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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: December 25, 2010

John Wilcock


HENRY MILLER IS NOT a man who can be dismissed briefly and it is doubtful if anyone who has ever read any of his banned works (Tropic of Cancer, Capricorn, World of Sex, Nexus, Plexus, Black Spring) has not been affected dramatically one way or another. Better than anyone else alive, he has been able to inject his writings with a sense of pure freedom — a freedom that is regarded by the prurient as sexual license. Miller’s complete inability to compromise will not allow him to accept the hypocrisies that so often pass for censorship, i.e. Protection of the “innocent” (where are they?) in America.

His Air-Conditioned Nightmare (New Directions, $3.50) written after a cross-country trek early in WWII was surely one of the earliest pointers to the way we are all heading:


“We are accustomed to think of ourselves as a emancipated people; we say that we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudices and hatred…Actually we are a vulgar pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious cranks, agitators. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot, which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?”


With all the checks, counterbalances, restrictions, and diversions that society currently offers to distract us, it is difficult to appreciate how much the writings of one man can affect us but I have rarely met a fan of Miller who was not fanatical about him. His good friend and onetime backer Frances Steloff of New York’s Gotham Book Mart told me: “I have had people tell me that Henry Miller has changed the course of their lives,” and I do not find this hard to believe.

Back in 1939, it was Miss Steloff who advanced Miller the money to go to Greece from which emerged The Colossus of Maroussi, and it is her store that has remained one of the few advance outposts against the Philistines and the book burners. Another is the Henry Miller Literary Society whose secretary, Tom Moore has tried for years to persuade Miller to allow an American publisher to challenge the ban and who, at last, is within reach of that goal.

Miller writes occasionally to the society’s newsletter reporting on his whereabouts. He much prefers Europe to America; possibly because, like Lawrence, his affection for his home is obscured by the attitude towards his writing. Occasionally he finds it an obligation to defend himself as with his recent letter to Norway’s Supreme Court commenting on its decision to ban Sexus. Miller wrote:


“To put it as succinctly and simply as possible, here is my basic attitude towards life, my prayer in other words: ‘Let us stop thwarting one another, stop judging and condemning, stop slaughtering one another.’ I do not implore you to withhold judgment of my work or me. Neither my work nor I is that important. What concerns me is the harm you are doing to yourselves, I mean by perpetuating this talk of guilt and punishment, of banning and proscribing, of white-washing and blackballing, of closing your eyes when convenient, of making scapegoats when there is no other way out. I ask you point blank: does the pursuance of your limited role enable you to get the most out of life? When you write me off the books, so to speak, will you find your food and wine more palatable, will you sleep better, will you be a better man, a better husband, a better father than before? These are the things that matter — what happens to you, not what you do to me.”


Some of Miller is available here. The rest must be brought in through an unsympathetic Customs at present, but the time is not far off when you will not have to go outside this country’s borders to obtain them.

(April 6, 1961)



I hope I have the right man. I have a story to share. In 1972 I was in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Rota, Spain. I happened to come across an English magazine called The Snail. In it they reprinted a column they attributed to you from The Village Voice, which they said had originally been printed about “a dozen years before.” It was entitled “Everyone is Assumed to be an Ally.” That column had a profound impact on me and still does to this day. I still reread it periodically and, while some parts might be a little dated, I still find most very relevant. I have been a journalist since 1981 and a political reporter since 1984. I actually quote the section on “there are almost always alternatives” in my column this week. As a whim, I did a Google search and found you here and sincerely hope you are the same person who penned this column. So know that you have profoundly affected at least one person on the planet!! Thanks.

Joe Baker
Portsmouth, RI


EVERYBODY IS ASSUMED TO BE AN ALLY…unless they opt for aggression (sometimes even before they meet you) on no stronger grounds than that you are being yourself. I always assume, until given reason to believe otherwise, that each of us shares the same objective: to get through life, from birth to death, with the minimum amount of inconvenience to others while deriving the maximum amount of pleasure and happiness for ourselves.

I offer a handshake, a friendly wave in passing, and any help that’s within my power to anybody who wants to live such a life without interference; sometimes genuine alliances are formed, long or short term, depending not only on the extent of our agreement but how far we can disagree and still respect each other’s motives.

There is no time for the fools who think that progress lies in fighting, still less for the belligerent bullies (cowards?) who think their progress lies in fighting you. Offer them a gift to emphasize your peaceful intentions. If they won’t accept, ignore them, bypass them, give them what they want, and go away. Only the naïve define running away as cowardice instead of survival.

Join things if you will, always remembering that a little piece of personal integrity disappears with each such compromise. Sometimes group action is the only means of getting things done. Quite often it is the only route to freedom from some iniquitous burden or unfair restriction. But groups have a way of enforcing rules of their own and I never met or heard of any Messiah who didn’t want to govern as well as guide.

Any expression of identity, whether it be unorthodox behavior or unpopular opinions, is grounds for the charges of exhibitionism. But all individual thinkers are exhibitionistic so far as the conformists are concerned. An “exhibitionist” is usually making an honest statement of who and what he is so that the like-minded can reach him. He cares not at all about the dummies who condemn him, and why should he? They are not worth a second thought.

Every individual’s hang-up is less a question of what he can be but what he has been already. The twin moulds of environment and heredity have stunted his growth as much as they have shaped his character and the extent of his potential is in direct ratio to how little he has been allowed to be himself.

IT IS HARDER for some to break away from their background is more attainable than for others, but it is possible for everybody. The first thing that must be accepted — and how few people will allow themselves to accept it — is that you are alone. Who thinks your thoughts? Who feels as you feel? Who dies when you die? You are alone, you have a life to live and you must have allies.

No, that is wrong. There are no needs beyond physical needs. There are only wants. It is easier with allies but not impossible. If you declare yourself, if you are honest in your intentions (whatever your intentions) you will always have allies.

The most important thing of all to remember is that there are almost always alternatives. It is very rarely a choice between black or white, A or B, Communism or Fascism, yes or no. We build a box around our freedom of action and complain that there is no room to move about. Knock down the walls, burn the box, vote maybe or perhaps, spoil the ballot.

There are too many morals and not enough murals.

Spread out your opinions and your ideals for all to see but do not insist in making them into laws. Do not do unto what has been done unto you. There is only one immorality and that is in insisting that others live as you do.”

(c. 1958)

[John Wilcock won’t be spending Christmas in San Francisco as planned. As fate would dictate, he remains instead in Ojai, where his car was squashed under the weight of a 200+-year-old oak tree in Sunday’s storm.]