The Air Conditioned Nightmare
“To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world besides the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?” -Henry Miller
In a letter to artist Hillaire Hiler, Henry Miller talks about plans for a book that would be a “loaded gun to the head of America.” Years later, the fruits of his labor would be published under the title: The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. However, before I begin to discuss this work, I believe that it would be worthwhile to relate a brief history of the man's life until the point of its creation, in order for the prospective reader to get something of an idea about the point of view from whence it came.
Although he spent a good portion of his adult life writing “fiction” in New York, Miller's literary career began to explode when he moved to Paris at the age of thirty-eight. It was during this time that he crafted his first published work: Tropic of Cancer, which to this day is considered his most famous novel. After spending nine rambunctious years in The City of Lights, he moved to Greece for a period of nine months where he penned The Colossus of Maroussi, which he himself considered to be his most beautiful literary creation. After falling in love with the land and people of Greece, Miller had no intention of returning back to his native land. World War II, however, threw a proverbial monkey wrench in his plans when rumors began to spread that the Italians were on the brink of invading Greece, which eventually came to pass and initiated the Greco-Italian war.
Miller sailed back to America before the fighting began, but he was certainly unhappy about doing so. In The Colossus of Maroussi he describes at length how much he resented the prospect of leaving Greece; he stayed as long as he possibly he could until word got around that an Italian invasion was all but an inevitable certainty. Finding himself stateside once again, he began to focus the trajectory of his literary weapons westward. His experiences of America had been confined mostly to New York City and its surrounding environs; if he was going to write a book railing against the American way of life, it only made sense for him to see the rest of the country, which would become the victim of his next written work. Having nothing better to do, he bought an old car and began a cross-country road trip accompanied by Abe Rattner, a painter and close friend of his.
At the time that it was published (1945), the Air-Conditioned Nightmare was poorly received, to put it mildly. Enthusiasm for the American way of life was at its height; with World War II over and won, patriotism was all the rage. Compared to the situation in Paris where he had more or less thrived (even with little to no money), Miller found the conditions for an artist’s life in America to be utterly dismal. The gimmicky attitude of consumerism and the complacent air of patriotic superiority was, in his opinion, no ideal working environment for those that wish to make a living producing works of art.
The book begins with the following citation:
“The greatest men in the world have passed away unknown. The Buddhas and the Christs that we know are but second-rate heroes in comparison with the greatest men of whom the world knows nothing. Hundreds of these unknown heroes have lived in every country working silently. Silently they live and silently they pass away; and in time their thoughts find expression in Buddhas or Christs; and it is these latter that become known to us. The highest men do not seek to get any name or fame from their knowledge. They leave their ideas to the world; they put forth no claims for themselves and establish no schools or systems in their name. Their whole nature shrinks from such a thing. They are the pure Sattvikas, who can never make any stir but only melt down in love.”
I wasn't sure why Miller prefaced his “loaded gun to the head of America” with a quote from an eastern mystic, but once I had wrapped my head around the meat of the book, all was made clear. After his tirade of jabs at American culture, he spends less time discussing his experience of seeing America by automobile than he does crafting portraits of the artists he met along the way (he met Salvador Dali interestingly enough, neither of them liked each other; Miller describes Dali as vain). Miller thought that the artist represented the pinnacle of what mankind could aspire to. In a land like America, which he considered to be hostile to the artist and to the creative spirit generally, the only option available for the artists that call it home is to tread a path similar to that of the holy men that Swami Vivekananda describes; It is their personalities, habits, opinions, and working lives that Miller faithfully records as he comes into contact with them. It is this aspect of the book which renders it a positive work of art after all, instead of a simple list of things that are fundamentally wrong with America; the author chronicles the lives and work of influential American artists such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edgar Varese, and Hillaire Hiler in order to show how great human beings can live and work anywhere, regardless of how conducive the society in which they reside is to the creation of artistic masterworks.
Toward the beginning of the book, he writes that “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.” Coming from an intellectually fertile environment, where one could find the likes of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Anais Nin, Gertrude Stein, Walter Benjamin, Ernest Hemingway, T.S Elliot and the young Samuel Beckett chatting at the many cafes that line the streets of Paris, it's no wonder that someone like Henry Miller was disappointed in a land where the “mechanization of minds and souls” seemed to hold high sway over the infinitely creative potential of mankind. One particularly apt description of his bone to pick with America is that “it is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress-but a false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and denigrated, are taught to regard as useful...whatever does not lend itself to being bought or sold...is debarred.” Personally, the old anti-Semite Henry Ford comes to mind but maybe that's just me.
Miller describes the beginning of his journey thus: “I had to travel about ten thousand miles before receiving the inspiration to write a single line. Everything worth saying about the American way of life I could put in thirty pages.” Fortunately for us, he provides his readers with slightly more than thirty pages on the subject. The first fifty or so odd pages of the book constitute a summary of his thoughts on the land of free as a whole, before he delves into the nitty gritty details about the people and places he visits on his road trip across the continent. After all of the shots that are fired at American culture, the rest of the book is comprised of short anecdotes and stories about the people he met on his journey. At times, the parables he offers us seem completely disorganized, but one should be aware that this quality is to be found in much of Miller's work. Describing the way he writes someone once said, “Miller writes proses the only way that it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” Although disorganized, the flow of his writing is commendable and feels extremely organic. His style is visceral in nature; it seems that the man couldn't help but to excrete literary excellence.
Reading this book at a time in which I was leaving the country for an indefinite period of time proved to be an entirely unique experience. It not only reinforced my decision to leave the land of the free, but gave me a newfound respect for the people living there that continue to exercise their creativity as the country descends deeper and deeper into chaos. Aside from the years of Operation Iraqi Freedom, this is the most politically turbulent time in America's recent history. Let it be known that I have nothing but love in my heart for those souls actively honing their creative capabilities in the midst of the colossal shitstorm America will have to weather for the next four years at the very least. My only hope is that they remain unscathed while they dwell amongst a society that neither cares about their artistic development nor deserves to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
I would suggest that this book is one hundred percent worthy of your attention, especially considering the time required to consume it. Once one falls prey to the rhythm of Miller's writing as well as the colorful language he employs, any reader with even the slightest inkling of decent taste will finish it in a matter of days. In this new age of American madness, there are certainly worse things you could do with your time.