Henry Miller on Surrealism, Lewis Carroll, and Dada

Books, Literature, Writers

Henry Miller, in a 1962 Paris Review interview, speaks about surrealism, dada, and his love for Lewis Carroll

INTERVIEWER

In “An Open Letter to Surrealists Everywhere” you say, “I was writing surrealistically in America before I ever heard the word.” Now, what do you mean by surrealism?

MILLER

When I was living in Paris, we had an expression, a very American one, which in a way explains it better than anything else. We used to say, “Let’s take the lead.” That meant going off the deep end, diving into the unconscious, just obeying your instincts, following your impulses, of the heart, or the guts, or whatever you want to call it. But that’s my way of putting it, that isn’t really surrealist doctrine; that wouldn’t hold water, I’m afraid, with an André Breton. However, the French standpoint, the doctrinaire standpoint, didn’t mean too much to me. All I cared about was that I found in it another means of expression, an added one, a heightened one, but one to be used very judiciously. When the well-known surrealists employed this technique, they did it too deliberately, it seemed to me. It became unintelligible, it served no purpose. Once one loses all intelligibility, one is lost, I think.

INTERVIEWER

Is surrealism what you mean by the phrase “into the night life”?

MILLER

Yes, there it was primarily the dream. The surrealists make use of the dream, and of course that’s always a marvelous fecund aspect of experience. Consciously or unconsciously, all writers employ the dream, even when they’re not surrealists. The waking mind, you see, is the least serviceable in the arts. In the process of writing one is struggling to bring out what is unknown to himself. To put down merely what one is conscious of means nothing, really, gets one nowhere. Anybody can do that with a little practice, anybody can become that kind of writer.

INTERVIEWER

You have called Lewis Carroll a surrealist, and his name suggests the kind of jabberwocky which you use occasionally . . .

MILLER

Yes, yes, of course Lewis Carroll is a writer I love. I would give my right arm to have written his books, or to be able to come anywhere near doing what he did. When I finish my project, if I continue writing, I would love to write sheer nonsense.

INTERVIEWER

What about Dadaism? Did you ever get into that?

MILLER

Yes, Dadaism was even more important to me than surrealism. The Dadaist movement was something truly revolutionary. It was a deliberate conscious effort to turn the tables upside down, to show the absolute insanity of our present-day life, the worthlessness of all our values. There were wonderful men in the Dadaist movement, and they all had a sense of humor. It was something to make you laugh, but also to make you think.

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One thought on “Henry Miller on Surrealism, Lewis Carroll, and Dada

  1. Reading The Mystery of Lewis Carroll. Delighted Henry miller thought so highly of him. Books mamby pan by, point kind of opposite view kind of schism every page yet soothing like warm tea.

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