For John Burnside (1955-2024)

Jean-Luc Bertini/Pasco&co

For John Burnside, “anarchist” poet and writer, who died this last month of May.

… a true anarchist … [does] … not need a glorious leader, or leaders, to save us from the nightmare. What we need, each of us, is to become our own anarchists—which is to say, to unlearn our conditioning and refuse to be led, thus transforming ourselves into free-thinking, self-governing spirits and, if we are fortunate indeed, to become one with the Way.

John Burnside, On Henry Miller Or; How to Be an Anarchist (The Anarchist Library)

Give me a little less
with every dawn:
colour, a breath of wind,
the perfection of shadows,

till what I find, I find
because it’s there,
gold in the seams of my hands,
and the night light, burning.

I suppose I am shamelessly in pursuit of the invisible (which I do not see as in any way “otherworldly”), but the only approach I have for this endeavour is to begin by conveying, as well as I can, and with an economy dictated entirely by the poem’s musical concerns, what I experience in/from the given world. From that description, if it makes the right connections, and if it sings in time with the rhythms and frequencies of its home place, it may be that something—the invisible, the ineffable—emerges in the reader’s imagination. As to knowing how a poem is coming on, the first thing to say is that I feel an urgent desire to go for a walk. Or at the very least (given my current physical condition) to be in a place where I can be alone, and quiet, and where I can breathe freely. This, in fact, is my small contribution to the poem as it forms: I listen, I quiet myself, and I breathe. These seem to me to be the essentials. What comes into play then, in the resulting stillness, is a mix of many things, not all of them “conscious”: the traditions of my reading and of my true kinfolk, the native urges of my blood, the sense I have of being anchored to gravity and light. All those frequencies. But I don’t want to be too fanciful or theoretical here: my summary, my working answer is, as Izaak Walton says: “Study to be quiet”—and see what comes.

(From McSweeny’s Internet TendencyShort Conversations with Poets: John Burnside, by Jesse Nathan, 25/10/2023)

Henry Miller as Anarchist

Let us do our best, even if it gets us nowhere.

—Henry Miller, My Life and Times

La même magie bourgeoise a tous les points où la malle nous déposera! Le plus élémentaire physicien sent qu’il n’est plus possible de se soumettre à cette atmosphère personnelle, brume de remords physiques, dont la constation est déjà une affliction.[53]

—Rimbaud, Illuminations

Two remarks by Sigmund Freud, the first from The Future of an Illusion (1927): “It goes without saying that a civilization which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence.”[54] And the second from Civilization and Its Discontents (1930): “Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”[55]

What mystified Henry Miller most, I think, is what mystifies any anarchist: Why is it that people so readily consent to be governed? Why do they quietly go to needless wars, or work in degrading jobs, or play out the domestic wars of attrition that, all too often, the conventional nuclear family, stressed to breaking point by financial pressures, ends up becoming, usually through no fault of the unfortunate antagonists? Why do we endure lives of quiet desperation, when we inhabit a world so breathtakingly rich and, in spite, or perhaps because, of its essentially tragic nature, so very beautiful? Why do we not reject the system that controls our everyday lives so rigorously? We are technically free, yes, but only to buy washing powder and to be entertained by whatever garbage we choose from the plethora of garbage available via a wide choice of different media. Why are we so easily fobbed off with cheap substitutes? We want tradition, we get convention; we want sex, we get porn; we want love, we get valentines; we want honor, we get compromise; we want rituals, we get Paroxetine (Paxil). So why do we not stop all this? Get out the roller skates. Weigh anchor.

