From Chapter 3 of ‘My Friend Henry Miller’

by Alfred Perles



AFTER the semi-isolation of Clichy, Miller became the centre of a number of new friends who surrounded him with a sort of vague aura. The inner circle remained unchanged, Anais Nin, Michael Fraenkel, Liane and, perhaps, myself, being his closest associates. Drifting in from the outside there were a few I should particularly like to mention. For one, Hans Reichel, the German painter who used a paint brush like a magic wand, who constantly and without transition went from one extreme to the other, from an alcoholic fit to the mystical interpretation of a marsh marigold. Another was David Edgar, the most lovable neurotic American ever pro­duced, who initiated Miller into the secrets of the Bhagavad Gita, the occult writings of Mme Blavatsky, the spirit of Zen and the doctrines of Rudolf Steiner. …

A word about Edgar. While Reichel and I lived in the lmpasse du Rouet out of dire necessity, Edgar, who could easily have afforded more luxurious quarters, lived there by choice. His squalid little room always seemed warm and cosy with the exhalations of his multiple neuroses which added spice to his quite remarkable intellect; there wasn't a thing David couldn't grasp with his head, but his knowledge didn't help him in smoothing out the vast complexities of his soul. Both Henry and I loved him dearly. I remember the first time I met him, at a bottle party in Montparnasse. Henry was there, too, and I vividly recall how we watched Edgar at a distance. He was explaining the fourth dimension to a small group of female American art students. According lo him, the fourth dimension was spatial time in relation to temporal space, a sub-abstraction of the abstraction, Eternity, which was the element of the subconscious universe. He spoke in an even seesaw voice as though he were dying to keep in rhythm with a metronome. His face had a curiously mild expression which never changed. What he said made absolutely no sense, but sounded highly convincing.   Then he made a parenthetical comment on surrealism - he had it all pat: there was a fourth-dimensional quality about surrealism, too, but upon a different plane entirely. Surrealism, he said, was a phenomenon of metalepsis and definitely of traumatic origin.   The fourth dimension per se was in the nature of an absolute, the actual thing of space and time on the supralapsarian plane. Thus he went on and on. His speech was full of words no one had ever heard, such as  'metempiricism',   'praecognitum',   'entropy',  etc., over which he slid, unconcerned and nonchalant, like a neurotic eel. Women loved him; he was very charming with them, but love was too simple to excite him: any idiot can fall in love, his attitude seemed to imply, and almost any idiot can have a love affair. Whenever he did fall in love, it was usually with one of the more neurotic female art students.  

He was a bizarre and lovable character, and completely lost. His eyes were pale blue, like schizophrenia, and his personality was split: not in two or three or seven, but into its component parts, each of them living a weird existence of its own, singly, in groups, collectively; there were so many of them he could never make up his mind. When it came to making a simple decision, such as selecting a tie at a haberdasher's or choosing a dish from among the items of a restaurant menu, he became completely paralysed. Who of him was to decide what he was going to wear, or eat? There were too many of him; he had to hold a referendum with himself, a sort of one-man plebiscite.

Fortunately for him, he had an income and did not have to work for a living. Or maybe that wasn't so fortunate after all. Had he been obliged to go out into the cold and hostile world to fend for himself, he wouldn't have had the leisure to indulge in the luxury of being such an accomplished neurotic. It is the lack of petty, everyday problems that lands nice fellows like David Edgar in the arms of neurosis. David had no small problems, only big ones—world prob­lems, universal problems, cosmological, religious, historical, psychological, metaphysical, esoteric and occult problems—and being intelligent (not too intelligent), thought he could solve all these problems, which in the progress of his galloping neurosis became his own personal problems, by argument. Needless to say, he solved nothing. The more he thought about these problems—the more intelligently he thought about them—the more impenetrable and insoluble they seemed to become. What was the meaning of life? What was his—David's—role in life? Had he a mission to fulfill? Who was he? Whence did he come? Whither was he bound? And why? What was important and what wasn't? Was art Important? There were times when he thought it was; he had a thousand and one ideas on painting, and all he had painted in the last three years was a curious canvas representing the gnarled roots of a senile tree. The painting hung on the wall over his shaving mirror; he would stare at it uncomprehendingly: it was just another problem.

Edgar was a man drowning: he drowned gently, gracefully and continuously. He thought of abstractions in terms of abstractions—not like Fraenkel who saw in them a goal per se, but rather like a man drowning, looking desperately for a rope ladder that might lead him back to safety. He was very delicate about drowning; he began drowning about ten in the morning every day when he started shaving himself; he used brushless shaving cream and smiled a wan, gentle smile into the mirror that hung under the painting of the senescent tree: and he communed with himself—his selves: every morning it was like a Cabinet meeting.    

