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Henry Miller and sacred world.

The recent film, Henry and June, (November 1990) has attracted the attention of journalists because it introduced a new rating category, NC 17, a substitute for the older rating of "X." For me the film was important for other reasons; it re-introduced me to Henry Miller during the time in the Thirties when he was writing Tropic of Cancer. For several years, in the mid-Sixties, I lived in close and intimate relation to Henry's words and deeds because I was writing a book, eventually published as The Mind and Art of Henry Miller, in 1967. All seemed to be moving along in a timely fashion, the manuscript was going into page proofs, when I received a telegram from Henry Miller.

In those days, when long distance phoning was prohibitively expensive, Western Union was a common means of quick communication, and, of course Miller had worked for Western Union, which he immortalized as the "Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company." This telegram, however, did not arrive at my house door, nor by phone call. Rather, as I was entering my classroom, upstairs in an old frame building on the edge of the Loyola of New Orleans University campus, I saw a rectangle of yellow paper on the floor. Why I picked it up I don't know. As my wife can tell you, I usually walk by debris rather than pick it up. The telegram had a simple message, "Possible libelous material in your book. Better let me see the manuscript. Henry Miller."

The chain of events leading to this telegram are, as nearly as I could later reconstruct them, was occasioned by a comment of one of the readers of my manuscript for the Press, Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth had challenged my description of Miller's life in a kind of Paris ghetto. Miller, he said, lived quite well in a good neighborhood and was not nearly so badly off as he claimed. He suggested I write to Miller's friend and companion Emil White in Big Sur with questions about these matters. Apparently he told Henry, and Henry sent the telegram. I called the Press, and they agreed to send a copy of the manuscript. Henry Miller and I, then, began a correspondence that was also, a year after the first book, published. A number of readers, including Lawrence Durrell and Henry's old friend Alfred Perles, have said that they liked the book. Henry didn't and said so. He correctly identified what I was writing as literary criticism, for which he had no use.

Prompted by the film and another writing project, I began, once again, to roam the world of Henry Miller. This morning, after three days of reading and writing, I found myself saying to my wife, "No wonder Henry got irritated. I missed the main point." Furthermore, there was no way I could have gotten the point. As a liberal assistant professor in a Catholic university, I was prepared to embrace anarchy, nihilism, and the sexual revolution. I wasn't prepared for crazy wisdom, for emptiness, or for seeing passion as spiritual energy. I don't feel inclined to re-examine Miller from the literary point of view, which in any case, now being retired from teaching, I have little patience with. But I do feel that he and a few other writers are important for their prophetic quality, for their predictions of conflict and decline in the industrial world and for their understanding of what was wrong. In this essay on Henry Miller, I propose to survey the possibilities of artistic intuition as the ground for understanding the concept of Sacred World" without, as Keats said, "any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

Henry Miller, I believe, was a prophetic writer, as was D. H. Lawrence. Both epitomize the writer with a vision of mechanism headed for disaster. Lawrence is certainly well known and more accepted in our times than during his own. Yet few have really grasped the vastness of Lawrence's vision and his insight into the ills of western industrial civilization. Henry Miller, who is less known, and, as with Lawrence, for the wrong reasons, did understand Lawrence. (In my experience, Miller is generally confused with either Henry James or Arthur Miller.) The majority who do know Miller remember mainly the scandalous Tropic of Cancer, which they probably bought in the Obelisk Press paperback, in the period shortly after World War II. In any event, Miller, who wrote about Lawrence during the Thirties, knew Lawrence's work well. Both understood the need for change, and to a degree, they realized the form the revolution would take, a form that would differ from the political upheavals that have dominated the past two hundred years. The next revolution, as they saw it, would be spiritual but grounded in the body, be natural, not supernatural. (The sixties were like an early skirmish in the war of change, as in the Battle of Shiloh. There were causalities on both sides but no decision.)

