Tag Archives: Black Spring

A Bit of Naughty-Naughty

When Henry Miller’s novel The Tropic of Cancer, appeared in 1935, it was greeted with rather cautious praise, obviously conditioned in some cases by a fear of seeming to enjoy pornography (95).
– George Orwell, from the essay Inside the Whale,  in All Art is Propaganda

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Ah, Henry Miller. We have something going on….Henry and I…. It began in the spring when I was bemusedly alerted by a shallow online quiz that my literary soulmate was M. Miller himself. Well. What to make of that, I hardly knew. I decided I better at least read his work which I wrote about here and where I blathered on a bit about the literary soulmate bit and Tropic of Cancer.

For the most part it is a story of bug-ridden rooms in workingmen’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling and temporary jobs. And the whole atmosphere of the poor quarters of Paris as a foreigner sees them–the cobbled alleys, the sour reek of refuse, the bistros with their greasy zinc counters[…]the peculiar sweetish smell of the Metro, the cigarettes that come to pieces[…]–it is all there, or at any rate the feeling of it is there.
On the face of it no material could be less promising (96) –
 George Orwell, Inside the Whale.

Miller and I took some heat for my praise, but then, by pure good fortune I worked with a beautiful poet/artist/activist Cecilia Vicuña this summer and on my first day of work discovered that she had had a small but lovely correspondence with Miller. She adored him, his love and passion for life. I told her the trouble I was having convincing people of his (rather lovely) sincerity, she confirmed, on a personal level, what I had felt reading his book.

Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own orthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened. This brings me back to Henry Miller (129).

That, Orwell writes, after a thirty-something page discourse on the history of early 2oth century literature and the effect of politics: fascism, communism, laissez-faire capitalism and many more isms on writers and literature. But, yes– Miller, where were we?- after another of his novels Black Spring, was thrown on my path I started to wonder what was in the water–what was in my water?!  Over the course of the summer as I worked archiving collections of books, books about books, and the art of books with Granary Books, as well as Vicuña’s archive and copious notes and writing….I had compiled a long list of artists, poets, and books that I would read when I got some time. Orwell’s All Art is Propaganda was one of those books. He is, by far, one of my favorite essayist, and what a title! Imagine my lack of surprise when after flipping around reading the essays in odd order as to my interest, I came upon a quite long (45 p.) essay all about, yes, my dear soulmate Henry.

The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible (136).

Inside the Whale is sweeping, discursive, and at the very heart, brilliantly true. Orwell elucidates on the conditions which make good novels possible, how politics affect writers, directly or obliquely, and how Miller’s insouciance, and refusal to get taken in by the flimsy dictats of nation, class, and persuasion, is so sincerely expressed that one can, if one lets oneself, marvel at his genius (a human scale of genius, but genius can be writ small).

Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism–robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale–or rather, admit that you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt. A novel on more positive, “constructive” lines, and not emotionally spurious, is at present very difficult to imagine (138).

Orwell’s essay is fascinating historically, but his concerns and thoughts transport the mere temporal- finding a way to stay human in any time is the challenge. For myself, I’m convinced Miller met that challenge, and had fun doing it, I am convinced he had a good heart, and if that is what makes a soulmate for me – I’ll take it.

*title from: From a mere account of the subject-matter of Tropic of Cancer most people would probably assume it to be no more than a bit of naughty-naughty left over from the ‘twenties (97).

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The Angel is My Watermark

Every Middle Age is good, whether in man or history. It is full sunlight and roads extend in every direction, and all roads are downhill. I would not level the road nor remove any of the bumps. Each jolt sends a fresh message to the signal tower. I have marked all the spots in passing: to retrace my thoughts I have only to retrace my journey, re-feel those bumps (37).
– 
Henry Miller, Black Spring.

