, the historical background of the view he quarrelled with needs to be further explained. Miller, it is clear, did not position himself against any particular individual or view but rather against a general trend of the modern Western world, which saw its main purpose in human progress. The idea of progress, being one of the most dominant ideas of the Occident, reached “its zenith in the Western mind in popular as well as scholarly circles” in between 1750-1900.115 Robert Nis-bet, a distinguished scholar in the field, observes quite rightly that throughout this period “system after system in philosophy and social sciences was concerned pri-marily with demonstration of the scientific reality of human progress and the laws and principles which make progress necessary.”116 In addition, the idea of progress is often based on an interpretation of history “which regards men as slowly advanc-ing in a definite and desirable direction, and infers that this progress will continue indefinitely.”117 Accordingly, it was believed that ”a condition of general happiness will ultimately be enjoyed.”118 Whilst there are several prominent defenders of this ‘progressive view’ (e.g. Turgot, Condorcet, Macaulay, Maine etc.) Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831) represent, in our context, the most im-portant features of this highly influential weltanschauung, and as such, help us to explain Henry Miller’s positioning himself directly against such a worldview.
It was precisely Comte, who, in his monumental Positive Philosophy (published in 1830-1842) put forward an overtly progress-laden approach for explaining the hu-man condition. He argues that historically the human mind has progressed through three stages: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive or scientific. Comte claims that in the first stage all explanations are made in terms of deities and in the second with the help of some abstract spirits (or entities without empirical founda-tion). In the crucial third “advanced state of social life”, however, the rationally more developed human mind will employ genuinely scientific explanations, rooted in the study of nature and the discovery of her laws.119 Comte believes that all major sci-ences (astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology) have passed through these three stages. Thus, his proposed study of society, which he first calls social physics and later labels sociology, must also enter into its final, positive stage. Sociology as a discipline Comte sees as divided into two broad areas of statics and dynamics. It is only the latter that interests us here since it consists in the study of progress: its laws, stages, causes, and manifestations. Comte considers progress to be the “main resource of every genuine political system.”120 He pairs progress importantly with ‘order’ since “no real order can be established [in a society] […]if it is not fully compatible with progress.”121 Crucially, then, his “positive social science”, which is meant to become the science of explaining human society, would combine the
two: order and progress. Clearly, Comte’s basis for this belief is his firm faith in the natural sciences, which he sees as an important ideal, and indeed the basis, for his sociology. He explains:
The ideas of order and progress are, in social physics, as rigorously in-separable as the ideas of organization and life in biology; from whence indeed they are, in a scientific view, evidently derived.122
The terms ‘progress’ and ‘evolution’ are evidently equated in Comte’s thinking. Progress in human a airs corresponds to evolution in biology and the animal king-dom. Comte is convinced that the progress of human mind is continuous and that humans can only become more refined as the result of this. “It is unquestionable that Civilization leads us on to a further and further development of our noblest disposi-tions […]”, Comte writes.123 The conception, or rather the phenomenon, of progress, then, is an inevitable scientific law for Comte. Explaining human society, therefore, without the notion of ‘progress’ is not possible according to Comte’s view.
Hegel’s philosophical account of history highlights another crucial dimension of the ‘progressive view’. Hegel thinks that human beings are thoroughly historical creatures. Our history—the events that have happened to us and led to our present condition—creates the possibilities of what we might become. Our historical na-ture shows itself in all our endeavours (legal, moral, social, economic), according to Hegel.124 In his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History (delivered between 1822-1830), Hegel presents a linear account of world history as an intelligible pro-cess moving towards the realisation of human freedom or the Idea of Freedom.125 This desire for freedom is definitive of all humanity and throughout the development of humanity (from Asia to Greece to modern Germany) the realisation of freedom has gradually become greater, according to Hegel. “The aim of the world spirit in world history is to realise its essence and obtain the prerogative of freedom”, writes Hegel.126 By ‘spirit’[Geist] Hegel means something like ultimate or absolute self-concsiousness. This self-consciousness, however, is meant to be universal and concern nations and not individuals.127 To a smaller or greater degree, ‘spirit’ shows itself in all nations, according to Hegel. The stronger the national self-awareness, the clearer is the manifestation of ‘spirit’ and its freedom. Hegel’s conception of ‘freedom’ is a pivotal aspect of his philosophy, to which avant-garde movements and modernists (Miller included) would later stand up against. For it is clear from the analysis of Hegel’s ‘spirit’ that he is not concerned with individuals’ liberal freedom (as their rights against state) as, for example, in J.S. Mill’s widely accepted sense. On the contrary, Hegel’s vision of freedom, which ‘spirit’ must realise, means every individual’s full participation in a free and meaningful society. Arguably, precisely this Hegel saw (at the time) as happening in Germany.
Comte and Hegel, then, reveal the core of the ‘progressive view’ the essence of which Miller decidedly rejects in his works. Although he was not directly exposed to the foregoing views he learnt them via the works of later critical commentators of modernity (Stirner, Nietzsche, Spengler and others) and the actual results the ideas described above had on the modern society of his day. We will learn throughout the thesis that Comte’s insistence on solely scientific descriptions of human condition is one of the fundamental errors of the modern day for Miller since it completely dis-regards the artist’s perspective. In like manner, Hegel’s linear account of history and the universal notion of freedom Miller considers not a victory but indeed the defeat of humanity. Miller certainly could not have accepted Hegel’s view that mankind has (in the realisation of its ‘spirit’) reached its authentic or ultimate goal. On the contrary, Miller saw the present condition of mankind precisely as deluding itself about having reached any such state. In addition, since Hegel’s influence was still felt in some other modernists’ works Miller rejects these authors with the charge of historicism.
As a passing note, it deserves to be noted that Hegel’s views, in turn, were the starting point for Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx saw the “key to the riddle of history” in the rise of the proletariat and classless civil society, which would liberate men from their alienation (due to their labour being exploited by capitalists). Miller, thoroughly anti-political, had no illusions about human betterment through class struggle. While he would agree, to an extent, with Marx about the horrid condition of modern work-ers, the social (and revolutionary) dimension of Marx’s solution had no appeal for him. For Miller “the solution” to the crisis of man and history had to start with inward reflection and not with “outward struggle” (DML, p. 18).
1 Prelude to a Future Philosophy: Modernist melancholy, Dadaist dances & Surrealist songs
2 Apocalypse Now: The End of History and the Twofold Present
3 The Anxiety of Enframing: Miller, Modern technology & Work
4 Behold, I Teach You the Inhuman!: Inhuman Artist, Übermensch & China
5 From Theoria To Praxis: The Poetry of Life
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HENRY MILLER AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE INHUMAN ARTIST