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Monday, June 9, 2014

REMEMBERING MY FRIEND HENRY MILLER

acropolis, athens, greece

Back into reading Henry Miller again. Finished the Colossus of Maroussi, which turned out to be one of my top favorite reads and influences on my life. The first hundred pages into The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, the book Miller wrote after Colossus. It is his story of returning to USA after living in Paris where he wrote the novels that made his name. A case was made against Tropic of Cancer all the way to the Supremes for bad language, 1961. It was the Warren Court then, an intelligent Supreme Court without so many corporate plants in that time. Miller used the efword and Grove Press was taken to court. It seems strange in this time the Supreme Court can make an intelligent decision. It amounted to the art book of its time. Originally published in Paris in 1934, it was republished in New York and charged with obscenity. Went to the Court in 1961. Immediately, it became the book of the year, Grove Press box sets, paperback edition everywhere. Until the trial, Miller got by on money borrowed from friends, largely. James Joyce's Ulysses, if I recall correctly, needed a Supreme Court trial before it could be published this side of the Atlantic. It became well known as a result, but not so widely read. In Charleston, South Carolina, was a small bookstore across the street from the College of Charleston, The Book Basement, where I worked through my college years. One of the customers before I came to the store, a generation older than me would vacation in Europe and brought back in his luggage half a dozen copies of Ulysses for the bookstore when it did not yet have an American edition. The distinction of a Court case before the Supremes distinguishes Miller with Joyce. Very different writers in about every way the differences can be noted. They both had very large minds.

book cover

Air-Conditioned Nightmare starts in New York upon Miller's return from a year in Greece where he stayed mostly with English writer Lawrence Durrell and his wife Nancy on the island Corfu. Colossus is written around his trip to Athens and Crete. From New York he teamed up with artist friend Abe Rattner he knew in Paris, and they drove down South through Charleston, then across the deep South to New Orleans, Rattner's destination. Miller drove on to the middle California coast, Big Sur, this the early 1940s, war in Europe, France overtaken, Italy overtaken, and Greece in fear of German invasion. Miller was getting out of Europe with the wolves snapping at his heels. In a three year journey across USA by car, Miller, who left Brooklyn not long out of high school and lived in Paris, wanted to acquaint himself with America. I'd guess after all the years of being "the American," expected to explain and being blamed for American idiocies and to take the praise for American greatness, none of which he had anything to do with. I had a lot of problem with that part of being in another country. I got so sick of "you Americans," I turned mean spirited. In a London pub a man beside me at the bar where I was having a Worthington E, ordered a drink with minute instructions for amount of this and that, temperature. I'd seen that before. Out of curiosity, I asked what it was about. I was thinking, I wouldn't dare expect a waiter or bartender or waitress in America even to listen to a list of instructions that long. In the man's huffy, hear-hear, arrogant way he said it was "for the taste. Why do you Americans drink?" I'd had it up to over my eyebrows hearing you-Americans, like I'm responsible for everybody else, so I said with much inner mirth and a straight face, having fun at the thought of affirming his boring clichés, "To get drunk," like, why else? It's the same with all minorities in America worn out from hearing, "your people." I don't even remember what he looked like, but do remember he turned his back to me and I about busted out laughing. Later, at home a few years, some friends were going to London and asked what it's like. I said you will get an understanding of what it's like to be black in America.
 
henry miller

Miller went to France young, uninterested in living in USA, though when he returned twenty or so years later, America the people, the landscape, held his attention and became the focus of his attention. Reading in Air-Conditioned Nightmare the third time, I'm seeing Miller's influence on my own understanding and interest in the variety of American cultures. Marketing trains us to believe it's one big happy classless society where everybody loves money. Of course, it's not anywhere near that simple, same as your-people is not. I used to think it was obvious and everybody got it because it's right there in our faces. Used to think. In the past. Repeated experience throughout a lifetime has shown me the obvious is a mystery for many more adults than I am comfortable admitting to myself. I have to remind myself we humans are all on different levels of consciousness, all of us mixed together in one boiling, swirling stew. In this time of international wars and population explosion our souls are exploring unfamiliar territory at all times. Perhaps this has something to do with why we cling to the familiar, others of our own race and nationality. I believe, with no backup to support it, there are souls actually born in the wrong place to the wrong people. I'd say this situation would make a very confused individual, or not. One might think the child of a Jew and a Catholic would be confused, but it's not the case. We're so involved in the rapid change of everything around us and inside ourselves we embrace the change in adoration of the New, the latest, such that we've become a culture of the New. I stopped painting when I saw my babies going into the world of see-my-new. It's put on the wall in its place, "see my new...." I have a difficult time letting paintings go. Selling them makes them products. I don't like my babies becoming products, same as I don't like raising calves toward the burger market.
 
book cover
 
I believe I can trace the evolution of my curiosity about the varieties of American people, the different cultures here from region to region, national background, race, level of income, class, to Henry Miller's Air-Conditioned Nightmare. His book reads as contemporary today as it did in its first year of publication, 1945. He wrote it in my infancy a few hundred miles north of my birthplace. I read it first time in the late 1970s. It was contemporary then. This is evidence of one of my favorite aspects of Miller's writing, the immediacy. He pulls me into his mind and takes me on a mind journey that is here, now. Brings to mind Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, prose poems of invisible cities written in an Italian Surrealist manner by a Marco Polo of the mind. Miller makes you feel where he is in the telling such that I see in my mind's eye where he is, the café, the boat ride to Crete, the streets in Heraklion, the landscape by road across the island to the Minoan ruins. I made the trip seven years after reading Miller's account of his visit in 1939, thereabouts. At the time it seemed like a kind of subconscious pilgrimage to the first known places Greek civilization evolved from, even to the Om point, the omphalos at Delphi, the center of the universe according to early Greek civilization. I did not remember that I was guided to those places by Henry Miller. He too, had taken the road from Athens to Delphi, one of the many beautiful drives on earth. He too, felt the powerful energy of the place. When I felt the energy of the place, and I wasn't even tuned to "energies" then, I understood why the oracle chose Delphi. I reviewed my own tour of Greece in Colossus of Maroussi after forgetting Miller's tour of Greece was the model for my own. I wanted to see the places he wrote about, that I saw in my mind's eye reading his account. I've been looking for something to read that I really want to read, that I want to pick up a second time. I'd pick up something, look at the first few sentences and none of them made me want to finish the page. Didn't know what I was looking for to read. Nothing took hold of me. Then I picked up Colossus. Now I only want to read Miller next, Nightmare. It's an unwitting, subconscious review of Henry Miller's substantial influence on my manner of thinking, the scope of my ethical foundation. I feel awed reading these two books at this time in the life. In a way it's like reading my astrological chart. These two books have influenced me more deeply than I knew or even might have imagined. Another strong influence comes to mind, Leo Tolstoy. Very powerful influence, especially through his biography by Henri Troyat. And Sitting Bull's biography. These are the people I've discovered through reading that my soul connects with, like it connects with Ralph Stanley's and the Carter Family's singing, the voices the soul of these mountains chose to sing through.

omphalos
delphi
 
 
 
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