Who’re You Talking To, Henry Miller?

For The Sunday Salon

 

A topic I wish I’d studied more when I was teaching is reader response theory. I think the work that readers do to make sense of stories and the efforts they undertake to cast their lot in with the characters on the page are quite fascinating. Reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, as a woman living in a post-feminist era, it’s inevitable I start thinking about the relationship I’m obliged to have with him as his reader, closeted intimately with his thought between the pages of his bawdy, shocking, squalid, darkly humorous, exquisitely well-written tale. Now, the truth is that in real life, I like men to have manners, and I think I’m probably too easily offended by the kind of display of male indifference that borders on contempt. I abhor being patronized, for instance, and men do so at their own risk. But as a reader, I couldn’t help but be amused to note that I didn’t care in the least that Miller’s portrayal of women was about as misogynistic and contemptuous as I have ever come across, and I’ll tell you the detailed answer why in a moment. But fundamentally, I never thought for one moment that he was talking to me. I’ve often wondered whether our identifications with books are what make or break them for us, the extent to which, in other words, we step into the shoes of the characters who are familiar to us (uncomfortably or otherwise). So it’s not the book for you if your readerly sensibilities match up to your real life principles, but if you can put political correctness to one side, this is an extraordinary narrative journey.

 

So here’s the set up: Henry Miller is living in Paris in the 1920s, a struggling writer with no money, no future, and only his shameless ability to scrounge off others standing between him and starvation. What makes the situation bearable is that he has a lot of company among the other exiles, low-lifes and no-hopers that Paris clasps snug in its filthy quartiers. What makes the situation positively enjoyable for him is its comparison with the world he’s escaping. Paris is a paradise of cultural benevolence for Miller, a place of bountiful beauty, freely given, without any demand for a return. Miller says: ‘A man does not need to be rich, nor even a citizen to feel this way about Paris. Paris is filled with poor people – the proudest and filthiest lot of beggars that ever walked the earth, it seems to me. And yet they give the illusion of being at home.’ Paris is a place you can squat in, it’s a place where you can sprawl in undignified postures, it’s a place oblivious to the power of achievement, having a far greater interest in encouraging its inhabitants to have a really good time. Here, Miller has found a little niche where he can fail in peace and contentment, if also in depravation and squalor. Continental squalor is in any case more romantically exotic. I won’t cite any of the passages in which Miller describes Paris although they are quite extraordinary pieces of writing. Influenced by the Surrealists, filtered through his own brand of modernist abjection, they are breathtaking and often utterly revolting at the same time. I felt Miller to be an American update of the 19th century French poet, Baudelaire, a city flâneur who perceived the beauty in the tawdry, the poor, the ugly, and who was equally obsessed with mankind (and both wrote addressing just the one sex – men) as endlessly oscillating between his excessive appetites and his unavoidable apathy. Miller brought that particular sensibility into the twentieth century for me, pushing Baudelaire’s ambivalence about women to its logical conclusion, too.

 

All of which begs the question of what Miller was leaving behind him. I’ll let Miller tell you: ‘When I think of New York I have a very different feeling. New York makes even a rich man feel his unimportance. New York is cold, glittering, malign. The buildings dominate. There is a sort of atomic frenzy to the activity going on; the more furious the pace, the more diminished the spirit. A constant ferment but it might just as well be going on in a test tube.’ I couldn’t help but read into this an opposition between the two cities as good and bad mothers: Paris, warm and welcoming, smiling indulgently on its children as they loll in the mud. New York, demanding and sterile, perpetually casting a gaze of disappointment and disapproval over its hapless inhabitants. What Paris allows Miller to do is reach a kind of ecstatic failure, a triumphant point of rock bottom. ‘Nothing that had happened to me thus far had been sufficient to destroy me; nothing had been destroyed except my illusions. I myself was intact. The world was intact. Tomorrow there might be a revolution, a plague, an earthquake; tomorrow there might not be left a single soul to whom one could turn for sympathy, for aid, for faith. […] I made up my mind that I would hold onto nothing, that I would expect nothing, that henceforth I would live as an animal, a beast of prey, a rover, a plunderer.’ So Miller’s relationship to Paris, exquisitely rendered in his novel, provides him with a working philosophy, one that is a kind of glorification of the survival instinct, one that gives him a certain bravado and swagger in the face of catastrophe, but one that means he needn’t take anything seriously, least of all what we might call the sanctity of life.

