It is curious how one can adopt stubborn prejudices that extend themselves into upsetting judgments that one would not otherwise make.
I am thinking here of a prejudice I developed against Time magazine as I was growing up. Perhaps it came from the fact that the magazine was so wholeheartedly the tribune of the might of the United States, against which the lowly citizen of a tiny nation buried in a mighty ocean far, far away, might more or less reasonably react unfavourably, I suppose.
Let me be more precise. One of Time magazine’s heroes, if one read it consistently, was the British writer Lawrence Durrell, and the fact that the magazine was always fawning over him and his books was enough to put me off reading them. (I have since tried, and have found myself unable to get through his novels, although I have enjoyed a book he wrote on Cyprus, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen).
The magazine usually remarked that Durrell was a close friend of Henry Miller. Ipso facto, extending my prejudice against the magazine, I avoided reading Miller for many decades. And even to this day I have never read a word of Anais Nin, the oddly multinational writer whose fame seemed at one point to come mainly from her having had a passionate love affair with Miller.
Eventually I did read some of Miller’s shorter works, and enjoyed them a great deal, especially I remember one called A Devil in Paradise, about a literary friend from France who was up against it, and who Miller invited to spend as much time as he liked in Big Sur where Miller was now installed on the California coast. The man came, and according to the story, was an infernal pest, impervious to every hint that the time had come to leave. Maybe because I am myself sensitive almost to a fault to the fear of overstaying my welcome wherever I may be, even when I have been invited by a friend, I found his description highly amusing of a situation that was well known to me in life, and he told it in a wonderful, semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical style that I hadn’t struck before. I was able to relate so easily because I’ve never forgotten how some neighbours of some friends of my wife’s parents, previously unknown to either of us, arrived to stay with us in Winnipeg once, and left after six weeks in high dudgeon because we had felt the need to suggest the time had come for them to move on. The worst thing was that we recognized this as perfectly acceptable New Zealand behaviour at the time, to which we had been slightly prey on arrival abroad, so we used it for behaviour modification in ourselves.
It was when I read his first great work, Tropic of Cancer, that I was completely blown away, enthralled by its astonishing verbal vigour, its non-linear shape, its denial of time constraints, it refusal to be intimidated by what proper people might think of his language, and its immense scope; a work of great humour, desperate depravity, reckless experimentation, and fearless portrayal of people of all types, status or attainments. I finished that reading convinced that Miller had to be the greatest writer currently at work with the English language, and possibly one of the greatest novelists of all time.
This impression was solidified by an examination of what his book had to go through just to be allowed to be read. He wrote it while living an itinerant life in Paris between 1930 and 1934. But the US customs service banned it --- I am indebted to Wikipedia for these details ---- and when some smuggled copies from Paris were sold in New York, lawsuits followed. In 1950 the American Civil Liberties Union tried to import the book, along with its companion volume Tropic of Capricorn, but one after another American judges declared the book to be obscene. And so it went on, a merry dance between publishers, booksellers and authorities, year after year, court case after court case, the book being memorably described by one judge as "not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity." Finally in 1964, 30 years after its publication, the Supreme Court, overriding many State judges, declared the book to be not obscene, but a work of art.
Not only were his works excoriated by authorities everywhere, but because they couldn’t sell, he failed to make a living out of them, and was kept alive during his years in Paris by acquaintances, friends, and lovers. among them Anais Nin. Tropic of Cancer in fact is, among other things, a record of his day-to-day existence, his constant bumming off people, his waking up every morning wondering where his food would come from that day, as he struggled to establish his validity as a writer, alternately disgusted by the behaviour of the people around him, as well as glorying in all the physical pleasures they offered.
Until I jettisoned most of the books I had collected when I moved from Ottawa to Montreal in 2012, I had quite a library of Miller books, most of which I gave to the old folks’ home for their annual book sale.
Among them was a genuine curiosity, called Opus Pistorum, said to mean, in Latin, Work of the Miller, a pornographic work he wrote for a dollar a page, one of a number written by other writers as well, to fulfil a demand for such works from various Hollywood personalities. All I remember from the book is that one of its main characters was making out on as regular basis with both his wife and their daughter, and the protagonist and his daughter were taking the greatest of pleasure and enjoyment from their relationship. Thus, even in his lighter moments, Henry Miller was at work overturning the customary societal abhorrence of the sin that is usually held to be the only one that is common to all cultures.
