What would life be without spoonerisms? Some of the best ones inadvertently slip from my tongue! My all time favorite, which I like so much it’s now a part of my vocabulary, is “Snail Tracks” (more commonly known as trail snacks).
While driving along Big Sur a few days ago, we stopped by the Henry Miller Library. The library is in an old house set on a beautiful piece of property naturally landscaped with gigantic redwoods. There is an outdoor stage for musical events and literary readings. As we approached the library-house, I came across a placard that explained how Henry Miller’s long time friend lived in this house and, later, donated the house to become a library to honor Henry Miller. The placard also explained that Henry Miller never lived in the house-turned-library. “Oh, I was wondering if Henry Liver milled here and now I know he didn’t!” I said my thoughts out loud and Rick burst into laughter.
I discovered the works of Henry Miller when I was an exchange student living in Strasbourg, France in 1982-83. Here I was a French literature major, a reader of many kinds of books, and I had never heard of Henry Miller until I was 20 years old! Mostly it was because Henry Miller’s work was banned in the U.S.A. for many years. His work was initially banned in Europe as well, but eventually accepted. In fact, by the 80’s, Henry Miller and his writings were venerated in France and living there is how I came to know about Miller and his work.
Below are some of Henry Miller’s quotes:
Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.
If there is to be any peace, it will come through being, not having.
The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.
Why are we so full of restraint? Why do we not give in all directions? Is it fear of losing ourselves? Until we do lose ourselves there is no hope of finding ourselves.
I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.
There was and is much controversy and strong opinions regarding Miller’s work. For some critics, it is his graphic descriptions of sex, his quest for sexual liberty, and his tromping on highly taboo grounds and integrating these descriptions into literature that were shocking and unacceptable. For Henry Miller, he felt he was introducing an exploration of personal, social and artistic freedom. The worst accusations against Henry Miller were for sexism and anti-semitism. These are heavy accusations, but I am not a Henry Miller expert, so I cannot defend nor accuse him on these matters.
The following describes Miller’s philosophy:
In Miller’s worldview the human race had arrived at a point where it was no longer truly living life, but just existing, mistaking its own thoughts and fears for reality. And art, once the greatest expression of what it means to be human, had become little more than a decoration to conceal and soothe mankind’s epic failure.
For me, being at the Henry Miller Library was wanting to hole up somewhere for the next few years just so I could devour all the various books I was thumbing through, books written by Miller as well as by all the authors who influenced him and by the authors who were influenced by him. I was brought back to my year of studying abroad at the Universite of Strasbourg. I went into a sort of reverie, back to a time in my life when my whole world opened up to new ideas, to a new way of expressing myself, to a completely new environment, to a time in my life where I lost myself and then found myself again and again. In France, I felt completely free for the first time in my life. Back at the library at Big Sur, I walked around outside and looked at the many quotes displayed on the outside walls. I found a rare sunny spot (the giant redwoods obscure most of the sun on this property) and stood for a moment looking around me….
and i was back in strasbourg, an exchange student from indiana university…i was living in the all-women’s dorm, maison gallia, a 17th century luxurious apartment building-turned dormitory where alsatian housekeepers cleaned our rooms and left wool pads for us to place under our feet, almost like wool skis, that we were to drag under us as we walked around our spacious room, a cheap-labor method to polish the parquet floors for the housekeepers who scolded us if we did not place the wool pads under our shoes or bare feet…my roommate was named corrine and she was from the small alsacian village of ingwiller..she rarely bathed, had long thick hair that went past the backs of her knees and that went unwashed for around two weeks in a row..she did wash her underwear and bra daily which i found quite impressive…
the universite was a 15 minute walk in a constant year-round drizzle, most french students let their hair get wet, wore long wool scarves wound around their necks and big wool sweaters, jeans, and boots…i started to wear the same uniform and found it warm and comfortable..to dress this way and smoke the occasional cigarette made me fit in..every morning corrine and i stopped by cafe michou and had cafe au lait and a mega-sized almond croissant, then we went our own ways: she to her school of economics and me to the faculte des lettres, dodging the perverted men who hid behind the bushes on the walkways, whispered pssssst, opened their coats up to expose themselves, flashing me or any woman passing by…at first i found it very annoying, but there wasn’t another direct path to the faculte des lettres and i -like the other female students-just put up with it and learned not to look when i heard “psssssst”…lunches were at one of the many student cafeterias, steak-frites (beef and french fries) was the plat du jour most days…I never missed a single class, learned in a cloud of smoke from the chain-smoking professor as he or she lectured and from the many students who smoked at their desks which came complete with built-in ashtrays…the cigarettes, the students claimed, helped them with their concentration…
