Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Henry Miller, the Evangelist of Big Sur

“Sweet or bitter, I am now convinced that all experience is enriching and rewarding. Above all, instructive.”

Henry Miller’s book Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch is full of such existential musings on art and life. Here are a few more:

Surely every one realizes, at some point along the way, that he is capable of living a far better life than the one he has chosen. What stays him, usually, is the fear of the sacrifices involved.

Whoever uses the spirit that is in him creatively is an artist. To make living itself an art, that is the goal.

Quotes like these remind me why I love Henry Miller. The man’s understanding of human desire, art and the innate human need to create is astounding. 

“Artists never thrive in colonies. Ants do. What the budding artist needs is the privilege of wrestling with his problems in solitude – and now and then a piece of red meat.”

And what better place to find solitude in the late 1950s than Big Sur, California? I’ve never been to Big Sur, which I feel is something of a crime given my love for California and rugged coastlines, but Miller is an incredible evangelist for this little corner of California. In Big Sur he tells the stories of the things he sees, the people he meets, the day-to-day things he does and the thoughts that pass through his mind. Seriously, that’s the plot. Nothing else really happens. There’s virtually no sex and only minimal drug use. If this sounds boring to you, perhaps you have not experienced the passion and power of Miller’s language.

We’re talking about Henry Miller here, so I wasn’t surprised that the book contains some serious rambling. He spills a lot of ink on a lot of tangents, and many times I found myself asking: “Miller, what’s the bloody point already?”  I was also not surprised that Miller rewards those readers who stick with him through the slow and rambling parts. There are phrases, sentences, arguments and observations that remain stunning more than 50 years after this book was published.

So, is it worth your attention? Is the ratio of boring to beautiful prose acceptable? Absolutely. When Miller hits it, he hits it hard, and the impact of his prose is undeniable.

The written word, Miller argues, should be true, real, personal and based in one’s experience and understanding of the world. “There should be fire, passion, an obsessive urge.” I’m with Miller here. Without fire and obsession I’m convinced you cannot master your craft, whatever medium you use. Miller states writing that is worthy of being called art comes only through “toil and struggle, through reflection, meditation, self-analysis, above all through being scrupulously and relentlessly honest with oneself. “

Miller offers this tip for struggling writers: “To those who protest that they are not understood, not appreciated, not accepted – how many  of us ever are? – all I can say is: “Clarify your position!” Miller, in this 404-page book, is clearly trying to clarify his own position on nature, art and community, and he does a damn good job of it.

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