His friends liked him immensely. He had many lady friends, too, and they were all very fond of him. He seemed to have little, if any, sensuality—his sex requirements were moderate. As I've said before, he usually picked the slightly neurotic type, though he tried hard to avoid them. But the attraction was too strong, for he was so seldom in the majority. They were either sexually tainted, mild perverts, Lesbians, hopeless virgins, or, now and again, nymphomaniacs, but in the latter case he was on his guard: he used them as audience, sympathetic Samaritans, mothers, and at rare intervals, ephemeral lovers. They swirled around him like friendly electrons and neutrons rotating around a kindred atom; they were his satellites by virtue of some psycho-magnetic attraction.    

His charm lay in his great helplessness. He was very gentle and generous, too, but it was his helplessness that endeared him to us, especially to Miller. The two became great friends, and the discussions they had together rivalled in length and esotericism those with Fraenkel. Henry was much more lenient with Edgar than he ever was with Fraenkel, probably because Edgar was the more interesting of the two; Edgar varied his subjects, a thing Fraenkel never did. His range was infinitely wider; there was nothing cut and dried about him. We often spent whole days or whole nights together, the three of us, in speculative talks on life, after-life, post-after-life, the Lemurian age, Atlantis, the meaning of myths and legends, occult powers and principalities, the relative spheres of influence of Lucifer and Ahriman, life in Devachan, and so on and so forth. We soon evolved a lingo of our own which must have sounded like a code language to any outsider listening in.

Oddly, enough, these long conversations always came about accidentally. Miller never made a date with Edgar, which would have been a deliberate waste of time. He would run into him in the street or see him sitting at a table at the terrace of the Cafe Zeyer, or we would bump into him on our way to Montparnasse. One innocent little word would lead to another, and before we knew what was happening, we would find ourselves sitting in some cafe drinking pernods or amer picons and discussing the planetary influences on plant life, or some such subject. It usually started with a book Edgar was just reading. You never met him without a book in his hand no matter where he was going; had he been in the habit of frequenting brothels he wouldn't have gone without a book. Sometimes he carried two books under his arm, sometimes half a dozen. Not all the books he read were good books but they were all on outlandish, recondite subjects. (I don't believe he ever read a novel in his whole life.) He had a habit of opening a book at random and reading a passage aloud. Henry was extremely wary of this technique of Edgar's which invariably constituted the opening gambit to one of these interminable sessions. But  there was nothing Henry could do about it; you couldn't shut Edgar up like an ordinary bore; he was very sensitive and very thick-skinned at the same time; it was more painful not to listen to him than to listen to him. And after a while it struck you that whatever he was talking about was really interesting, absorbingly so, interesting to the exclusion of all else, although you had never before heard of the subject under discussion.

Miller confessed to me repeatedly that Edgar's desultory ending of passages from books he had picked up haphazardly led him to explore entirely new avenues of thought. It was Edgar who induced him, in his vicarious way, to take up a more profound study of Zen Buddhism. Miller had always been leaning toward Zen, but without knowing it. When Edgar introduced him to Alan Watts' The Spirit of Zen Miller realized that in his own way he had always been practising Zen (sometimes known as the philosophy of non-philosophy). In his neurotic babbling Edgar would sometimes drop an unfinished sentence which, to Miller's mind, hit the bull's eye; then even the Bhagavad Gita made sense. Was it chance that brought Edgar into Miller's life? Perhaps. But it is also possible that his advent at that particular time was planned, premeditated, by some pre-organized fate. The apprehension of truth comes in flashes, but only when one is ready to seize it. Henry was fast making ready for it and Edgar may, for all I know, have been but the instrumentality of some inscrutable force.

In the course of these pages I have mentioned that there Was an enigmatic power in Henry Miller which had a health-giving effect on those he came in contact with. This power no doubt derived from an inner source of crude religiosity of which he himself was only dimly aware, or perhaps not aware at all—very much like the owner of land in the sub-soil of which lie rich oil wells the existence of which is unsus­pected. In order to extract the oil the wells have first to be drilled, and the crude oil has to be refined before it can be used. Miller never succeeded in exploiting this vague source of power but merely hovered over it, like a sort of human divining rod. Untapped and unrefined, this latent power nevertheless sufficed to alleviate the sufferings of some, restore the balance of others, and make a few whole again.

It didn't work with Edgar. Not that he was too far gone to be helped. True enough, he was rolling down the declivities of neurosis, but he was rolling down gently, gracefully, not at all like a man tumbling down a precipice; he could have been stopped and succoured had this kind of therapy been foreseen in the scheme of things. Edgar was not to be helped for two very valid reasons—firstly, because deep down in his good heart he refused to be helped; somehow subconsciously he sensed that the cure would deprive him of everything that made him so lovable to all: Edgar, cured, would have been just another American nincompoop and his heart resisted the prospect of contented mediocrity. The second, and to my thinking, chief reason of Miller's failure to help him was due to an occult conspiracy. This must sound fan­tastic to the reader, but I honestly believe that David Edgar was an emissary, a kind of unconscious messenger from a different realm, sent to deliver a message to Henry Miller, and he had to deliver it by hand, like a sort of subpoena. There was a quality of extraterritoriality about Edgar, and Henry could do nothing for him except love him.