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Henry Miller: Reflections of a Cosmic Tourist

An afternoon with the celebrated author

Henry Miller

American writer Henry Miller speaking at a press conference in London, held to launch his latest book 'Sexus', June 30th 1969.

Central Press/Getty

Henry Miller — “confused, negligent, reckless, lusty, obscene, boisterous, thoughtful, scrupulous, lying, diabolically truthful man that I am”; author of many famous and infamous books “filled with wisdom and nonsense, truth and falsehood, toenails, hair, teeth, blood and ovaries” (his words) — has been called everything from “a counterrevolutionary sexual politician” (Kate Millet) to “a true sexual revolutionary” (Norman Mailer); an author who neglects “form and mesure” (Frank Kermode) to “the only imaginative prose writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past” (George Orwell).

Now 83, and in spite of recent illnesses still painting and writing, Miller is still accepting what he once called our Air-Conditioned Nightmare with joyful incredulity, still continuing to find out and tell us who he is. This past year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of the first Paris edition of Tropic of Cancer — Miller’s first published book — and it is now indisputably clear that Miller’s more than 40 subsequent volumes must be read simply as one enormous evolving work — a perpetual Bildungsroman — mani festing the always changing, yet ever the same, awareness and celebration of the recovery of the divinity of man, as well as of the way of truth which, Miller says, leads not to salvation but to enlightenment. “There is no salvation, really, only infinite realms of experience providing more and more tests, demanding more and more faith. … When each thing is lived through to the end, there is no death and no regrets, neither is there a false springtime; each moment lived pushes open a greater, wider horizon from which there is no escape save living.”

Gentile Dybbuck (as he once called himself), patriot of the 14th Ward (Brooklyn), American anarchist, Parisian voyou, cosmic tourist in Greece, sage of Big Sur, Henry Miller is today an inhabitant of an improbable-looking Georgian colonial house in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles — a house teeming with posters, paintings, sketches and photographs, all tokens and traces of Miller’s ebullient, peripatetic life.

There are a number of his radiant “instinctive” watercolors hanging in the living room. (“If it doesn’t look like a horse when I’m through, I can always turn it into a hammock,” he once said of his “method” of painting in “The Angel Is My Watermark.”) On one wall is a hand-inscribed poster listing the names of scores of places Miller has visited around the world — with marginal comments:

Bruges — the Dead City (for poets)
Imperial City, California (loss of identity)
Pisa (talking to tower all hours)
Cafe Boudou, Paris: Rue Fontaine (Algerian whore)
Grand Canyon (still the best)
Corfu — Violating Temple (English girl)
Biarritz (rain, rain, rain)

In the kitchen, posted on a cabinet, is his Consubstantial Health Menu, which announces favorite dishes: e.g., Bata Yaku! Sauerfleisch mit Kartoffel-klösze, Leeks, Zucchini ad perpetuum, Calves’ Liver (yum yum)… and a strong warning: Please! No Health Food.

Across one end of his study is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf containing hundreds of his own works translated into scores of languages, while two other walls are completely decorated with graffiti and drawings, all contributed by visitors, friends and by Henry himself: “Kill the Buddha!” “Let’s Case the Joint!” “Love, Delight and Organ Are Feminine in the Plural!” “The Last Sleeper of the Middle Ages!” “Don’t Look for Miracles. You Are the Miracle!”

Most fascinating of all is the author’s famous bathroom — a veritable museum which presents the iconography of the World of Henry Miller: photos of actresses on the set of the filmed version of Tropic of Cancer, Buddhas from four countries, a portrait of Hermann Hesse (“Most writers don’t look so hot,” Miller says. “They’re thin blooded, alone with their thoughts.”), a Jungian mandala, Taoist emblems, a Bosch reproduction, the castle of Ludwig of Bavaria, Miller’s fifth wife Hoki (from whom he’s now separated and about whom he wrote: “First it was a broken toe, then it was a broken brow and finally a broken heart”), the head of Gurdjieff (“of all masters the most interesting”) and, hidden away in the corner, a couple of hard-core photos “for people who expect something like that in here.” (Tom Schiller’s delightful film, Henry Miller Asleep and Awake — distributed by New Yorker Films — is shot in this very bathroom and presents the author taking the viewer around on a guided tour.)

I really hate greeting you like this, in pajamas and in bed,” Miller says as I enter his bedroom. Smiling and talking with a never discarded bristly, crepitated Brooklyn accent and a tone of voice blending honey and rezina, he continues: “I just got out of the hospital again, you see. They had to replace an artificial artery running from my neck down to the leg. It didn’t work, it developed an abscess, and so they had to take out both the artery and the abscess. I’m really in bad shape, no?” Miller says, laughing. “And this is all attributable to those damned cigarettes. I was an athlete when I was young — don’t you know? I was good at track and a bicycle rider. I didn’t smoke until I was 25, and then it was incessant. And all my wives smoked, too. If I start again it means death. My circulation will stop, and they’ll have to cut off my legs.”

Again a smile and a gentle laugh. “Always Merry and Bright!” — Henry’s lifelong motto.

“You’ll have to speak to my left ear — the other one doesn’t work. And I’ve lost vision in my left eye.”

“Can you see me?” I ask.

