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Henry Miller

[ 51 ] January 30, 2012 |

Very interesting Jeanette Winterson take on Henry Miller in the Times Book Review.

I suppose my problem with Miller isn’t that he was a misogynist per se. Philip Roth is a misogynist and he’s one of my favorite living authors. It’s that Miller was a hypocrite. Roth knows he’s an asshole. Miller seems to have legitimately believed that he was some sort of revolutionary in his lifestyle of making women prostitute themselves to support him and paying for sex himself if he couldn’t get it for free. This is what is so galling about Miller as a talking head in “Reds”–it’s not that the dates don’t work out right and Miller never knew John Reed. It’s that they would have found him abhorrent.

The other huge difference between Miller and Roth is that most of Miller’s fiction just isn’t very good. There is something about Miller that attracts the literate male in his 20s. That included myself, around 1999 or so, though I quickly grew out of it. And while “Tropic of Cancer” is a good book, it is not a great one. And it is a stretch to call most of his other fiction more than passably good.

More problematic are smart people turning Miller into a hero today, as the Frederick Turner, author of the book Winterston reviews, seems to do. The mythology around Miller says a lot about the psyche of the American male who loves him, longing for days of empty sex, literary poverty, and before feminism. Says Winterson:

Miller had attended political meetings as a young man, but he was uninterested in political activism — and when the war broke out, he left Paris to return to America. Not for him the heroics of Resistance. Yet his lifelong pose was as a warrior fighting with homemade weapons against an indifferent, crushing industrial machine for which nothing mattered but profit and every­thing was for sale.

It never occurred to him that no matter how poor a man is, he can always buy a poorer woman for sex. It does not occur to Turner either, who calls Miller throughout a “sexual adventurer.” This sounds randy and swashbuckling and hides the economic reality of prostitution. Miller the renegade wanted his body slaves like any other capitalist — and as cheaply as possible. When he could not pay, Miller the man and Miller the fictional creation worked out how to cheat women with romance. What they could not buy they stole. No connection is made between woman as commodity and the ­“slaughterhouse” of capitalism that Mil­ler hates.

Turner loves Miller’s “war whoop” against modern industrial America. Hope is hopeless, but the lone voice of the prophet cries out like a Jeremiah among the brothels. Confusingly, Turner asks us to believe in both the war whoop and Mil­ler’s Buddhist-like acceptance of the world as it is. The last chapter is written as a rapturous riff on “what if” we could shed our illusions and live in the “moral” Miller universe, with its “realities,” “learn how to love it?” “Le bel aujourd’hui.”

Well, what if we accept Turner’s assertion that “Cancer” has traveled from banned book to spiritual classic that tells us “who we are”? A reasonable objection is that “we” cannot include women, unless a woman is comfortable with her identity as a half-witted “piece of tail.”

I’m sure some of you will disagree, so have at it.

Comments (51)

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  1. AHG says:

    Knowing you’re an asshole is a greatly overrated quality. After all you’re still an asshole. See Gingrich, Newt.

    • Lee says:

      Roth unlike Newt has written several great and highly readable novels. He is also capable of great sympathy and empathy unlike Newt.

  2. Anderson says:

    All the Miller I’ve read is Tropic of Cancer, and I remember my takeaway from it: i.e., I was sure glad that Nietzsche never wrote about fucking.

  3. Captain Splendid says:

    There is something about Miller that attracts the literate male in his 20s.

    Nope. Discovered him in my early teens, and was maybe a little too young to properly appreciate him. Either way, his conception of amour was so different from how my deep, deep crush on a classmate was at the time, so I don’t think he stood a chance.

    I did spend my twenties having lots of sex, so there’s that I guess.

  4. howard says:

    i discovered miller during my freshman year at college (a junior recommended him!) and found tropic of cancer surprisingly tepid for such a landmark censored volume; i spent the next year or so reading a bunch of his stuff (and learned that sexus was really the dirty one!) right up until i read the first volume of anais nin’s diary and discovered that she’d brought june more alive in a handful of pages than miller had in hundreds.

    and then i stopped reading him.

