"Holy the lone juggernaut!": Miller, Ginsberg, and the autobiography of the individual.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson (Epigraph to Tropic of Cancer)
Henry Miller's and Allen Ginsberg's respective masterpieces, Tropic of Cancer and "Howl," are connected from the very first lines. When Ginsberg sees "the best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness, staving hysterical naked / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix" (1-2), I believe he is looking upon the same sad, hopeless people that Miller refers to in Tropic of Cancer's third sentence, "We are alone here and we are dead" (1). Both texts are considered American classics, and both authors have been compared to Walt Whitman. In her essay "Wild at Heart," Vivian Gornick states, "it can safely be agreed that Allen Ginsberg is the poet who, within living memory, most legitimately resembles Whitman" (3-4). Miller receives similar, slightly darker, praise when Orwell calls him "a sort of Whitman among the corpses" ("Inside the Whale" 502). Other critics have noticed the influence of Tropic of Cancer on Ginsberg. James Goodwin writes that Miller's "inventions in discursive style...have stood as a powerful precedent for the Beat Generation" (312). Warner Berthoff goes as far as suggesting that Tropic of Cancer gave Allen Ginsberg the title of his poem (280), quoting Miller's line that calls us to "set up a last agonizing, bloodcurdling howl" (TOC 257; emphasis added). Possibly most noteworthy are the frank obscenities that both books contain, which caused both to face resistance when being published. Yet, a less mentioned similarity, and what I plan to explore in this essay, is the function of the autobiographical technique of both authors, and the influence of this technique in creating two texts often regarded as groundbreaking and original works of art.
Henry Miller wrote extensively on D.H. Lawrence, and Lawrence's lack of hope for the world. Lawrence's worldview provides the starting point, or primary vision and direction for Miller's art. In the closing pages of Lady Chatterley's Lover, we are presented with an explanation by Mellors that could have been a source of inspiration for Miller. Connie asks Mellors, "And what is the point of your existence?" to which Mellors replies,
I tell you, it's invisible. I don't believe in the world, not in money, nor in advancement, nor in the future of our civilization. If there's got to be a future for humanity, there'll have to be a very big change from what now is. (335)
Mellors presents a problem with the world to which he has no solution. He recognizes the need for "very big change," but that's as specific as he can get, leaving him "all mixed up with a lot of rage" (335). The world that Mellors describes is the same world that Ezra Pound sees in Tropic of Cancer. In his praising review of the novel, Pound writes that Tropic of Cancer is a "deliverance" from a "difficult situation" of "THIRD rate authors welcomed by the trade, inventors of nothing, adapters and diluters of everything according to the demands of laziness, popular hang-over and the grossness of standards" (87; emphasis his). Mellors sees a problem with the world, but no specific solution, while Pound sees a similar world and believes that Tropic of Cancer delivers that solution. Henry Miller achieves this, as does Allen Ginsberg, through a unique form of autobiography. While a traditional type of autobiography is primarily a historical document that portrays the author's life over time, Tropic of Cancer and "Howl" are intensely artistic works that portray the complex thoughts, feelings, and anxieties of the individual at an exact moment in time. Then, through this portrayal of the individual at an exact moment, through this glimpse into the individual's soul, the reader can witness the reality, or truth, of the world around that individual. Miller explains this technique in his essay "Creative Death:"
... for the artist there is nothing but the present, the eternal here and now, the expanding infinite moment which is flam and song ... His poem is the legend wherein he buries himself, wherein he relates of the mysteries of birth and death--his reality, his experience. (4; Miller's emphasis)
Through portraying his own experience, Miller can accurately portray the reality of that "expanding infinite moment" which will turn him to the idea that the "Hero" of Tropic of Cancer "is not time, but Timelessness" (TOC 1). Elizabeth Ladenson elucidates this goal further by explaining that Miller's "desired outcome is no longer the perfect work of art but the pursuit of Truth in the act of self-expression itself' (165).
