B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
The Reality of Henry Miller
It is a wonderful thing that some of Henry Miller’s work at last is coming out in a popular edition in the United States. Henry Miller is a really popular writer, a writer of and for real people, who, in other countries, is read, not just by highbrows, or just by the wider public which reads novels, but by common people, by the people who, in the United States, read comic books. As the Southern mountain woman said of her hero son, dead in Korea, “Mister, he was sure a great reader, always settin’ in the corner with a piece of cold bread and one of them funny books.” In Czech and Japanese, this is the bulk of Miller’s public. In the United States he has been kept away from a popular public and his great novels have been banned; therefore only highbrows who could import them from France have read him.
I once crossed the Atlantic — eighteen days in a Compagnie Générale Transatlantique freighter — with a cabin mate, a French African Negro, who was only partially literate, but who was able to talk for hours on the comparative merits of Black Spring and the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. When he found out I came from California and knew Miller, he started treating me as if I were an archangel newly descended, and never tired of questions about le Beeg Sur and les camarades de M’sieu Millaire. He had a mental picture of poor Henry living on a mountain-top, surrounded by devoted handmaids and a bevy of zoot-suited existentialist jitterbugs.
This picture, I have discovered, is quite commonly believed in by people who should have better sense. Miners in the Pyrenees, camel drivers in Tlemcen, gondoliers in Venice, and certainly every poule in Paris, when they hear you’re from California, ask, first thing, in one voice, “Do you know M’sieu Millaire?” This doesn’t mean he isn’t read by the intellectuals, the cultured people over there. He is. In fact, I should say he has become part of the standard repertory of reading matter everywhere but in England and the United States. If you have read Balzac, or Baudelaire, or Goethe, you are also expected to have read Miller. He is certainly one of the most widely read American writers, along with Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Fenimore Cooper, William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell.
This is the way it should be. Nothing was sadder than the “proletarian novelist” of a few years back, the product of a sociology course and a subscription to a butcher-paper weekly, eked out with a terrified visit to a beer parlor on the other side of the tracks and a hasty scurry past a picket line. Nobody read him but other Greenwich Village aesthetes like himself. The people Henry Miller writes about read him. They read him because he gives them something they cannot find elsewhere in print. It may not be precisely the real world, but it is nearer to it than most other writing, and it is certainly nearer than most so-called realistic writing.
Once the written work was the privilege of priests and priestly scribes. Although thousands of years have passed, vestiges of that special privilege and caste artificiality still cling to it. It has been said that literature is a class phenomenon. Can you remember when you first started to read? Doubtless you thought that some day you would find in books the truth, the answer to the very puzzling life you were discovering around you. But you never did. If you were alert, you discovered that books were conventions, as unlike life as a game of chess. The written word is a sieve. Only so much of reality gets through as fits the size and shape of the screen, and in some ways that is never enough. This is only partly due to the necessary conventions of speech, writing, communication generally. Partly it is due to the structure of language. With us, in our Western European civilization, this takes the form of Indo-European grammar crystallized in what we call Aristotelian logic. But most of the real difficulty of communication comes from social convention, from a vast conspiracy to agree to accept the world as something it really isn’t at all. Even the realistic novels of a writer like Zola are not much closer to the real thing than the documents written in Egyptian hieroglyphics. They are just a different, most complex distortion.
Literature is a social defense mechanism. Remember again when you were a child. You thought that some day you would grow up and find a world of real adults — the people who really made things run — and understood how and why things ran. People like the Martian aristocrats in science fiction. Your father and mother were pretty silly, and the other grownups were even worse — but somewhere, some day, you’d find the real grownups and possibly even be admitted to their ranks. Then, as the years went on, you learned, through more or less bitter experience, that there aren’t, and never have been, any such people, anywhere. Life is just a mess, full of tall children, grown stupider, less alert and resilient, and nobody knows what makes it go — as a whole, or any part of it. But nobody ever tells.
Henry Miller tells. Andersen told about the little boy and the Emperor’s new clothes. Miller is the little boy himself. He tells about the Emperor, about the pimples on his behind, and the warts on his private parts, and the dirt between his toes. Other writers in the past have done this, of course, and they are the great ones, the real classics. But they have done it within the conventions of literature. They have used the forms of the Great Lie to expose the truth. Some of this literature is comic, with a terrifying laughter — Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Jonson’s Volpone, Machiavelli’s Mandragola, Shakespeare’s King Lear. Some of it is tragic, in the ordinary sense, like the Iliad, or Thucydides’ history, or Macbeth. In the last analysis it is all tragic, even Rabelais, because life itself is tragic. With very few exceptions, however, it is all conventional. It disguises itself in the garments of harmless artistic literature. It sneaks in and betrays the complacent and deluded. A great work of art is a kind of Trojan Horse. There are those who believe that this is all there is to the art of poetry — sugar-coating the pills of prussic acid with which the poet doses the Enemy.
