big sur in retrospect

By Henry Miller 

(from the 1964 publication “Circle of Enchantment” by Emil White.)

Rumor has it that I’ve said good-bye to Big Sur. It would be more accurate to say I have taken a leave of absence. No one in his right senses could say good-bye to all that, a la Mr. Chips. Even should one remove himself physically, Big Sur would ever remain in one’s mind and heart. 

Though I have often said that I regard myself as a citizen of the world and not of any particular country, I remain a patriot of Big Sur just as I have remained a patriot of my childhood Paradise in the 14th Ward, Brooklyn. There is a vast difference between being a mere citizen and being a patriot. 

In the last ten years I have seen a good deal of Europe, many countries, many towns and villages. Time and again I have been tempted to settle in one of these places. Why didn’t I? There were many reasons why I could never make up my mind to do so, but the main one was that the only place in the world thus far that I can think of as “home” is Big Sur. 

They say one can’t go home again. (Perhaps it was Thomas Wolfe who said it.) I don’t believe that’s true. I think that one is always going home, and especially when one travels, when one wanders from the base. Home doesn’t have to be a place, of course; it can be wherever one hangs his hat. It can be the big, wide world too. The great vagabonds, the wanderers, are always homesick men. Home is where the heart is. Some individuals never attain the feeling of being at home. They are usually the ones who have never found themselves. 

Though it may sound like a contradiction, I have often remarked that I feel more at home most anywhere in Europe than I do in America. Isn’t Big Sur in America? Yes and no. It is American in the best sense of the word, which is what makes it so unlike the rest of the country. It corresponds more nearly to one’s dream of America than any other place in America that I can think of. (I make possible exception for Arkansas, which also has that rough, homespun quality of early America.) 

What I mean, when I speak of feeling more at home in Europe, is that I seem to have more in common with the people of Europe. We seem to understand and respect one another, even when we don’t speak the same language. Or, to put it another way, the language of the European is the universal language of the individual. For an artist it is especially endearing because he has no trouble making himself understood. In America I often feel that I am talking to a stone wall. In America talk deteriorates rapidly; one must make a great effort to sustain an intelligent level of conversation. Why this should be so I don’t know. Certainly we are not an inarticulate people. Unlike the American Indian, we talk a great deal. Too much, in fact. And usually it’s so much balderdash. 

In Big Sur it was different. It didn’t matter much what we (the few neighbors) talked about. The talk was always exciting, always from the heart, always nourishing. All these neighbors were a boon and a delight. Individuals to the core. They lived in Big Sur because they belonged. The people I couldn’t abide were the visitors, the ones who came from nowhere and everywhere, to dig, to probe, to analyze, to ask silly questions or to discuss burning topics of no consequence. It’s true, I must admit, that I myself was largely responsible for the invasion of these idiots. Had I not written about Big Sur no one would have been the wiser. Emil White is also responsible in that he advertised the place to the world. 

Here we are, writing about Big Sur once more. Soon everybody will be writing about it. Steve Allen has just written about it in his latest novel. So has Jack Kerouac. The next may be Alexander King Why not? Come, have a look-see. Tell your friends about it. Visit the art colony. (If you can find it, that is.) Take a hot mineral bath and give yourself an intellectual treat. Attend the annual Potluck Revue at the Grange. Sleep under the redwoods. Dance at Nepenthe in the cool of the evening, when the love-making begins. 

Ah yes, it’s a wonderful place for an outing, or a week’s vacation. So quiet, so serene. The ocean before you, the mountains behind you. It must be wonderful to live in such a place — forever. It is. But think twice about it before you try it. Or read Robinson Jeffers first. He described it all before it ever happened. He saw it as a poet would see it. Jeffers didn’t make it attractive; he made it dramatic, violent, awesome. And that’s what Big Sur is, even today. But you won’t discover that until you live there a while. And how will you get to live there? It’s the hardest place in the world to find a piece of land on which to erect a shack or a mansion. A few lucky devils own most of the land there, but they’re not parting with it, glory be! 

1964 Circle of Enchantment. We will continue to publish selections in future issues.

Dear Henry

You may recall that I had a mental block against bringing out this Guide. Then, hoping for a “shot in the arm”, I asked you to write something for it. Came your “Big Sur in retrospect” which “finished” me completely. It made me sink into a deep, inhibiting lethargy from which l thought I’d never emerge. I sensed some thing wrong in your reproaches, but decided to forget about the whole thing and went on a reading spree lasting several months. Thus I came across an article by the Russian Poet Yevtushenko in which he wrote: “A writer has two problems to face. The first one is being unknown. The second is success. That’s not a very original thought, but it’s true.” Immediately I was reminded of your own statement to this effect. In fact you had devoted more than one chapter to these problems. And then it dawned upon me where the “retrospection went astray”. Namely you forgot that the visitors you were talking about, the ones you couldn’t abide, were not the average tourists, but your so called “fans”. And these, my dear Henry, would have come to pester you no matter where you lived. They would have come even if you had never written a word about Big Sur. Come to think of it, I believe there were more fans climbing up your hillside before the appearance of your “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch”. For in its pages you made it quite clear that the visitors kept you from your work.

As for my Big Sur Guides advertising the place to the world, yes, I plead “guilty”. However, I would like to point out that out of the 70 odd thousand guides at least 90 per cent were bought by tourists who were already in Big Sur and only about seven thousand copies went out into the “world”. This over a 10 year period. During the same time there must have been at least 10 illustrated articles on Big Sur in as many national magazines and newspapers, with a possible circulation of about 30 million (1) readers. Every one of these articles mentioned the fact that you lived here, in Big Sur. Yet there was no noticeable invasion of sightseers up on your hillside.

And so dear old friend, there must have been something else that was bugging you when you wrote the above article. Perhaps you were sore, and quite rightly, at the world for making such a mess of things instead of heeding your wise words, your lifelong philosophy. Here is a piece of your philosophy on Big Sur when you first settled here. This is what you wrote in 1944:

“This place could be a Paradise. It is now. But then it will be a different kind of Paradise, one in which all share, all participate. The only real Paradise, after all. An isolated Paradise may be good for the soul, but the Paradise which belongs to all, because it is made by all is the one we all long to inherit. I believe it will come. I know it will come.” From “Big Sur of Tomorrow” in “Big Sur Guide,” all editions.

Yours for good health, Emil

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