A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Henry Miller: The Nature Of The Miraculous

Henry Miller became a special writer in my personal literary pantheon after reading his Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (Sexus, Plexus and Nexus) in my mid-twenties. I'd been devouring a lot of Jack Kerouac at the time — On the Road was a kind of beatnik bible to me as I hitchhiked my way round Britain and Europe — and as soon as I picked up Miller his influence on Kerouac was obvious. From the first pages of Sexus, Miller thrilled and shocked me. Here was life in all its random beauty, its bohemian seediness, its miracle-tinged ordinariness.

This sentence from Tropic of Cancer is emblematic of all of Miller's freewheeling, semi-autobiographical novels with their gutter romance, their shock value and their magnified, incorrigible lust for life:

To come upon a woman offering herself outside a urinal, where there are advertized cigarette papers, rum, acrobats, horse races, where the heavy foliage of the trees breaks the heavy mass of walls and roofs, is an experience that begins where the boundaries of the known world leave off.

For Miller any experience — no matter how humble, how unorthodox or how sleazy — was an opportunity to live life to the full. For Miller life was rich, multi-faceted, sacred; a wonder and a marvel. For Miller life was to be grabbed.

I went on to read other books by him: The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, an account of a trip through a decaying America after Miller returned there from Paris, and The Books in My Life, an enthusiastic panegyric to his favourite books and authors. The recommendations he made in this book reignited my own passion for such revolutionary writers as Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and Krishnamurti, and pointed the way towards others, like Cendrars, Céline and Jean Giono — later to become some of my own favourites.

Recently I went back to Miller to read his essay collection, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird. I was not disappointed. The preface alone was inspiring. How could one not love this:

When you find you can go neither backward or forward, when you discover that you are no longer able to stand, sit or lie down, when your children have died of malnutrition and your aged parents have been sent to the poorhouse or the gas chamber, when you realize that you can neither write nor not write, when you are convinced that all the exits are blocked, either you take to believing in miracles or you stand still like the hummingbird. The miracle is that the honey is always there, right under your nose, only you were too busy searching elsewhere to realize it. The worst is not death but being blind, blind to the fact that everything about life is in the nature of the miraculous.

This is typical Miller — the almost comic exaggeration to make a point, the delight in the wonders of life, the proselytising desire to make us aware of the multitude of miracles at our very feet.

I liked pretty much all the essays in this book, although a couple were weaker than the rest — When I Reach for My Revolver and Money and How It Gets That Way (this last one, I thought, was too repetitious, over-clever and over-ambitious).

As I read my way with delight through these essays, I decided to jot down as an experiment words and phrases which spontaneously occurred to me describing the larger-than-life character of Miller's prose and personality. This was the result:

Passionate. Enthusiastic. Inspirational. Monstrously literate and erudite. Embracer of both the dark and the light (for him the apocalypse is to be embraced because it can herald the dawn of a new mankind). Life-affirming. Apocalyptic. Uncompromising. A worldly mystic. He sees the possibility of salvation in this world and this world only, in the here and now. He believes in the god in all of us (human beings carry divinity within them). Romantic. Idealistic. Revolutionary. Liberating. (He sees Jesus as a revolutionary liberator.) Humour and roguish charm. He exaggerates to make his point, delighting in being over the top, turning conventional ideas on their head. Doomy (the threat of the atom bomb and world extinction always present) but he relishes the doom. The writers and artists he likes (which are the ones he identifies with and who see the world rather like he does) he adulates, celebrates unreservedly. Contradictory. Trusts in the power of the imagination. An innocent, almost childlike glee in destruction, but only so that the new can arise from the ashes. A distinctive, individual voice. Propagandist, polemicist. Monster and angel.        


Danish dog said...

I was 21 when I sat up one night to read Henry Miller's collection of essays The Cosmological Eye (1939).

Although I'd already read and enjoyed loads of Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Hesse et al. - and yes On the Road too - it was this book that really spoke to my anarchic artist within.

Nick said...

An interesting view. I can't say I share your enthusiasm for Mr Miller. His writing is too self-conscious for my taste, and his 'relishing the doom' is a little too childish (as opposed to childlike) for me. But he undeniably has power as a writer, as evidenced by the influence he has apparently had on so many people, including - evidently - you.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, casting my mind back more accurately, I was certainly reading Hesse, Dosteyevsky, Lawrence, Krishnamurti and other Miller heroes in my late teens and early twenties, and came to Miller himself a few years later. So it would be more accurate to say that he reignited my passion for these revolutionary writers, plus pointing me towards new ones, such as Jean Giono. (Interestingly, I've got around to Giono only recently. 'The Man Who Planted Trees' is a short but brilliant masterpiece.)

The Solitary Walker said...

I've altered the post slightly to reflect this greater accuracy, DD...

... and Nick, some of his writing may be considered 'self-conscious', whatever that really means, and I'm not too sure — perhaps an example is the essay 'Money and How It Gets That Way' in 'Stand Still Like the Hummingbird' — but most of his stuff seems to have poured out of him in a rather Lawrentian way (though artistically and rhetorically crafted, it goes without saying). I loved him as soon as I started to read him, and that was that. Yes, he relishes the shock value, and, yes, he could play the manipulative artist role at times. But his enthusiasm is irresistible to me, and his 'worldly mysticism' never more relevant than now. And I would stick by 'childlike' rather than 'childish'.

George said...

