Book Review: “What Doncha Know? About Henry Miller” by Twinka Thiebaud

(About a 6 minute read)

Note to Readers from Paul Sunstone:  This is a re-post from a now defunct blog of mine that will soon be deleted.  It was originally posted in December of 2011.  I think it still might be of general interest to people, so I’m re-posting it here to save it.

Henry Miller was seventy-one years old when the teenage Twinka Thiebaud met him.  Of course, Miller had not only long been famous as one of the Century’s greatest novelists: He had also long been famous as one of the Century’s greatest pornographers and dirty old men.

The labels of “pornographer” and “dirty old man” came courtesy of the American press, which had (inevitably) discovered itself scandalized by the raw sex scenes in Miller’s novels (Naturally, we Americans are not actually happy about raw sex scenes unless we feel scandalized by them — and the more scandalized, the happier).

Miller’s novels had been at first banned in the US, which caused them to be smuggled into the country as contraband.  The bans were eventually overturned in an historic 1964 Supreme Court decision.  Yet, though the Court ruled Miller’s books “literature”, that did not stop the press from casting Miller as a lecherous old man. And Thiebaud was quite aware of Miller’s nasty reputation the day she met him.

Thiebaud describes herself on that day as an “seventeen year-old virgin” swamped by “intense anxiety” at the prospect of meeting the “salacious beast” Henry Miller. The very last thing she expected to find was a charming old grandfatherly man who showed no signs of wanting to seduce her, and who instead took simple delight in her company. But that is exactly what she found.

A few years after their first meeting Thiebaud moved into Miller’s home as his cook and housekeeper.  She describes her rapport with Miller (pp. 17):

Henry was one of the most open people I have ever known.  I knew what was going on in his head as well as his heart nearly all the time.  He did not keep many secrets and, like me, his emotions were written all over his face.

I get the impression that when Thiebaud walks into a room, the first things she notices are the people.  After that, she notices the art on the wall, then the furnishings, and then the diamond sparking on the table.

Moreover, I could be wrong about this, but I get the impression her interest in people often dominates and restrains her natural human inclination to judge people. That is, she simply takes folks as they are without trying to change them because she is so gawd awful interested in them.

If any of that is true, then it seems significant to me because Thiebaud has written a book.  A book that demands and requires its author to be a keen observer of people.  And namely, a keen observer of Henry Miller.  As well as of herself.

Miller had a gift of gab and loved to entertain his household and his guests over supper.  At some point, Thiebaud took to keeping a journal in which she would write down her recollection of the evening’s conversation before bed.  What Doncha Know ? About Henry Miller  is the product of that effort.

The book mostly focuses on Miller’s recollections of, and reflections on, the people and events in his life. But it does touch a little bit on Twinka herself.  An especially revealing passage about Twinka concerns her relationship with Warren Beatty — whom she met through Miller.

Imogen and Twinka (1974)

Imogen and Twinka (1974)

Warren courted Twinka in 1975, after seeing the famous photograph of her with Imogen Cunningham. He won her over, and the affair lasted until Twinka tired of Warren’s sleeping with women too numerous.

Of course, when such things occur — when a woman discovers there is a long line of other women beyond the door to her lover’s bedroom — the moment is a delicate one.  Anything can happen.  It is common enough for the woman to denounce her lover as a jerk.

Twinka reveals herself to possess thoughts and feelings that are just as graceful as her pose in the photo with Imogen. She broke off her sexual relationship with Beatty, but did not discard her appreciation for him as a superb lover (pp.34):

He was always graceful, mannered, relaxed and confident, never mussed or awkward and never out of line. Even though I was one of many, when we were together, Warren knew exactly how to make me feel absolutely extraordinary.  Now that’s a great gift!

For that and many other reasons, the passages in this book that deal with Twinka herself are just as engaging as the passages that deal with Henry Miller.

Apparently, Miller himself was not a great lover of women in Warren Beatty’s sense.  For one thing, most of Miller’s loves were never consummated.  And it seems he did not always leave his lovers much better off for having known him. But Miller knew several great truths about love, and he practiced them.

For one thing, Miller knew sex was not a necessary ingredient in great loves — the kind of loves that inspire, affirm, and renew us.   To love and to be loved in that way is to be reborn.  And I suspect that such loves are especially valuable to artists and other creatives, for they seem to be associated with great bursts of creativity.

That was one kind of love Miller had experience and insight into.  Another, and perhaps for Miller, a more important kind of love, was the one-sided affair — the love that longs, yearns for an impossible to obtain lover.

