Memories & Dreams Unearthed

Creative Nonfiction
Einar Moos


Le rêve est une seconde vie. … C’est un souterrain vague que s’éclaire peu à peu, et où se dégagent de l’ombre et de la nuit les pâles figures gravement immobiles qui habitent le séjour des limbes.* —Gerard de Nerval, Aurélia

Los Angeles, midnight, June 7, 1980: Bill calls announcing Henry Miller’s death. Henry went swallowing a spoonful of yoghurt that got stuck in his thorax… This doesn’t at all come unexpected, since I’d seen Henry weakening and giving up the fight for life.

In retrospect I realize that while we propel ourselves into the future doing everything in our power to enhance and prolong life, we easily forget, and consequently suffer a kind of short or long term amnesia. As we progress, we burn up our existence leaving behind an ash-trail of memory.

Diaries are a funny thing. As I unearth them I remember the bizarre last days of 88-year-old Henry Miller, one of the XX century’s greatest American writers.

*

Of chief importance were dinners. Dinners, during which a peculiar fight took place—a physical as well as mental battle—a fight to stay alive.

The rewards of that battle must’ve been fewer and fewer. The joy in life, Henry’s greatest support, diminishing. Painting was painful—invigorating like his writing of letters—but still difficult, as one eye was completely gone and the other fading fast. It must’ve been a dim view, a cloudy perception of light and life.

Dinners were always connected to large quantities of mysterious pills, some of them so small they slipped through Henry’s slender fingers. Generally there was a fogging out towards the end of the meal. But despite the physical condition he managed to wash down the meal with a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He toasted, always with a mischievous grin, “Fuck the doctors!”

Conversations were easy and topics were never lacking, ranging from his childhood experiences in Brooklyn, his Paris years, or recent events. Even the daily news inspired angry reactions. If there was a war somewhere, or an earthquake, and so many died, “Well, fuck them!”

The poverty-stricken early years in Paris were recalled vividly. Then his dreams crept into our conversations, dreams that became increasingly monstrous, bizarre, surreal. The last few days were like dreams themselves. As the days grew longer over southern California, life withdrew and another reality emerged.

*

A few years earlier Henry had written a short story published as a chapbook called Mother, China, and the World Beyond.

Like Epistemon in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, he mysteriously visits the Beyond. As Epistemon recounts of the devils and the damned, Henry tells of his mother whose encounter he makes. And his mother says: “This is the dream world, the true reality. Down below, all is illusion. Only the imagination is real.”

Henry was now eager and ready to explore the Beyond. Curiosity mixed with fright lead him along the way. What he was frightened of the most was the way over there. He wasn’t afraid of death itself, he was just afraid of dying—the process, the moment…

*

In February, one evening, I was cooking Chinese food and listening to Ravel’s piano concerto Nr. 2. Henry sat over his watercolors at the ping-pong table in the living room, trying to paint. He could barely see, his eyes weren’t with him.

“My, oh my, how terrible… not to be able to see,” he cried.

At dinner he asked me to play Brahms’s “Treue Liebe” for him. I found the record and we ate in reverence listening to the music until the jitters came and his head sank onto his plate. I held him and he suddenly straightened out, leaning back, grinning mockingly: “I could let it drop, roll off that is, roll off the rocking chair.”

A few minutes later another attack of trembling conquered him. His comment after it passed: “I’m fighting the monster, don’t yah know. I’ll be going on vacation.”

During this time I met Duncan Renaldo, late star of the Cisco Kid TV series. He was a very calm small man living in Santa Barbara, dying of cancer. He was not afraid of dying, and he told me a repeated dream that had also been a childhood dream: he was standing in a room by a large window trying to look out but he couldn’t because he was too short to reach the window sill.

I told Henry of this dream and he said: “Yes, yes, that damn curiosity to see something mysterious…”

*

February 21

Like an ominous blessing G. comes into town to make a documentary for French TV on Henry. Henry agrees. The reasons are clearly economical. In a letter to a woman he loves he expresses his despair: “I’ve only a dollar fifty left in my pocket.”

“Can’t you let an old man die peacefully?” he cries over dinner.

One should leave an old man alone…

When a man has reached old age, and has fulfilled his mission, he has a right to confront the idea of death in peace. He has no need of other men, he knows them already, and has seen enough of them. What he needs is peace. It is not seemly to seek out such a man, plague him with chatter, and make him suffer banalities. One should pass by the door of his home as if no one lived there. —Meng Tze” stood tacked on the door of his Ocampo Drive home.