“I certainly imagined you differently,” Miller responds. “When I heard that someone named Jonathan was coming, I thought you’d be some tall, uptight Englishman with blond hair. But I’m glad I was wrong.”

Henry, unlike his fellow expatriate novelist and namesake Henry (James) — it is impossible to think of two more wildly opposite types — is well known for his caustic Anglophobic attitudes. (Miller in a letter to Lawrence Durrell: “The most terrible, damning line in the whole of The Black Book is that remark of Chamberlain’s: ‘Look, do you think it would damage our relationship if I sucked you off?’ That almost tells the whole story of England.”) But strangely, it is the English Lawrence Durrell who, as a 23-year-old writer and diplomat living in Corfu, wrote the then 43-year-old Miller an ecstatic fan letter after reading Tropic of Cancer, calling it “the only really man-sized piece of work this century can boast of.” They have been close friends and correspondents for almost 40 years, and in fact Durrell and his wife are expected this evening for dinner. (Durrell taught this past year at Cal Tech, one of the main reasons being to keep in close contact with his friend.)

Hanging on the wall alongside Henry’s bed is a dramatic photo of a saintly looking Chinese man, whose face bears an uncanny resemblance to Miller’s own.

“That’s a photo of a Chinese sage I found in a magazine 30 years ago,” Henry says, noticing my interest. “I framed it and kept it ever since. I regard him as an enlightened man. even though he wasn’t known.”

“You yourself once characterized the French writer Blaise Cendrars as ‘the Chinese rock-bottom man of my imagination,'” I mention, pulling out my little black notebook to check the quote.

“I’m sure Durrell christened me that,” Henry says. “Are you sure I said that about Cendrars?”

“Absolutely, it’s in my book here.”

Henry looks at me bemusedly. “That’s really something,” he exclaims. “I should have realized this before. But with that book you really look just like that guy Columbo on television. Peter Falk plays him, and he seems a little half-witted, you know, a little stupid … not conniving but cunning. Yes, I’d like to be like that. That’s my idea of a man!… Go right ahead with… what is it you want to ask me?… Amazing, just like that guy Columbo.”

“This isn’t really a question,” I say, rummaging through the book, “but speaking of the Chinese, I’d like to read you a little story by Chuang-Tze, the disciple of Lao-Tze. I wrote it down to read to you because to me it suggests something very deep and basic about all of your work.”

“Just read it loudly and slowly, please,” Henry says.

Chuang-Tze writes: “The sovereign of the Southern Sea is called Dissatisfaction (with things as they are); the sovereign of the Northern Sea, Revolution; the sovereign of the Center of the World, Chaos. Dissatisfaction and Revolution from time to time met together in the territory of Chaos, and Chaos treated them very hospitably. The two sovereigns planned how to repay Chaos’s kindness. They said, ‘Men all have seven holes to their bodies for seeing, hearing, eating and breathing. Our friend has none of these. Let us try to bore some holes in him.’ Each day they bored one hole. On the seventh day Chaos died.”

“That’s a fantastic story,” Henry says. “And it’s interesting that you see that in my work.”

“I was thinking of your idea of chaos as the fluid which enveloped you, which you breathed in through the gills. And of the fertile void, the chaos which you’ve called the ‘seat of creation itself,’ whose order is beyond human comprehension. And of the ‘humanizing’ and destruction of the natural order. And I was thinking, too, of your statement in Black Spring: ‘My faltering and groping, my search for any and every means of expression, is a sort of divine stuttering. I am dazzled by the glorious collapse of the world!'”

“Yes, that’s wonderful,” Henry says. “I don’t even remember some of these things you say I’ve written. Read some more from your notebook.”

“I’ve been thinking about your obsession in your books with the idea of China, and that photo on the wall made me realize how much you look Chinese. ‘I want to become nothing more than the China I already am,’ you once wrote. ‘I am nothing if not Chinese,’ and you’ve identified Chinese with that ‘supernormal life such that one is unnaturally gay, unnaturally healthy, unnaturally indifferent…. The artist scorns the ordinary alphabet and adopts the symbol, the ideograph. He writes Chinese.’ And in many of your works you point over and over again to the fact that our verb ‘to be,’ intransitive in English, is transitive in Chinese.”

“Yes, yes, that’s become my credo. To be gay is the sign of health and intelligence. First of all humor: That’s what the Chinese philosophers had, and what the Germans never had. Nietzsche had some, but it was morbid and bitter. But Kant, Schopenhauer… you can look in vain. Chuang-Tze is a genius, his marvelous humor comes out of all his pores. And without that you can’t have humor. My favorite American writer, for instance, is the Jewish immigrant I.B. Singer. He makes me laugh and weep, he tears me apart, don’t you know? Most American writers hardly touch me, they’re always on the surface. He’s a big man in my estimation.

“But speaking of the Chinese, I have intuitive flashes that I have Mongol and Jewish blood in me — two strange mixtures, no? As far as I know, I’m German all the way through, but I disown it. I believe that blood counts very strongly — what’s in your veins. I’ve had that feeling. Because I’m a real German, and I don’t like that. Not just because of the war… long before that: I was raised among them in a German-American neighborhood, and they’re worse than the Germans in Germany…. Of course, there’s Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Hölderlin, the composers….Naturally they’re wonderful.