It is hard to tell sometimes when Miller is being ironic and when he is being naïve. He is the master of a deadpan style, just as he has a public personality that alternates between quiet gentleness — “like a dentist,” he describes it — and a sort of deadpan buffoonery. This has led some critics to consider him a naïve writer, a “modern primitive,” like the painter Rousseau. In a sense this is true.
Miller is a very unliterary writer. He writes as if he had just invented the alphabet. When he writes about a book, he writes as if he were the first and only man who had ever read it — and, furthermore, as if it weren’t a book but a piece of the living meat whacked off Balzac or Rimbaud or whoever. Rousseau was one of the finest painters of modern times. But he was absolutely impervious to the ordinary devices of his craft. This was not because he was not exposed to other artists. He spent hours every week in the Louvre, and he was, from the 1880s to the eve of the First World War, the intimate of all the best painters and writers, the leading intellectuals of Paris. It didn’t make any difference. He just went his way, being Henri Rousseau, a very great artist. But when he talked or wrote, he spouted terrible nonsense. He wasn’t just a crank, but quite off his rocker in an amiable sort of way. This is not true of Miller.
In some mysterious way, Miller has preserved an innocence of the practice of Literature-with-a-capital-L which is almost unique in history. Likewise he has preserved an innocence of heart. But he is not unsophisticated. In the first place, he writes a muscular, active prose in which something is always going on and which is always under control. True, he often rambles and gets windy, but only because he likes to ramble and hear his head roar. When he wants to tell you something straight from the shoulder, he makes you reel.
Now the writer most like Miller in some ways, the eighteenth-century naïf, Restif de la Bretonne, is certainly direct from the innocent heart, but he can be as tedious as a year’s mail of a Lonely Hearts Club, with the same terrible verisimilitude of a “Mature woman, broadminded, likes books and music” writing to “Bachelor, fifty-two, steady job, interested in finer things.” And, in addition, Restif is full of arrant nonsense, every variety of crackpot notion. If you want the common man of the eighteenth century, with his heart laid bare, you will find him in Restif. But you will also find thousands of pages of sheer boredom, and hundreds of pages of quite loony and obviously invented pornography. Miller too is likely at times to go off the deep end about the lost continent of Mu or astrology or the “occult,” but it is for a different reason. If the whole shebang is a lie anyway, certainly the amusing lies, the lies of the charlatans who have never been able to get the guillotine in their hands, are better than the official lie, the deadly one. Since Hiroshima, this attitude needs little apology. Some of our best people prefer alchemy to physics today.
There aren’t many people like Miller in all literature. The only ones I can think of are Petronius, Casanova, and Restif. They all tried to be absolutely honest. Their books give an overwhelming feeling of being true, the real thing, completely uncooked. They are all intensely masculine writers. They are all great comic writers. They all convey, in every case very powerfully, a constant sense of the utter tragedy of life. I can think of no more chilling, scalp-raising passages in literature than the tolling of the bell from the very beginning of Casanova’s Memoirs: the comments and asides of the aged man writing of his splendid youth, an old, sick, friendless pauper in a drafty castle in the backwoods of Bohemia. And last, and most important, they were all what the English call “spivs.” Courtier of Nero or Parisian typesetter, they were absolutely uninvolved; they just didn’t give a damn whether school kept or not.
The French like to compare Miller with Sade. But nowadays they like to compare everybody with Sade. It is the currently fashionable form of Babbitt-baiting over there. The comparison is frivolous. Sade is unbelievably tedious; Diderot stood on his head, a bigot without power, an unemployed Robespierre. In the eighteenth century the French writers most like Miller are the “primitive” Restif, and Mirabeau when, in some of his personal writings, he really works up a lather.
Miller has often been compared with Céline, but I don’t think the comparison is apposite. Céline is a man with a thesis; furthermore, he is a litterateur. In Journey to the End of the Night, he set out to write the epic of a Robinson Crusoe of the modern soul, the utterly alienated man. He did it, very successfully. Céline and his friends stumble through the fog, over the muddy ruts with the body of Robinson, in a dénouement as monumental as the Nibelungenlied. But it is all a work of art. I have been in the neighborhoods Céline describes. They simply aren’t that awful. I am sure, on internal evidence of the story itself, that his family wasn’t that bad. And, like Malraux and some others, he is obsessed with certain marginal sexual activities which he drags in all the time, willy-nilly.
