"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."  --William Shakespeare

Entries in Henry Miller (2)

Wednesday
Jun082011

Sex and Surrealism, America and France

 

Life is surreal. Oh yes, it is.

In a state close to dream last night, I finished Henry Miller’s “Quiet Days in Clichy,” his alter-ego, Joey’s, rambunctious accounts of sex with prostitutes and a 15-year-old girl whom his equally goatish roommate, Carl, picks up wandering the streets of Paris.

Joey comes home one night to find Carl with Colette, whose virginity he has just plucked from her as casually as the god, Hades, plucked the girl, Kore, from a meadow (where she was herself plucking flowers), and took her down into the underworld with him.

The homeless girl turns out to be so sexually ravenous that Carl begs Joey to help him sate her appetite on nights when Carl is away at work in a newspaper office.

But Colette, whom the two men agree is “dumb,” is not Joey’s type. He prefers women who have something interesting to say. Besides, they could be thrown in jail for having sex with a minor. (Though sex is legal in France at the age of 15, or at least is today, the two men at first believe that the girl is 14.)

 

 

Joey begs Carl to find Colette something to wear beside the transparent Japanese shift he’s provided for her, or he may find himself raping the girl against his will.

One day, Colette disappears. The next day at noon, when Carl and Joey are both home, someone knocks on the door. It’s the police, with the girl’s parents.

 

 

The mother is so beautiful that both men wish they’d found her first. “The mother! says Carl later. “Did you have a good look at her? She was not only beautiful, she was divine.” But the mother is mostly quiet while the police and the father, who looks like a barrister, question the two men about the girl’s missing watch.

When the mother examines a stack of books on Carl’s work table, Faust, Blake, Lawrence, Shakespeare—good literature—and hands the last volume of Proust’s great work to her husband, the man looks at Carl with new eyes. Carl then discusses the essay he’s writing on the relation between Proust’s metaphysical vision and the occult tradition, and Joey is revealed to be a famous writer. The attitude of the parents changes from accusatory to respectful.

(This was first written in New York City in 1940, and rewritten in Big Sur in 1956.)

It is fascinating to read this account of untrammeled male sexuality by an American artist, a writer, in Paris, pre-Women’s Liberation.

The only woman in Henry’s accounts of his sexual adventures who seems offended by what some might see as insensitivity to a woman’s inner life is a beautiful young Danish woman. But that’s after she and Joey and Carl and an acrobat named Corinne have a four-way sexual romp after dinner at the men’s apartment.

Those Viking babes can be so difficult!

 

                                                *

 

 

The next morning, Marley and I read The New York Times over breakfast. The big news: Anthony D. Weiner (really, that’s his name?) was caught sending snapshots of parts of his body to various young women over the Internet. He had excellent pecs that must have taken many hours over many months at the gym to develop, so you can hardly blame him for wanting to show them off.

I didn’t get the opportunity to see the shot of him in his boxers, though it seems to me that he might be confusing what turns women on with men’s love of viewing body parts. But what do I know?

 

 

What knocked me out was the photo of him in bed with… Marley! Really. It was our cat, white with fawn ears, sleeping soundly beside him, so I knew immediately that Anthony, though not, perhaps, a man of good judgment, was certainly a man of good taste.

(A little aside here: Richard came home the other day from l’Alliance Francaise and told me that his French teacher had informed the class that they must not pronounce the “t” at the end of “chat,” when referring to a cat. Just as in English, in French, a pussy may refer to a cat. Or it may refer to a woman.)

Anthony, too, uses the two words interchangeably, calling this photo, “Me and the pussys.”  

 

 

But then I read that not only is Anthony married, but he’s been married less than a year. His wife happens to be a personal aide to Hillary Clinton, which perhaps suggested to Anthony that if Hillary accepted Bill’s indiscretions, her aide might do the same for him.

Furthermore, Anthony seemed a likely candidate to replace Michael Bloomberg, the current mayor of NYC. And those political hopes, it seems, have now been extinguished.

I watched a video in which Anthony confessed that yes, he had sent texts of photos of his body, along with flirtatious messages to several young women on the Internet. At several points he broke down in tears.

What has happened in our world between Henry Miller’s lusty joyous relish of sex with prostitutes, 15-year-olds and indignant Danish beauties (who nevertheless, surrender to his desires), and the sexual scandals that have erupted lately in the news?

The contrast between these two New Yorkers, Henry Miller and Anthony Weiner, seems to me to be utterly surreal.

Perhaps it’s the difference between what is permitted an artist (or rather, what an artist permits himself to do) and a politician.

