in conversation with Michael March
"From Here to Eternity"
Michael March: Isaac Bashevis Singer said, that life is a dance on graves. What's your idea?
Arthur Miller: I would agree with that. I think it's... that's the way it is. But of course, that only occurs to you as you get closer to the grave. For a lot of us, I've always felt that way, but only theoretically. And then it gets more and more real. More and more imminent. I think it's more and more obvious. One tends to look for what has some endurance, some enduring value, and I think he means that too, or he meant that you don't want to spend too much time on something that's gonna vanish tomorrow morning. And of course the grave is always there and it doesn't go away. So it becomes more and more important.
MM: Maybe art is sort of a worm's eyeview of life.
AM: Of course, the longer one hangs around, the more - I wouldn't say more important, but the - the only thing that we've got, finally, is the art. Everything that is not capable of being turned into art vanishes. After all, what have you got of Greece, of Rome, of the ancient Jews, of anybody, the handful of pieces of paper, some carved rocks, with little dabs on paint on them, stone, that's what is left of all this ambition, and the rest of it is gone. If it can be made art, it's got a chance to survive. And oddly enough, it's exactly the opposite in life, I mean, it's the last one most of the time, to be taken seriously, it is the artist. He is the decorator, he is the one who's not really serious about business, he has no real grasp of power, so that is the vengeance. History takes up its vengeance.
MM: There seems to be in life an inversion, the life of opposites, and what seems to be that people are actually afraid of ideas. At the same time people live very much in illusion rather than in reality. What is your feeling about this?
AM: Now there are two sides of this thing, and I was talking to a Russian once, who said that the problem with Russia is that we have too many ideas. "In America there are no ideas, he said, you just do it. In Russia we cannot do it until all the possibilities are ironed out in an argument. And then we don't do it. We just have the idea." Coming from a pragmatic country like this, where I've spent my whole life really, I suspect ideas very often as being an excuse for not doing anything. On the other hand it's very boring without ideas, the interchange of conversation. We are, in this country, the people in this country are very suspicious of too many theoretical or ideological assertions. And if you notice, in our politics, it's very, they quickly revert to the concrete, the practical. And I'm not sure that's a bad thing. One of the most idea driven culture was the German culture, in the twenties, and after all the first real Nazis were in universities. They were very enthusiastic about Nietzsche, and they interpreted him as being a philosopher of death, and I wonder whether less of an emphasis on pure, ideological argument and a reduction of it to practice would have not helped the situation there. Where we are now is a culture which has very few references outside a situation, in other words, all our art, we have perfected the art of absolute realism in the sense that you deal with the relation of two people, it might as well be on the moon. There is no interest on the part of the artist there is on the part of the public, but not the artist. In extrapolating outside little situation that they are dealing with, metaphor is suspicious. It's always suspicious in our art if they have an axe to grind, as it's called. If they have some idea. What we want is a kind of reportage, which is valueless, it has no values. Then we believe it.
AM: I think that, my own personal feeling about it is, that as result of the horrors of the last 75 years or so, which were largely brought on by ideological excess, the Communist, or the Nazis, or in other places like Cambodia, where they simply killed you if you wear eyeglasses, which would indicate you were an intellectual. After all that, even though people are not supremely conscious of it, there is a sense that they don't want to think too much about abstract. They want to simply have action in front of them. It's safer. They feel safer. And the reaction however is... I don't think this is a prominent state of affaires, because of boredom. In art we change styles simply because we've had enough of the other style. It's exhausted. It no longer is full of discoveries. And the same thing is true and I think in the culture in general. We go now through this naturalistic period. And everybody has investigated all the aspects of love-affaires, of human situations per se. With no reference outside those situations. And then somebody is gonna come along and do quite the opposite, and it'll be on again. Bingo. We can't stand the same thing indefinitely.
MM: It seems that man must live in an illusion, and perhaps the artist, ironically, takes the illusion and stages the reality.
AM: Well, I suppose the artist in effect gives names to things, he names things. Nothing exists if it doesn't have a name. And it's the artist who, I suppose, embodies, gives body in reality to those aspects of the illusion that people have. I don't know why it occurs to me, but for 50 years now people have been coming up to me and telling me that Willi Loman is just like their father. It just happened to me on a street two days ago. He is a bunch of words on a piece of paper, basically, and those words are her father. The image, it always amazes me. The father must be a real individual to her, or him, it's mostly women, but there's some men, too. They have the illusion that this thing exists. What the play did was, I suppose it gave a real shape to a set of forces that were otherwise just flying around in the air without a form. That kind of particular kind of anxiety, once it had a name it existed on a very personal level. I don't know what would all these people have done without Willy Loman. I agree that the whole thing is an illusion, but it's an illusion that can kill you.
