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"The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware."

Those are Henry Miller's words. I have no idea in which one of his books they appeared. I don't know how old he was when he wrote them.  In fact, the only reason I'm aware of that particular quotation is because it's on a refrigerator magnet in the apartment I share with my fiancée, Myung. It was Myung's magnet when I met her -- it was Myung's apartment I moved into -- and now, I suppose, it's my magnet, too. These things happen when you fall in love and set up house with someone. Their favorite quotations sometimes become yours. Their fridge magnets sometimes seem fraught with significance. There's no use fighting it.

But that Miller quotation, while it occasionally resounds in my head unbidden, like a song fragment, is also problematic. First of all, I'm not really sure what it means. It strikes me as poetically excessive (if rhythmically perfect). I can't recall ever seeing anyone at once joyous, drunken, and serene. But even if you point out that Miller was not using "drunken" in the common, inebriated sense, it still strikes me as a lovely, characteristically over-the-top Milleresque sentiment.   

Second, I'm not even sure I agree with it. I would love to be able to say, in honesty, "Yes, yes, I agree, we all should be joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware." But I'm not convinced, in the end, that that really is the aim of life. Granted, it might be. And granted, it probably is. But there are a lot of other options. Maybe the aim of life is to be blissfully unaware. Or contentedly semi-aware. Who really knows? Divinely aware sounds closer to the truth, but also begs the question: aware of what?

The real significance of the quotation, though, is how much it sounds like a Henry Miller line: exhortative, ebullient, with just the slightest hint of self-satisfaction. And while it's difficult to imagine what Miller's reaction might have been if one were to tell him when he was alive that his words would eventually end up on refrigerator magnets -- outrage? amusement? vindication? -- the assertion nevertheless captures much of what makes his writing so engaging. 

One senses that not only did he mean it when he wrote that sort of thing, but that he lived it, too.

Unlike most Miller fans, my introduction to his work came not through "Tropic of Cancer" or "Tropic of Capricorn," or "Sexus" or "Plexus," but by way of a strange and, to my mind, unique literary-philosophical travelogue called "The Colossus of Maroussi." I discovered it in a New Haven bookstore during that period in my life when every single volume published by New Directions seemed a personal summons.  Ezra Pound, Kenneth Patchen, Bob Kaufman, Nathanael West, and on and on. New Directions felt like punk rock on paper. Not too many people bought the books, but if you saw someone else reading a New Directions volume, you felt like you shared a kind of secret. Like you knew that person, and that person felt the same way about words and authors that you did. (To this day, I still feel that way when I see someone on the train or in a park reading "Death on the Installment Plan," or "The Drunken Boat." A silly assumption, perhaps, but a hard one to shake.)

"The Colossus of Maroussi" introduced me to a kind of voice I'd never encountered before. Recounting his travels through Greece in the 1930s and 1940s, Miller suffused every page with a love of the Mediterranean way of life -- or what he, as a New Yorker, imagined that way of life to be when wandering within it  -- with language so sharp and immediate that I believed I could feel the Greek sunlight on my back, on my face and hands, as I read. I imagined I could taste the grapes and the wine; and the easy smiles of the people he met as he roughed it through the cities and countryside seemed trained on me, too. That his account of his travels and encounters might be as outsized and as crazily embellished as "Gulliver's Travels" made no difference then, and it makes even less now. I was enthralled by Miller's enthusiasm, and his openness to new experiences, and his seemingly inexhaustible curiosity, and if he perhaps overstated the profundity of a ruined temple, or a meal of hummus and grape leaves and Retsina, well, so what? He was living the way I had always imagined one should live -- on the move, eyes open, seeking out fellowship and spurning the willfully ignorant and the cruel -- and even if I didn't have the guts to follow in his footsteps, or at least not to the degree that he seemed to command, I could still revel in the fullness of his adventures. 

He seemed fearless, especially in his writings, in his willingness to be tender, and I set up a little Greek temple to Miller, in my heart, and imagined myself just as adventurous and world-wise as he.

I was no such thing, of course. But as I followed up "Colossus" with other books, my admiration, rather than abating, increased. The Rabelaisian extremes of the "Tropic" books, with their scenes of prodigious eating and drinking and sex -- although far more of the third than of the first two, the protagonist being so often broke and scrounging for dough -- were a melding of low comedy and high literature so unexpected that I often didn't even know what I was laughing at while reading. I simply knew that it was hilarious. (I'm not going to quote any more of him here, by the way. If you've read him and enjoyed him, you know what I mean. If you have read him and don't like him, nothing I quote will make a difference. And if you haven't read him, you should at least give him a shot, and there's an end on it.)

There was also something about Miller's face, something about the look of the man that I liked, too. Bald, playful, mischievous, with something visionary in the eyes: far-away eyes. I always thought that he looked a bit like Buckminster Fuller, or rather he looked like Fuller might have looked if Fuller had been a horny Greco-Roman wrestler, or a highly reprobate monk, in addition to being an engineering genius.

