Posts Tagged ‘Henry Miller’

The Greek Debt

June 17, 2015
In Hydra 1969

In Hydra in 1969 with Dougal, Janice, Nikos, and unknown.

In 1969, a few months after graduating from high school, I flew to Europe, where I spent several months exploring by thumb and by train. Of all the countries I traveled through, my favorite by far was Greece. It was a beautiful land with its own distinct culture. The old Mediterranean peasant world still had a strong presence, which made a big impression on me. The Greeks in general were extraordinarily friendly, openly curious about people from other countries, and generous. One day, at an outdoor market I asked a farmer if I could buy an orange. He seemed puzzled and asked, “One kilo?” “No, one orange,” I said. He frowned and shook his head. No, he wasn’t going to sell me just one orange. He gave it to me. One of the special aspects of Greece, especially Crete, was the sense of timelessness—by which I mean I had little awareness of being in a particular historical era. Visually, everything was distinct. As Henry Miller said of Crete in The Colossus of Maroussi, “You see everything in its uniqueness—a man sitting under a tree: a donkey climbing a path near a mountain: a ship in a harbor in a sea of turquoise: a table on a terrace beneath a cloud.” I’d already begun my lifelong loathing of modernity—the tawdry commercialism, superficial relationships, the hustle—and I loved Greece for the slow pace of life and its beauty. Living life was more important than business. (It’s pitiful that people who believe life should be beautiful are regarded now as romantics. It’s a symptom of how lost we’ve become.)

In 2007 I returned to Greece to do research for my book Street Song. I wasn’t expecting it to be the same, but the degree of change was startling. Everything that I loved about Greece was gone. It had lost that special sense of timelessness. Greece had become a resort for wealthy northern Europeans and Americans. And the Greeks themselves had become sullen. All they wanted was your money. It took me a few days to figure out exactly what had happened: globalization. Greece was now just an outpost on the international corporate circuit. One day I tried to talk to a Greek about it, and he blew me off. He was gruff and uncommunicative. I finally did talk to a Greek about it,  a man who owned a laundromat and spoke English. He agreed with me—very passionately—that something had gone very wrong in Greece. All anybody did was work and work, and they were all unhappy about it. They all believed that they had no choice. Much of their work consisted in serving the fat Germans who lounged about on the beaches and treated them like serfs.

There is a lot of anger directed at Greece in the Western World because of the new government’s threat to default on its debt. A tremendous amount of pressure is being put on them to stay the course of austerity and to open the doors wider to those who have no interest in Greece other than to rape and pillage. I, for one, hope they can resist. If it means default, then bless them. The insane, pointless workaholism of the Germans and Americans goes against the character of the Greeks—against the character of human beings, really. We are not designed to live this way and we’re heading for a nervous breakdown.

America, Germany, and England as well as some other countries have declared to the rest of the world that globalization is the only way to go, that every country must be part of it or it won’t survive. No one is given a choice. The global economy is very clearly a great evil to me. It’s tawdry and shallow. We’ve gone far beyond any level of comfort that we actually need, and yet we’re still not satisfied. Our levels of anger and frustration grow continually because materialism can never satisfy. Something is going to bring the whole thing down one day. I think of the bankers as drug dealers. They try to get you hooked and then send in their enforcers if you don’t pay up. It’s probably too much to hope that a default by Greece would begin the unraveling, but it would be most appropriate if it did. The Western World’s enshrinement of rationality and logic began in Greece, and it is rationality and logic that have led us to the horrific level of materialism that we live by today. If Greece can begin the process of the collapse of that system—which must collapse for the world to survive—it will be one of those beautifully ironic moments that history sometimes serves up.

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Main Street Marijuana

June 28, 2014

I grew up in the town of Vancouver, Washington, and like everybody with intellectual, artistic, or spiritual inclinations I grew up hating my hometown for stifling my aspirations. I was a big fan of the Sinclair Lewis novel Main Street because it bolstered my contempt for the small-town mindset. I read it several times. I longed to move to some great city where I would find the open, cosmopolitan mindset where everybody talked about serious, creative issues. (Interestingly, Henry Miller despised his hometown of New York City for many of the same reasons I despised Vancouver.)

Forty years ago, when I arrived in San Francisco I thought I’d finally found what I was looking for. So it’s ironic that on July 7th my old hometown is getting its first marijuana store, while here in San Francisco the locals get all uptight whenever a medical marijuana dispensary is proposed for their neighborhood. It’s especially ironic for me, deliciously ironic, that the new store is going to be located on Vancouver’s Main Street and will be called Main Street Marijuana.

I’m entirely in favor of legalizing marijuana. But, as it seems to be with nearly all issues these days, my reasons for supporting it are different than that of most people. I think legalizing it for medical reasons is fine, but I don’t like the “recreational” tag. It’s frivolous. It encourages people to approach marijuana as a party drug, which is a waste of its real value. The justification for legalization is its value as a spiritual tool.