“You know something? I was recently reading Hermann Hesse’s last book, My Belief. And the very end of this book has to do with Oriental writers. He mentions how his perspective on life changed when he became acquainted with Lao-Tze, Chuang-Tze and the I Ching, of course. And I discovered these writers when I was about 18. I was crazy about the Chinese. I have trouble, however, with the novels like All Men Are Brothers — too many characters and there’s no psychology — everything is on the surface.”

“One of my favorite books of yours, Henry, is Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Your meditations on and descriptions of your friends and life in Big Sur are so serene and lambent, like some of the great Chinese poems. I wish it had gone on and on.”

“The poets who retired in old age to the country,” Henry reflects. “Yes, that’s right. I’ve tried to model myself on the Chinese sages. And they were happy, gay men. I’ve heard that the old men in China before the Revolution used to sit out on river boats and converse, drink tea, smoke and just enjoy talking about philosophy or literature. They always invited girls to come and drink with them. And then they’d go and fly a kite afterwards, a real kite. I think that’s admirable…. We flew kites in Big Sur, but there we had big winds in canyons with birds being lifted by the updrafts. The kites got torn and smashed.”

“I especially remember,” I mention, “that passage in Big Sur where you describe the morning sun rising behind you and throwing an enlarged shadow of yourself into the iridescent fog below. You wrote about it this way: ‘I lift my arms as in prayer, achieving a wingspan no god ever possessed, and there in the drifting fog a nimbus floats about my head, a radiant nimbus such as the Buddha himself might proudly wear. In the Himalayas, where the same phenomenon occurs, it is said that a devout follower of the Buddha will throw himself from a peak — into the arms of Buddha.'”

“Yes, I remember that, “Henry says. “Your shadow is in the light and fog, overaggrandized; you’re in monstrous size and you’re tempted to throw yourself over.”

“That reminds me of Anais Nin’s comment,” I mention, “that the figures in your books are always ‘outsized…whether tyrant or victims, man or woman.'”

“That’s true,” Henry responds. “That’s because I’m enthusiastic and I exaggerate, I adore and worship. I don’t just like. I love. I go overboard. And if I hate, it’s in the same way. I don’t know any neutral, in-between ground.”

Henry Miller’s enthusiasms and exaggerations have led many persons to hold on to a distorted picture of the author as a writer only of six supposedly epigamic “sex” books (the Tropics, Quiet Days in Clichy, and Sexus, Plexus and Nexus) for a reading constituency consisting primarily of GIs in Place Pigalle, existentialist wastrels or academic “freaks” like Karl Shapiro (who called Miller the “greatest living author”).

Of the above mentioned works, Tropic of Capricorn is certainly one of the most original works of 20th-century literature. And the fact that Henry Miller has been stereotyped so disparagingly is a peculiarity of American literary history, since his work is one that consistently evolves, perfectly exemplifying the ideas of rapturous change, metamorphosis, surrender and growth.

“The angels praising the Lord are never the same,” the great Hasidic Rabbi Nachman once said. “The Lord changes them every day.” One of Henry Miller’s favorite statements is that of the philosopher Eric Gutkind: “To overcome the world is to make it transparent.” And it is as if with the transparency of angels that Miller reveals an unparalleled literary ability to disappear into the objects and persons of his attention and thereby to allow them to appear in an unmediated radiance. Miller’s heightened identification with everything he notices is made even more powerful by means of an astonishing descriptive presentational immediacy and an attendant sense of magnanimity.

Consider his meditation on his friend Hans Reichel’s painting, The Stillborn Twins:

It is an ensemble of miniature panels in which there is not only the embryonic flavor but the hieroglyphic as well. If he likes you, Reichel will show you in one of the panels the little shirt which the mother of the stillborn twins was probably thinking of in her agony. He says it so simply and honestly that you feel like weeping. The little shirt embedded in a cold prenatal green is indeed the sort of shirt which only a woman in travail could summon up. You feel that with the freezing torture of birth, at the moment when the mind seems ready to snap, the mother’s eye inwardly turning gropes frantically towards some tender, known object which will attach her, if only for a moment, to the world of human entities. In this quick, agonized clutch the mother sinks back, through worlds unknown to man, to planets long since disappeared, where perhaps there were no babies’ shirts but where there was the warmth, the tenderness, the mossy envelope of a love beyond love, of a love for the disparate elements which metamorphose through the mother, through her pain, through her death, so that life may go on. Each panel, if you read it with the cosmological eye, is a throwback to an undecipherable script of life. The whole cosmos is moving back and forth through the sluice of time and the stillborn twins are embedded there in the cold prenatal green with the shirt that was never worn. — “The Cosmological Eye”

Or read Miller’s descriptions of the Paris photographs of the French photographer Brassai:

What strange cities — and situations stranger still! The mendicant sitting on the public bench thirsting for a glimmer of sun, the butcher standing in a pool of blood with knife upraised, the scows and barges dreaming in the shadows of the bridges, the pimp standing against a wall with cigarette in hand, the street cleaner with her broom of reddish twigs, her thick, gnarled fingers, her high stomach draped in black, a shroud over her womb, rinsing away the vomit of the night before so that when I pass over the cobblestones my feet will gleam with the light of morning stars. I see the old hats, the sombreros and fedoras, the velours and Panamas that I painted with a clutching fury; I see the corners of walls eroded by time and weather which I passed in the night and in passing felt the erosion going on in myself, corners of my own walls crumbling away, blown down, dispersed, reintegrated elsewhere in mysterious shape and essence. I see the old tin urinals where, standing in the dead silence of the night, I dreamed so violently that the past sprang up like a white horse and carried me out of the body. — “The Eye of Paris”