Allen Ginsberg writes about his similar aspirations in a letter to Richard Eberhart in response to a negative critique of "Howl." Ginsberg writes, "I have released and confessed and communicated my true feelings...Howl is the first discovery as far as communication of feelings and truth, that I made" (152; Ginsberg's emphasis). In an essay recounting his first experience reading the poem, Bob Rosenthal comments on "Howl's" representation of the present, saying, "The poem balances an orchestra of oral poetic and prophetic forms with the poet's voice at the apex of the past and future" (44). The goal here is immense. It is not enough for Miller and Ginsberg to merely recognize that a broader truth or reality exists within the individual. They also have to take the pen and express that truth. They both recognize this great challenge, along with the great reward that it holds. In a letter to Lawrence Durrell, Miller writes, "If I had only set myself to tell the truth about myself, that would have been fine. But I also wanted to tell the truth about others, about the world. And that is the greatest snare of all: it sets you above the others if not precisely above the world" (275). Ginsberg addresses this ambition and risk in his letter to Eberhart as he writes, "I used to think I was mad to want to be a saint, but now what have I got to fear? People's opinions?...I am living outside this context. I make my own sanctity" (152). Miller and Ginsberg recognize the enormity of their ambition, and the likelihood of failure, but the technique has been decided. Only through the artistically developed, autobiographical form of Tropic of Cancer and "Howl," a form fiercely focused on the individual, can their colossal artistic goals be reached.
The world in Tropic of Cancer is a distant echo of Mellors's depiction. In the novel's opening page, Miller writes, "The weather will continue bad ... There will be more calamities, more death, 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" (1). I would argue that this description of weather could be interpreted as Miller's view of the current state of the world. To Miller, the world is writing, the only success that exists is in writing, and only through writing can change be achieved. When Miller says, "I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive," he immediately goes on to say, "Everything that was literature has fallen from me" (1). It is impossible for Miller to think about money, hopes, and resources, without simultaneously thinking about literature, therefore writing as well. Now, writing and literature are connected, and the former must take place in order for the latter to occur. Yet, they are not the same. Literature is a product. It is Miller's "weather," Lawrence's "civilization," and Pound's "inventors of nothing." Literature is finite, and Miller sees its end, "there is no escape. The weather will not change" (1). Writing, on the other hand, can bring about that change. Writing is indefinite. Writing existed before literature, and will continue to exist. "The hero, then," Miller writes, "is not Time, but Timelessness"(l). Miller recognizes that a new kind of writing is the only way to save the world, and he attempts to both present and solve the problem simultaneously. The problem is that "our world," the only world, the world of writers, "has been dying" (26, emphasis his). He says, "We have no need for genius-genius is dead. We have need for strong hands, for spirits who are willing to give up the ghost and put on flesh" (27). It was Pound who said that Tropic of Cancer was the solution to the world's problem, and it is the autobiographical form of Henry Miller, the individual, both the writer and the written, that is the flesh.
This autobiographical technique is not only necessary for the world, but also for Henry Miller. In his essay "Henry Miller, American Autobiography," James Goodwin writes,
As long as he stayed in the United States Miller's writing remained, even in his own estimation, wholly derivative ... he habitually wrote in imitation of admired writers-whose ranks were numerous and offered models as diverse as Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Knut Hamsun, and Dostoyevsky. (297)
Goodwin argues that with this autobiographical technique Miller was able to "breakthrough to discover" his "unique writing voice" (298). To employ this technique, there is no need for "genius" which he claims is dead, or money, resources, and hopes, which through their absences make him the "happiest man alive." He simply needs to write. Miller says, "I am a writing machine. The last screw has been added. The thing flows. Between me and the machine there is no estrangement. I am the machine..."(TOC 28). There is no difference between the writer and the writing. In Tropic of Cancer the writer is the writing. Miller writes, "the book has begun to grow inside me. I am carrying it around with me everywhere" (26). Tropic of Cancer provides the solution, and also tells us what the solution is. Goodwin writes that by turning to this form, "Henry Miller voices a new need for dissent and independence...Through celebration of unrenowned individuality, he withdraws experience from consideration as a blueprint for success" (300-301).