AM: I keep thinking of Cambodia, for some reason. You know, I was in Cambodia when we started bombing Cambodia. Mr. Kissinger decided that what would be the best thing to do, was to bomb Cambodia. And I remember thinking, when we first entered Cambodia, my wife and I, that this was a green world. They had not changed really, it seemed to me, since man was created, that is, they lived on rice which depended on the flow-in and the out-flow of water onto the land. So their houses were built on stilts. And underneath the house stood the great water buffalo, which pulled their ploughs. The in the yard the little brown children, beautiful children, played. Many times we passed the house and the man was outside in a sarong being washed by his wife. It was heaven. The green, there's a quality of the green colour in Cambodia which is absolutely captivating. And while we were there they started bombing it. What delusion! When this whole business started there, even then it occurred to me that we were living in some kind of a dream, where, I mean, one knew that this was all leading nowhere, this bombing. It was like bombing the Atlantic Ocean. These people were swallowed up by some delusion that they were going to control history by doing this, of course, what resulted was Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, because they tore apart a very delicate fabric, which anybody who spent 48 hours in Cambodia could see, was very tenuous, but what, there is a government under Sihanuk, which everybody, all the parties have agreed just not to disturb it. Lest it collapse. And well, of course, he walked there with his big feet and knocked the whole thing down and the consequence was that this other dream arose. That if they killed everybody who could think, and write, and read, they would have a pure, socialist dream. And I never was so conscious, probably because I was so foreign to the situation, that I could stand apart from it to some degree, I was never so conscious of the, what you could call a nightmare, which was simply uncontrollable. It was going from one horror to the next, with nobody able to become fully conscious. Consciousness had collapsed. We were lying on a bed, staring into space, and being swallowed up by these futile images. It was all fatally laughable, because everybody was so serious about it. And of course, in no time at all the catastrophe started. And the completion of the dream is that I don't think there are a thousand Americans who are aware of the whole thing. And maybe there are a twelve hundred and fifty Europeans, who know what happened there - the result of which was that 7 million people, men, women and children were dead. Who had been living in, what in my view was a condition of great beauty. So it was the first time in my life when I really thought how wonderful it would be to be a painter. To walk around in that countryside, in that field of rice, and with the slow water buffalo pulling the plough, and all these beautiful people in lovely bright sarongs... It's a horror that I'll never forget. And it was all, as you say, an... it was all a dream.
MM: We have reached a point of evil, in this conversation. We have in life what appears to be a cycle - the question of a dream, the question of illusion, which becomes life, and then this dream must be killed. Where does this evil come from? And why must we continually revert to these cycles between the dream, between evil, between death?
AM: You know we are all, everyone is a paradox. You want something, which, if you got it, would destroy you, and if you don't have it, you feel you're living an incomplete life. I think probably this irony is responsible as anything else for what you've just described. That is, what you call evil is the tipping of the balance away from that almost accidental way we seize upon life instead of death. It's different in different countries. You see, at the moment now, in this country, we've just had an election. It was very important. And the man who won the election, lost. It's speaking of dreams. And the man who lost the election is the winner. And we are asking people to be rational about life, at the same time. I suppose, evil comes from the denial of what is, the denial of reality. And when we go on denying it, you create more and more perverse images and dreams to reinforce the denial. And that denial destroys life. And maybe that's the closest way I can think of to describing that phenomena. We are now in the process of forgetting, trying to forget what has happened, which is, in the greatest democracy in the world, a non-democratic election occurred. And it remains to be seen whether we are able to forget this. I'm not sure yet. I think that more people than one realizes have not forgotten that. And refuse to forget it. I don't know what that will result in. We now have a - speaking of illusions and dreams - a political propaganda, which is telling us that the best way for the average person to prosper is to make the rich richer. This is the programme. Serious people keep repeating this. Or, during the election campaign, the one party was rushing about accusing the other party of stealing the election by insisting that everybody's vote be counted. I mean, we talk about dreams, then about illusions, and this is practically uncommented on. And you sit there watching this it's like if I were to write a play, where a man rushed onto the stage yelling "Stop the count! The other party is stealing the election. We musn't count the votes!" You'd say that this is not possible. But that's all we've just been through. You don't have to look very far for that dream, for that hallucination.
