Henry Miller's Swansong

My Life and Times, by Henry Miller. Playboy Press, 204 pp. $17.95

HENRY MILLER came to the life of the bohemians after the Lost Generation had already boarded the boat back to America. Miller was born in the same golden decade as Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But while all the others lived the life fantastic, he was enduring a worklife right in the belly of the capitalist whale, the Grand Hirer and Firer for the Cosmodemonic Company. Miller came to his expatriation and the realization that his destiny was as an artist when he was just on the verge of turning forty.

The Tropic of Cancer, his first published work, was a shout of exultation. Miller, emerging free from the shackles of superfluous duties to society, was suddenly beset by a tremendous hunger for the sensuous life available in Paris. His book asserted the joy of the present and laid the foundation for a lifelong detachment from the ruin of a material universe, a spiritual self-sufficiency which bordered on solipsism.

What Miller found in Paris was his own unique voice. If he didn't write a book in the ordinary sense of the word, neither was it outside of the American tradition. His reasons for rushing away from America to Europe was the landscape where the mature man was reborn out of the material of his old sorrows, in which the artist and man were merged and not forced to war with one another, the point at which he ceased to live for values he had not created.

That Miller became known as the Happy Rock is understandable. The man had a sense of equanimity, a peace in the middle of disaster. His life was more in step with the natural appetites than at war with them. He was healthy, incurably healthy; and his fascination with sex--that some feel is the key to his health--opened Miller to charges of being the longest case of arrested development in the twentieth century.

With this accusation Miller could not concur wholeheartedly. But he would argue that it's not only sex but thoughts of sex and the leaps of fantasy he takes off of it that matter. He writes about life force and the wonderful women whose imaginations he grapples with.. Miller fled America because of its gold standard of human exchange, the passionless cash nexus. He searched for relationships beyond the insane, mechanistic commonplace in which the obsession is only with the sexual organ of women:


"Attached" to the woman's cunt was always the woman herself. The woman was the most interesting thing. The cunt was important, sure, but that wasn't the whole of it, except in some rare cases...But I was always more interested in the woman, the whole woman. More than that I'm always interested in the mind." from My Life and Times

WHICH BRINGS us to My Life and Times, by Henry Miller, "created and produced" by Bradley Smith. Miller claims that his cocktail table book is designed to strip his life's saga of its literary pretensions--but what is he without his artistic fantasies? Given the testimony of the book's photographs, a wizened old doll, a Zen ping pong player with a drooping paddle.

Playboy Press has trapped Miller within its safe Sanforized philosophy, bottled him up in a sterilized glass cage where he can't touch the week-end hedonists who could afford to buy the book. Now it's clear that Bradley Smith, producer of this monstrosity, has an official pipeline to Hugh Hefner. But the blurb on the jacket makes clear that Smith is conspiring to make Miller into a pioneer bunnyman:

"Miller looms as a dangerous giant among today's thinkers and writers. There is a reckless disregard for convention in his philosophy of joyous living. The most caustic critic of our complex society, he is also a liberating and inspiring leader among modern philosophers."

For a man who never liked submitting to editors, Miller has inexplicably allowed himself to fit a persona that fulfills the fantasies of the executive side-burned, Dingo-booted, Corvetted, Aqua-Velva'd hordes of Hefner's readers. After a life of reveling in dirt and the smell of things--black bread, smellie cunts, cheap wine, and pissoirs--Miller has been suddenly put out for pasteurization.

SMITH'S INTRODUCTION to this pastiche of photographs, commentary, and life documents includes Miller's rationalization for going along with the project; that for some readers the book would make his life more intelligible. The question remains what sort of readers and why Miller wanted to explain himself to them.

Smith followed Miller around with a gin and tonic and a camera, while an ever present tape recorder sucked the life out of him. Miller's claim is that "sometimes I think they (the photographs) reflect me even better than my own words." In fact, Miller looks like he's just been plucked out of formaldehyde. Like a medical specimen preserved for its representative qualities. Miller has been yanked off the shelf to be a symbol of something Smith's readers need, the rebel artist and the great sexual emancipator. But the photographs reveal him gliding into dotage, the dried up version of the former volcano. Smith's a pictures reach a crescendo of inanity with a shot of Miller playing ping pong with a naked Playmate.

Miller's personal contributions, besides the taped comments, are the captions and his set of voluptuously reproduced amateur watercolors which he comments upon at unwarranted length. His captions are often puerile, and in one instance echo with racist overtones:

"At home with two of my favorite Orientals--my wife Hoki and her seductive friend Puko. At one time I had as permanent guests five lovely slant eyed beauties in my Pacific Palisides home."

If Miller is less than alive in his photographs, he's even less resourceful in his commentary.

We should love Henry Miller for stopping the automatic process of living, and recreating his life on his own terms. But where once there was an unquenchable fountain of life's blood is this dribble of a book. Miller has been exploited by the forces of air conditioning.