Henry Miller in My Life

American Writer Henry Miller (1891-1980)

I started out with Henry Miller the (forbidden) writer of erotica. There were the Tropics, Black Spring, Sous Les Toits de Paris, and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. Then I started reading his nonfiction, and I began to think more of him, especially with The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), his travel classic about Greece; The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), on his pessimism about America after the War; The Time of the Assassins (1946), an essay on Arthur Rimbaud;  and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch (1957), about his life in Big Sur. I have just finished reading Remember to Remember (1947), a sequel to The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which is mostly about artists he has met.

Henry Miller is very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde type of author. He can run off at the mouth for dozens of pages—but then he can zero in a key point in some Buddhist burst of contemplation. And, what I like about him, his instincts are right. His pacifist essay in this book, “Murder the Murderer,” spends some ninety pages telling us that he is against war and killing. All well and good. No burst of contemplation there, though it took balls to be a pacifist in the final days of the Second World War. But then he impales Hollywood poseurs in a brilliant spoof entitled “Astrological Fricasse,” which may be the best short work of fiction he ever wrote.

The artists Miller recommends—painters Beauford DeLaney and Abe Rattner and sculptor Beniamino Bufano—are worth closer study. It seems that public opinion has caught up with them, though they were controversial when Miller wrote his book.

I will continue to mine Miller for the occasional rich vein that one comes across with no advance warning, particularly in his nonfiction.

 

 

Two Friends of Henry Miller

Abe Rattner’s “Darkness Fell Over the Land” (1942)

I have been reading Henry Miller’s Remember to Remember (1947), his sequel to The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). Miller has always been interesting to me, even when he descends into rant, as he not infrequently does. Where the earlier book talked about places, the sequel deals mostly with people. Two painters appearing in that book are Abe Rattner (1896-1978) and Beauford Delaney (1901-1979).

As you may know, I reject the tendency of much of 20th century painting, whether here or in Europe, to go in for abstract expressionism. That might well be of interest to interior decorators, but the result of that tendency is a body of work that, of itself, strikes me as empty. Colorful, perhaps, but not so much as inviting a second glance. Art has to represent something other than mere color and form. The literary equivalent might be a selection of adverbs or prepositions without any human context.

In “A Bodhisattva Artist,” Henry Miller expresses his unbounded admiration for Rattner as a person and for his work. such as the above illustrated “Darkness Fell Over the Land,” referring to the aftermath of the crucifixion. Rattner is an artist of the sacred, somewhat like Georges Rouault, but with both a Christian and a Jewish perspective.

Beauford Delaney’s “Jazz Club” (1950)

Beauford Delaney is an African-American artist who was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and died in Paris, France. Miller got to know him in New York, and wrote an essay about the painter and his work in “The Amazing and Invariable Beauford DeLaney.” He is considered to be a representative artist of the Harlem Renaissance, though when he moved to France, he converted (alas) to abstract expressionism.

According to the Wikipedia entry on him:

Delaney felt an immediate affinity with [New York’s] “multitude of people of all races – spending every night of their lives in parks and cafes” surviving on next to nothing. Their courage and shared camaraderie inspired him to feel that “somehow, someway there was something I could manage if only with some stronger force of will I could find the courage to surmount the terror and fear of this immense city and accept everything insofar as possible with some calm and determination.”

I am always interested in finding outliers to the predominant currents of art. Henry Miller, being no mean painter himself, did at times exhibit exquisite tastes.

 

Regarding Henry

Henry Miller (1891-1980)

Henry Miller (1891-1980)

Is Henry Miller famous? Or is he just infamous? Or is he both?

I have just finished reading a book of his essays, reviews, and prefaces entitled Stand Still Like the Hummingbird (1962) and find myself alternately idolizing and deploring the man’s work. Of course, he is probably most famous for his novels featuring S-E-X, especially The Tropic of Cancer (1934). And yet, he can write like a Bodhisattva, as in the essays “The Hour of Man” and “The Immorality of Morality.”

In the latter essay, he wrote what I regard as the definitive answer as to how to live in the era of Trump:

Neither would I urge one to run away from the danger zone. The danger is everywhere: there are no safe and secure places in which to start a new life. Stay where you are and make what life you can among the impending ruins. Do not put one thing above another in importance. Do only what has to be done—immediately. Whether the wave is ascending or descending, the ocean is always there. You are a fish in the ocean of time, you are a constant in an ocean of change, you are nothing and everything at one and the same time. Was the dinner good? Was the grass green? Did the water slake your thirst? Are the stars still in the heavens? Does the sun still shine? Can you talk, walk, sing, play? Are you still breathing?

And yet, in another essay entitled “To Read or Not To Read,” Miller brags about reading fewer books “I tried to make it clear that, as a result of indiscriminate reading over a period of sixty years, my desire now is to read less and less.”

One of Miller’s Water Colors

One of Miller’s Water Colors

Is it perhaps because Miller also sees himself as a painter, particularly of water colors? The ones I have seen are pretty good, and I shouldn’t be surprised if the author likes the act of pure creativity involved in coming up with these scenes, which he does not paint from life.

In the end, I see Henry Miller as, at times, gifted by his muses—and at other times merely producing when the muses aren’t present. There is a certain lack of consistency in his work. I will continue to read him for the times I find he is spot on.