A hungry eye: Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, text, and context.
Hunger on all fronts
In "Uterine Hunger," one of Miller's surrealist inspired essays from the 1930s, collected in The Wisdom of the Heart, he proclaims: "And always I am hungry, voraciously hungry. I am insatiable. It is a hunger on all fronts: alimentary, sexual, spiritual. I don't eat--I attach myself, like the amoeba, to whatever morsel of food presents itself. Once I have ingested it I split--double, triple, multiple selves floating off in search of fresh morsels of food. It goes on like that ad nauseam." (1) This hunger on all fronts clearly can be taken as a metaphor for the various forms of passion in Miller's books, as well as, I would like to argue, a figure for thinking about his relationship with books, with writing, and with the words of other people. The "Paris Notebooks," housed in Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, that bring together the source material for Tropic of Cancer serve as a way of bringing together these morsels, and might be seen as a monumental gathering together of anecdotes, quotes, images, ephemera, inspiration, feeding that book on a literary and intellectual level. Sitting on a borrowed chair, waiting for someone to rent the apartment above from Boris, Elsa Miller imagines that "Every time the phone rings the poet's mouth waters. Mallarme sounds like a sirloin steak, Victor Hugo like foie de veau," the desire for food and books and money mingling and supplanting each other, and one of the ways we might read that novel is as a meditation on the possibility of starvation, and the sustaining role of art in the face of bodily as well as spiritual hunger. (2) Tracking the metaphor of food through that novel also brings us into a more scatological economy, which suggests, although I don't have space to explore it here, that the intent in the book is to include every stage of a man's bodily production, and to elevate waste and dirt (and his own brand of "dirty" books) along with the scattered and discarded moments of everyday life. (3) Here though, I'd like to take inspiration from this moment in Tropic of Cancer where art becomes food to draw out some of the resonances, consequences and details in that book that follow on from Miller taking in, digesting, and giving us back the words of others. As Katy Masuga writes in Henry Miller and How He Got That Way, "Miller identifies his very personality with being a reader." (4) And as a reader, too, Miller's figure for himself as an amoeba, becoming a part of that which it consumes and then splitting off to create still more organisms--texts, selves, desires--is very much to the point.
Miller had been to Paris once before the period covered in Tropic of Cancer, enjoying a few months of good food, good hotels and good wine with June, and it was on that first trip he was introduced to Fred Perles: 'Carl' of the Tropics. (5) This second time though, as Perles tells it in My Friend Henry Miller, he met Miller sitting by himself at the table of a Montparnasse cafe, "a huge pile of saucers" in front of him. (6) Perles came to Miller's table and listened, and as Miller "talked through his hat, like an inspired lunatic," Perles realized that Miller hadn't a cent to his name. Miller was so obviously American that the waiters never queried his ability to meet the bill, and so the pile grew higher and higher as Miller tried to pluck up the courage to talk the waiters into taking his watch in lieu of payment. (7) All that first night, the myth goes, Perles continued to listen as Miller spoke his way from his Brooklyn childhood, across the United States as hitchhiker, panhandler and scrounger, and through the American underworld in "clipped, lively sentences" that resuscitated the atmosphere of his experiences. (8) By the end of the night Perles had met the bill, bought Henry a toothbrush and shirt, and paid a week's rent for him at the Hotel Central.
As the narrator of Moloch says when he describes the tirades of a New York street-corner preacher, Miller's performance to Perles is speech "in the first person spectacular"--"some of it was in high fettle"--and Perles follows the same lively formula when he rewrites the episode in 1962. (9) Perles's Henry Miller is a raconteur before he is even a writer, and, Perles argues, "it didn't matter what he talked about," "he inspired himself by his own voice," "intoxicated himself with his own words," and, on form, "he held his audience entranced." (10) It's worth quoting Perles at length on these monologues to give a sense of the kinds of patterns that feed into Tropic of Cancer from these spoken trains of association:
The argument had long since ceased to be of any importance; it was the speech which mattered-speech like fireworks, the sparks flying in all directions, kindling a flame here, starting an incendiary there, scintillating, crackling, incandescent. Impossible to say whether it was a case of arson or mere pyrotechnics. At times he took delight in demolishing his own argument at the very moment when it seemed absolutely watertight and unassailable. With one little phrase he would kill a thousand and one glittering images and start all over again, finding a myriad new, antithetical images, more beautiful, striking and miraculous than the first. The changing emphasis on one little word would cause an entirely new situation to arise. The least modification in the alignment of words, the silent fall of a thought from one key into another, and all the images in the kaleidoscope would assume another pattern, no less beautiful or luminous than the first. (11)
For all its evanescence this talk did have its practical uses. In Tropic of Cancer these voluminous, flowing speeches become a form of improvised performance through which Miller's narrator can stay alive without stable economic support. The narrator's scheme in Tropic of Cancer to sustain himself by asking each of his friends to feed him once a week works, because, as Perles explains, Miller rewarded his hosts' generosity with a monologue, as well as in other, less congenial ways: "he lived on his friends as much as Snow White did on the seven dwarfs. And they were all extremely pleased to have him at their table. Henry was good company: he paid for his meals amply by his talk. Occasionally he would perform a clown act or a minor miracle, for good measure, as it were. Or he would take his host's children out for a walk. Or he would wash the dishes and clean up the place. Or he would make love to his hostess. He always endeavored to do something in return." (12) When Miller's narrator says "One by one I've fucked myself out of all these free meals which I had planned so carefully" (61), the joke may be strikingly literal.
