Big Sur and The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch
Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch is my introduction to Henry Miller. As he was introduced to many in the first moments of his career, I found him through Anaïs Nin. It happens that learning a new language is made infinitely more delicious when erotica is thrown in the mix (whether that be the mind or the body doing the work). So I read Henry and June immediate my depart pour la France and was consumed with a desire to meet Miller myself, voir si les mots si extasiants, quoi Nin m’avait dit, me séduira aussi. I like being seduced. So when last in Dharma books (last for all and forever, as the space is now emptied and abandoned) and found the spine of Big Sur (though searching for something of André Gide at the time) I took it at once… the time had come… and wandered up the street a ways to get some coffee with the first chapter.
That I was entrapped for the next two hours should come to little surprise to those who know me intimately. What does surprise and delight was the ease that his voice found me. That I can now, le livre bien fini, recite verbatim an army de ses phrases. It is a voice so naturally taken to the page that it sings by it and finds the mind in a state as if you’d been listening to music making what he has written a melody impossible to forget. Seals like little worms he said, fog like creeping silence and stars he said, mountains the shape of Venus on her side, of Aladdin lamps and water colors… the words complete to tumble about my head.
It is a curious thing to come upon a writer when they have reached the stage of writer-philosopher. I get the sense, during the moments of pure narration, that I’m seeing him as he’s always been: someone who takes it all in to resurrect later with a bit of ink. Then there are moments of philosophy, disguised as tangents that spin his subject (matter) at a million different angles so that we might see them more clearly. This is the matured wine, so to speak, when a story can now longer simply be a story since every element blooms demanding expansion. A perfect descriptor of his style (as realized in this text at least) can be found on page 71 as Miller introduces Gilbert Neiman, “In this condition [l'ivresse] his talk matched his walk. He literally wove his way through a subject — Leopardi, for instance, or the Tantras, or Paul Valéry — taking the most dangerous detours, hurdling impossible barriers, retracing his steps with infallible accuracy, falling, picking himself up, resorting to pantomime when out of breath or at a loss for the right words… He could come back to the exact place where he had left off- at the beginning of what was meant to be a parenthesis- an hour, two hours, later.” To wit: in eulogizing Jean Wharton, the something-of-a-mystic who would gift Miller a house: “ In performing her duties she innocently believed that she was awakening the afflicted to the nature and existence of the true source of power and health, of peace and joy. But, like all who have made the experiment, she gradually came to perceive that people are not interested in the divine power which is theirs but only in finding an intermediary who will undo that havoc they have wrought through stupidity or meanness of soul.” (136). He goes on to describe this humanity, who cannot extract themselves from their pettiness and ego, the necessary task before healing. Why we should be unhappy is a question we should pose only to ourselves. Where one might find god is but merely a search of the self. (He didn’t go so far to say that in inventing god, we’ve inventing the means by which we may live a life of paradise, I said that, but he insists throughout the book as it warrants that completeness of self extracts the poison of lonely living as the ego would leave us.) Just at the moment of forgetting Wharton, he comes back to her with an emphatic “THEREFORE” and what can be said except, “why look at that. I do know her.”
His talk of healing, thank god, little resembles the ilk of similarly-aged men. The direction he takes here in chapter 7 stays the course, and what resurgence the theme makes takes again his first argument: the body is the head or the soul is the body and you are part of us and we are part of you and Nijinsky! The sea! Un corps immense quoi… stop trying to amputate yourself from the larger body, consumed singular pains, and join the dance.
Which brings me to my favorite part of the book: Part Three Paradise Lost which is dedicated to a Conrad Moricand, an astrologer fallen from grace that Miller’d met in Paris just before the war drove him south to Greece. The unfortunate Moricand, whose agonies would manifest as a corporal sore, an anxious scratch, and the legs of a leper. Sickly, sickly, (and at this point inhabiting Miller’s studio space in Big Sur) Miller finds a doctor to give Moricand a look-over, “He was a capable all-round physician, a surgeon and a psychiatrist to boot,” (328). The examination takes place, a rather drawn out affair as the psychiatrist in him takes the reins, and then Miller escorts the doctor to his car, “ ‘There’s nothing to do,’ he said. ‘When he stops thinking about it the itch will disappear.” This passage had me nostalgic for that holistic approach to medicine that most doctors had taken, at once time, as a matter of fact. However, goodness, there was much more to Part Three than Moricand’s sickness. This was a character whose life inspired Miller’s most philosophical observations and encapsulated a negative by which Miller developed a positive. This was a character that Miller had known outside of Big Sur’s paradise. By him we saw the streets of Paris again, the social simmer before the war came to a rolling boil, the stream of French memories (memories made in French I’d like to say, a world altogether different) translatable only by a meticulous retracing de la vie quotidienne, of a walk taken before breakfast that leaves observation to the wayside and leaves us only with the stimuli.
By him Miller condenses his personal philosophy and gives us a long-winded speech, waiting years perhaps to take form so succinctly in three pages, which had, “ouai, ouai!” at my lips. One had the sense in fact, much like you’d had the sense in starting Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged for example, that THE SPEECH was the why and wherefore everything else had been written… that it all lead to this. (That is, I insist, where the similarities between Rand and Miller end in a way most final. I amuse myself imagining them meeting and what diagnosis Miller would wring her through.) Highlights: “Why is everything so complicated, so difficult, so obscure, so unsatisfactory? Because we have made ourselves the center of the universe, because we want everything to work out as we wish it. What we need to discover is what it wishes, call it life, mind, God, whatever you please [...] Man can eliminate war, can eliminate disease, can eliminate old age and probably death too. [...] All these conditions are within his province, within his power, to alter. But he can never alter them as long as he is concerned solely with his own individual fate.” (325; italics my own).
Though advised to begin with Tropic of Cancer or The Time of the Assassins, Big Sur fell to my hands just so and I’m not against starting near the end and retracing the others. (He makes mention at one point in the book the nature of knowledge, if I can now compare, mon connaissance de lui, contre le savoir en général … that knowledge is a wheel of cheese that begins expanding at the first bite.) Having taken that first bite, I’m at sea in brie… for he not only gave me reason to continue reading his own novels, but he name drops (Miller is a cloud. And he rains names.) in such a way as to ignite my curiosity for hundreds of other writers and painters and musicians… so calmly he mentions them as if, naturally, I’d be on familiar terms with Restif, or Lester Reardon or Cendrars. With equal reverence he will weave in unknowns, he’s retained all of their names, with whom he’s crossed paths and what an impression in that road!
For what is, after all, accomplished by Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch? Tout simplement, for there is no plot, an extended character list… what an actor my be asked to do in the quiet of his own mind given the part of so-and-so, whereby Miller fleshes out des pensées. I’d started the read assuming a more psalms-y prose of Big Sur’s natural beauty. Mais non, la nature joue un rôle naturel, une présence constante où tout ce qui se passera la scène ne peut rien dire de plus de sa beauté. Instead, the characters walk along the ridge, those meandering cliffs’ edges, disappear, perhaps to be never seen again… leaving behind their perfume only that Miller bottles with the passion of a gourmand en face la belle vie.