Most persons seem to have forgotten (or have never known) not only passages like these but also: the great reveries on Brooklyn, the pissoirs in Paris and the madness of Tante Melia (all in Black Spring); the hymn to Saturnian effluvia and the talking-blues Dipsy Doodle passacaglia which tells the story of Louis the Armstrong and Epaminondas (The Colossus of Maroussi); his dreamlike discovery of the secret street in “Reunion in Brooklyn”; the letters to Alfred Perlès and Lawrence Durrell; the prose poems describing Miller’s obsession with painting (To Paint Is to Love Again, The Waters Reglitterized); the Hamlet correspondence with Michel Fraenkel (long out of print); and the essays on Balzac, D.H. Lawrence, Cendrars and H. Rider Haggard. All of these have been overlooked in the still raging debate concerning Miller’s problematic attitude toward women.

The recent Mailer/Miller/Millet literary fracas presented Kate Millet, in her book Sexual Politics, accusing Miller of depersonalizing women with his virulent and fear-ridden sexual attitudes, while Norman Mailer in The Prisoner of Sex defended him as a “sexual pioneer.” There is little question, as Mailer points out, that Millet distorts Miller’s escapades and determinedly overlooks the author’s omnifarious, picaresque humor. But in terms of getting to the roots of Miller’s sexual attitudes, neither Millet nor Mailer comes close to the perspicacious criticism of Miller’s friend of more than 40 years, Anais Nin, nor to Miller’s own comments on these matters in his correspondence with various friends.

In her diaries Anais Nin often mentions the paradox between what she sees as her friend’s gentle and violent writing, his veering from sentimentality to callousness, tenderness to ridicule, gentleness to anger. And she suggests that because of what she saw as Miller’s “utter subjection” to his wife June (Mona, Mara, Alraune in his novels), Miller used his books to take revenge upon her.

Miller himself has written: “Perhaps one reason why I have stressed so much the immoral, the wicked, the ugly, the cruel in my work is because I wanted others to know how valuable these are, how equally if not more important than the good things…. I was getting the poison out of my system. Curiously enough, this poison had a tonic effect for others. It was as if I had given them some kind of immunity.”

Sometimes, in his letters, we find Miller protecting himself, describing himself as “a little boy going down into the street to play, having no fixed purpose, no particular direction, no especial friend to seek out, but just divinely content to be going down into the street to see whatever might come. As if I did not love them! Only I also loved others, too… not in the way they meant, but in a natural, wholesome, easy way. Like one loves garlic, honey, wild strawberries.”

But he is unsparing of himself as well: “The coward in me always concealed himself in that thick armor of dull passivity. I only grew truly sensitive again when I had attained a certain measure of liberation…. To live out one’s desires and, in so doing, subtly alter their nature is the aim of every individual who aspires to evolve.”

The idea of self-liberation — what psychologists today like to call “self-actualization” or “individuation” — has always been Miller’s great concern in all of his books, which progress from the via purgativa to the via unitiva. And even as his novels work counterclockwise (Tropic of Cancer tells of Miller’s life in Thirties Paris, Tropic of Capricorn and The Rosy Crucifixion of his earlier life in New York City), Miller gives, as he tells us, in “each separate fragment, each work, the feeling of the whole as I go on, because I am digging deeper and deeper into life, digging deeper and deeper into past and future… The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: He takes the path in order eventually to become that path himself.”

This path is often filled with the “strong odor of sex” which, to Miller, is “really the aroma of birth; it is disagreeable only to those who fail to recognize its significance.” And it is a path which leads to his rebirth at the tomb of Agamemnon — described in The Colossus of Maroussi as “the great peace which comes of surrender” — and to his rebirth at the conclusion of Tropic of Capricorn: “I take you as a star and a trap, as a stone to tip the scales, as a judge that is blindfolded, as a hole to fall into, as a path to walk, as a cross and an arrow. Up to the present I traveled the opposite way of the sun; henceforth I travel two ways, as sun and as moon. Henceforth I take on two sexes, two hemispheres, two skies, two sets of everything. Henceforth I shall be double-jointed and double sexed. Everything that happens will happen twice. I shall be as a visitor to this earth, partaking of its blessings and carrying off its gifts. I shall neither serve nor be served. I shall seek the end in myself.”

And this amazing passage suggests — if not that Henry is a prototype of Norman O. Brown — at least something quite different from what Millet and Mailer are arguing about.

Henry Miller is hardly an enthusiastic supporter of psychological criticism. “This seeking for meaning in everything!” he once exclaimed. “So Germanic! This urge to make everything profound. What nonsense! If only they could also make everything unimportant at the same time.” But I decided to ask him about the woman question anyway.

“Henry,” I say, “Anais Nin wrote in her diaries that in Tropic of Cancer you created a book in which you have a sex and a stomach. In Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring, she says, you have eyes, ears and a mouth. And eventually, Anais Nin suggests, you will finally create a full man, at which point you’ll be able to write about a woman for real.”