Céline makes a sociological judgment on Robinson. Miller is Robinson, and, on the whole, he finds it a bearable role, even enjoyable in its way. The modern French writers who most resemble Miller are Carco, without the formulas, Mac Orlan, if he weren’t so slick, Artaud, if he weren’t crazy, and Blaise Cendrars. Cendrars is a good European and Miller is only an amateur European, but Europe has been going on so long that the insights of the amateur are often much more enlightening.
Henry Miller is often spoken of as a religious writer. To some this just seems silly, because Miller is not especially profound. People expect religion to come to them vested in miracle, mystery, and authority, as Dostoevski said. The founders of the major religions are pretty well hidden from us by the accumulation of centuries of interpretation, the dirt of history — the lie you prefer to believe. Perhaps originally they weren’t so mysterious and miraculous and authoritarian. Mohammed lived in the light of history. We can form a pretty close idea of what he was like, and he wasn’t very prepossessing in some ways. He was just naïvely direct. With the simple-mindedness of a camel driver he cut through the welter of metaphysics and mystification in the Near East of his time. Blake dressed his message up in sonorous and mysterious language; but the message itself is simple enough. D. H. Lawrence likewise. You could write it all on a postage stamp: “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. Your official reality is a lie. We must love one another or die.” I suppose any writer who transcends conventional literature is religious insofar as he does transcend it. That is why you can never actually base an educational system on the “Hundred Best Books.” A hundred of the truest insights into life as it is would destroy any educational system and its society along with it.
Certainly Miller is almost completely untouched by what is called religion in England and America and northern Europe. He is completely pagan. This is why his book on Greece,The Colossus of Maroussi, is a book of self-discovery as well as a very true interpretation of Greece. It is thoroughly classic. Although he never mentions Homer and dismisses the Parthenon, he did discover the life of Greece: the common, real life of peasants and fishermen, going on, just as it has gone on ever since the Doric invasions. A world of uncompromised people, of people if not like Miller himself, at least like the man he knew he wanted to be.
His absolute freedom from the Christian or Jewish anguish of conscience, the sense of guilt, implication, and compromise, makes Miller humane, maybe even humanistic, but it effectively keeps him from being humanitarian. He might cry over a pet dog who had been run over, or even punch the guilty driver in the nose. He might have assassinated Hitler if he had had the chance. He would never join the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or the Friends Service Committee. He is not involved in the guilt, and so in no way is he involved in the penance. This comes out in everything he writes, and it offends lots of people. Others may go to bullfights and write novels preaching the brotherhood of man. Miller just doesn’t go to the bullfight in the first place. So, although he often raves, he never preaches. People have been taught to expect preaching, practically unadulterated, in even the slick fiction of the women’s magazines, and they are offended now if they don’t find it.
Fifty percent of the people in this country don’t vote. They simply don’t want to be implicated in organized society. With, in most cases, a kind of animal instinct, they know that they cannot really do anything about it, that the participation offered them is a hoax. And even if it weren’t, they know that if they don’t participate, they aren’t implicated, at least not voluntarily. It is for these people, the submerged fifty percent, that Miller speaks. As the newspapers never tire of pointing out, this is a very American attitude. Miller says, “I am a patriot — of the Fourteenth Ward of Brooklyn, where I was raised.” For him life has never lost that simplicity and immediacy. Politics is the deal in the saloon back room. Law is the cop on the beat, shaking down whores and helping himself to apples. Religion is Father Maguire and Rabbi Goldstein, and their actual congregations. Civilization is the Telegraph Company in Tropic of Capricorn. All this is a quite different story to the art critics and the literary critics and those strange people the newspapers call “pundits” and “solons.”
I am sure the editors of our butcher-paper liberal magazines have never sat in the back room of a sawdust saloon and listened to the politicians divide up the take from the brothels that line the boundary streets of their wards. If they did, they would be outraged and want to bring pressure to bear in the State Capitol. With Miller, that is just the way things are, and what of it?
So there isn’t any social message in Miller, except an absolute one. When you get through reading the realistic novels of James Farrell or Nelson Algren, you have a nasty suspicion that the message of the author is: “More playgrounds and properly guided social activities will reduce crime and vice.” There is nothing especially frightful about Miller’s Brooklyn; like Farrell’s South Side, it is just life in the lower middle class and upper working class section of a big American city. It certainly isn’t what queasy reviewers call it, “the slums.” It’s just the life the reviewers themselves led before they became reviewers. What outrages them is that Miller accepts it, just as do the people who still live there. Accepting it, how he can write about it? He can bring back the whole pre-World War I America — the bunny hug, tunes from The Pink Lady, Battling Nelson, Dempsey the Nonpareil, Pop Anson and Pearl White, a little boy rushing the growler with a bucket of suds and a sack of six-inch pretzels in the smoky twilight of a Brooklyn Sunday evening.