The first answer is that we have been carefully trained to think that there is no other path—not if we wish to be secure (that this security is yet another illusion almost goes without saying). The second answer is to be found in Freud’s world-weary remark from 1930: even if we do notice what is happening, the burden of making a real change (even on the “personal” level) will immediately seem immense—that is, immense alongside all the basic maintenance and rendering unto Caesar that we have to deal with day to day. However much harm being governed does to us, to our children, and to our environment, trying to break an entrenched system demands huge reserves of energy, trust, self-confidence, and, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, the “great feeling of love” that, according to Che Guevara, guides the true revolutionary. Not to mention time. Had our education been different (had we been raised by wolves, say, or anarchists in the woods), we might feel ready for such a task. But from the age of around eighteen months onward, the Western child is conditioned to live by the clock, to be hungry when he is supposed to be hungry, to sleep, or at least lie down, when Mommy wants her to sleep, to learn this skill and not that, to go to law school when she really wanted to be a dancer—the list goes on and on. We are taught to be creatures of habit; though more often than not, they are somebody else’s habits, and not our own. Those habits include voting for people who have no intention whatsoever of representing us in government (how can they, when they owe so much to donors and “friends”?), listening to what a man says because he has (or says he has) money, and believing, after decades of evidence to the contrary, that we can trust what we read in the papers or see on the evening news. They are reprehensible habits all, but when we look around, there isn’t a political equivalent to Weight Watchers or A.A. to offer help (it’s an appealing thought, though: Voters Anonymous).

We are trained to ignore what our bodies want. We know that each body has its own circadian rhythms, its own needs with regard to sleep and nourishment, its own very particular libido, its own sensory relationships with its environment, its own solitude quotient (the list goes on), but much of what the body wants, what it needs, what would give it a chance of being reasonably healthy (even in this industrially polluted world), is at odds with the principal societal schedules based around school and work—the 9 to 5, or 8 till 6, or whatever timetable The Corporation has determined (it is educational, to say the least, to work permanent twelve-hour night shifts at a steel mill, as I once did; this provided, for me, a spectacularly enhanced image of how out of step we can become with our own natural rhythms). Flip through a magazine while you wait for your next doctor’s appointment and notice how everything that a contemporary of John Evelyn would have considered a quotidian pleasure—food, sex, drink—has become pathologized. In the nineteenth century we were trained to pretend that we didn’t have bodies—even piano legs had to be covered, for fear of exciting lustful thoughts. In my own lifetime, I recall a schoolteacher walking into a classroom where a young woman was combing her hair, and remarking:

“Why put that away, Heather! You’ll incite the young men!” Now we are trained to study those bodies closely, in order more fully to find fault with them, and to deny ourselves even a moment’s physical satisfaction. We are no longer gorgeous parabolas of nervous system, erogenous zones, mind games, and hot-blooded passions; we are medical subjects composed of cholesterol, blood pressure, problematic gonads, and neuroses. In short, we are far too busy being hypochondriacs to upset anybody’s apple cart, no matter how rotten—or how polished and waxy and tasteless—the produce may be.

So, as Tolstoy says (and he is still there, at the back of it all, with Luke’s Gospel at his back, no doubt forever): What Is to Be Done? One answer might be found in Henry Miller’s short essay, “Peace! It’s Wonderful!”: “What do I mean to infer? Just this—that art, the art of living, involves the act of creation. The work of art is nothing. It is only the tangible, visible evidence of a way of life, which, if it is not crazy is certainly different from the accepted way of life. The difference lies in the act, in the assertion of a will, and individuality.”[56] Several points jump out here. First, that the work of art, the product, is “nothing”—it is like the stone cairn hikers sometimes build when they reach certain points in their walk. It may be good to have the marker, it may be an elegant cairn in itself, but what matters is the walk. Second, Miller identifies the artistic process, not as a practice that happens at the writer’s desk, or in the painter’s studio, but as “a way of life” that is contrary, in its very essence, to all that the societally accepted way of life intends (a conditioned state that we might call The Authorized Version, a set of prohibitions, false precepts, and bad practices drummed into us by the entire socialization process). Finally, Miller notes that this difference arises from an act, and not just an attitude; if the artist—by which, now, he means all of us who dare “the assertion of a will”—is to be an artist as such, then she must make her life an act of creation. What she is creating, however, is not just a body of paintings, a book of poems, a career in dance; what she is creating is her true self, liberated from her societally imposed training, the pseudo-education that Miller characterizes as “learning the art of wrestling in order to have the pleasure of letting someone pin you to the mat.” The path to this liberation is twofold: the artist must unlearn what she has been taught all her life about being pinned to the mat (that is, she must unlearn how to be governed), and she must then accept the gift that this process delivers as freedom to act as well as freedom to be—and as we know, from another thinker that Miller claimed never to have read, to live and act freely, among others, she must demand the “social scope for the vital manifestation of her being.”[57]

In short, she must learn what it means to be an anarchist.