  5. Western Dave says:

    He made the rounds at summer camp when I was 15. I don’t remember him being that great. OTOH this.

  6. Icarus Wright says:

    I’ve never been a fan of Henry Miller. Sure, he contributed something to the discussion of acceptable “literature,” but overall I just never got the appeal. As Erik says, his fiction isn’t very good. More importantly, I just don’t enjoy reading him (maybe it would work with pictures). Charles Bukowski was a better writer and I much preferred reading his stuff than Miller’s, although Bukowski is more loathsome than either him or Roth.

    Examining an author’s works in conjunction with said author’s life has generally struck me as one of the more interesting branches of what Gore Vidal called “bookchat.” But in Miller’s case, I never found his writing compelling enough to want to explore what lay beneath it.

  7. Izzy says:

    Somewhat off-topic, but I’m trying to parse Winterson’s claim here: “‘Cancer’ was published around the same time the pill was approved for use (1960) and Valium hit the market (1963). Drugs that rendered women more sexually available and more docile were in the service of the ’60s sexual revolution, which was not about equality for women. Women would have to claim that for themselves. Miller was a useful weapon — something to drop into the water supply — against the likes of Betty Friedan (‘The Feminine Mystique,’ 1963) and a very different kind of war whoop.”

    So those drugs were in the service of a revolution that wasn’t about equality for women (point 1); Miller’s writing was a useful weapon in a war against women’s equality (point 2). It seems to me, though I may be misreading, that there is a implied connection between these points that is smuggling in a number of assumptions into an otherwise well-articulated argument.

    Or am I missing something here?

    • howard says:

      izzy, fwiw, i read it the way you did, that there is an implied but undemonstrated connection (which presumably runs along the lines of “henry miller has proven that it’s ok not to be uptight” or something similar), which was the weakest point in an otherwise (i thought) very well written piece.

      • Vance Maverick says:

        Agreed. I think Winterson is heading off an argument of the form “Miller is great because he paved the way for the sexual liberation of the ’60s”, by pointing out that the kind of “liberation” his work and myth comported with in those days wasn’t much of a liberation at all.

        (Also, why misspell Millett?)

        • howard says:

          you remind me, vance, that at least in 1971, i thought norman mailer’s “prisoner of sex” was a surprisingly subtle and interesting reaction to “sexual politics” (it must be where winterson picked up the shakespeare comment she references early on in the piece); this was around the time i’ve already described above when i’d give up on miller. i wonder what i’d think today.

          • Mailer’s book has always impressed me as wishful thinking. Ol’ Norm was pretty bad when writing about the sex act himself, and I reckon he figured that if Henry Miller qualified as High Art then he would too.

  8. Ed says:

    You’re giving Roth too much credit.

    I was very impressed by Miller in high school, not so much later on. But as Winterson admits, he deserves his place on the shelf. If I had to choose between reading him and reading Roth…. a lot would depend on the title, to say the least.

    Miller was just a few years younger than Reed, as I remember. He didn’t know Reed and Bryant but that’s not why he was interviewed for “Reds.”

    (When I saw “Reds” in a theater Miller got a big hand. Even if you don’t know who he is his vitality is evident – he jumps off the screen.)

    Pathbreakers aren’t always particularly nice people. It’s possible for Miller to be a hero in one sense and a lout in another. No great paradox there.

  9. LKS says:

    It’s the Citizen Kane Syndrome – ban something, or try to get it banned, and pretentious mediocrity suddenly becomes Heroic Genius.

    Or, in the more modern world, the Gone-Totally-Viral Download of the Day.

    • John says:

      Are you calling Citizen Kane pretentious mediocrity?

      • Erik Loomis says:

        Yeah, I can’t believe someone would say that about Kane.

        • Hob says:

          Welcome to the Internet.

