Monday, November 24, 2008

Henry Miller is a Jerk and I Hate Him

I just finished reading Henry Miller's shockingly poetic and utterly nihilistic memoir The Tropic of Cancer, first published in 1934 and banned in both Europe and the US for twenty-seven years afterwards. Like many texts of the post-WW1 Modernist era - from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" to Joseph Wood Krutch's philosophical work The Modern Temper - The Tropic of Cancer begins on the premise that the traditional values of Western culture and the arts have crumbled, leaving behind a valley of ashes, like the one in The Great Gatsby watched over by the disembodied eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. "Looking into the Seine I see and desolation, street lamps drowning, men and women choking to death, the bridges covered with houses, slaughterhouses of love," says Miller. ". . .The people who live here are dead; they make chairs with which other people sit on in their dreams." So nothing new there; others had made similar observations. But although Miller was an amazing writer, it was how he approached his topic that was so screwed up and IMHO goes above and beyond the pessimism of his predecessors. That book of his somehow manages to be both lyrical and disturbing, and not to mention very troubling.

Miller goes on:
Once I thought that to be human was the highest aim a man could have, but now I see that it was meant to destroy me. Today I am proud to say that I am inhuman, that I belong not to men and governments, that I have nothing to do with creeds and principles. I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity - I belong to the earth! I say that lying on my pillow and I can feel the horns sprouting from my temples. . . [Lots of hallucinatory stuff about dancing skulls] And I join my slime, my excrement, my madness, my ecstacy to the great circuit which flows through the subterranean vaults of the flesh. All this unbidden, unwanted, drunken vomit will flow on endlessly through the minds of those to come in this inexhaustible vessel that contains the history of the race. Side by side with the human race runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones, the race of artists who, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread and the bread into wine and the wine into song. Out of the dead compost and the inert slag they breed a song that contaminates. I see this other race of individuals ransacking the universe, turning everything upside down, their feet always moving in blood and tears, their hands always empty, always clutching and grasping for the beyond, for the god out of reach: slaying everything within reach in order to quiet the monster that gnaws at their vitals. . .

[...] Oceans, yes! Let us have more oceans, new oceans that blot out the past, oceans that create geological formations, new topographical vistas and strange, terrifying continents, oceans that destroy and preserve at the same time, oceans that we sail on, take off to new discoveries, new horizons. Let us have more oceans, more upheavals, more wars, more holocausts. [Oh you did not just say that.] Let us have a world of men and women with dynamos between their legs, a world of natural fury, of passion, action, drama, dreams, madness, a world that produces ecstacy and not dried farts.

Again, you're an energetic, expressive writer, Mr. Miller, but Walt Whitman you are not. Stop corrupting his vision.

Now many a thinker after Miller has reflected on the "dark side" of human nature and its relationship to the twin acts of creation and destruction. Arthur Koestler's 1967 work The Ghost in the Machine, for example, rejects Descartian dualism (which posits, in a nutshell, that the mind and body are two separate entities) in favor of an evolutionary theory that conceives of the human brain as having developed from more primitive structures as part of the ongoing interactions and exchanges of energy between different levels of the hierarchy of life. The base structure nevertheless remains as a "ghost in the machine" (similar to the Freudian id) that makes its vestigial presence felt when hate, anger, and other emotive impulses overpower higher cognitive brain functions. Masamune Shirow's visionary 1991 manga Ghost in the Shell builds upon this, arguing that consciousness is a phenomenon that appears once a system (natural or artificial) has reached a certain level of complexity. The brain itself, Shirow believes, is only one aspect of a larger neural network, but the presence of a "ghost," or soul, will always differentiate a human being from a biological robot, regardless of how much of the original organic body has been replaced by machine substitutes.

In other words, then, wrath and passion are inescapable aspects of the sentient animal. (Don't know whether Shirow would extend this to AIs like the Puppet Master, though, since they didn't evolve in nature.) In his 2002 novel Fury, Salman Rushdie writes that
Life is fury. . . Fury – sexual, Oedipal, political, magical, brutal – drives us to our finest heights and coarsest depths. Out of furia comes creation, inspiration, originality, passion, but also violence, pain, pure unafraid destruction, the giving and receiving of blows from which we never recover. The Furies pursue us; Shiva dances his furious dance to create and also to destroy. But never mind about gods! . . .This is what we are, what we civilize ourselves to disguise – the terrifying human animal in us, the exalted, transcendent, self-destructive, untrammeled lord of creation. We raise each other to the heights of joy. We tear each other limb from fucking limb.
I think Rushdie and Miller are in agreement here: they both imagine the artist or creator as a psychological rogue figure, who must, like Kurtz in the jungle, cast off society's veil of artifice and confront "forgotten and brutal instincts." For all his Whitman-esque dreams of embracing the whole of humanity, life, and death, there is a pulsing darkness at the core of Miller's vision that is largely absent from Whitman's exuberant celebrations of "the body electric." It's definitely very Heart of Darkness, this image of the modern artist or writer as one who would be "wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness" and whose work would bear "the appalling face of a glimpsed truth – the strange commingling of desire and hate."