Unrequited love is also associated with great bursts of creativity.  But it is a darker creativity, born more from the suffering and angst associated with thwarted desire than from the love itself.

  • Miller (pp. 169): “Love is the most important theme in my life because it has provided me with almost all my creative fuel.  I could’ve written volumes on the subject of unrequited love.”
  • Miller again (pp.170):  “I was in love with many women, but I haven’t really written about love with a capital L.  I wrote about sex!”
  • And later on (ibid): “I’ll sacrifice everything, anything — money, jobs, wives, children — all for love! And always for the love of an unattainable woman, an elusive woman.”

From those and various other things said in Twinka’s book, I get the impression Miller was more at home with a one-sided love than with a mutual love, although he experienced both in his life.  But regardless of what kind of love he was at home with, Twinka’s book makes it clear love was, in Miller’s eyes, a — or even the — motivating factor behind his writing.

As I was reading her book, I hoped for more details of her relationship with Miller. There wasn’t quite the dept of description I wanted, and too few anecdotes, so I was a bit disappointed. But that’s probably just me.

Twinka’s book is fun.  In it, Miller tells a charming/sad/funny/revealing story about the revolutionary, Emma Goldman, that I thought taken alone was probably worth a third of the book’s $15 price.  There are several other precious little stories like that one, too.  Overall, the book is a quick, easy read, and you will probably not drink yourself to death out of regret if you read it.

By the way, I have emailed Twinka a few questions, and I will be posting her answers soon.


Readers interested in the famous Imogen and Twinka photo by Judy Dater can find a post on it here.  The comments section contains a response to the post by Twinka.

Creativity and the Artist

a-guest-post-by-serafia-alhoNote to Readers from Paul Sunstone: 

Serafia Alho is an amazing Finnish author and blogger who I have for some time wished would do a guest post for Café Philos.  Today, she has made my wish come true.  I am excited to post here a piece she’s written exclusively for this blog, and which explores in moving, almost poetic prose both the creative process as experienced by an artist, and the challenge to that creativity posed by the darkening clouds of our times. Please welcome her!

What does it mean to create?

To create is to experience pain: it’s a deep discontent with the world in its current state. To the artist, the only way to relieve that pain is to put everything aside and to focus all their skill and energy on mending it, either succeeding in their task or continuing to try until the magnitude of the task kills them. This is why many artists drink.

To them, every day is another wrestling match against the giant known as imperfection, and they’re constantly troubled by their inability to realize their vision — tormented by the feeling of muteness that comes with seeing something, but being unable to translate it to any other living being. Sometimes what they’re trying to achieve presents itself to them like a mirage in the middle of a desert — possibly attainable, but so intangible that only the foolhardy set out to seek it. Yet they do, because they have no other choice than to do so.

Art is fueled by emotion, and a member of the audience can catch a glimpse of that, however fleetingly, when being faced by an artwork. It is what we look forward to in art, and though the receiver only rarely gets to experience the full force of what the artist had to endure for the work to get completed, we always wait for it and when it happens, we call it Great Art and celebrate it long after the artist is already dead — often consequentially marring it in the process of doing so. True art does not rely on historians or tour guides to explain itself to us: it imposes itself on you, grabs hold of you, and speaks for itself. That ability to bypass our defenses is exactly where some of the struggle of the artist stems from. How can a single human expel all that emotion? What sort of exorcism is required to drive the artist’s passion into a form that fittingly represents the thing itself, in a similar fashion an idol represents the divine manifestation of a being — not becoming the spirit, but being of the spirit, inextricably linked yet completely separate?

Some artists are born with the genius of being able to capture the essence of a thing simply by looking at it. However, most artists are forced to spend years training their hands, their eyes, their mind to bend to the task of shaping the unwilling materials they work with: partly reality itself, partly the human psyche, partly their chosen mediums like clay and paper. One single brush stroke holds within a thousand hours; one book carries a lifetime. The craft allows no cutting corners: there is no deity handing down ready-made artworks, and the effortlessness we associate with inspiration is nothing but a lie, designed to cloak the ugly mundanity of the time the artist spent unskilled, unnoticed, and mocked. We prefer to see the divinity, and take joy in perceiving the artist as something of a mystic: not quite human — and somehow not quite deserving of being one.

We think of art as cheap, perhaps because emotion is a renewable resource, and so are artists. We’ve become so desensitized to the thought of creation as an act of destruction that we think nothing of it when an artist breaks. Neither does the act of creation have any inherent value to us — only a completed artwork has meaning. The artist him- or herself naturally never thinks like this, nor would it be possible for him or her to. They know that most of the emotion, the underlying value of experiencing art, the emotion that elevates great art to true art, is burned up in the very kiln that makes the artist. The audience only ever sees what comes out from the oven, and they have no interest in the shards and pieces making up the bulk of what’s needed to create single artwork.

