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 Life. “We would not deny the mind,” Burke’s hero says, “but merely remember that as the corrective of wrong thinking is right thinking, the corrective of all thinking is the body.” Warming to his theme in a moment of notable cold, he goes on: “But whereas through fear of death one may desire to die, and may find all his interests converging upon this single purpose, such notions are loath to permeate the tissues, and the wish never to have been born is unknown to our organs and our nerves.” Yeats, expert in these matters, assumed that the answer to thought is action and he acknowledged action in superbly physical terms. “We are not coherent to ourselves through thought but because our visible image changes slowly…our bodies are nearer to our coherence because nearer to the ‘unconscious’ than our thought.” So the body-men can argue in strong and primitive terms; as Miller, teaching in Dijon, reads Proust at the Café Miroir, goes fey about the brothels, and spends vacant hours telling his pupils about the love-making of elephants.
The strategic advantage of this ethic is that it eliminates conflict. Miller takes great stock in the conspiracy of Self and Nature. Wait patiently in Nature and everything will come to you; including a Mrs. Wharton who will give you a house at Big Sur, and other folk who will send you checks. “By an unflinching regard for one’s self one gradually becomes so in harmony with the world that he no longer has to think about his duty to others.” That is: one no longer has to think, one gazes at the Great Mother. There is no point in discriminating between one thing and another, put them both in your book and the devil take the hindmost. This partly accounts for Miller’s groveling before the banal. There is a hilarious letter in which he goes soft over a croon called “Here Lies Love,” and another in which he tells of lip reading a silent film starring Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon:
When at a crucial point Bebe says to him mutely: “Do you mean that, Jimmie” (which is not translated on the screen) I live for a moment so tensely that I am afraid my temples will burst. I see all over again how immature our women are and at the same time I see its charm, and I know that nobody in the audience is getting what I am getting—this blood secret.
So his naiveté takes on an aura of holiness. Whatever comes to him is good. “Cultivate the madness,” he tells Miss Nin. For himself, astrology, dreams, anything will do. “The truth is always speaking in you,” you have only to listen. “I write without thought or let,” he tells Michael Fraenkel in Hamlet. The poet is he who takes dictation.
Yes, but from whom or (even) from what? There is a rueful paragraph in Yeats’s essay on Berkeley in which the personality-man writes: “The romantic movement with its turbulent heroism, its self-assertion, is over, superseded by a new naturalism that leaves man helpless before the contents of his own mind. One thinks of Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle, Pound’s Cantos, works of an heroic sincerity, the man, his active faculties in suspense, one finger beating time to a bell sounding and echoing in the depths of his own mind.” Leave Joyce and Pound aside. Miller stands helpless before the contents of his own mind largely because that mind receives what the body orders it to receive, and little more. The body is a survival kit of energies and stirrings; the mind is passive in its entertainment; the haphazard contents of the mind are therefore the only source of Miller’s inspiration. Hence the poet takes dictation from the body’s potencies. This may help to explain why Miller ignores the ordinary artistic requirements; because these are not verified by the body. In Sexus there is an elaborate scene in which orgasms are effected on a triangular basis by Henry, Elsie, and Maude; Henry for Maude, Maude for Elsie, Henry for Elsie, Elsie for Maude, Henry again for Maude, Henry again for Elsie, and so on, unless I have the plot askew. Some pages later Miller repeats the scene, this time with Henry, Irma, and Dolores. The scenes have little to do with art, and the repetition even less, but Miller is indifferent to this consideration; presumably because the body takes pleasure in doing the same few things over and over again. The trouble is that the body is not an artist. Miller is a parody-Locke who thinks that the mind works as matter works and therefore can be construed in material terms; as, in Miller’s case, the mind works only as the body works, repeating the same few things as if each time were the first.
To revert a little: if Miller’s naturalism leaves him helpless before the casual contents of his mind, the distinction between fiction and autobiography disappears. Miller is impressively honest about this; he will have no nonsense, no talk of dramatic invention. True, he confesses to a few lies, but these are trivial derivations from the fact. His fictions seem to be about 90 per cent fact: what Carl does in the fiction of Quiet Days in Clichy, for instance, Alfred Perles did in French fact. Henry himself changes his name to Val in Sexus when Mara becomes Mona, but he is still H. Miller with a few Father Divine fantasies added for savor. And this is reasonable enough, because Miller’s strictly inventive powers are limited. He has the gift of gab, a compulsive rhetoric, and an imagination nine parts desire to one part achievement. He has enough effrontery to call a book Hamlet, but he could not have invented a line of the other Hamlet. If something happened to him in Bordeaux, Paris, New York, or Hollywood, he could throw it into his typewriter, thereby adding a chapter to his current book; but if it didn’t, he couldn’t invent it. For the same reason there is little difference between Miller’s fiction and his general sounding-off. The World of Sex is propaganda rather than a how-to book, what Yeats called “electioneering,” but it is indistinguishable from the prose in the same key which fattens out the Tropics and the Crucifixion volumes.
