What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature.
……..-Henry Miller, Black Spring
From the little reading I had done I had observed that the men who were most in life, who were moulding life, who were life itself, ate little, slept little, owned little or nothing. They had no illusions about duty, or the perpetuation of their kith and kin, or the preservation of the State…
……..-Henry Miller, Sextus
Can anything original come out of America? We ask ourselves that question, and don’t ask who “we” are; if you have to ask then you’re already one of those secondary creatures who’ve given up the ghost. “The moment you have a ‘different’ thought you cease to be an American.” – Tropic of Capricorn
Maybe that was it all along. Different. Henry wanted to be an original, but in the end he became Henry Miller the fantastic assemblage of author, street urchin, comic nihilist, braggart, lover, madman, liberator, climatologist (but not of that weather you’re so used too, no this is the weather of the mind, a stormy, cloudy, dark and tempestuous world of hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis… the weather of the spirit struggling to be born.). Deleuze and Guattari in their Anti-Oedipus would say of men like Miller:
Strange Anglo-American literature: from Thomas Hardy, from D. H. Lawrence to Malcolm Lowry, from Henry Miller to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, men who know how to leave, to scramble the codes, to cause flows to circulate, to traverse the desert of the body without organs. They overcome a limit, they shatter a wall, the capitalist barrier. And of course they fail to complete the process, they never cease failing to do so. The neurotic impasse again closes—the daddy-mommy of oedipalization, America, the return to the native land—or else the perversion of the exotic territorialities, then drugs, alcohol—or worse still, an old fascist dream. (AO, pp. 132-133)
If anything we – I mean “we” Americans know how to fail. We’re pretty good at it, too. Yes, drugs, alcohol, death, suicide – and, yes, that dream of imperialism, police brutality, mass surveillance, CIA, NSA, and who knows how many black ops and sink holes of well funded secretive governmental and corporate clandestine operations both within and outside the good ole U.S.A – even Obama dreams of endless nights over America. Look at our current presidential campaign (or not?): Hilary, Bernie, Trump, Bush, Rubio, Cruz… sounds more like a car add, doesn’t it? This is the smorgasbord of divisive in-fighting corporate owned politicos from Left or Right, all owned or already part of the elite rich… yep, handing it to the Demos or the Republic is like a waffle-maker, both sides get us burnt, and the syrup laid on thick is just too bitter-sweet. As if “America” was some kind of mythic paradise – believe me, it isn’t, at least not anymore. Was it ever? Oh, maybe in our – as Henry would have it, literature.
Maybe a Huckleberry Finn ride down the Mississippi with Mark Twain… but, of course, he knew he wasn’t writing history, he knew he was telling America its own story, the story of innocence and experience, a story of con-men, rogues, scoundrels, surveys, twisted and perverse bandiers… a world ‘out of joint’, yet one that from a boy’s eyes was full of life and light all the same. Miller, like Twain was writing about ab alternate life… a hopeful, more optimistic version of America than the worldly darkness of our pragmatic reality: a farcical and demented perversion of life closed off in the cave of economic despair and servitude. Yet, he did it with the straight face of innocent cynicism that knows that it knows what it knows, but says it as it is – a pessimists guide to Optimism. The sort of guide that takes your rose colored glasses off and says, here Madame is the real deal, take a gander, see if you like what you see… it’s your life! Henry would describe it as the American Nightmare, and in his bitter work about his life in the Telegraph Message Service in Tropic of Capricorn would relate all the merciless power and corruption of life under capitalism not through the lens of some Marxist ideological truth but as a man who’d lived it, breathed it, sucked it raw… then spit it out and escaped its mesh for the expanse of unbounded life. If anything our dear Henry taught us how to speak to ourselves, to look outward into thy neighbors eyes, ears, mouth, and speak, share, wonder, laugh; and, then go home and remember the leavings of life, the traceries of love in the gutter of time, remember what it once was to be human…
When Henry, and I say Henry because whoever he is he is not that creature of flesh and blood that vanished into the dustbin of history long ago – no, this is the living, breathing, fictional creation that still strides the stage of time and eternity like some kind of rancid piece of shit with a smile attached: a smile at the foot of a ladder, per se? Oh, you think I’m harsh. No. This was a full blown mythic blowhard who invented himself whole-cloth out of the threads of insanity – that is, modern day humanity. Where to begin? “I am a patriot-of the Fourteenth Ward, Brooklyn, where I was raised. The rest of the United States doesn’t exist for me, except as idea, or history, or literature.”1 Just there where everything begins – in the street, in youth, in those first inklings that one is alive, one is freeborn, one can do or say what one pleases. Howl at the moon, run wild in the streets.
