Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Henry Miller - Lewd, Crude, Tasteless but not Talentless - His work on the 'Tropics.'

Robert Nye suggests that Miller is like Marmite. You either love him or loathe him. I disagree. I both like his work and despair of it. Most notably with 'Tropic of Cancer.' Here's why...

Like a Rock band who figure that to be famous you have not only to be bad, you have to be awfully bad, in fact you need to be outrageously bad. The only way they can achieve notoriety, as their playing is so ordinary and commonplace, is to appear live on TV and offend everyone. Their supposed shocking behaviour is no more than a front for their lack of being the Zeitgeist they wanted. At least with the Sex Pistols they were angry young men. The same was not true for Henry Miller. When he published 'Tropic of Cancer' he was in his forties. Men in their forties do not, generally speaking, still feel angry; do they?

Having read his work, Tropic of Cancer it becomes obvious within a page or two that this man is no James Joyce, no William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf and certainly no William Burroughs And yet his method of writing is as modernist as any of them.  Indeed when it came to writing erotica then he really should have left that to his former mistress Anais Nin... and yet...The words fuck and cunt may impress some, juveniles mostly, and yes I have and do use them but here is someone who artfully throws them about in an insincere attempt to be 'ground breaking.' A heavy turd can do that and with less noise... and yet...

The whole concept behind the book feels premeditated, as false as Jon Wayne's hair and rather shabby - not the words themselves nor the actors toupee but the way the expletives feel shoehorned into the narrative. Years later another literary great, Charles Bukowski, would employ the same street language. With Bukowski the blasphemies feel right, natural, visceral and unlike Miller, unforced.

Why then did someone so gifted make such gratuitous use of profanity? I said he wasn't among those I listed above. This should not imply he isn't an important literary figure -  he is but my earlier statement of his being angry seems pertinent. His works seen filled with an energy, a psychological manifestation bordering on madness. It is all so chaotic, so rambling and cross. You don't have to be young to be angry yet Miller was incandescent with rage. Why?


 
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I started on 'Tropic of Cancer' and soon became equally enthralled and disgusted by it. The style was post colonial paranoid kick-back. It was a semi-autobiographical account of the writer during his time of penury spent in Paris. The words were ragged razor slashes ripping into the old world, the world of empires and colonialism but Miller was not angry with all that, not just all that anyway, he was a little bit scared of how things were looking for America. 

The New World was poised on the edge of great things. Here was a burgeoning, flourishing nation stepping out big time but without all those preposterous affectations that the British Empire held tightly to is bosom  That awful class system, that dreadful way of looking down ones nose at those who didn't have the proper diction, who cussed like East End dockworkers because they were East End dockworkers, the way one never swore in polite society, the way one should know ones place. Nor did he appreciate the somnambulist lethargy of the French in their arty Parisian idyll .Miller didn't hold with either and besides just who the hell was going to tell him what his place was?

It wasn't rage against the British or Europe that Miller was releasing in such aggressive tones, it was a fear, having seen that American society was starting to go down a similar path, that made him want to spit. That and the fact as a man of rare talent he couldn't understand why the hell it had taken him so long to get published..

'Tropic of Cancer' is fast, furious, hungry but more than that it is honest.. It eats ideas and spits them out from snarling lips with a ferocious velocity.  Whatever it is chewing at Miller's spleen he fires it with machine gun rapidity. His writing is unequivocal, flat iron running over the creases of life. It is just as much reportage as it is memoir as it is a combustible exposĂ© on Parisian life - his life, the life of cafĂ© society, of whores and artists and of course his insatiable sexual appetites and all ri that anger. 

This is a man with so much pent up energy, be it rage at Europe or America or the fearful lusts of his incredible libido is a moot point, that he needs to not only write it down but to get recognition for his ability is part of the answer.. .His talent is undeniable. The way he mixes free form, almost stream of consciousness with surreal, fictional anecdotes into a narrative that uses reality as its backdrop, is as amazing now as it was then. I hadn't read Miller until later in my life but somehow, on some subliminal level, his writing has informed mine, certainly on the 'Wilful Walks.' His writing has also given the likes of W.G. Sebald license to practise that same illusion, of having the real merge with the fictional. 

