On Writing by Henry Miller

February 6, 2009

transcribed by Rachel Shine


From Nexus

by Henry Miller

Sometimes I would sit at the machine for hours without writing a line. Fired by an idea, often an irrelevant one, my thoughts would come too fast to be transcribed. I would be dragged along at a gallop, like a stricken warrior tied to his chariot.

On the wall at my right there were all sorts of memoranda tacked up: a long list of words, words that bewitched me and which I intended to drag in by the scalp if necessary; reproductions of paintings, by Uccello, della Francesca, Breughel, Giotto, Memling; titles of books from which I meant to deftly lift passages; phrases filched from my favorite authors, not to quote but to remind me how to twist things occasionally; for ex: “The worm would gnaw her bladder” or “the pulp which had deglutinized behind his forehead.” In the Bible were slips of paper to indicate where gems were to be found. The Bible was a veritable diamond mine. Every time I looked up a passage I became intoxicated. In the dictionary were place marks for lists of one kind or another: flowers, birds, trees, reptiles, gems, poisons, and so on. In short, I had fortified myself with a complete arsenal.

But what was the result? Pondering over a word like praxis, for example, or pleroma, my mind would wander like a drunken wasp. I might end up in a desperate struggle to recall the name of that Russian composer, the mystic, or Theosophist, who had left unfinished his greatest work. The one of whom someone had written—“he, the messiah in his own imagination, who had dreamed of leading mankind toward ‘the last festival,’ who had imagined himself God, and everything, including himself, his own creation, who had dreamed by the force of his tones to overthrow the universe, died of a pimple.” Scriabin, that’s who it was. Yes, Scriabin could derail me for days. Every time his name popped into my head I was back on Second Avenue, in the rear of some café, surrounded by Russians (White ones usually) and Russian Jews, listening to some unknown genius reel off the sonatas, preludes and etudes of the divine Scriabin. From Scriabin to Prokofiev, to the night I first heard him, Carnegie Hall, probably, high up in the gallery, and so excited that when I stood up to applaud or yell—we all yelled like madmen in those days—I nearly tumbled out of the gallery. A tall, gaunt figure he was, in a frock coat, like something out of the Drei Groschen Oper, like Monsieur Arouet. A good friend, Luke Ralston, who after visiting the merchant tailors up and down Fifth Avenue with his samples of imported woolens, would go home and practice German lieder while his dear old mother, who had ruined him with her love, would make him pigs’ knuckles and sauerkraut and tell him for the ten thousandth time what a dear, good son he was. His thin, cultivated voice too weak, unfortunately, to cope with the freight-laden melodies of his beloved Hugo Wolf with which he always larded his program. At thirty-three he dies—of pneumonia, they said, but it was probably a broken heart . . . And in between come memories of other forgotten figures—Minnesingers, flutists, ‘cellists, pianists in skirts, like the homely one who always included Schumann’s Carnaval on her program. (Reminded me so much of Maude: the nun become virtuoso.) There were others too, short-haired and longhaired, all perfectos, like Havana cigars. Some, with chests like bulls, could shatter the chandeliers with their Wagnerian shrieks. Some were like lovely Jessicas, their hair parted in the middle and pasted down: benign madonnas (Jewish mostly) who had not yet taken to rifling the icebox at all hours of the night. And then the fiddlers, in skirts, left-handed sometimes, often with red hair or dirty orange, and bosoms which got in the way of the bow.. . .

Just looking at a word, as I say. Or a painting, or a book. The title alone, sometimes. Like Heart of Darkness or Under the Autumn Star. How did it begin again, that wonderful tale? Have a look-see. Read a few pages, then throw the book down. Inimitable. And how had I begun? I read it over once again, my imaginary Paul Morphy opening. Weak, wretchedly weak. Something falls off the table. I get down to search for it. There, on hands and knees, a crack in the floor intrigues me. It reminds me of something. What? I say, like that, as if waiting to be “served,” like a ewe. Thoughts whirl through my bean and out through the vent at the top of my skull. I reach for a pad and jot down a few words. More thoughts, plaguely thoughts. (What dropped from the table was a matchbox.) How to fit these thoughts into the novel. Always the same dilemma. And then I think of Twelve Men. If only somewhere I could do one little section which would have the warmth, the tenderness the pathos of that chapter on Paul Dressler. But I’m not Dressler. And I have no brother Paul. It’s far away, the banks of Wabash. Farther, much farther, than Moscow or Kronstadt, or the warm, utterly romantic Crimea. Why?

Russia, where are you leading us? Forward! Ech konee, konee!

I think of Gorky, the baker’s helper, his face white with flour, and the big fat peasant (in his nightshirt) rolling in the mud with his beloved sows. The University of Life. Gorky, the beloved vagabond, who whether tramping, weeping, pissing, praying or cursing, writes. Gorky: who wrote in blood. A writer true as the sundial. . . .

Just looking at the title, as I say.