“I don’t remember her writing that,” Henry responds. “That should have stuck in my head. That’s quite wonderful. But it’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s like that Chuang-Tze story you read me, about the drilling of the holes into Chaos, don’t you know?” Henry smiles. “But if you saw Anais today I think she’d give you the feeling that I am a whole man today.

“Tom Schiller told me that there was a bomb scare in Copenhagen when they were going to show his film about me (Henry Miller Asleep and Awake). A woman’s lib group called up the theater to stop the film from being shown — they showed it anyway — but I want so badly to write a letter to the women who are against me. The woman I could write it to would be Germaine Greer. I adore her — the others I don’t know — and I’d like to say: ‘My dear Germaine Greer, isn’t it obvious from my work that I love women? Is the fact that I also fuck them without asking their names the great sin? I never took them as sex objects…. Well, maybe I did at times, but it wasn’t done with evil thought or with the intention of putting the woman down. It just so happened that there were chance encounters — you meet and pass, and that’s how it sometimes occurred. There never was any woman problem in my mind.'”

“You’ve been criticized, perhaps validly,” I say, “for portraying women either as phantasmagoric angels disappearing into the clouds or as down-to-earth whores. Or do you think I’m distorting the picture?”

“I don’t think that’s true. I really don’t,” he replies. “To talk jokingly about it: They’re all layable, even the angels. And the whores can be worshiped, too. Naturally. That’s what Jesus did. The famous religious leaders always spoke well of whores.”

“Again, Henry,” I say, “Anais Nin has said that in Tropic of Cancer you seemed to be fighting off the idea of Woman because there was a woman inside of you whom you couldn’t accept.”

“It was my mother,” Henry replies without hesitation, “whom I couldn’t accept. I was always the enemy of my mother and she of me. We never got along — never. Not till her dying day. And even then we were still enemies. Even then she was berating me and treating me like a child. And I couldn’t stand it. And I grabbed her and pushed her back on the pillow. And then I realized the brutality of it — I didn’t hurt her — but the very thought of doing this to such a woman! And then I went out to the hall and sobbed and wept.”

“I saw a photo of your mother recently,” I mention, “and she looked like a strong, handsome woman.”

“You really think so? Is that so?” Henry says with interest. “I always think of her as a cold woman…. But sometimes I think Anais analyzes everything too much. She believes so much that she’s had such great help from psychoanalysts, and I’m always saying: Fuck the analyst, that’s the last man to see, he’s a faker. Now he isn’t a faker, he’s honest, and there are wonderful men. I read Jung and I know that Hermann Hesse said he was indebted to Jung and Freud. I can’t read Freud today, but when I was 19 or 20 I fought a battle for him. Today I don’t think it was worth wasting time on, but that’s a prejudice again, and I don’t deny that. I don’t see why we haven’t got a right to be prejudiced.”

“But psychologically there are so many interesting things in your books, Henry,” I say. “The conclusion to Tropic of Capricorn, for example, where you say that from then on you’d be both male and female — everything that happened would occur twice. Or the earlier, even more amazing ‘Land of Fuck’ interlude, which is a reverie about the purity and infancy of sexual desire, in which you seem to become the sexual process itself in an out-of-body journey.”

“Yes,” Henry agrees, “you’re lifted out of the body of the narrative, you’re floating somewhere and sex is something like x,y,z — you can’t name it. You see, that was a windfall. Every so often you get a gift from above, it comes to you, you have nothing to do with it, you’re being dictated to. I don’t take credit for that interlude…. And the last part of Capricorn … yes, that was a wonderful passage. Sometimes I don’t know what these things mean. They come out of the unconscious. It’s interesting, these questions. No one picks these things out.”

In order to lighten things up, I innocuously ask Henry about rock & roll — something I assume he likes.

“I detest rock & roll,” he retorts passionately. “To me it’s noise, I miss the beautiful melodies. But I suppose it’s an omission. What rock & roll musicians do you like?”

“I like Bob Dylan for one,” I say, “and I was thinking that some of your work must have influenced someone like Dylan. Like that passage in ‘Into the Night Life’ from Black Spring.”

“Do you have it there in your book?” Henry asks. “How does it go?”

I read:

The melting snow melts deeper, the iron rusts, the leaves flower. On the corner, under the elevated, stands a man with a plug hat, in blue serge and linen spats, his white mustache chopped fine. The switch opens and out rolls all the tobacco juice, the golden lemons, the elephant tusks, the candelabras. Moishe Pippik, the lemon dealer, fowled with pigeons, breeding purple eggs in his vest pocket and purple ties and watermelons and spinach with short stems, stringy, marred with tar. The whistle of the acorns loudly stirring, flurry of floozies bandaged in Lysol, ammonia and camphor patches, little mica huts, peanut shells triangled and corrugated, all marching triumphantly with the morning breeze. The morning light comes in creases, the window panes are streaked, the covers are torn, the oilcloth is faded. Walks a man with hair on end, not running, not breathing, a man with a weathervane that turns the corners sharply and then bolts. A man who thinks not how or why but just to walk in lusterless night with all stars to port and loaded whiskers trimmed. Gowselling in the grummels he wakes the plaintiff night with pitfalls turning left to right, high noon on the wintry ocean, high noon all sides aboard and aloft to starboard. The weathervane again with deep oars coming through the portholes and all sounds muffled. Noiseless the night on all fours, like the hurricane. Noiseless with loaded caramels and nickel dice. Sister Monica playing the guitar with shirt open and laces down, broad flanges in either ear. Sister Monica streaked with lime, gum wash, her eyes mildewed, craped, crapped, crenelated.

