Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller
In that overbearing but fertile treatise, The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom tells us that “strong poets” get that way by implicitly diminishing the great predecessors who most threaten to intimidate them into silence. To be a powerful writer one must first be a misreader, exaggerating or inventing a weakness in the forebear that calls for the remedy of one’s own gestating work. But despite all his swerving, an insecure writer may remain unconvinced of his right to exist. As an instance, Bloom cites Mailer: “any reader of Advertisements for Myself may enjoy the frantic dances of Norman Mailer as he strives to evade his own anxiety that it is, after all, Hemingway all the way.”
True enough for the Mailer of the 1950s. Now, however, Mailer seems far less preoccupied with Hemingway than with another figure, Henry Miller, who became important to him well after his formative period was over. And Mailer treats Miller with an empathy and a magnanimity that seem quite opposite to the Bloomian author’s struggle to get out from under. Given Bloom’s suspicion of efforts to deny influence, I imagine he would be reluctant to close the case of Mailer and Hemingway on the basis of this distracting evidence. The canny thing to say would be that Mailer’s homage to Miller is an indirect way of exorcizing Hemingway, the undead; one writer, a harmless decoy, is overpraised with all the generosity that must still be withheld from the other.
A more straightforward and plausible interpretation would be that Hemingway, after his suicide in 1961 and the subsequent revelations about his long nervous debility, is no longer the towering authority of masculine style for Mailer or for anyone else. Our fictive prose in general has turned away from the clipped and bittersweet Hemingway manner and has become loose, expansive, fantastic—in short, Milleresque; and Mailer in particular has positively courted Miller’s stylistic guidance since the early Sixties. Now in Genius and Lust he goes out of his way to mark the change in allegiance:
The eye of every dream Hemingway ever had must have looked down the long vista of his future suicide—so he had a legitimate fear of chaos. He never wrote about the river—he contented himself, better, he created a quintessentially American aesthetic by writing about the camp he set up each night by the side of the river—that was the night we made camp at the foot of the cliffs just after the place where the rapids were bad.
Miller is the other half of literature. He is without fear of his end, a literary athlete at ease in earth, air or water. I am the river, he is always ready to say, I am the rapids and the placids, I’m the froth and the scum and twigs—what a roar as I go over the falls. Who gives a fart. Let others camp where they may. I am the river and there is nothing I can’t join.
It is clear that Mailer, as the onrushing, graphic, deliberately heedless mode of his recent books would corroborate, wishes to be identified with “the other half of literature” represented by Miller.
In most external respects, of course, Miller and Mailer are anything but kin. Miller is the last of the great bohemians, anarchistic through and through, a romantic visionary who has always followed his inclination without regard for censors, critics, or royalties. Mailer, as everyone knows, is a “left conservative” journalist-novelist-personage who thrives on controversy, takes a position on every issue, candidate, and fellow celebrity, and is constantly enmeshed in the toils of big-time publishing. Compare a free spirit like Miller to one who has accepted a million dollars in advances on the slender likelihood that his enormous novel about ancient Egypt, contemporary America, and outer space will become the twentieth-century equivalent of Moby-Dick. Think of Mailer at his typewriter, feeling on his neck the collective breath of the reviewers, the stockholders, the movie moguls, the yet unravished Nobel Committee. It would be hard to imagine Miller, that insouciant satyr and rebel, allowing himself to become so hedged with contingencies.
Yet the choice of Miller as hero is plausible on several counts, one of which is precisely his self-directedness. In Mailer’s estimation Miller is the archetype of the uncompromising, uninhibited artist, “daring to live at the deepest level of honesty he could endure in his life,” working always at the edge of his fear of failure, yet aiming at nothing less than to “alter the nerves and marrow of a nation.” This may be rather too strenuous an account of Miller, at least after 1934, but it captures Mailer’s ideal sense of himself. And that sense surely needs reinforcing as Mailer tries to keep his incidental, bill-paying, publicity-generating work—of which Genius and Lust is paradoxically an example—from blunting his vocation.
Then, too, Miller and Mailer have some obsessions in common: with taboo-breaking, with the (literally) cancerous effects of technology, above all with woman as a fortress to be assaulted by the phallic battering ram. It was as fellow sexists—which they assuredly are—that they were jointly reprimanded by Kate Millett; and the several briefs for Miller that Mailer has prepared from The Prisoner of Sex until now have inevitably been defenses of his own right to follow his imagination wherever it may lead. When Mailer pushes Miller forward too insistently, as he often does in the editorial pages of Genius and Lust, the explanation would seem to be, not that he is trying to obscure Hemingway, but that he wants the strongest possible blocker in front of himself.
