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Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch by Henry Miller

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 § 0

Henry Miller and the Auto(bio)graphical Essay: Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

A Book Review by 
David Detrich

Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957) by Henry Miller is a monumental work that describes the local history of Big Sur with the friends and artists that arrived on the mountainous coast to form a small artist's community, and includes passages of innovative poetic writing inspired by the natural beauty of the California coast. Henry Miller could meditate on the oceanic views which inspire a poetic style of writing, an esthetic trend of nature inspired writing which I call the Big Sur esthetic, while creating allusions to other writers of relevance: with the original expository style of writing that he developed since his reading of the modern philosophers in his early years as a writer. Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch is an autobiographical memoir of Henry Miller's arrival at Big Sur after having written some of the most well known books of the early 20th Century, including The Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Black Spring (1936).

Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch begins with the awareness of the oneness of the artist community. Rather than a rivalry between writers, Henry Miller suggests that we work as one.

     In summer, when the fog rolls in, one can look down upon a sea of clouds floating listlessly above the ocean; they have the appearance, at times, of huge iridescent soap bubbles over which, now and then, may be seen a double rainbow. In January and February the hills are greenest, almost as green as the Emerald Isle. From November to February are the best months, the air fresh and invigorating, the skies clear, the sun still warm enough to take a sun bath. 
    From our perch, which is about a thousand feet above the sea, one can look up and down the coast a distance of twenty miles in either direction.
                                                          Big Sur and the Oranges
                                                          of Hieronymus Bosch
                                                          Henry Miller

Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch is composed of three sections: The Oranges of the Millennium, Peace and Solitude: A Potpourri, and Paradise Lost. Henry Miller foreshadows the new millennium which begins in the year 2000, and writes passages of innovative fiction between the more objective chronicle of local history, writing in a poetic style that creates an intertextuality with other Big Sur novels.

I see the one who dreamed it all as he rides beneath the stars. Silently he enters the forest. Each twig, each fallen leaf, a world beyond all knowing. Through the ragged foliage the splintered light scatters gems of fancy; huge heads emerge, the remains of stolen giants. 
                                                          Big Sur and the Oranges
                                                          of Hieronymus Bosch
                                                          Henry Miller

This poetic style of writing parallels my own first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) by David Detrich, and shows the awareness of other writers who have been inspired by the Big Sur coast: Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac, Robinson Jeffers, William Everson and Carolyn Mary Kleefeld.

In all, almost a hundred painters, writers, dancers, sculptors and musicians have come and gone since I first arrived. At least a dozen possessed genuine talent and may leave their mark on the world.
                                                          Big Sur and the Oranges
                                                          of Hieronymus Bosch
                                                          Henry Miller

Henry Miller was impressed with the work of Hieronymus Bosch, and became a watercolor artist himself which he describes in his essay To Paint Is To Love Again (1960).

Bosch is one of the very few painters who—he was indeed more than a painter!—who acquired a magic vision. He saw through the phenomenal world, rendered it transparent, and thus revealed its pristine aspect. Seeing the world through his eyes it appears to us once again as a world of indestructible order, beauty, harmony, which it is our privilege to accept as a paradise or convert into a purgatory.
                                                          Big Sur and the Oranges
                                                          of Hieronymus Bosch
                                                          Henry Miller

Henry Miller published Into the Nightlife... (1947), a story taken from Black Spring (1936) that is written in the American modernist style, a dreamlike vision inspired by New York, and illustrated with the artistry of Israeli artist Bezalel Schatz. As a writer of innovative fiction Henry Miller developed his esthetic theory of dreamlike reality into the more sophisticated collaboration with artist Bezalel Schatz. I had a chance to look at the boxed edition of Into the Nightlife... (1947) while visiting the Henry Miller Memorial Library, and I find this to be his finest work, which parallels other poet/artist collaborations of the 20th Century such as Paul Eluard and Joan Miro's À Tout Éprouve (1958). 

Henry Miller considered the dream reality that the Surrealists and Anais Nin were exploring in the early decades of the 20th Century, with Henry Miller showing a visionary dreamlike style that he at times calls "frenetic." 

Prompted by Anaïs Nin and her immersion in psychoanalysis, Miller paid careful attention to recording his dreams and their impact on his psyche.
                                                      Henry Miller and narrative 
                                                      form: constructing the self, 
                                                      rejecting modernity
                                                      James M. Decker

Henry Miller writes as a visionary in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch with a metaphysical style that is inspired by the beauty of the coast. As a writer he opens the windows of his soul onto paradise.

The windows of the soul are infinite we are told, and it is through the eyes of the soul that paradise is visioned. If there are flaws in your paradise, open more windows! Vision is entirely a creative faculty: it uses the body and the mind as the navigator uses his instruments!
                                                           Big Sur and the Oranges
                                                           of Hieronymus Bosch
                                                           Henry Miller

Henry Miller mentions in the preface to Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch that some of his books were banned for years, and it appears from the beginning that Henry Miller has chosen a difficult path as a writer. With Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch Henry Miller has written a large scale self-portrait set in Big Sur with references to popular philosophers, and the artist community of the Big Sur coast, a large scale book written with the skill in essay/fictional writing that will help it remain a classic for years to come.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. He is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He is the editor of Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.


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