This piece was published in Volume Ten of Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal and earned myself the 2012 Sanderson Prize for “best essay” from the UMass Amherst English department.
Of all the writers in the Western modernist canon, Henry Miller (1891–1980) will turn out to be one of singular importance and unusual power. Although his popularity is owed as much to the scourge of censorship as to his own talents, in his books he was able to explore new narrative forms while challenging establishment institutions and fashioning an antidote to the way of life they represented. His works were part of a life-long quest in the continuous discovery and construction of a mythology of the self through literature, the function of which is to expose corrupt values at the heart of the modern spirit and awaken the reader to the possibilities of a life that is equated with art.
The stylistic innovations of Miller are comparable to those of Pound and Joyce, and certainly worthy of being uttered in the same breath. They must also be qualified as the catalyst to later techniques such as the automatic writing of Kerouac, or the cut-up methods of Burroughs. The most succinct summary of Miller’s writing style is found in a popular online encyclopedia, which credits him with “breaking with existing literary forms and developing a new sort of ‘novel’ that is a mixture of novel, autobiography, social criticism,philosophical reflection, surrealist free association, and mysticism” (Shifreen 75). On the first page of Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller establishes himself as counter to all that is ordinarily labeled literary art. He writes,“This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty …what you will” (Cancer 2). It is important for the writer not only to dispense with conventions and expectations, but to begin with a shock intended to rattle the reader and violently pull his or her attention away from any world whose material emphasis does not include the values of the narrator. This type of hyperbolic and provocative introduction is a common feature of Miller’s novels, as in Tropic of Capricorn,where the writer proceeds directly to the futility of struggling in a life he did not ask for, and his pity for everybody and everything. But Miller often claimed his books had no beginning or end, and he “detest[ed] all books which run chronologically, which commence at the cradle and end at the grave” (Aller Retour 33). His grievances with the limitations of linear narrative manifested in his own theory, which he called spiral form. It was decisive for him to be able to “resume the narrative at any point” — he felt that “just as life begins at any moment … so the work” (Wisdom 27).
But what are Henry Miller’s values precisely? In Black Spring he makes explicit his vision for a life that is ecstatic or transcendent, writing: “moralities, ethics, laws, customs, beliefs, doctrines — these are of trifling import. All that matters is that the miraculous become the norm.” A world without those concepts is necessarily one without certain forms of strife, but if that state of affairs remains impossible to achieve, then the simulation of revelation in the reader is an acceptable substitute to the writer. James M. Decker, in his introduction to Henry Miller and Narrative Form, describes how “certain works of art function as catalysts for a type of hyper-consciousness that constitutes the ‘true’ goal of the artist” (Decker 5) and notes that this was intimated and understood by Miller. As if answering his own question,Miller confides to us at the beginning of Tropic of Capricorn: “nothing would be altered, I was convinced, except by a change of heart, and who could change the hearts of men?” The writer of literature, with direct access to the mind of the reader, is positioned auspiciously to influence a revolution in thinking that can only occur at the level of each individual. Decker elaborates that Miller “abhors the logic of the many and seeks to communicate with the few.” Ever the individualist and philosopher, Miller nonetheless does not pretend to have all the answers, but through all his works his philosophy remains rather consistent — that is, paradoxical and contradictory. The narrator of Tropic of Cancer appears to be a proponent of disorder, chaos, and anarchy. He cries for “more and more disasters, for bigger calamities, for grander failures” while demanding a “coup de grace,” lamenting that “not one man,in these last hundred years or so, has been crazy enough to put a bomb up the asshole of creation and set it off” (Cancer 1). We might conjecture that he is to become that man through acts of unreserved artistic expression; that he is trying to incite the reader to greater dimensions of creatively inspired action, or both, with the writer leading by example. Some of the more fundamental threads in Miller’s work are non-conformity, anti-materialism and eschewing reliance upon any economic order. The same narrator says he has “no money, no resources, no hopes” and yet he is the “happiest man alive” (Cancer 1). There were several long periods in Henry Miller’s life when he lived day-to-day off the generosity of others, not knowing where his next meal would come from. Being close to starvation seems to have enabled him to focus on his art, to feel the human condition more acutely, and remain disentangled from the systems and people he abhorred.