 

And so he sets out, with a colorful band of reprobates and shysters, to tramp the cobblestones of Paris in search of any sucker who’ll give him a square meal. This hard-won attitude of perfect indifference is something that Miller-as-narrator applies to everything, to every man, woman or beast (on the understanding that men and women are fundamentally beasts) he encounters. To give him his credit, he does so rather splendidly, with a lightness of hand and brilliance of description that often prevent the reader from fully realizing the callousness of his attitude. Or else realizing and laughing nevertheless. There’s an anecdote that sticks in my mind about the accidental death of a proof-reader at the newspaper offices his friend Van Norder works for. At first Van Norden is shocked, but when he finds out who has died, (an Englishman called Peckover), he is relieved: ‘ “The poor bastard,” he says, “he’s better off dead than alive. He just got his false teeth the other day, too…”’. It turns out that despite having broken both legs and his ribs, the man managed to somehow grope about searching for the teeth that the fall had dislodged and continued to appeal for them in the ambulance. This story sets off the kind of counter-tragic hilarity that Miller does well and that hovers uncomfortably between a pure and factual acceptance of humanity and revolting emotional brutality. ‘There are people in this world who cut such a grotesque figure that even death renders them ridiculous. And the more horrible the death the more ridiculous they seem. It’s no use trying to invest the end with a little dignity – you have to be a liar and a hypocrite to discover anything tragic in their going.’ It’s an attitude that undeniably constitutes part of the human condition, and Miller manages to raise it to the level of the sublime. No one in his stories gets to keep their pretensions, their self-respect, the esteem of their peers; at the level of survival we all pan out into creatures who simply need to assuage our basic human needs and the rest is pomp and hypocrisy.

 

Miller, then, makes something of a song and dance about his freedom from conventional attitudes, from prissy politeness, from a freezing denial of the body. It’s the spirit of oppressive Puritanism that Miller most wants to escape, but when I found the feminist critic Kate Millett’s hilarious and perceptive hatchet job on Miller’s sexual politics, her major accusation is that he’s carried it across the Atlantic with him. Far from being the spirit of sexual liberation, Millett suggests that he produces a ‘compendium of American sexual neuroses’, and that ‘What Miller did articulate was the disgust, the contempt, the hostility, the violence, and the sense of filth with which our culture, or more specifically, its masculine sensibility, surrounds sexuality.’ It is undeniably true that the representation of women is a problem in Miller’s narrative. The men in his stories are obsessed with sleeping with women, but have no interest, no tenderness whatsoever for them. I can’t quite find the words to express the excessive impersonality in which the act is steeped, coated, and left out to dry. His account of heterosexual relations is truly obscene, in the sense of the word ob-scene, what would be better left out of the picture, in the wings. Miller is nothing if not truthful about the worse instincts of mankind, and the desire to have a woman without needing the slightest entanglement in her reality is one that undoubtedly lurks in the silt at the bottom of the male psyche. But not every man chooses to think through the muck. In fact, for me, the very excessiveness of Miller’s stance was the clue. To need to block women out to that extent is indication not of indifference but of terrible, threatening passion. And Miller shows his hand, if we care to look for it and not fall for his smokescreen of shock tactics. Throughout the narrative runs the thread of the woman he did love and who has returned to America without him: Mona. ‘I couldn’t allow myself to think about her very long,’ Miller confesses, ‘if I had I would have jumped off the bridge. […] When I realize that she is gone, perhaps gone forever, a great void opens up and I feel I am falling, falling, falling into deep, black space. And this is worse than tears, deeper than regret or pain or sorrow; it is the abyss into which Satan was plunged. There is no climbing back, no ray of light, no sound of human voice or human touch of hand.’ Small wonder, then, that Miller is so careful to keep his feelings out of subsequent sexual encounters, to use and be used joyfully, recklessly, brutally. Just as the bad mother that is America must be evaded, so too the abandoning lover must be recompensed in vengeful sexual abandon.

 

This is not a book for the faint-hearted, but it is deservedly a classic. How you respond to Miller’s brutality is an intriguing question but one that can only be resolved with absolute honesty. If you’re going to be offended, be offended right to the very marrow of your soul. Rage and rant and rip the book into tiny shreds, stamping them underfoot, and then sit back in your chair and laugh and laugh. I think Henry would have appreciated that.

17 thoughts on “Who’re You Talking To, Henry Miller?

  1. Can I recommend this fabulous post for the Best of New Writing on the Web? This is a true Litlove classic: entertaining, enlightening and thread through with your intelligent humour. Best of new writing on the Web, indeed.