I started to become an anarchist on a train to England at the age of nine. I was staring out of the window at the passing landscape, and for the first time I understood that there was, on the one hand, a natural order that governed everything and, on the other, an order imposed by humans, sometimes for a temporary good (to some humans, at least), though all too often, for ill. Sometimes the natural order and the human idea of order converged, or came close to doing so, but this was rare. Many buildings, factories, pastures, and gardens violated the land they occupied, but there were those that seemed, at least, in keeping with what could still be seen of the natural terrain. I don’t know why I tuned in to this sense of match and mismatch so utterly at that point, and I don’t think this sudden vision of order was the result of any great insight on my part. I just turned and looked and something caught my eye, and from that point onward, it all fell into place. It wasn’t about liking things that were “natural,” or old, or picturesque; it was just a recognition of two different kinds of order. And this is important enough to my overall narrative to repeat: it really wasn’t about liking something because it was natural (i.e., not human-made) for its own sake because, even then, most of what I was seeing was, if not human-made, then managed by humans to a greater or lesser extent. A devotee of nature books and educational magazines, I knew that pastureland, like copses and drainage systems, had been created by human intervention. I also knew that much of the land we were passing through would once have been forest—originally, the Great Caledonian Forest extended to nigh on four million hectares—so anywhere that wasn’t wooded (predominantly with Scots pine) was the result of human intervention. The main point to make is that, even to a child’s eye, there was such a clear difference between those interventions that worked with the land, taking their cue and context from it, and those that simply rode roughshod over it.

I saw this and understood it in a child’s way as an important fact of life. Less consciously, I also guessed, for the first time, that this was true of everything, including “society,” and though I did not use the term “anarchy” at that point, I understood, in a rudimentary way (intuitively, naively) the basic principles of a science—an an-archic knowing—whose main purpose would be to align human behavior as closely as possible to the natural order. At this stage, this nascent understanding did not require a name. However, as time went by and new perceptions and intuitions started to coalesce around those first impressions, they seemed to be moving toward a set of concepts, a coherence, that—child of a taxonomic culture that I was—I wanted more and more to be able to categorize. Politically, partly because of my steel-town upbringing, but mostly because I wasn’t actually blind, I was instinctively of the Left (though I balked, from time to time, at the somewhat rigid nature of the good and committed people I was meeting there, people I sometimes suspected of having the same misgivings I had). And yet, as firmly as my immediate circle was red, I was already, and perhaps always had been, inclined to (a very dark) green. Back then, however, the idea that my own way of thinking, a way of thinking that seemed not at all forced or ideological, could be called “anarchism” just did not occur to me. Anarchists were crazy people who threw bombs. Anarchists had strange hair and stranger beards. Anarchists were disorganized. Anarchists were violent (my second-favorite author of that time had written at least one novel about this). Anarchists were too passive—it goes on. The Right laughed at the stock anarchist figure, but the Left mocked him harder and seemed more disturbed by him. Why?

Finally, I got a peek behind the veil. I had long passed the point when I could fool myself into thinking that anything I said or thought was new, so it seemed somebody must have a term for this notion that was fast becoming a way of being in itself, a set of principles that applied to everything, not just politics. A life philosophy, in other words. Surely this notion had its thinkers, its artists, its smiling devotees (though I wasn’t sure I needed that last one). Still, the original, rather banal motive for taking that peek behind the veil was a realization that I had, mid-teens, on my way home from a Careers Guidance meeting at my working-class Catholic comprehensive school that the same clumsy and destructive techniques of (mis)management I had seen applied to landscapes, town planning, and “natural resources” were also being applied to me. To the people. Though the file my Careers Officer held in his chubby hand all through our meeting indicated that I had a very high IQ (these things meant something, then) and had come to the school with straight As, it also noted that I was a troubled and troublesome teen, with “difficulties at home” and, no doubt, a “problem with authority.” Apparently, I had by then reached a point where nobody wanted to try and fix me, so I was advised to leave school immediately and join the Royal Air Force. This would give me the structure and discipline I needed. What did I think? Was I ready to go out into the world and learn how to operate radar?

