Stand Still Like the Hummingbird is a collection of essays by Henry Miller that proclaim, in careful prose with reckless abandon, his insights and his philosophy of living. I liked this cheeky, cynical, despairing, ornery, hopeful, intelligent and unapologetic writer. Miller makes no excuses and he doesn’t care what you think. He holds himself in no particular reverence–but he doesn’t deify anyone or anything else either. These pieces were published over a quarter-century, from the 1930s on, but many read as if they were written yesterday and are relevant to social conditions today.
The title essay is an extended reflection about the nature of reality and the fatal flaws in incurious and unimaginative humans. Miller describes insights he had flying over the patchwork grid of the altered landscape from the East Coast to the West. He marvels at the speed of light, the inexorable march of scientific development, the failure of minds to comprehend the messages of Buddha, Lao Tzu, Gandhi, Milarepa. If we communicate with alien beings outside our small, restricted world, Miller wonders, what do we tell them? Should we list our lethal weapons, inquire if there are any Communists where they are, share the titles of our banned books? He writes admiringly of a 40-year-old German named George Dibbern who left family and nascent Nazism behind to sail his 30-foot boat around the world to New Zealand. In the long, still stretches of empty ocean he learned to inhabit silence, and he discovered who he was–a citizen of the world, without flag or country. He created his own flag and issued himself a passport. The New Zealanders clapped him into a concentration camp for being born a German. Independence is complicated by general ignorance.
Miller writes about art and the outsider status of the true artist, about Thoreau, Whitman, Kenneth Patchen, Eugene Ionesco, morality, money and gold. He scolds the editor of a small literary magazine for offering a pittance to publish a short piece and commends him to offer something of himself to the writer instead, some service, some favor, something useful to acknowledge true value. He laments that evolution seems to have passed humans by and observes that wherever there are people there is a disruption and a blight on the landscape. His was a world mostly of men–he critiques them, cites them, reviews them, admires them. But you gotta like this Eurocentric Brooklyn transplant. He tells it like it is–like it still is. Reading Millers’ ideas, collected and published a half-century ago, underscores his point. We haven’t evolved in 50,000 years. Why should it be a surprise that not much has changed in fifty?
Stand Still Like the Hummingbird Henry Miller | New Directions 1962