Monday, December 26, 2016

Birthday: "I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive."


Henry Valentine Miller (1891-1980)

What to do with Henry Miller remains a vexing question 36 years after he died. He’s one of those odd American writers who, after improbable first acts in life, determined to become a Great Writer and, after a fashion, succeeded.

Whether his work is great, or even good, remains hotly debated. Much of his popular image was- and remains- binary: either that of a lonely crusader against prudery and censorship, a character in a play, his books props; or a gleeful smut peddler, the one-time Pornographer General of The United States.

Son of German immigrants, Miller grew up in New York City and maintained a strong Brooklyn accent all his life. He dallied with Socialism as a teen, and married the first of his five wives in 1917. He worked as a Western Union office manager, and tried his hand at writing, turning out what he himself called a pretty bad novel.

In 1923 he met a dance hall performer named June Miller; divorced, he married her in 1924. Kept up by her income, he quit his job to write full time, producing a novel in June’s name that was funded in progress by a lover of hers. The project was purely meretricious; the book wasn't published until 1995.

June finally wearied of the drama that was life with Henry, and took up with an artist called Jean Kronski. They decamped to Paris in 1927, where they quarreled and broke up.

Distraught, Miller changed his life plan, as he told The Paris Review 35 years later:

In the year 1927 when my wife went to Europe and I was left alone. I had a job for a while in the Park Department in Queens. One day, at the end of the day, instead of going home I was seized with this idea of planning the book of my life, and I stayed up all night doing it. I planned everything that I’ve written to date in about forty or fifty typewritten pages. 

Up until that point you might say I was a wholly derivative writer, influenced by everyone, taking on all the tones and shades of every other writer that I had ever loved. I was a literary man, you might say. And I became a non-literary man: I cut the cord. I said, I will do only what I can do, express what I am—that’s why I used the first person, why I wrote about myself. I decided to write from the standpoint of my own experience, what I knew and felt. And that was my salvation.

By 1928, June was back with Henry, but wangled a grant from her lover to send him to Paris in 1930. He worked out his frustrations of the previous couple of years with a novel called Lovely Lesbians.

The Depression was on, and Paris was out of fashion for American artists and writers. Miller lived a poverty-stricken existence, publishing articles in The International Herald Tribune- which did not accept outside work- under the name of a friend who worked there.

Happily, fate- and pheromones- collided in a meeting between Miller and the French writer Anais Nin, who took him on as a lover and kept him up- apartment, food, clothing- for the rest of the decade.

Miller, financially secure, dabbled in Dadaism and swam with the Surrealists; he divorced June, by proxy, in Mexico City in 1934.

The first book of his autobiographical novels- planned in the 1927 New York epiphany, came out in 1934, under a Paris imprint, Obelisk Press. It was a man’s observations and reportage on his own life, naughty bits and all. Miller felt strongly that books ought to reflect what people did, and how they talked, and that necessarily meant including sex, and much more. The book was an underground hit in Europe; banned in Great Britain and America, it became one to smuggle home and therefore adored by intellectual and avant-gardistes in both nations.

George Orwell thought Miller something new under the sun, praising him in a long 1940 essay called Inside the Whale:

In Max and the White Phagocytes there is one of those revealing passages in which a writer tells you a great deal about himself while talking about somebody else. The book includes a long essay on the diaries of Anais Nin, which I have never read, except for a few fragments, and which I believe have not been published. Miller claims that they are the only true feminine writing that has ever appeared, whatever that may mean. But the interesting passage is one in which he compares Anais Nin — evidently a completely subjective, introverted writer — to Jonah in the whale's belly. In passing he refers to an essay that Aldous Huxley wrote some years ago about El Greco's picture, The Dream of Philip the Second. Huxley remarks that the people in El Greco's pictures always look as though they were in the bellies of whales, and professes to find something peculiarly horrible in the idea of being in a ‘visceral prison’. Miller retorts that, on the contrary, there are many worse things than being swallowed by whales, and the passage makes it dear that he himself finds the idea rather attractive. Here he is touching upon what is probably a very widespread fantasy. It is perhaps worth noticing that everyone, at least every English-speaking person, invariably speaks of Jonah and the whale. Of course the creature that swallowed Jonah was a fish, and was so described in the Bible (Jonah i. 17), but children naturally confuse it with a whale, and this fragment of baby-talk is habitually carried into later life — a sign, perhaps, of the hold that the Jonah myth has upon our imaginations. For the fact is that being inside a whale is a very comfortable, cosy, homelike thought. The historical Jonah, if he can be so called, was glad enough to escape, but in imagination, in day-dream, countless people have envied him. It is, of course, quite obvious why. The whale's belly is simply a womb big enough for an adult. There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens. A storm that would sink all the battleships in the world would hardly reach you as an echo. Even the whale's own movements would probably be imperceptible to you. He might be wallowing among the surface waves or shooting down into the blackness of the middle seas (a mile deep, according to Herman Melville), but you would never notice the difference. Short of being dead, it is the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility. And however it may be with Anais Nin, there is no question that Miller himself is inside the whale. All his best and most characteristic passages are written from the angle of Jonah, a willing Jonah. Not that he is especially introverted — quite the contrary. In his case the whale happens to be transparent. Only he feels no impulse to alter or control the process that he is undergoing. He has performed the essential Jonah act of allowing himself to be swallowed, remaining passive, accepting.