Through Miller's commitment to mapping the soul and the body onto each other, but also through sheer practicality, these long-awaited lunches become as important as finding spiritual fulfillment and expression, and comically, vice-versa. "Food is one of the things I enjoy tremendously," Miller writes in Tropic of Cancer (13), but Miller's writing about food functions as part of a nexus of much larger and polymorphous desires. Here writing is a way of eating in the most literal sense, a way of getting round the kinds of problems that Marxists refer to as alienation. Here, hunger generates speech that, for a while at least, staves off starvation. The entanglement of all of this scavenging with the myth of the bohemian artist is evident as early as a letter Miller wrote in 1925 to his friend Emil Schnellock where Miller muses, half-idly, that he's probably "one of those lily-livered pups who hasn't guts enough to go out and get a he-man's job and slave eight hours, maybe ten, for some guy who knows a little less than I do" and that he'd "much rather go home, pretend I'm an artist and write some more flapdoodle". (13) The fact that Miller then signs this "Cabinet Minister," after Knut Hamsun's starving writer-narrator in Hunger (1890) suggests that even here, ten years before Tropic of Cancer, he's imagining himself into a bildungsroman. (14) The sly implication is (as George Orwell surmises in "Inside the Whale") that because the writer puts himself outside of the system of working for a wage for food the writer is by necessity a scoundrel. (15)
This identification with the narrator of Hamsun's Hunger continues through the years, and even as late as interviews in the 1960s Miller maintains that it was this Norwegian who he most wanted to emulate as a writer: "I've always mentioned Dostoevsky was my great passion, surely, but actually, from the standpoint of writing, the way of writing, the style and so on, hardly anyone knows that it was Knut Hamsun who was my--the man I was trying to model myself on." (16) As with the other texts I discuss below, the identification between Miller and the work of what he calls in that interview "our gods, our idols" is so strong that he passes into their writing and identifies directly with the first person narrators they create. The scene in Tropic of Cancer where Miller's narrator imagines tearing chicken from Cronstadt's baby's hands whilst he pretends he's already eaten is a version of Hamsun, especially in its emotional pitch: "This is not just false modesty--it's a kind of perversion, I'm thinking. Twice they asked me if I wouldn't join them. No! No! Wouldn't even accept a cup of coffee after the meal. I'm delicate, I am! On the way out I cast a lingering glance at the bones lying on the baby's plate--there was still meat on them" (44). The man he identifies with in Hamsun's novel is a narrator manic with desperation, refusing the free meal offered him by the doss-house even though he has been brought to the point of sucking his own shirt buttons to stave off pangs. Hamsun's narrator, like Miller, refuses to give up the myth of the life of a writer, even when he's had to pawn his pencil and is considering stealing the proverbial widow's mite. The kinds of hallucinatory streams-of-consciousness precipitated by the lightheadedness of Hunger's narrator flow through Miller's speech into the euphorias of Tropic of Cancer, from passages of Hamsun's such as, for example:
All at once I remember Yalajali. That I could have forgotten her so completely all evening! A faint light penetrates my mind again, a tiny ray of sun, making me feel wonderfully warm. And the sunlight increases, a mild delicate silken light that brushes me in such a soothingly delicious way. The sun grows stronger and stronger, scorching my temples and seething white-hot and heavy in my emaciated brain. In the end a mad fire of sunbeams blazes before my eyes, a heaven and earth set on fire, an abyss, a desert, a whole world on fire, a raging Judgment day. (17)
The embedding of this kind of intense and epiphanic experience in the everyday ("all at once I remember Ylajali," "that I could have forgotten her so completely all evening!") also unites Miller with the Surrealists and the Imagists, and, further back, with the Romantic tradition of the artist as seer as Miller has read it in Emerson and Rimbaud. (Caroline Blinder analyzes this surrealist lineage in depth in A Self-Made Surrealist; James Decker gives a wide-ranging account of Miller's place in the American traditions in the final chapter of Henry Miller and Narrative Form. (18)) This kind of writing has a long tradition in religious mysticism, transcendentalism and American evangelism, as Thomas Nesbit points out in Henry Miller and Religion, but by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (through Baudelaire's flaneur perhaps) it begins to become available for use by the self, and at almost any moment: in a street cafe, walking through the park, with a meal, some cheap music and a bottle of vin or dinare. (19) In this version modernism manifests in both its writers and readers as an urbanized version of the aesthetes' credo that Pater articulates at the end of his Renaissance: "for art comes to you, proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake," but with danger added to the delirium: here there is the constant threat that the visionary moment might tip into the nightmare. (20)