MM: We've started with the concept of really the artist, and if we go back in time, we could say almost that art mummifies life. And through this mummification the people can look at it, it gives them a sense of reality. It's extremely ironic.
AM: Well, that's what its function is now, basically. I think. It's to... it's just stop time, really. You stop time. That massive flow of images that flood the country now, every country, who... with no meaning, no definition. The art stops it. For long enough for you to say, "Oh, that's what the hell it is?" It gives you a moment of recognition. But that's all you do get, is that moment. It's a... If I can generalize from my small experience with the younger people, it's... they know something is missing. They're quite conscious of it. They think, in relation let's say to my work or the work of my generation, that this something once existed. They long for a... an emergency. An emergency which will give them values, in other words, things you have to do. Ideas you have to understand in order to survive. They don't have any such ideas. Every idea is something they choose to have or not choose to have. Everything they do is arbitrary. There's no necessity in anything. That's a very common situation now. I think it's probably the most common situation. And it's really forced by a... by the culture which throws up an endless string of meaningless images. I've just written a speech, which I will deliver at the end of March at the National Council of Humanities, called "Politics and the Art of Acting". And it looks at the politicians, the current politicians, as actors, of various kinds, and what they're conveying as actors, as performers. And basically, the whole campaign as a performance, theatrical performance. And why it was so boring, as a theatrical performance.
MM: Why was it boring?
AM: Essentially, both sides attempted to do the same thing. That's basically why. To appear to be harmless to everyone. To appear to be nice guys, fundamentally. To appear not to disturb the audience with any passion that might wake them up from a deep sleep. The result was that fewer people have ever watched these displays, they lost the audience almost catastrophically. Everybody is forgotten by now. Some years ago, for example, in the national nominations for president there could be as many as a hundred votes before they agreed upon a candidate. Now we are presented with a candidate nobody knows quite who picked him. He emerges like a butterfly out of a cocoon. And we are told this is the candidate. I mean, who decided that Bush was going to be the candidate? I don't know. Or Gore? These things arise like out of some Greek mystery, and from the mouth of the cave appears the Sibyl, who's gonna tell us what the future is. Neither one of them would really engage the other on the basis of anything approaching the issues, any issues. It was a... we were asked to vote for one or the other because we disliked them less. It was a mutual unpopularity contest. And it's now really devolved into a quite alarming display of vacuousness.
MM: It seems, what someone says, this question of inversion, what someone says is always really the opposite in meaning, is opposite of the words, and since we've reached this state, the world, the communicable world seems lost, at the moment we seem lost.
AM: Yes, well, it's because, you see... I don't know why it's become... what the reason is, but I do know what the effect is. There isn't a culture. And I'm wondering really, whether it was the victim, it was destroyed by the many wars of the last hundred years or so. You know, a religion, for example, which offers itself as a means of dignifying the humanity, and blesses, or does not condemn, a Holocaust, finally it evolves into a vapour in the human mind, I mean people might not be able to say that, but they know that this thing is meaningless. We now have the religion in this country that is like a football game. People get together in large institutions and cheer the minister. The idea of changing one's life by turning towards some set of values is very remote. The only value is we're all together. That's the value. We're all together. We're all singing together and we're all praying together.
MM: Coming to America one feels the correspondence of acute illusion as well as acute reality. Do you think globalization, these technical processes, are really the institution of vast systems of wealth, vast systems of poverty, are based upon absolute illusion?
AM: You know, I'm sorry... I don't understand what globalization is as yet. I don't know what that means. What it means for, let's say, Africa. I mean, for so many it's not a good thing, because it makes what's big even bigger and therefore less responsive. But I have to do more reading about it.
Talking about your life, your work, you are talking about really sort of the technical aspects, but not the inspirational. Not the gift. There's a gift given to an artist. And when an artist uses this gift to create thing of eternal values, this work then becomes art.
