Reflections, by Henry Miller, ed. Twinka Thiebaud. (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1981.)

Book review by Rob Couteau




Published in: Nice, 1981
(NY: Bardor Publications)

With the posthumous publication of Reflections, the Henry Miller saga reaches a symbolic conclusion. No doubt there will be other collections of letters, notebooks, anecdotes, short stories etc. What is special about Reflections, however, is that here we have a chronicle of the “final moment”: a work composed in the presence and aura of death.

Twinka Thiebaud, Miller’s “live-in caretaker and cook,” conceived of the idea to record from memory many of his dinner-table anecdotes. She writes:

He offered criticism and corrections, and jokingly referred to me as his personal scribe recording his last words for posterity.

The most striking photo in the book is the one of Thiebaud and Miller joined in an embrace that exudes deep friendship and mutual respect. One feels that, finally, Miller had found a beneficent force–a female with no detectable trace of the femme fatale–who would become his friend, helper, and co-creator.

In her clear, concise introduction, Thiebaud says what needs to be said and then creates a portrait of Miller that is both provocative and amusing (particularly when exploring his “romances”). The brief chapters that follow are arranged by theme. The first is a dedication to his children that, at the very beginning, sounds the death knell.

I was lying in bed one day, thinking about my death …

It’s not only an unusual opening, but it’s also a theme that we aren’t accustomed to seeing in his work. Until now, the death theme in Miller’s oeuvre has concerned itself primarily with “death in life”: that is, psychic death and the need for rebirth. But now it’s a concrete, biological death that he’s confronted with.

This is followed by “Mother.” Those familiar with his writing will glance at the title and recall the marvelous creations wrought of the bitterness and hatred he felt toward this monstrous figure. Here, however, in a manner more analytical than emotive or symbolic, new meaning is derived from the mother image that looms throughout his major work:

I wrote a short piece inspired by a dream I had a couple of years ago … After writing that piece, my view of her softened. I had created a mother of my own making, one I could relate to, one I could love even. It occurred to me that if my mother had been like the mother I had dreamed about, perhaps I wouldn’t have become a writer after all. I might have become a tailor like my father. I might have been an upstanding pillar of society like she wanted me to be. […] Beginning with the earliest memories of my mother, I had saved up enough hatred, enough anger, to fill a hundred books.

In “Afterthoughts on June,” we recall the hundreds of pages that were required to paint an enigmatic, elusive portrait of his femme fatale, June. Yet with this piece, he suffices with a mere three pages. As with “Mother” and many of the other chapters, one senses that he’s finally been granted the ability to remove the veil of illusion and to regard his life-pattern with a cool, Zen-like detachment. He’s lived through, amplified, and recorded a monolithic personal mythos; now, in his final days, he can sit back and muse over what he’s brought into being. Here he portrays June–perhaps for the first time–in a human light. June the archetypal anima and June the human being are now separated.

After June and I parted ways that was it. It was as if she was dead for me personally. However, her memory was kept alive in the writing.

It is the grip of the archetype–as manifested through her–that has passed away. It will reappear elsewhere, in other women, but the vehicle of June will no longer prevail. The human aspect of June that remains in the wake of the symbol Miller calls “a wreck of a human being…. It was as if she’d been damaged to the core.” He concludes:

Our great love affair seems to me now like a self-created myth, a fairytale of sorts (though not always a pretty one). One day I was thinking about June and me, thinking, “Jesus, Henry, what was that all about? What in the world did you make such a big fuss over?
The things that appeared at one time to be earth-shattering, even cataclysmic events, have now paled in the face of old age. They are dwarfed and stunted in the face of death.

This precarious balance between an emotional “self-created myth” and a more objective view–detached from the entanglements of the myth–forms the perimeters of Reflections. Apropos to this, Thiebaud writes:

Maintaining his illusions about a woman was far more important to Henry than learning the truth of her intentions … He’d end attempts to enlighten him with statements like, “I’m not interested in the truth. I don’t want the truth. I want illusion, lies, deceit. You could tell me she’s a murderess, a liar, a thief, and I wouldn’t give a damn.”

This courting of illusion–of knowingly “not knowing”–has always been a fundamental aspect of Miller’s life, art, and philosophy. From his earliest years, he was drawn to the mystery of life and of the self. He was gifted not only with a desire to explore such mysteries but also with a talent for articulating and re-creating them. Creative remembering and creative reimagining–essential elements of the mystic and the artist–were second nature to him. Yet, coexistent with this introspective, intuitive, heartfelt wisdom was a tough, acerbic, analytical self. At times, Miller would attribute this orderly, ruthless, pragmatic mind to his German ancestry via his mother who, though certainly no intellectual, possessed such qualities (or was possessed by them) in the extreme. In a chapter titled “My German Ancestry,” he recalls:

I was struggling to set myself free from their conventionality, punctuality, and super-cleanliness. I hated what seemed to be the most important part of my mother’s existence–cleanliness and sterility.

Beyond these familial and ancestral challenges, Miller fought against similar attitudes in the broader society as well. There he saw the usurpation of feeling, intuition, and instinctual wisdom by the accepted norm of “rational” thinking and the rampant materialism to which it gave birth. Yet it was only by the strength of his own analytical faculties that he fulfilled his destiny and liberated himself from persons, objects, and experiences that would otherwise have paralyzed him with their mysterious allure, forming, as it were, the symbolic receptacles of his unconscious projections and fantasies. These congealed into a mirror of his soul, and it was this very process of gazing into the mirror of the world and re-collecting his soul–through the labor of creating of one of the most inspiring personal mythologies of our times–that would lead him to proclaim his love of illusion and brace him, with fearless resolve, to live out the calling of his desires.

Miller’s philosophical proclamations did not always parallel his essential personality. It is less the feeling-toned mystic–immersed in the efflorescence of the symbol–and more the emotionally freed, insightful thinker that comes to the fore in Reflections. In part, this is because of the qualities of Miller the speaker, who was always more analytical than his poetic works might imply. But it is even more the result of this particular life-stage. For all his praise of illusion, this is the memoir of a man intensely aware of the mystery and meaning that resides in the symbolic patterns of life. Here is the shaman contemplating his own skeleton, paying homage to the numinosity of the image while simultaneously examining the hieroglyphs that remain etched in the flesh.


 fine art

Updated: 23 July 2011 | All text Copyright © 2011 | Rob Couteau | key words: book review | Reflections | Twinka Thiebaud | Henry Miller