Sunday, July 11, 2010


Henry Miller

With the 1934 publication of Tropic of Cancer in France, Henry Miller made his debut as a major writer on the world stage.  In the United States, however, the book was declared  obscene, and no publisher dared to publish or market it for twenty-seven years.  Sadly, the much-trumpeted constitutional right of free speech offered Miller no protection, at least initially, from the puritanical obsessions that were ingrained in American culture during that period.

Ironically, as one might have expected, the American ban on Tropic of Cancer served only to enhance Miller's reputation, both here and abroad.  The Saturday Review of Literature called Miller "the largest force lately risen on the horizon of American letters;" Ezra Pound announced that the world, at last, had "an unprintable book that is fit to read;" and George Orwell claimed -- perhaps excessively -- that Miller was "the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past."

To its everlasting credit, Grove Press finally mustered the courage to publish Tropic of Cancer in 1961, knowing full well that the company would be charged with violations of state and federal obscenity laws. When the charges were filed, Grove devoted considerable time and money in the defense of Miller's constitutional rights of freedom of speech and expression.  While the lower courts were not sympathetic with Grove's assertions,  Miller's position was finally vindicated in 1964 when the  Supreme Court ruled that Tropic of Cancer was not obscene, but was instead a legitimate work of literature.  Unfortunately, however, the damage to Miller's reputation had already been done. Even to this day, Miller's name is often associated with hedonism and obscenity, especially among those who have never taken the time to read a broad sampling of his writings.

In The Books in My Life, Miller said this about his works and his life:
What were the subjects which formed my style, my character, my approach to life.  Broadly these: The love of life itself, the pursuit of truth, wisdom and understanding, mystery, the power of language, the antiquity and glory of man, eternality, the purpose of existence, the oneness of everything, self-liberation, the brotherhood of man, the meaning of love, the relation of sex to love, the enjoyment of sex, humor, oddities, and eccentricities in all life's aspects, travel, adventure, discovery, prophecy, magic (white and black), art, games, confessions, revelations, mysticism, more particularly the mystics themselves, the varieties of faith and worship, the marvelous in all realms and under all aspects, for there is only the marvelous and nothing but the marvelous.
According to my count, Miller has identified over thirty subjects that underpinned his work, and, interestingly, only two involve sex.  It is the fear of sexual content, however, that has kept so many potential readers from considering the extraordinary works of this fine and gifted writer.  And for those who continue to be somewhat apprehensive about  Tropic of Cancer, it is worth noting that the autobiographical novel was on Time magazine's 2005 list of the best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.

Set forth below are some brief excerpts from Miller's writing.  Hopefully, these excerpts  will illustrate the scope of his interests and encourage readers to reconsider some of his work.

On Acceptance --
Life, as we all know, is conflict, and man, being part of life, is himself an expression of conflict.  If he recognizes the fact and accepts it, he is apt, despite the conflict, to know peace and to enjoy it.  But to arrive at this end, which is only a beginning (for we haven't begun to live yet!), man has got to learn the doctrine of acceptance, that is, of unconditional surrender, which is love.
        The Wisdom of the Heart
This doctrine of acceptance, the most difficult yet simple of all the radical ideas man has proposed to himself, embodies the understanding that the world is made up of conflicting members in all stages of evolution and devolution, that good and evil co-exist even though the one be but the shadow of the other, and that the world, for all it ills and shortcomings, was made for our enjoyment.
        Stand Still Like a Hummingbird

On Solitude --
Only when we are truly alone does the fullness and richness of life reveal itself to us.
        Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

On Trust -- 
The key word is trust.  Trust that everything that happens in life, even those experiences that cause pain, will serve to better you in the end.  It's easy to lose the inner vision, the greater truths, in the face of tragedy. There really is no such thing as suffering simply for the sake of suffering. Along with developing a basic trust in the rhyme and reason of life itself, I advise you to trust your intuition.  It is a far better guide in the long run than your intellect.

On Harmony with Life --
When God answers Job cosmologically it is to remind man that he is only a part of creation, that it is his duty to put himself in accord with it or perish.  When man puts his head out of the stream of life he becomes self-conscious.  And with self-consciousness comes arrest, fixation, symbolized so vividly by the myth of Narcissus.
        The Books of My Life

On Destiny --
Every man has his own destiny: The only imperative is to follow it, to accept it, no matter where it leads him.
        The Wisdom of the Heart

On Individuality --
Let a man believe in himself and he will find a way to exist despite the barriers and traditions which hem him in.
        Stand Still Like a Hummingbird

On Understanding --
Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through it and by it.
        The Wisdom of the Heart

On the Miraculous --
When you are convinced that all the exits are blocked, either you take to believing in miracles or you stand still like the hummingbird.  The miracle is that the honey is always there, right under your nose, only you were too busy searching elsewhere to realize it.  The worst is not death but being blind, blind to the fact that everything about life is in the nature of the miraculous.
        Stand Still Like a Hummingbird

