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Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

Henry Miller

  I am convinced that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship, but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.


  To my distress and perhaps to my delight, I order things in accordance with my passions. … I put in my pictures everything I like. So much the worse for the things—they have to get along with one another.


  I have been in love with painting ever since I became conscious of it at the age of six. I drew some pictures I thought fairly good when I was fifty, but really nothing I did before the age of seventy was of any value at all. At seventy-three I have at last caught every aspect of nature—birds, fish, animals, insects, trees, grasses, all. When I am eighty I shall have developed still further, and I will really master the secrets of art at ninety. When I reach a hundred my work will be truly sublime, and my final goal will be attained around the age of one hundred and ten, when every line and dot I draw will be imbued with life.


  “The Art-Crazy Old Man”


  and the Oranges of

  Hieronymus Bosch

  Henry Miller













  In the Beginning

  Part 1: The Oranges of the Millennium

  Part 2: Peace and Solitude: a Potpourri

  Part 3: Paradise Lost




  This book consists of three parts and an epilogue originally intended to be issued as a pamphlet under the title—This Is My Answer! Written in 1946, while living at Anderson Creek, this epilogue has since been shortened and revised. It now constitutes a sort of vermiform appendix which can be read first or last, as the reader chooses.

  I had intended to give a bibliography of my published works, including foreign language as well as American and English editions, in an Appendix, but as this has already been done in a book recently published, I refer those seeking this data to the publications named below.*

  The only work in progress now is Nexus, the final volume of the trilogy called The Rosy Crucifixion. The World of Lawrence, fragments of which have appeared in some of the New Directions anthologies, has long been abandoned. Draco and the Ecliptic is still in the egg.

  The following titles, all but one of which were originally published in English, in Paris, and most of which have now been translated into French, German, Danish, Swedish and Japanese, are still banned in this country: Tropic of Cancer, Aller Retour New York, Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn, The World of Sex, The Rosy Crucifixion (Sexus and Plexus). Sexus is at present forbidden to be published—in any language!—in France. In Japan the Japanese version of this work has been suppressed but not the English, at least not yet. Quiet Days in Clichy, which has just gone to press (Paris), will probably also be banned—here and elsewhere.

  As to how and where to get the banned books, the simplest way would be to make a raid on the customs house in any of our ports of entry.

  My warmest thanks go to Charles Haldeman, who came all the way from Winter Park, Florida, to put Wilhelm Fränger’s book on Hieronymus Bosch in my hands. May he forgive me for being such a poor host that day!


  Early in 1930 I left New York with the intention of going to Spain. I never got there. Instead, I remained in France until June 1939, when I left for Greece to take a much needed vacation. Forced out of Greece early in 1940 because of the war, I returned to New York. Before becoming a resident of California I made the “air-conditioned nightmare” trip around America, which consumed a full year. During this period of almost two and a half years I wrote The Colossus of Maroussi, The World of Sex, Quiet Days in Clichy, parts of The Air-conditioned Nightmare, and the first book of The Rosy Crucifixion (Sexus).

  In June 1942 I arrived in California to stay. For over a year I lived in Beverly Glen, just outside Hollywood. There I met Jean Varda, who induced me to come to Monterey on a visit. This was in February 1944. I stayed with Varda, in his Red Barn, for several weeks and then, at his suggestion, made a trip to Big Sur to meet Lynda Sargent. Lynda was then living in the log cabin around which the celebrated “Nepenthe” has since been built. I stayed on as a house guest for about two months, at which time Keith Evans, who was then in the service, offered me the use of his cabin on Partington Ridge. (Thanks to Lynda Sargent’s efforts.) Here I remained from May 1944 until January 1946, during which time I made a brief trip to New York, remarried in Denver, and became the father of a daughter, Valentine. Upon Keith Evans’ return to civil life we were obliged to seek other quarters. In January 1946 we moved to Anderson Creek, three miles down the road, where we rented one of the old convicts’ shacks situated at the edge of a cliff. In February 1947 we returned to Partington Ridge, to occupy the house which Jean Wharton had originally built for herself. It was towards the very end of this year that Conrad Moricand arrived, to last only about three months. In 1948 a son, Tony, was born.

  Partington Ridge is about fourteen miles south of the Big Sur Post Office and some forty odd miles from Monterey. Except for a pleasure trip to Europe in 1953, when I married again, I have been living on the Ridge ever since February 1947.


  It was twelve years ago on a day in February that I arrived in Big Sur—in the midst of a violent downpour. Toward dusk that same day, after a rejuvenating bath outdoors at the hot sulphur springs (Slade’s Springs), I had dinner with the Rosses in the quaint old cottage they then occupied at Livermore Edge. It was the beginning of something more than a friendship. It would be more just, perhaps, to call it an initiation into a new way of life.

  It was a few weeks after this meeting that I read Lillian Bos Ross’ book, The Stranger. Till then I had been only a visitor. The reading of this “little classic,” as it is called, made me more than ever determined to take root here. “For the first time in my life,” to quote Zande Allen’s words, “I felt to home in the world I was borned in.”