        • ajay says:

          It’s empty. It’s not interesting. It’s dead. Citizen Kane is the darling of all the critics, it’s always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it’s a total bore. Above all, the performances are worthless. The amount of respect that movie’s got is absolutely unbelievable. Welles is an infinitely overrated director.

          • Jacob says:

            I completely agree. Some of the shots in Kane are very pretty, and it made me a little more interested in the historical Hearst, but the idea that it’s considered a better movie than, say, Wizard of Oz is completely bonkers.

          • Hob says:

            There’s no point in arguing with this, since it’s clearly a matter of taste, but what I really have trouble with is a comment like LKS’s that denies the sincerity of anyone else’s taste via telepathy: “you all don’t really like that thing, you’re just following the herd / liking it because it was banned / being an ironic hipster” / etc. That’s not even contrarianism, it’s just posturing.

      • sparks says:

        ..and if so, what do you consider “heroic genius” in film?

        Yes, I’d really like to know.

        • Jacob says:

          Film is inevitably a collaborative medium, and the best movies are those that are most collaborative.

          If you have dozens of different artistic sensibilities working together, you get Star Wars. If you have a single megalomaniac, you get The Phantom Menace.

  10. Vance Maverick says:

    Did anybody else see the extremely strange attack on Winterson in the latest LRB? Makes me wish Mars-Jones and Winterson could both lose. (Miller too, while we’re at it.)

    • Tybalt says:

      Mars-Jones hasn’t actually read books of hers he talks about, which is something of a downer for the LRB. He gets Oranges very badly wrong for one, claiming that the narrator hadn’t been exposed to English literature – when she’d been reading nothing but for her entire life. He’d been on a weekend with her, I guess he thought that was enough.

      I am not objective on such things, though, as I love Winterson dearly, warts and all.

  11. Richard says:

    Read Miller when I got to college. Thought he was a mediore novelist (although there would be some paragraphs of good writing). Also read his collection of essays about a road trip through America which trashed American culture – The Air Conditioned Nightmare-and which, IMHO, did not measure up to the similar writing of Kerouac.

    Is he still read by college students? Is he taught in college literature classes? He’s certainly fallen off my literary radar.

  12. The very first thing I think of when I hear Miller’s name is this simile: She put a hand on me and, like a trained seal, my pecker rose jubilantly to her delicate caress.

  13. jeer9 says:

    Orwell admired Miller as well for all the ground-breaking sexual explicitness. While I agree that Tropic of Cancer still remains a worthwhile read, I agree with the commenter upthread that Nin far surpasses him in eroticism. And I prefer Joseph and Henry to Philip when it comes to Roths.

  14. Linnaeus says:

    I’ve never read anything by Henry Miller, and I suspect that I haven’t missed a great deal.

  15. sparks says:

    Someone taking another whack at Miller. How many times has this been now? Inflate, deflate, it’s like the old reprobate is a critic’s balloon more than a writer anymore.

  16. joel hanes says:

    Tried to read Miller a couple times; failed to locate anything of value.

    Have never been impressed with Roth.

  17. tom says:

    I’ve always favored Tropic of Capricorn over Cancer, and think overall it would appeal more to the “literate 20-something male” demo mentioned in the original post, but in that book as well, I was quite struck by his misogyny and objectification of women.

    • mark f says:

      I saw a free copy of Tropic of Capricorn and, thinking it was the other, picked it up. Later when I noticed it was the sequel I bought and read Tropic of Cancer. I liked the first well enough to read the second, and preferred Capricorn a great deal. The I read one of the shorter ones (it was maybe 250 pages but very padded out; there were like three paragraphs of 14-pt. font between inch-wide margins per page) and Sexus and by then I was too bored of his shtick (drinking-begging-stealing-fucking-fucking-fucking-drinking-fucking-begging-BUT REALLY I’M A PHILOSOPHER!) to continue, despite occasionally being blown away by a few pages. That’s what no one ever tells you: between the accounts of gymastic fucking and (self-)righteous fury are loooooooong stretches of dull nothingness.