The way Miller uses texts that have come before as both a frame and a way of sustaining himself mentally as he lives on the lam means that the Paris of Tropic of Cancer is a city of double and triple exposures, a place where everything is a kind of text even before it is re-written. The enraptured meditations Miller sends by post to his friend Emil Schnellock in New York contain some of his best Cancerera writing, and large sections of Tropic of Cancer are born here in letters meant to persuade Schnellock to cross the Atlantic. Miller imagines keeping these passages for a travel book on the model of Paul Morand's book about New York, but by the time they make it into Tropic of Cancer the Baedeker is literary and the streets and the cafes are the inspiration and center for a vast intertextual universe. (21) The fronds have been chopped a little in the novel, but the original letters to Emil show just how saturated in his reading some of these monologues were. What reaches Tropic of Cancer as this passage: "Passing by the Orangerie I am reminded of another Paris, the Paris of Maugham, of Gauguin, Paris of George Moore. I think of that terrible Spaniard who was then startling the world with his acrobatic leaps from style to style. I think of Spengler and of his terrible pronunciamentos, and I wonder if style, style in the grand manner, is done for"(14) begins in a letter to Emil from March 1930 as a walk through an imaginary library, a moment where, like his friend Collins, Miller's thoughts move "against this background of literature continuously," "like a millionaire who never stepped out of his Rolls Royce" (206). This version is far less gnomic, beautiful in parts, and absolutely saturated with the texts of others:
I have come upon the Jardin des Tuileries. There are two Greek temples perched on top of the ramp. One is the Musee de l'Orangerie where for another few days the centenary of Camille Pissarro's birth will be celebrated. Camille Pissarro! Now another Paris comes into my memory--one that I have seen almost as vividly as this living one. It is a Paris of literature, a Paris etched on the page of Human Bondage. Going back a few decades, when George Moore was engrossed with his Confessions, when "Les Fauves" were the intransigeants veritables, Somerset Maugham was then a student of painting. He had etwas zu sagen von Camille Pissarro, and about another terrible Spaniard who was startling the world with his acrobatic leaps from style to style--these "styles" which Spengler has so well said are no style at all since each one dices for himself each day of his life what the style shall be. In the grand manner the style is gone. With the death of classicism the culture went under. Do I think all this as I walk along the embankment? Frankly, no. What do I occupy my mind with? With the magic of the night, with the inexorable, wounding beauty of this little stream whose glancing waters reflect a neo-Grecian world. Here the trees bend slightly as if in homage to the miracle of the Seine. In summer they will bend still more under the weight of leaves and blossoms, and when the wind rises in the evening, circulating through the brilliant foliage, they will perhaps shed a few rustling tears and shiver as the water swirls by. (22)
At moments like this Paris is a page for writing on, and the whole of Tropic of Cancer should be as a weaving together of real and imaginary kingdoms. Indeed, when the narrator's wife Mona returns to Paris and to Henry she finds that her husband's Paris exists only in his writing and his imagination. "Why don't you show me that Paris ... that you have written about?," she pleads, only to find that, as the narrator tells it, his Paris is an unreal City, born out of desire: a "Paris whose arrondissments are undefined, a Paris that has never existed except by virtue of my loneliness, my hunger for her"(183). Miller's letters to Nin and the detail of the later books give more of this Proustian relationship where June is buried under the persona imagined for her, but here Paris and the way it brings his voice into being is the object of the narrator's fascination. "Paris" for the reader is Miller's interior monologue given shape and setting, a written presence that grows inside him as the walks give his inner voice a space to unfurl. The streets, parks and cafes provide his desire with an architecture, a form and a subject through which he can contemplate his self. "This Paris, to which I alone had the key, hardly lends itself to a tour," he says, it "has to be lived," "has to be experienced each day in a thousand different forms of torture" (184).