As it happened, I didn’t need to decide, because I was expelled from that school a few months later and my mother packed me off to Technical College—which was a blessing in disguise. Now I had a library that had real books in it, plenty of time to read, and, as long as I showed my face at more than 50 percent of classes, I could do what I liked. So I read—and my first, accidental discovery was the Dao De Jing, which begins with a supremely elegant sidestep to the question that had wastefully consumed hours of my adolescence, namely, “Is there a God?” By then, we were already into the touchy-feely Second Vatican, Age of Aquarius stage of history, a time in which everybody knew that GOD was LOVE, a position I had argued against fiercely as I felt that, if there were a God, then It would, by Its very nature, possess no human attributes, including kindliness, generosity, or gender (i.e., He wasn’t a He, or a She, it was an It)—and Love was an attribute, in my book. Now, I had Dao—to Western ears, a nonsense word and, for a necessary transitional period, this was honest: because the Way (the Dao, the Universal Order, Nature, and so on, though none of these terms are adequate) could not be named, it had to remain nameless and, because it could not be described, you couldn’t say anything about it. But—and here was the wonderful part—the operations of this unnameable, indescribable Dao (Way) could be observed everywhere in the workings of the natural world, that is, in physis, in the “everything that is the case” that made up Being Here, or, to stick with Daoism, in the world of the ten thousand things. If you tried to see Dao, if you were motivated by desire to understand (in itself a kind of will to power), you saw only the illusory; however, if you accepted the natural order and simply observed it—beginning with how it operated in your own body, in the breath, in movement, in thought—then you could apprehend that order in its workings. Everywhere you looked, if you looked without the desire to acquire knowledge or “understanding,” the law of the Way was inscribed in the movement of the wind, in the flow of water, in how a rock that had stood unchanged for a million years might suddenly crumble at a touch, in all the wide reach of natura naturans. And all of this was contained in just the first verse of the Dao De Jing. Next came yin and yang, in the endless cycle of wuji—which I got right away, teenage dialectician that I was—in which complementarities arose, like thesis and antithesis, in seeming opposition, only to reconcile, in nature’s constant pursuit of a temporary and provisional balance. Yin and yang, thesis and antithesis—it suddenly became apparent that it was all play, that the world itself was a huge, elegant, and very serious game, a universal balancing act in which the point of equilibrium was constantly shifting.

So—if the Dialectic echoed the principle of wuji, what else might Western thought have found to compare with masters like Lao Tse and Chuang Tse? Marx aside, I had lived mostly in the pages of Catholic philosophers like Pascal and the Church Fathers, but after a few false trails and a labored broadening of my horizons, I eventually got to Spinoza: “[M]y argument is this. Nothing comes to pass in nature, which can be set down to a flaw therein; for nature is always the same, and everywhere one and the same in her efficacy and power of action; that is, nature’s laws and ordinances, whereby all things come to pass and change from one form to another, are everywhere and always the same; so that there should be one and the same method of understanding the nature of all things whatsoever, namely, through nature’s universal laws and rules.”[58] Even the Catholics were jumping in there, if I read them carefully enough. For instance, Thomas à Kempis tells us that, if our hearts are right, every living creature is a mirror of life and there is no creature, however, insignificant or ugly that does not reveal the goodness of God,[59] and from there the road meandered dazzlingly through the works of William Godwin, Proudhon, Thoreau, William Morris, Whitman, Emma Goldman, and the various Russian and Italian anarchists who, at times, seemed to get too tied up in a knot arguing about things that didn’t matter (God, for example, though I should have seen that their real concern was with the power of various Churches as institutions). Slowly, a worldview began to form in my head, more or less organically and, as it did, it seemed clear that so many questions, and not just the religious one, that I had argued over for years had been irrelevant. What mattered was the discipline of attuning the self to the Way (a lifelong discipline, had I but realized it). And then I found Henry Miller’s other books—and just as Miller did with Rimbaud, I felt I had discovered something more than a mere influence. (It would be as absurd to be directly influenced by Miller, as it would to be directly influenced by Rimbaud: the point of such writers is not their influence, but how the impossibility of following their example provokes those who come after to their own program of dérèglement, their own fuite, followed by their own long and disciplined self-recovery/reinvention.)