Thus, like a piano concerto for the left hand, the day would slip by. Luckily if there were a page or two to show for all the torture and the inspiration. Writing! It was like pulling up poison oak by the roots. Or searching for mandrakes.

When now and then she asked: “How is it coming, dear Val?” I wanted to bury my head in may hands and sob.

“Don’t push yourself, Val!”

But I have pushed. I’ve pushed and pushed till there’s not a drop of caca in me. Often it’s just when she says—“Dinner’s ready!” that the flow begins. What the hell! Maybe after dinner. Maybe after she’s gone to sleep. Mañana.

At table I talk about the work as if I were another Alexandre Dumas or a Balzac. Always what I intend to do, never what I have done. I have a genius for the impalpable, for the inchoate, for the not yet born. “And your day?” I’ll say sometimes. “What was your day like?” (More to get relief from the devils who plagued me than to hear the trivia which I already knew by heart.)

Listening with one ear I could see Pop waiting like a faithful hound for the bone he was to receive. Would there be enough fat on it? Would it splinter in his mouth? And I would remind myself that it wasn’t really the book pages he was waiting for but a more juicy morsel—her. He would be patient, he would be content—for a while at least—with literary discussions. As long as she continued to wear the delightful gowns which her urged her to select for herself, as long as she accepted with good grace all the little favors he heaped upon her. As long, in other words, as she treated him like a human being. As long as she wasn’t ashamed to be seen with him. (Did he really think, as she averred, that he looked like a toad?) With eyes half-closed I could see him waiting, waiting on a street corner, or in the lobby of a semi-fashionable hotel, or in some outlandish café (in another incarnation), a café such as “Zum Hiddigeigei.” I always saw him dressed like a gentleman, with or without spats and a cane. A sort of inconspicuous millionaire, fur trader or stockbroker, not the predatory type but, as the paunch indicated, the kind who prefers the good things of life to the almighty dollar. A man who once played the violin. A man of taste, indisputably. In brief, no dummox. Average perhaps, but not ordinary. Conspicuous by his inconspicuousness. Probably full of watermelon seeds and other pips. And saddled with an invalid wife, one he wouldn’t dream of hurting. (“Look, darling, see what I’ve brought you! Some Maatjes herring, some lox, and a jar of pickled antlers from the reindeer land.”)

And when he reads the opening pages, this pipsqueaking millionaire, will he exclaim: “Aha! I smell a rat!” Or, putting his wiry brains to sleep, will he simply murmur to himself: “A lovely piece of tripe, a romance out of the Dark Ages.”

And our landlady, the good Mrs. Skolsky, what would she think if she had a squint at these pages? Would she wet her panties with excitement? Or would she hear music where there were only seismographic disturbances? (I could see her running to synagogue looking for rams’ horns.) One day she and I have got to have it out, about the writing business. Either more strudels, more Sirota, or—the garotte. If only I knew a little Yiddish!

“Call me Reb!” Those were Sid Essen’s parting words.

Such exquisite torture, this writing humbuggery! Bughouse reveries mixed with choking fits and what the Swedes call mardrömmen. Squat images roped with diamond tiaras. Baroque architecture. Cabalistic logarithms. Mezuzahs and prayer wheels. Portentous phrases. (“Let no one,” said the auk, “look upon this man with favor!”) Skies of blue-green copper, filigreed with lacy striata; umbrella ribs, obscene graffiti. Balaam the ass licking his hind parts. Weasels spouting nonsense. A sow menstruating. . . .

All because, as she once put it, I had “the chance of a lifetime.”

Sometimes I sailed into it with huge black wings. Then everything came out pell-mell and arsey-versy. Pages and pages. Reams of it. None of it belonged in the novel. Nor even in The Book of Perennial Gloom. Reading them over I had the impression of examining an old print: a room in a medieval dwelling, the old woman sitting on the pot, the doctor standing by with redhot tongs, a mouse creeping toward a piece of cheese in the corner near the crucifix. A ground-floor view, so to speak. A chapter from the history of everlasting misery. Depravity, insomnia, gluttony posing as the three graces. All described in quicksilver, benzine and potassium permanganate.

Another day my hands might wander over the keys with the felicity of a Borgia’s murderous paw. Choosing the staccato technique, I would ape the quibblers and quipsters of the Ghibellines. Or put it on, like a saltimbanque performing for a feebleminded monarch.

The next day a quadruped: everything in hoof beats, clots of phlegm, snorts and farts. A stallion (ech!) racing over a frozen lake with torpedoes in his bowels. All bravura, so to say.

And then, as when the hurricane abates, it would flow like a song—quietly, evenly, with the steady luster of magnesium. As if hymning the Bhagavad Gita. A monk in a saffron robe extolling the work of the Omniscient One. No longer a writer. A saint. A saint from the Sanhedrin sent. God bless the author! (Have we a David here?)

What a joy it was to write like an organ in the middle of a lake!

Bite me, you bed lice! Bite while I have the strength!


One Response to “On Writing by Henry Miller”

  1. sfauthor Says:

    Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?


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