"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 enought 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."
Typed translation from the Chinese on Henry Miller's front door.
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. - Henry Miller is old. Nearly 86 and physically infirm. "I have so many ailments," he says, "it would take an almanac to list them." It doesn't seem possible.
For if Henry Miller's boisterous writings do anything, if "Tropic of Cancer." "Tropic of Capricorn," "Black Spring" and some 50 other books have any resonances at all, they affirm living, they reek of life.
"A wild extravagance, a mad gaiety, a verve, a gusto, at times almost a delirium," is how his friend Anais Nin characterized his work, and Miller himself says of all he's done, "I think it says primarily 'freedom,' freedom in every respect."
His enormous good humor, barely containable in printed words, his breathless zest for every aspect of existence, for the sexual side espically but really for everything - the scroungers, the lice, the roaches, the prostitutes with wooden legs - it all roars out of his books, a primeval blur of activity. Wrote George Orwell. "The attitude is 'Let's swallow it whole."' Where could growing old possibly fit in?
"Well. I wouldn't recommend it," Miller says, somehow managing to look impishly attractive in a blue terrycloth bathrobe over pinkish pajamas and white orthopedic shoes. "The time when you begin to fall apart, it's something I never calculated on. Up to five years ago, I was riding bicycles, swimming, playing Ping-Pong all day, even in the rain. I played Ping-Pong with young men and could beat them. Even the Japanese."
Yet despite tiring easily now, despite having to move around with a walker, despite losing the sight in one eye and the hearing in one ear, Henry Miller continues to astound.
"From the neck up I'm all right," is how he puts it in his gravelly Brooklyn voice, but it is more than being all right, it is retaining all the intellectual vigor, the cascading vitality that was the trademark of his earlier days, it is how he still manages to be a natural force, quizzical questioning, "an anarchist, radical to the core, don't you know" in his own words, occupying his space "with all the palpability of a huge elm lying uprooted in your backyard" in Norman Mailer's.
His house in a modest, white two-story building decorated with black ironwork where Miller, separated from his fifth wife, lives alone except for a housekeeper, though his son Tony has a house nearby and visits often. The decor is simple, with posters from films made of his books as well as copies of the watercolors he did for relaxation thumbtacked to the walls. And then there is that note on the door.
"I get visitors all the time," he explains. "What do they want, they want my spirit. They have read my books, usually, and they say, 'You had a good time, I am now where you were when you started, help me, give me $5,000. Well I never did this, I never out for yourself, do it yourself, do it the hard way.'
"When I arrived an Paris I didn't even have $10. I suffered greatly financially, don't you know. I've been so poor that I only started a bank account when I was 60 Before that, I carried everything I had in my pocket. Even now, everyone thinks I'm a rich men, but I'm not too well off. It's like pulling teeth to get my royalties. I don't think money is in my horoscope. Everything else, but not money."
Born in Manhattan the day after Christmas, 1891, Miller grew up in the Williamsburg and Bushwick section of Brooklyn. His parents were of German background, his father a tailor, his mother a person he doesn't hesitate to say "I hated all my life."
Even in his 30s, when he was home and neigbhors called, she would make him put his typewriter away and hide in the closet. "I stood in that closet sometimes for over an hour, the camphor balls choking me," he wrote. "All my life she hated the idea of my being a writer."
"She was a rigid, puritanical woman, we never got along at alll," Miller says now, still unbelieving. "She never read anything I wrote, and all because I wouldn't become a tailor and take over my father's business.
He turned instead to a series of odd jobs, the most notable being as an organization which became the chatoic Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company in his books. He even remembers an unfortuate stint working as a night reporter for The Washington Post as a change from a dull daytime government job during World War I. "I thought I'd get excitement as a reporter, but I didn't have very good assignments. I quit after three days."
He married in 1917, the first of five times that would leave him with three children, two daughters and a son. His first book, "Tropic of Cancer," came out in 1934 when he was 43, old for an author. Even at that point, he says, "It's a miracle I found a publisher."
