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Amber Paulen

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller

Henry Miller

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

5 July 2011



In 1940 Henry Miller set off driving across the United States of America. After ten years of living in Paris, after a year sabbatical in Greece, he returned to the country he had left.

I am born an American, though I became what is called an expatriate, I look upon the world not as a partisan of this country or that but as an inhabitant of the globe. That I happened to be born here is no reason why the American way of life should seem the best; that I chose to live in Paris is no reason why I should pay with my life for the errors of the French politicians. To be a victim of one’s mistakes is bad enough, but to be a victim of the other fellow’s mistakes as well is too much.

Already Miller saw the States as the home of homeostasis and the death-rattle of so-called progress. But he was also interested in what he could find to like, he wanted to be re-introduced, redeemed, to be pleasantly surprised. For though the novel starts off with his usual incendiary moaning and groaning, it crescendos then drops off on a positive note.


I discovered Henry Miller after I left the States, after I had also sworn off, with the flames of youth, as much as I could of the country. Perhaps discovering Miller at such a point was dangerous; the passion with which he repudiates is contagious. As I read, or more like ingested one book after another, I collected a veritable mountain of reasons to not return to the country, to not get a job, to toss myself, head first and bleeding, into writing. The results were curious. My writing wasn’t too bad, just sounded too much like Miller to be of value.

Though I first read Henry Miller in Belgium at 22, I bought The Air-Conditioned Nightmare in Michigan at 17. Someone had told me that I might like his work, and I may have liked it then, for a page or two. It was the wrong time, too early. Why I chose this book from besides his fiction, I don’t know, but that perhaps, even then, I was searching out new perspectives away from the dominating vision that is pounded into one when inside that North American country.

The vision from outside is quite different. My main gripes, right now, are as follows: the lack of aesthetics and subtleties, the convenient consumerism and the ignorance the strict borders impose. Just the other day while talking to a Canadian, I found it ridiculous that school teachers never bothered with the Canadian provinces, let alone its capital cities. As if above and below our borders is a vast and empty space. And I could go on about the short-sightedness of that domestic education, but I won’t. Instead:

We are accustomed to think of ourselves as an emancipated people; we say that we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudices and hatreds. This is the melting-pot, the seat of a great human experiment. Beautiful words, full of noble, idealistic sentiment. Actually we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. 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?


The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is composed of artists’ portraits and essays of people, experiences encountered along his drive. The book ends with an addenda, a super-sarcastic tribute to the Guggenheim Fellowship, for which Henry Miller had applied before beginning his trip. He goes on to list the many scholarly projects that earned the Guggenheim money, far-fetched academic blather, such as: A comparative investigation of the neuropsychological determinants of the phenomena of dissociation. I can hear Miller’s chuckle as he decided to include this.

Henry Miller spends many chapters detailing the lives of the artists he came across. He had a personal interest in examining how the artist lived in the States, for his journey ended when he decided to settle there, first in Hollywood then Big Sur, CA. In the beginning Miller writes: America is no place for an artist: to be an artist is to be a moral leper, an economic misfit, a social liability. He writes singingly of Dr. Souchon, John Marin, Alfred Stieglitz and Edgar Varèse; he writes about their struggles for acceptance but admits that they continue to pursue their craft, regardless.

There was Albert Pike from Arkansas, who dreamed of building a pyramid. Though dead when Henry Miller read about him, he manages to immortalize the so humanly idealistic idea that this pyramid in Arkansas could hold answers about civilization. Pike’s determinism, his clench on being a Mason, seem so eclectically American.

The great urgency that infects the beginning of the book has been tamped down by its end. Probably Henry Miller has given himself over to the fact that he isn’t going anywhere, that he is in the States to stay. Long chapters give way to shorter ones, giving the impression that more than just the vigor behind the work has changed. Considering, the ending seems mislaid. There is no closure detailing how his journey ends, not even a single note. Perhaps his conclusions are ones I don’t want to know about.


A final quote:

To live beyond the pale, to work for the pleasure of working, to grow old gracefully while retaining one’s faculties, one’s enthusiasms, one’s self-respect, one has to establish other values than those endorsed by the mob. It takes an artist to make this breach in the wall. An artist is primarily one who has faith in himself. He does not respond to the normal stimuli: he is neither a drudge nor a parasite. He lives to express himself and in so doing enriches the world.

Henry Miller lives!



Commentary for The Air-Conditioned Nightmare


1 On Wednesday 06 July 2011 John Ryan Brubaker wrote:

This is book really dug the hooks in deep for me too. I read it on the Amtrak from LA to Chicago on my first visit back after my initial escape to Brussels. The first quote here is a front page of one my journals going on 10 years ago. Thanks for this… It’s timely for your ventures around the states, and a good appetizer for those of us on our way out as well. Cheers!

2 On Wednesday 06 July 2011 Amber wrote:

I’m so thrilled you guys will be on this continent so soon!! The second escape is, perhaps, more knowing than the first, instead of reaction. At least it’s been for me. I’ve just picked up Lawrence’s thoughts on the States and oddly they are nearly opposite to Miller’s (except for their reverence of the “Red Man”). It becomes less about the country left and more about the standing on the outside and looking, the new varied perspectives, refreshing… Glad you enjoyed the post.


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