Monday, December 24, 2007

In praise of Henry Miller

The following piece was written for Dogmatika to celebrate Henry Miller's birthday, on 26 December.

The Lucid Rebel

Good writing reinvents the world, and when I say it reinvents the world I mean it reinvents the way we see the world, since there's no other source of knowledge about the world. And when I say it reinvents the way we look at the world, what I really mean is that it reinvents the way we look at ourselves. I.e., it reinvents us. It follows that writers, by writing, reinvent -- or change -- themselves. I've always used writing whenever I am in a hole -- a psychological tight spot -- to write myself out of it. Writing as Rapunzel -- knitting words into a rope to climb out of the tower in which I am imprisoned. All writers do this to an extent, but there's one who above all showed me the extent to which it was possible, with sheer fearless bravado and imagination, to invent a new version of yourself which you then become. He literally wrote himself a set of clothes fit for a king and then put them on and went swaggering about town -- whether in Brooklyn, Clichy, Paris, or Big Sur -- with the attitude of a street punk but the sensibility of a Buddhist Rimbaud. I used him as inspiration to transform my own life and become the writer I wanted to be.

It is sad that Henry Miller is no longer fashionable and I would like to add my voice to those who think this should change. Without Miller, many subsequent American authors from the Beats through Norman Mailer to Charles Bukowski, Luke Reinhardt or Thomas Wolfe would have had to beat a much tougher trail through the publishing undergrowth. In the history of 20th century literature in Miller is often bracketed along with DH Lawrence for the simple reasons that they both challenged the sexual mores of the time and that their obscenity trials occurred virtually in parallel in the early Sixties, Lawrence's in the UK and Miller's in the States. Although they have much in common -- another thing is their insistence that sex and philosophy be treated on an equal level -- and belong in many ways to their age, in many other ways they are very different writers. What Miller did, which Lawrence couldn't quite manage, is to liberate literature from the plot. He made himself the subject of his work -- not just his real life, but an imagined life which makes the real life so much more bearable. Paralleling developments in modern art, he made himself the work of art.

DH Lawrence did it for me first, but that was probably inevitable given that I attended the same school as he and grew up a few miles from where he grew up. His landscape was my landscape, though separated by a few decades. Furthermore, I fell under the rather poisonous spell of Sons and Lovers at the too-vulnerable age of 15 or 16, with devastating effects. I had to wait until my twenties before discovering Miller,which was a far more liberating experience. I devoured everything that he wrote, especially loving the free jazz, intoxicated epiphanies that constitute passages of Black Spring or the Tropic of Capricorn. The reason for the affinity became clear when writing my second appenticeship unpublished novel, Desire and Misery, which was based on the film Orphee, by Jean Cocteau. It was then that I came across B Mathieu's inspired book about Miller, Orpheus in Brooklyn, which details the many parallels between Miller's own life and the myth of Orpheus in the underworld.

The myth of Orpheus is the eternal story of the passage of the artist and his return as inspired outsider. Every true artist must confront and conquer the daemons in themselves in order to understand human nature and yield its secrets -- and this is a continuous process. The fact is, there aren't enough people like Henry Miller. Like Walt Whitman before him, and the many other thinkers and writers he often wrote about, Miller sees the beauty and glory of life in 16 dimensions, in unlimited colours, and embraces the dark side, the dirty side, just as much as the beautiful side with uncritical love.

Following the relationship between Miller, his wife June, and Anais Nin, his first patron, was for me just as fascinating as trying to fathom the relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Miller was one of the first male writers to write realistically about women's attitude to sex -- and of course this was part of the reason for his being banned in his own country for over 20 years. It's true that he was hated later by feminists -- but really I think this was a little hypocritical and over-ideological of them, if you compare his work to the erotic writing of his lover Anais Nin.

It's easy to forget that for many, many years he was championed by critics and artists, venerated by pilgrims and became cultural hero -- or villain for many. He was the Brooklyn boy who went to Paris when everyone else was going home, he lived the stereotypical life of the starving bohemian. In 1939 he went to Greece, to visit Lawrence Durrell. While there, he soaked up the narrative basis of the Colossus of Maroussi. Forced to return to America by the war, he presaged Kerouac's journeying across America with his own year-long odyssey, which resulted in his devastating critique of consumerism, the Air-conditioned Nightmare, another book which was prophetic in its content. Settling in California, he started to paint and took on the mantle almost of a Buddhist sage. The writer from the Paris Review, who interviewed him in 1961 described his voice as "mellow, resonant, a quiet bass with great range and variety of modulation".

Given the vast range of his output, one of the things that is really interesting about Miller's ouevre, is that he claimed that his best work occurred when he was not thinking. He said "A writer shouldn't think much. I work from someplace deep down: when I write, I don't know just exactly what's going to happen." He's talking about an ideal place which writers love to reach. It the one where there is no separation between yourself and the words, in fact your entire self just disappears. Like he says, he "becomes saturated with it, you can't sleep". Miller called these passages written under this kind of spell "cadenzas". It is a type of lucidity which happens only through total immersion in your work. It is through this Orphic immersion that Miller transformed himself from a Western Union postal worker to a world-class writer. He dived off the Brooklyn Bridge and came up for air in the Seine.

When we survey the modern publishing landscape, we realise how boring most of it is. Writers are packaged, they don't take risks, they write to formulas, to have their works turned into movies. Their audience is immediate, their worlds are unquestioned by themselves. Yes, there is sex everywhere, but there is little tenderness or wisdom. The point is that Miller was a rebel intoxicated by language -- we need more of them now.

© David Thorpe, December 2007