You must be wondering what started me off on this praise of Henry Miller. Well, the fact is, a couple of his slim, minor works survived my great cleansing en route from Ottawa to Montreal, and since I hadn’t read either of them, I picked them up this week, and was again plunged into the glory of his prose. The first story is called Max and the Phagocytes, a searing pen portrait of an American down on his luck in Paris, a man, to hear him tell it, born to suffer, to such an extent that Miller writes of him:
I had grown so accustomed to Max, to his state of perpetual misfortune, that I began to accept him as a natural phenomenon: he was a part of the general landscape like rocks, trees, urinals, brothels, meat markets, flower stalls and so on. There are thousands of men like Max roaming the streets, but Max was the personification of all. He was Unemployment, he was Hunger, he was Misery, he was Woe, he was Despair, he was Defeat, he was Humiliation. The others I could get rid of by flipping them a coin. Not Max! Max was something so close to me that it was just impossible to get rid of him. He was closer to me than a bed-bug. Something under the skin, something in the blood stream. When he talked I only half-listened. I had only to catch the opening phrase and I could continue by myself indefinitely, ad infinitum. Everything he said was true, horribly true.
I couldn’t help but think of Coleridge, renowned in his day for his habit of talking to passers-by, clutching them ferociously by a coat-button, Coleridge so intense on his conversation that they would cut off the button leaving him to talk on, oblivious to their departure. Thus was born in our language the word “buttonholing.” Max seemed to be buttonholing Miller.
The next time Max appeared he was wearing a fancy English-cut suit, several sizes too big for him, but still something that made him look presentable, until one noticed the “low canvas shoes, dirty and worn, they don’t go with the suit and the hat.” He tells how he made it to Vienna, where he was going to start a new life but he found it even worse than Paris. He admitted the soup kitchens were clean, but what good were clean kitchens when, because of the smart suit, given to him by someone in Vienna, nobody believes him any more, and he doesn’t have a sou in his pockets? From force of habit he says his good shoes are at the cobbler’s and he doesn’t have the money to get them out.
On another occasion, feeling more friendly Miler takes him home, promising to give him a couple of suits he no longer wears, introduces him to Boris, another sufferer, who puts him up for a time. Then he disappears again until a letter arrives.
Dear Miller and Boris…. it is 3 o’clock in the morning I cannot sleep I am very nervis, I am crying and can’t stop ….A long night of suffering though I am not very hungry but I am afraid of something. I don’t know what is the matter with me. I talk to myself I can’t control myself. Miller, I don’t want you to help me any more. I want to talk to you, am I a child? I have no courage, am I losing my reason?
On and on it goes, Max finding new ways to suffer, Miller listening to his voice as he reads, half sardonic and cruel, half sympathetic and soft. But overall, using Max as a subject to write about.
I had read the whole story without coming across the word phagocyte, which I had never come across before. So I looked it up:
Phagocyte, type of cell that has the ability to ingest, and sometimes digest, foreign particles, such as bacteria, carbon, dust, or dye”
Or, another one:
Phagocytes are the white blood cells that protect the body by eating (phagocytosing) dirt, bacteria and dead or dying cells. They are important for fighting infections. They are also important for becoming immune. Phagocytes are important in all animals and are very complex in vertebrates. One litre of human blood has about six billion phagocytes.
So, as usual with Miller, his story, innocent on the surface, must have had some higher purpose, vaguely scientific.
The second story in the little book is called The World of Sex. After urging the need to be free of the bounds that tie the average North American man in his attitude to sex, Miller writes:
Nor can I acknowledge as necessitous or inevitable what now goes on in the name of law and order, peace and prosperity, freedom and security. Sell it to the Hottentots! It’s too utterly horrendous for me to swallow. I intend to stake out my own claim, a tiny one, but my own. Lacking a name for it, I’ll call it pro tem --- .the Land of Fuck. In this domain, I am the undisputed monarch. Mad as a hatter, perhaps, but only because 999,999,999,999 others think other than I do. Where others see celery, roots, kohlrabi, parsnips and rootabaga, I detect a new sprout, the germ of a new order.
“What man’s sex life may be under a new order surpasses my feeble imagination to describe,” he writes. But he does have a good go at it, his imagination running wild, before he concludes:
When our desires are thwarted or suppressed, life becomes mean, ugly, vicious and death-like. Just as it is, in other words. After all, the world we inhabit is only the reflected image of our utter chaos. Our medicine men, our juristic fanatics, all the hair-shirted pedagogues and mystifiers who dominate the scene would have us believe that to partake of a societal life, the savage, primitive being, as they call the natural man, must be hobbled and fettered. Every creative being knows this is false. Nothing was ever accomplished by cramping, thwarting, fettering, shackling, one another. Nor crime nor war, nor lust nor greed, nor malice nor envy are thus eliminated. All that is effected, in the name of Society, is the perpetuation if the great lie.
Oh, I am so envious. I wish I could write like that, so free, so flowing, so inspiring. And I also wish someone like him had been around to open my mind as I was growing up. I would have lived a much happier, and more decent life.