NOTE: Updated on February 25, 2016.
Henry Miller (1891-1980) was one of the more unorthodox writers of his time. He’s also something of a personal inspiration to me.
Any half-decent reader is aware of the man… but, then again, who could forget him? He’s known for leading a rather odd, and yet edifying, life, and is also ubiquitous for the development of the modern autobiographical novel.
Arguably his most famous book, Tropic of Cancer (first published in 1934) is one such work. The novel, considered obscene for its candid and humorous expressions of sexuality, was banned in the United States until the 1960s.
The highlights of this book (like many of Miller’s, including Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn—both recommended) are, however, not Miller’s comedic sexual escapades, but rather his unique brand of non-confessional mysticism—a sort of artistic metaphysics.
Miller was something of a secular prophet, a clownish spiritual guru who taught that the pleasures of life were, in some abstract sense, “divine.” His long, tangential passages dive into surreal, half-dream worlds full of skyscrapers, sex, enlightenment, wine, wisdom, Parisian streets and bawdy backdrops. Imagine Omar Khayyam born in the Bronx, then turned American expat in the 1920s, and add a dash of flamboyant modernist prose for good measure. That’s perhaps a good way of describing Miller’s work. And yet it doesn’t do him justice at all!
Really, the best way to get a sense of Miller is to read some of his “rambles.” For that purpose, here are a few passages from Tropic of Cancer:
- “Today I awoke from a sound sleep with curses of joy on my lips, with gibberish on my tongue, repeating to myself like a litany – “Fay ce que vouldras!… fay ce que vouldras!”; Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy. So much crowds into my head when I say this to myself: images, gay ones, terrible ones, maddening ones, the wolf and the goat, the spider, the crab, syphilis with her wings outstretched and the door of the womb always on the latch, always open, ready like the tomb. Lust, crime, holiness: the lives of my adored ones, the failures of my adored ones, the words they left behind them, the words they left unfinished; the good they dragged after them and the evil, the sorrow, the discord, the rancor, the strife they created. But above all, the ecstasy!”
- “Life moves on, whether we act as cowards or heroes. Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy, and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such.”
- “On the meridian of time there is no injustice: there is only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and drama. If at any moment anywhere one comes face to face with the absolute, that great sympathy which makes men like Gautama and Jesus seem divine freezes away; the monstrous thing is not that men have created roses out of this dung heap, but that, for some reason or other, they should want roses.”
… These are words of joy if ever I’ve read them. Dare I say the writer was somewhat… Thelemic? Endowed with what Trungpa Rinpoche—the scandalous tantrist—called “crazy wisdom?”
What a man. What thought!