Control for Surrender: Henry Miller’s Stunning Letter to Anaïs Nin About the Value of and the Antidote to Despair

“Letting art is the paradox of active surrender,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her superb meditation on how art transforms us. “I have to work for art if I want art to work on me.” But letting life is also a paradox of active surrender — we have to work for life too if we want life to work for us. (That is what Maya Angelou meant when she observed that “life loves the liver of it.”)

The paradox is that much of what we think is work at life — all the ways in which we try to bend reality to our will, all the ways in which we clutch at control (which only ever means the illusion of control) as an organizing principle — is in fact an escape from the true work, which is the work of letting go: letting go of the illusion, of the systems of belief and magical thinking by which we fancy ourselves in control.

The subtlety — sometimes devastating, sometimes deeply rewarding — lies in learning the difference between the false work and the true work of life: that elusive art of active surrender.

This is what Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980) explores with uncommon self-awareness and sensitivity in one of the many miniature masterpieces of insight into human nature collected in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller (public library) — the record of the layered and durable relationship between these longtime lovers turned lifelong friends, comrades in the republic of literature, kindred rebels against the tide of convention and the tyranny of circumstance, forever bonded by their shared devotion 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 surrender, the problem ceases to exist. Try to solve it, or conquer it, and you only set up more resistance. I am very certain now that… if I truly become what I wish to be, the burden will fall away. The most difficult thing to admit, and to realize with one’s whole being, is that you alone control nothing. To be able to put yourself in tune or rhythm with the forces beyond, which are the truly operative ones, that is the task — and the solution, if we can speak of “solutions.”

He observes that when we don’t fully surrender to those currents of life larger than us, some part of, however suppressed, knows it. Out of that quiet, gnawing knowledge arise the feelings of guilt that often haunts our days without an easily identifiable source — for the source lurks in those secret strata of being, half-opaque even to us. It is a wholly interior knowledge and a wholly interior guilt, impervious to outside judgment, independent of the external world. And yet, in our desperation to locate a 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 worry about… is what people think, how they misinterpret things. There’s nothing you can do about that… What amazes me more and more is how much people do understand when you give them the full dose, when you hold back nothing.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Hokusai, 1831. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to the value of despair, he considers how only after hitting emotional rock-bottom are we fully receptive to those truths we spend our lives swimming away from; how the ego paddles at a frantic pace beneath the surface of illusion to keep us from sinking into the very surrender that is our redemption from struggle:

One has to permit people to become desperate, to become wholly lost, that only then are they ready for the right word, only then can they avail themselves of the truth. To withhold it then is a crime. But to nurse them along is a worse crime. And there is where much of the conflict centers, about that point. The human instinct to spare the other person his agony (which is his means of salvation, in any sense of the word) is a fallacious instinct. Here the subtle temptations, the vicious and insidious ones, because so confused and entangled, enter in. On this so-called human plane it is the ego which commands — often in the most amazing disguises. The temptation to be good, to do good, gets us all some time or other. It’s the last ruse, I feel, of the ego.

[…]

This clamor and agitation which I seem to create all about me, even from a distance, proceeds from me. I know it.

Henry Miller on his beloved bicycle

Sharing with Nin the news of an elder local woman’s extraordinary generosity in making his dream home available to him, giving it up herself for “it is now inside her [and] can’t be lost,” he adds:

Have I not become more and more aware latterly that the things I deeply desire come without struggle? … All the struggle, then, is phantom play. The fighting with shadows. This I know.

Complement with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the interplay of control and surrender in living with presence and some timeless wisdom on control, surrender, and the paradox of self-transcendence from Tove Jansson’s Moomins, then revisit Miller on the measure of a life well lived.



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