Miller’s work (almost all of it, in fact, though the gist of his anarchism comes over best in compendium books like The Cosmological Eye, or Stand Still Like the Hummingbird) is a perfect introduction to living (i.e., not-theoretical) anarchism in daily life, partly because, in spite of his love of books, Miller wasn’t a book anarchist. He lived it. For him it was natural, instinctive, and had room enough for folly, bouts of intemperance, and all manner of other nonsense, as well as wisdom, discipline, and just measure. Yet, even though he didn’t do his spiritual discipline out of a book, he could write it wittily and persuasively, in ways that others could take pages to elucidate and still not express so well (comparable Western commentators might be, on the one hand, Alan Watts, or, coming from another angle altogether, Thomas Merton). Perhaps his greatest gift was the reconciliation, by a kind of poetic means, of glaring paradoxes that any sensible writer with any care for his or her own credibility or reputation would not begin to tolerate. His precinct was the marvelous, the wonderful, the impossible—and he worked it with exemplary good humor.

For example, try explaining to someone who has never engaged with Lao Tse (and a good many who have) what you mean when you use the term wu wei. Most people agree it’s virtually untranslatable (into English, at least). Whole volumes have been written on the meaning, philosophy, and practice of wu wei (and justifiably so), but as an introduction to the idea, these few lines from the aforementioned Miller essay (“Peace! It’s Wonderful!”) say as much as anyone needs to know (feel), to begin with, at least:

“Perhaps just to sit quiet and take deep breathing exercises would be better than popping one another off with slugs of dynamite. Because the strange thing is that just doing nothing, just taking it easy, loafing, meditating, things tend to right themselves.”

This is good advice, but it should not be misunderstood. Wu wei, sometimes translated as “doing by not doing” should not be seen as passive—as quietism or indifference, say. Miller uses the term “sublime indifference,” which seems to me a touch combative, but it does give that sense of non-attachment (think Eliot in “Little Gidding,” all that live and dead nettle stuff). But I digress. There are many translations of Dao De Jing, and it can be hard to find a word that best conveys the idea of wu wei, but its opposite is clear, as this translation by Derek Lin shows:

Pursue knowledge, daily gain

Pursue Tao, daily loss

Loss and more loss

Until one reaches unattached action

With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do

Take the world by constantly applying non-interference

The one who interferes is not qualified to take the world.[60]

That’s a nice term—“unattached action”—but the key word here is “interference”—which has its many near-synonyms in the modern world (our grim obsession with illusions of “progress” and “development” being the most insidious). As Miller says, with obvious scorn for meddlers everywhere, “the whole damned universe has to be taken apart, brick by brick, and reconstructed. Every atom has to be rearranged.” Why? Because we always want to improve on everything (especially “Nature”). Because we love the idea of “Progress.” Or is it just because development brings money to those who already have more than enough? (We all know that, if you have sufficient for the day, then you can’t be a developer, no matter what any developer tells you. You have to possess collateral of some kind, or the banks don’t loan you money. Or, as Miller says elsewhere, “To do anything, you need money”—including, it seems, the making of money.)

The essence of Miller’s anarchism, then, is drawn as much from Daoist philosophy as from writers we would usually think of as anarchists—that is, “political” anarchists—and the reason he has been misunderstood, as an anarchist, is the same reason why anarchism itself has been misunderstood (very often with cool deliberation) throughout its history. For, just as Daoism has been represented as a religion by the religious, so anarchism has been represented as an ideology by the political. Anarchists are also denigrated by the “realists” in political and social life (on both the Left and the Right), that is, by those who say, smugly, that politics is the art of the possible. In recent years, however, we have come to a point where the possible—or at least, the possible as defined by our self-designated realists—is not enough to prevent us from damaging our environment so utterly that it is no longer livable. What we need now is a commitment to what realists think of as impossible—in human terms, at least. Besides, as Miller knew all too well, the possible is not an art; it’s just a defense mechanism for those who aren’t brave enough to trust in the natural order.

At the same time, Miller recognizes that joining political parties is, in itself, counterproductive.