To initiate this spiritual revolution, both Miller and Lawrence claimed, people must discover that the world, the universe itself, is sacred and themselves along with it. A story is told about William Blake; someone, trying to test him, asked: "Do you believe that Christ was God?" "Indeed I do," he is said to have replied, "and so are you and so am I." This is an early version of Sacred World, which is simply a view that the universe is its own explanation, is self-organizing, intelligent but grounded in body, and, by its very nature, compassionate. True ethical action, in other words, is not mandated by codes but arises from a felt sense of interconnection with the ambient universe. This view differs radically in its main outlines from the supernatural theisms and Darwinian competitive naturalisms, which have struggled to control our culture. Yet it is not enough merely to claim that the world is sacred; in our time that claim must be supported with evidence, whether rationally based on external observations or intuitively based on experimental under-standing.

Because of their sensuality and apparent immorality, Miller and Lawrence have seldom been considered as spiritual writers. Our platonic spirituality has been wary of the senses and the concrete world they seem to represent. We are more comfortable when we consider the senses and the spirit in some sort of eternal opposition. In this new vision of sacred world, however, the senses and their objects are themselves informed with spiritual energy. Spiritual energy and physical energy are not separate but continuous; the way, indeed, to spirit is through the senses. Furthermore, to become truly spiritual we don't need to strive more, but to relax. The spiritual path to the discovery of sacred world is in effect a path without effort. As Lao Tzu has said, when we give up, we get what we truly want, or as Henry Miller said, "I have to be careful what I wish for because I always get what I want."

Miller first explores his vision of reality from the viewpoint of the artist because, as he said, only as artist can man be free of modern ideology. Later he prophesied that the artist would disappear because life itself would become art, that is, with the dropping away of concepts and goals, life would reveal itself more fully. Here is a statement about "life as art" from Wisdom of the Heart:
   Strange as it may seem today to say, the aim of life is to live,
   and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely,
   divinely aware. In this state of god-like awareness one sings;
   in this realm the world exists as poem. No why or wherefore,
   no direction, no goal, no striving, no evolving. Like the
   enigmatic Chinaman one is rapt by the ever changing
   spectacle of passing phenomena. This is the sublime, the amoral
   state of the artist, he who lives only in the moment, the
   visionary moment of utter, far-seeing lucidity. Such clear, icy
   sanity that it seems like madness. By the force and power of
   the artist's vision the static, synthetic whole which is called
   the world is destroyed. The artist gives back to us a vital,
   singing universe, alive in all its parts. (2-3)

It is precisely this vision of the artist that has been lost to the modern world in the slow evolution of scientism and materialism. As Whitehead saw, we are governed by abstractions that we mistake for the concrete. Individuals have no sense of belonging in the universe. All are caught rather in a struggle to the death against all other men and nature itself, trying to wring survival out of a hostile world. Miller's vision of the unity of being is not new, certainly, and many now are aware of it even more sharply, since the very ecology of earth has been threatened. His point, however, is different than most modern writers, however, revolutionary, in that he is willing to accept the death of all those existing values that are founded in our ideological conceptions. Miller is one of those threatening writers who seem to want to bring the world down around our ears. Instead of discussing ideas, with their hygienic abstractness, he talks about disease, pus, running sores, broken bones, and the litter of a civilization gone mad.

The essays, we could say, are on the level of generalization supported by images. In the novels, it is the phenomenal world and its events that captures his mind and heart; abstractions are washed away by food and sex, by the immediate world of experience, whether that be hunger or feasting. Miller's essay "The 14th Ward" in Black Spring condenses some of the raw material in Tropic of Capricorn, the experience of his early life. It is the poetry of clear vision of what is rather than what one wants life to be:

Before the great change no one seemed to notice that the streets were ugly or dirty. If the sewer mains were opened you held your nose. If you blew your nose you found snot in your handkerchief and not in your nose. There was more of inward peace and contentment. There was the saloon, the race track, bicycles, fat women and trot horses.... Where others remember of their youth a beautiful garden, a fond mother, a sojourn at the seashore, I remember, with a vividness as if it were etched in acid, the grim, soot-covered walls and chimneys of the tin factory opposite us and the bright, circular pieces of tin that were strewn in the street, some bright and gleaming, others rusted, dull, copperish, leaving a stain on the fingers; I remember the ironworks where the red furnace glowed and men walked toward the glowing pit with huge shovels in their hands, while outside were the shallow wooden forms like coffins with rods through them on which you scraped your shins or broke your neck." (Black Spring 4-5)