after class, after my work study job at the english library, the students always invited me to a nearby student cafe where we drank coffee indoors while it poured outside, the coziness and warmth of the cafes was unbelievably embracing..this is where most of my learning took place..i looked at everyone’s lecture notes and copied and asked for more explanations, amazed at how much had gone over my head in the lecture hall..already i was sitting in the first row so as to catch as much of the french lecture as i could..maybe i needed to start smoking in the lecture hall to improve my concentration?…the students discussed “la liberation”, their favorite newspaper, and discussed politics and i realized i had no knowledge whatsoever of politics, let alone french politics and i had a lot of learning ahead of me…to ease my headaches, i gladly accepted invitations to go to a nearby wine bar where more warm smoke-filled rooms awaited us, friendly people sitting at long tables, instant families of laughter, guitars would appear with strumming fingers, voices emerged, singing folk songs, everyone would sing along, in between songs, talk of literature, theater, and politics…. jokes and flirtations…i never had money, was as poor as henry miller, somehow the cafes and the wine bars continued to be a part of my days…
on weekends, i went dancing, attended plays, saw art exhibits, went to museums, read books, went to ingwiller to visit my roommate’s family, a home where meals lasted for hours and where i learned to eat chestnut stew corrine’s grandmere made over an ancient wood fire iron stove…corrine’s family spoke alsacian at home, a german dialect i did not understand. it was incredibly hard for me to sit at the table for hours, listening to discussions of french politics, stories of the war, and jokes-unrelated to war- which I did not understand…at some point, on my first visit, they asked me if i wanted more food and i told them no thank you because i was full. non, merci…je suis pleine. silence. awkward silence. shoot, i just told them I was pregnant in the most vulgar manner when it couldn’t have been farther than the truth and when all i meant to say was that i was full and could not eat another bite. corrinne corrected me and explained to her parents how i could have made the language mistake.
my intellectual friends were shocked i had not read henry miller and more so that i had never even heard of him..c’est incroyable! oh, yes it was unbelievable. so many things were. i learned he had lived in paris, had become a french icon, and his favorite topic to write about was sex…ooo-la-la!
back at maison gallia, we were not to entertain men…men could only be received in the public waiting room where the concierge, an ample bodied woman named mademoiselle lavine, also played the role of body guard and made sure the young men were kept at an arm’s length from the girls in the public receiving room. one day i met a beautiful boy and since i couldn’t invite him to the receiving room without being under the watchful eye of mademoiselle lavine, we went for a walk. we walked and walked in the rain, watching everyone pull their big noisy iron shutters tight for the night…listening to the church bells ring every hour.. neither of us had money for a glass of wine (i had just spent my last franc on dinner at the cafeteria), we continued to walk until late into the night..sadly, secret private dance clubs and hidden soup-a-l’oignon eateries that sat like speakeasies and operated literally below ground were not welcoming to franc-less meanderers like us….we would not be engulfed into a world of onions that night, but this young man had the good sense to show me to an alleyway to the back window of a bakery where he gently knocked on a window…a man in a white toque and equally white apron opened the window and passed us two pains au chocolat, still warm from the oven and i thought i had died and gone to heaven. somehow this led to a kiss under the bridge just before the boy delivered me to maison gallia where i had to ring the bell to awaken mademoiselle lavine who scolded me soundly for coming back so late, for being out with a boy, for waking her up! i fell asleep to the sound of the constant drizzle, to the occasional car driving over the cobblestone streets of strasbourg, to the midnight strokes of the red-stoned gothic cathedral of strasbourg.
one crazy evening, i did have some money and went out to drink nouveau vin with my friends from class…it was not my fault that every time i took a sip, someone refreshed my glass..it is not my fault that the wine tasted so good..i was one of the last people to leave…the room was spinning..i hailed a taxi to take me back to maison gallia..it was late and my new pink shoes were killing my feet..it’s not my fault that a strange man i had never seen before tried to get in the taxi with me..i panicked, got out, the taxi took off with the strange man and i hobbled home in the rain…by the time i got to maison gallia, my shoes were in my hands, my bare feet cold, wet, and blistered…i rang the bell, bowed my spinning head and prepared myself for the onslaught of mademoiselle lavine’s tirade against the likes of me! i had the dry heaves the next day, skipped classes for the first and last time ever, and quietly accepted my hangover.
Thank you Henry Miller Library for bringing on a reverie that I was just able to relay through the above free-write. I guess that is as close as I got to living out my Henry Miller days in France!