It is not surprising, then, that the passages Mailer chooses for excerption, heavily weighted as they are toward Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn, show us a distinctly Mailerlike Miller, as opposed, say, to the mere pornographer of Quiet Days in Clichy or the excitable philosopher-critic of The Time of the Assassins. And the effect is reinforced by Mailer’s introductions, which, emulating Miller’s style, underscore his courage, his energy, his wild metaphors, his nose for sewer gas—in a word, all the traits that would make us think at once of Mailer. At times Genius and Lust appears less like a “journey” than like a tandem attempt to scale Mons Veneris, almost as if these perennially boyish explorers were being incited by one another’s pneumatic prose.
In view of the tepid tradition of Miller criticism, however, Mailer’s frank participation in his mind is welcome and salutary. Though many of Miller’s fellow authors, from Pound and Eliot to Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and Durrell, felt his power as soon as they were exposed to it in Cancer, most critics have preferred either to tiptoe past him, to call him a buffoon, or to dwell on the undoubted tiresomeness of his later work. Our Anglo-American criticism, schooled in those stoic moderns who made winningly circumscribed affirmations about endurance, perception, and grace under pressure, has found no use for a writer of total cynicism and total exuberance, one who sees this planet as a “mad slaughterhouse” and finds it personally congenial. Nor has criticism known what to make of someone who moves between autobiographical rambling, surreal fantasy, and sardonic philosophizing with no care for logic or structure. (Ravel, said Miller disdainfully in Cancer, “sacrificed something for form, for a vegetable that people must digest before going to bed.”) It takes someone like Mailer to read Miller undefensively—to savor his extremes of drollery and aggression without worrying prematurely about good taste or moral seriousness.
To do justice to Miller we must accept him on his own terms, which are announced plainly enough in Cancer. They are terms of hostility to “literature”—the same hostility that runs from Miller’s beloved Rimbaud through Mallarmé, Jarry, Tzara, Breton, Cendrars, Artaud, and Céline. “Everything that was literature has fallen from me,” Miller tells us at once:
This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. 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. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse….
Spit, kick, sing, dance: Miller’s intent is perpetual activity, one kinetic display after another. It is the prescription laid down by Tzara in his “Dada Manifesto”: “Every page must explode, either by profound heavy seriousness, the whirlwind, poetic frenzy, the new, the eternal, the crushing joke, enthusiasm for principles….” Or as Miller puts it himself, “If you start with the drums you have to end with dynamite, or TNT.” The author of Why Are We in Vietnam? would hardly demur. Both as anthologizer and as commentator, he lays his stress on spectacular local effects.
Morceaux choisis alone, however, cannot rescue Miller’s reputation from its current limbo. The case for a writer’s greatness must be made on the basis of whole works. It seems fair to say that Miller’s claim on posterity, like that of most literary revolutionaries, comes down to the one work in which the revolution was manifested. Yet even Cancer is crammed with what Orwell wonderingly called “monstrous trivialities.” Does the book really set Miller apart as a major figure of his generation?
Orwell certainly thought so, and his essay of 1940 tells us more on the subject than we learn from Mailer. For one thing, Orwell showed how Miller’s wholehearted anarchism gave him a surer purchase on reality than either the “cosmic despair” of the wastelanders or the “Boy Scout atmosphere” of the newly Marxized. As an expert in being down and out in Paris, Orwell registered the authenticity of Miller’s observation and description. He also remarked on Cancer‘s amazingly fluid prose, in which “English is treated as a spoken language, but spoken without fear, i.e. without fear of rhetoric or of the unusual or poetical word.” The same features recur in Black Spring, of course. There, however, they lack the force of novelty; and more importantly, by the time of that next book Miller’s purpose as a writer has been weakened for good.
What Cancer uniquely possesses is a coherent, animating vision of life—one that justifies the book’s disjunctions of form, binds together its stark literalism and its reverie, and spares Miller’s adventures the drabness of mere anecdote. The vision is of manic nihilism, of hunger for experience combined with scorn for the cowardly, illusion-drugged human race, which has to dream of miracles while “all the while a meter is running inside and there is no hand that can reach in there and shut it off.” Miller has given up on value—and, along with it, any obligation to steel his narrative manner against the ironic fates or to tease meaning from the world with modernist devices of myth and symbol. He is simply talking, much as he will talk through thousands of subsequent pages, but with the difference that here the talk is an act of liberation, a registering of the discovery that no care need be taken to seek order, make discriminations, or check one’s impulses. “If I am a hyena I am a lean and hungry one: I go forth to fatten myself.”
