Thursday, April 03, 2008

Henry Miller's Angelic Clown

“Like the clown we go through the motions, forever simulating, forever postponing the grand event. We die struggling to get born. We never were, never are. We are always in the process of becoming…”
--- Henry Miller, “Epilogue.” The Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder

Miller’s novella The Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder is one of his least discussed and appreciated books. It’s the story of a clown named Auguste, whose one-dimensional fame causes an existential crisis of identity and a Siddhartha-like quest for spiritual meaning. A contemporary (and unfavourable) Time Magazine review from 1948 adds: “Auguste's search for his true identity is a dangerous quest and it ends fatally, but not before he has discovered that ‘perhaps he was all right just as he was . . . The mistake he had made was to go beyond his proper bounds.’”

I presume that the lack of attention for Smile comes from the fact that most of Miller’s cannon is autobiographical in nature, whereas the tale of August the clown is a fictional, third-person narrative, and therefore, in theory, not really reflective of what Miller is all about. In theory. Karl Orend’s most recent publication changes all of that. Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder may not contain a writer character named Henry, but the clown named Auguste is reflective of the spiritual and philosophical core of Henry Miller. “More than any other text Henry Miller wrote,” writes Orend, The Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder gives us a concise and allegorical vision of the point towards which all his writing was aimed—Apocatastasis and the attainment of Samadhi. The intent of all Henry Miller’s work was the elimination of duality and schizophrenia he felt within himself and in society.” Published in 1948, Smile provided “a spiritual ladder or bridge” between his Colossus Of Maroussi (1941) and Big Sur And The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957).
At left: The cover for the 1953 Correa edition of Smile, with a photo of Miller touched up as a clown.

Karl Orend’s book, Henry Miller’s Angelic Clown: Reflection on The Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder (2007, Alyscamps Press) is a thorough analysis of Miller’s 1948 short novel. Most importantly, it positions Smile as a work that is more of, by and about Henry Miller than has ever been considered before. It establishes a clear context for its creation and meaning by identifying what was going on in the heart and mind of Miller in the late 1940s, when he composed it while living at Big Sur. We are reminded of Miller’s long-standing identification with the circus and with clowns, whom Miller felt were religious in nature, Christ-like figures that are crucified by the public (Auguste is essentially a misunderstood prophet). Orend’s book also goes deep into the inner spiritual life of Miller, identifying the elements of Hinduism and Buddhism—of which Miller was interested—within the narrative. “[W]e have not only an allegorical revelation of the Buddhist/Hindu way of life,” writes Orend, “but also a clear refutation of the essential doctrines of modern Christianity.”

The Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder originally came about as a commission by Fernand Léger, who had requested that Miller write text to accompany his images of circus clowns. The end result was “too psychological” for Leger, and subsequently rejected. Orend also makes clear the inspiration that Wallace Fowlie had on Miller during the 1940s, and specifically, how Fowlie’s own writings about clowns had a direct impact on the inspiration of Miller’s subject matter (Fowlie’s A Clown’s Grail, and Clowns And Angels). To Miller in 1944, Fowlie wrote: “You are the only man I know of, writing today, who understands the singular, mystical relationship between the clown, voyou, and the angel in man…” (qtd. by Orend). Miller indeed understood: “Clowns and angels are so divinely suited to each other.”
Although Miller kept Leger’s drawings out of view while he wrote, lest they distract him, Orend shows how certain artists were also an inspiration for Smile, such the ladder of Miró, the angels of Chagall, the circuses of Seurat, and especially Rouault’s clown paintings [Rouault's "The Clown" (1907) is seen above]. The influences in literature, culture and philosophy that lead Miller to write Smile are many; Orend identifies them all and allows us to see Miller’s inner workings. Once again, Orend finds fresh ground for Miller study and introduces us to Henry from a different angle.

Henry Miller’s Angelic Clown: Reflection on The Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder is a very limited edition publication, and commands a collector’s price of $175. Order queries may be placed at the website for the Nexus Henry Miller Journal.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I'm going to have to give this another look now. I haven't read it since I was younger, and it did not appeal to me for the very reason you mentioned.

10:25 pm  
Blogger Kasper said...

Thanks for this. I have just listened to the excellent audio recording of Miller's own reading, which fascinated me sufficiently to find out more about this strange story.

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