While delineating Miller as a writer, it would be useful to define those systems, which basically embody modernity, capitalism, and early 20th-century America. One mode that occurs frequently in his texts is the diatribe, the target of which is usually any force “that hinder[s] intellectual and spiritual freedom” (Decker 17). Decker notes that Miller “learned to despise his nation’s most sacred institutions — its schools, churches and businesses — as hypocritical and enervating” (Decker 3). The context of America at the time of his writings is one of post-industrialization, the rapid mechanization of labor processes, the conquering of the frontier, and attendant to those conditions the average man “faced brutal working conditions . . . and little prospect of attaining prosperity” (Decker 3). Being confronted in the first half of his life with prevailing national attitudes like the work ethic — perceived as empty, soulless and self-defeating — would be integral to Miller’s evolution as a person who would adopt a jeremiad-like tone in his indictments against “the environmental forces that branded him a failure as husband, employee and citizen” (Decker 2). The biographical journey that he undertook in order to become a writer is as interesting as anything he wrote. In an interview with The Paris Review, the author describes his life with his second wife, June: “I was supposed to be working on a novel, writing this great novel, but actually I wasn’t getting anywhere.”¹ Before his arrival as an expatriate American in Paris, Miller was a person who merely desired to be a great writer, but whose development as such was totally stultified. He hardly wrote a word of serious literature, the kind that he could be proud of, until he was 40 years old. It seems reasonable to assume the author was paralyzed by a type of cultural anxiety brought on by the expectations of American society and doubts about being able to live up to his literary idols; a paralysis which was practically undone when the market crash of 1929 threw into question the foundations of the economic system, his wife left him,and he was finally able to discard all ideological pretensions. In Tropic of Cancer he references a time “a year ago, six months ago, [when he] thought that [he] was an artist.” and then affirms “I no longer think about it, I am” (Cancer 1). Although it involves a long delay with experiences of tribulation and apprehension, this liberation from inhibitions is the same freedom which Miller wishes to model for his reader. It fits appreciably with his ideal of how a ‘Zen’ artist is supposed to work: “he’s had a long preparation of discipline and meditation, deep quiet thought about it… it might be for months, it might be for years. Then, when he begins, it’s like lightning, just what he wants — it’s perfect.”¹
The equal amount of time Henry Miller spent not writing or being published was highly advantageous, because it permitted him to absorb a comprehensive reading of the modernists and internalize the tides of early-20th century literature before turning out his own books. At the same time as technological “progress” is reshaping society, developments such as the stream-ofconsciousness novel, Freudian psychoanalysis, and art movements like Dadaism, Surrealism, and Cubism are influencing the author. For Henry Miller, the dissolution of culture and crumbling of civilization is only proceeding more rapidly “thanks to our improved technic and efficiency” (Sextet 17). In several texts he makes reference to his reading of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, the prescient thesis of which influenced his views heavily, but this is only one specter of influence in a highly literate life. In Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch he proclaims,“one’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things” (Big Sur 25), while in the collection Sextet he adds “everything hinges upon how you view the world” (Sextet 18) Therefore, a retreat from industry back to traditional practices of reading and writing, tied to Enlightenment ideals concerning freedom of speech and thought, is one way of reaching a vital mindset which can convincingly counteract the inherent decay of modern society and the bankruptcy of the American dream. As the literary iconoclast, it is convenient that Miller has already traced what he calls his “genealogical line” for us, from The Books in My Life:
Boccaccio, Petronius, Rabelais, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Maeterlinck, Romain Rolland, Plotinus, Heraclitus, Nietzsche, Dostoievsky (and other Russian writers of the Nineteenth Century), the ancient Greek dramatists, the Elizabethan dramatists (excluding Shakespeare), Theodore Dreiser, Knut Hamsun, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Elie Faure, Oswald Spengler, Marcel Proust, Van Gogh, the Dadaists and Surrealists, Balzac, Lewis Carroll, Nijinsky, Rimbaud, Blaise Cendrars, Jean Giono, Celine, everything I read on Zen Buddhism, everything I read about China, India, Tibet, Arabia, Africa, and of course the Bible, the men who wrote it and especially the men who made the King James version, for it was the language of the Bible rather than its “message” which I got first and which I will never shake off. (124)