One of my favorite books of his is his remarkable creation, "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch." Spurning a conventional narrative, the book is an almost overwhelming evocation of a time and place that's gone forever -- the mid- to-late 1950s in coastal Northern California -- in which Miller writes of friends, acquaintances, lovers, rivals, fears, hopes, dreams, passions, the weather, geology, the sea, the sky, and anything else that pops into his capacious mind. In "Big Sur," Miller manages to not only cast himself as a constantly engaging hero-fool, but, by virtue of his own seemingly bottomless desire for experience, knowledge, and sensation, he also forces the reader re-examine what it is in his or her own life that makes being alive on this earth worthwhile -- or, as the case may be, not all that worthwhile. 

It's a book that makes other books feel bloodless, and a little fake. Of course, it might also be one of those books that can't have its greatest impact unless one reads it at the exact right time in one's life. And that has nothing to do with age, but with attitude. I was lucky, I guess. I read "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch" when I was younger, and callow and negative and cynical and studiedly bored (and thus, of course, intensely boring), and it acted as a tonic. It showed me that a person might be generous and strong and forgiving, and gain infinitely more than by being self-absorbed and callous and judgmental.

Most children learn that lesson early on in life. I learned it late, but the fact that I learned it at all can be attributed -- at least in small part, at least as I remember it -- to Miller.

Not that the guy was infallible. Anyone who takes the sort of strong (some might say strident) positions on politicians, greed, war, other writers, and so many other things that matter that Miller took is sometimes bound to look, in retrospect, more than a little silly. 

For example, even those of us who empathize with Miller's loathing for the seamier excesses of modern American life can smile at his misguided certainty that civil disobedience could not and would never flourish in America ("Thoreau," from Stand Still Like the Hummingbird). Are we supposed to fault Miller because he failed to foresee the emergence of leaders and rebels like the Freedom Riders in the Deep South, and Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and William Sloane Coffin, and all the other bloodied, unbowed civilly disobedient Americans of the early and mid-'60s? Of course we aren't. 

Should we toss out a wonderful essay on Whitman simply because Miller goes a little around the bend and ends up claiming, in the midst of some genuine insights into the great poet's work, that "it's a wonder that he was not crucified"? Probably not. 

And then there are the claims, by a surprising array of readers, that the man was a raving misogynist, or, if he wasn't, then his writings, at least, are misogynistic, and thus unworthy of acclaim, or even attention. Well … okay. Even if one concedes that Miller's work, and specifically his fiction, is misogynistic (and I am far from willing to concede that, except for rhetorical purposes), one still has to account for how his work has endured, and why. Many of his books that feature not a single marathon boinking session are still in print, belying the notion that Miller's popularity, decades after his death, is based primarily on the "Tropic" books, with their almost clownishly over-the-top obsession with bodily functions, and especially the carnal. 

To those who would argue that Miller is misogynistic, I'd only say, perhaps, perhaps. But rather than seeing him as anti-woman, I choose to see him as pro-sex, and pro-kindness, and anti-cruelty, and anti-capitalist, and apolitical, and pro-artist, and anti-conformity. I'd never, ever argue, like some Catskills comic might, that his being married five times is proof enough that he loved woman. On the contrary, we probably all know some misogynistic creep who has been married multiple times. That doesn't prove that the fellow reveres females: it simply means that he can't for the life of him stay married to one.

Anyway, call Miller a misogynist if you like. I don't buy it -- and no doubt there's a semiotician out there, right now, writing a treatise on why we see Miller in such different lights. 

There are a whole lot of Miller books that I haven't mentioned here, some of which I've read, others that I know I will never read. "The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder" is one that I once read, and enjoyed, and now know I will never read again, because it strikes me as a little gooey, like the writer's trying too hard to come across as a wise and gentle bodhisattva. And then there's "The Air Conditioned Nightmare," an account of Miller's travels through the United States in the early '40s, and a devastating, painful, and funny a critique of American consumerism, Puritanism, and every other ism that we as a culture have managed to invent, or pervert. 

The point here, and I guess it's my last, is that Miller, like all great writers, wrote about the world in which he lived, and the world that existed in his head and heart, and he spent his life trying to reconcile those worlds. That we have a record of that effort, in the form of dozens of novels and travelogues and memoirs, not a few of which are classics, is a testament to the guy's sincerity. He lived long, and he wrote well. For those of us who wish such an epitaph for ourselves, Miller is worth discovering, again, and again.

