DEAR, DEAR BRENDA: The Love Letters of Henry Miller to Brenda Venus. Text by Brenda Venus. Edited by Gerald Seth Sindell. Morrow/Corwin-Sindell. 191 pp. $15.95.
IF EVER a man was a fool for love, it was Henry Miller. He could create a woman out of a hank of hair and a bit of bone (and several glossy photographs) and pour into her all that he knew about life, love, and literature. And he knew plenty. The recipients of his generosity were bowled over by it: letters that arrived two and three a day, introductions to agents, publishers, movie stars; lists of recommended readings; watercolors in his own hand; long, loquacious lunches and dinners in which he bared his breast and, with it, his heart. To have the sun of his friendship shine on you was to know bliss. I was a recipient of such generosity from him, and it changed my life. I loved him as a mentor and a friend. But I also saw the blarney underneath: the lust for fame beneath the Buddhist pose, the vanity of the white-haired lover, the insatiable hunger for attention.
Henry was made of paradoxes. He had the heart of a child beneath his old man's infirmities. To meet him was to be reminded of Yeats' line about the Chinese philosophers: "Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay." He was at once a Buddhist sage and a little boy from Brooklyn.
I met Henry Miller in 1974 in Pacific Palisades, California, a rather right-winged, establishment suburb of Los Angeles. After years of scrounging in New York, Paris, Greece and Big Sur, Henry had accidentally settled in what can only be called the Greenwich, Connecticut of the West. On his front door was posted a quote from Meng Tse: "When a man has reached old age and has fulfilled his mission, he has a right to confront the idea of death in peace. He has no need of other men, he knows them already and has seen enough of them. What he needs is peace. It is not seemly to seek out such a man, plague him with chatter, and make him suffer banalities. One should pass by the door of his house as if no one lived there."
Like the square suburb in which Henry spent the last years of his bohemian life, the sign on his door was incongruous: Henry loved visitors and the house was usually teeming with them. Not unlike the best actors, Henry needed an audience to come to life. Mornings were spent in bed corresponding with the whole world; afternoons he performed for his visitors. Though it was a point of honor with Henry never to read his contemporaries, Fear of Flying had been pressed upon him by the photographer Bradley Smith. He read it and was instantly converted: "It's the feminine counterpart to my own Tropic of Cancer," he wrote in an ebullient essay that later found its way into The New York Times. "Fortunately, it is not as bitter and much funnier. . . I feel like predicting that this book will make literary history and that because of it women are going to find their own voice and give us great sagas of sex, life, joy and adventure."
Imagine a young poet receiving such praise for her first novel. I was stunned with gratitude. I wrote to thank him, and he in turn began pelting me with missives, sometimes several a day. He wrote to foreign publishers to spread the word of my debut, thereby setting in motion relationships that have lasted to this day. Lured by his extraordinary energy and generosity, I flew to California to meet this living legend. I was not disappointed. And I left his home heaped with gifts, watercolors, books, articles.
A few months after our first meeting Henry and I were both interviewed by Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes for a program about us that aired in the summer of 1975. Henry Miller interviewed Mike Wallace as much as Mike Wallace interviewed Henry Miller. The piece was good, but the outtakes were priceless. The five days of shooting, most of it eventually unused, would make a splendid documentary on Henry as an old-young man.
Brenda Venus had an experience with Henry Miller that was similar to mine and which she decribes in Dear, Dear Brenda: The Love Letters of Henry Miller to Brenda Venus. In her case, Henry fell in love with a woman; in my case he only fell in love with a book. Brenda Venus depicts herself as the last great love of Henry Miller's life, and I am sure that is what he wanted her to believe (though I happen to know there were others).
At that point in his hegira, Henry was more of a lover on paper than between the sheets. (There are some who say that was always true of him, even in the period of the Tropics.) The urge to make love on paper is in any case a curious one. Do people who are totally happy in their sexual lives write about sex? I think not. The writing, like the pearl in the oyster, is produced by irritation, the irritation of unfulfillment. Also, like many artists, Henry saw sexuality as the life force, the link to the Muse. In his concept of sexuality, he was more Eastern than Western, more Tantric than pornographic: sex was a way of approaching divinity.
