Henry Miller Reads (Film)

Barry Hannah Fragment

From Barry Hannah’s novel Hey Jack!:

I began hollering at my wife for her shortcomings. She left the house, 11 P.M. I’d quit drinking and smoking. She brought me back a bottle of rye and a pack of Luckies, too. I hadn’t smoked for two weeks. I must have been a horrible nuisance.

I took a drink and a smoke.

Then I was normal. My lungs and my liver cried out: At last, again! The old abuse! I am a confessed major organ beater. I should turn myself in on the hotline to normalcy.

RIP Harry Crews — A Rambling Riff on a Southern Great

Harry Crews died today at 76 in Gainesville, FL, where he lived and worked for years.

This isn’t an obituary—I’m sure  you can find them elsewhere (I haven’t looked yet, but they’ll be out there)—it’s more a riff about me than Crews. Solipsistic, narcissistic, sure. Let’s say I feel a sense of unearned pride for the man, a geographical kinship, as if some of his bloody bravura might splatter on me, anoint me, confer on me a glimpse of his strange powers. (And although I would feel this way in any case, I’ll point out that Crews and I shared the same birthday). Maybe I should wait to write, put together a detailed overview of his work, delineate a chronological progression of his life and work . . . But it’s a warm spring day in Florida, I’m three beers down, a small buzz behind my eyes, the whir of the cheap electric fans on my backporch goading me into dim golden memory . . .

I graduated high school in 1997 and went to the University of Florida in Gainesville that fall—just in time to learn that Crews had retired his position in the Creative Writing department (he was also a graduate of the university) that spring. It was disappointing for me.

I’d read a few of Crews’s blistering, blustering novels, dark comic rants about the dirty malfeasance backwood Cracker folk get into after dark, and he’d come to occupy a fabled place in my impressionable mind—a Southern answer to the Bukowski and Henry Miller books I devoured in kind.

I was 18 and dramatically naïve. I honestly thought that I was going to write a Really Great Novel, and I honestly thought that Crews was going to teach me how. In that first semester of college, the poor underpaid graduate student who led the Creative Writing class I took—a class that all but killed a desire to write creatively for years (I write “all but” because I took a second fiction writing class that was the metaphorical nail in the coffin) informed  me that Crews was no longer writer-in-residence (!), that some guy named Padgett Powell had taken up that mantle. This news dispirited me, took some of the wind out of my romantic illusions (without, y’know, properly killing them off). Maybe I’d have stuck it through the program if I thought it might end in a seminar with Crews, it’s hard to say. (I’ll also point out that it took me years to give Padgett Powell a fair read).

I won’t pretend to be sad at the death of Harry Crews: 76 is pretty old if you drank and fought and lived like that man did, and he’s already given more literature to the world than most of us could ever hope to. I was more sad at 18 to learn that I wouldn’t learn from him (not realizing at that age that reading is a way of learning). These statements seem in bad taste as I write them, but I assure you they’re not. You’re being too sensitive. But I do want to connote some reverence for the man, for his work at least, for his tales of rage and poverty, for the truth he sussed out of the swampy south.

Here’s a shift: Barry Hannah, another Southern boy whose work I’ve come to love, was not on my radar until his death in 2010. This isn’t to say I wouldn’t have found his stuff if he hadn’t died then, but I think that we all know what I’m pointing to here, the grand appraisals and reappraisals that we focus on our late writers, whose deaths might entail a second life, a life again in new readers. And Crews deserves readers: His writing is raw and jagged and ugly. It’s hard to imagine someone producing something like A Feast of Snakes or The Gypsy’s Curse today—I mean it would just be too politically incorrect I suppose. Crews is the kind of cult writer whose cult will likely grow a little now, after his death.

Starting places: The anthology Classic Crews collects Crews’s memoir Childhood, the novels Car and The  Gypsy’s Curse, as well as some essays. There’s also Florida Frenzy, an essay collection larded with sex and violence and animals. You can’t go wrong with his novel A Feast of Snakes. Well, maybe you can. It’s actually entirely possible that Crews isn’t for your faint heart or delicate sensibilities—and that’s fine. But for those intrigued, come and get the grit.

I Review House of Holes, Nicholson Baker’s Ovidian Raunchfest

In his Paris Review interviewNicholson Baker says that “one of the questions House of Holes is trying to answer” is: is “there still a point to writing words about sex when you can see anything you want, and a lot of things you don’t want to see, on the Web?” The book answers a goofy, gooey, bright-hearted “yes” to this question, unfolding its pornographic vignettes in a surreal Ovidian holiday, a midsummer’s night sexfest that sails lusty and smiling over the borders of morality, social convention, and plain old biology. Baker creates an organic, oozing world where genitalia is swapped freely between lovers, where one might exchange an arm for a bigger dick, where old tattoos get fucked away, where a woman and a tree can make sweet, sweet love:

She looked out from her high-splayed vantage and she said, “I’m a treefucking woman!” Dappled sunlight shone and emptied itself onto her. She squeezed her Kegeling love muscle around the smooth, thickened branch within, and when the wind came up again all the leaves twittered and shook. The tree itself shuddered: It was having some kind of orgasm.

