In Thomas Nesbit's recent book, Henry Miller And Religion
, 2007), the author explores how Miller "devoted his entire life to articulating a religion of self-liberation in his autobiographical books. As the guiding principle behind his vision, Miller believed that sex, religion, and art are streams from one holy river of creativity"(Nesbit). The 211-page book views Miller's agenda within the context of "fringe religious movements that were linked with the avant-garde in New York City and Paris at the first of the 20th century," such as Gurdjieff, Rosicrucianism, and Theosophy (Amazon.com
- Editorial Reviews). The Miller Walks
website offers a more descriptive profile of this publication
Thomas Nesbit, "author of assorted curios" (and sports fan, as anyone will note when visiting his blog
), has kindly agreed to be the first person to be interviewed for Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company.
________________To say Miller was religious is not to say that he subscribed to any particular sect. Can you distinguish between Miller's view of the conventional, dogmatic religions of the world, and his own personal religious beliefs?
Miller’s religious beliefs were esoteric, more mystical than the conventional religious paths most people know of. But it’s even more complicated, as he wasn’t interested in the esoteric tradition of just one particular sect, as you noted. Miller was more interested in esoteric religious groups like Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, which tried to synthesize all religions – and all thought – into a cohesive system. You see a similar trend in the works of Elie Faure and Oswald Spengler, two great thinkers who tried to synthesize entire histories into a coherent system. With all these folks, there was a sort of buffet approach to knowledge, where you selected whatever you wanted from whichever traditions. So Miller picked out whatever he wanted from all types of esoteric religious traditions – from Rosicrucians to Zen Buddhists – which was a quite common practice among the intelligentsia in the early 20th century, thanks to the influence of fringe religious movements like Theosophy.Did Miller perceive his God as a merely symbolic figure, or as a literal entity?
Miller literarily believed in God, but God – for him – was a complicated, mystical conception of the divine. His idea of God is very similar to Henri Bergson’s concept of “élan vital,” which basically means “life force.” Miller mentions this “life force” in many of his works, and he uses it to posit an interconnected relationship among religion, art, and sex. Where is religion to be found in a book like Tropic Of Cancer?Nesbit:
Religion can be found in many places within Tropic of Cancer
and similar works. First, consider the genre. Cancer
has a lot more in common with the genres of “testament” and “confession” than, let’s say, “novel.” So if it is a testament, you may wonder what sort of religion he is promoting. Let’s revisit the concept of élan vital. If you look at the narrative of Cancer
, it basically tells the story of Miller becoming a writer (his self-liberation), which entails connecting with his élan vital, this “vital flow.” At the first of the book, he says that he’s “dead,” and – by the end of the book – he feels this symbolic river flowing through him. That’s Cancer
in a nutshell, a story that shows Miller’s transition from being spiritually “dead” to becoming “alive,” hoping that the book will inspire a similar rebirth in his readers. He talks about his follies along the way in a manner similar to Abelard or Augustine.Most traditional religions demand a forfeit of the Self to a "higher being." Miller, on the other hand, championed a liberation of the Self, in service of the Self. Does this equate to a worship of the Self?Nesbit:
Miller didn’t necessarily worship himself, but the élan vital that lies within everyone, according to his way of thinking. In Miller’s mind, “self-liberation” means getting in touch with one’s life force. So, in a sense, you are forfeiting the self to a “higher being,” but that “higher being” is already within each of us, and was with us from the beginning. We just lose track of it by doing things like, for example, working for the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company, as Miller talks about in [Tropic of
, or pursuing “Mara” (which means “illusion” in Sanskrit). You were granted access to unpublished letters and copies of books from Miller's personal library (thanks to the Miller Estate). Can you describe the experience of having this kind of intimate access? As well, what sorts of revelations came from this material and ended up in your book?
It was a wonderful experience. There were many times when I would just step back and realize that, for example, I was holding one of Nin’s diaries . . . the actual diaries! And they are a lot smaller than I had always imagined, really tiny volumes. So there were a lot of moments when I was simply in awe of the material, a feeling that I imagine almost any Miller fan would have.
Of course, there were times when the material felt daunting, as one scholar simply does not have enough time and resources to process, let’s say, 200 boxes of papers! There came a time when I had to say “enough!” and write about Miller based on what I had uncovered. I truly hope that my book will inspire others to go out there and build upon the work I have done.
But as to what I uncovered . . . it was great to look at Miller’s own personal copies of religious texts, as the marginalia and underlined passages helped me get into Miller’s head a bit more. There were a few surprises along the way, including a massive manuscript of occult writings that his astrologer friend Conrad Moricand put together sometime in the 1930s. There is also a chart I found that suggests Black Spring
was originally conceived as something much more complicated than childhood reveries. All of this was exciting to discover.Describe your first exposure to Henry Miller. What is it about him and his work that made a meaningful impact on you?
Funny enough, I first heard of Miller when I was around 14 years old. I had watched the remake of “Cape Fear,” where DeNiro’s character was obsessed with Sexus
, if I recall correctly (haven’t seen the film since!). Let’s just say that the film piqued my interest.
It took me a while to find Sexus
at a bookstore – I even had trouble remembering the author’s name . . . this was before the World Wide Web – but I did find a copy of Cancer
at a Waldenbooks. Once I cracked the book, I couldn’t put it down . . . even if I didn’t understand most of it! Cancer
was quite a revelation for me, quite a revolution, and it led me to books by Kerouac, Bukowski, and all the other authors that every teenager should know.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was Miller’s working class sensibilities – more than anything else – that made Cancer
and his other works have such a meaningful impact on me. By working class sensibilities, I mean his “street language,” his sort of primitivism, and his intimate understanding of suffering on a very basic level. I felt that I could relate to him, even though we were born in very different times and places. How liberating it was to discover a kindred spirit!