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Henry Miller

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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.

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