(almost finished, now).
I came across a funny little book in the used bookstore a while ago (one of several that somehow found themselves in my hands). I had been collecting the lesser-known works of Henry Miller (at least, lesser-known to me) for some time now, and found A Smile at the Foot of the Ladder squished between two larger books. My only excuse for this obsessive, constant acquisition of books is that this one only cost three dollars. About the price of a latté, rather less than a pack of cigarettes, and I neither drink coffee nor smoke. It is a curious book, written for the artist Fernand Léger and meant "to accompany a series of forty illustrations on clowns and circuses." Why Léger had decided to draw forty pictures of clowns and circuses remains a mystery, but in the end this artist whose Cubist odalisques I remember from my art history classes declined to publish the story that Miller had written, and instead wrote his own little book to accompany those prints (it is called Le Cirque, and I have yet to track it down. It would probably cost a fortune). In the end Miller collaborated with the artist Norman LaLiberté instead and I have my little book of strange and fantastical pictures and Miller's curious story.
The clown is a lonely creature. He hides behind a mask, to make people laugh with his painted smile that mock his painted tears. He is separated from the world by laughter...a silent, what we call a mirthless, laughter. The clown teaches us to laugh at ourselves. And this laughter of ours is born of tears. In the circus we are able to lose ourselves, to dissolve in wonder and bliss...we come out of it in a daze, saddened and horrified by the everyday face of the word. The clown of Miller's story, Auguste, is not a character from the writer's own life, like all his other characters, he "came from the blue," but then, what is this blue which surrounds and envelopes us if not reality itself? We invent nothing, truly. We borrow and recreate. We uncover and discover. All has been given, as the mystics say. We have only to open our eyes and hearts, to become one with that which is. The story here grew out of the artists that Miller adored, Miro and Léger, Chagall and Rouault and Seurat.
The circus as described by Miller is like a painting by those painters he so adored, was so inspired by, words as vivid as colors as he describes Auguste's wistful smile, the empty spaces in the audience which the spotlight "licked with the avidity of a tongue in search of a missing tooth." He leaves the circus and wanders, anonymous without his greasepaint, until he finds himself again with a troupe of circus performers. There is a sadness behind that smiling, painted mask, the grin which hides a mournfully downturned mouth. Now when I see a clown I will think of Miller's sad little story.
Miller, Henry. The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. Hallmark Editions, 1971.