In one of two memoirs of his friendship with Miller, the Hungarian photographer Brassai gives a useful account of the effect this immersive rhetoric is meant to have on the reader:
During one of our talks I happened to reproach Miller for his long-windedness, his repetitiveness, his wandering digressions, which could sometimes seem a thousand miles away from the subject under treatment. Smiling his quiet mandarin smile, he would reply that his chaos was completely deliberate, that what he was looking for was neither logic nor order, but something like the overflow of the Mississippi--impetuously rolling down towards the sea, picking up and sweeping away everything in its path, its muddy waves carrying a million odds and ends: uprooted trees, furniture, cadavers. Writing meant being carried away by the current, and he wanted the reader, too, to be taken, to be swept up and then drowned in the torrential onrush of his prose.... "When I begin to write," he would tell me, "I feel like a breakwater has collapsed. Why would I want to stop the onslaught?" (23)
Brassai's protests are those of the craftsman--"I," he says "conceived of the role of the artist somewhat differently. Rather than giving in to the torrent, the artist should channel it, endowing the formless with form"--but Miller remains unperturbed, replying "I have absolutely no ambition to become an 'artist,' such as you conceive him. I couldn't give a damn about art! I am but a man and I want to express myself completely and without constraints," "all I know is that there is a force in me that must express itself." (24) What's so interesting here is that this aesthetic of spontaneous connection and association not only replaces the logic of a craft, but, because Miller is absolutely saturated with reading at this point in his career, the movement of his mind and his voice is incessantly intertextual leading back and through to other writers.
Many of these authors represent the same kind of encyclopedic impulse as Brassai brings out of Miller's work, and, despite Miller's rhetoric of amateurism and reputation for anti-intellectualism, they represent a canon of substantial and affective writing. The book Miller quotes in capital letters alongside Nietzsche's recommendation ("the best German book there is") is Goethe's Conversations with Eckermann (1824); Cancer's epigraph is from Emerson's Journals (18191882); and, as I discuss below, two of the central inspirations and models for the "I" of Miller's soaring jeremiads, Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West (1918) and Elie Faure's Histoire d'art (1919), are monumental undertakings that attempt to chart the movement of a whole set of civilizations. (25) (These citations, as Thomas Nesbit points out, were not always from primary sources--Miller's sources for his notebooks full of quotations were often contemporary critical discussions, such as, for example, the epigraph from Emerson, which Nesbit states comes from Ludwig Lewishohn's Expression in America ). (26) Walter Pach's translations of Faure are especially close to Miller in full steam, both in the breadth of his interest and in the way he uses the flow of writing to marshal the energetic decadence of the modern, even as he decries it:
Here are the tall chimneys like temple columns, the living animals of steel, with a heart, intestines, nerves, eyes, limbs, bones articulated like a skeleton, the turning, the sliding, the mathematical coming and going of belts, of pulleys, of connecting rods, and of pistons; here are the rigid roads, shining, and extending and intersecting to eternity, and the silent round of astronomical cupolas following the movement of the skies; here are the giant halls, and the bare facades of the factories, cathedrals dedicated to the cruel god who knows no other law than that of unbounded production. (27)
Miller's own humanist faith in the transcendental self stresses the continuities between ages and posits that the problems and exhilarations of a man making his way through life and art repeat with each one who truly sinks themselves deep down into thought. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which these quests for the universal in the narratives of others give Miller a very particular historical anchor. Miller's early immersion in Emerson, Whitman, Dostoyevsky, Spengler and Nietzsche allows us to read him as the torch-carrier for a late romanticism that is to take flame again in a fairly spectacular way when Tropic of Cancer is unbanned in America in 1961, but here in interwar Paris we can see the next incarnation of these romantic ideas an apocryphal and apocalyptic modernism. (28) The idea of travelling through thought into impulses more fundamental, the idea of a submerged pattern to the mind, and the use of the taboo and the jarring juxtapositions of the dream to stir and enrage the reader, connects Miller to the surrealists, but also to Freud, who Miller had already read by the time he reached Paris. Although Miller was idiosyncratic about the way he used the idea of the unconscious, it is nevertheless present in the text as a semantic field scattered with birth, death, taboo and forbidden sexuality. The sense of a dark and rushing undercurrent to life and the mind is also evident in the way that these modernists so often intersect with the vocabularies of the occult and the hermetic. Spengler becomes important to Miller for his prophecies of decay and downfall, Nietzsche for his consuming rhetoric of fire and brimstone and his fight against acquiescence, and Jung for his psychological reversion to primal mythology, the hermetic and the occult. (29)
This sense of the Western world as a civilization brought to snapping point, ringing with apocalyptic and mythological portents, runs all the way through these intertexts. In their vivid and symbolically-laden signifiers the personal and the cultural senses of crises blur, overlap and give energy to each other. Whilst Freud and Jung sought to reveal the self, the repeated motifs of a wider Revelation link Miller's preoccupations together works like Yeats's Vision, Lawrence's Apocalypse and Eliot's Wasteland, as well as with the extremes of Antonin Artaud's theatre of cruelty, of BLAST, and of Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto. (30) As Frank Kermode writes in The Sense of An Ending, "fictions of epoch, of decadence and renovation" come parceled with terror and "annunciatory violence." (31) For Kermode, eschatology is nothing new even in times of war--each era defines and moves past its own imagined ends--but what is peculiar to the modern is the way that art takes on this vocabulary of Armageddon so that the relentless artistic commitment to the new and the revolutionary is felt as perpetual violence and schism. (32) From this point of view, the avant-garde in a capitalist society is always apocalyptic.