    Oh, and now I need to go and reread Henry Miller …

  2. Not, I think, for me. I do tend to take my own ideals into what I read and I can imagine this going straight through the reinforced glass in the patio doors. That would probably frighten The Bears; not a nice thing to do.

  3. Long ago and far away I gave up on a Henry Miller book, which may have been this one. If I’d had your enlightening explication then things would probably been different, even allowing for the fact that I was a callow youth. Could I suggest that what we have in the depiction of these two cities are not two mothers but a male, Puritan, new world New York, harsh, go getting and brutaliy competitive and a female, old world, more forgiving and relaxed Catholic Paris? I think this may be more representative of the period that Miller is writing in, than the more feminist all female cast you offer. Understand that I’m basing this on your post and not a reading of the book, so I could be misrepresenting the representations of these cities that Miller himself allocates to them. Goodness, that’s convoluted, sorry. I must be in training to write theory – god forbid. I like the way you parallel his New York self, which I agree has come with him, with his sexual persona, which is really aggressive, exploitative and cold, as form of defence. Sadly I think most of the world’s woes are the result of aggessive defence strategies like this, everybody protecting their soft insides with a coating of hardened harshness.

  4. Charlotte – what a darling you are! Thank you. And I’d love to know what you think of it if you do read him. You’re a woman of the world; I feel sure you could put Henry in his place if need be! Ann – It’s definitely best to know your reading mind clearly. I rather wonder, though, whether the Bears wouldn’t be helping you to aim and throw. Bookboxed – I am very much liking your reading of Paris and New York as male personas. That is probably much more in the spirit of Henry Miller (and I see mothers everywhere at the moment! I need to read something different soon, I think!). Were you really a callow youth? I cannot think that can be true. I agree with you, though, that defensiveness (pride, arrogance, vengefulness, sullenness) cause more harm than good. You’d think the human race might figure it out eventually, but no.

  5. Miller is a writer I dearly want to know better, and thanks to you and your poignant writings, I’m further inspired! I’m gladly adding you to my blogroll and will be one of your ardent readers. Thank you for being so personal with your readers!
    Cheers!
    – Jo

  6. I’m fascinated by what you say about reader response theory and about the question of identification. For me, I think age has a lot to do with it. When I was young, I responded to everything in a very personal way which led to me rejecting the work of some writers that I think I would be much more capable of standing back from and appreciating now.

    I tried and failed to read Henry Miller when I was in my late teens/early twenties. I was very much enamoured of Anais Nin then, and thought that since she was very much enamoured of Henry Miller, perhaps I would be too. I was emphatically not. But I was also just emphatic, being in the grip of a rather inflexible strain of feminism at the time. I think I’d like to have another go at Henry Miller and see what I’d make of him now that I no longer read as if everything is addressed directly to me.

  7. So, I’ve been putting off reading Henry Miller since I was in my twenties, basically because well-meaning friends forewarned me that he was a misogynist, which doesn’t always necessarily put me off, but the way they portrayed him made him sound pretty unappetizing, and I think I’d read a little too many male authors of that sort at the time and was in search of more feminist writers. I think I need to revisit him, though, because I’ve gotten to a point in my life in which I really don’t mind unapologetically misogynist writing if put in its time and place. What I’ve come to really loathe are misogynists posing as those who would have you believe they are actually understanding feminists.

  8. Jo – thank you so much and a very warm welcome to you! It’s lovely to have you here! And I shall be very interested to know what you make of Miller when you get to him. Kate – I think you’re spot on about age. If I had read this at 18, I would have probably gone on a personal crusade! Although intriguingly, I’m reading ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver at the moment and am having a much harder time keeping my personal emotions out of the story of a child who grows up to be a monster. Miller’s mysogynism rolled off me like the proverbial water off a duck’s back; the anxiety surrounding bad mothering is much harder to shake. I’d be interested to know what you think of Miller, because his use of language is so extraordinary. And I must read Anais Nin. Emily – now that is a very wise remark, I think. Yes, it’s the covert that troubles and annoys me; I feel much more comfortable dealing with what’s upfront. Miller really can be unappetizing, it’s true. But viewed from a writerly perspective, he’s rather interesting. His descriptions are amazing.