On Seeing Properly --
One's destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.
        Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

On Happiness --
Man craves happiness here on earth, not fulfillment, not emancipation.  Are they utterly deluded, then, in seeking happiness?  No, happiness is desirable, but it is a by-product, the result of a way of life, not a goal which is forever beyond one's grasp.  Happiness is achieved en route.  And if it be ephemeral, as most men believe, it can also give way, not to anxiety or despair, but to a joyousness which is serene and lasting.  To make happiness the goal is to kill it in advance.  If one must have a goal, which is questionable, why not self-realization?
       Stand Still Like a Hummingbird

These quotes are just some of the passages that have been underlined through the years in my copies of Miller's books.  I revisit the books frequently, interested always in the underlined passages, wondering if I have made progress on the questions that Miller has raised. And that's what Miller does best -- he is always challenging me to take a new look at the assumptions that underpin my life.

The title of this posting, "always merry and bright," was Henry Miller's motto.  Spend a little time with Miller and you are likely to feel, as I do, that his merriment can be contagious.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, George.

    I discovered Miller while spending a faux Bohemian year in Germany at the age of 20 - The Air-conditioned Nightmare, the Tropics, The Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy, The Books In My Life, a few others. I was immediately entranced. Strangely I don't remember being particularly shocked by the sex - and some of it was very explicit for the time. What I do remember - vividly - was how liberating his style and sentiments were, how enthusiastic he was for life and literature, how greedy he was for experience. I'm not sure how reading his novels again would affect me now, but then - to a romantically and artistically inclined youth at the threshold of life, a youth who had also just come across Kerouac and the Beats (wlth whom Miller has an affinity) - they were intoxicating champagne. Some of the more philosophical books you quote from I don't know, so I must get hold of them. You can see he'd been absorbing a lot of spiritual writers, Buddhist thinkers etc!

    The other thing I'd like to add is this: I often felt on difficult ground reading writers like Miller, Mailer and DH Lawrence in the 60s and 70s - as these kinds of writers were the betes noires of the feminists, whom I basically supported (though a lot of them I found very extreme), and I dutifully plodded through Simone de Beauvoir and the rest. But I was attacked by some very strongly for reading and liking Miller and Lawrence. However, in my view, the feminist argument against these so-called 'sexists' and 'women-denigrators' was so simplified, extreme and one-sided that it just didn't stand up at all. Most of the ferocious feminist critics of the time just didn't have a clue about what these writers were on about, and probably hadn't read them properly anyway. As usual, when promoting a revolutionary cause, an objective many-sided appraisal gets thrown out the window - and distorted cliches and sweeping banner statements are the order of the day.

  2. To Solitary Walker,

    Thanks for the generous and thoughtful comments, Robert. It's interesting that so many of your experiences have mirrored my own.

    What is missed by so many people is that Miller was a very spiritual person throughout his life. He would have agreed entirely with the 2nd century theologian, St. Ireneaus, that "the glory of God is a human being fully alive." In Miller's view, however, one cannot be fully alive unless one is liberated from repressive conventions, dogmas, and other forms of conditioned thinking.

    Another thing that I have always loved about Miller is that he was a perennial student of life, always willing to learn, always willing to change if necessary to accommodate the truth. And throughout the process, even when poor and reviled by the puritanical establishment, he appeared to remain "merry and bright."

    It's unfortunate that some feminists jumped to the conclusion that Miller denigrated women in his books. In my opinion, Miller himself was a feminist; he wanted every human being, regardless of gender, to be liberated from stifling, repressive roles.

    Thanks again. I really enjoyed your comments.

  3. Your post provides an opportunity to 'spend a little time' with Miller, as you suggest. The excerpts you share demonstrate Miller's familiarity with the mystics and some eastern philosophies. While I enjoyed all the excerpts, the ones on 'harmony with life' and 'happiness' were particularly interesting to me - both applicable to what I see in the therapeutic encounter.

    The United States is an interesting country - so out front in so many realms and yet so constrained by a fundamentalist iron fist when it comes to the arts, the body, the foreign. Overly preoccupied with, and titillated by, sex in such a superficial way, while terrified to embrace it openly as an essential, glorious part of life. Intellects and artists who step outside of the religious norms there, can pay a huge price.

    Thanks George - enjoyed this dip into Miller's learned world view.

  4. To Bonnie,

    Very well said, Bonnie. Historically, we have been a nation that is often in conflict with itself. We profess to believe that all people should be equal under the law, but we discriminated against women and African Americans for most of our history. We profess to support due process for all charged with crimes in our country, but we have withheld that right from many of those "suspected" of terrorism. We profess to believe in freedom of speech and expression, but we have often banned artistic works that were perceived as threats to our puritanical heritage. We profess to be the world's greatest advocate of peace, but we have often precipitated unrest in other nations, and our previous administration adopted a policy of "preemptive war," which is tantamount to war without end. For these reasons, I could never join with those who say "my country, right or wrong." Patriotism requires the support of the highest ideals of one's country, not the support of actions or policies that are inconsonant with those ideals.