The chapter featuring Van Norden is filled with contrived vulgarities. Cunt features time and time again, so much so and with such derogatory focus on the female genitalia that I am forced to think that Van Norden is nothing more than an invented character substitute for Miller who dislikes females altogether. Van Norden's constant appellation of cunt to all and every female allows little room to think otherwise. Is he angry with the opposite sex or merely confounded by it, in awe perhaps so that his inhibited frustrations burble up and out as unleashed fury? He certainly seems sexist by todays standards. Doesn't he like females? Is that why virtually all women are referred to as 'cunts?'

The fact is that Miller undeniably had talent. Fusing fiction with biography along with other disparate literary devices is a defining moment. For me though it is spoilt by his exploitative use of cuss words in some of the most despicably manipulative of ways. It is a deliberate means to end. It gained him notoriety even if it denied him commercial and financial rewards in the first instance. Time proves a patient mistress.

Then the penny drops, somewhere between pages 220 and 260. He isn't mad with females. He may be mad with Empires both old and burgeoning but most of all he is mad with mankind, with men in particular. He dislikes their weakness, their hell bent need to fornicate, to spread their seed thoughtlessly without consideration for the consequences.. Those who have continued, time and again to wage wars, create faiths, ignore poverty and who have in their brief time as number one animal, pretty much screwed up the whole shebang. In fact I think his anger is but a part of a greater whole. Miller was filled with huge emotions, be they anger, lust, or love. His view on life was to do nothing by halves, to live life to the full. He was a dynamo of emotions.

'Tropic of Cancer' is a promise. 'Tropic of Capricorn' is the delivery of that promise.

When I started on 'Tropic of Capricorn,; still with the expletives in full flow, there is more of a determined, self-examining voice at work. Yes, the abuses are there but balanced with intelligence and not shoe-horned in to create maximum impact. There is still that boundless energy, that swagger as Miller bounces from one idea to the next, ricocheting around like a pinball but controlled by an introspective eye that examines not only himself but life and those around him. The vulgarities seem now less intrusive, less forced or manufactured. There is also the sense of how being a working class American you can also have qualifications and intelligence - a thing denied the British until many years later. In this alone I have to take my hat off. 

Here his words flow, flood more like, in a constant stream of consciousness. It is nothing less than remarkable as is his apparent limitless libido. A friend of mine said he liked to fuck. I think that is an understatement. He sure liked to live.

The problem Miller created for himself which even today is subject to discussion is that by being so deliberately coarse he didn't so much challenge the repressive minds of that generation but consigned himself forever as the man who said cunt repeatedly. 

Nothing will make me change my mind that it was Miller's frustrations, those of seeing a staid, crumbling Europe flounder in its own historical juices, of the rise of the United States as they wilfully strode down trite paths of polite society, of his extreme sexual drive, of his lack of success as an accepted literary figure, of his apparent dislike of women for anything other than sexual gratification, that gave cause for the author to write in such a deliberately attention seeking manner in 'Tropic of Cancer.'. He wanted us to take notice. He was lewd, crude and often tasteless  but this should not belittle his  talent nor the impact his work has made. This book is social reportage mixed with some delicious prose poetry come fiction.  With 'Tropic of Capricorn' his style has matured, is more measured even though the expletives remain. On that book his vitality comes with a steady infusion of philosophical scrutiny. Having blasted his way onto our radar with 'Cancer' he now had done sufficient in gaining our attention to demand we take note of what he had to say in 'Capricorn.'

He really is up there with Orwell and Burroughs after all...

"This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander,
defamation of character. This is not a book, in the
ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged
insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants
to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what
you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key
perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will

dance over your dirty corpse…"


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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

3 comments:

twh said...

ready for more spooky? was doing a little research on henry and found a quote by orwell, who was apparently one of the first to acknowledge miller as a modern writer, written in 1940 for his essay, 'inside the whale."

"Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance; and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses."

Russell Duffy said...

I love Orwell especially Inside the Whale which I read more than thirty years ago. Not saying that to suggest I already knew of this quote as i didn't. It wasn't until recently, when researching the man, that Miller chap, that I came across the Orwell quote. Who am I to argue with Orwell? Thanks for the remonder.

twh said...

was doing a bit of research after finishing cancer and discovered that van norden was based on a gossip columnist for the chicago tribune, wambly bald.

'i really should have sued him for having me appear as a sex fiend in the guise of van norden.' stated bald back in the 60's.

he also compiled a number of his essays into a book, "on the left bank, 1929-1933' which features a who's who of the cafe society intelligentsia in paris at the time. good luck finding a copy, though. i just checked the local library database and there are none to be had and the lowest price on abebook is just over $90. and gutenberg has nothing on him.