--by Ben Cosgrove

The Works of Henry Miller

TROPIC OF CANCER, 1934 - film 1970, dir. Joseph Strick
ALLER RETOUR NEW YORK, 1935
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT ALF?, 1935
BLACK SPRING, 1936
SCENARIO, 1937
MAX AND THE WHITE PHAGOCYTES, 1938
THE COSMOLOGICAL EYE, 1939
HAMLET, 1939 (with Michael Fraenkel)
TROPIC OF CAPRICORN, 1939
THE WORLD OF SEX, 1940
THE WISDOM OF THE HEART, 1941
THE COLOSSUS OF MAROUSSI, 1941
SUNDAY AFTER THE WAR, 1944
MURDER THE MURDERER, 1944
THE ANGEL IS MY WATERMARK, 1944
THE PLIGHT OF THE CREATIVE ARTIST IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, 1944
SEMBLANCE OF A DEVOTED PAST, 1944
SUNDAY AFTER THE WAR, 1944
THE AIR-CONDITIONED NIGHTMARE, 1945
HENRY MILLER MISCELLANEA, 1945
THE AMAZING AND INVARIABLE BEAUFORD DELANEY, 1945
MAURIZIUS FOREVER, 1946
OF, BY AND ABOUT HENRY MILLER, 1947
REMEMBER TO REMEMBER, 1947
VARDA, THE MASTER BUILDR, 1947
THE SMILE AT THE ROOT OF THE LADDER, 1948
SEXUS, 1949
THE WATERS REGLITTERIZED, 1950
RIMBAUD, 1952
THE BOOKS IN MY LIFE, 1952
PLEXUS, 1952
NIGHTS OF LOVE AND LAUGHTER, 1955
A DEVIL IN PARADISE, 1956
THE TIME OF THE ASSASSINS, 1956
QUIET DAYS IN CLICHY, 1956 - film 1989, dir. Claude Chabrol
BIG SUR AND THE ORANGES OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH, 1957
THE RED NOTEBOOK, 1958
ART AND OUTRAGE, 1959
THE HENRY MILLER READER, 1959 (ed. by L. Durrell)
THE INTIMATE HENRY MILLER, 1959
TO PAINT IS TO LOVE AGAIN, 1960
NEXUS, 1960
STAND STILL LIKE THE HUMMINGBIRD, 1962
JOSEPH DELTEIL, 1962
THE MICHAEL FRAENKEL-HENRY MILLER CORRESPONDENCE CALLED HAMLET, 1962
JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY, 1963
A PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE, 1963
GREECE, 1964
LETTERS TO ANAIS NIN, 1965
THE WORLD OF SEX, 1965
ROSY CRUSIFIXION -trilogy (SEXUS, PLEXUS, NEXUS), U.S. edition published as whole in 1965
JOURNEY TO AN ANTIQUE LAND, 1965
SELECTED PROSE, 1966
INSOMNIA OR THE DEVIL AT LARGE, 1966
ORDER AND CHAOS CHEZ HANS REICHEL, 1966
COLLECTORS QUEST, 1968
WRITER AND CRITIC, 1968
ENTRETIENS DE PARIS AVEC GEORGES BELMONT, 1970
ON TURNING EIGHTY, 1972
MY LIFE AND TIMES, 1972
REFLECTIONS ON THE DEATH OF MISHIMA, 1972
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF GREECE, 1973
LETTERS OF HENRY MILLER AND WALLACE FOWLIE, 1974
THE NIGHTMARE NOTEBOOK, 1975
FLASHBACK, 1976
GLIDING INTO THE EVERGLADES AND OTHER ESSAYS, 1976
THE INEFFABLE FRANCES STELOFF, 1976 (with A. Nin)
J'SUIS PAS PLUS CON QU'UN AUTRE, 1976
OUR AMERICA, 1976 (with A. Rattner)
HENRY MILLER'S BOOK OF FRIENDS, 1976
FOUR VISIONS OF AMERICA, 1977
SEXTET, 1977
HENRY MILLER:YEARS OF TRIAL AND TRIUMPH, 1978
LOVE BETWEEN THE SEXES, 1978
MY BIKE AND OTHER FRIENDS, 1978
THE THEATRE AND OTHER PIECES, 1979
JOEY, 1979
CORRESPONDENCE PRIVÉE DE HENRY MILLER ET JOSEPH DELTEIL 1935-78, 1980 (ed. by F.J. Temple)
NOTES ON AARON'S ROD AND OTHER NOTES ON LAWRENCE FROM THE PARIS NOTEBOOKS, 1980
THE WORLD OF LAWRENCE, 1980
HENRY MILLER READER, 1983 (ed. by J. Calder)
FROM YOUR CAPRICORN FRIEND, 1984
DEAR, DEAR BRENDA, 1986 (with Brenda Venus)
LETTERS FROM HENRY MILLER TO HOKI TOKUDA MILLER, 1986
A LITERATE PASSION, 1987
THE DURRELL-MILLER LETTERS 1935-1980, 1988
HENRY MILLER'S HAMLET LETTERS, 1988
LETTERS TO EMIL, 1989
HENRY MILLER - THE PAINTINGS, 1991
NOTHING BUT THE MARVELOUS, 1991
CRAZY COCK, 1991 (foreword by Erica Jong) - Hullu kukko
OCTET, 1991
MOLOCH, 1992
HENRY MILLER, 1992
A DEVIL IN PARADISE, 1993
HENRY MILLER AND JAMES LAUGHLIN, 1995



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