  Years ago our great American poet Robinson Jeffers began singing of this region in his narrative poems. Jack London and his friend George Stirling made frequent visits to Big Sur in the old days; they came on horseback, all the way from the Valley of the Moon. The general public, however, knew almost nothing of this region until 1937 when the Carmel-San Simeon highway, which skirts the Pacific for a distance of sixty miles or more, was opened up. In fact, until then it was probably one of the least known regions in all America.

  The first settlers, mountain men mostly, of hardy pioneer stock, came around 1870. They were, as Lillian Ross puts it, men who had followed the buffalo trails and knew how to live on meat without salt. They came afoot and on horseback; they touched ground which no white men had ever set foot on before, not even the intrepid Spaniards.

  So far as is known, the only human beings who had been here before were the Esselen Indians, a tribe of low culture which had subsisted in nomadic fashion. They spoke a language having no connection with that of other tribes in California or elsewhere in America. When the padres came to Monterey, around 1770, these Indians spoke of an ancient city called Excelen which was theirs but of which no vestiges have ever been found.

  But perhaps I should first explain where the Big Sur region is located. It begins not far north of the Little Sur River (Malpaso Creek) and extends southward as far as Lucia
, which, like Big Sur, is just a pin point on the map. Eastward from the coast it stretches to the Salinas Valley. Roughly, the Big Sur country comprises an area two to three times the size of Andorra.

  Now and then a visitor will remark that there is a resemblance between this coast, the South Coast, and certain sections of the Mediterranean littoral; others liken it to the coast of Scotland. But comparisons are vain. Big Sur has a climate of its own and a character all its own. It is a region where extremes meet, a region where one is always conscious of weather, of space, of grandeur, and of eloquent silence. Among other things, it is the meeting place of migratory birds coming from north and south. It is said, in fact, that there is a greater variety of birds to be found in this region than in any other part of the United States. It is also the home of the redwoods; one encounters them on entering from the north and one leaves them on passing southward. At night one can still hear the coyote howling, and if one ventures beyond the first ridge of mountains one can meet up with mountain lions and other beasts of the wild. The grizzly bear is no longer to be found here, but the rattlesnake is still to be reckoned with. On a clear, bright day, when the blue of the sea rivals the blue of the sky, one sees the hawk, the eagle, the buzzard soaring above the still, hushed canyons. In summer, when the fogs roll 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. The highway zigzags like the Grande Corniche. Unlike the Riviera, however, here there are but few houses to be seen. The old-timers, those with huge landholdings, are not eager to see the country opened up. They are all for preserving its virginal aspect. How long will it hold out against the invader? That is the big question.

  The stretch of scenic highway referred to earlier was cut through at enormous expense, literally blasted out of the mountain side. It now forms part of the great international highway which will one day extend from the northern part of Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. By the time it is finished the automobile, like the mastodon, may be extinct. But the Big Sur will be here forever, and perhaps in the year A.D. 2,000 the population may still number only a few hundred souls. Perhaps, like Andorra and Monaco, it will become a Republic all its own. Perhaps the dread invaders will not come from other parts of this continent but from across the ocean, as the American aborigines are said to have come. And if they do, it will not be in boats or in airplanes.

  And who can say when this region will once again be covered by the waters of the deep? Geologically speaking, it is not so long ago that it rose from the sea. Its mountain slopes are almost as treacherous as the icy sea in which, by the way, one scarcely ever sees a sail boat or a hardy swimmer, though one does occasionally spot a seal, an otter or a sperm whale. The sea, which looks so near and so tempting, is often difficult to reach. We know that the Conquistadores were unable to make their way along the coast, neither could they cut through the brush which covers the mountain slopes. An inviting land, but hard to conquer. It seeks to remain unspoiled, uninhabited by man.

  Often, when following the trail which meanders over the hills, I pull myself up in an effort to encompass the glory and the grandeur which envelops the whole horizon. Often, when the clouds pile up in the north and the sea is churned with white caps, I say to myself: “This is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked out on from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.”


  In other, olden times there were only phantoms. In the beginning, that is. If there ever was a beginning.

  It was always a wild, rocky coast, desolate and forbidding to the man of the pavements, eloquent and enchanting to the Taliessins. The homesteader never failed to unearth fresh sorrows.

  There were always birds: the pirates and scavengers of the blue as well as the migratory variety. (At intervals the condor passed, huge as an ocean liner.) Gay in plumage, their beaks were hard and cruel. They strung out across the horizon like arrows tied to an invisible string. In close they seemed content to dart, dip, swoop, careen. Some followed the cliffs and breakers, others sought the canyons, the gold-crested hills, the marble-topped peaks.

  There were also the creeping, crawling creatures, some sluggish as the sloth, others full of venom, but all absurdly handsome. Men feared them more than the invisible ones who chattered like monkeys at fall of night.