To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts which gives to your wandering a metaphysical physical certitude. In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them.
Invention. Isn’t that what the essence of the American is: this power of invention, and the ability to reinvent one’s self or identity over and over, to make of one’s self a project by which the ego is slowly divested of its fears, neurosis, psychosis and one begins to hear in the abyss of one’s inner void the truth of the Subject, that other one has always been there (not as some substantive form, but rather as the Void), the one you never ever allowed to surface, much less enter into conversation with or become? But even the Subject hiding in the shadows of the unconscious isn’t some “essence” – some substantive thing, much rather an emptiness – or, even better a Pleroma, a fullness: an abyss always moving, churning, flickering, sparking, productive… Maybe the self-as-project – as something in process rather than as something unfolding as from the kernel of an apple core; but, rather as a poetic making, a poem of life; an invention out of the nothings of one’s strange revels, aspirations, conflicts…
In my dreams I come back to the Fourteenth Ward as a paranoiac returns to his obsessions. When I think of those steel-gray battleships in the Navy Yard I see them lying there in some astrologic dimension in which I am the gunnersmith, the chemist, the dealer in high explosives, the undertaker, the coroner, the cuckold, the sadist, the lawyer and contender, the scholar, the restless one, the jolt-head, and the brazen-faced. – Black Spring
I came upon Henry Miller’s early Tropic of Cancer trilogy along with Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn each of which offered a glimpse of Miller’s fictional personae wandering through an alternate Paris and America during the early years of the last century. As a teenager in the sixties, about the time we were passing Terry Southern’s porn novel Candy around Jr. High, I came upon these works of Miller not through friends but in my old man’s (lol, Father, Dad, whatever…) garage where he kept a bunch of pin-up’s (oh yea men seemed to have these fetishes and territorial areas, off-limits to the women of the house, at least in the southern climes of West Texas in that era of dementia between the Korean police-action – posh! – and the Viet Nam war – the 50’s – a dream between two deaths). I’d found a box full of old pulps: noir, porn, and these early modernist books with Wyndham Lewis, Faulkner, Hemingway, etc. – along with Henry Miller.
One passes imperceptibly from one scene, one age, one life to another. Suddenly, walking down a street, be it real or be it a dream, one realizes for the first time that the years have flown, that all this has passed forever and will live on only in memory; and then the memory turns inward with a strange, clutching brilliance and one goes over these scenes and incidents perpetually, in dream and reverie, while walking a street, while lying with a woman, while reading a book, while talking to a stranger . . . suddenly, but always with terrific insistence and always with terrific accuracy, these memories intrude, rise up like ghosts and permeate every fiber of one’s being. – Black Spring
More than anything it was the name that drew me to the book. Barely a teenager, just turned thirteen, I thought the book was an adventure story in the tropics. What a surprise I had coming. I remember being a little befuddled by Miller’s language which to this day still bubbles away in automated idiocy like a machine gun that no one can stop or plug up. Now don’t get me wrong I loved the stuff as a kid. I kept his book under my mattress with my cartoons and other strange science fiction pulp stars, etc. What hit me was the sheer exuberance in his writings, the words, the glossolalian madness that seemed to wander off the page in incomprehensible syllables, adjectives, verbs, phrases: sentences that never ended, but seemed to wander and zig-zag through timeless realms of some mythical land of Paris. I had no idea Paris was a real place. Yep, even if I’d been taught such things in geography as a kid I let knowledge float in and then right back out again as if it meant absolutely nothing – and, for the most part it meant just that as a kid, nothing.