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I didn’t set out to read another Miller so soon after the last, But as I was shelving a book in my Rare Book Room job my eye was caught by a lovely artists’ book – The Angel is my Watermark (by Barbara Beisinghoff).  What a title! I carefully read the book while standing in the stacks. I know some people have some sort of obsession with Angels. I am not one of them. Mine is perhaps more for watermarks. Still, there is something wonderful in it and I really can’t get it out of my head. Turns out the title comes from Henry Miller’s novel Black Spring which was written after Tropic of Cancer. Obviously, I had to read it.

What little I have learned about writing amounts to this: it is not what people think it is. It is an absolutely new thing each time with each individual. Valparaiso, for example. Valparaiso, when I say it, means something totally different from anything it ever meant before. It may mean an English cunt with all her front teeth gone and the bartender standing in the middle of the street searching for customers. It may mean an angel in a silk shirt running his lacy fingers over a black harp (27).

I will admit that about half-way through reading this book a depression descended upon me. The heaviness of the cruel epithets that populate the recounting of Miller’s early life began to crush me down. I wondered how Miller, filled with such bile and objectification, could recover- recover himself! It was at this point that I noticed a small hole in the relatively  ancient paperback version of the book that came to me through the I.L.L (inter library loan). It was a perfect circle, and it went through to the next page, and the next, and next, more appeared and it became apparent that the book had been eaten by worms. I burst out laughing. Perfect!

Sitting in the snow before the place of my birth I remember this incident vividly. Why, I don’t know, except it connects with the grotesque and the void, with the heartbreaking lonelines, the snow, the lack of color, the absence of music (194).

I suppose there are wormholes in us all. The truth is, they were quite beautiful and made me smile to think of the worms digesting Miller before me. I noticed they took it in back-to-front, so, I have that up on them at least– I know which way the pages turn. And, taken as a whole, the book is aching in its love, or maybe just longing, for humanity, even the crassness of individuals, and individual words, can not vitiate the hope.

Miller is brutal in his assault on the pathetic and degenerate only when they combine with stupidity and cruelty. But it can eat away at one. And yet, and yet… worms are the composters of the planet, what do they make but the very majestic living foundation of our existence?–dirt, nourishment, life, a lightening of the crushing dead refuse of the world. The worm is my watermark!

During the journey I wept–I couldn’t help it. When people are too good for this world they have to be put under lock and key. There’s something wrong with people who are too good (95).

The chapter which led me to the book, The Angel is My Watermark, is simply brilliant. I suppose I am a little more like the worms than I like to think- I just get a book and plunge in, it wasn’t until after I read it that I discovered this chapter is quite revered. Rightly so. It is an account of Miller creating a masterpiece, a painting, and the description of the process is an hilarious, true, poignant, brazen, chaotic splendor of the artistic process.

I am merely flipping the pages of my notebook as a warming up exercise. So I imagine. But cursorily and swiftly as I sweep over these notes something fatal is happening to me (51).

He becomes possessed with the idea of drawing and then painting a horse: mistakes lead to modifications to transformations, fire! volcanoes! bedbugs! to the sink, with a nail brush–the Muse dragging him over a bumpy messy road until at last – the masterpiece emerges!
It is a true literary delight to read.

You may say it’s just an accident, this masterpiece, and so it is! But then, so is the Twenty-third Psalm. Every birth is miraculous–and inspired.

Miller is perhaps not for everyone, but there is a fundamental goodness to his work that refuses to cease calling to me, and I refuse to cease responding. Yes, he lets the wormholes lie where they are, and it can be disturbing, but, he seems to ask: they are there–who am I to ignore them?

The angel is there like a watermark, a guarantee of your faultless vision. The angle has no goiter; it is the artist who has the goiter. The angel is there to drop a sprig of parsley in your omelette, to put a shamrock in your buttonhole. I could scrub the mythology out of the horse’s mane; I could scrub the yellow out of the Yangtsze Kiang; I could scrub the date out of the man in the gondola; I could scrub the clouds and the tissue paper in which were wrapped the bouquets with forked lightning……But the angel I can’t scrub out. The angel is my watermark (67).

*drawing by J. Ryan 2014.