After Cancer everything seems to become too easy. The mental circumstances in which Miller apparently composed that book—detaching himself from his wife June by painful degrees, dissolving his wounded ego in identification with squalor, bursting from self-doubt into unchecked expression—produced an intensity that could never be recaptured. Miller’s most ambitious books thereafter merely resume his personal history in fatiguing detail, as if the appetite aroused in readers of Cancer had been a simple wish to hear more of his exploits and vicissitudes.
Now, too, Miller begins to write like a man with a repertoire of sure-fire stunts: prodigies of sexual gymnastics, bombast against authority, set pieces of surrealistic fancy. And his opinion of himself and others undergoes a fatal softening. “Man, every man everywhere in the world,” he writes in Capricorn, “is on his way to ordination,” and in The Colossus of Maroussi he declares that his life is now “dedicated to the recovery of the divinity of man.” As a hyena tearing at the still-nutritious corpse of a civilization, the Miller of Cancer had a certain magnetism; as a savior he has none.
The chief flaw in Miller’s “autonovels,” however, is not complacency but garrulous circumstantiality, an attempt to make exhaustiveness stand in the place of significance. As we see in the trite pages that Mailer reprints from Sunday After the War and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, the problem becomes more acute when Miller’s story ceases to be that of a total outsider. In the Forties and Fifties, restraints crowd upon him in the form of marital woes, parental responsibilities, and obnoxious disciples, all faithfully but pointlessly set down. No longer a demon enveloped in incandescent language, he becomes just a guy, Henry Miller from California, full of commonplace ideas and superstitions but a charming talker and a loyal friend.
This is not the whole record, but it is a sad one to contemplate, as bleak in its way as Hemingway’s long decline. It hardly serves to encourage a fellow writer with a stake in Miller’s permanence. Mailer’s difficulties on this score are evidenced in certain attempts to wish away the clichés and confusions that he elsewhere fully acknowledges. “There is not one Henry Miller,” he ventures, “but twenty, and fifteen of those authors are very good.” Miller’s late portraits strike “the tone of that rare writer who ends as a skilled moral craftsman”; the best of them “give every promise they will live on so long as print remains a nutrient of culture.” Mailer thinks it possible that, were it not for the baleful influence of June, The Rosy Crucifixion “could have been the most important American novel ever written.” If he had never met her, says our editor in his wildest surmise, we might have had “an American Shakespeare capable of writing about tyrants and tycoons (instead, repetitively, of his own liberation).”
It is absurd, of course, to speculate about events that might have turned Miller into a chronicler of tyrants and tycoons. His only possible subject has been himself in the full blossom of his egoism, and his method, as he explained in My Life and Times, has always been direct, cathartic self-expression:
I don’t care if I miss the target or not. I’m writing, that’s the important thing…. What I say is not so important. Often it’s foolish, nonsensical, contradictory—that doesn’t bother me at all. Did I enjoy it? Did I reveal what was in me? That’s the thing.
Miller’s serenity is awesome, but it is hardly the stuff from which a novelistic Shakespeare could be fashioned. It is Mailer himself who aspires to the honors he barely refrains from conferring on his propped-up master.
For all his studied abandon, it would seem, Mailer hasn’t altogether left Hemingway’s camp for Miller’s river. As a writer in the spotlight he is far from being “without fear of his end.” To continue questing after the great American novel is not only to be committed, as Miller would never be, to a form and a subject matter beyond oneself; it is necessarily to remain within the vortex of “influence,” where the voices of all past contenders (not just Hemingway) seem ready to preempt one’s own. A writer as reflective as Mailer will never become a redundant bore; neither, I suspect, by any exertion will he produce a book like Cancer, which marks out fundamentally new possibilities for fiction.
In Miller at his earliest and best we meet a liberator, one of those eccentrics of literature who, like Whitman, break every law and become a law unto themselves. Mailer’s view of him, wrong in some particulars, is emphatically right in spirit: the gifts he mostly squandered have been those of a giant. If Miller has done much to provoke us into dismissing him, the fact of his originality remains. We will have to learn to read him as he himself reads “the great and imperfect ones.” “When I reflect that the task which the artist implicitly sets himself is to overthrow existing values, to make of the chaos about him an order which is his own, to sow strife and ferment so that by the emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life, then it is that I run with joy to the great and imperfect ones, their confusion nourishes me, their stuttering is like divine music to my ears.”