Reading Black Spring later on was like reading my own life backwards:
Nothing of what is called “adventure” ever approaches the flavor of the street. It doesn’t matter whether you fly to the Pole, whether you sit on the floor of the ocean with a pad in your hand, whether you pull up nine cities one after the other, or whether, like Kurtz, you sail up the river and go mad. No matter how exciting, how intolerable the situation, there are always exits, always ameliorations, comforts, compensations, newspapers, religions. But once there was none of this. Once you were free, wild, murderous…. (BS, KL 19)
Restless, wandering, with friends or not I was a true street-urchin, a creature that hated the indoors, hated to be home, hated school, hated almost everything but the streets – in the streets was “adventure” around every corner. And, boy, did I get into some iffy situations as a youth. Haha… whoosh!, I sometimes wonder how I made it out alive. Either way it was in books like Miller’s that I first found my own voice, a sort of pitter-patter of mush and slop now that I look back at some early writings (yep… my Mom – bless her soul, kept a box of this crap! ). I remember taking my first foray in story building to my mom and thinking she’d be so happy. Of course she was, she smiled, looked puzzled, scratched her head, looked at me, then hollered at my Dad who – as usual, was sipping a beer and whiskey on the couch watching some baseball game on the tube: “Z…, what have you been giving this boy to read lately?” Of course he looked up surprised: “Not a gawd dam thing! What you got there, boy?” He looked at me bleary eyed. Mom of course grabbed me and took me to her sewing room and asked me about certain words – of course, it was the cuss words that seemed to drift out between every fourth word that caught her attention.
We live in the mind, in ideas, in fragments. We no longer drink in the wild outer music of the streets-we remember only. Like a monomaniac we relive the drama of youth. Like a spider that picks up the thread over and over and spews it out according to some obsessive, logarithmic pattern. If we are stirred by a fat bust it is the fat bust of a whore who bent over on a rainy night and showed us for the first time the wonder of the great milky globes; if we are stirred by the reflections on a wet pavement it is because at the age of seven we were suddenly speared by a premonition of the life to come as we stared unthinkingly into that bright, liquid mirror of the street. – Black Spring
Well needless to say I didn’t use those words much after that, and we never talked about it again either. Silence is golden, they say. Silence is a belt two-inches thick walloping one till one can neither cry or speak – that’s silence. Of course Henry Miller had nothing to do with this. His writings were beyond all this. Even now when I read him from time to time its the energy, the aliveness that one absorbs from this man’s strangeness. Not that he was all that original. Of course he didn’t give a shit about originality, to him that was literature. A sort of decadent, ingrown enterprise that ended somewhere after Henry James and the Symbolists. Those were the artists of some intricate mental masturbation to Henry. Miller once spent a year reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and realized it was all wrong, it was a book of the dead, a brick mason’s book, a book put together like a building, brick by brick, but in the end was a tomb, a mausoleum rather than a place for humans to inhabit. No. For Miller it was the people of the street, the people of the American Nightmare – the working class stiffs who seemed to be buggered under the anvil of commerce without ever knowing life existed. It was the real live flesh and blood humans that mattered, the people one knew and loved that counted, that stayed with one through the thick and thin of it.