In Miller's letter to Lawrence Durrell, we are given greater insight into D.H. Lawrence's influence on Miller's world view, as well as Miller's choice of the autobiographical technique:
One could almost sum it up, like Lawrence, and say our troubles are largely, almost excessively, societal. The social pattern remains the same, fundamentally, despite all the dazzling changes we have witnessed. It gets more thwarting all the time-for the born individualist. And, as you know, I am interested--like God-only in the individual ... Being unlike myself ... this is simply impossible. I don't care who the artist is, if you study him deeply, sincerely, detachedly, you will find that he and his work are one. (273)
This letter presents a fundamental problem that Miller has when writing, and one that others find with his writing. The world is "thwarting" to those concerned with the individual. Miller then posits that it is impossible for him, or any artist, to be unlike himself, or be removed from his work. Instead of trying to escape this impossibility, Miller uses the autobiographical form to embrace it. Norman Mailer examines Miller's technique in his essay "Narcissism." Mailer makes several problematic claims concerning Miller's focus on the individual. Tropic of Cancer is written in a world where literature is dying. Henry Miller attributes this largely to Whitman, saying, "In Whitman the whole American scene comes to life, her past and her future, her birth and her death. Whatever there is of value in America Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said" (TOC 239-240). Therefore, with nothing more to say about the world, Miller must write about the only thing left, himself. He says, "My idea in collaborating with myself has been to get off the gold standard of literature" (243). Mailer condemns this collaboration, saying, "the narcissist suffers from too much inner dialogue. The eye of one's consciousness is forever looking at one's own action. Yet these words turn us away from psychic reality" (140). By suggesting that an examination of the self creates an inaccurate reality, and that true answers lie outside the self in the realm of universal maxims and truths, Mailer embodies society's "thwarting" of the individual that Henry Miller has identified. In fact, Mailer places himself into the camp that Henry Miller is trying to distance himself from. In Tropic of Cancer, Miller writes, "My idea briefly has been to present a resurrection of the emotions, to depict the conduct of a human being in the stratosphere of ideas ... In short, to erect a world on the basis of omphalos, not on an abstract idea nailed to a cross" (243). In rejecting the individual as a source of truth Mailer fails to recognize the autobiographical form as an "omphalos," or a "blueprint for success" as James Goodwin calls it. Instead, Mailer's faith remains in an "abstract idea nailed to a cross."
Allen Ginsberg receives similar criticism in a letter from his father, Louis Ginsberg, in 1956. Louis Ginsberg writes, "[Howl] has violence, it has life, it has vitality. In my opinion, it is a one-sided neurotic view of life; it has not enough glad, Whitmanian affirmations" (57). Louis Ginsberg's view is problematic because it presents "a one-sided view of life" as a weaker, or less accurate view of life, and similar to Mailer, Louis Ginsberg believes that truth and reality are found within the abstract and dying ideas that Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg are consciously trying to break away from. The foundation of Miller's and Ginsberg's art lies within the individual, and they both write extensively about this belief. In his letter to Eberhart, Ginsberg defends his method of writing through a unique, individual, perspective by saying,
In [Howl] I am leaping out of a preconceived notion of social "values," following my own heart's instincts -allowing myself to follow my own heart's instincts, overturning any notion of propriety, moral "value," superficial "maturity," Trillingesque sense of "civilization," exposing my true feelings-of sympathy and identification with the rejected, mystical, individual even "mad." (152; Ginsberg's emphasis)
I believe that here Allen Ginsberg presents the desire to remove himself from these "Whitmanian affirmations" in order to "expose [his] true feelings" and real individual experience. In the same letter, Ginsberg goes on to write that he has taken a "leap of detachment from the artificial preoccupations and preconceptions of what is acceptable and normal" (152).