However, once you throw off all social limitations in search of some ultimate in pure, raw experience that ends in terrifying truth (perhaps of the type best summed up as "The horror! The horror!") - some unholy combination of neo-Platonic idealism and social anarchy - you may very well end up with something very, very nasty. Of course, anyone who has read Euripides's play The Bacchae will know that, having descended into the maelstrom of pure emotional and physical sensation, of "gratified and monstrous passions" (Conrad), AgavĂ« mistakes her son Pentheus for a mountain lion and, along with the other delirious women of Thebes, tears him limb from limb. And that, I believe, expresses the true problem with Miller's philosophy: it's a Pandora's Box that not only liberates creativity but also destroys the ego, leaving only the id or the "ghost in the machine." Rushdie, for his part, wasn't advocating anything – he was only pondering and reflecting – but Miller is, and he's doing it irresponsibly. Never once does he address the issue of how far to take all of this.

I mean, Miller said it himself:
Nothing that had happened to me thus far had been sufficient to destroy me; nothing had been destroyed except my illusions. . . I made up my mind that I would hold onto nothing, that I would expect nothing, that henceforth I would live as an animal, a beast of prey, a rover, a plunderer. Even if war were declared, and it were my lot to go, I would grab the bayonet and plunge it, plunge it up to the hilt. And if rape were the order of the day, then rape I would, and with a vengeance. Had one single element of man's nature been altered . . . ? By what he calls the better part of his nature, man has been betrayed, that is all. . . One must burrow into life again in order to put on flesh. . . If to live is the paramount thing, then I will live, even if I must become a cannibal.
Yes, I know, I'm quoting way too much, but Miller really speaks for himself. We're talking about a man who repeatedly refers to women as a word the begins with c and rhymes with "blunt." It's like he's just spouting off this rambling rhetoric of his to justify his constant and misogynist objectification of the female gender: I did this to this c*** and this and this to this c*** because I AM AN ARTIST I NEED TO RETURN TO THE EARTHINESS OF IT ALL! He is, after all, all about throwing off the "restrictions" of humanity and I think it's implied that love and respect are included in his litany of artificial niceties to be annihilated. Quite frankly, this man did indeed strike me as one very capable of the act of rape.

But really none of this would be quite so disturbing if it weren't for Karl Shapiro's giddy rhapsody of an introduction (written in 1960), in which he basically fawns over Miller like he's some kind of prophet for a new age of "authenticity" in literature. It was like Clive Barker on Bravo's Top 100 Scariest Movie Moments, when, talking about Pinhead, he said something like, "Here's a guy who doesn't do a nice, decent thing for eight movies, and yet he still gets fan mail from women who want to bear his child." But what is so fucked up here is that Miller pretty much got what he said he wanted: World War II and the Holocaust were only a few years away. Talk about eating your own words. Because
[t]here is that within us . . . which is capricious and for which the language of explanation is inappropriate. We are made of shadow as well as light, of heat as well as dust. Naturalism, the philosophy of the visible, cannot capture us, for we exceed. We feat this in ourselves, our boundary-breaking, rule-disproving, shape-shifting, transgressive, trespassing shadow-self, the true ghost in our machine. Not in the afterlife, or in any improbably immortal sphere, but here on earth escapes the chains of what we know ourselves to be. It may rise in wrath, inflamed by its captivity, and lay reason's world to waste.
In summation: The Tropic of Cancer is certainly well-written and thought-provoking (I'll be the last person to accuse Miller of lacking talent), but it is also the single most nihilistic, misogynist thing I have ever read.


Catherine Blake said...

Henry Miller is a jerk and I love him.

Anonymous said...

Yep. Great review.

Jonathan Alpart said...

I don't consider Miller misogynist. At worst, he is a man. It is a book written by a man, and it is written completely honestly. If a woman could peak into an aroused man's mind, no doubt we would all be considered misogynists. Also, I believe the C-word was very different back then. It was profane, yes, but not the mean slur it is today. Miller surely used it because it was shocking and animalistic. Just listen to how the world sounds - brunt, bodily and nearly beastly.

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