  5. I love Miller's face - it has such a lived-in look - in a way his work was ahead of its time - thinking about it, his books are by no means as explicit as some that are about these days. Classics indeed

  6. To Weaver,

    I published your comment, but it has not appeared yet. Sometimes these comment postings get delayed. In any event, I, too, love that lived-in face of Miller's, the asymmetrical appearance of his eyes. i also agree with you that Miller's most controversial writings appear rather tame by today's standards. Thanks for the comments.

  7. A contagious post, George. Thank you. The excerpts are very well chosen and your discussion of Miller exudes the kind of excitement one gets when rereading passages underlined years ago and finding new ones to underline.

    I especially like: "Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through it and by it".

    And "only the marvelous and nothing but the marvelous" sounds like an oath we should all renew daily.

  8. Seeing your reply to Bonnie's comment and discussion of patriotism, rejecting the "my country right or wrong" approach makes me think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr when he said (I paraphrase) that patriotism is the insistence on holding your country to its own best standards.

  9. George
    I found this Henry Miller quotation:
    "It's good to be just plain happy, it's a little better to know that you're happy; but to understand that you're happy and to know why and how and still be happy, be happy in the being and the knowing, well that is beyond happiness, that is bliss."
    Someone once said something about not having any right to philosophize if it didn't make us happier...Tramp

  10. To Lorenzo,

    Thanks for the comments. I, too, love the quote about embracing mystery and living blissfully with it, through it, and in it. As you may have noted, I have had this quote in the sidebar to this blog since its inception. I also love the quote about the marvelous. It's just one other reason why I find Miller so inspirational. And thanks for reminding me of Martin Luther King's statement, with which I totally agree.

  11. To Tramp,

    What a great comment, Tramp. I love the new Miller quote and plan to place it in my sidebar. It is one of those quotes that one should read again at least once a day. As to philosophy, I would not curtail anyone's right to opine on any matter of interest, but, personally, I share the view that philosophy reaches a dead end if it does not lead to greater human happiness.

  12. First, George, I feel a sort of angst for having missed this post at Google Reader. Four whole days ago! Hmm, don't know how that happened. I had only seen your physical treks on the C2C, and now this treat of a mind trek. (Have you seen "Mind Walk" with Liv Ullman, John Heard and Sam Waterston, at Mont St Michel?)

    I owe you a debt of gratitude for this wonderful post. To discover this about Miller is just pure glee. I had no idea, never having read a single work of his, that he was interested in mysticism, or the bliss beneath religion and society's repressions. I am an ill read English major, but it's never too late, I guess. Thank you for educating me that Henry Miller can open a window as simply and joyfully as Rumi, Osho or Krishnamurti.

    I don't know much about Miller, but I think he was no Mailer, thankfully, when it came to women, though he may have been thrown out by the sex fearers in the same bathwater. I so enjoyed all the discussion here, what a place.

    I agree with Bonnie's sentiment about the extremes we see here in the U.S. It was even more so when I lived in Istanbul, where women are not completely free, and I felt I should keep my eyes down as I walked down the street, yet there were girlie magazines on every corner. Well, there the men have heaven to look forward to, with however many brown-eyed virgins.

    OK, I'm getting distracted. A sign of a very big window you've opened for me. Thank you, abundantly, for sharing this.

  13. I came back to say that in my reading of Anaïs Nin, her observations in Henry and June were not all that revealing . . . well more about June than Henry in what I've read to this point.

  14. Hi Ruth,

    Glad you liked the piece on Henry Miller. Miller was an extremely well-read and well-educated man, which is very interesting because he was self-educated and, as I recall, never read a book until he was sixteen. Two things have always stood out about Miller for me; first, his insatiable curiosity about everything; and, secondly, his absolute commitment to truth-telling. It was the latter trait, of course, that often landed him in trouble with the Establishment. Most people do not want to be reminded of the illusions and hypocrisies that surround their lives.

    Above all, Miller was a very spiritual person, well-versed in the mystics, mystical traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, so on and so forth. He also understood that the creative journey, in whatever form it takes, is always a spiritual journey.

    If you haven't read much of Miller, you might want to start with some books like "Wisdom of the Heart" or "Stand Still LIke a Hummingbird." You might also be interested in buying "The Henry Miller Reader." One of the great things about Miller is that, regardless of what you think of him, he will always introduce you to other great artists and thinkers.

    I haven't seen "Mind Walk," but it sounds interesting. I will check it out.

    From what you said in your post, you might be interested in some of my other, more serious postings, which you can find in the archives. One that comes to mind is "Zen and the Birds of Appetite,' which I posted in June, as I recall.

    Thanks for the nice comments.

  15. Thanks for the book recommendations. I may just start with the Reader. Also, I will look for your archived posts! Thank you for the tips.