Sometimes Miller shifted to describing people he had known, in marvelously succinct irreverent portraits. The portrait of Bob Ramsey, in "The 14th Ward," has that wonderful mixture of gentleness and irony:
   I remember that everyone liked Bob Ramsey, the minister's
   son.... They liked him because he was a good-for-nothing
   and he made no bones about it. Sundays or Wednesdays
   made no difference to him: you could see him coming down
   the street under the drooping awnings with his coat over his
   arm and the sweat rolling down his face; his legs wobbly, with
   that long, steady roll of a sailor coming ashore after a long
   cruise; the tobacco juice dribbling from his lips, together with
   warm, silent curses and some loud and foul ones too. The
   utter indolence, the insouciance of the man, the obscenities,
   the sacrilege. Not a man of God, like his father. No, a man
   who inspired love! His frailties were human frailties and he
   wore them jauntily, tauntingly, flauntingly like banderillas....
   And a little later, in his warm-heartedness, in that fine,
   careless way he had, he walked off the end of a pier and
   drowned himself." (6-7)

On other occasions, Miller combines an actual physical scene with fantasy. The combination of mind and events raises his mood almost to ecstasy. Consider this scene where he is opening a bottle of wine:

Boris is rubbing his hands again. Mr. Wren is still stuttering and spluttering. I have a bottle between my legs and I'm shoving the corkscrew in. Mrs. Wren has her mouth parted expectantly. The wine is splashing between my legs, the sun is splashing through the bay window, and inside my veins there is a bubble and splash of a thousand crazy things that commence to gush out of me now pell-mell. I'm telling them everything that comes to mind, everything that was bottled up inside of me and which Mrs. Wren's loose laugh has somehow released. (Tropic of Cancer, p. 13)

Of course the essence of the novels, as they have appeared to readers, is in the explicit descriptions of sexual activity and sexual hang-ups, of looking for food or for a little money--all on the level of play. Even the most serious events, even death, are connected with play. He seduces or is seduced by the recent widow that his father has sent him up to console; someone picks his nose with a rusty nail and dies of blood poisoning. Each in its season, love and death alternate. Always merry and bright! was Miller's often repeated motto, a theme done well enough in the film.

Yet Miller, even in his most sexually explicit writing, is never pornographic. Given our puritanical culture, that distinction has not been easy to maintain. We have another legal nicety which has sometimes been preferred, that is, to distinguish between the pornographic and the erotic. Pornography suggests, as Judge Woolsey put is, "the leer of the sensualist," the portrayal of sexual activity exclusively and for its own sake. That never interested Miller. Eroticism, on the other hand is said to describe, in a normal way, human sensual or even sexual activity, presumably without the leer of the sensualist. Miller, I think, appreciated this distinction, but he was after larger game. "Erotic" somehow suggested to him "aestheticism," which he abhorred. The aesthetic leaves out blood and guts, death and dissolution, the charnel ground aspect. For Miller, no matter what definitions the culture may propose, the sacred is not different from the obscene. That is, the obscene and the sacred are at the deepest level of experience. Miller has, as it were, disconnected "pornographic" from "obscene' in order to avoid the bloodless aestheticism of the art for art's sake world.

Western spirituality (and Eastern too, in many of its forms) has always favored renunciation. The body, the senses are a vexation to the spirit rather than its source. But for Miller, the body is the ground of the sacred, a fact that is implicit during much of his work. The idea of the sacred becomes explicit when he undertakes to discuss his enthusiasm for D. H. Lawrence. Miller knew Lawrence's work during the Thirties when he was working on Tropic of Cancer, but it was not until Anais Nin showed him Lawrence's essays, principally "The Crown," that he fully appreciated Lawrence's genius. Lawrence is many-sided, as is Miller's treatment of him. Of central importance to any discussion of Lawrence's work would be his view of the sexual struggle between men and women. Miller discussed that aspect of Lawrence, but he has raised so many complex and controversial questions, it would require a separate essay to approach them fully. Let us, nevertheless, touch on that relation, so important to understanding both Miller and Lawrence.

