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Big Sur: Paradise and Paradise Lost

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Big Sur: Paradise and Paradise Lost

I. Introduction

It has never been an uncommon thing for one to retreat to nature in an attempt to 'find one's self,' and somewhat clichй these days is the retreat to nature to 'find God.' Hundreds of books, essays, seminars, and retreats devote themselves to helping one understand how to find enlightenment and healing through connecting with nature. It is a phenomenon that transcends religious boundaries--everyone, from Buddhists to Christian Mystics to Quakers, seems to think that the key (or, at least, one of the keys) to enlightenment lies in nature. As one may suppose, this is not a new concept. Throughout literary history, there is a distinct trend of authors praising the virtues of nature, singing of the peace that it brings and the enlightening attributes of these places away from the noise and clutter of the cities. Shakespeare tells of finding "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, [and] sermons in stone"(Shakespeare); William Wordsworth implores us to let nature be our teacher; Goethe claims that there is rest and respite on the mountain top; and George Washington Carver admits that he tries commune with nature everyday. It seems that from Henry David Thoreau right down to contemporary authors, no generation or writing period has been devoid of at least one prolific author who takes to nature in order to find the answers.

Two such authors, searching for...well, searching for that certain enlightenment and repose that can only be found in nature, were Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. And despite the fact that Big Sur, California, is the chosen destination for revelation for both authors and that both authors are torn between the introspective qualities of being 'secluded,' and the desire for connectedness to society, they were from (moderately) different lifestyles and backgrounds and viewed the revelations that nature bestowed to them individually quite differently. By contrasting the situations and temperaments of the two authors, one can begin to see why their experiences differed so greatly.

II. Henry Miller

Henry Miller, born in December of 1891, spent the majority of his childhood in Brooklyn ("Henry Miller" 1). He attended high school, but never finished college; instead, he worked a variety of jobs that never lasted long, from driving a cab to working in a library (ibid.). In 1917, he married the first of his five wives, and in 1920 he began working at Western Union as a messenger. Persuaded by his employer, his first attempt at writing began with an 'Horatio Alger-esque' story about twelve messengers ("Henry Miller" 2). However, he took no pride in the final result, claiming that "nobody believes; perhaps the real secret lies in making people believe. That the book was inadequate, faulty, bad, terrible, as they said, was only natural. [He] was attempting at the start what a man of genius would have undertaken at the end"(ibid.)

In 1923, Miller met and married June Mansfield after divorcing his first wife. While this marriage proved to be faithless, he found in her inspiration. She encouraged him to put his energy into writing, and the "passion and madness" of their marriage further fuelled him ("Henry Miller" 2). Eventually, problems with June drove him to Paris without her (despite the fact that it was funded by her), where he spent many years writing what is now considered to be the opuses of his repertoire ("Henry Miller" 1).

While in Paris, he wrote Tropic of Cancer--which is still his most famous work--which, along with Tropic of Capricorn, chronicles his life in Paris. Both books were banned in the United States, "which spawned a thirty year censorship debate that was eventually won by Miller" ("Henry Miller" 1). The publication of these and following works helped perpetuate the image of Miller as a "legendary character, a kind of folk hero, the Paul Bunyan of literature, larger than life as exile, bohemian, and rebel, the great champion of freedom of expression and other lost causes" ("Henry Miller" 1). This reputation would play a large part in his later life, and he chronicles the effects in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Also whilst in Paris, Miller befriended a long-time lover and benefactor, Anaпs Nin (ibid.). Ironically, she, rather than he, chronicled this relationship in stories and diaries. She later had a relationship with Miller's wife, June, and this affair is chronicled in and made famous by the movie Henry and June ("Henry Miller").

Upon departure from Paris, he travelled Greece and America, writing about what he experienced. In the whirlwind of those years, he divorced June, and both made and lost money. Eventually, in 1943, he settled down in Big Sur, California, and helped establish an 'artists' colony' ("Henry Miller" 2). For him, it was a "paradise where he could be an artist" ("Henry Miller" 2). He was married twice between 1943 and 1944, had another child (his first child was with his first wife), and found himself dead-broke. However, he continued to write and receive guest who travelled from all over the country to see the man behind 'the cult of sex and anarchy' (however wrong the rumours, and however unwanted the guests turned out to be) (ibid.). These guests contribute a bulk of the material Miller dwells upon in Big Sur. In 1952, he married again (his previous wives had a tendency to find the Big Sur life too demanding, or Miller too intolerable), and found himself not just famous, but a cult icon (ibid.). Despite this, things began to fall apart between his fifth wife and himself: he was becoming increasingly famous and wealthy, and had a multitude of affairs, which drove her to alcoholism (ibid.). It seemed his life as a writer had an inverse relationship with his married life: the more successful one become, the more the second deteriorated.

Eventually, he was driven from Big Sur and passes the remainder of his life in the Pacific Palisades. Until the end of his life in 1980, he continued to have passionate love affairs, and to be a mentor to younger generations of writers ("Henry Miller" 2). He also became a sort of 'adoptive grandfather' of the Beat Movement.

Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, John Clellan Holmes, Lawrence Lipton, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the rest of the beat poets, rejoiced especially in his anti-Americanism and anti-materialism, and Miller was largely responsible for the upsurge of interest in Zen Buddhism and oriental religions and philosophies which was

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