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Henry Miller’s Strange Letter to Anais Nin About Value and the Antidote to Despair – The Marginalian


“Allowing art is the paradox of active surrender,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in it a wonderful reflection on how art changes us. “I must work for art if I want art to work for me.” But letting life is also the paradox of active surrender – we must also work for life if we want life to work for us. (That’s what Maya Angela meant when she noticed that “life loves the liver.”)

The paradox is that so much of what we think works in life – all the ways we try to bend reality to our will, all the ways we grasp for control (which means only the illusion of control) as an organizing principle – is actually an escape from the real work, which is the work of letting go: letting go of illusion, from the belief systems and magical thinking by which we imagine ourselves in control.

The subtlety—sometimes destructive, sometimes very helpful—is knowing the difference between fake work and real life work: that elusive art of active surrender.

That’s what Henry Miller (December 26, 1891 – June 7, 1980) explores with extraordinary self-awareness and sensitivity one of the many miniature masterpieces of insight into human nature collected in A Literary Passion: The Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller (public library) is a record of the multi-layered and enduring relationship between these long-time lovers who became lifelong friends, comrades in the literary republic, kindred rebels against the tide of convention and the tyranny of circumstance, bound forever by their shared commitment to shaping themselves and reshaping their world through writing.

Henry Miller

From his home in Big Sur, he writes to her in the spring of 1946:

When you give up, the problem ceases to exist. Try to solve it or conquer it, and you will only increase the resistance. Now I’m pretty sure that… if I really become who I want to be, the burden will disappear. The most difficult thing is to admit and realize with your whole being that you alone do not control anything. To be able to bring oneself into harmony or rhythm with the side forces that are really at work, that is the challenge—and the solution, if we may speak of “solutions.”

He observes that if we do not submit completely to those currents of life that are greater than us, some part of it, however repressed, knows it. From this quiet, caustic knowledge comes the guilt that often haunts our days without an easily identifiable source – for the source lies in those secret layers of being half-opaque even to us. It is an entirely internal knowledge and an entirely internal guilt, impervious to external condemnation, independent of the outside world. And yet, in our desperate desire to find the source, we often project it outward and place it in others.

With his characteristic faith in human nature, Miller writes:

One thing I don’t care about… is what people think, how they misinterpret things. There’s nothing you can do about it… It amazes me more and more how much people understand when you give them a full dose, when you don’t hold anything back.

A big wave off Kanagawa Japanese artist Hokusai, 1831 (Available as a print.)

Focusing on the value of despair, he muses that it is only when we have reached an emotional bottom that we are fully receptive to the truths that we waste our lives away from; as the ego paddles at breakneck speed beneath the surface of illusion to keep us from sinking into the very surrender that is our salvation from struggle:

People must be allowed to despair, to be completely lost, so that only then they are ready for the right word, only then can they take advantage of the truth. Concealing it is a crime. But babysitting them is the worst crime. And this is the center of the conflict. The a person The instinct to save another person from agony (which is his means of salvation in every sense of the word) is a mistaken instinct. This is where the subtle temptations come in, vicious and insidious, because they are so confusing and confusing. This so-called human plane is ruled by the ego – often in the strangest of disguises. The temptation to be kind, to do good sometimes falls on all of us. I feel like this is the latest ego trick.


This noise and excitement that I seem to create around me, even at a distance, comes from i. I know that.

Henry Miller on his favorite bicycle

He shares with Nin the news of the extraordinary generosity of an elderly local woman who gave him the house of her dreams after giving it up herself because “he is now hers [and] cannot be lost,” he adds:

Have I not become more and more aware of late that what I desire so much comes without a struggle? … The whole struggle, therefore, is a phantom game. Fight with shadows. This I know.

Complete with poet and philosopher David White the interaction of control and surrender in life with presence and eternal wisdom control, surrender and the paradox of self-transcendence from Tove Jansson’s Moomin and then revisit Miller a measure of a life well lived.

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