The Great Maniacs of Love

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.”

10 responses to “The Great Maniacs of Love

  1. Interesting post. Although I’m not certain that Henry Miller, despite his occasional profundity, has ever struck me as a “literary soul mate.” True, he and Durell, whom I admire greatly, formed a firm friendship and he was a iconoclast and a rebel. But the battlefield he chose — the liberation of American literature from the Puritan shrouds that bedevil it — seems somehow cold, a kind of hollow victory. Towards the end of his life, Miller himself said as much hoping that the next generation of writers take on more humanistic and significant causes.

    Miller, to me, seems to be relying upon the shock value of forbidden words to establish his place in literary history as opposed to truly exposing the pain of locked in his soul. And while I commend the effort, it is not what I seek. Part of this may be that much of this battle had already largely been won in Europe (where his own work found sanctuary as well). Proust or Woolfe or Joyce for example.

    So what does move me? Certainly Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. Or more recently, Hilary Mantell (Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies) or closer to home, John Cheever or Salinger (in his work after Catcher — Franny & Zooey or Raise High the Roofbeam reveal a brilliance that is at times exceptional), or Philip Roth’s Letting Go (Portnoy and beyond suffers from the same sexual obsession as Miller’s work). And there are others.

    But in truth, it is the poetry that provides me with the thrill of recognition of a kindred spirit. William Butler Yeats (“When You Are Old”) or e.e. cummings (“anyone lived in a pretty how town”) or Wallace Stephens (“Disillusionment at Ten O’clock”) or John Crowe Ransom’s “Blue Girls” —

    Twirling your blue skirts, traveling the sward
    Under the towers of your seminary,
    Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
    Without believing a word.

    Tie the white fillets then about your lustrous hair
    And think no more of what will come to pass
    Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
    And chattering in the air.

    Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
    And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
    Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
    It is so frail.

    For I could tell you a story which is true:
    I know a lady with a terrible tongue,
    Blear eyes fallen from blue,
    All her perfections tarnished — and yet it is not long
    Since she was lovelier than any of you.

    But perhaps it was William Carlos Williams who said it best:

    It is difficult
    to get the news from poems
    yet men die miserably every day
    for lack
    of what is found there.

    For what it’s worth, I honestly believe that your own writing as expressed through your posts on this blog surpass anything in Henry Miller. Just my observation.

    — Gar

  2. But I have to say I was surprised, at all, that I really did like his writing and responded to his call. I am reading this in 2014, and shock value has very little meaning, so I lose that aspect, it seems almost dated (who says cunt anymore?) almost silly. And in that regard you are absolutely correct because Dostoyevsky (I am reading another book of his now, coincidentally) Yates, Williams – they are timeless. That is an enormous breadth of difference.

    Also, again, that was part of what I thought was so amusing – Henry Miller as a literary soul mate? Who were the other candidates? This is why I stopped taking those quizzes.

    In the forward Nin writes: “The tragedy of our world is precisely that nothing any longer is capable of rousing it from its lethargy” They seemed to want to brazenly connect to their world. Following Lawrence’s exhortations to include the physical body in any exploration of connection and joy in the world (in direct opposition of the Puritan tradition) but in a meaningful way, where ones loves and feels body and soul, Nin and Miller wandered off down the ‘sexual obsession’ road (which is why I never read much of them because that sort of thing is depressing to me – even tedious) but when I catch glimpses of a desire to react to this world into which we all find ourselves with love and passion, rather than a cold back, I respond. And because of that, because there is an underlying goodness in Miller, I read his book with a lot of humor. Another year, it could of gone another way. But for today, I can laugh with him over a proofreading job, his self-inflicted tribulations, pecadillos – and his obnoxiousness – maybe I have a weakness for obnoxious people – haha. But in the end I also take his more serious thinking to heart, where I feel the warmth.

  3. He is one of the greats that I have missed – went through a period when I began writing when I devoured Nobel prize winners, which led me into a lot of obscure European stuff. A big feature on Philip Roth on the BBc recently – somehow their reputations tend to put me off rather than encourage me to try them. Also, as you say, the language – wer they trying to shock or just discovering them, like children, trying out the sound and use?

    Date: Thu, 5 Jun 2014 00:31:42 +0000 To:

  4. Enjoyed the post as always.|
    I just took what might be the test you took – come to find out Virginia Woolf is my soulmate – and I’ve not read her. Probably time to mend my ways.

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