I think that is what Miller found in Paris. Not the city of Art, Letters, and Fashion — but prewar Brooklyn. It is certainly what I like best about Paris, and it is what I get out of Miller’s writing about Paris. He is best about Paris where it is still most like 1910 Brooklyn. He doesn’t write about the Latin Quarter, but about the dim-lit streets and dusty little squares which lie between the Latin Quarter and the Jardin des Plantes, where men sit drinking beer in their shirt sleeves in front of dirty little bars in another smoky Sunday twilight. He is better about the jumble of streets between Montrouge and Montparnasse with its polyglot and polychrome population of the very poor, than he is about Montparnasse itself and its artists’ life. He practically ignores Montmartre; apparently he concludes that only suckers go there. But he writes very convincingly about that most Brooklyn-like of all the quarters of Paris, the district near the Military Academy on the Place du Champs de Mars, now filling up with Algerians and Negroes, where the subway becomes an elevated, tall tenements mingle with small bankrupt factories and people sit on the doorsteps fanning themselves in the Brooklyn-like summer heat, and sleep and couple on the summer roofs.
So his intellectuals in Paris are assimilated to Brooklyn. They may talk about Nietzsche and Dostoevski, but they talk like hall-room boys, rooming together, working at odd jobs, picking up girls in dance halls and parks. “Batching” is the word. Over the most impassioned arguments and the bawdiest conversations lingers an odor of unwashed socks. The light is the light of Welsbach mantles on detachable cuffs and unmade beds. Of course that is the way they really talked, still do for that matter.
There is a rank, old-fashioned masculinity about this world which shocks the tender-minded and self-deluded. It is far removed from the Momism of the contemporary young American male. This is why Miller is accused of writing about all women as though they were whores, never treating them as “real persons,” as equals. This is why he is said to lack any sense of familial love. On the whole, I think this is true. Most of the sexual encounters in the Tropics and The Rosy Crucifixion are comic accidents, as impersonal as a pratfall. The woman never emerges at all. He characteristically writes of his wives as bad boys talk of their schoolteachers. When he takes his sexual relations seriously, the woman disappears in a sort of marshy cyclone. She becomes an erotic giantess, a perambulating orgy. Although Miller writes a lot about his kinship with D. H. Lawrence, he has very little of Lawrence’s abiding sense of the erotic couple, of man and woman as the two equal parts of a polarity which takes up all of life. This again is Brooklyn, pre-suffragette Brooklyn. And I must admit that it is true, at least for almost everybody. A real wedding of equals, a truly sacramental marriage in which every bit of both personalities, and all the world with them, is transmuted and glorified, may exist; in fact, some people may have a sort of talent for it; but it certainly isn’t very common. And the Great Lie, the social hoax in which we live, has taken the vision of this transcendent state and turned it into its cheapest hoax and its most powerful lie. I don’t see why Miller should be blamed if he has never found it. Hardly anybody ever does, and those who do usually lose it in some sordid fashion. This, of course, is the point, the message, if you want a message, of all his encounters in parks and telephone booths and brothels. Better this than the lie. Better the flesh than the World and the Devil. And this is why these passages are not pornographic, but comic like King Lear and tragic like Don Quixote.
At least once, Miller makes up for this lack. The tale of the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company in Tropic of Capricorn is a perfect portrait of our insane and evil society. It says the same thing others have said, writing on primitive accumulation or on the condition of the working class, and it says it far more convincingly. This is human self-alienation at its uttermost, and not just theoretically, or even realistically. It is an orgy of human self-alienation, a cesspool of it, and Miller rubs your nose in it. Unless you are a prig and a rascal, when you get through, you know, once and for all, what is the matter. And through it all, like Beatrice, if Beatrice had guided Dante through the Inferno, moves the figure of Valeska, who had Negro blood and who kills herself at the end — one of the most real women in fiction, if you want to call it fiction.
Once Miller used to have pinned on his bedroom door a scrap of paper. Written on it was “S’agapo” — the Greek for “I love you.” In The Alcoholic Veteran he says, “The human heart cannot be broken.”
Introduction to Henry Miller’s Nights of Love and Laughter (Signet, 1955). Reprinted in Bird in the Bush (New Directions, 1959).
Copyright 1959. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.
Bureau of Public Secrets, PO Box 1044, Berkeley CA 94701, USA
Kenneth RexrothKenneth Rexroth was an American poet, translator and critical essayist. He is regarded as a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, and paved the groundwork for the movement. Wikipedia