“What a passage!” I exclaim. “That’s certainly rock & roll to me.”

“I’m glad you liked that,” Henry says, “but I have no way of knowing whether Bob Dylan was influenced by me. You know, Bob Dylan came to my house ten years ago. Joan Baez and her sister brought him and some friends to see me. But Dylan was snooty and arrogant. He was a kid then, of course. And he didn’t like me. He thought I was talking down to him, which I wasn’t. I was trying to be sociable. But we just couldn’t get together. But I know that he is a character, probably a genius, and I really should listen to his work. I’m full of prejudices like everybody else. My kids love him and the Beatles and all the rest.”

At this point, Robert Snyder walks into the room. Snyder is the director of an excellent two-hour film entitled The Henry Miller Odyssey (distributed by Grove Press Films, which also handles Snyder’s films on Buckminster Fuller and Anais Nin) — a film in which Miller is shown in his swimming pool reminiscing about his childhood, playing Ping-Pong, bicycling around Pacific Palisades, revisiting old friends in Paris and conversing with Durrell, Anais Nin and other friends.

Henry has been a film buff ever since his days in Paris, and his essays on Ecstasy, Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or and the French actor Raimu are marvelous pieces of film criticism.

“Do you still see a lot of movies?” I ask.

“Well, as you can guess, I’m a little behind. Bob brought over a film to show here recently — a film that made me sob and weep: Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. I could see it again and cry again. And I just saw the original Frankenstein again. And of course, the original story ends at the North Pole where everything is ice, and that’s the only proper ending for that monstrous story. It’s really a work of art.”

“There are films that you detest, Henry, aren’t there?” Snyder asks.

Bonnie and Clyde!” Henry exclaims. “Did I hate that! I was clapping to myself when they machine-gunned them to death at the end. Dynamite them! Blow them to smithereens! It was so vulgar, that film. I love obscenity but I hate vulgarity. I can’t see how people can enjoy killing for fun. Also, there was a perverse streak there. There was a suggestion that the hero was impotent. I don’t like that, I like healthy sex. I don’t like impotence and perversion.”

“What’s perversion?” I ask.

“Well … what is it?” Henry laughs, confused. “You got me stumped for a moment. Perversion. Now you’ve got me stumped. Now I’m moralizing. Well, to get out of it nicely, I’d say it’s what isn’t healthy. I think you know what I mean, don’t you?”

“Not exactly.”

“Have you become so broad-minded — I’m not being sarcastic — that to you there’s no such thing as perversion?”

“I have my preferences, but I wouldn’t make a definite judgment.”

“I once asked someone what he’d rather be: ignorant or stupid,” Henry explains. “I’d rather be ignorant, but I’ve done stupid things every day of my life. I think we all do, don’t you? Every day we’re wrong about something. But I have no remorse, no regrets. That’s what I call being healthy.”

“Just to take you back for a minute, Henry,” I say, “someone told me that you knew Gurdjieff when you were living in Paris. Is that true?”

“I wish I had met him,” Henry replies, “because I think he’s one of the greatest figures in modern times, and a very mysterious one, too. I don’t think that anyone has ever come to grips with him yet. I was going to make a tour of France with one of my wives, and she didn’t know how to ride a bike. So we went out to the park in Fontainebleau — and we drove around Gurdjieff’s place, never knowing he was there. What a misfortune!”

“You often write about how it’s possible to become aware and awake in the flash of a moment. This concern with being ‘awake’ was also important to Gurdjieff.”

“I think there are two valid attitudes to this,” Henry comments. “Because even in the Zen movement in Japan there are those who think you have to work at it, meditate, study hard, be ascetic. And then there’s another group, whose attitude is exemplified by the story of the Master of Fuck. It was written by a famous American living in Japan, and it’s about a young man whose parents sent him to become a Zen monk. He’s a good student, disciplined, but after ten years he’s not getting anywhere — he’s not enlightened. After 15 years he feels he’ll never make it and so he decides to live the worldly life, leaves the monastery and runs into a prostitute who looks wonderful. And in the middle of the fuck he attains satori…. I never thought of such a thing and naturally he didn’t either, and that’s why it happened. Do you know the quote from the Buddha: ‘I never gained the least thing from unexcelled complete awakening, and for that very reason it is called that.'”

“Once you’re awake, how do you keep awake?”

“I can’t answer that question really. But: Do you believe in conversion and that it’s sincere? Well, I do, I’ve seen it in people, and they don’t have to struggle every day to hold on to it. It remains with you. I don’t know if it ever really happened to me. But I think perhaps it did in Paris in 1934, when I moved into the Villa Seurat and was reading the books of Mme. Blavatsky. And one day after I had looked at a photograph of her face — she had the face of a pig, almost, but fascinating — I was hypnotized by her eyes and I had a complete vision of her as if she were in the room.