“To get men to rally round a cause, a belief, an idea, is always easier than to persuade them to lead their own lives,” he says, in “An Open Letter to Surrealists Everywhere,”

and he continues:

The role which the artist plays in society is to revive the primitive, anarchic instincts which have been sacrificed for the illusion of living in comfort. If the artist fails we will not necessarily have a return to an imaginary Eden filled with wonder and cruelty. I am afraid, on the contrary, that we are much more apt to have a condition of perpetual work, such as we see in the insect world. Myself I do not believe that the artist will fail. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter a damn to me whether he fails or not. It is a problem beyond my scope. If I choose to remain an artist rather than go down in the street and shoulder a musket or sling a stick of dynamite it is because my life as an artist suits me down to the ground. It is not the most comfortable life in the world but I know that it is life, and I am not going to trade it for an anonymous life in the brotherhood of man—which is either sure death, or quasi-death, or at the very best cruel deception. I am fatuous enough to believe that in living my own life in my own way I am more apt to give life to others (though even that is not my chief concern) than I would if I simply followed somebody else’s idea of how to live my life and thus become a man among men. It seems to me that this struggle for liberty and justice is a confession or admission on the part of all those engaging in such a struggle that they have failed to live their own lives.[61]

Reading Miller, we see again and again that his anarchism is based upon the first precept of anarchist philosophy, which is that order resides in the natural world, and that the artist/anarchist discovers that order by studying the world around him—as well as his own, individual nature—with unflinching discipline. This, in fact, is the true work of the artist: and the careful reader may well come to feel that Miller uses the terms “artist” and “anarchist” almost interchangeably, partly because both must learn to become fully spontaneous in order to be. “Through art,” he says, “one finally establishes contact with reality: that is the great discovery. Here all is play and invention; there is no solid foothold from which to launch the projectiles which will pierce the miasma of folly, ignorance and greed. The world has not to be put in order: the world is order incarnate. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order, to know what is the world order in contradistinction to the wishful-thinking orders which we seek to impose on one another.”[62] This is the key, the source idea, for both disciplines. Yet commentators and critics all too often ignore, or downplay the centrality of this precept to Miller’s worldview. Wallace Fowlie, for example, attaches Miller’s “personal creed” (i.e., faith, ideology) “in part to the European utopia of the noble savage, and in part to the American tradition of return to nature we read in Thoreau and Whitman. His sense of anarchy is partly that of Thoreau and partly that of the Beat Generation.”[63]

Now, this is not only to diminish Miller, but also to diminish Thoreau. By placing Thoreau in an American tradition of “return to nature,” Fowlie forgets his activism, his support of direct action against slavery, and the fact that he composed Civil Disobedience, one of the most important texts of resistance ever written, the handbook of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others. He forgets that Thoreau did not disappear into the woods around Walden Pond to fish or whittle twigs, but spent his two years there learning how to live fully: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” After two years, having acquired at least some of the “essential facts of life,” mostly by observing the workings of the natural world, he returned to the societal sphere and resumed his work against injustice and a property-based system so corrupted that it could even treat human life as a commodity. In short, Thoreau did not go to the woods to “return to nature,” simply: his was an act of la fuite, a setting forth into the unknown terrain, not of Walden, but of his own mind and spirit. In the same way, Henry Miller did not leave America to live the boho life in Paris, as so many did; he abandoned everything and sailed away, with ten dollars in his pocket, to become the writer he wanted—needed—to be.

Fowlie is not alone, however, in his casual underestimation of Miller’s belief system—for in truth, no set of ideas has ever been more carefully denigrated and willfully misrepresented than the bundle of interlinked philosophical precepts that true anarchists espouse. It is said that anarchists are “violent,” even though the use of violence, as such, is contrary to the wu wei principle of acting in accordance with the natural order. But let us be careful here. The first thing to define while having this conversation is “violence” itself, and that is not a simple matter. When Emma Goldman says, “Ask for work. If they don’t give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread,” is she advocating violence?[64] What she describes here seems entirely reasonable, even from the point of view of a property-based society: what she is saying is exactly what the homemade cardboard placard held by the homeless person says today on too many city streets: WILL WORK FOR FOOD. But if you refuse me work, and also refuse me bread, what am I to do? As Gandhi was known to remark: “Poverty is [also] violence.” When you have food and shelter and money and all the goods you need, if not everything you covet, and you deprive me of a meal, then you are doing violence to me and to those I care for. As a living creature, I will instinctively seek food and shelter; as a father or a mother, I have a duty to feed my children. In short, if you hoard all the bread, and will not even let me work for a little of it, then I have no choice but to take it. This is the principle that always applies in a property-based society. In an anarchist community, however (which is not based on property, hierarchy, and inequality), there can be no question of hoarding, because nothing, other than a range of personal items and, at any one time, a place of shelter, belongs exclusively to a single individual, or group. We work together, we eat together. Each contributes as she can. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. The man who cures your ailments and the woman who builds your public buildings (if you have any); the family who grow quality food, and the family who run the local bookshop; the solitary painter in his attic studio and the storyteller who enchants the entire community with tales of origin and mystery; the cleaner and the gardener, the carpenter and the actor, the mechanic and the fisherman—all have an equal place in this community. “We all derive from the same source,” Miller says. “There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, to discover what is already there.”[65]