I’m well aware that you’d never get the stuff legalized taking that approach. Today’s image of the dope smoker is that of a lazy, dull-minded space cadet, a credulous fool. Furthermore, although few of them like to talk about it, a lot of people who used to smoke it stopped because, they say, it started making them “paranoid.” Marijuana is essentially an amplifier—a benevolent one, I’d say. It increases your awareness, in the beginning at least. It depends, though, on what you want it to do. When I was playing music, some of my best performances happened while I was high. (This was not merely my subjective opinion. The audiences affirmed it for me each time.) My hearing was extraordinarily acute and I was strongly aware of the smallest details in my playing and singing. Likewise, I’ve had some fine meditations while stoned, special insights that I still remember. The thing is, you always come back down. The hope is that you learned something while you were high that you could begin to strive toward in your day-to-day unstoned mind. The problem with people who smoke it and smoke it and smoke it is they blow out their energy. That’s why you get sleepy stoners who don’t seem very bright. They’ve shot their wad. (You can always get it back. It doesn’t cause permanent damage. You just have to stop for awhile.)  I haven’t smoked any in 15 years. I’m still working on what I learned in those first 30 years of smoking. As for paranoia, the drug itself doesn’t make you paranoid. It simply shows you the paranoia that is already within you. It shows you by amplifying it. But it also amplifies love. It amplifies everything.

Anyway, that’s my take on the subject. I’m happy to discuss. My best wishes to Main Street Marijuana. May it be a successful enterprise.

Crisis Economics

May 26, 2010

I’m reading Crisis Economics by Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm. Roubini was the professor of economics who called the collapse of the economy several years before it happened. At the time he made his predictions, he was ridiculed. But it turned out that he was right on the money, so to speak. It’s an interesting book, even for someone who doesn’t really understand much of the time what Roubini is talking about. I’m with Henry Miller who asked, “But what makes money make money?” I just don’t understand.

As I read, one thing I notice is that Roubini’s underlying assumption is the same as the people he’s criticizing, namely that the most important human activity is economic. His issue with the businessmen who led the world into the abyss is simply that they were deluded about certain economic realities. I think that most Americans today—probably most people in the world today—would probably agree with the idea that economic activity, the creation of wealth, is our most important activity—which is to say that we live in a profoundly materialistic age. But it’s the road to ruin. The last crisis was a warning. We’re either going to let go of the chase gracefully or we’re going to be stopped, and in a most painful manner. “You cannot serve God and mammon.” It’s odd that they call this a Christian nation.

Progress Report #1

November 10, 2008

I’m working on a book, and I aim to make occasional progress reports on it in this blog. Its working title is Street Song. I started writing it a little over two years ago, and I think I have at least another three to go. (Someone asked me why it’s going to take so long. My spontaneous reply was, “Because it has a lot of layers, and I want it to be good.”) It’s difficult to say what this book is about—although I know very well what it’s about. It’s just difficult to say it. I usually tell people that it’s about the years that I spent living on the streets in North Beach, which is a neighborhood here in San Francisco. But that’s only one part of it. If I had to sum up the book in just a few phrases I would say,

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

There are two works by other writers that serve as inspiration for this book. One is Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and the other is the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks. At the front of Tropic of Cancer, Miller quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson:

These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly. 

That passage fascinated me. I was twenty years old and a big reader who at one time read nothing but novels. I’d wanted to be a novelist, but had become dissatisfied with the form. I didn’t think novels were true enough. Emerson made me wonder why anybody should write fiction when you could write creatively about real life. If only you had the courage—and a real life…I liked Miller’s attempt at putting Emerson’s idea into practice. I was especially impressed by his decision to abandon everything and descend penniless to the street, making his way solely by his wits. It seemed a courageous thing to do. Today, I find Tropic of Cancer difficult to read. I don’t like his contempt for other people, nor the crudeness of his lust—both of which I think were exaggerated. But I still find his vision for the book strong.

I discovered Astral Weeks around the same time as Tropic of Cancer. For a long time, it was my very favorite work of art. (I prefer Han Shan’s Cold Mountain Poems now.) I loved the vividness of the world Morrison created. It was both real and poetic in a way that made me think he had actually seen beneath the surface of reality. I loved the story: the movement of a boy out onto the streets and his maturation. And I loved the theme of romantic love taken to the level of mysticism.

Street Song will be nothing like Tropic of Cancer or Astral Weeks. Back In the days that I lived for art’s sake, the two works pushed me in a certain direction. From there I took off on my own. I expect to do three drafts. I’m currently on the second draft, chapter four, which is about a solo trip I took to Europe when I was seventeen.

More some other time.