“Now I don’t know if that had anything to do with what happened next, but I had a flash, I came to the realization that I was responsible for my whole life, whatever had happened. I used to blame my family, society, my wife … and that day I saw so clearly that I had nobody to blame but myself. I put everything on my own shoulders and I felt so relieved: Now I’m free, no one else is responsible. And that was a kind of awakening, in a way. I remember the story of how one day the Buddha was walking along and a man came up to him and said: ‘Who are you, what are you?’ and the Buddha promptly answered: ‘I am a man who is awake.’ We’re asleep, don’t you know, we’re sleepwalkers.”

Henry is showing Robert Snyder some photographs. “Some fan of mine wanted to cheer me up,” Henry says, “and so he sent me these postcard photos showing the house in Brooklyn where I lived from the age of one to nine. I spent the happiest times at that age, but these photos are horrible, they’re like insanity. The whole street I grew up on has become like a jaw with the teeth falling out. Houses uprooted … it looks so horrible.”

“What was your first memory of Brooklyn?” I ask.

“A dead cat frozen in the gutter. That was when I was four. I remember birds singing in the cage and I was in the highchair and I recited poems in German — I knew German before I knew English. “I had three great periods in my life. Age one to nine was Paradise. Then 1930-1940 in Paris and Greece. And then my years at Big Sur.”

“Why are you living here, Henry?”

“L.A. is a shithole. Someone selected the house for me and told me to move in. But it doesn’t bother me because I have nothing to do with it. I’m in this house, this is my kingdom, my realm. It’s a nice house, I have a Ping-Pong table, and when my leg was okay I used to play every day.”

“Tell Jonathan about the new book you’re working on,” Bob Snyder interjects.

“It’s called The Book of Friends and it’s an homage I’m paying to close, intimate old friends. It begins when I was five years old — what happened 75 years ago is so fresh and vivid to me! — and it starts off with childhood friends. I always made friends easily — all my life, even now. And in this book I’m repeating myself often, overlapping, covering ground I’ve already written about, but from a different angle. It goes up to Joe Gray — an ex-pugilist, a stuntman and stand-in for Dean Martin. An uncultured guy but a great reader. After reading my books, he started to read everything else. He died two years ago, and he was a great friend. With each friend, you know, I was different.”

“The last thing I wanted to ask you about, Henry,” I say, leafing through my little book, “was the initiation ordeal imposed by the Brotherhood of Fools and Simpletons — an ordeal you’ve humorously written about in Big Sur.”

“The Brotherhood of Fools and Simpletons?” Henry wonders. “I’ve completely forgotten what that was all about.”

“Well, the Brotherhood asks three questions of the initiates. The first is: ‘How would you order the world if you were given the powers of the creator?’ The second: ‘What is it you desire that you do not already possess?’ And the third: ‘Say something which will truly astonish us!’ … How would you answer these questions?”

“Ah ha!” Henry exclaims. “That third question I borrowed from Cocteau and Diaghilev. They met in the dead of night and Diaghilev went up to Cocteau and said: ‘Etonne-moi! Astonish me!’ The second question was a rhetorical question because there isn’t any such thing. And the first question about ordering the world: I would be paralyzed. I wouldn’t know how to lift a finger to change the world or make it over. I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Lawrence Durrell and his wife have arrived for dinner and are now chatting in the living room with Henry’s daughter Val and his son Tony and Tony’s wife. Henry appears in his bathrobe and speaks to Durrell with the generosity and gentleness that one might imagine a younger son would feel toward an adored older brother. And I am reminded of that beautiful letter Henry wrote to his younger friend in 1959:

Ah, Larry, it isn’t that life is so short, it’s that it’s everlasting. Often, talking with you under the tent — especially over a vieux marc — I wanted to say, “Stop talking … let’s talk!” For 20 years I waited to see you again. For 20 years your voice rang in my ears. And your laughter. And there, at the Mazet, time running out (never the vieux marc), I had an almost frantic desire to pin you down, to have it out, to get to the bottom. (What is the stars? Remember?) And there we were on the poop deck, so to speak, the stars drenching us with light, and what are we saying? Truth is, you said so many marvelous things I never did know what we were talking about. I listened to the Master’s Voice, just like that puppy on the old Victor gramophone. Whether you were expounding, describing, depicting, deflowering or delineating, it was all one to me. I heard you writing aloud. I said to myself — “He’s arrived. He made it. He knows how to say it. Say it! Continue!” Oui, c’est toi, le cher maître. You have the vocabulary, the armature, the Vulcanic fire in your bowels. You’ve even found “the place and the formula.” Give us a new world! Give us grace and fortitude!
— A Private Correspondence: Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller

As they sit down at the table, Henry says to Durrell: “This guy here mentioned three terrific questions asked by my Brotherhood of Fools and Simpletons. I’d really forgotten them.”

“What were they, Henry?”

“What were they, Jonathan?”

I repeat them.

“I bet I know how you’d answer the first,” Durrell says, “about how you’d order the world.”

“What would you think?”

“Like a Gnostic,” Durrell says, “you’d wipe it out.”

