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.