On Miller’s over-hyped “meanness, St. Paul, Jonathan Edwards, and the “Air-Conditioned Nightmare”

One of the great paradoxes (of which there are many) of Msr. Miller is his ability to juggle a hardened, astringent cynicism along with a kind of optimistic romanticism.

On one hand, there’s Miller, the ranting Brooklyn curmudgeon, haranguing about the shallowness and vapidity of modern life in books like “Tropic of Capricorn” and (see below) “The Air Conditioned Nightmare.”

The saint formerly known as Saul of Tarsus
The saint formerly known as Saul of Tarsus

Then there’s the quasi-Zen like flower-power Miller, evoking St. Paul-to-the-Corinthians and whispering platitudes like “The one thing we can never get enough of is love.”

What gives?

The answer, of course, is simple. Miller contains multitudes. And at the expense of falling back on Phd thesis-logic, his tortured inner dialectic perfectly mirrors that of his morally-tortured homeland.

What’s more, as this astute post by Nicholas Vajifdar in Bookslut argues within the context of its review of “Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” Miller’s fiery condemnations of the US, collated during his cross-country trip in the 1930s, lacked a meanness and ugliness that you’d see in, say, the crazed rantings of his holier-than-thou predecessors (e.g. Jonathan Edwards and the like.*)

Take it away, Nicholas:

For all his negative energy, one of Miller’s most admirable qualities is his total lack of meanness. Meanness, I mean, as distinct from enmity and prejudice. His negativity partakes not at all of the miserable bickering, the rat-like grasping and spitting, on display in every internet comment section in the world.

His hate is serene; it doesn’t hide, flinch, shriek, throw chicken bones. When, after his Dante-esque journey through the Hell of the Industrial North and the Purgatory of Steaming Dixie, he slurs down into his bizarro promised land of coastal California, I felt that his generous sensibility had at last been physically repaid.

(Read the whole thing!)


Those who knew Miller personally would agree. For all his “fronting,” at the end of the day, his faux meanness flowed from an inner wellspring of generosity, appreciation, and loyalty. (Never mind the fact that much of his excoriations of pre-war America were not only accurate, but eerily prescient.)

* Perhaps this is where Miller, the long-running target of the US’s established puritan theocracy, has, ironically enough, something in common with the Bible-thumping agitators who antagonized him through most of his life: a distinctly American moralizing streak. The difference? Edwards’ moralizing is rooted in the stone-age inanity of the Old Testament; Miller’s is rooted in a more forgiving and humanistic Europeanism. Pass the baguette!







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