Monday, 18 April 2016

The Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder - Henry Miller


The Smile At the Foot Of The Ladder is one of Henry Miller's lesser known books but it is, if I say so myself, a small thing of perfect beauty. Miller viewed it as being the most singular and strangest story he'd ever written and I've no doubt he was right.
It's the story of a clown called Auguste who perfects an act that night after night delights his audience. It's a very simple act but very ingenious. In contemplation he sits at the bottom of a ladder that stretches up toward a moon nailed to the roof, and with a fixed smile and his thoughts far away he depicts the miracle of ascension. The audience roars with laughter and applauds wildly the sight of a clown feigning ecstasy, and then for that clown to be aroused from his reverie by a white horse that would nub his neck.
Auguste, however, is not content with the laughter and applause his act evokes and wishes instead to communicate to the audience a far greater happiness. Auguste wishes to communicate a joy supreme.

Failing to achieve his desire, the laughter from the audience starts to grate until one night it turns to derision and Auguste is assailed with jeers, catcalls and a barrage of thrown objects. Unintentionally, he had fallen into such a deep reverie during his act that he had left the audience waiting for over half an hour for him to return to his 'wakened' state; pushing the patience of the audience beyond its limits.
Auguste is fired from his job as a clown and takes to wandering, drifting anonymously now without his clown make-up on among all the very many people he had once brought so much laughter to. He ends up working as a general dogsbody with a travelling circus until one night, Antoine, the lead clown of the troupe falls ill and Auguste decides to take his place but disguised as him so the audience won't know. His intention is to put on a performance such as no-one has ever seen then to let Antoine return the following night and take advantage of the glory.

Antoine, however, knowing he could never live up to Auguste's masterful clown performance dies not from his illness but from a broken heart. Shortly after (without me wishing to spoil the plot), so too does Auguste die, killed by a blow to the head from a policeman.

Throughout his journey, from trying to surpass the joy he was giving to his audience, right up to the moment before his death, Auguste is attaining a wisdom he wished only to impart to the world so that he and the world may become enlightened together. The key to the kingdom of heaven - to glory - and to the kingdom within lay in being true to one's self. In simply being one's self.

It's a hard lesson to learn and an even harder lesson to take on, as Auguste tries to explain to Antoine: "To be yourself, just yourself, is a great thing. And how does one do it, how does one bring it about? Ah, that's the most difficult trick of all. It's difficult just because it involves no effort. You try neither to be one thing nor another, neither great nor small, neither clever nor maladroit... You follow me? You do whatever comes to hand. You do it with good grace, bien entendu. Because nothing is unimportant. Nothing. Instead of laughter and applause you receive smiles. Contented little smiles - that's all. But it's everything... more than one could ask for."
Like Auguste's act, it's very simple yet very ingenious.

Interestingly, Miller was originally asked to write this story by French artist Fernand Leger as the text for a series of illustrations on clowns and circuses but in the end Leger was obliged to reject it as being unsuitable. It's hard to believe, really. Did Leger not have the wherewithal to understand that Miller's story was almost perfect in every way?
The Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder is only a short story but it deserves to be read a number of times because on each occasion it will open up like a flower and reveal further beauty and hidden depths. Everyone should read it at least once, not only for the enjoyment but for the lesson it imparts. That lesson being one of the most valuable and important lessons in this world: To be yourself.
John Serpico

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