Perhaps it’s a difference in space, of geography, between France and the U.S.A. (The parents of the 15-year-old shifted their attitude entirely when they learned that they were addressing a famous writer. Writers are that deeply respected in France.)

 

 

Perhaps it’s a difference in time, that certain changes that occurred in the 1960s—the birth control pill, sexual freedom, books such as Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” and Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and the rise of feminism—changed what women accept, and thus, what the culture condones.

However, I think another element is at play here.

There was a brief time in history in which one generation (in America, at least) was free to experiment and live out our sexual fantasies completely. There was a period after the birth control pill and before AIDS, when men and women could live as freely as they chose without fear of getting pregnant or catching a deadly disease.

Not everyone participated. But those of us who did had a rocking good time.

And listening to Anthony Weiner talk, I thought, Poor guy, he just wasn’t born at the right time. He didn’t get to live out his sexual fantasies before getting married, and this can be a big problem for highly-sexed (but repressed) people.

Artists and libertines have been sexually expressive at all times in history. But for other folks, who are socially or religiously programmed, sex may be a guilty pleasure that must be alternately repressed or furtively engaged in.

 

 

And yet, it’s the very essence of the life force. As the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said, “The degree and kind of a man's sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit.” 

In Henry Miller’s writing, he often gives the impression that he’s oblivious to the effect he’s having on the women with whom he has sex, whereas Anthony Weiner’s tears of regret at hurting his wife (as well as his more political concern about disappointing his constituents) seemed to me to be genuine.

This seems like a cultural advance, a man caring (at least in retrospect) about his effect on the woman to whom he’s married.

Yet all that magnificent lusty life force that Henry had! What I love about Henry Miller, what Nietzsche himself would have admired, was the way that Miller’s sexuality and spirit were not divided. It was all of one piece, in all its lustiness as well as crudeness and lack of sensitivity.

What seems sad to me about Anthony Weiner is how divided his spirit is from his sexuality. That seems to be the inheritance of Judeo-Christianity—the body divided from the spirit. And what a sad and tortured story that creates.

 

 

 

 

Friday
May202011

Der Himmel ├╝ber Paris

 

Imagine that you are the two angels in Wim Wenders’ film, “Der Himmel über Berlin,” (“Wings of Desire,” in America, though himmel translates as both "sky" and "heaven"), but instead of Berlin, you are in Paris on the evening of May 17, 2011. You can fly anywhere in the city and overhear conversations inside apartments you pass, or linger and watch and listen to the thoughts of the humans.

You might feel compassion for every human in every dwelling place you pass, including the men and women who make their home on the streets.

But surely there would be certain scenes you'd find more compelling than others. Even angels have preferences.

Surely if you’d passed by the windows of a certain apartment on Boulevard Saint-Germain, and saw a queenly woman dressed in black, with a humorous, wry expression on her face, seated on a divan facing a gathering of men and women eager to hear her stories, you would perch on the windowsill to listen. For this was a woman who’d traveled widely, and interviewed many of the leading artists of our time.

She wore big red sunglasses, red lipstick, and a scarf with a design like black and white piano keys. She wore sandals like those Gertrude Stein wore. She wore a black and white turban on her head like the ones Simone de Beauvoir wore.

And her first story was about Simone de Beauvoir.

Edith Sorel was living in Cuba, married to a Haitian, earning a living as a translator for Fidel Castro of his speeches.  Since he paid by the word and discoursed at length, it was a good job.

 

 

Jean-Paul Sartre came to speak in Havana, accompanied by Simone de Beauvoir. The state newspaper, Revolución, wrote an article about the noted writer, Sartre, and his companion, de Beauvoir, without a word about de Beauvoir’s accomplishments.

Edith wrote her first-ever article and fired it off to Revolución, detailing Mme. de Beauvoir’s importance as both a writer and philosopher, whose 1954 book, The Second Sex, was a clarion call for a feminist awakening.

The article was published the next day, and voilà, she received a call the following day from Simone de Beauvoir herself, inviting her to visit them at their hotel in Havana.

Edith knocked at their door, and de Beauvoir opened. She was quite beautiful, with dark hair and blue eyes, yet her voice was shrill. Whereas Sartre, who was the ugliest man Edith had ever seen, had the most beautiful voice.

Edith arranged for the French couple to meet Che Guevara, who now had the post of director of the National Bank. The meeting occurred at 4 a.m. in the bank, and Edith said that because she served as translator among the three of them, she doesn’t remember a word of what was said.

So began her career as a journalist—all because Revolución had not understood the importance of de Beauvoir, but Edith had.


 

She was hired first by Revolución, then was swapped for a French journalist, and sent to work in Paris. Since she wasn’t paid much, the newspaper supplemented her pay with winters in Cuba.  Her first "major assignment" was covering the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial.

