Saturday, June 4, 2011

Writing Ruminations while on Henry Miller

@20ll Odilia Rivera Santos

I read Henry Miller for the first time in junior high school. I was probably thirteen years old. Because my parents didn't speak English, I had to make a lot of their decisions for them; one of the decisions I made for my mother was signing that little library slip asking if a child can take books from any part of the library or only the children's section.
I, as a fourth grader, felt it would be an outrage to have someone dictate to ME what I could and could not read, so I told my mother to sign the all-permission, take-out-any-kind-of-crazy-ass book slip.
Firme aquí
She nodded, as she always did, signed the paper and this is how I ended up reading Delta of Venus and Anäis Nin's journals at 13. Nin was the go-between who took me to Miller.
When I love a particular writer, I read writers they liked. One book would lead me to ten other books and I was always thankful for summer so I could read without the nussiance of stupid elementary school homework assignments.

The only drug I use or abuse is caffeine; I figure if Keith Richards is almost seventy and still alive and performing and his mind seems relatively intact, I can drink a couple of cups of coffee a day.

Before coffee, Henry Miller was my drug.
His exuberance and love of life was something I admired and his pessimism seemed a bit of an affectation, not real. It was Henry Miller who led me to Louis Ferdinand Céline and Journey to the End of the Night. I found Céline's morbid humor very Puerto Rican. I read Journey when I was nineteen, and it is still one of my favorite books of all time; I sat at a coffee shop in the East Village, drinking coffee and laughing with the book as if I had been sitting with an old friend. My old friend Céline had been dust for a long time but still so alive in this work.

I read The Rosy Crucifixion: Sexus,Plexus, and Nexus, The Tropic of Cancer, The Tropic of Capricorn one after another with an understanding that his works were not pure autobiography or merely a description of quotidian life. He was in the process of a series of incarnations, in which philosophizing played a great part, and Miller describes his transformation process with humor, pathos and cruelty.
He was inventing himself and allowing an audience to watch; it is a courageous act to say, as a child, you wanted to be an artist and be free of the societal expectations of family, financial stability and routine. His desire to become an artist was audacious to say the least because he expressed doubt in his own abilities and he lived in a time at which choosing the life of an artist was considered bizarre.
Miller admired visionaries and his parents were conformists.
I guess many visionaries stand on the shoulders of conformists -- somebody has to pay for dinner, right?
Miller's parents were not artists and he dreamt of a life surrounded by artists.
I admired his fight to break free of the norm and the yoke of modernity. As a child, I also thought of being an artist and of serving my art all day long -- going to lectures and performances, taking long walks in the park and hanging out all night in a café in Paris in 1930, when it was so cheap to live there. I needed a time machine though.
Like Miller, I thought of how foreign my choice of vocation was to that of my parents. My mother made pasteles and my father was a carpenter and they both had an elementary school education. One big difference between Miller's parents and mine was that my mother and father loved music and film. My mother sat me down when I was very young to watch Jorge Negrete and Laurence Olivier so I would know what a great artist looked like.

Miller had to create himself from the ground up, following his own dictum: "a man has to save himself."
I believe we arrive in this world with a spark in which lies our true vocation or purpose and through the tedium of all the trouble we get into when we choose the wrong paths, it is dimmed. We are able to find our way back to a correct path through conscious effort and everything else is the Salvation Army Thrift Store. Every time I find myself in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reasons, I think that it is like a visit to The Salvation Army Thrift Store - if you look closely enough, you'll find something worthwhile but if you daydream your way through not only will you not get anything worthwhile, but someone might just pickpocket your ass.
Like Miller, I have found myself doing a lot of jobs, which made no sense whatsoever. When I was a teenager, I worked at the wallet counter at Macy's near the entrance of the store. They hired me without filling out a job application or references because they wanted a pretty girl by the door, but they soon discovered I had some very un-pretty girl-like behavior -- such as leaning on the counter to read The Decameron and biting my nails. I also did my share of telemarketing with a gang of unemployed actors, angry retired ballet dancers, alcoholic writers, and stand-up comedians in-between gigs. I did surveys on everything from cat litter to the Hollywood movies. I used to do a lot of writing at the telemarketing jobs for which I was admonished on a regular basis.

This morning, I have been listening to a series of 1956 interviews with Miller conducted by his friend Ben Grauer. In part 3 of the interview, Miller speaks about how he could never do anything for a buck just to stay alive. He advocates going to the edge and says artists don't really starve in the U.S. He spent a year writing letters to people in which he asked for anything they could offer: money, shoes, clothes. In exchange for donations, he sent people a watercolor painting. Miller was also a painter.
He went out in the streets and begged in Brooklyn instead of taking work he found demeaning such as advertising. But he found begging to be as difficult as a day job.
Although he questioned his artistic ability, he was clear being an artist was the only thing he wanted to do and this was after a long list of jobs.
He experimented with being a regular guy with a wife, a child and a job as a manager at a messenger company, which had originally turned him down for a job as a messenger -- what Miller calls the lowest job possible. He met a woman who encouraged him to quit the job and write full-time.
I know.
Women are awesome.
This messenger job was his last regular job and it was at that point, he vowed to never return to regular work and just write.
After ten years of suffering, his first book was published.
He speaks of survival as the essential aspect of being an artist. We, as artists, work on producing work others may not appreciate until we're dead. In that way, I would consider artists similar to scientists. Sometimes, art, like science, is a continuum in which building upon work already finished long ago will bring forth the greatness of ideas by some unknown personage. In a a scientific continuum, I imagine the aim would be to cure cancer and in an artistic continuum, we might aim to cure mediocrity.

“We prefer a kind of senseless insect activity to a genuine activity which may often be new activity -- inaction do you see? I don’t say to be quiet to do nothing. I don’t say that at all but I say it should have sense -- it should have meaning what we do everyday and the greater part of what we do everyday has damn little meaning” - HM

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