In response to:
Men's Lib from the February 21, 2019 issue
To the Editors:
I was quite horrified by Elaine Blair’s review of On Henry Miller: Or, How to Be an Anarchist by John Burnside [NYR, February 21]. It seems to get Henry Miller entirely wrong—as it if were just an update of the late Kate Millett’s misinterpretation of Miller in Sexual Politics. Of course she makes no reference to The Colossus of Maroussi, one of Miller’s best books. Nor to To Paint Is to Love Again. She seems to have an animus against Miller, the sexist, completely forgetting that he liberated the language for many generations of writers—Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, myself—and that he was a disappointed romantic who adored and was terrified of women, that he was “always looking for the secret of life,” a searching philosopher, a student of the ancient Greeks, and a brilliant watercolorist.
In fact, she sees Miller in such a narrowed, clichéd manner that you would think she had never read him. She seems to share the fear of sexuality that in fact he opposed. Of course I knew Miller quite well and wrote a book, The Devil at Large, about him and the way he had become the clichéd model of a misogynist. Actually, he was no such thing. He was trying to expand the language of sex in ways not so different from James Joyce. He was trying to open up the territory of sex to modern writers. I know so many literate, intelligent men who were thrilled by his writing and not because of anything pornographic. It was as if he showed new ways to be honest about sexuality.
If you only read Tropic of Cancer and read it through the lens of Kate Millett, you will get him entirely wrong. Many writers in Paris in the 1930s took aim at our puritanical society and tried to open up ways of telling the truth about men and women and lust. We are not minds without bodies and our bodies often surprise us. You can’t throw out an entire literature of the body by taking a censorious approach to human behavior. He inspired so many writers who wanted to understand how mind and body interact. Surely he was not politically correct by today’s standards but he was a romantic and a dreamer who had an immense impact on the literature we write today. To toss him away as if he were a hater of women and nothing more is to allow puritanism to rob us of literary openness. It is not fair to Miller’s legacy nor is it fair to how twentieth and twenty-first-century literature have evolved.
New York City
Elaine Blair replies:
Though Ms. Jong’s letter doesn’t address any particular points in my review, and reads like a generic broadside that she keeps in a drawer for whenever someone, somewhere writes about Miller’s depictions of sex in a way not wholly laudatory, I’m glad to have the opportunity to respond to a few of these jabs. I too like Miller’s work, and I don’t want to see him hustled off the stage over broad, unexamined charges of misogyny. But why might some readers come away from his work with an impression of misogyny? What do such claims even mean when we’re talking about works of fiction? I think that reading Miller with an eye to these questions is not at odds with admiring his work, and if I have gotten him wrong (which I would of course dispute), I hope that my horrifying animus against him will encourage still more discussion of his writing and legacy.
But I don’t think it’s sufficient to say, as Ms. Jong does, that Miller’s sexual frankness was simply “telling the truth about men and women and lust” and taking “aim at our puritanical society.” Yes, he does very much seem to relish flipping off any notions of sexual propriety or respectability, and this can be thrilling and hilarious (to me, at least). And as I mention in the piece, he can be romantic. But, for one thing, he gives no sign of perceiving a crucial aspect of sexuality. To put it simply: one person’s expressions of sexual desire can impinge on another person’s freedom. This impingement may be accidental or it may be intentional; it may be the very source of pleasure. This was something that Miller couldn’t see, or, more accurately, he didn’t recognize a potential moral problem in it. I am not suggesting here that he should be preaching to his readers (and I am certainly not talking about the morals of Miller as a private citizen). I am noting that he doesn’t use the techniques available to a novelist to show that he understands that in a number of his sex scenes one character’s sexual pleasure may be coming at the expense of another’s and that this is an interesting, urgent, troubling, or ambiguous situation between two people. He is a searching philosopher in other respects, but his philosophy of sex is shallow.