For Miller, as I have argued in a previous essay, this apocalyptic language becomes a way of catching fire, of gaining the power to speak with the ferocity he feels he needs to rail against industrialized, urban modernity. (33) In Longinus's classical treatise On The Sublime, written sometime between the first and third centuries A.D, Longinus suggests that sublime speech is that mode of rhetoric which, when we hear it, lifts us up with the speaker so that we feel "just as though we had ourselves produced what we had heard." (34) Clearly Miller's work has much to do with the evocation of the sublime in his discussions of spirituality, and in his evocation of ecstatic moments, however the structure of the sublime may also underlie his response to these late Romantics. In that essay I wrote of the parodic and syncretic nature of Miller's borrowings, but also of the common thread of megalomania in many of the writers Miller ventriloquizes, particularly in the European tradition. The modes of speech Miller learns from Emerson and Whitman temper those he borrows from Papini, Celine, Artaud, Nietzsche and Strindberg which, in the texts Miller selects at least, originally give us narrators who are manic, often raving, lords of misrule. So, the autobiographical first-person narrator of Papini's Un Uomo Finoto (1912) (a book that Tropic of Cancer's narrator reads in Paris to "put me right with myself") combines artistic and religious fervor in a tone where putting one right with oneself might indeed mean absolutism:
Before crossing the Atlantic as the prophet of the new kingdom I must be, really and actually be, what I had dreamed of for myself during the long period of vigil, and what I had proposed that others should also become--a saint, a guide, a demi-god.... My immediate purpose was one only --increase the power of my will to the infinite; to enable my spirit to command men and things without need of outward action. In other words, to perform miracles. Only that! (35)
In Papini, as well as in Nietzche, Artaud and Strindberg the language of the apocalypse, I argued, produces a kind of Faustian bargain for the speaker where the sheer power of the invective seems to pull the speaker over the edge of compassion, control and conventional forms of ethical humanism, as well as over the edge of sanity. The delusional narrator of Strindberg's Inferno immerses himself in the study of the occult to a point where he can say "I believed myself in the possession of unlimited strength, and pride inspired me with the wild idea of seeing whether I could perform a miracle," (36) and it is both the study and the occult that are given to us as maddening; Nietzsche's prophetphilosopher-buffoon feeds the early Miller with sentences like "I have better claims to the word "great" than any other mortal." "I am not a man, I am dynamite," "I am the first immoralist: I am therewith the destroyer par excellence," and this will-to-power allows Miller to write his very first discursive essay, on Ecce Homo. (37)
In Miller's writing reading as feasting is not just a matter of the narrator absorbing other texts; it is a circular exchange--speaking in these excessive voices inflates and aggrandizes him as he consumes, and is consumed by, their words. The rhetoric of "humanity" evident in Miller's praise of Whitman, Lawrence Durrell (approvingly) considered disingenuous: "If it were possible you would like to go on saying I AM A MAN ad lib in order to hide the more terrifying stage whisper I AM AN ARTIST and from there to the ultimate blinding conclusion I AM GOD!." (38) Miller wrote back, in the same idiom: "What you say about 'realizing yourself as an artist, i.e., God,' struck me as one of the most profound things you've written. The very core of the matter," "Above all, the determination to be absolutely responsible myself for everything," "I accept the world, in the ultimate sense." (39) Accepting here means receiving and believing in toto, but also creating the world as oneself, "in the ultimate sense." The feeling of an absolute is the feeling of authority, in both its literary and dogmatic sense, and vice versa, being an author feels like becoming an absolute. Guy Stevenson has written about this ethics of assuming such a rhetorical stance, arguing, through his analysis of Bataille, Pound, and Miller that the "fundamental paradox at the heart of the latter's moral code: that he was motivated by radically humanist and universalist impulses--toward unconditional tolerance and compassion, individual self-autonomy, and sexual and spiritual freedom--but expressed and explored them using deliberately brutal and ostensibly anti-humanist language," functions to "redefine 'sympathy,' 'empathy,' and 'compassion' in a way that takes count of the full complexity of human experience," and--pushing back against the hidden violence in supposedly non-violent language (here Stevenson borrows Lawrence Durrell's words to Miller)--works to "do down ... the dreadful sentimentality which disguises brutality." (40)
The New Instinctivism
On one level, as Jay Bochner points out, there is a perversity to beginning a book with "a gob of spit in the face of Art" and then alluding successively to Whitman, Goethe, Strindberg, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Rabelais, Emerson, and Milton. (41) Nevertheless, this opposition from within is not Miller's invention, and, I'd like to suggest, the kinds of stances associated with the modernist manifestoes in the twenty years before Tropic of Cancer go some way towards explaining this tension. The manifesto, Mary Ann Caws writes, is an act of "going past what is thought of as proper, sane and literary," (42) but remains within the world of art, writing and ideas, even the Vorticists' BLAST manifesto (ironically enough given their use of the feminine as an insult) asks the suffragettes to "LEAVE WORKS OF ART ALONE." (43) The manifesto as a form is a correction to society and a description of movement, better considered as an explosive reaction than any well-directed plan. "As if defining a moment of crisis," she writes, "the manifesto generally proclaims what it wants to oppose, to leave, to defend, to change. Its oppositional tone is constructed of againstness and generally in a spirit of a one-time only moment." (44) This tradition of "againstness" and provocation gives Miller the self-assurance of precedent, and the fact that Miller directs his own reactionary impulses to rail against the alienation of modernity and towards clearing a space for the human voice allows him to draw to himself and graft his writing onto the texts of those forerunning writers (canonical and avant-garde) who also wield the voice with startling power.
