From The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

For summer reading I’m hitting a tour of “American Culture” (inspired, I guess, by my friend and mentor John Hartigan’s recent work)…I’m currently reading Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945)…this is Miller’s reassessment of American culture after 10 years as an expatriate in Paris…Upon his returned to the US (ushered by WWII & his father’s impending death), Miller embarks on a post-Tocqueville/pre-Kerouac journey across the country in 1939…In fact, reading this book beside Tocqueville’s Democracy in America results in some strange observations…

At any rate, here’s a section of Nightmare that caught my eye…

We are accustomed to think of ourselves as an emancipated people; we say that we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudices and hatred. This is the melting-pot, the seat of a great human experiment. Beautiful words, full of noble, idealistic sentiment. Actually was are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quaks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment? The land of opportunity has become the land of senseless sweat and struggle. The goal of all our striving has long been forgotten. We no longer wish to succor the oppressed and homeless; there is no room in this great, empty land for those who, like our forefathers before us, now seek a place of refuge. Millions of men and women are, or were until very recently, on relief, condemned like guinea pigs to a life of forced idleness. The world meanwhile looks to us with a desperation such as it has never known before. Where is the democratic spirit? Where are the leaders?

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Categories: anthropology, post


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