Letters to Anais Nin
The World of Sex
Quiet Days in Clichy
Henry Miller on Writing
There is a passage in Tropic of Cancer in which Henry Miller relishes the plenitude of his inhumanity, the wonder of it. “Today I am proud to say that I am inhuman” (the italics being his) and the rhetoric wallows on the page with “skulking skulls,” grinning serpents, and “ecstasy slimed with excrement.” It is at once magnificent and absurd; magnificent because it challenges absurdity, absurd because it does not survive the encounter. This is Miller’s special land: he is sometimes the master and often the slave of a promiscuous rhetoric. A current advertisement for the English rag-newspaper The News of the World reads: All Human Life Is There. This is largely Miller’s claim for his oeuvre; and valid at least to this extent, that he keeps on and on, one page spawning another and more where that came from. His books, like his orgasms, beggar description and strain belief.
And yet in some touching ways he is an innocent abroad. When he gets to Heaven’s gate he will be admitted, forgiven because he knows not what he does. If a complication arises, it will be because he has elected not to know. Orwell called him, using one of Miller’s own phrases, a willing Jonah inside the whale. To read his letters to Anaïs Nin is to conclude that just as some victims never learn to coordinate their limbs, Miller never acquired the habit of reasonable choice. His answer to the question, “Which?” is invariably, “Both.” This is not to say that he has no options at all, but that they are biological, registered before the mind begins to function. He thinks as a crab thinks, effecting similar choices. He says yes to everything, in theory, but the number of things to which he says “not interested” is huge. Reference to Whitman in this context is usual but irrelevant: Miller’s theory of life is Darwinian. “One has to remove oneself,” he replies to Miss Nin from the safe distance of Beverly Glen in September, 1942, when she hinted that certain things were going on in the world which might well merit a glance. “One gets nowhere thinking about those matters,” Miller says, having thought about them sufficiently to get out of France in the last quiet days and head for the hated U.S.A. via safe and sunny Corfu. Surviving, he has proved himself the fittest to do so.
This is Miller’s wisdom, not the advertised wisdom of the heart but the cannier wisdom of the body that survives. The world is divided between those who think the body a sacramental creation and those who think it, in Yeats’s phrase, a “dying animal.” Mutual respect is uncommon. Since Swift’s “Mechanical Operation of the Spirit” one must be wary, and then charitable. It is exhilarating when a mind-man is generous in his allowance, as we see in Kenneth Burke’s remarkable novel Towards a Better…
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