by Doniphan Blair
a writer, publisher, designer and filmmaker living in Oakland, California.
I was heart warmed to recently read Elaine Blair’s Miller piece in the New York Review of Books (2/21/19 issue). Her review of “Henry Miller, Or, How to be an Anarchist”, the new book by Scottish author John Burnside, is a laudable attempt to decipher Miller, which is critical today.
Indeed, Miller’s survival as a pioneer of the modern novel is now in doubt, as Blair quips in her opening line: “Pity John Burnside. It’s not the best time to publish an appreciation and defense of Henry Miller.” In fact, today’s woke and triggered-warned modernists may return Miller to the censorship imposed on “Tropic of Cancer” (1934) for its first 28 years.
Ironically, young people looking at so much abusive pornography on line, hypocrisy in politics, and absence of romance in relationships desperately need an underworld expert to guide them through the dross of the physical plane to an abstract interpretation of experience and ideas, what could be called full freedom of thought, or Burnside’s anarchist ideal, or “Men’s Lib”, as Blair titles her piece.
It is not just the men who will get liberated, however, but all of us, given Miller radically expanded the scope of literature, which is a leading edge of civilization. And there is something she doesn’t quite get: Miller was a harsh satirist, and women as well as Jews, along with the rest of the universe, were not exempt from his gaze.
Indeed, with all of his “cunts” and “fucking,” Miller is dethroning the lily-white, prudish view of women inherited from the 19th century romanticism — essentially freeing women up to be as base as men.
Sure some pages of “Cancer” scan as misogynist pig drivel, but “I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt,” on page two, is hardly “something an angry gamer might have tweeted to Brianna Wu, the video game developer who received numerous threats after criticizing the sexist nature of her industry,” as Blair claims.
It was a joke—“After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like…” the paragraph continues—the likes of which sophisticated souls in the shadow of depression, war and fascism use to entertain each other.
And it was seminal sexting. The Tania to whom it was addressed—undoubtedly actually named Tania and the actual wife of a Parisian friend— undoubtedly enjoyed hearing Miller say it, both to her in person and even more in print.
To wit the adoration of feminist icon Anaïs Nin, who found Miller’s earthy honesty so refreshing and flights of fancy so brilliant, she gave him not just her typewriter and the funds to publish “Cancer” but her body. Or his wife June, the gorgeous genius grifter, who financed his trip to Paris and pushed him to find an iconoclastic voice.
And break everything he does.
If you find Miller’s misogyny shocking, try his anti-Semitism. Not only is Tania Jewish, “almost all Montparnasse is Jewish, or half-Jewish, which is worse,” and Miller himself is “as ugly as a Jew. And who hates the Jew more than the Jew”.
While most writers of the day—Joyce, Gide, Orwell, Hemingway, Kafka—were addressing in some way the complexity of the Jewish question, Miller attacks it on page three, aggressively, using reverse psychology and his patented trick of first shocking the squares but then burying the gold,. Only eventually does he reveal his intense romanticism, mysticism and respect for life—ten pages later, he tells of a Jew in a lion cage without a gun trying to explain Spinoza— but you have to go through the intellectual ringer to get there.
In his attempt to take on all pieties—America, France, Nazism, socialism, capitalism, doctors, lawyers, priests—Jews and women were not exempt. The upstanding, middle class women of the 19th century were powerful in the home, as Miller knew from his own mother, and the streets, as the suffragettes proved by getting prohibition passed a year before the 19th Amendment gave them the vote.
A closer read reveals Miller weaving a multidimensional, sometimes contradictory, story, ranging from radically-open autobiography to ruminations on high art, death, difficulties as an artist and the universal obsession with sex, which had barely appeared in literature until then. Indeed, isn’t Miller merely reporting the facts, since men do think and talk like that, while women also enjoy sexy talk?
By the same token, Miller did have some issues with women, exacerbated by his overbearing mother, youthful homosexuality, extensive whoring, the obligation of the artist to break with the traditional family structure and his hyperbolic if hidden romanticism.
“Cancer in the Tropics” is an over-the-top satire, cubism comes to literature, a free-wheeling attack on pretentious morality in iambic pentameter so tight it translates perfectly to punk lyrics, as the band The Doilies did in their song “The Happiest Man Alive”, a rendition of “Cancer”’s opening two pages.
In fact, Blair herself feels obliged to quote almost half that opening rant and almost nothing else from Miller’s over two dozen other books, evidently recognizing “Cancer” as a call to consciousness of the fully liberated human, who refuses to accept inherited idiocy.
One need only glance at “A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller” or the end of “Nexus” (or is it “Plexus”), when Miller climbs up a fire escape and peaks through the window and watch June and her girlfriend shooting up, to see Miller is hardly a simplistic, small-minded and female-fearing hater.
Unfortunately, Blair doesn’t mention Nin, except to say she financed “Cancer”, or Erica Jong’s immense Miller inheritance in “Fear of Flying” (1973), or the many other authors, not to mention readers, who owe him so much. It’s a complex story, one worth teasing out and, while Blair adds some insight, she fails to grasp the whole picture.