What then is an artist to do when their source of creative fuel is suddenly overtaken by an even greater emotion, one that chokes or even cripples them with such a force that even creation itself suddenly loses all its meaning? It does happen — it has happened — it’s currently happening all over the world when millions of people have had to face the looming sense of doom that is the US presidential election.

Best-selling authors have had to ask their publishers to move their deadlines. Projects are stalled, professional creators drink themselves to sleep. All their motivations suddenly in ashes, the small insignificancies in life they’ve set out to express suddenly uprooted by the very real, and very visible, wrongs going on right under all our noses. To some, it’s felt like the destruction of the world as they’ve known it.

Art grows best at the edges of life, not in the rocky ugliness of unbending realism, and so it’s no wonder so many creators are grinding to a standstill. The conventional advice given to artists in times of hardship is to integrate it into their creation: to ingest it, stem and all, and to keep creating whatever happens. In that sense, artists are the shamans of the modern day: they take upon themselves the poison that others are unable or unwilling to face, and through doing so they bring order out of chaos, good out of evil, and share it with the world.

But it’s a risky business, being a shaman. Although they alone are said to have the skills to travel to the Underworld, not all of them come back from there. It is a terrifying feeling when your work suddenly loses its meaning, especially if that work is only half complete. The feeling of importance is not a voluntary act, and it leaves us artists with only one of two options: to toss out the artwork out completely, or to change, to drink the poison despite knowing some of us are never coming back. Time and again the birth of new art movements have been in parallel with the turning points of history, and maybe this time will later be remembered as the starting point of a yet to be explored form of human expression, one that better reflects the sense of alarming immediacy now coursing through our social media.

Pain will always flow with and from creation. May some day, when time has passed, only the beauty be remembered.

What’s Wrong With Nudity? (NSFW)

a pretty girl who is naked
is worth a million statues
– e. e. cummings

I haven’t been feeling my best lately.  For the past couple weeks, the weather has been trying to settle into a winter’s cold; my sleep has been restless, short, and disturbed; a sore throat took hold yesterday; I’ve been feeling a lot of minor aches and pains; I’ve not been getting outside enough for fresh air; there are no naked ladies in my apartment at the moment; and although I’m not yet to the point of actually feeling sorry for myself, I’m thinking I should at least buy the tickets to feeling sorry.

So, given what a dull day it’s been, I was more than a little cheered when, out of the blue, my generous online friend, Eolake Stobblehouse sent to me an email full of beautiful nudes.  Like most people, I think, there is almost nothing in this universe that can cause me to feel more alive than beauty.  His timing was coincidental, but Eolake could not have sent a more appreciated gift.

Eolake, by the way, is the founder of the “Simple Nudes Movement”.  If you are curious, I’ve blogged about Eolake and the Movement here.

I’ve been told that I don’t get or understand what’s wrong with nudity.  But I’m not sure that is,  strictly speaking, true.  I’m pretty confident I get that people raised to think of nudity as wrong or immoral will most likely spend their lives thinking of nudity as wrong or immoral.

That’s to say, I can see no rational reason to oppose nudity on moral grounds.  I certainly don’t believe it causes anyone harm to either view nudity or to go nude.

Some scientific studies have been done on nudity and those studies have never found that nudity is harmful to anyone.  On the contrary, it turns out going nude can be psychologically good for you — especially if you are a woman.

So, bring it on!  What’s wrong with nudity?  What am I missing here?

The beautiful woman above goes by the name of Edita and her photo here is reproduced from Eolake’s huge collection of simple nudes.  You can see a few of the nudes in his collection here.

And, if you want access to Eolake’s full collection — there’s something like 60,000 tasteful nudes on his website — You can sign up for full access here.

He has a free weekly newsletter he will email to you that’s very much worth subscribing to here.

He doesn’t pay me anything to promote him, but I’ve long been a believer in his exceptional aesthetic standards, and so I hope even more people will discover his already very popular service.

“The Sun is Also a Star” by Hugh Schneider

the_sun_is_also_a_star_by_rad_ix

The Sun is Also a Star by Hugh Schneider

From the artist’s commets:

This is part of a nature reserve which has been allowed to regain the original look and feel of an ancient forest. The entire area is completely covered with spongy moss (great for walking on).

The only sound to be heard is the rustling of the wind through the towering pines …and of course the occasional bird call.