If it seems like I’m getting ahead of myself, citing text before outlining plot, I assure you I’m not: There really isn’t much of a plot to House of Holes. Well, if there is one, it’s something like this: Lila, a large-breasted madame runs The House of Holes, an equal-opportunity brothel/fantasy factory that can only be accessed through portals that appear in strange spaces. This pornographic Arcadia operates on slippery wet-dream logic in which strangers cheerfully and eagerly engage in all sorts of raunch. Characters of varying physical attributes screw their way through a surreal holiday. There are a few conflicts, most of which are too light to touch on (this is a light book, for sure).

Two conflicts stand out with some (slight) weight though:

First, there’s the Pornmonster, “a personification of polymorphousness unlike anything the world of human suck-fuckery has ever known.” The Pornmonster is the mutant offspring of all the bad porn slurry collected on a pornsucking mission (don’t ask). The Pornmonster is typical of Baker’s tone throughout House of Holes, and its polymorphousness embodies the book’s depictions of sexual metamorphoses. This monster is tamed through playful, loving lust, and becomes a good guy, its raw sexual energy redirected for the forces of good (i.e., good sex). This is a book full of good guys.

Second, there’s the Pearloiner, an embittered, sexually-jealous TSA agent who steals clitorises (two of our heroines are afflicted by this heinous crime). The Pearloiner is a product of post-Homeland Security draconian measures, and her inclusion is about as close to contemporary culture criticism that House of Holes approaches. Sexy fun times interest Baker more.

Like the Pornmonster, the Pearloiner finds herself redeemed at the end of the book; moral shifts of allegiance are as easy as physical transformations in House of Holes. The Pearloiner and the Pornmonster alike atone their sins with a facile simplicity that fits the ludic silliness of Baker’s book. They are invited to participate in the handjob contest that (quite literally) climaxes the book. It’s an easy, orgasmic end to an easy, orgasmic book.

In some ways, House of Holes is more remarkable for what it’s not. Most of the so-called pornographic literature (or literature of pornography, if you prefer) that I’ve read has a darker streak. (I’m thinking of Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, de Sade,The Story of O, Alan Moore’s The Lost Girls, etc.). Holes shares Willliam Burroughs’s sense of surreal transmogrification and picaresque rambling and J.G. Ballard’s infatuation with the bizarre intersections of sex and technology, but it’s never sinister or cruel, or honestly, even disturbing.

House of Holes is a fundamentally good-natured book,” suggests Baker in his Paris Review interview, also pointing out that it’s a work of “crazy joy”—and he’s absolutely right: The book is joyous, good-natured, affable even. When Baker approaches a remotely Sadean cuckold fantasy he punctures it with a politeness that’s humorous—but he also dramatically lowers any stakes that may have been in play. In short, this is a novel of pure fun, of infinite gain and no loss (quite literally—Lose an arm? Get it back. Lose a clit? Get it back). Holes is silky and slippery and light, more ephemeral than ethereal in the end.

But shame on me. I seem to be faulting the book for not doing something it never sets out to do (namely, I seem to be faulting Holes for a lack of depravity and depth and darkness, three “d’s” the book’s rubric never sets out to register). It’s pure fantasy stuff, reminiscent of the partner-swapping exercise A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I am not saying Baker is Shakespeare) or the erotic shifts in Metamorphoses (ditto: Baker is no Ovid) or the voluptuous Victorian serial The Pearl: dreamy, and perhaps (small r) romantic, but not turbulent—sure, Holes will ruffle unwitting feathers (let’s be clear, it’s pointedly sexually graphic), but it’s unlikely to damage anyone’s soul. (If you’re worried about soul-damage, check out the editorial style-sheet for Holes, which lays out Baker’s invented porn-lexicon).

Is House of Holes a novel or a flimsy pornographic riff? Baker is less interested in ideas than he is in sensations, or rather representations of sensations (which is the most literature can do anyway, I suppose). Holes is unwilling to offer any answers or explications about the deep mysteries behind human desire, but it does pose questions about those desires, and it poses those questions with shameless glee. A fun, breezy read.

Henry Miller Interview (In a Swimming Pool)

Henry Miller’s Basic Chart of Plexus

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(From Henry Miller on Writing, New Directions).

Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments

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(From Henry Miller on Writing, New Directions).

“Being Dead While You’re Alive — That’s Real Death” — Henry Miller & Anaïs Nin on Death and Dreams

“Nothing but Misery, Nothing but Monsters” — Henry Miller Walks Around New York, Talking About His Childhood

Henry Miller Asleep and Awake (1975 Documentary)

Henry Miller on Surrealism, Lewis Carroll, and Dada

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.

Dinner with Henry Miller

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Dinner With Henry is a rare, 30-minute documentary about Henry Miller. It is exactly what the title implies: footage of Henry having dinner. With him at the table is the film crew, and actress/model Brenda Venus, to whom Henry was enamoured in the final years of life. Henry – at age 87 – spends the majority of his time speaking on a number of subjects, the most persistent of which is Blaise Cendrars. Occasionally, he complains about the food. That is all. It may not be of much interest to a general audience, but is a curious “slice of life” for any Miller fan who likes to imagine being at the table with him.