Some people are cowards. They prefer to hide behind a desk or a uniform and let the rules speak for them. “Just following orders,” they will say. “Oh, don’t do that, it’s not allowed.” Their shrill voice comes in spurts, staccato, kept in beat by the fascist that lives in their heart. His tiny fists keep time against its dark, dank chambers. At the end of the day, they slouch home, their lives a mystery to themselves while fear, fear and self-loathing, dog each disheveled step.
Against this backdrop of complacency and torment, the writings of Henry Miller exploded with the force of an atomic bomb against my adolescent mind. Next to the music of The Sex Pistols, the writings of Henry Miller and J.D. Salinger did more to shape my life than anything else. Salinger most everyone is familiar with, but Henry Miller is another story.
I discovered his writings in a used bookstore when I was sixteen. I was trying to find books that were frequently on the most banned lists. A worthy endeavor for any young person. You can learn much more about life from the books that civilized society does not want you to read than the books most likely to be found in Oprah’s book club. This particular bookstore did not carry his Tropic Of Cancer, but they did carry its sequel, Tropic Of Capricorn. In many ways, this was a more advantageous book to begin with than its predecessor. For unlike Tropic Of Cancer, this book does not follow Miller’s wanderings throughout France as an expatriate in the ’20s and ’30s; instead, it chronicles the experiences and miseries he had until he decided to throw it all in and move to Paris. The life of an artist, no, of a person with sense enough to think and dare to act upon his creative impulses is a daunting one. Few dare to try and fewer still are successful. Miller wrestles with these obstacles like few other writers have. Listen to the way he describes coming to terms with the modern world, with surviving the rat race:
“I had to learn to live with the scum, to swim like a sewer rat or be drowned. If you elect to join the herd you are immune. To be accepted and appreciated you must nullify yourself, make yourself indistinguishable from the herd. You may dream, if you dream alike. But if you dream something different you are not in America, of America American, but a Hottentot in Africa, or a Kalmuck, or a chimpanzee. The moment you have a ‘different’ thought you cease to be an American (56).”
Although sometimes bitter and other times bawdy, Miller was the first author I encountered who did not make a pretense of creating ART. There was no clever plot twists or ironic detachment. There was no specious attempt at experimenting or blowing the limits of fiction. For Miller, life was art and art was life and in his hands he created a wonderful and inspiring work.
In Miller’s work, the themes the beat writers — and later, in the sixties, other writers — would expand upon: the individual against society; the corrosive effects of capitalism and industrialization on the human soul; the lack of respect for an artist in modern America. However, Henry Miller wrote about these topics in an environment that makes the fifties resemble a Bacchanalian feast. He did so in a language that was from the streets and was brutal. Long before Lou Reed exposed the seamy side of New York in rock n’ roll, Miller was chronicling the sordidness in print. His prose, reveling dark humor and raw sexuality, is still vital today. Witness the thoughts he has as he goes out with a friend of his and meets some women:
“I could have the most excruciatingly marvelous time, throwing a fuck into each and every one respectively regardless of age, sex, religion, nationality, birth or breeding. There is no solution for a man like myself, I being what I am and the world being what it is. The world is divided into three parts of which two parts are meatballs and spaghetti and the other part a huge syphilitic chancre. The haughty one with the statuesque figure is probably a cold turkey fuck, a sort of con anonyme plastered with gold leaf and tin foil. Beyond despair and disillusionment, there is always the absence of worse things and the emoluments of ennui (106).”
“Beyond despair” is the true artist’s goal. This “dark night of the soul” is where one confronts the darker elements that constrain him or her from casting the dye and entering the ring. Looking into this abyss, feeling the internal pressure, you either come out like a precious diamond or are crushed into ash, like dying charcoal embers.
Reading Henry Miller is a rewarding and challenging act. His prose rushes and twists, headlong with a perverse beauty. It picks you up and sweeps you along like some ancient locomotive with the cowcatcher on the engine. There is no conductor to blow the whistle. Once you begin one of his works, look out, you will be swept into his maelstrom. He’s full of rage and resentment like a prophet out of the Hebrew Bible, and yet he never falls back into complacency or wallows in despair. He will always single out the sacred and holy things that make up life and celebrate them. In the midst of the whirlwind, while some turn into pillar of salt and others burst into flame, he laughs and offers a sacrament.
When the whole human race is rocking with laughter, laughing so hard that it hurts, I mean, everybody then has his foot on the path. In that moment everybody can just as well be God as anything else• Nobody can persuade you at that moment to take a gun and kill your enemy; neither can anyone persuade you to open a fat tome containing the metaphysical truths of the world and read it (304-5).”
At the same time, his writings challenge you. There is a challenge for you to throw off the yoke of complacency and small mindedness. Instead of sitting around waiting for something to happen, just get up and do something.
Passionate to the end, Henry Miller was and remains one of my favorite writers. On those days when I feel like a rat in a trap, there is always something compelling in his words, some bit of truth that illuminates the horizon just beyond. It is a call from the other side, a blast of fresh air, a reminder that there is more to life than the rat race. There is more, so much more.