Henry Miller’s The Time of the Assassins
Reviewed by John Biscello
“This time we have him: we know where Arthur Rimbaud, the great Rimbaud, the real Rimbaud, the Rimbaud of Illuminations is. This is not a decadent hoax. We are declaring that we know the real hiding place of the famous missing poet” —La France moderne, Feb 19-March 4, 1891
Reading like the sensationalistic claims of a sideshow barker, this bulletin was the sort of response commonly elicited by the “ghost” of Arthur Rimbaud. When the brat-prince of French Symbolist poetry stopped producing work at age nineteen and split the scene, he became the James Dean of literary celebrity, a time-locked Peter Pan in existential crisis mode. It only took two books, A Season in Hell and Illuminations, to immortalize his standing in the literary pantheon, and then came the legend of his “second act,” which took him into Africa and the Middle East, where jobs included ivory-merchant, plantation-foreman, and gun-runner, before he wound up a cancer-ravaged amputee who died at age thirty-seven.
Henry Miller, no slouch when it came to his own artistic notoriety, mused, “Why is it . . . that I adore Rimbaud above all other writers? I am no worshipper of adolescence, neither do I pretend to myself that he is as great as other writers I might mention. But there is something in him that touches me as the work of no other man does . . . In Rimbaud I see myself as in a mirror.” Looking more deeply into Rimbaud meant looking more deeply into himself, and the result of Miller’s double-vision was his speculative study on Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins.
The cult of art reaches its end when it exists only for a precious handful of men and women. Then it is no longer art but the cipher language…”
Published in 1956, when atomic anxiety and McCarthy-led witch-hunts were all the rage, Miller’s book functions on multiple levels. It is a meditative essay on both the myth and reality of Rimbaud, a hymn to soul-play and self-expression, a whetted scalpel dissecting white-wig morality and ready-made life-wear, and, as always is the case with Miller, a peep-show into the author’s psyche.
You could also say that it’s a ticking time-bomb of a spiritual guide, or self-help book with black lung, as Miller summons the verve and electric strain of such prophetic heavies as Blake and Whitman in raising the roof. This is Miller in his element. Give him a primary subject or topic on which to riff and let the scat-singer in him take over. Like a bop musician articulating a controlled frenzy, Miller’s “playing” style inextricably fuses with his content. He is one of literature’s all-time great soloists.
In what amounts to a series of digressive rhapsodies, Miller touches upon ivory tower syndrome (“The cult of art reaches its end when it exists only for a precious handful of men and women. Then it is no longer art but the cipher language of a secret society for the propagation of meaningless individuality”), shadow-boxing (“The struggle against is as valiant as the struggle for; the difference lies in the fact that the one who struggles against has his back to the light. He is fighting his own shadow. It is only when this shadow play exhausts him, when he finally falls, prostrate, that the light which sweeps over him can reveal to him the splendors which he has mistaken for phantoms”), molecular disconnect (“Men no longer communicate, that is the tragedy of modern times. Society has long since ceased to be community; it has broken up into aggregations of helpless atoms”) and malingering mother issues (“Never until I was fifty did I once think of her with affection . . . I felt her shadow across my path constantly. It was a shadow of disapproval, silent and insidious, like a poison slowly injected into the veins”).
Rimbaud discovered the world as a child; he tried to proclaim it as a youth; he betrayed it as a man…”
Rimbaud, in turning his back on literature at the ripe old age of nineteen, cryogenized the fire-star of his youth and, without intending to, became its poster-child. The “fabulous opera,” dark and phantasmagoric, that was his poetic output, made quite an impact, or in the words of Jacques Riviére: “… he was a prodigy who in three years gave the impression of exhausting whole cycles of art. It is as if he contained whole careers within himself.”
Miller, while recognizing the genius that was, also muses on what could have been if Rimbaud would have undertaken a different spiritual voyage. In Miller’s estimation, “Rimbaud discovered the world as a child; he tried to proclaim it as a youth; he betrayed it as a man,” and, “cut off in the prime of manhood, he was cheated of that final phase of development which permits a man to harmonize his warring selves.” And when Miller states, “We see him remaining the adolescent all his life, refusing to accept suffering or give it meaning,” you could easily shift and broaden the context to argue that America, in its own hormonally-challenged adolescence, is doing exactly the same thing. In a relatively young two-hundred and forty years as the Great Democratic Experiment, America has cast a long, sweeping shadow, in which its grief, shame, secrets, and trauma have been enveloped. This is its Hyde-side, its dark double, or Rilke’s dragon who really is a princess awaiting that transformative kiss. This is us, as individuals and as a collective, faced with the challenge of accepting the “Bogeyman,” thereby diminishing his phantom strangle-hold and perhaps even learning how to tango with him in a lighted corridor.
Rimbaud’s lucid assertion that “Charity is the key,” is the durable vein from which Miller draws gold, echoing, “The key is Charity. The lies, the falsities, the deceptions . . . must be lived through and overcome through integration. The process goes by the hard name of sacrifice.” He also shines a revelatory light on the fact that every individual, no matter what their status, sex, or vocation, is challenged by life to move through a series of passages. Call them growing pains, incremental evolutions, small deaths and rebirths, whatever, they are check-points in a process, and Miller, popping off like a twelve-step Hermann Hesse walking the slow road to heaven, attests, “. . . the freedom of the isolated individual is a mirage. Only the emancipated individual knows freedom. This freedom is earned. It is a gradual liberation, a slow and laborious fight in which the chimeras are exorcised. The chimeras are never slain, for phantoms are only as real as the fears which call them forth.”
Rimbaud, with the zeal of a mystic pagan, promised that, “at dawn / armed with burning patience / we shall enter the splendid cities.” Miller, with an eye toward the future, bugled, “How can one know the splendor and fullness of youth if one’s energies are consumed in combating the errors and falsities of parents and ancestors? Is youth to waste its strength unlocking the grip of death? Is youth’s only mission on earth to rebel, to destroy, to assassinate? Is youth only to be offered up for sacrifice? What of the dreams of youth?” This inquiry, launched in the 1950s, remains a question for the ages.