On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives, by Andrew H. Miller

Jane O’Grady is enthralled by a meticulous meditation on possible worlds and paths not taken 

October 1, 2020
Man and and windows in trompe l'oeil style
Source: Getty

I wish I had written this book – a wish that is surely the best response to reading it.

“Ah – yolo [you only live once] + fomo [fear of missing out]” was the formulation of a friend to whom Andew Miller was trying to explain his project. Wishing, choosing and regretting; forking paths and roads not taken; alternative lives and selves; “I” as simultaneously unique and also the universal “Every I”; identity and otherness; contingency, necessity and essence; other possible worlds and the precise “thusness” of things in this one – these are just some of the themes explored in On Not Being Someone Else. Cosmic metaphysical speculation is combined with, and conveyed through, meticulous analysis of pictures, poems, novels and films. Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Philip Larkin, W. H. Auden and film director Frank Capra are among the many artists alluded to in this wonderful mosaic of insights, autobiography and quotations.

Above all, this book upholds the redemptive power of art. Miller reminds us that, just as tricks of perspective in paintings and trompe l’oeil “tease us with reality”, with people and things seeming to jut out of the canvas into the world, equally “the movement goes the other direction. It’s not [just] that art enters our space, but that we enter its.” We glimpse “the artistry of what is – another form of trompe l’oeil”. Great art illuminates the banal and everyday, lets us discern beauty, significance and pathos where we had missed it, does what John Donne did in his love poems: “makes one little room an everywhere” and fills our beds with continents and kings.

At one point, Miller enlists Bishop Butler’s pronouncement that “every thing is what it is, and not another thing” in aid of showing the opposite – that a thing rarely is simply what it is, but rather, thanks to memory, desire, imagination, regret and action, is also a great deal that it is not. He also cites Galway Kinnell’s poem Prayer, which insists that “what is”, and whatever happens, “is what I want. Only that. But that.” Then Miller quizzically comments: “Yes. But only if we remember that what is includes our strange ability to see what is not, as we see the moon shining with a light not its own.” This ability “is a burden as well as a gift. That’s why Kinnell must pray.”

Elsewhere, Miller appeals rather cursorily to the notion of “eternal recurrence” – Nietzsche’s defiant embrace of fate’s contingencies by pledging to relive his life in its every excruciating detail over and over again forever. This is a hard ideal to accept or live by, but Miller also offers a snippet of Søren Kierkegaard’s “bleak humour”: “If you marry, you will regret it. If you do not marry, you will also regret it. If you marry or do not marry, you will regret both.”

“What is the relation between unrealized possibilities and the stories we tell?” is Miller’s central question. Fiction, he argues, can help us break out of our separateness, enabling us to “see something of what it would be to be one traveler on two roads”. Usually we are limited by lack of imagination. “Sympathy can seem hard work,” he writes. “I struggle to put myself in the place of another person, [whereas] envy is effortless” because it presupposes our similarity to anyone we envy: “I already am in that person’s place.” Each of us would surely agree with Sergeant Troy in Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd – that we want to be the hero, however unhappy, of our own story rather than a fortunate protagonist in someone else’s. The roles I begrudge others occupying have to be close enough to my own that I can imagine myself occupying them. If being King of China entails forgetting who we have been, the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz claimed, no one would want to be King of China.

What fiction does is allow us “to exist by proxy” (as the 19th-century essayist William Hazlitt put it), to straddle boundaries so that sympathy is as immediate as envy is. It makes us feel kinship with others, however disparate to ourselves, and put ourselves in their place. Reading about the rudeness of Jane Austen’s Emma to Miss Bates, we feel embarrassed and guilty because somehow we are Emma. Whatever our sex or colour, we, like “the mother” in a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, mourn our aborted children and, like the protagonist in a story by Langston Hughes, loathe ourselves as traitors when “passing as white”. The philosopher Ted Cohen, notes Miller, argues that the ability to think of one thing as something else constitutes the same sort of “talent for metaphor” that is involved in thinking of oneself as someone else, a skill that is fostered by fiction.

Art is illusion in aid of actuality, understanding and truth. Its aspiration to perfection and inevitability is engendered by our agonising sense of contingency and, in turn, lifts us out of contingency. But the precision with which Miller analyses every word and caesura in a poem or passage (retracing the writer’s steps) reminds us that every artwork has itself been born out of an agony of choice. The great stylist Henry James, whose polished work is preoccupied with choices and missed opportunities, wrote prefaces outlining alternative plots to those he used and other steps his misstepping characters might have taken.

Because we can choose and act, we can never be who we are; we essentially have no essence. Miller seems to share that existentialist idea, and extends it. Jean-Paul Sartre proclaimed that non-human creatures and things are enviably “in-themselves”, exactly what they are. Miller, however, suggests that we infect them with our own porousness and lack of essence – but fruitfully. Recounting an ecstatic sense of oneness recorded in Virginia Woolf’s diary, he comments: “And yet, in these moments in which the thing in itself is enough, satisfactory, achieved, the thought of what is not hasn’t been eliminated.” The sense of “enoughness” conflicts with, yet is held together by, the sense of longing.

Examining art’s capacity to transfix, multiply and compress, this book is itself a work of art, although, with so many roads and such abundance, it is easy for the reader to get lost. If I’ve added my own fragments in this review to the ones already in it, that’s inevitable. Not being Andrew Miller, any reader of On Not Being Someone Else will keep saying: “Yes, but what about…? I would have included…”, because she has been provoked to remember art that she has loved and been transformed by, and the ways that her own life has approached art’s intensity.

Jane O’Grady is a co-founder of the London School of Philosophy and taught philosophy of psychology at City, University of London. She is also the author of Enlightenment Philosophy in a Nutshell (2019).

On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives
By Andrew H. Miller
Harvard University Press, 232pp, £23.95
ISBN 9780674238084
Published 6 September 2020

The author

Andrew H. Miller, professor of English at Johns Hopkins University, was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and lived there until the age of five. After that, he recalls, his “family moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where I lived until I left for college, and to which I returned, by chance, to work for many years as a professor at Indiana University”.

He enjoyed “a terrific education at the University of Michigan”, where he “learned to study literature and film very closely, and to reflect on it from a philosophical distance. My time there also confirmed me in my sense that doing these things collectively in the classroom could be thrilling.”

What led him from more specialist writing about 19th-century literature and culture to the huge themes he explores in On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives?

“A combination of events in my own life – starting down the long roads of career, marriage and parenting – drew me to the thought of roads untaken,” Miller replies. “Conversations with others then made me see how widely shared this preoccupation is. At the same time, I became convinced that roads untaken and lives unled are a major concern for modern poets and novelists as well as philosophers and psychologists…Conceiving the topic ambitiously also brought welcome challenges to me as a writer.”

Asked about the value people have found in the arts during the pandemic, Miller points to their role as “powerful expressions of protest, consolation, companionship and hope. But I’ve also been struck anew by their capacity to convey fundamental and elusive features of our shared experience. We seem to be living in a time of utter stagnation and complete transformation, of collapse and revolt, boredom and renewal. Something has happened to the daily experience of time, something abstract, complex and very hard to grasp – and the arts have been helpful in trying to comprehend it.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Perspectives from the page

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