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).

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Le Sel de la Semaine, 1969 - Part 2

Here is part two of a 1969 Henry Miller interview on French-Canadian television, which I wrote about previously, after its appearance on YouTube.

A reminder that my French is O.K. but not particularly skilled. I would not make the assumption that everything I’ve translated below is completely accurate.

[0:00] Host, Fernand Seguin continues from Part 1 by suggesting that Henry, when first arrived in Paris, had easily found people who would help him. “No, not easily,” interrupts Henry. “Always by accident. The first man had been a Russian in front of a cinema … he was putting up posters. He greeted me and asked if I were American. I said, Yes. And he started to ask me questions. I asked if he would give me some money to eat […] He quickly came down the ladder and said Yes. Just like that.”

[0:45] Henry adds that when he went to Le Dome or other cafés, he often paid his way thanks to young Americans who were coming off the boats with money.

[1:20] Seguin: “The decision to write, for you, was not an easy one.” Miller: “It wasn’t a decision exactly. I was ‘au bout de ma force’ (at the end of my rope?), you could say. I could either write a book or else I was a failure and the world would crumble around me …”

[2:20] Miller’s goal in writing was to “write about my distress […] I wanted to write the history of my distress, my anguish. That’s all.”

[3:12] Miller: “Before going to Paris, I made a plan for all of my autobiographical books. But I had forgotten it there [in New York], so [in Paris] I wrote only what was happening in the moment, day to day." He then repeats himself about the notes, and says something about the last notes not being archived; but I’m not sure.

[4:07] Seguin: “How were your books received in France and abroad?” Miller: “Abroad? In silence. In France, even. But I was graced perhaps by a poor, young woman who sold the books from café to café. She had my books and she introduced them to the tourists. And bit by bit, I started to achieve—" Seguin: “Success?” Miller: “No, not success. Success only came when the soldiers arrived in Paris. American soldiers brought me success. They had discovered my books. And it was, how many years … about ten years after.

[5:10] Seguin goes into a bit of a long thing which Henry doesn’t appear to be following very well (me neither), in which the host explains how most people were buying his books thinking they were getting pornography, yet later discovered something poetic and “cosmic.” But Miller was still branded as a pornographer.

It’s around this time in the clip that we see something not usually seen much on TV these days: the host leans over and lights Henry’s cigarette.

[6:35] Seguin asks what Miller thinks about charges that his books are obscene. Miller: “This question of obscenity and pornography doesn’t interest me. There is a little bit, sure—it depends on the definition. But it’s difficult to write or give a definition that everyone accepts.” He goes on to say that real life has elements of obscenity and pornography, therefore so do his books. “Maybe I’m a bit strong with it,” he states, going on to explain with a grin that perhaps it’s to do with a puritan quality he has. I’m not quite positive this is what he’s saying.

[7:55] Miller says something here (I think) about a clause in his contract with his editor, stating that he is never obligated to defend his books. “I don’t want to be in a courtroom. They can put me in prison, but I will not be interrogated.”

[9:03] Regarding contemporary social attitudes toward literature, Miller says “Public opinion has changed a lot. Especially in America, and later in England, but with us there was practically a revolution. And suddenly everything was permitted. [In my opinion?] too much is permitted today. I don’t judge books by obscenity, but by the aesthetic, the manner of writing. There are bad writers and good writers.”

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Miller in Hydra, 1939

"Hydra is almost a bare rock of an island and its population, made up almost exclusively of seamen, is rapidly dwindling. The town, which clusters about the harbor in the form of an amphitheatre, is immaculate. There are only two colors, blue and white, and the white is whitewashed every day, down to the cobblestones in the street. The houses are even more cubistically arranged than at Poros. Aesthetically it is perfect, the very epitome of that flawless anarchy which supersedes, because it includes and goes beyond, all the formal arrangments of the imagination. This purity, this wild and naked perfection of Hydra, is in great part due to the spirit of the men who once dominated the island."
--- Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi, p. 55
The passage above, from The Colossus of Maroussi, continues in this same vein for a couple more pages. Hydra makes a strong impression on Miller, as does most of Greece during his prolonged visit in 1939. He leaves Greece due only to the tension of the looming world war, when he is forced out and back to America.
Posted today on the photo blog website, is the photograph of Henry Miller at Hydra , as seen below.
This photo was taken in 1939, and is credited to George Seferis. Seferis (whose real last name is Seferiades) went to Hydra in the Fall of 1939, along with Miller and George Katsimbalis, who were off to visit the painter Ghika at his ancestral home. Miller writes about this visit over the course of several pages of Maroussi, beginning on p. 52.
"Hydra was entered as a pause in the musical score of creation by an expert calligrapher."