Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Henry Miller and onto Brassai

While I’ve been working on my book review column, covering a multitude of reference guides that I brought with me in a giant file box, I haven’t brought with me (to Pittsburgh) my regular 'fun' reading material. However, the shelves in the Pittsburgh apartment are always full, so I picked up a book I read long ago in graduate school, when I still had the yen to run away to Paris. It was Henry Miller: The Paris Years, written by the photographer Brassai and excerpted largely from Miller’s letters.

I won’t deny that I’ve been a fan of Miller’s, although I sometimes find his writing crass and misogynistic (I know, I know. This word may make people roll their eyes because it is so closely intertwined with a rabid kind of feminism, but it's a word that fits--there is a kind of cruelty in his treatment of females. Sometimes it is sexual.)

Brassai explains that Miller’s friend Alfred Perles, whose dour little appartment Miller often crashed in before he met Anais Nin--who set him up with an apartment (and, presumably, an allowance) when they began their relationship--often shared everything, including their women. This, Brassai said, was essential to Miller and Perles' friendship: the belief that everything should be shared. I suppose the women went into this arrangement willingly, and we have to know that these were somewhat conventional, if casual relationships--not sexual transactions, since Brassai indicates that both men were so destitute they often waited hours at cafes and bars hoping someone would come by who could pick up their tabs. (Moreover, it was indicated that Perles owned but three things of value: a English-made tweed suit, a straight razor for shaving, and a solid gold pen and pencil set. Miller, by comparison, arrived in Paris with $10 in his pocket and little else. June, his legal but feckless wife, was often the breadwinner by means Miller could hardly stomach imagining, since he was hopelessly captivated by her—although my theory runs that he was captivated by her only because he could never fully own her. Near the end of her life, beautiful taxi-dancer June slipped over the edge into insanity.)

Anyhow, I have read several of Miller’s books, and I’m not talking just the Tropics or Black Spring here. I’m talking Crazycock and The Rosy Crucifixion, which both feature June and her particular brand of sadism, often involving disappearances, excursions to far-flung destinations with lovers of both sexes, and her sudden return with gifts and cash to sustain the Miller household. And then, there are Miller’s pornographic writings, usually done for money. One I’ve got in mind right now is Under the Roofs of Paris, which was so bad that I put it down and didn’t pick it up again, although it's still somewhere among my books. Granted, the stories in Roofs were pornography written for money, so by necessity (or definition) there is rampant congress (some of it involving truly disgusting stuff--think: hairbrushes and animals) on most of the pages I read. Yes, I know: who wants plot when they're reading pornography? Pornography is action, not human drama. Or if it is human drama, it's drama of a different kind.
Still, because of that book, I didn’t want much to do with Henry for awhile. You see, I began to recognize in the Tropics too much of the disgusting transactions that occurred in Roofs. The book gave me too a keen a view into the state of the furniture in Miller’s mind, and I found there was mildew on every cushion, a kind of greenish-gray decay I couldn’t stand the odor of. There was no longer just an expression of fury and disgust with humanity, a constructive nihilism (an oxymoron, I know, but not when you're writing), a shouting against all the vile things in the world. Instead he was, in part, a source of some of that vileness. He was not denouncing it, he was producing it. So I left Henry's furniture, and I didn’t sit on it again for a long time.

But, but, but….there is Brassai. He, the “Eye of Paris” as Miller dubbed him in a laudatory essay. There is Brassai, yes.

Brassai captures the down-and-out figures in the Parisian cafes of the 1930s, where--despite financial ruin--men’s hair is still pomaded to a fine gleam; women’s nails are filed and painted red with white half moons and pointy tips. Their hair is plastered to the side of foreheads in spit curls and stiff permanent waves. There are sometimes beauty marks, which aren’t yet in the vogue they will be by the time Norma Jean becomes Marilyn Monroe. And everywhere in these cafes are mirrors, which expand the smallest bistro spaces to broad ballrooms of opportunity. Oh, glamour! Here the subjects are revealed from multiple angles, no part of their face is hidden from us—grimaces and furtive uncertainties are laid bare. And even while they are exposed, they carry a kind of regality that we contemporaries don’t have—these people are real and flawed, but they don’t apologize for it. They live fully in their bodies and take up space proudly rather than abashedly.
So, understanding that there is a different ethos in Europe—I know this well—how is it that we are so bereft, so lost in our imperfections that we can’t simply be as the people in these photos seem to do so well, even in one of the worst economic circumstances of the last century? Where has our regality gone or am I just seeing this through the golden glasses of retrospection?

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