Henry Miller takes a similar stance in Tropic of Cancer, saying, "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" (254). In becoming "inhuman" Miller also frees himself from the preconceptions, preoccupations, and creations of other men. Through belonging "to the earth," he can focus solely on his individual experience in the world, and through this individual experience, he can create a true representation of the world around him. This separation from the "creaking machinery of humanity" is said of Ginsberg as well in Jason Shinder's introduction to The Poem that Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later. Shinder writes,
[Ginsberg] knew how it felt to be an outsider, and he used that knowledge and experience in "Howl" to connect emotionally and intellectually with others who felt the same way. The poem empathizes most strongly with those who are victims of large and seemingly impersonal forces- politics, economics, and the dictates of culture. (xxii)
Rosenthal explains his emotional connection with the isolated Ginsberg saying that his "howl wakes readers to use eyes and ears and tongues to strip the gauze away and perceive the world with clarity no longer hidden or denied" (44). An identical appraisal is seen in William Joyce's "Miller Time: on Henry Miller," where he describes that Miller had to "start from scratch, disconnect all the plugs that supposedly gave him sustenance, but in reality sought to make him a galley slave" (10). Joyce continues to say, "always with Miller, I feel I am dealing with a man, not a code of conduct some publisher has put his stamp of approval on" (10). Through a break from conventions and society, and a focus on the individual, Ginsberg and Miller succeed in creating a portrait of human experience that readers see as real and relatable.
Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg both write believing that truth and reality lies within the individual, and that the success of the writer lies within the individual as well. Miller writes of "a constant and steady decline of man in art, in thought, in action" (TOC 249). Like Miller, Ginsberg credits society for this decline. The first part of "Howl" ends "with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years" ("Howl" 78). Ginsberg recognizes a dying world, and demands to know what caused it, asking, "What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imaginations?" (79).
The answer "Moloch" is profound and all encompassing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "Moloch" as "A person or thing to which extreme or terrible sacrifices are made; a terrible or remorselessly destructive person or force" ("Moloch" def. 1). In "Howl," the sacrifice is the individual. Ginsberg explains that "Part II describes and rejects the Moloch of society which confounds and suppresses individual experience and forces the individual to consider himself mad if he does not reject his own deepest senses" (Letter to Eberhart 154). Ginsberg's "Moloch" is in many ways the same societal decline that Miller fears. It represents Mailer's world that restricts the truth found within the individual, or Miller's feared "abstract idea nailed to a cross." The individual experience cannot be viewed as real or true within a society of "Moloch." Ginsberg writes,
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments! ("Howl" 81-82)
Moloch is associated with restriction and control. It is called a "judger of men," "the incomprehensible prison," and "the vast stone war." Ginsberg writes that it is "Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy!" (87). This is the same "ecstasy" whose absence Miller believes has caused a "decline of man in art" (TOC 249). Miller and Ginsberg both recognize the impossibility of their goal of individuality coexisting with "Moloch." Miller writes, "Who that has a desperate, hungry eye can have the slightest regard for these existent governments, laws, codes, principles, ideals, ideas, totems, and taboos?" (249). Miller calls for "a man to turn the world upside down in order to create a new race, the love that he brings to the world is turned to bile and he becomes a scourge" (TOC 248). Ginsberg creates a representation of this idea, writing, "Visions! Omens! Hallucinations! Miracles! Ecstasies! Gone down the American river! / Dreams! Adorations! Illuminations! Religions! The whole boatload of sensitive bullshit! / Breakthroughs! Over the river! Flips and crucifixions! Gone down the flood!" ("Howl" 90-92).