I think that every artist of any seriousness at all, in some part of his brain, is dreaming that he's making something that might last, outlast his own life, whether it be conscious or not. That is why he's doing what he's doing. There's another kind of art, which chooses the artefact of art, which is commercial art, where they even make a point of the fact that it will vanish with next week's newspaper. But with one way or another the question arises whether it's negative or positive, as to the endurance, the durability of this, and I'm quite conscious of it. But I have grave doubts that very much of what I do or anybody else does will really survive into a new age.
I think that a lot of art can be created purely by will. By the will. What the French call voulu. It's a will to work. Some things can be beautiful. But what you're talking about is the inspired work. What Tolstoy meant he said that you read a book, or just look at the picture, to discover the soul of the artist. Well, the soul of the artist is not in the art, you're not gonna find it. I suspect that over the centuries most of the stuff that we somehow... that sustains its life, is the art which is felt, which is the result of this gift. However, there are, of course, numerous examples of the technical survival. There is art which is basically willed art, which is so good as such, that it does appeal over the period of time. I mean, Vivaldi, I'm sure he wasn't particularly inspired from time to time, but it's interesting to listen to his work occasionally. Of course, now we are flooded with spurious stuff to a degree that I don't think ever existed in the world before.
But I've had the pleasure of seeing works of my own, that are fifty, sixty years old, come back and seem as to the audience that's looking at them, the same as it was sixty years ago. I have a play now in London, "All My Sons", which I wrote in 1947. And I saw it and what was marvellous to me was looking at that audience, who were discovering this thing for the first time. And of course they weren't born when I wrote that thing.
MM: Did you feel that you wrote it?
AM: Yea, I did. Cause I remember the parts of it that I struggled with, the parts that I tore up sixteen times. Same with some of my other work.
MM: Did you feel as a father?
AM: Well, I felt like a father to that audience. You know, I realized... yea, I may be five years old ? when these guys were not even half my age. But they are sharing something with me, which is delightful. I'm filled with laughter when I look at it and see it.
MM: What are you writing now? What plays are you writing now? What's your latest work?
AM: Well, I've got... one play is called "The Resurrection Blues" which I'm still working on. It's about a Christ figure in Latin America, who's actually a young guy who one of the governments down there decides to crucify in order to be a lesson to other revolutionaries down there, and the advertizing agencies in America and the United States are biding to televize this. So that the... because it would be a tremendous audience participation thing. I won't tell you all the plot but that's what it's about all that. There's another play which I'm starting now, well, I'm in the middle of it actually, which is more tragic. But I can't go on with it, because I haven't written it yet. Meantime I've been writing some essays and the stuff.
MM: What literary works of the twentieth century do you think will last?
AM: I'd have to think about that, I don't know really what to say.
MM: Who are close to your heart. Are they plays, are they novels, is it poetry? What works of words are close to you?
AM: .... I suppose works by Thomas Mann, that I think will go on indefinitely. ....That crazy Russian ....this guy's "Master and Margarita". Bulgakov. I think that this stuff is going to hang around for a while. There're a... good number of things.
MM: Any American writers?
AM: .... Well, it's a... yea, probably yea... one or two works by Fitzgerald are gonna hang on for a while. And of course Faulkner is gonna stay, if nothing. It is a long list, it's a good long list, of the Americans. You know, like Eudora Welty, that's sort of permanent. That's fundamental. Works of art of these people, Saul Bellow, Augie March, I could name a lot of them, I think, that are gonna stay there.
MM: If you were a painter, how would you paint twentieth century? What colours would you use?
AM: Red really, for the blood. I mean, you realize the number of people get killed in this, well, seventy-five years. I can't calculate the number. It's incalculable. I don't think there's any time in history that so many were killed. Murdered by armies, by state forces, and so on. Look at Second World War, its score is forty million. Much more? Look at Vietnam, Korea, Rwanda, the Balkans, I mean it's... we're savages. It's a savagery which is... One of the unrealities I think that we struggle with unknowingly is that here the science has done incredible feats of imagination. Within shouting distance of the killing fields. Theoretically speaking. It's a... the mind can't absorb this.
We've managed to put it aside, the movies get made and the rock music goes on, painters are painting pictures and I'm writing plays and everybody's going around quite as though it's OK. I don't think it's OK. I really do think that there are plenty motivations available to justify the destruction of this civilization.
Arthur Miller (October 17, 1915 – February 10, 2005)
©Michael March was talking to Arthur Miller in his apartment in New York on 1st March 2001