No, for Miller it was the people of the street that mattered, not the refined parlor shenanigans of some upper-crust citizen of nowheresville:
The boys you worshiped when you first came down into the street remain with you all your life. They are the only real heroes. Napoleon, Lenin, Capone-all fiction. Napoleon is nothing to me in comparison with Eddie Carney, who gave me my first black eye. No man I have ever met seems as princely, as regal, as noble, as Lester Reardon who, by the mere act of walking down the street, inspired fear and admiration. Jules Verne never led me to the places that Stanley Borowski had up his sleeve when it came dark. Robinson Crusoe lacked imagination in comparison with Johnny Paul. All these boys of the Fourteenth Ward have a flavor about them still. They were not invented or imagined: they were real. Their names ring out like gold coins-Tom Fowler, Jim Buckley, Matt Owen, Rob Ramsay, Harry Martin, Johnny Dunne, to say nothing of Eddie Carney or the great Lester Reardon. Why, even now when I say Johnny Paul the names of the saints leave a bad taste in my mouth. Johnny Paul was the living Odyssey of the Fourteenth Ward… (BS, KL 22-28)
No matter how dark my days may get, there in the back of my mind I remember Henry Miller romping through the world full of exuberance, his voice like a street Whitman – singing something like Kafka’s Tale of the Flying Tub that suddenly and exuberantly begins to fly on its on … fly up and up and away… a line of flight that never ends… never yields, a joyous and painful ride, an explosion of jouissance… In the end Henry Miller became Henry Miller – a human among humans, a being that seems to keep of flying, exuberantly on and on like a bird toward a happy place. “Imagine having nothing on your hands but your destiny. You sit on the doorstep of your mother’s womb and you kill time-or time kills you. You sit there chanting the doxology of things beyond your grasp. Outside. Forever outside.” Let the Outside in, my friends… “keep the aspidistras flying” as Orwell used to say. “Keep on keeping on,” as Vonnegut told us. “Fail, and fail better,” as Zizek reminds us. Or, let us give the last word to Henry:
Done with his underground life the worm takes on wings. Bereft of sight, hearing, smell, taste he dives straight into the unknown. Away! Away! Anywhere out of the world! Saturn, Neptune, Vega-no matter where or whither, but away, away from the earth! Up there in the blue, with firecrackers sputtering in his asshole, the angel-worm goes daft. He drinks and eats upside down; he sleeps upside down; he screws upside down. At the maximum his body is lighter than air; at the maximum tempo there is nothing but the spontaneous combustion of dream. Alone in the blue he wings on toward God with purring dynamos. The last flight! The last dream of birth before the bag is punctured. – Black Spring
Well the last bag was punctured long ago, dear Henry Miller, and we’re sitting here with the pus infested remains of the American Nightmare. A world we can longer fly away from any longer. No. No we have to watch while the fat lady sings her last song before the lights are turned out on the human species. And, oh yes, they will be turned out, it’s just a matter of when and how… that is up to us, those of us who still give a dam, who still keep on keeping on, hoping beyond hope that people will wake up out of their dreams and see reality around them as it is, not as it should be. Maybe then instead of changing reality they might begin by changing themselves. Do you think? They’ve already done a bash up dammed job of reality… the only thing left is to either tip the balance toward life or extinction? Which side of the balance are you on, huh?
“The questioning faculty! That I never abandoned. As is known, the habit of questioning everything leads one to become either a sage or a skeptic. It also leads to madness. Its real virtue, however, consists in this, that it makes one think for himself, makes one return to the source.” –Plexus: The Rosy Crucifixion II
Maybe in the end that’s all we have: the source of thought itself, that secret place you don’t even have to search for, quest for, look for in the dark corners of some forgotten earth; no, it’s right there inside your head where it always was, ready and waiting for you to begin again… Are you ready? Where two or more are gathered a thought is born, gathers itself into an egregore – an infinitesimal movement, an idea, a meme that seems to arise out of nothing, yet can in its small way turn the world around, bring humans together in active participation toward each other and the earth around them, form a bond and a challenge, a song of the earth and its power, a dance upon the rock of silence and its noisy blessing, a movement into not out of the mind that breaks the spell of ignorance and gives us back again our lives, incomplete and open to possibility within the impossible.
“To look at the world, no longer from the heights as Aeschylus, Plato, Dante and Goethe did, but from the standpoint of oppressive actualities is to exchange the bird’s perspective for the frog’s.” – Henry Miller, Plexus
Maybe its time for the frogs to croak in the darkest of times… I can hear them… is that the lyrics by Shameless I hear… “There is one thing you should know by now / That we got nothing – Nothing to lose…”
Stop to fool us, stop to change us
U won’t break us anymore
We won’t take it anymore
On another day, in a foreign land, there will appear before me a young man who, aware of the change which has come over me, will dub me “The Happy Rock.” That is the moniker I shall tender when the great Cosmocrator demands—“Who art thou?” Yes, beyond a doubt I shall answer: “The Happy Rock!”
…….– Henry Miller, The Rosy Crucifixion
- Henry Miller. Black Spring (Kindle Locations 13-14). Kindle Edition.