Thursday, January 18, 2007

More on the subject of cities

He is a man who eats and drinks too much, smokes too much, sits too much, talks too much and is always on the edge of a break-down. Often he dies of heart failure in the next few years. In a city like Cleveland this type comes to apotheosis. So do the buildings, the restaurants, the parks, the war memorials. The most typical American city I have struck thus far. Thriving, prosperous, active, clean, spacious, sanitary, vitalized by a liberal infusion of foreign blood and by the ozone from the lake, it stands out in my mind as the composite of many American cities. Possessing all the virtues, all the prerequisites for life, growth, blossoming, it remains nevertheless a thoroughly dead place--a deadly, dull, dead place.

That’s from Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. It’s been many years since I’ve read anything by Henry Miller. It's good to get back to him again. Miller was probably the biggest single outside influence on my life. I went the places he went, read the books that he read, looked at the art he looked at. Always wanted to write like he writes, but don’t seem to have it in me.

It cheered me up to find that his most notorious books are still unavailable on the shelves of the Public Library. If you wanna read The Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy you have to ask the librarian. I wanted to re-read it, but was too lazy to hike up to the big library, so I had them send me Nightmare. I had forgotten what an anti-American polemic it is.

Those two girls in Youngstown coming down the slippery bluff--it was like a bad dream, I tell you. But we look at these bad dreams constantly with eyes open and when some one remarks about it we say, “Yes, that’s right, that’s how it is!” and we go on about our business or we take to dope, the dope which is worse by far than opium or hashish--I mean the newspapers, the radio, the movies. Real dope gives you the freedom to dream your own dreams; the American kind forces you to swallow the perverted dreams of men whose only ambition is to hold their job regardless of what they are bidden to do.

The most terrible thing about America is that there is no escape from the treadmill which we have created...

Reading Henry, it struck me that no one today is seriously railing against the consumer ethic and the virtual enslavement necessary to its maintenance. I occasionally read about a simple life movement of some sort, but as far as I can tell it is made up entirely of high income types and has nothing to do with art. And no great artist, at least none currently known, is giving voice to the idea that a life of art is better than a life of work. Instead, we are told that art is hard work. And art, for most of us, is what we see on the 60“ plasma television or what the kids do in grade school. We are so deep in corporate hell that the only the very few can even conceive of a better life. Henry Miller, it seems, is dead.

But what’s different about The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is that it contains a lot of fairly standard political commentary and it’s surprising to find that much of it is pretty much exactly the same as what we read on the lefty blogs these days, albeit more insightful and better written than most.
The flag has become a cloak to hide iniquity. We have two American flags always: one for the rich and one for the poor. When the rich fly it it means that things are under control; when the poor fly it it means danger, revolution, anarchy. In less than two hundred years the land of liberty, home of the free, refuge of the oppressed has so altered the meaning of the Stars and Stripes that today when a man or woman succeeds in escaping from the horrors of Europe, when he finally stands before the bar under our glorious national emblem, the first question put to him is: ”How much money have you?“ If you have no money but only a love of freedom, only a prayer for mercy on your lips, you are debarred, returned to the slaughter-house, shunned as a leper. This is the bitter caricature which the descendants of our liberty-loving forefathers have made of the national emblem. Everything is a caricature here.

How's that for an insight on the use of the flag? Now, 65 years or so since that was written, no one remotely considers the Amercian flag to mean revolution or anarchy. True, it still means danger to a lot of people, but not for the wealthy and the powerful. Things are, indeed, under control. King George is alive and well.

I've always thought that protests would be more effective if everyone draped themselves in the American flag. Not only would it be a good P.R. move, it is, as Miller points out, consistent with our tradition. As a country born of revoltion with a democratic tradition that merits tremendous respect, we just need to recapture the idea that the flag stands for revolution against the looting of the many to benefit the few and against a government that exists only to protect those few. Maybe someone could dig up a design from the old days for progressives to adopt? Something that reminds us of who we are, or once were. A potent symbol of who we are supposed to be.