For his part, Miller, who styled himself at times the literary loner, other times the gregarious Brooklyn gladhander, didn’t return the favor, declaring in 1962,

Orwell I met maybe two or three times, on his visits to Paris. I wouldn’t call him a friend, just a passing acquaintance. But I was crazy about his book Down and Out in Paris and London; I think it’s a classic. For me it’s still his best book. Though he was a wonderful chap in his way, Orwell, in the end I thought him stupid. He was like so many English people, an idealist, and, it seemed to me, a foolish idealist. A man of principle, as we say. Men of principle bore me.

Miller produced a surrealist novel, Black Spring, in 1936, and the next autobiographical sex romp, Tropic of Capricorn, in 1938. After the war broke out in 1939 he moved to Corfu to visit his friend, the writer Lawrence Durrell, and wrote a well-regarded Greek travel guide, The Colossus of Maroussa (1941). As Europe fell, he made his way, harrowingly and at length, back to America, and settled in Big Sur, California.

Miller’s 1940-1960 output was mostly published by New Directions and a handful of other small, experimental publishers; it was 1949 before he could get back to his life’s work, now taking the form of a trilogy under the title, The Rosy Crucifixion. Sexus was published in Paris in 1949; Plexus in 1953; and Nexus in 1960.

Miller married again in 1944, this time to a woman thirty years younger; they divorced in 1952.  He married again the next year, divorcing again in 1960. His work became a favorite of the Beat Poets, to his mixed feelings; other than Kerouac, he didn’t think much of them. He had moved on to new projects, pursuing more and more experimental fiction. He told The Paris Review he’d have given his right arm to have written Lewis Carroll’s work, and if he could manage it, he’d like to try some complete nonsense writing in the future. He messed with a sequel to Nexus, and abandoned a biography of D.H. Lawrence. He developed a secondary reputation as an accomplished painter and watercolorist.

The late 1950s saw a series of high-profile trials in Britain and America, challenging obscenity laws. Grove Press launched publication challenges with both Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Capricorn, and a federal appeals court found neither to be obscene in a 1959 decision.

Where they were available, Miller’s books sold by the truckload in America. But cities and states- some sixty total- banned it, and there was one court fight after another. Miller’s role in the litigation ended in 1964. The Supreme Court, relying on another decision absolving a movie theater owner of obscenity charges (the case, Jacobellis v. Ohio, was the one in which Justice Potter Stewart declared that while he couldn’t define pornography, he knew it when he saw it), overturned a Florida court’s ruling on Tropic of Cancer.

The floodgates opened, Miller was a celebrity. Satirist Tom Lehrer wrote a song called, “Smut,” and Miller’s work was portrayed in popular culture as pornography- sex for sex’s sake. Ministers denounced it. New laws were called for. As James Decker wrote in Guernica fifty years later,

Motivating Miller’s censors was fear of unleashed, primal passion, alarm over Hobbesian brutishness, and anxiety about uncontrollable bodies. Such impulses mirrored those that compelled the Pilgrims to recoil from Thomas Morton’s cavorting around a maypole, that led the government to employ the Comstock Act against Margaret Sanger, that proscribed authors as diverse as Judy Blume, Toni Morrison, and John Steinbeck...those who sought to ban Tropic of Cancer in 1961 desired no debate with defenders like Lawrence Durrell and Anaïs Nin or the many “egghead” professors who testified as expert witnesses. They simply wanted the book, along with its language and ideas, suppressed:

...Miller predicted in his short book The World of Sex that most readers of his work would ignore the bulk of his message and dwell, either out of disgust or joy, on its sexual aspects while “only a few discerning souls seem able to reconcile the so-called contradictory aspects of [his] being as revealed through [his] writing.” Partly because of his censorship travails, Miller’s prognostication came true. During the sixty-plus trials, detractors focused on how Miller “piled garbage on top of garbage” as he recounted “the most abnormal and inexcusable type of sex diversion,” while some well meaning supporters such as Homer Cassidy ignored Tropic of Cancer’s non-sexual themes and gushed that “If nothing else Miller got down to basic animal delights of sex in animal fashion.”