"Capricorn" followed five years later, and all those other books followed after that, but Miller never escaped being picked at by censorship problems. It was not until 1961, for instance, that the Justice Department ruled that his novels were not obscene after Grove Press, emboldened by its success with D. H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," brought out "Cancer" and "Capricorn" in paperback editions.
Yet as alte as 1965 Miller was still being described as "the most banned author in Australia," six of his books being no-nos there, and in 1967 a magistrate in Lodi, Italy, said that some passages in "Cancer" "surpass the imagination, are unrepeatable and offend decency and morality."
Miller's perennial response was to quote Romans XIV: "There is nothing unclean of itself, but to him that esteemeth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean."
Yet perhaps the most charming and surprising thing about Henry Miller at 86 is precisely that he does not [WORD ILLEGIBLE] well on this predictable stuff, that he continues to surprise, continues to be difficult to pin down or predict, a man generically prone to giving unsettling answers to simple questions.
Believing in the self though he is, for instance, Miller did not take kindly to the hippy movement. "They claimed me as one of them, but I had no use for the hippies. I looked on them as a bunch of bums," he says, just like that. "You should do something work or be creative, not just idle your life away."
Miller is also not totally in favor of the new sexual freedom: "There I take a very conservative view. I believe there are limitations to everything. They shouldn't be dictated by any so-called superior group, of course, but our own sense of decency should lead us to call a halt a certain places." Take that, Xaviera Hollander.
And no matter what you might have expected. Miller takes a dim view of pornography, of all things, as well. "A lot of books today are horrible, especially the sex books." he says, feisty. "I never read much erotic literature, except the classic. What's wrong with them? Everything. In the first place it's not literature, it doesn't gie any value. It's titillating to teen-agers who are still masturbating. I was accused more of obscenity than pornography: I could be bruising, damaging, healing, but not titillating. Today, writers are just flirting with sex."
Yes, Miller himself is still writing, having just finished Volume II of a reminiscence called "The Book of Friends." "It seems like I never tire of writing about my own life," he says, almost twinkling. "It sounds egotistical, but I am the most interesting person to write about.
"I don't have any regular hours for writing, I don't have any regular hours really for anything, I don't ponder over things, wrestle with ideas, I don't follow any program. You write while you're hot and you stop when it gives out, or maybe you hold some for the next day. And now that I really have come to the end of the line, everything I do is gratuitous, something to be accepted as a gift.
"I'm not a Hemingway methodical writer. He made quite a to-do over how he turned it out. I am one who does not believe in work, which is what Hemingway did. People consider him so highly. Well I don't consider him highly. He was slave-driving himself."
Miller's other literary opinions are equally unexpected. His favorite American author is Isaae Bashevis Singer - "He's a jew one hundred and one per cent, that's wht I love, a man who is one hundred and one percent" - and he doesn't think all that much of Norman Mailer, though Mailer is a fan who recently put together a Miller anthology called "Genius and Lust."
"I like him very much as a person, he's a charming, seductive individual, but I told him to his safe that I find him hard to read. He's difficult writer, he overelaborates."
As to himself. Miller says simply and with no trace of anything except honesty. "I'll be very candid with you. I think that I rank among the topmost writers of this century. And the others wouldn't be Americans."
Though perhaps no one else would put it quite that way, Miller has never lacked for literary admirers. Lawrence Durrell wrote that "American literature today begins and ends with the meaning of what Miller has done," and Ezra Pound paid "Tropic of Cancer" the ultimate in backhanded literary compliments by saying "Here is a dirty book worth reading."
And then there was picky George Orwell, who Miller remembers as being quite prepared to fight the Fascists in Spain in a dapper tweed sportscoat - "I told him. 'Change that coat, you're going to war, let me give you one of my old corduroys or something"' - who called Miller "the only imaginative prose writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past."
Yet in America, his home, Miller is stuck in most people's minds as the dirty book man, a forbidden, under-the-counter writer, and in recent years even feminists have joined the group taking up cudgels against him, with Kane Millett in "Sexual Politics," for instance, calling him " a compendium of American sexual neuroses" and worse.