“I said that I wouldn’t know what I’d do, I’d be paralyzed,” Henry replies. “But sometimes I do think the world is a cosmic error of a false god. I don’t really believe things like that but I like the idea. Life is great and beautiful — there’s nothing but life — but we have made of the world a horrible place. Man has never handled the gift of life properly. And it is a crazy world, everything about it is absurd and wrong, and it deserves to be wiped out. I don’t think it’s going to last forever. I think there is such a thing as the end of the world or the end of this species of man. It could very well be that another type of man will come into being.

“You know,” Henry turns to me, “Larry recently gave me a book to read called The Gnostics. It’s written by a young Jesuit, of all people. And you know something … you were asking me before about rock & roll and the happenings with young people in the Sixties. Well, when all that was happening, I wasn’t aware that it was a revolution. Now they look back and they call it that. But the hippies are like toilet paper compared with the Gnostics. They really turned the world upside down. They did fantastic things. They were deliberately amoral, unmoral, immoral, contra the government and establishment. They did everything possible to increase the insanity.”

A toast is proposed to insanity.

Even in his early days in Brooklyn, Henry Miller saw through the Social Lie as easily as through Saran Wrap, embodying the alienating Lie as the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company in Tropic of Capricorn. While gainsaying Ezra Pound’s dimwitted social-credit economics in a famous essay filled with sublime truisms (“Money and How It Gets That Way”), Miller rejected any and all “political” paths (for which he has been often criticized), preferring instead to lambaste every irruption of corporate mentality in any number of pasquinades — one of his most delightful being his attack on American bread:

Accept any loaf that is offered you without question even if it is not wrapped in cellophane, even if it contains no kelp. Throw it in the back of the car with the oil can and the grease rags; if possible, bury it under a sack of coal, bituminous coal. As you climb up the road to your home, drop it in the mud a few times and dig your heels into it. When you get to the house, and after you have prepared the other dishes, take a huge carving knife and rip the loaf from stem to stern. Then take one whole onion, peeled or unpeeled, one carrot, one stalk of celery, one huge piece of garlic, one sliced apple, a herring, a handful of anchovies, a sprig of parsley and an old toothbrush, and shove them in the disemboweled guts of the bread. Over these pour a thimbleful of kerosene, a dash of Lavoris, and just a wee bit of Clorox….
— Remember to Remember

And in The Colossus of Maroussi, he writes: “At Eleusis one realizes, if never before, that there is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy. At Eleusis one becomes adapted to the cosmos. Outwardly Eleusis may seem broken, disintegrated with the crumbled past; actually Eleusis is still intact and it is we who are broken, dispersed, crumbling to dust. Eleusis lives, lives eternally in the midst of a dying world.”

Miller has always chosen reality over realism, action over activity, intuition over instinct, mystery over the mysterious, being over healing, surrender over attachment, conversion over wishing, lighthouses over lifeboats, enlightenment over salvation and the world-as-womb over the world-as-tomb. Strangely, cosmologists have recently given credibility to the intuition that we probably all exist within a universe composed of space and time created by the original, erupting, fecundating “big bang” — all of us and all of our worlds trapped inside the gravitational radius of a universe from which no light can escape.

In the Forties George Orwell criticized Miller’s idea of passive acceptance as it was revealed in the image of the man in the belly of the whale (the world-as-womb) — an image which Miller first presented in his impassioned introduction to and defense of Anais Nin’s then unpublished diaries. Miller wrote:

We who imagined that we were sitting in the belly of the whale and doomed to nothingness suddenly discover that the whale was a projection of our own insufficiency. The whale remains, but the whale becomes the whole wide world, with stars and seasons, with banquets and festivals, with everything that is wonderful to see and touch, and being that it is no longer a whale but something nameless because something that is inside as well as outside us. We may, if we like, devour the whale too — piecemeal, throughout eternity. No matter how much is ingested there will always remain more whale than man; because what man appropriates of the whale returns to the whale again in one form or another. The whale is constantly being transformed as man himself becomes transformed…. One lives within the spirit of transformation and not in the act. The legend of the whale thus becomes the celebrated book of transformations destined to cure the ills of the world.
— “Un Etre Etoilique”

“The stars gather direction in the same way that the foetus moves toward birth,” Miller has said. And his own books of transformations are remarkably in tune with the new cosmological perspectives of the universe. Rather than regressing to agoraphobic passivity, his books continually open themselves up to include and become a perpetually metamorphosing personality which itself becomes a “creation.” “You have expanded the womb feeling until it includes the whole universe,” Miller wrote Durrell after reading The Black Book for the first time — generously praising a fellow author, yet also accurately describing the direction of his own work.

Henry Miller has continued to foster his “cosmic accent” and his mantic gift but, like the Greek poet Seferiades whom he’ praises in The Colossus of Maroussi, his “native flexibility” has equally responded to “the cosmic laws of curvature and finitude. He had ceased going out in all directions: His lines were making the encircling movement of embrace.”

As the world falls rapidly on its measured ellipse, Henry Miller is writing, painting and dreaming his life away in Pacific Palisades: “Some will say they do not wish to dream their lives away,” he writes in Big Sur. “As if life itself were not a dream, a very real dream from which there is no awakening! We pass from one state of dream to another: from the dream of sleep to the dream of waking, from the dream of life to the dream of death. Whoever has enjoyed a good dream never complains of having wasted his time. On the contrary, he is delighted to have partaken of a reality which serves to heighten and enhance the reality of everyday.” 

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