Saturday, February 14, 2009

Reading Henry Miller

I am rereading Tropic of Cancer. Slowly this time, to savor it.

I was talking about Henry Miller to one of the other faculty … on Thursday, I think. She tells me she’s a Reformed Presbyterian—I’ve been meaning to google it to find out what it is—and a fan of Catholic writers like Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh.

But at one time she considered writing her master’s thesis on Miller (I wrote mine on O’Connor, coincidentally).

Her parents had forbidden her reading certain books—no Henry Miller! no Richard Brautigan! Her parents, it seems, were sophisticated in their prohibitions. In college she set out to read everything that had been banned to her in her early adolescence. No doubt, an excellent reading list.

She recited a passage for me—from something, we couldn’t remember what—concerning Miller sitting on the john taking a shit while eating a crust of bread. Out of toilet paper, he wipes his ass with the bread and continues eating it.

I couldn’t recall the scene from my reading, but I was delirious over her description of it. You had to be there, maybe. She read it as a Christian symbol of Christ’s debasement in human form.

My parents were strict about most things—but they allowed me to read any book or see any movie. When I got interested in Ian Fleming, they bought me all the James Bond books in paperback. I was thirteen, or not even.

Earlier, I had gone to see Cleopatra with a black couple my father knew from work because minors weren’t allowed in to the movie without adult guardians and my parents weren’t interested in seeing what they assumed to be a sleazy sex movie.

In seventh grade I did my English oral book report on Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. I understood little of its historical context, but I stood in front of the class and related a scene in which some country women pinned down a whore who had been fucking their husbands, jammed a jar of sheep shit up her snatch, and then broke the jar inside her.

I thought it was “grown up.”

The teacher interrupted my report, and after class, she asked me whether my parents knew what I had been reading. Yes, I said, they did. She then said that in the future she needed to approve my readings before I did any more book reports.

This was in Las Vegas in 1967.

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