Miller- 72 when the Supreme Court finally called off the dogs- professed indifference:

I really have no feelings about it. It’s unreal to me, the whole thing. I don’t find myself involved. In fact I rather dislike it. It gives me no pleasure. All I see is more disruption in my life, more intrusions, more nonsense. People are concerned about something which no longer concerns me. That book doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. People think because they’re all worked up about it that I am too. They think it’s a great thing for me that I’m accepted at last. Well, I feel that I’d been accepted long before, at least by those I cared to be accepted by. To be accepted by the mob doesn’t mean a thing to me. In fact it’s rather painful. Because I’m being accepted for the wrong reasons. It’s a sensational affair, it doesn’t mean that I am appreciated for my true worth.

At the same time, though, he reveled in his celebrity. He produced books and pamphlets on all manner of subjects; became an antiwar activist. He bought a huge house in Pacific Palisades, acquired an entourage of staff and hangers on, and, as his health grew fragile, gave interviews in bed, often with one of his muses, a Playboy bunny called Venus Blue alongside, or his caretaker, the model Twinka Thiebaud.

In 1966 he conceived a passion for a Japanese cabaret singer and small time actress, Hoki Tokuda. He pursued her in person, by mail and telephone, and special messenger (he was a Niagara of letters; his published correspondence runs to many volumes). Tokuda thought him an eccentric grandfather type, found Tropic of Cancer unreadable, and guessed, rightly, that for Miller, love lay in the thrill of the chase, and “he just wanted a Japanese to add to his collection.”

Nonetheless, she married him, purely for convenience. Her visa was expiring. She made clear she would be his wife in name only, and they carried on until 1977, when she divorced him.

Miller died in 1980, at the age of 88. Since then, the rise of the new wave of feminism has generated a considerable backlash against Miller among authors like Kate Millett, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and, most recently, Jeanette Winterson—who would later critique the ideology behind Miller’s sexual representations. Censorship, and writing about sex, they argue, is not what Henry Miller’s significance is. Winterson, in a 2012 New York Times article, noted that Orwell’s 1940 mash-note hardly mentioned the existence of women as the objects of Miller’s writing. What singles out Miller, she contends, is how, for a man who used women as sexual park-and-rides, and spent a good deal of his adult life being kept financially by them, wrote of them so degradingly.

miller ping pong.jpg

So the battle goes. Four biographies of Miller have treated him sympathetically; he has appeared as a character in half a dozen movies and the subject of multiple documentaries. His long-term shelf life seems doubtful: as James Decker notes,

Even in an era when moms read 50 Shades of Gray not clandestinely but on the park bench waiting for their kids to tire of the slide, Miller’s reputation as a dirty writer dogs him. Imagine, then, the impact of his words in 1961, when Barney Rosset of Grove Press courageously published Miller’s book in a United States four years before birth control became legal in all states. Imagine further the effect of Miller’s language in 1934, a year when thematically genteel novels like Lamb in His Bosom and Good Bye, Mr. Chips were top-five bestsellers and Joseph Ignatius Breen’s Production Code Administration prohibited film actors from uttering the word “hell” in non-religious contexts.
Long before George Carlin’s 1972 list of seven dirty words, Miller sprinkled vulgarities liberally in works such as Tropic of Cancer and Sexus. As any viewer of Breaking Bad or Boardwalk Empire can attest, however, most of these words have long since lost their shock value. Friends and students who served in the military, for example, tell me that “motherfucker” serves as a ubiquitous, and thus invisible, adjective: “Pass the mother-fucking toast.” Other words, such as “tits” and “piss,” seem almost quaint to modern audiences. “Cunt,” however, is a different story,Game of Thrones notwithstanding. This word still jolts and angers in 2012, and it played a prominent role in Miller’s obscenity trials. The infamous “page five” of Tropic of Cancer contains the following excerpt:
O Tania where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed.… I know how to inflame a cunt.

Many of Miller’s censors, such as the Chicago police department, never moved beyond this page, never considered context, never read the Matisse-inspired passage that immediately follows:
Indigo sky swept clear of fleecy clouds, gaunt trees infinitely extended, their black boughs gesticulating like a sleepwalker.

Throughout the book, Miller dives deep within the gutters only to soar back to the heavens a moment later. Gonorrhea, shit, lice, and hunger dissolve (or explode) into music, art, philosophy, and God, as Miller’s resurrected narrator performs an apocalyptic symphony over his own corpse: “A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am.”
Hoki Tokuda, Miller’s last wife, endured a wave of vilification as a gold-digger after he died. She moved home to Tokyo, where she runs a piano bar called Tropic of Capricorn.

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