His notable fixation with the East and the Orient can be interpreted in light of how all his linguistic ability is treated as emanating from an unknown, metaphysical source. The appeal of the possibilities and lessons offered by Eastern belief systems was not part of an exploitative discourse of the modern appropriating the primitive, but rather they presented an alternative set of practices and assumptions about what is important in life, which also melded well with the improvisatory impulses of the Jazz Age. It allowed him to supplant the authority of the Christian god with his own inventions; hence,he jokes that his aim is to “get near to God, that is, to get nearer to myself” (Capricorn 305). Miller’s early infatuation with Arthur Rimbaud and D.H. Lawrence, both artists who ran up against convention and were misunderstood during their lives, led him to attempt a tome of critical studies on each author. The classic words of Rimbaud — “the poet makes himself into a seer by a long, involved, and logical derangement of the senses”² and the exhortation of Baudelaire to be always drunken bear a remarkable resemblance to something Miller writes in The Wisdom of the Heart: “The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware,joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware” (Wisdom 2). Henry Miller claimed the anti-authoritarian attitudes of Nietzsche, the radicalism of Dostoevsky, and the egoism of Whitman all for himself. His texts abundantly emulate, mirror,and source from those of the historical writers he admires. Katy Masuga posits that Miller “aligns himself with writers both in order to become oriented for embarking on the process himself, and…to reflect on how writing operates as a disruptive process, one that inhibits the flow of life while simultaneously appearing to establish that flow” (Masuga 181).
One of the most intriguing aspects of Miller’s books is how easily he is able to shift between his real life and a fictional persona that could be termed a supraself. The raw material of Miller’s storytelling was of course his own life and experience. In translation to page the substance and content of that experience, especially characters, often become exaggerated or caricatured,which, while making it difficult to assert historical or biographical fact, effects a text that is more dynamic and potent. Masuga finds that Miller’s autobiographical project essentially “disrupts conventional modes of writing by blurring the lines between his own writing, the writing of others, and the ‘real’ world in which he,both as the narrator and as the writer, finds himself” (Masuga 181). Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Sipper describes Miller’s fictional persona as “graphically erotic, elliptically surrealistic, unevenly anarchistic, combatively philosophical, abidingly romantic, downright funny — and always deeply felt.”³ At a certain point,the actual Henry Miller becomes indistinguishable from his narrative voice, because of how successfully he was able to marry his life to his art.
The main component that allows Miller’s inherently digressive spiral form to comprise a compelling text is the anecdote — an element borrowed from oral tradition. In relating an anecdote to the reader, Miller was able to circumscribe the entirety of his memories, acquaintances, and impressions, insert himself at any spatial or temporal point — any one of which might stir associations leading to another anecdote, and depart from it just as easily. He was adept at extracting material ranging from his childhood to the moment of writing without the need for the imposition of a linear narrative. Although incorporating the advances of authors like Joyce and Proust who experimented liberally with time and memory, this style actually could be likened to an intimate epistolary correspondence. And yet, the readership is very nearly a non-entity in Henry Miller’s conception of literature. The idea of writing for an audience or a public taste, or literature as a commodity, is detestable to him. Writing for Miller is not intended to reflect reality or establish truth, but is rather a continuous motion towards no destination at all; it is part of a constant spiritual becoming. It is not performed for monetary gain, fame, or posterity. He recognizes that “there is no arriving at the destination of being a writer … that the task of writing itself is incapable of ever being completed” (Masuga 183). As long as the multifaceted and sometimes imaginary experience of life can be represented in words then there will be a text. Masuga’s elucidation of the purpose of Miller’s writing is that it is imperative “for seizing the world, for getting a grasp on it in the sense of the way things function, how they are considered,understood, used and valued” (Masuga 186). Miller is writing as a necessity in order to live; even as the act of writing interrupts the course of living, crucially his literature is about the interplay between the two. In Tropic of Cancer, Miller announces “I am the hero, and the book is myself” (Cancer 59), and in Nexus he declares his intent to write “the book of life” (Nexus 217). In summary, Miller “sought to explore his identity on a scope few other authors ever attempted” (Decker 1).