Neither Miller nor Lawrence believed that men or women should avoid that struggle. Out of the relations between men and women the world of energy, the real world is born, a dynamic living world outside of the paralyzing abstractions that dominate modern life. In Lawrence's words:

The great goal of creative or constructive activity, or of heroic victory in fight, must always be the goal of the day-time self. But the very possibility of such a goal arises out of the vivid dynamism of the conscious blood. And the blood in an individual finds its great renewal in a perfected sex circuit. (The World of Lawrence: A Passionate Appreciation 185)

That dynamism is Sacred World! The failure of that perfected sex circuit led to the "disintegration" that Lawrence feared, the "disintegration which he perceived everywhere." According to Miller, Lawrence was trying to restore "the generative principle." He did not want to accept the idea proposed by the "entropists" that the sun could die. "His own fierce desire for life is so strong that he anthropomorphizes the universe" The dynamism of the sun is the source of sexuality as well as of Sacred World.

Miller also comments on Lawrence's views of the "cosmological" aspects of body, a view that reverses our dependence on the sun:

And so he reverses the process. It is we, the living, he insists, who give life to the sun and the stars. The origin of life--whence come we, whither go we?--he admitted that he knew nothing about. He dismissed them, even as Lao-tze dismissed the idea of God, and the soul, and immortality. There is no solution to these problems, he says over and over again. He knew only this thing called Life whose heart is mystery--life ever-renewed, a perpetual flame, a source unquenchable. And if the intellect deny this, he would say then there is something wrong with the intellect, then the intellect must give way to the blood. (The World of Lawrence: A Passionate Appreciation 194)

The danger in reading either Miller or Lawrence is to mistake what they describe as a new cult of the body. There is enough explanation in Lawrence's prose essays to offset that view. That is not nearly so true for Miller. Anyone who reads Lawrence's work seriously must come to the realization that he is doing much more than defending masculine egos against feminine usurpation. The same is not as true for Miller, who is less inclined to explain what he is doing. I think we can see Miller's own views in his discussion of Lawrence because Miller shows his own mind when he writes. It is not for Lawrence that he is writing but for Henry Miller. In any event, both Miller and Lawrence had a glimpse of western society as a world in pain, lacking connection between thought and feeling, lacking connection between body and mind, lacking connection between self and world. Since they wrote, matters have not gotten noticeably better.

As a final consideration of the kinds of surprises one runs into with Miller, I append this brief passage from the letters between Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, written in March 1939. He is referring to three articles that appear in The Modern Mystic on "Tibetan Yoga:"

His leaflet sounds bad, I admit, but he seems to have the full dope on Tibetan practices. It drives me wild, delirious with joy. Read especially, in third installment, about Milerepa, the poet-saint--wonderful egg! All these great birds of Tibet remind me of Zen masters, who are up my street. Zen is my idea of life absolutely, the closest thing to what I am able to formulate in words. I am a Zen addict through and through. Except for the monastic regime, which I don't believe in at all and see no necessity for. But if you want to penetrate Buddhism, read Zen. No intelligent person, no sensitive person, can help but be a Buddhist. It's clear as a bell to me. And of course all these modern mystikers ... are stinking caricatures of the doctrine. First there is no evil in them, second no humor, third no magic, fourth no poetry, fifth no life. What is left is moth dust, the furbelows of the mind rotting in the dead sunshine of the dead. (Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell: A Private Correspondence 151)

Works Cited

Durrell, Lawrence, and Henry Miller. Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller: A Private Correspondence. New York: EP Dutton, 1963.

Keats, John. Letters of John Keats. Ed. Robert Gittings. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970.

Miller, Henry. Black Spring. New York: Grove, 1963.

--. Tropic of Cancer New York: Grove, 1961.

--. Wisdom of the Heart. New York: New Directions, 1941.

--. The World of Lawrence: A Passionate Appreciation. Santa Barbara: Capra, 1980.

(1) Thanks to Dan Stone for supplying a copy of Dr. Gordon's text to the editors.
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Author:Gordon, William A.
Publication:Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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