Sunday, July 20, 2008

Let de Beauvoir Know I Am Not So Awful

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was "a crucial figure in the struggle for women's rights, [and] an eminent writer, having won the Prix Goncourt, the prestigious French literary award, for her novel The Mandarins" (ref. Standford Encyclopedia of Philiosophy). She also wrote the highly influential feminist text, The Second Sex (1949).

As far as I can tell, Miller never met de Beauvoir. As far as my limited research has established, they had no relationship of any kind, apart from an awareness of each other's work and status.

The following anecdote, entitled "Henry Miller's call for a reconciliation with Simone de Beauvoir, a testimony" was posted recently on a website belonging to Claudine Monteil. Monteil is a French feminist writer, theorist, and lecturer. As a young member of the French feminist movement in 1970, she met Simone de Beauvoir, struck up a freindship, and worked closely with her for many years in their fight for women's rights. In 1975, Monteil visited Henry in California. The purpose of this visit is not clearly defined in the story, except that she wanted to speak with him and take notes.

"It was quite a surprise for Simone de Beauvoir when, once, on my return from working as an activist in the Feminist Womens’ Health Center of Los Angeles in 1975, very much at lead in women’s health programs and studies, I informed her that I would be meeting Henry Miller. Simone de Beauvoir was intrigued and asked me to report on her the details of this encounter.
Henry Miller was at the time 84 years old and had retired at a lovely house in Pacific Palisades. He had the reputation of being surrounded by half-naked women and I was wondering how the meeting would go.

"It was in fact a young beautiful woman, lightly dressed, who welcomed me and opened the front door. Behind her, helping himself with a walking frame, a puny little man. Even though he had a watery eye, his way of looking at me was very vivacious, and he invited me to join him in…his bedroom.

I was so shocked that he added: '-Don’t worry! I am a very, very old man now! You don’t risk anything!' And he burst into laugh. As a matter of fact, he did not inspire any cause of concern. He looked like such a cheerful person. But when he offered me as a place to sit to choose either his bed or his wheelchair, I choose the latter.

"As I was seated on his wheelchair trying to take notes Henry Miller declared:-'You are still afraid of me?- Not at all! -I don’t believe you!' Immediately he mentioned Simone de Beauvoir: 'Please let her know that I am not so awful. She must consider me as a macho.' I smiled at him.

"'You know, the Americans, because of their so-called sexual revolution, they find me a little outdated, passé as you say in French. This country will never lose its Puritanism. Feminists should consider me as their ally. Men only destroy what women have built. In the near future, women will liberate us. Please never do what men have done to the planet and to the people.'
A few months later I brought a short typewritten letter I had received from him to Simone de Beauvoir. Reading it, she was dumbfounded. Miller was asking me, as to other people he knew, to write a letter to the Nobel Committee supporting his candidature at the Nobel Prize in literature.

"The content was: Pacific Palisades, august 13, 1978: 'Dear friend, my name, In my attempt to obtain the Nobel Prize for Literature this coming year I hope to enlist your support. All I ask is for you to write a few succinct lines to: Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, address. Please note that the Committee urgently requests that the name of the proposed candidate not be publicized. Sincerely Henry Miller.'

"Simone screamed:

- I can’t believe this!
- Yes Simone, it’s true, I replied, and why should we not do it for you?

"We had been hoping since 1975 when they had mentioned from Stockholm that she was going to get it, that she would be the next laureate.

-It is ridiculous; I don’t want you to do such a thing in my favour.
-But Simone, with all the well-know women we know from around the world, there could be quite some support for you.
-No, I don’t want to.

Henry Miller never got the Nobel Prize, neither Simone. At her passing, I was sorry I had respected her decision. My suggestion had some sense in this context. We should all have written to the Nobel Committee.

Claudine Monteil has written about Simone de Beauvoir, most recently in Simone de Beauvoir: Her Life as a Woman (2006).


Anonymous Eric said...

Fascinating. Speaks to the Nobel Prize argument/issue, as well.

I never thought of the Nobel Prize until I saw the one that Pearl S. Buck won. It was gorgeous. Forget the money, authors should want that thing (they make one individually for you) on the living room wall.

9:04 pm  
Anonymous Chris said...

Miller and Nobel seems, understandably, a recurring theme on this site. I'm no expert - by any stretch of the imagination - but I would just like to mention Miller's argument - filmed in Dinner With Henry two or three years before he died.

Here's an account, from memory, and one way of seeing it...

Miller is near the end of his life. He has some problems: Blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, hip problems, leg problems, insomnia - the works. I was ill recently. I know it gets you down.

What's more, his life and his life's work is generally misunderstood. He's seen as a pornographer and/or a misogynist. And all his life his financial situation has been in tatters; His taxes are in dispute - have been for years.

He says on camera that he needs the Nobel for the money - $100,000 - "tax free. That's the thing - tax free". He fears the children - Tony and Val - will get nothing of his. The authorities may appropriate (on his death) all his paintings and manuscripts - everything - and sell it off exorbitantly to off-set the unpaid taxes.

$100,000 prize.

...but he admits he may owe the government more than that. The children still may get nothing.

True? Genuine? Or was there another reason he wanted the prize?



To be or seem vindicated in some way?

As a joke of some kind?

Or for the money?

Tax free.

Dunno. I leave this kind of stuff to you RC. I just wanted to share my thoughts.

P.S. I was in intensive care last year - close to death, I guess. One of my biggest preoccupations was how the people I left behind (my parents) would deal with my debts...and my work - my writing. I was horrified at the burden that would fall on them. Miller loved his children. I can just about imagine what was going through his mind.

But that's the kind of personal detail, with real human immediacy, that often fails to occur to critics and biographers (maybe that's too harsh).

P.P.S. RC, just read Dan Yack. Know now Blaise Cendrars is a genius. Would love to see you do a number on him.

Do you do requests? Whatever, you're the man.

7:01 pm  
Blogger RC said...

Hey Chris,

I think all of the reasons you list for wanting the Nobel prize are all plausible, even at the same time. I'm not trying to lean in any particular direction with Miller's motivations--the references just happen to accumulate as I find them. And you're right about what he says in the Dinner video. He needed the money. I've read that elsewhere too.

Blasie Cendrars certainly made an impact on Miller, and will appear as a primary subject soon. I'm open to requests, but have been so busy lately, I've barely had time to do regular postings.

Thanks for posting your thoughts.

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