  9. You make me want to read Miller–I’ve only read The Crucible, a very safe play–but at the same time I balk because of Miller’s misogynist reputation. But your conclusion tells me I should try him anyway. I’ll make sure I buy a cheap paperback just in case I need to rip the book to pieces. I wouldn’t want to destroy a library book after all🙂

  10. This is such fine writing, Litlove – you’ve managed to make me dislike Miller but at the same time yearn to read him. I have no experience with him whatsoever and I wonder how I would react. I am not usually an easily offended reader although there are days🙂 I will definitely look for a copy of this and dive in for myself.

  11. I think I need to be able to identify with the characters. I almost feel like that’s a failing (as a reader), but I tend to get so wrapped up in them and can’t always step back. That said, however, I did manage to read The Ginger Man by J.P.Donleavy–the main character was thoroughly disreputable and highly unlikeable (I thought anyway–anyone who beats his wife is nasty I think), but in a twisted sort of way I was glad to have read the book. Maybe I’d get on okay with Henry Miller in the end. I’ve thought about reading him–but only in association with Anais Nin. As long as there is something to appreciate about the story…and good writing is always appreciated.

  12. Well, this book sounds like a challenge — not a challenge in terms of its difficulty but a challenge to the reader to respond to it as honestly as possible. I like reader response theory too — it’s so interesting to think about how author and reader deal with one another, respond to one another. I suspect I’m the type who can appreciate things in books I wouldn’t in real life — it would be interesting to read this book or other difficult books like it and see.

  13. Stefanie – I love the idea of you getting a cheap paperback to destroy – what an excellent idea! I think the play is by Arthur Miller (but I could be wrong), and you’re one up on me there as I haven’t read it, or seen it performed. Verbivore – it does depend a bit on the day, doesn’t it! Thank you so much for the kind words. I would be very intrigued to know what you make of him. Danielle – I must say that I would normally have reached for Anais Nin first (and indeed do want to read her work). I don’t think it’s a failing at all as a reader to get wrapped up in the characters – I can’t imagine anything a writer would be happier about! It’s only weird academics who learn to disassociate themselves a bit😉 This novel made me wish Miller had written short stories, as they would be a better place to start. Mind you, I write that not knowing whether he did write them…? Dorothy – isn’t reader response fascinating? Makes me think I must go and read up on it a bit. I think I’m like you and find a fictional world much easier to voyage in than the real one!

  14. I’ve been following with interest the conversation on Henry Miller, initiated by such a good post from Litlove. Miller isn’t for everyone; neither, for that matter, is Ben Jonson; to choose arbitrarily another literary figure. The glorious nature of the literary republic is that all voices can be heard, indeed, must be heard for the republic to exist at all in reality (whatever that word means) and not just as a phrase (not that that phrase isn’t real itself).

    Miller’s _Black Spring_, and his harder to get from a store _Max and the White Phagocytes_, contain stories. _Black Spring_ is particularly pleasant to read, for me anyway, for certain reasons,, and I have fond memories of an endless set of summer days when I was not the age I am now and discovering this book, and its mysteries.

    Coming at a time when what I had to read was dry or uninteresting (university course work), _Tropic of Cancer_ was a revelation. It said; You don’t have to think like you were taught to, and you don’t have to be afraid to put into words your most private thoughts. A great encouragement, and a necessary one, at that age (or any age).

    Miller often leads to Durrell and Nin, sideways to Spengler, Celine, Cendrars, and Wyndham Lewis, backwards to Dostoyevsky, the Powys clan, Dreiser, forwards to the Beats, and to surrealists in all directions. To name just a few.

  15. Henry Miller’s was a bold act. Nobody writes like him; few write as well. Of all his literary inventions, the most impressive is Henry, the hero of all his stories. JB mentioned Black Spring, which is a great place to start. “The boys you worshiped when you first came down into the street . . . are the only real heroes . . . Napoleon, Lenin, Capone—all fiction. Napoleon is nothing to me in comparison with Eddie Carney, who gave me my first black eye.” It’s simplistic to say so, but Miller spent his writing life dragging heroes into the street and making heroes of street kids. To level the lot, his fiction insists the only realities are the body and its instincts. Everything else is a sham or a dream of the unattainable. I love your question, Litlove, about how you’re obliged to relate to the characters as a reader. It’s inevitable with this material that we resist identifying, but that tension provides so much of the fun of reading Miller.

  16. David – I always love to hear your thoughts on writers. If only I were better at guessing which ones you admire and then I would post on them! I agree completely that he is an excellent writer, and can see I must read Black Spring. What you say about identification is spot on. Thank you for sharing!

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