Anyway, now that Grove Press has crashed the barriers, let us see what we have. The letters apart, we have a big red book (Sexus) mostly, as Miller says, “freighted with sex”; an equally big green book (Plexus) in which the sex is not so hot and a certain depression, presumably post-coital, obtrudes; a small purple book (Nexus), almost charming; and the remainder, in white, pale and nice.
Most of this work calls for the description applied by Miller to Kay Boyle’s Year Before Last, “not bad, not good, rather interesting on the whole.” The “not good” things are obvious. The characters are mutually distinguishable only because some are female and the rest are male. The males are tolerable because they are not on the scene for long. The females are interesting only as lavatory-basins are interesting; especially the famous Mara who becomes Mona and remains the dullest lady in modern fiction. As for the conversations, here is one between Henry and Maude:—
“We never really loved each other, Maude, that’s the truth, isn’t it.” “You never had any respect for me—as a human being,” she replied…
“Can’t we part friends? I don’t mean to leave you in the lurch. I’m going to try to do my share—I mean it.”
“That’s easy to say. You’re always promising things that you can’t fulfill. You’ll forget us the moment you walk out of this house. I know you. I can’t afford to be generous with you. You deceived me bitterly, from the very beginning. You’ve been selfish, utterly selfish. I never thought it possible for a human being to become so cruel, so callous, so thoroughly inhuman. Why, I hardly recognize you…”
This comes from Sexus. The point of this book, I gather, is its sex, but the sex-episodes are not very good. True, what they lack in quality they make up for in orgasmic quantity, but by comparison with the erotic scenes in, say, Memoirs of Hecate County, they are pallid. The trouble is that one of Henry-Val’s orgasms is pretty much the same as another, and as the enabling women are indistinguishable, the episodes are rarely what he calls one of them, an “interesting configuration.” The deeper trouble is that Miller’s sex-scenes, despite the palaver of propaganda (which amounts to one counsel: More!) have only the same meaning as urination. Appropriately, one of them begins as an interrupted urination which excites the interrupter, Sylvia. The interest of an activity so limited is not enough to sustain ten books.
The “not bad” things are harder to find, but the best of them, once found, are memorable. Strangely, most of them are concerned with books, not because Miller is a great critic but because books are among the few things, sex apart, to which he is genuinely committed. Indeed. when he writes about a book he loves, his writing takes on a note of assent and intimacy almost nuptial. Books seem to be the only things he can approach in this way, without having to prove himself by “getting on top.” This reminds me that Miller spoke truer than he knew when he wrote a book called The Books in My Life. And the books do not need to be masterpieces, as a person capable of being loved does not need to be otherwise “great.” There is a beautiful passage in Nexus about Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams, in which Miller gets closer to the book than to the woman for whom he recites it. One of the most vivid pages in Plexus describes a sudden wish to see a photograph of Dostoevski in a window on Second Avenue. This is Miller at his best: one thinks of The Colossus of Maroussi or the remarkable passage in Nexus about the visit of Henry, Mora, and Stasia to Henry’s parents for Christmas.
And then, “rather interesting on the whole,” there is the sage of Big Sur, a role accorded him mainly because California must have one of everything. T.S. Eliot said of someone’s style that it rose to the sublime without ever passing through the stage of being good. If Miller has become a Wise Man without passing through the stage of being intelligent, the probable reason is that he was never content to write a good book, he wanted to write a Sacred Book. Nothing less would do. He writes hundreds of pages telling us how much he wanted to become a writer. My own gloss is that he wanted to become a god; the discipline of intelligence seemed a mere detour. In a letter to Trygve Hirsch, culled by Mr. Moore, Miller speaks of The Rosy Crucifixion, the sum of Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus. “The over-all title,” he says, “was the one which had significance for me. Through being crucified one may be resurrected—or ‘transformed,’ if you like.” The comparison is high. But it reminds us, looking back, that when Miller says “inhuman” he means “superhuman,” divine, the God-Man. And because the Christian metaphors are alien to him, we think of an alternative title for his oeuvre reflecting the height of its intention: the Sacred Book of Priapus.
Roosterhood November 11, 1965