When I say “health” I mean optimism, to be truthful. Incurably optimistic! Still have one foot in the nineteenth century. I’m a bit retarded, like most Americans – Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (49).
A few months ago I took one of those personality quizzes that pop up like weeds on the internet. I took a few, in fact. That is until this last one, which left me fairly flummoxed. ‘Who is your literary soulmate?’ After answering what seemed like a few benign questions I discovered that my literary soul mate is – Henry Miller.
The whole point about Bessie was that she couldn’t, or just wouldn’t, regard herself as a lay. She talked about passion, as if it were a brand new word. She was passionate about things, even a little thing like a lay. She had to put her soul into it (135).
I hadn’t even ever read him. Well, I said to myself, maybe I should. I was a little afraid. In truth I had avoided my literary soul mate’s work, after all, his reputation does precede him. And I wondered if I was past the appropriate age for his ‘dirty’ book (that was the word someone used when I told them I was reading Tropic of Cancer). In fact, I pretty much skipped over my naughty youthful years, what with being busy with babies and all that…still, Ms. Nin and I had our mutual admiration society of D.H. Lawrence, and my literary soul mate was pals with Lawrence Durrell…so what the hell.
It’s hard to read proof when you’re not all there. It requires more concentration to detect a missing comma than to epitomize Nietzsche’s philosophy. You can be brilliant sometimes, when you’re drunk, but brilliance is out of place in the proofreading department. Dates, fractions, semicolons – these are the things that count. And these are the things that are most difficult to track down when your mind is ablaze (175).
It just so happens that my literary soul mate and I find a certain joy in the same work. I have been archiving and proofreading these past few weeks, and who knew it could be so satisfying in its concrete exactitude? – My literary soul mate, that’s who.
I feel her body close to mine-all mine now-and I stop to rub my hands over the warm velvet. Everything around us is crumbling, crumbling and the warm body under the warm velvet is aching for me…(19).
Putting aside, momentarily, the misogyny, racism, and misanthropy, (none of which I think he actually propagates or truly is, so perhaps we ought to just put it aside altogether, and read deeper, feel the current.) the book is quite wonderful. It is very funny, thoughtful, and moving. Miller has a genius for description, or what he himself would say, “…it’s one of those little details which makes a thing psychologically real….you can’t get it out of your head afterward” (118). From each individual relentless louse shacking up with him in the down-at-the-heels digs he stays in, to his bosom buddy louts he hangs out with – he has an instinct for the details, the perfect turn of a phrase or punctuation that brings his world, such as it is, to teeming life.
There are people in this world who cut such a grotesque figure that even death renders them ridiculous (138).
Miller makes full use of grotesque language, there is indeed a plethora of words I would not use (the ‘c’ word – wow, never read that so many times in one sitting), or ones that I would not use in the same way (the ‘f’ word -I maintain a policy of [just approaching the border of absolute] ‘exclusively for expletive use only’) But, even his harsh language does not mask the real sympathy that he has for men and women. Especially the downtrodden, used up, broken-down type. True, most of his friends are jackasses, but at the reader’s happy distance, we can laugh with Miller over their hilarious ridiculousness.
My literary soul mate and I will have to argue (long into the night, no doubt) over our differing opinions of Hugo (194), but I suppose that’s a tussle that’s only suitable for a true literary soul mate. Where we are in perfect harmony is our desire to experience joy and live the ecstasy that is life. Where mine is an instinct, his was fully realized, for good and bad, cold nights and grimy days- but it is fully felt, and that’s the thing that binds us.
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 a 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! (252)
*title from pg. 181: “I understood why Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love.”