Imagine him then as a very old man, blind in one eye, half-crippled by a sclerotic leg, and yet still in need of this divine connection. His letters to Brenda provided that connection. In them he poured out his heart, gave social and esthetic criticism, and recommended books. Occasionally, he wrote her an erotic poem or story, putting on paper what he would not put into practice in bed.
Dear, Dear Brenda does in fact convey an accurate picture of Henry at that stage of his life. The dismaying fact that the letters Henry wrote to Brenda Venus are very much like the letters he wrote to me will upset no one but me. (Did he have form letters?) For in these letters I recognize much that I can find in my own files: Recommedations to read Knut Hamsun, Marie Corelli, (Queen Victoria's favorite novelist), Blaise Cendrars, Pierre Loti, Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff, Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as Sydney Omarr the astrologer; long digressions on sex and literature, the beauty of Japanese women, the skullduggery of publishers. I recognize here the Henry Miller I knew and loved and I am certainly happy to have in print these letters which are so evocative of the man I knew.
BRENDA VENUS' narrative is another matter. It is naive to the point of silliness. One almost suspects her of orchestrating this publication in the hopes that it could form the basis of a mini- series like Sins or Hollywood Wives, starring her (with Burgess Meredith, perhaps, as Miller). There seems to be a self-publicizing motive of some sort behind this book, which, incidentally, is full of flattering pictures of Brenda Venus.
But that is a minor quibble. It is Henry rather than Brenda who dominates the book -- Henry and his relationship to Venus. For the goddess of love was always Henry's muse, and it seems to me no accident that this ultimate erotic attachment was with her namesake. Ever in love with words as much as with women, Henry was besotted with Brenda's surname. He punned on it, used it as the basis of poems, fondled it with his pen. Just as Mozart supposedly believed that Death himself had come to commission his Requiem, Henry apparently believed that Brenda Venus was the incarnation of Aphrodite, come to brighten his declining days. It was a connection Henry prized, even required, in order to do his work. No less than Robert Graves, his muse was the White Goddess, and he found her incarnate in a succession of mortal women. Earlier incarnations were June, Anais Nin, Eve, and Hoki, all of whom (but for Nin) he married. But it was less the woman herself who mattered than the goddess Henry found within her. Sometimes, in fact, the woman got in the way of the goddess, and it was the goddess he really wanted, the woman was merely the portal.
In a way, this union with the Muse became easier and easier to achieve as Miller grew decrepit and bedridden. He could not propose marriage to Brenda as he had to Hoki, his last wife. Thus the relationship could never become mundane, could never wither away. Reading Henry's letters to Brenda one is aware of how much Henry brought to the love affair, and how little his inamorata brought. It was as if he created a character, then dutifully fell in love with her. Dear Dear Brenda is in a sense Pygmalion retold.
The book is valuable for what it tells us, not only about Henry Miller in his last years, but also about the creative process and its relation to erotic love. Many artists have shown us how love, even for an unworthy object, fires poetry, and makes it burn. Shakespeare's sonnets tell this story. Though scholars have argued about the identities of the Dark Lady and the Young Man, nobody who reads the sonnets feelingly can deny that it is the poet who loves, while the Dark Lady and Young Man exist merely to receive and justify that love.
The connection between art and love is deeper than criticism, older than the White Goddess herself. Henry Miller's ultimate subject was neither sex nor love, but self-liberation. All his books are the story of the quest for that Holy Grail. Sex interested Miller as a means of self-liberation; writing and painting interested him for precisely the same reason. Love for a woman into whom he could pour all his generosity, his insights, his speculations on life and death, was for him the ultimate liberation. At the end of his life, Venus appeared to him and he wrote these wonderful letters to honor her and to state unequivocably and for all times the high place she had always held in his life.