Watershed Online

Vine Stylesheet

A Review of Timebends: A Life

It is rare for me upon finishing a book to mourn its passing no matter how good it is; I'm usually raring to plunge into the next one. After all, the race is on in our home to read as much as humanly possible, an "Amazing Race" of the mind so to speak.

But the night when I read the last page of Timebends, Arthur Miller's autobiography, I felt sad. Many people describe books as good friends and I truly feel I will miss Arthur Miller; his life and thoughts have definitely become part of my daily life, if only through words on a page. Proof of this was when I blurted out to Paul, "I think I'm in love with Arthur Miller." He laughed, I laughed. But the funny thing is, it's kind of true. Not that I want to leave Paul for someone who is pushing 90 but something is evoked in the heart when you encounter a person's human vulnerability without barrier, when ideas are expressed with a humility that only comes from living a life that is bent on meaningful reflection and honesty.

The title Timebends is well chosen and it's only at the end of the book that I discovered that the title carries a double if not more meanings given the nature of time, space and the natural meandering quality of life. The book is not written in strict chronological style but the events Miller shares with readers take their cue from internal stirrings. After all, isn't this the way memory works? For some readers who appreciate a well-structured timeline this might be bothersome. In spite of the apparent disjointedness, I never got the sense that something was left out. He covers a wide range of ideas, events, and encounters that make up his life and he manages to do it with articulated detail - sometimes comical, sometimes moving - as well as with analytical depth. He begins with Brooklyn, his birthplace, a colourful place with vibrant characters that filled his youth and young adulthood. These early experiences would eventually spill over to script and then to stage. He takes us to Michigan here he attended university and wrote his first play: the place of another birth - the birth of Arthur Miller as writer and thinker.

Living in the Depression surrounded by financial and social breakdown twigged his political imagination. Miller became particularly devoted to Marxism. His adolescent mind needed a rebellious outlet and so while throwing himself into a game of street ball a passing conversation with one of the guys changed his life forever. The young university student introduced Miller to communism, an ideal that would stay with him for the rest of his life, although in many different forms. Like many intellectuals of his time he became infatuated with the Soviet Union. This resulted in a constant critique of American politics - what he eventually called "the culture of denial". This critique was most embodied in the McCarthy period during which he, as well as many of his friends and colleagues, were directly affected. He was wise to see that this denial not as merely particular to the time but as a dangerous constant in the American consciousness. Being a playwright his plays were never merely entertaining but were the vessels in which he put all his love, frustrations and ultimately his dream of a better society. The Crucible and Death of a Salesman are two of his many works that critique not only society but also delve into the psyche, which often proved to be a volatile minefield. Miller was a disciple of meaning and morality that transcended rules and convention.

The book touches on his relationship and marriage with Marilyn Munroe and as a result the Hollywood culture with which he felt constantly at odds. He felt almost immediately the potential for the destruction of the soul in a world that on the one hand worships and on the other seeks to destroy. By nature, Miller felt distaste for the life of the celebrity. But at the same time, he was forced to deal with the temptation that came along with finding oneself in the limelight. Not only was he ruthless in his critique of the superficiality that surrounded him but he was ruthless with himself; he saw how cunning the ego could be. He was a man of the masses, an everyman, but because of his creative destiny he became part of the elitist art world which never left him with a good taste in his mouth. Where his credentials eventually took him, however, proved to be satisfying. In his later life he became the president of PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists), a group that tried to unify writers beyond borders and ideologies, and tried to stand against censorship, especially in countries where censorship could mean losing your life. On more than one occasion he was able to stop atrocities simply because some government official had at one time seen his work. This for him was much more rewarding than any award or newspaper review.

Timebends is much more than the result of a literary technique where chronology is up for grabs. Timebends is an allusion to the idea that what looks like something at one end of life, the beginning, looks quite different at the other end. Time affects our ideas, shapes them into something you would never dream about and when the gloves of life are taken off, a miracle of sorts happens. A discovery is made. Miller discovered that dreams and ideas change shape all the time, but if a dream is true the essence stays the same. It is the wise person that knows how to weather the changes without losing the essence. Despite his regrets, despite the mistakes that he made, despite his early political naivete, despite the bleakness and cruelty of human nature that he witnessed, Miller stayed true to the dream, the glimmer of hope he felt long ago on the day of his conversion, the fateful game of street ball where he saw with clarity that people could live together in a spirit of love and commonality.

Miller ends his memoirs with the following quote. In a simple, poetic way it speaks of what lies at the heart of his ideas. It seems to capture the spirit of his life - beginning, middle and end:

And so the coyotes are out there earnestly trying to arrange their lives to make more coyotes possible, not knowing that it is my forest, of course. And I am in this room from which I can sometimes look out at dusk and see them warily moving through the barren winter trees, and I am, I suppose, doing what they are doing, making myself possible and those who come after me. At such moments I do not know whose land that is that I own, or whose bed I sleep in. In the darkness out there they see my light and pause, muzzles lifted, wondering who I am and what I am doing here in this cabin under my light. I am a mystery to them until they tire of it and move on, but the truth, the first truth, probably, is that we are all connected, watching one another. Even the trees.

back to what's newcomments next