For years, Edith had lunch in Paris every six weeks with de Beauvoir. The writer liked to break from her work for lunch later than most, for exactly two hours, then return to her writing. She was very disciplined, Edith said.

And throughout the time she knew de Beauvoir and Sartre, they always looked at one another as if they’d just fallen in love, each alert for every word of the other, each acting as if they were seeing the other for the first time.

From Paris, she was sent to interview Pablo Picasso in Vallauris for his 80th birthday celebration.

 

 

She was immediately struck by his piercing eyes. Scorpio eyes, she said. Everyone brought him huge, extravagant gifts. Great bottles of champagne and massive quantities of food. Even a large painting painted by the children of the local potters.

Picasso got down on the floor with the children and discussed every detail of the painting: “This bull is very fine, but perhaps his ear could be changed like this…”

He was full of curiosity and excitement, said Edith, just like a child, always curious about everything.

Later, as she was walking in the street with her photographer, a long Lincoln Continental pulled up beside them.

Hola, chica,” came Picasso’s voice from the back seat. “Get in.”

They climbed in, went with him to a café, where he asked Edith, “Did you like my birthday exposition?”

The photographer kicked her under the table.

“I haven’t seen it,” she said (although she had).

“Then I will take you to see it right now!”

And so, just as the photographer knew would happen, the two of them were led through the show by Picasso, who told them all about each painting while the photographer snapped photos.

Henry Miller… Edith was assigned to interview Henry Miller in Pacific Palisades. He was close to 80 years old at the time, and his wife was nearly 50 years younger than he.

Before Edith could get to her first question, Miller said, "Sex.  Right?  You want me to talk about sex."

She was taken aback, but only for a heartbeat.  "No.  I want you to talk about love." 

 

 

Miller looked pleased.

“You married five times. Why did you marry so often?”

“Because you had to marry women then to sleep with them.” (Does this remind you of anyone else, say, Elizabeth Taylor?) “But my great love was a woman I didn’t marry. She was 20 years older. I was 19 at the time.”

(Although Miller may have married for sex each time, his last wife, it is reported, refused to sleep with him because, "You are an old man.")

Everywhere you looked there were paintings, Edith said. Covering all the walls, and even on the ceiling. Henry Miller painted a water color every single day.

 

 

Edith made an appointment three months in advance to interview Ingmar Bergman the director of famously angst-ridden films. He was directing a play in Munich, Germany. When she arrived, the Nazi-like guard at the playhouse stopped her. No, she did not have an appointment. No, she could not see Bergman. She asked to speak to his secretary. No, he did not have a secretary.

She raised her voice, in German. The guard made a phone call. Down came Bergman’s secretary, who was appalled; apparently she had forgotten to write the appointment in Bergman’s calendar. However, Bergman’s home was not far from the theater. Perhaps she’d be willing to meet him there? This was even better, Edith said. She always liked to meet people in their own homes; it was more revealing. When she arrived, he was not there, so she poked around, and even read one of his letters.  (Or so she told him, though perhaps she didn’t.)

Bergman was a man with big ears and a big nose, so in photos you couldn’t see how attractive he was.  His height and figure and face all together were quite arresting. He was in an anguish of apology with her. He offered her a drink. She had her usual Scotch, and so did he. Still anguished over the forgotten appointment, he apologized, and then as they talked, they laughed and laughed, and had a wonderful time. The master of Scandinavian angst was a man of tremendous humor and joie de vivre.

 

 

The interview with Bergman was in sharp contrast to her interview with the comedian-filmmaker Woody Allen ("He had flaming red hair, you know.") in his apartment in New York City. You would recognize it from “Annie Hall,” "Manhattan," and “Hannah and her Sisters.” All the familiar rooms.

She began by asking him about his prolific output, making a movie once a year.

“Yes,” he said.

She asked him various questions, to which he responded “Yes.” Or “No.”

He offered her a drink. It was only 11 a.m., but she needed a Scotch. It was apparent to her by now that she’d need the skills of both a dentist and a psychiatrist to get Woody to talk.

 

 

She asked him about the films of Ingmar Bergman.

“Bergman!” said Woody Allen. “He’s my god!”

“Have you met him?” Edith asked.

“No,” said Allen.

“Well, I have,” said Edith, and then, beginning with her stories of Bergman, the interview flowed.

 

 

We who were perched on the windowsill wanted more stories from Edith. But a documentary is being made about the ABCs of her great life, and perhaps we’ll hear more of her stories then.

Even angels have to wait for things to come forth in their own time. And we have all eternity to receive them.