"Well, nothing bothers me too much about what the public thinks, don't you know, I often say we are living in a world of dead people, dead from the neck up." Miller responds peaceably, "I general I would say I'm happy-go-lucky. Durrell used to call me The Happy Rock because I held fast to my views, the waves dashed but they didn't break me.
"And the Zen thing, the philosopy of no philosophy, that helped me habituate myself to accept the blows. I don't say, I'm immune to them, but I don't react or I would be writing letters every week, I used to feel that if I had my way I could hang the censors, but I don't think about it anymore. What's past is past, when the curtain falls it falls, and I don't try to raise it, except to talk about happy things."
Happy things for Miller almost inevitably means his years in France. "In America, was in misery, don't you know," he explains. "I'd written three books, they don't exist anymore, but no one accepted my work. 'Cancer' shows you that, it shows you a man who's an absolute desperate individual, rejected in America for 10 years.
"So at age 40 I went to Europe and really began to live.I dropped all my American ways and became relaxed like the French. I took life easy."
"You take the clocards , the bums you see in Paris, the wine bibblers who wear overcoats in the summertime because they're probably naked underneath. They're lousy, they live by their wits, it's a mystery how they get meals, but these people always look happy.
"I've seen couples, a man and a woman, on a bench. He takes a drink, wipes his mouth, hands the bottle to her, and then they begin to talk, just as if they were in some salon. It's another kind of happiness."
If he loved France, the French return the compliment, just last year awarding him the Legion of Honor. "That was never even noticed in any American paper, while Elvis Presley's funeral, my god it was an event," Miller says, allowing himself a bit of bemused distress. "But that's America for you, they don't even do that for a President.
"My reputation is greater is Europe than America, I'm read by all levels of people there, even old people. Listen, I'll tell you an interesting story. I recently got a letter from an 80-year-old French woman thanking me for writing 'Cancer' and 'Capricorn.' She said they changed her whole life, she wants to live to 150 now, don't you know. I'd never get that kind of letter from an 80-year-old American woman nor would I expect one!"
Miller himself rarely thinks about his old books and never rereads them, but he has no trouble picking out his prsonal favorite, an elegant travel memoir about Greece called "The Colossus of Maroussi."
"That voyage to Greece was the apex of my happiness, my joy, a very great eye-opener," he says, still wondrous. "What one admires there is a poor people who are hapy, compared to us who are miserable with our riches.
"In the same way I'm captivated with the pygmies, the happiest, sanest people on earth. America offered to help them, to come in with refrigerators or something, but they said. 'We are happy the way we are.' How many Americans can say that? We wouldn't know paradise if we had it. We'd have to bring in an ad man."
Yest, Henry Miller knows he doesn't act or sound very old, but his ailments allow him no delusions about his lifespan. "My first operation, five years ago, that put me in touch with death. I never thought about it till then.
"I don't fear it, sometimes I feel it's time I ought to be there. Life must be just a good on the other side. Life goes on, I'm sure, my intuition, feeling, lead me to believe these things exist. Otherwise, it's a waste of time to exist. You live a few years, you're snuffed out, it doesn't make sense."
People, Henry Miller says, are always wanting to know one thing about him: all those books he wrote, all those de trop adventures, could they possibly be real?
"I tell them, 'Yes and no.' Distortion is inevitable, but in the main it was truthful. Then they say they envy me they wish they could live that kind of life.
"But when I think of being a panhandler, begging, having nothing to eat, I don't know we whether I'd advise it or not, I attribute my success to poverty, that spurred me on, but you need a lot of guts. A lot of it was painful. That's no life for an intelligent man. No man should be reduced to that, reduced to a bum."
Yet it was a happy life, all in all, Miller thinks now, despite the bad parts. And anyway, he says with simple understatement, "I'm pretty free of guilt. I've been that way all my life."
But sometimes, "Sometimes I feel like I was an idiot. I had no thought of the future nor did I heed what I was doing. I only did what I was impelled to do." Pause. "I still think that's the best way."