Despite this ambitious achievement, Henry V. Miller’s reputation and place in the modern canon has been marred by two primary misunderstandings: that his works are autobiography, and that they are obscene. With his simultaneous expression of the avant-garde and multifarious “celebration of people, texts, and places that … advance him on the path of pure being” (Decker 4) Miller’s texts tend to defy categorization. But classification of his works under the rubric of autobiography would be naïve and problematic because of the way that autobiography intersects with many other genres. According to Decker, readers should “view the texts not as transparent renderings of raw biographical data, but as metaphoric transformations of experiential material” (Decker 6).
The function of sexual anecdotes and fantasies in Miller’s work is rather more complicated. Tropic of Cancer is famously thought of as being a dirty book due to its history of being banned and declared “obscene” until that was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1964, in which Justice Brennan, finally redeeming the novel, declared: “material dealing with sex in a manner that advocates ideas, or that has literary or scientific or artistic value or any other form of social importance, may not be branded as obscenity and denied the constitutional protection.” ⁴ Tropic of Cancer’s importance to the overturning of censorship and the testing of obscenity laws in this country cannot be understated. The criticisms launched by feminist writer Kate Millett in her 1970 book Sexual Politics — that Miller treats women with anxiety and contempt — are both incendiary and not exactly true, because sexual episodes occurring in that book are not emphatically misogynistic; they are clearly symbolic and subversive. Sex occupies a special place in Miller’s hierarchy of ideas, as the premier procreative and pleasurable act, while women, I would argue, are better appreciated, understood, and depicted with nuance in Miller than the works of his contemporaries. But the fundamental principle that his experimental prose style suggests is “the infinite number of perspectives within any given … segment of time” (Decker 16). Miller’s musings, dreams and gratuitous sexual outbursts in that novel are just strategies that interrupt a realist mode, techniques which furthermore need to be investigated as exceptional to the traditional conventions of literary evaluation. They are emblematic of Miller’s contention that writing should include all elements of life, including those that had been previously censored and excluded.
¹ The Art of Fiction №28. Paris Review, Summer-Fall 1962. Interviewed by
George Wickes. Web.<http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4597/the-artof-fiction-no-28-henry-miller>.
² Rimbaud,Arthur. Letter to Paul Demeny
³ Sipper, Ralph B.. “Miller’s Tale: Henry Hits 100.” Los Angeles Times. N.p., 1991. Web. <http://articles.latimes.com/1991-01-06/books/bk-10584_1_henry-miller>.
⁴ Grove Press, Inc., v. Gerstein, 378 U.S. 577 (U.S. Supreme Court June 22,1964).
Decker, James M. Henry Miller and Narrative Form: Constructing the Self,
Rejecting Modernity. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Masuga, Katy. “Henry Miller and the Book of Life. ”Texas Studies in Literature
and Language 52.2 (2010): 181–202. Print.
Miller, Henry. Aller Retour New York. Paris: Obelisk Press, 1935. Print.
— — .Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. New York: New Directions, 1957. Print.
— — .Black Spring. [Paris: The Obelisk Press, 1938] New York: Grove Press, 1963. Print.
— — .Sextet. New York: New Directions, 2010. Print.
— — .Tropic of Cancer. [Paris: The Obelisk Press, 1934] New York: Ballantine
— — .Tropic of Capricorn. [Paris: The Obelisk Press-Seurat Editions, 1939] New York: Grove Press, 1961. Print.
— — .The Books in My Life. New York: New Directions, 1969. Print.
— — .The Rosy Crucifixion: Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus. New York: Grove Press,
— — .The Wisdom of the Heart.1941; New York: New Directions, 1960. Print.
Shifreen, Lawrence J. Henry Miller: a Bibliography of Secondary Sources.
Rowman & Littlefield. 1979. Print.