It is important note that one crucial and necessary commonality between the two texts is also one of the most criticized: Obscenity. Both books faced charges of obscenity, and because of this, both texts faced a great deal of resistance to publication within the United States. After publishing "Howl," Lawrence Ferlinghetti was charged with a violation of the Penal Code of the State of California, alleging that he did "willfully and lewdly print, publish and sell obscene and indecent writings, papers and books" (The People of the State of California vs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti 173). In a similar vein, Mary Kellie Munsil writes that the works of Henry Miller are "deeply troubling to feminist critics, given the seemingly misogynist and sexually violent inclinations of the protagonist/author...his difficulties in reaching print in the United States were linked primarily to the disturbing sexual content of his work" (285). The technique of both works as autobiographical representations of the individual not only justifies the texts use of obscenity, but explains the necessity of its inclusion. To accurately portray an individual, a true individual, the authors must expose themselves to all influences and factors. They can leave nothing out. Ginsberg writes, "I am paying homage to mystical mysteries in the forms in which they actually occur here in the U.S. in our environment... without stupid mental self-deceiving moral categories selecting who it is safe to sympathize with and who is not safe" (Letter to Eberhart 152, emphasis his). It is not Ginsberg's intention to decide right and wrong, safe and not safe. He is trying to rid himself of the "outdated dualistic puritanical academic theory ridden world of values" (152), and instead portray a real and true world as he personally experiences it. Miller shares this belief that obscenity can lead to a truth about the individual. Miller believes that the artist "opens himself to all influences--everything nourishes him. Everything is gravy to him, including what he does not understand--particularly what he does not understand" (Creative Death 4, emphasis his). His thoughts on the vast array of influences on the artist are echoed in his novel as he writes, "Everywhere I go people are making a mess of their lives. Eve ryone has his private tragedy. It's in the blood now-misfortune, ennui, grief, suicide...Scratch and scratch-until there's no skin left. However, the effect upon me is exhilarating" (TOC 12). Here Miller welcomes obscenity and tragedy as it gives him more and more influences through which to paint his individual portrait of the world. Miller and Ginsberg's goal is to portray reality, and because there are obscene influences in their lives, in their realities, obscenity absolutely must be included in the work.
In the closing pages of the Tropic of Cancer Miller makes a final, exalting claim for a true artist:
A man who belongs to the race must stand up on the high place with gibberish in his mouth and rip out his entrails. It is right and just because he must! And anything that falls short of this frightening spectacle, anything less shuddering, less terrifying, less mad, less intoxicated, less contaminated, is not art. The rest is counterfeit. The rest is human. The rest belongs to life and lifelessness. (255)
Here Miller is perhaps holding the artist in his highest regard. When true art is achieved, true art that may be maddening and controversial, the artist places himself outside and above the human race. He creates something outside of life and outside of time. He creates something that lasts forever. While the artist is inhuman to Miller, he is consecrated by Ginsberg. "In The Footnote to Howl" he writes, "Everything is holy! Everybody's holy! Everywhere is holy! Everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an angel! The bum's as holy as the seraphim! The madman is as holy as you my soul are holy!" (115-116). To Ginsberg, every individual and everything captures reality, and therefore possesses this sanctity. This is a positive affirmation of mercy and support towards the "private tragedy" that Miller sees in every man. Miller and Ginsberg posit these claims as a roadmap for their ambition. Yet, although all individuals may possess this substance, much more is required to satisfy the aspirations that Miller and Ginsberg have set for themselves. While using the autobiographical technique as the form to produce a timeless work of art presents a great possibility of failure, Miller and Ginsberg recognized that this was the only way to leave behind the requirements and restrictions of the established order, create a unique and individual world view, and through that world view, create a timeless portrait of life itself.
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--. Facsimile, Transcript and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts and Bibliography. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. 151-54. Print.
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The People of the State of California vs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts and Bibliography 173. San Francisco Municipal Court. 3 Oct. 1957. Print.
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|Title Annotation:||Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg|
|Publication:||Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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