Henry Miller's Angelic Clown
--- 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).
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.”
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.