On the opening page of Henry Miller’s controversial Tropic of Cancer, which he wrote during his exile in Paris, Boris, the weather prophet says: “The weather will continue to be bad…There will be more calamities, more deaths, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves or are killing themselves. The hero, then is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.” One wonders if Boris is forecasting the downright horrible weather that is upon us.
A few years ago, I did not know Miller’s writings besides a few fragments which had appeared together in a hardbound selection edited by his friend and British writer Lawrence Durrell, published by Heinemann in 1960. In its introduction, Durrell wrote that Miller, being the “great vagabond of literature that he is, he will not want for readers among our grandchildren.”
Which is true. We are still reading Miller with awe and shock in the present century, despite the considerable passage of time since he ceased publishing. It’s no cliché to say Miller was a writer way head of his time. He was charged with obscenity and his works remained unavailable to the readers in the US and the UK until the Supreme Court in America cleared his books of the accusation of pornography in 1964. It’s a minor miracle that his books found their way into the curriculums of universities in these countries.
During his early years Miller was much loved in France, where it was hard to persecute books for obscenity. Nor were the French authorities deeply concerned about books published in English being read in the country. Miller was more widely read in Japan than in the Anglophone world.
Perhaps it is a pity that his work could not generate the praise it deserved and remained unavailable for long to readers. Now that society has moved beyond its need to snuff out vice, Miller’s reputation has been restored to where it should have always have been – in the vanguard of American literature. Right along with the Whitmans, Twains and Hemingways.
Art as outrage
Miller was a hard-bitten writer with immense intellectual bravery and a gift for words, who presented a chaotic world through images that are both vital and dangerous – a literary gangster who protested through obscenity and his violent view of life, a free spirit who had fallen under the literary spell that emerged from the French shores and permeated all over Europe and America. As a writer, he touches our darkest hopes with a sense of comedy, stretching literature beyond its limits and making it life itself. And his writings are kindled by outrage.
He was an avant-garde artist, whose work is largely autobiographical in nature, an outrageous outpouring of his personality. He seems to be trying to live his own life repeatedly. There can be no doubt, however, that his gifted prose would have brought him fame had it not been for the controversies. Much like Marques de Sade, whose obscenity and constant violence muffles language, Miller’s protest is monstrous and goes beyond the pages.
I remember reading Miller for the first time in A Devil in Paradise, which tells the story of an eccentric Frenchman who visits him in Big Sur and attempts to dominate everyone and everything in his orbit. It was written at a time when he had made peace with his native country, but still loathed the American way of life and had a distaste for bread in America.
Miller’s books were still not available to American readers at large. A small population did manage to get its hands on them through booksellers who dealt under the counter and charged handsomely for the service. As a writer, Miller was no longer without merit. He had to his credit Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, and a brilliant Black Spring in which he had also shed light on his tough upbringing in the streets of Brooklyn.
This was essentially a writer who was in control of his art – in his choice of words, his rhythm and his economy. He reminded readers of another writer whose books became controversial, DH Lawrence, for an astonishing quality of expression and knowledge of the human psyche. While Miller never had a moral purpose or an itch to reveal the truth as Lawrence did, it is revolt and a yearning for artistic freedom that unites the two authors.
Still, Miller admired Lawrence greatly, referring to him as “[t]he man who hung his literature on the rack of his ideas”. He wrote a critical work on Lawrence, which he found quite difficult to finish. “The further I got into the book; the less I understood what I am doing,” he wrote, which was finally published in 1980.
As I read Miller’s other works, I began to feel increasingly certain that his destructive capabilities make him similar to authors like Samuel Beckett, who suggested that religion and metaphysics have lost authority on earth. For Beckett literature was “the inaudible game of a solipsist”. He believed “art to be the apotheosis of solitude” and “love a disguise of power”. Beckett felt that the wasted minds and crippled bodies of his epoch could no longer unite, that we shall wait for Godot in vain. This is where Miller comes into picture. “Crime begins with god,” Miller writes in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, “It will end with man, when he finds god again.”
First taste of success
Miller began writing when he was working for Western Union in New York. Prior to this, he had driven cabs and had worked with his father who ran a tailoring shop. In 1922, he wrote his first novel, Clipped Wings, during a three-week vacation – it was about his experiences at the Western Union. The work was unsatisfying to him, and he refused to publish it in his lifetime. In 1924, after quitting his job he turned to writing as a career. Later, like his idol Walt Whitman, Miller began peddling prose-sketches from door to door. For the next ten years, he remained a failure, writing two more novels that drew little attention.
In 1928, he travelled to Paris with his second wife, dancer June Mansfield, and two years later returned to the same city to begin the life of an expatriate. Miller met and fell in love with erotic writer Anais Nin in Paris, and began working on the manuscript of Tropic of Cancer.
France in those days was no less than a haven for a great many American writers. It did help that one could get great value for American dollars during those days in the country. Miller worked at an English language newspaper office as a proof-reader for some time, where he had to constantly massage his editor’s ego to keep his job – at times by asking him for meanings of words he knew himself well.
At the age of forty-two, Miller tasted success at last, when Obelisk Press in France published Tropic of Cancer. The book was filled with squalor and sex – the fictional version of the writer’s poverty-stricken experiences in France turned out to be an immediate success. A year prior to the appearance of Tropic of Cancer, George Orwell had published his memoir Down and Out in Paris and London on the theme of extreme poverty he encountered in these cities. After his first break, Miller began to evolve as a writer – he no longer imitated tones, styles and shades of every other writer that he admired.
To Miller, art was a substitute for life. He saw himself unfit for the modernist movement represented by Proust, Eliot, Joyce and others. Miller owed much to the Dadaists and the Surrealists, and preferred French writers who were “un-French”. He believed in “[t]he literature of flight, of escape, of a neurosis so brilliant that it almost makes one doubt efficacy of health.”
In What is Literature? Sartre calls art “action” and is implying that if art has value, it is declaring itself as an appeal to the public. Miller’s moorings were on the opposite side. His ideas were closer to those of the American artist Jackson Pollock, who saw art as a process of creation which is individual. Pollock believed art is valued more by its creator than by its audience.
For Miller, writing was autobiography – a form of self-action. “We should look to the diary,” Miller writes, “not for the truth about things but as an expression of this struggle to be free of the obsession for truth.”
There were many writers and schools of thought which influenced Miller, who remained a loquacious raconteur. The ideas of Indian thinkers like Vivekananda, J Krishnamurti and Ramakrishna had a great influence on him. Durrell writes about his influences, “One might ascribe Miller’s intellectual pedigree partly to Bergson and Spengler, partly to Freud and partly to Hindu and Chinese religion.” Miller himself writes in The Books in My Life, “One of the most mysterious of all intangibles in life is what we call influences.”
He was for obscenity but against pornography. In an interview to The Paris Review, he said, “The obscene would be the forthright and pornography would be the roundabout. I believe in saying the truth, coming out with it cold, shockingly if necessary, not distinguishing it in other words, obscenity is a cleaning process, whereas pornography only adds to the murk. I don’t think obscenity is the most important one, and it must not be overlooked or suppressed.”
In an essay in Silence, composer John Cage writes: “Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring out of the chaos nor to suggest improvement in creation, but to simply wake up to the very life we are living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out its way and let it act on its own accords.” This attitude echoes in the works of writers like Miller, John Kerouac and perhaps JD Salinger in his later stories.
So what did Miller offer in his writing, besides outrage? Was he merely trying to rid himself of an itch, or perhaps burying his memories in words? What lies at the heart of his oeuvre? The answer is simple: Miller was writing life as it unfolded for him and entertaining us while he was at it.
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