[54] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).

[55] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (London: Penguin, 2002).

[56] Henry Miller, “Peace! It’s Wonderful!,” in The Cosmological Eye (New York: New Directions, 1939), 7.

[57] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Critique (1844), Marxists Internet Archive,

[58] Benedict de Spinoza, A Spinoza Reader: The “Ethics” and Other Works, trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1994).

[59] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (London: Penguin Classics, 2013).

[60] Tao Te Ching, trans. Derek Lin,,; and Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained (Nashville, TN: SkyLight Paths, 2006). N.B. Variant spellings.

[61] Henry Miller, “An Open Letter to Surrealists Everywhere,” in The Cosmological Eye (New York: New Directions, 1939), 156.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Wallace Fowlie, Letters of Henry Miller and Wallace Fowlie, 1943–1972 (New York: Grove Press, 1972).

[64] Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, ed. Alix Kates Shulman (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1998).

[65] Henry Miller, Sexus (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2015).

(From John Burnside, On Henry Miller Or; How to Be an Anarchist [2018]- The Anarchist Library)

I think I do take solace in the natural world – though I hope that’s not an easy solace. I do hope that I come up against the harsh, the bloody, the seemingly cruel in what we think of as nature – including human nature. And I hope I preserve a sense of the mystery of that cruelty. Sometimes it’s a very beautiful cruelty – it’s not cruel, per se, of course, it only seems so to us, because we are attached to our own interests – and, on occasion, a sense of that beauty lifts one above one’s attachments. So that line between ‘the human’ and ‘nature’, the ragged edge of culture, so to speak, is still a source of fascination to me and a challenge. A challenge in the sense that an annunciation is a challenge – it calls us to possibilities that we hadn’t imagined, and perhaps wouldn’t have chosen, in what we think of as an ideal world. Maybe there’s a suspicion, alongside this, that the ideal world is sort of there, if we can only meet it halfway. Poetry is, I think, an attempt to pre-empt the kind of speech that closes down the possibility of such a meeting, an attempt to keep oneself open linguistically and sensually and imaginatively to the world as it is, rather than using it as a movie screen for received ideas and second-rate wishes. Marx said the forest only echoes back what you shout into it – and this is very often true, perhaps more often than not, but I think the poet’s task is to suggest that it needn’t be.

(From Granta: John Burnside | Interview by Rachael Allen, 16/08/2011)

Video filmed live at the Alpine Fellowship 2022 Symposium in partnership with Bard College through the Open Society University Network and supported in part by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.

My whole world is all you refuse:
a black light, angelic and cold
on the path to the orchard,
fox-runs and clouded lanes and the glitter of webbing,
little owls snagged in the fruit nets
out by the wire
and the sense of another life, that persists
when I go out into the yard
and the cattle stand round me, obstinate and dumb.
All afternoon, I’ve worked at the edge of your vision,
mending fences, marking out our bounds.
Now it is dusk, I turn back to the house
and catch you, like the pale Eurydice
of children’s classics, venturing a glance
at nothing, at this washed infinity
of birchwoods and sky and the wet streets leading away
to all you forget: the otherworld, lucid and cold
with floodlights and passing trains and the noise of traffic
and nothing like the map you sometimes
study for its empty bridlepaths,
its hill-tracks and lanes and roads winding down to a coast
of narrow harbors, lit against the sea.

John Burnside, Agoraphobia

From The Guardian: an obituary and testimonials. John Burnside was a regular contributor to The New Statesman (see here). See also his Daoist inspired essay on metaphysical/political order as emergent-immanent entitled, “Walk the Tightrope” at the New Humanist, 07/12/2011.

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