The contribution of this tradition of writing as proclamation and invective to Tropic of Cancer can be seen even more clearly since the publication in 2007, in Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, of the spoof manifesto entitled "The New Instinctivism (A Duet in Creative Violence)" that Miller and Perles drafted in 1931 for an issue of Samuel Putnam's New Review. The manifesto remains in draft because Samuel Putnam wasn't happy with the way that Miller and Perles's "editing" involved throwing out material from Robert McAlmon and replacing it with their own, but it is nevertheless useful. Karl Orend argues in his notes to the manifesto that the attack on McAlmon was part of an ongoing grudge held because June rated McAlmon highly, but the manifesto can also be seen as a larger scale example of Miller's agonic relationship with his peers. The famous "blasts" and "blesses" of Wyndham Lewis's BLAST are mocked in the impulsive credo of "The New Instinctivism," even as the cry for newness unites Miller and Perles with the modernists of the First World War as they rail against their forefathers. Miller and Perles's reversion to violent impulse and wit is absolutely in keeping with the hyper-masculine stance of the Futurists and the Vorticists: "the New Instinctivism is nothing more and nothing less than being FOR or AGAINST--instinctively. A NEW instinctivism because man's original instincts have been murdered, because every time an instinct threatens to be born again, civilization with its sterilized, nickel-plated instruments and its superannuated obstetrical buggery slaughters it": "instinctively we are even against the New Instinctivism." (45)
The schematic and schismatic qualities of the modernists are sent up in Tropic of Cancer in the conversations between Miller's narrator and Sylvester, the dramatist ("I am just reading the Manifesto." And Tania says--" Whose?" (36), "Really, you write quite well. Let's see, you're a Surrealist, aren't you?", "My next play will involve a pluralistic conception of the universe. Revolving drums with calcium lights. O'Neill is dead." (64-65)) despite the contrary fact that Boris and the Henry Miller figure are working on what they refer to as The Last Book, a book intended both as a bomb on the model of the Surrealists, Dadaists and Futurists, and a gesture to top theirs:
We have evolved a new cosmogony of literature, Boris and I. It is to be a new Bible--The Last Book. All those who have anything to say will say it here--anonymously. We will exhaust the age. After us not another book--not for a generation, at least. Heretofore we had been digging in the dark, with nothing but instinct to guide us. Now we shall have a vessel in which to pour the vital fluid, a bomb which, when we throw it, will set off the world. [...] For a hundred years or more the world, our world, has been dying. And not one man, in these last hundred years or so, has been crazy enough to put a bomb up the asshole of creation and set it off. The world is rotting away, dying piecemeal. But it needs the coup de grace, it needs to be blown to smithereens. (33)
This manifesto, The Last Book, becomes the working title for Tropic of Cancer, and the connection of the modernism of the manifestos with Miller's writing is strengthened further when we find bits of what will become Tropic of Cancer in this parody manifesto. The section on Matisse is present in an initial draft here, as is a section on the movie Follies Bergere which was cut from the novel, and, most interestingly, the first few words of "The New Instinctivism," as Orend points out in his notes, parallel the famous opening tirade of Tropic of Cancer. "The New Instinctivism" begins "A proclamation of rebellion against the puerilities in the arts and literature, a manifesto of disgust, a gob of spit in the cuspidor of post-war conceits, a healthy crap in the cradle of stillborn deities." (46) Even if "The New Instinctivism" is taken in the joking spirit both Miller and Perles claim for it, the anti-manifesto itself has a precedent in the Dada manifestos, and Miller's desire to demolish what has come before itself has echoes of Tristan Tzara's own attack on the manifesto as a predictable and used-up form:
To proclaim a manifesto you have to want: A.B.C., thunder against 1, 2, 3, lose your patience and sharpen your wings to conquer and spread a's, b's, c's little and big, sign, scream, swear, arrange the prose in a form of absolute and irrefutable evidence, prove your non-plus-ultra and maintain that novelty resembles life just as the latest appearance of a whore proves the essence of God.... The love of novelty is the agreeable cross, proves a naive Idon'tgiveadamnism, sign with no cause, fleeting and positive. But this need has aged also. (47)
Because the figure of the writer is given such a privileged position the act of quotation in Tropic of Cancer is magical in itself, the invocation of a fetish or a relic containing the master's power. Even Miller's giant-killing moments might be thought of as a tribute to the way that these writers have a powerful place in his consciousness. For all the modernist manifesto writers the intention is to seek out like-minded souls as much as to affront the bourgeoisie and, for Miller, these tirades become a kind of authority.