  18. burritoboy says:

    I don’t know if I can fully agree with Winterson, even though I personally have little use for Miller.

    Miller (seems to) see himself – and most of his contemporaries saw him – as a sort of American representative of the epater la bourgeoisie tradition of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and eventually Miller’s contemporary Celine. You could make Winterson’s same criticism of all of the above – all of them were admittedly and intentionally scum (particularly to women and/or to their male lovers) as part of their ideologies. Circling back on them and informing the members of that tradition that they’re scum is more than a little besides the point.

    Further, I think Winterson is making an important error. I think she’s trying to whitewash the history of modernism too much. Political extremism and brutality – particularly forms of violent sexual misogyny – cannot be so easily elided from modern literature. That Rimbaud hated his male lovers while Celine or Baudelaire hated their female lovers is, I think, secondary. All of them were revolting against love, simply, and the massive edifices that had been erected upon it. I’m not so sure that the details that Rimbaud liked to beat up Verlaine, or Miller (or Baudelaire) liked to live off the earnings of his prostitute lovers is all that important per se. Rimbaud was just as violent when he became a heterosexual as when he was gay.

    Winterson seems to be surprised that Miller himself had no constructive politics – but I think she fails to ask the more necessary question: Miller isn’t some strange figure within modern literature – so many modernists had either no constructive politics at all or were positively harmful. After all, Miller saw himself as a member of a tradition that was generally on the far Right – an unusual place for American literary modernists – but not something unusual within literary modernism more generally, as the examples of Celine, Eliot, Pound, Junger and many others show.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      “That Rimbaud hated his male lovers while Celine or Baudelaire hated their female lovers is, I think, secondary.”

      I do agree with this. Ultimately, while I’m glad I never knew Henry Miller, his personal behavior is less important than the fact that he is overrated as an author.

      • Vance Maverick says:

        Also, which were the American modernists of the left? I thought the big names were all pretty much reactionaries or rightward nutcases. I love Zukofsky with a passion, yet while certainly a man of the left, he’s not exactly caviar to the general.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Dos Passos, at least at first.

          • Vance Maverick says:

            Fair enough. But overall, I think aesthetic revolution seems to have gone with political reaction, and vice versa. Part of the problem, of course, is that a political message of change can’t work unless it’s clear to the meanest understanding….

            • Erik Loomis says:

              Maybe, though sometimes I wonder if it’s not more coincidence and personality-based. My sense of Dos Passos’ turn to the right is that it basically started because Hemingway said he was wimpy in Spain. And thus started a path that had him sharing the stage with Strom Thurmond in the 1950s.

        • burritoboy says:

          No, I would not agree that that was true. Most American literary modernists were on the Left (at least in some vague sense). Examples would be Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Ellison, Wright, Mailer, Farrell, London and Lewis, among others.

  19. rea says:

    that Rimbaud liked to beat up Verlaine

    I’m no great Verlaine or Rimbaud scholar, but wasn’t it the other way around? Verlaine shot Rimbaud, didn’t he?

  20. Scott Lemieux says:

    I think the second point is the important one. Roth’s misogyny is forgivable in evaluating his art because he’s a great artist. Miller isn’t.

  21. And also, too: punk rock. Or, more specifically, the punk rock ethos.

    There was a lot of abuse of women in punk lyrics, meant to demonstrate that the artist was a badass who didn’t live by society’s rules.

  22. [...] So to sum up, Tropic of Cancer is an enjoyable read and important cultural artifact that was written by a pompous sleazeball. To me it seems like basically everyone agrees with both of these propositions, but someone always feels like one or the other of them is underrepresented and so you get a sinusoidal oscillation of appreciation of Tropic of Cancer that goes “it may be written by a pompous sleazeball BUT IT’S PRETTY COOL” and then “it may be pretty cool BUT IT’S WRITTEN BY A POMPOUS SLEAZEBALL”. In that vein, there’s a new biography of Miller, and, countervailing, there’s a pretty interesting NYT book review of the biography (h/t LGM). [...]

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