As you know, Robert, I cherish almost everything Miller ever wrote, the overwrought as much as the trenchant. In every respect, he was — and remains — a liberator. His writing continues to inspire me. When I am depressed over the general condition of the world or my own life, I can usually find more relief in a Miller essay than anything else I can imagine. From a religious or philosophical standpoint, he had a greater understanding of true Christianity than the majority of those who claim this badge of faith. He understood the roots of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Confucianism, the Perennial Philosophy — and he knew that beneath all of these manufactured divisions, there was a call to abandon our illusions and wake up to the fullness of life, with all its myriad and diverse experiences, the tragic no less than the glorious.

Lest I let my enthusiasm run completely away, I will simply thank you for this excellent post. Your own description of Miller is spot on. Let us all live in accordance with Miller's lifelong motto: "Always merry and bright."

The Solitary Walker said...

Well, George, such enthusiastic praise, and so wonderfully expressed, I can add no more except to say: thank you, and I agree with every word you say!

Martin said...

Hah, we read the same books in our 20! The time is so right for the Henry Miller revival.

am said...

I haven't read many of Henry Miller's books -- only The Colossus of Maroussi, The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, and a tiny book with what I remember as something poetic illustrated with line drawings which was given to me by my mother long ago -- but I am fond of his painting and drawings:




and his three essays on painting, "Paint as You Like and Die Happy," "To Paint Is to Love Again," "The Painting Lesson," and "The Waters Reglitterized."

In 1960, Henry Miller wrote "to paint is to love again and to love is to live to the fullest."

I've visited the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur. A splendid place:


The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your visit, Martin and Am.

Am — Miller's own favourite among his works was 'The Colossus of Maroussi'. Thanks for the links to his paintings. There are also two short essays on painting in 'Stand Still Like the Hummingbird': 'The Angel Is My Watermark' and 'An Open Letter to All and Sundry'.

'The important thing which I learned, through making water colours, was not to worry, not to care too much. We don't have to turn out a masterpiece every day. To paint is the thing, not to make masterpieces. Even the Creator, when he made this perfect universe, had to learn not to care too much. Certainly when he created Man he gave himself a prolonged headache.'

Rubye Jack said...

I've read everything of Miller's - except for this essay collection. I will find it tomorrow though because reading Miller for me is like having someone put all my thoughts and emotions into words I could never formulate for myself. He extends me way past my seeming limits. Same with Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kerouac.
Funny, I just started reading Kerouac's "The Town and the City" tonight. Loving it of course. :)

martin said...

Eric Jong wrote a great book in defence of Henry Miller called 'The Devil at Large', worth checking out if you can.

Here's an article about Eric and Henry:


Actually, Erica Jong's 'Fear of Flying' was another fav novel of my 20s, must read it again sometime.

Rubye Jack said...

"Fear of Flying" was one of my favorites also. It's interesting how these books were so instrumental in helping to shape who I am today. For me, it was these books more than the people in my life.
I remember Jong talking about being more lonely in a relationship than when alone. Next thing I knew I was divorced. Ha.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks Rubye for your comments and Martin for your extra comment.

Yes, I also remember 'Fear of Flying', and I'd really like to read Jong's book about Miller. It was great she came to his defence after he received such a pounding from the feminist critics of the day. I remember too having to defend him (and Lawrence and Norman Mailer) as best I could before some ultra-feminist teachers in a German school where I was a Foreign language Assistant at the time. I came out of the debate scorched... but still alive! Not that I am anti-feminist in the slightest — I was very much pro-feminist and read de Beauvoir like the rest of us — but some of the extreme feminists hit on some male authors with a narrow-minded prejudice which was out of all proportion. It was as if, say with Lawrence, all they saw in his books was male sexual domination. Since then, of course, feminism calmed down to a more balanced view.

I agree that books read between the ages of 15 and 25 can make a deep impression and have a lasting effect — even more than people. I was massively influenced by writers like Salinger, Hesse, Lawrence, Gide, Sartre, Miller, Kerouac and the Beats, Krishnamurti, Vonnegut, Duhamel, Kafka and others.

Martin said...

I can add Christopher Isherwood to that list. His two Berlin novels, along with Kerouac, and Orwell's Catalonia were the books that inspired my first vagabond trips around Europe in the early 80s.

This is why it's so important that kids grow up loving books, they change your life for ever.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I read the Isherwood too! And lots of Orwell... who remains one of my literary heroes. That impressionable and intense time of your life lives vividly again in your mind, doesn't it, if you recall the books you were reading... And what about John Fowles and 'The Magus'? Funnily enough, I'm rereading the latter, and find it just as impressive (whereas other 'adolescent' books can often be disappointing if you return to them later in life).

Danish dog said...

I've always liked Fowles. I can recommend his collection of aphorisms, The Aristos.

The Solitary Walker said...

I think that's the only book by Fowles I haven't read, DD. 'Mantissa' I found challenging, but the novels I devoured — 'The Collector' and 'The Magus' unputdownable, 'Daniel Martin' less so. His text to 'The Tree' from Aurum Press I also loved — it gave me an urgent desire to visit Dartmoor's Wistman's Wood. A desire I still haven't fulfilled...

dritanje said...

I recently reread some of Miller's essays in Stand still...when a translator friend asked me about them. I gave him an enthusiastic report. I hope that he will pass it on and have these essays translated into French by the publishing company he works for and if so, I will feel personally very proud to have had a part in this...