The Decline of the West
The universe of fragments scattered when the center ceases to hold is a common modernist trope, but a certain destruction happens when fragments are brought rudely together too: the kinds of imperial gestures behind the uses of exoticised figures for the Other can be seen as part of a wider discourse of power and appropriation. As Kenneth Graham writes in his commentary on Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Colonel Kurtz's devouring mouth might also be taken as a figure for the apocalyptic, "railing, pleading, threatening, and devouring all the earth," and all three of Miller's favorite nineteenth century encyclopedists--Faure, Spengler and Whitman--tutor Miller through their writing in what might be figured as a consuming instinct. (48) Spengler retains a sense of wonder at the particularities of cultures, but his thesis is based on their sharing a common lifecycle of efflorescence and decay as well as positing the imminent burn-out of twentieth century civilization itself; in D.H. Lawrence's reading Whitman too attempts to contain too much ("I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE. Walter, leave off. You are not HE. You are just a limited Walter. And your ache doesn't include all Amorous Love ..." (49)); and Elie Faure's gigantic Histoire de l'art ends on a vision of the modern as a destroying, devouring force along precisely the lines Miller would later make his own:
Here we see the industries of war in agreement with the industries of peace, and, boiling with them in the bloody crucible of the future, the marine monsters of metal, the gigantic insects which fly with their harsh buzzing, the cannons which hurl their drama more than twenty leagues, the armored dragon which crawl like caterpillars, spitting flame and poison.... All of that is clear cut, without ornament, trenchant, categorical, and having the purity and the innocence of the function-indifferent to good, to evil, and to morality-of the function which is being born, endowed with an appetite which is fierce, insatiable, and joyous. (50)
In these versions the new is a form of consuming in both the sense that the inexorable changes of capitalist and technological modernity are figured as all-encompassing, and in the sense that writing itself becomes a kind of hungry consumption. As the speaking "I" dissolves nouns into bright and scattered connotations a second layer of imagery, often at odds with the first one, is born.
As the geographical reference in its title suggests, Tropic of Cancer's tropical language of vivid colors and primal encounters happens in the mythical spaces of Empire; the name of the novel itself is an attempt to key the reader into a kind of primitivism and linguistic ornamentalism that, in the years leading up to World War One, had become an almost standardized way of representing desire and a rebellion from "civilization." Brassai's photos from Paris in the early thirties show young women at le bal des Quat'z Arts dressing up in beads and grass skirts, baring their breasts like Josephine Baker in the Folies Bergeres performing the danse sauvage, and the pages of transition exhibited African and Oceanic skulls between the avant-garde art. From the primitivist perspective Miller shares with many of the avant-garde modernists, a lack of "civilization" as it is found in twentieth century European and American culture is taken as a reprieve from the vicissitudes of modern life and as a figure for powerful irrational forces buried under it. In the Spenglerian version of history, the civilizations of Others are brought out as precedents to prove that Western civilization is in the late, decaying stages of an organic life cycle. Through this connection, Spengler is able to provide Miller with an additional vocabulary for movement, instinct and wisdom that also, paradoxically enough, stands for decadence and devolution. Civilization in Spengler's work is the corruption of culture rather than its fulfillment.