We don’t wish to chatter banalities, since a film needs to be made, and we record events of historic importance occurring on Ocampo Drive in the Pacific Palisades.

February 24

Henry tells me a story of how he attended a friend’s funeral as a boy in Brooklyn. Standing next to the coffin he got so nervous he let out a loud fart. Everyone laughed.

Today, he says, he wishes to go without pain, quietly, no farts, no fanfares, no laughs, no nothing…

March 3

He tells me of a dream that haunted him all night long: a revelation. In his dream he understood everything there was to be understood about life and death with such clarity that it seemed rather boring. It became uninteresting, the whole business of life.

“Why do we have to go through this misery of life, if we understand everything so clearly?”

The only thing he didn’t find explained in the dream was love. Love remained a mystery, thank God. The always enigmatic mystery.

Early May

Henry had a dream in which two or three women carry him head down through millions of people. It was agonizing. The people walked like cattle through mud, water and shit. His head hung loosely above the ground, from where he could observe their feet as they went their way. Not a single person reacted to his peculiar position. Nobody, in fact, spoke a word.

May 7

After the filming of the French TV interview Henry expresses the desire to walk out into an ice field and die like an Eskimo, peacefully. He talks about death more frequently. The filmmakers still wait like vultures on a tree for the animal to either die or put up a good fight and leave some blood on the celluloid.

“Mahakala,” I ask Henry, “the Gautama Buddha, asks you, Henry: do you wish to be reincarnated?”

“No, God, no!”

May 10

No more questions asked. We are alone now. In the garden, on the warm tiles next to the swimming pool, lies a beautiful naked woman in the sun. A child plays with her breasts, happily enjoying life. Inside, beyond those windows with the drawn curtains leading to Henry’s room, death hovers in a corner.

May 26

Henry falls out of bed at three or four in the morning. It’s my night duty and he calls me by name. I discover him lying on his back next to his bed on the floor, flapping arms and legs like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa. I lift his frail body back into his bed. He is unhurt, but worried about something else:

“Has there been a disturbance in the post office? Have they asked you not to communicate their thoughts to us?”

“No,” I say, trying to enter his dreamworld.

“Is this room in the same building, or is it a different building? I get the impression it’s a different building.”

“No”, I say, quite sure of myself, but still looking around, “it’s the same building.”

“Has my mother come to dinner already? She’s supposed to arrive… Have you set the table for my mother?”

“Yes, I have,” I say, knowing it is a lie.

*

The next nights there are more dreams of his mother. And the doubt creeps up whether he was wrong in treating her so harshly during his lifetime.

I see the women in his life set as thin transparencies one above the other, giving a homogenous, even harmonious image of THE WOMAN. … His mother would make the strongest impression perhaps. They were all hell in one way or another, his mother probably the most misunderstood…

Now he says: “I will forgive her for what she did to me.”

“Son,” she said (in Mother, China, and the World Beyond), “there’s only one thing worse than ignorance and that is stupidity. I don’t wonder you couldn’t tolerate me down below. I was stupid, terribly stupid.”

The dreams of the following days become more and more difficult to understand: Henry talks about films he has seen in his dreams that affected him, about Iranians, different perspectives in life, religious organizations…

Or, he follows the hallway into a salon sort of… a lot of people… a dying museum… he stands himself half-dead… standing asleep as though… listening to gossip… giving the impression of an old man.

June 6

The last night with Henry.

“What’s my sentence? When is the Man coming? … What foods are we going to give him?”

His calls continue through the night to let me in on another, important dream:

“I wouldn’t be hungry, Einar, if I had some money… I need two or three dollars… but, what have I been accused of?”

He suddenly leans up again in bed, searching me in the dim light.

“I wonder if we’re running a merry-go-round? … If it is a merry-go-round we ought to stop it.”

Henry Miller (1891, Brooklyn — 1980, Pacific Palisades, California)

pencil

Einar Moos was born in Valparaiso, Chile, and grew up in South America and California. He wrote and produced award winning documentaries, fiction films and tv programs, and is presently the editor in chief of Parisiana – The Lovers Guide to Paris.

Roughly translated: The dream is a second life. … It’s a vague underground passage that becomes clearer gradually, and where the seriously unchanging pale forms which dwell in limbo emanate from shadow and night.