Wednesday, December 05, 2007

In Defense Of Conrad Moricand

When Henry Miller published his "character assassination" of Conrad Moricand in A Devil In Paradise (1956), it must have sent the then recently-deceased astrologer spinning in his grave. No longer alive to defend his reputation, Moricand has come off as a creepy, vain, poncey buffoon to readers for decades. It's fifty years later, and Moricand's corpse can stop spinning now that Karl Orend has come to his defense in The Brotherhood of Fools & Simpletons: Gods and Devils in Henry Miller's Utopia (Alyscamps Press, 2005).

"Though he was basically not fair-minded, he did his utmost to be fair, to be impartial, to be just. And to be loyal, though by nature I felt that he was essentially treacherous. In fact, it was this undefinable treachery which I was first aware of in him, though I had nothing on which to base my feelings. I remmber that I deliberately banished the thought from my mind, replacing it with the vague notion that here was an intelligence which was suspect."
----- Henry Miller, A Devil in Paradise (published as "Paradise Lost" in Big Sur And the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, p. 276.)

'Treachery' is the central drama explored in Brotherhood of Fools & Simpletons, Orend's small-press book which examines the relationship between Miller and Moricand. By 1948, after the ordeal of shared quarters at Big Sur had concluded, both Miller and Moricand felt betrayed by the other. Earlier, when trying to explain to his wife why Moricand should be invited to live with them in their cabin on Partington Ridge, Miller tried to give importance to the fact that Moricand had once given him a copy of Balzac's Seraphita, the significance of which he had trouble explaining. And so he fell back on an ethical argument: an old friend is at the end of his rope and needed charity. After reading Brotherhood, one realizes that Miller had also presented a simplification of fact to his readers, and constructed a negative portrait of Moricand as a means to exact revenge on him for what he perceived as ingratitude for his generosity. The caricature was considered slanderous enough that, as Orend points out, Moricand's name had to be changed in the French editions of A Devil In Paradise.

"Moricand is almost universally believed to be exactly the way Miller described him to be. Miller's version of events and account is accepted as true. From the start, Miller's account is peppered with distortions and lies. Miller uses his established technique of combining facts and real events with the lies and invention, mixed with caricature and misleading interpretations. He makes his account believable by carefully incorporating praise and positive comments with devastatiing criticism. By the end of A Devil In Paradise, Miller has accused Moricand of being everything from a drug addict to a pedophile. He portrays him as a pornographer and blackmailer, an incurable narcissist and egomaniac and an ungrateful wretch. He has become in fact a Devil incarnate."
------ Karl Orend, Brotherhood of Fools & Simpletons, p. 67.
At right: Conrad Morciand at Big Sur; this photo is cropped from a larger one on page 77 of Brotherhood.

Orend touches on just about every assertion made about Moricand by Miller in his book, and offers some often facsinating defenses of his behaviour and reactions. First, we get a more satisfying explanation of their earlier relationship, rather than the reason of a simple copy of Seraphita (though Orend explores that significance as well). Drawing from unpublished letters written between the men, Orend presents us with a Miller who was once practically in awe of Moricand's astrological powers, and who had a profound apprecaition for him as a person. ("The evenings I have spent with you are the richest moments of all this part of my life here in Paris," Miller wrote to Moricand in a letter quoted by Orend, from July 15, 1938. "I say all this without the least desire to flatter you. It is merely an expression of the great debt I owe you and which I am pleasd to acknowledge and affirm.") After reading this backstory, it's so much easier to imagine why Miller would offer to sponsor Moricand for the rest of his living days.

Then, one after another, Orend offers well-researched explanations for Moricand's complaints, which Miller mocks in Devil: the sores on his legs and his poor health, the horrid living conditions in the shack at Big Sur, the simple requests for things that he had no means of getting himself, the call for some financial assistance--which Miller was obligated by law to do as his sponsor--when he exiled himself from the misery he was going through. Just about everything is addressed in the 200+ page book; I can't summarize it all here, nor the nearly 300 footnotes he uses to back up his research. We also get insight into the more unsavoury aspects of Miller's personality, and how he sometimes "punished" people in his writings for perceived slights.

At right: A drawing by Moricand. This and others at Livrenblog.

In the Appendices, Orend has included a real revelation: translated letters and essays written by Moricand in 1948 on the subject of Henry Miller, immediately after the fiasco: Moricand's version of events, in his own words. "Miller was as usual unable to see the bigger picture. He answered me very bitterly, as if I had refused the gifts of Artaxerxes. It was as if I had shat in his best boots," wrote Moricand to Theophile Briant on April 1, 1948. Titles of two of his essays--"A Perfect Heretic" and "Graduate of Hell"--give you an idea about his feelings about his stay with Miller. Translated poems by Moricand are also included.

If some publisher were wise, they would do well to publish the already highly-enjoyable A Devil in Paradise along with Orend's Brotherhood and Fools & Simpletons, in a single edition. Brotherhood was published in a very limited run, but some copies are apparently still available for $50 (U.S.) plus shipping. Send queries to nexusjournal@hotmail.com.

11 Comments:

Anonymous JamesD said...

I still have a few copies for sale. If you want further details, please contact me at nexusjournal@hotmail.com

8:01 am  
Anonymous JamesD said...

The book sells for $50.00.

9:42 am  
Anonymous Eric L said...

I reread Big Sur and Devil in Paradise recently, and found that Miller himself came off quite poorly in the Moricand section, rather than the other way around, mostly because his own tone and focus were so negative. It certainly had a different feeling than the rest of Big Sur, which I find to be inspiring and relaxing.

It would be interesting to read 'the other side' - but I didn't feel that Moricand really needed any defense here. Miller himself came off as the cranky one.

12:49 pm  
Blogger michael said...

One has the definite feeling that Miller may have been unable to behave responsibly and with consideration… even toward his wives and children… much less toward a relative stranger.

Everything with Henry Miller was about Henry Miller… even though he probably wanted it otherwise… wanted to be a magnanimous individual.

I certainly would not want to be one of Miller’s “friends”… almost all of them get savaged in Miller's books.

5:45 pm  
Blogger stranger said...

Anyone in the presence of a great writer should be afraid. Miller is but one of many, many authors who reports on and transforms reality. May as well pity poor, misunderstood Agamemnon for slander that's lasted two millenia.

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