  To advance, whether on foot or on horseback, was to tangle with spikes, thorns, creepers, with all that pricks, clings, stabs and poisons.

  Who lived here first? Troglodytes perhaps. The Indian came late. Very late.

  Though young, geologically speaking, the land has a hoary look. From the ocean depths there issued strange formations, contours unique and seductive. As if the Titans of the deep had labored for aeons to shape and mold the earth. Even millennia ago the great land birds were startled by the abrupt aspect of these risen shapes.

  There are no ruins or relics to speak of. No history worth recounting. What was not speaks more eloquently than what was. Here the redwood made its last stand.

  At dawn its majesty is almost painful to behold. That same prehistoric look. The look of always. Nature smiling at herself in the mirror of eternity.

  Far below, the seals bask on the warm rocks, squirming like fat brown worms. Above the steady roar of the breakers their hoarse bark can be heard for miles.

  Were there once two moons? Why not? There are mountains that have lost their scalps, streams that boil under the high snows. Now and then the earth rumbles, to level a city or open a new vein of gold.

  At night the boulevard is studded with ruby eyes.

  And what is there to match a faun as it leaps the void? Toward eventime, when nothing speaks, when the mysterious hush descends, envelops all, says all.

  Hunter, put down your gun! It is not the slain which accuse you, but the silence, the emptiness. You blaspheme.

  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.

  “My horse! My land! My kingdom!” The babble of idiots.

  Moving with the night, horse and rider inhale deep draughts of pine, of camphor, of eucalyptus. Peace spreads its naked wings.

  Was it ever meant to be otherwise?

  Kindness, goodness, peace and mercy. Neither beginning nor end. The round. The eternal round.

  And ever the sea recedes. Moon drag. To the west, new land, new figures of earth. Dreamers, outlaws, forerunners. Advancing toward the other world of long ago and far away, the world of yesterday and tomorrow. The world within the world.

  From what realm of light were we shadows who darken the earth spawned?




  The little community of one, begun by the fabulous “outlander,” Jaime de Angulo, has multipled into a dozen families. The hill (Partington Ridge) is now nearing the saturation point, as things go in this part of the world. The one big difference between the Big Sur I encountered eleven years ago and that of today is the advent of so many new children. The mothers here seem to be as fecund as the soil. The little country school, situated not far from the State Park, has almost reached its capacity. It is the sort of school which, most unfortunately for our children, is rapidly disappearing from the American scene.

  In another ten years we know not what may happen. If uranium or some other metal vita
l to the warmongers is discovered in these parts, Big Sur will be nothing but a legend.

  Today Big Sur is no longer an outpost. The number of sightseers and visitors increases yearly. Emil White’s “Big Sur Guide” alone brings swarms of tourists to our front door. What was inaugurated with virginal modesty threatens to end as a bonanza. The early settlers are dying off. Should their huge tracts of land be broken up into small holdings, Big Sur may rapidly develop into a suburb (of Monterey), with bus service, barbecue stands, gas stations, chain stores and all the odious claptrap that makes Suburbia horrendous.

  This is a bleak view. It may be that we will be spared the usual horrors which accompany the tides of progress. Perhaps the millennium will be ushered in before we are taken over!

  I like to think back to my early days on Partington Ridge, when there was no electricity, no butane tanks, no refrigeration—and the mail came only three times a week. In those days, and even later when I returned to the Ridge, I managed to get along without a car. To be sure, I did have a little cart (such as children play with), which Emil White had knocked together for me. Hitching myself to it, like an old billy goat, I would patiently haul the mail and groceries up the hill, a fairly steep climb of about a mile and a half. On reaching the turn near the Roosevelts’ driveway, I would divest myself of everything but a jock-strap. What was to hinder?

  The callers in those days were mostly youngsters just entering or just leaving the service. (They’re doing the same today, though the war ended in ‘45.) The majority of these lads were artists or would-be artists. Some stayed on, eking out the weirdest sort of existence; some came back later to have a serious go at it. They were all filled with a desire to escape the horrors of the present and willing to live like rats if only they might be left alone and in peace. What a strange lot they were, when I think on it! Judson Crews of Waco, Texas, one of the first to muscle in, reminded one—because of his shaggy beard and manner of speech—of a latter-day prophet. He lived almost exclusively on peanut butter and wild mustard greens, and neither smoked nor drank. Norman Mini, who had already had an unusual career, starting as in Poe’s case with his dismissal from West Point, stayed on (with wife and child) long enough to finish a first novel—the best first novel I have ever read and, as yet, unpublished. Norman was “different” in that, though poor as a church mouse, he clung to his cellar, which contained some of the finest wines (native and foreign) anyone could wish for. And then there was Walker Winslow, who was then writing If a Man Be Mad, which turned out to be a best seller. Walker wrote at top speed, and seemingly without interruption, in a tiny shack by the roadside which Emil White had built to house the steady stream of stragglers who were forever busting in on him for a day, a week, a month or a year.