Sunday, June 30, 2013

Stand Still Like the Hummingbird....

Judging Books by Their Covers: Henry Miller

I've made a few literary pilgrimages in my life.  I spent a memorable afternoon with Joseph Heller in his Upper West Side apartment in July, 1967 (I was inviting him to read at my college, which he graciously, and memorably, agreed to do).  Under the spell of One Hundred Years of Solitude I flew to Mexico City in 1988 and took a bus to Cuernavaca hoping to waylay Garcia Marquez in one of his favorite cafes--nothing doing--but sitting night after night in the zocolo  (right there under the arches) drinking Dos Equis and pretending I was waiting for the genius of Macondo to drop by almost redeemed the trip.  In Toronto I looked up Margaret Atwood in the phone book and walked by what I was told was her house; I stalked Philip Roth at UPenn for years, never once laying eyes on him (he was perpetually on leave).  I imagined a trip to Big Sur and an afternoon with Henry Miller--one of the literary idols of my youth--but I never got around to visiting California and was a little frightened at the prospect of a writer whose most recent title was Crazy Cock.  Yes, pathetic stuff; being a literary groupie is really no better than hiding in the bushes in Bel Aire hoping for a glimpse of Kourtney Kardashian or Brad Pitt.  But I get the whole groupie thing: you want to affirm that these magicians--the writers I mean--are somehow like you; that they perspire and shop for groceries and worry about the pages they wrote that morning.  And you (or me anyway) want to say thank you for making life a hell of lot better than it would otherwise be.

Which brings me to the subject of Henry Miller and the greatest book title (in English) of all time: Stand Still Like the Hummingbird. I see hummingbirds most days in the summer--there's a feeder outside my window--and I've noticed that there is a manner in which hummingbirds "stand still" that is remarkable.  First of all, they don't quite stand still--they oscillate with the beat (up to one hundred per second) of their wings. They appear to pause, to consider, and then to veer off on the sort of mission that preoccupies nectarivores. With their tiny hearts beating up to 1200 times per second--1200!--these lovely ruby-throated specks haven't the leisure or the inclination to remain in one place for long. Nor did Mr. Miller.  He was the sort of restless writer who moved from one idea to another, one obsession to another, with the rapidity of trochilidae. Oh yes, the Tropics and Nexus trilogy were preoccupied with sex, and Miller's libido was his best-known characteristic (but no more so than his idol D.H. Lawrence fetishized his John Thomas or Mr. Updike admired his), but Miller was also a travel writer, a critic, a wonderful book reviewer, a philosopher, and, above all, a spiritual writer, a California Buddhist:

  "We live as ghosts amid a world in ruins. All is senseless repetition. 'There am I, and there I always am,' as Rimbaud said. Neither Lao-Tzu, nor the Enlightened One, nor the Prince of Peace made any excursions into outer space, unless in their astral bodies. They changed worlds, yes. They traveled far. But standing still."

Miller isn't much read these days.  His books first appeared in drab New Direction covers of black and white--every one of them stark and gorgeous and with the best titles ever imagined: The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Big Sur and Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, The Colossus of Maroussi (the book to carry with you to Greece), Black SpringThe Cosmological Eye, Remember to Remember, The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, The Wisdom of the Heart.  No author photos; never a blurb from the Times, no mention of awards as there never were any.  Miller never had a grant from the Guggenheims or the Rockefellers--in Paris, in the lost generation after the Lost Generation, he lived in Clichy (Quiet Days in Clichy) at 4 Avenue Anatole-France, another of my author-pilgrimage sites, and hung out with Anais Nin whose diaries are full of Henry's affairs and love-hate of June (his wife) and obsession with work. He neglected to get his MFA from Iowa, never taught creative writing, (wrote ad copy instead), never made it into the literary reviews, wasn't on Charlie Rose, didn't get an invite to Yaddo or a Big Contract with a corporate publisher.  Miller was a writer of the old school, the hand-to-mouth kind, but he found the great James Laughlin, and kept writing up to the end--in his 80's a parody of himself (the artist as lecher), but a great composer of sentences and of titles. A writer pure and simple.  Skip the lousy movies made of his books and pick up The Books in My Life or Time of the Assassins--the best thing ever written about Rimbaud.  

And may you stand still like the hummingbird.

George Ovitt (6/30/13)

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