Orwell meets Henry Miller in Paris

Alfred Perles (1897–1990), a friend and companion of Henry Miller the novelist, wrote this fascinating account of an odd encounter in Paris. Orwell had reviewed Miller’s Black Spring and written to him about his admiration for Tropic of Cancer. In his great essay of 1940, Inside the Whale, he symbolised Miller as the artist who must be defended for his art, even though he was grossly irresponsible in his social attitudes. This is from Perles’ memoir, My Friend Henry Miller (Neville Spearman, London, 1955).

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Writer Henry Miller in 1940

The political situation was fast worsening. The League of Nations had succumbed, unable to survive the combined shocks of the Sino-Japanese conflict and Mussolini’s attack on Abys­sinia. Hitler was firmly entrenched in Germany and the victims of Nazi oppression were mass-emigrating to Europe and the Americas – those who weren’t in the concentration camps, that is. In Spain the civil war was raging with unabated fury: dress rehearsal for World War II. It was the heyday of totalitarianism, the seeming end of democracy. The war clouds were gathering. One morning a tallish emaciated Englishman walked into Miller’s studio and introduced himself as George Orwell. The meeting between the two writers didn’t quite come off as one might have expected it to. On the face of it they should have had a lot in common, both having been through the mill, both having been ‘down and out’ in Paris and elsewhere. But what a difference between them in their outlook on life! It was almost the difference between East and West. Miller, in his semi-Oriental detachment, accepted life, all the joys and all the miseries of life, as one accepts rain or sunshine. Orwell’s detachment was less innate than inflicted upon him by the force of circumstances, as it were. Miller was vulnerable and anarchic, expecting nothing from the world at large. Orwell was tough, resilient and politically minded, ever striving in his way to improve the world. Miller was a citizen of the universe and no more proud of it than a green olive is of being green or a black one of being black. Orwell, a typical Englishman, skeptical and disillusioned though he was, still had faith in political dogmas, economic doctrines, in the improvement of the masses through change of government and social reforms. Liberty and Justice, which for Miller were personal attributes to be acquired only by constant individual self-improvement, were in Orwell’s opinion the appendage of democracy. Both were peace-loving men but, whereas Miller manifested his love of peace by refusing to fight for any cause, Orwell had no reluctance to engage in war, if the cause were, in his opinion, a just one.

‘You admit somewhere in your letter that you have never been fond of war, though at present reconciled to it,’ Miller wrote to me during the last war in a long letter which was later published under the title Murder the Murderer. ‘The truth is that nobody is really fond of war, not even the military-minded. And yet, throughout the short history of the human race, there have been only a few breathing spells of peace. What are we to conclude from this seeming paradox? My own conclusion is the simple, obvious one that, though fearing war, men have never truly and ardently desired peace. I do earnestly desire peace, and what intelligence I have tells me that peace is not attained by fighting but by acting peaceably.’

These lines were not written until June 1944, but the words he employed when Orwell came to enlist his sympathy for the Spanish republican cause were more or less the same, namely that liberty – a spiritual value – cannot be gained by war, any more than a mere military victory can enforce the justice of a cause, any cause. Miller did not try, of course, to win Orwell over to his way of thinking or even to dissuade him from going to Spain. Every man must do what he thinks is right, even if what he thinks right is wrong, was his conviction.
During the course of his visit that afternoon, as I learned later, Orwell had confided to Miller that his experience while serving in the police in India [sic] had left an indelible mark upon him. The suffering he had witnessed and which he had unwillingly aided and abetted, so to speak, had been a source of unremitting preoccupation ever since. It was to wipe out an unwarrantable feeling of guilt that he deliberately invited the deprivations and humiliations so graphically and poignantly described in Down and Out in Paris and London.

Miller of course not only understood Orwell’s desire for self-flagellation, being himself a notorious self-flagellant, but he also felt a great sympathy for him in his predicament. But why, having undergone all that he had, why, he wondered, did Orwell choose to punish himself still further? Miller would not have spoken in this vein to an ordinary volunteer whose idealism required the test of action. In Orwell, however, who he felt had already atoned for any guilt, real or imaginary, he sensed an individual who was of more use to humanity alive than dead.

To this Orwell made the classic reply that in such momentous situations, where the rights and the very existence of a whole people are at stake, there could be no thought of avoiding self-sacrifice. He spoke his convictions so earnestly and humbly that Miller desisted from further argument and promptly gave him his blessings.
‘There’s just one thing,’ said Miller, raising his glass in a final gesture of assent. ‘I can’t let you go to war in this beautiful Savile Row suit of yours. Here, let me present you with this corduroy jacket, it’s just what you need. It isn’t bulletproof but at least it’ll keep you warm. Take it, if you like, as my contribution to the Spanish republican cause.’

Orwell vehemently denied that he wore a Savile Row suit (it actually came from the Charing Cross Road) but accepted Miller’s gift in the spirit in which it was offered. Henry discreetly refrained from adding that Orwell would have been welcome to the jacket even had he chosen to fight for the opposite side.

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See also: George Orwell’s July 1940 letter to James Laughlin.

Source: Coppard, Audrey, and Crick, Bernard, eds. Orwell Remembered. London: Ariel Books (BBC), 1984.