The group of painters around Henri Matisse known as Les Fauves was identified with wildness because of precisely these kinds of associations between passionate and putatively "uncivilized" expression. For Henry the light and color of Matisse's odalisques "studded with malachite and jasper" summon fantasies of Proust's seafront at Balbec before they tip over into a great swelling imaginary movement through "Persia and India and China," "Kurd, Beluchistan, Timbuctoo, Somaliland, Angkor, Tierra del Fuego," until "white pigeons come to flutter and rut in the iceblue veins of the Himalayas" (169). The sense of movement is a sense of transportation in both the geographical and the religious sense, as (to switch metaphors), the energy in Miller's narration fires a self-perpetuating verbal and intellectual machine:
The lions, too, are disappointed. They expected blood, bones, gristle, sinews. They chew and chew, but the words are chicle and chicle is indigestible. Chicle is a base over which you sprinkle sugar, pepsin, thyme, licorice. Chicle, when it is gathered by chicleros, is O.K. The chicleros came over on the ridge of a sunken continent. They brought with them an algebraic language. In the Arizona desert they met the Mongols of the North, glazed like eggplants. Time shortly after the earth had taken its gyroscopic lean--when the Gulf Stream was parting ways with the Japanese current. In the heart of the soil they found tufa rock. (18)
Because the racially Other is used to represent both the furthest reaches of imagination and alternative models for civilization, these Orientalist tropes surface in Miller's texts to startle and to give a feeling of voyage and extension. Again though, as with Tropic of Cancer's exploitation and extension of the myths of Paris, what is remarkable in Miller's work is the way that this feeling of travel and movement is an extension through the markedly imaginary--through books, paintings, sculptures, ideas, and the fantasies of race. Miller read race as a natural phenomenon, but his writing shows the construction of race as intensely textual; his fictions of race are as baroque as those of Paris. This too is based in his continuing consumption of the discourses of earlier writers: the paragraph I quote above is not an example of automatic writing but a record of a scholarly odyssey. Miller's Spengleresque reference to ancient civilizations is actually the trace of research he did back in the New York Public Library on chewing gum, detailed more realistically in 1963's Plexus:
The chicleros, as they are called, the men who toil in the depths of the jungles of Yucatan, are a fascinating breed of men. I spent weeks at the library reading about their customs and habits. I got so interested in them, indeed, that I almost forgot about chewing gum. And, of course, from a study of the chicleros I was drawn into the world of the Mayans, thence to those fascinating books about Atlantis and the lost continent of Mu, the canals which ran from one side of South America to another, the cities which were lifted a mile high when the Andes came into being, the sea traffic between Easter Island and the western slope of South America, the analogies and affinities between the mysteries of the Aztec alphabet, and so on and so forth until, by some strange detour I came upon Paul Gauguin in the center of the Polynesian archipelago and went home reeling with Noa Noa under my arm. And from the life and letters of Gauguin, which I had to read at once, to the life and letters of Vincent Van Gogh was but a step. (51)
The associational logic and reach of these kinds of passages produces a text with no natural end, either metaphorically or literally and it's entirely plausible to surmise that when he writes of his idols' overelaboration he is teaching the reader how to treat his own monologues: "when I think of their deformities, of the monstrous styles they chose, of the flatulence and tediousness of their works, of all the chaos and confusion they wallowed in, of the obstacles they heaped up about them, I feel an exaltation," "they were all mired in their own dung" and "all men who overelaborated," and "when you show me a man who expresses himself perfectly I will not say that he is not great, but I will say that I am unattracted" (254). "So true is it" he continues, (overelaborating), "that I am almost tempted to say: 'Show me a man who overelaborates and I will show you a great man!'" (254). The outrageous ambition of Miller's texts is both in the attempt to include everything, but also to create a universe where one moves in and out of the imaginations of Gauguin, Van Gogh, and the encyclopedists. His linguistic fetishization of the exotic, the other and the strange is well provided for in this culture of hungry acquisition, collection, and cataloguing. Miller's autodidactic attempts to include the furthest reaches of knowledge was mirrored in his raids on libraries as he moved between associations, consuming fragmentary idea after fragmentary idea:
In the musty tomes of every great library there are buried articles by obscure or unknown individuals on subjects ostensibly of no importance, but saturated with data, idea, fancies, moods, whims, portents of such a caliber that they can only be likened, in their effect, to rare drugs. The most exciting days often began the search for the definition of a new word. One little word, which the ordinary reader is content to pass over unperturbed, may prove (for a writer) to be veritable gold mine. From the dictionary I usually went to the encyclopedia, not just one encyclopedia but several; from the encyclopedia to all manner of reference books; from reference books to hand-books, and thence to a nine day debauch. A debauch of digging and ferreting, digging and ferreting. In addition to the reams and reams of notes I made I copied out pages and pages of excerpts. Sometimes I simply tore out the pages I needed most. Between times I would make forays on the museums. (52)
This encyclopedic structure is carried through into Miller's almost obsessive annotation of books, expanding each sentence into a cluster of ideas and references to other books and expanding this into later essays and novels so that the textual and the concrete are fused. This blending of life and art isn't just a dream of the narrator's, either. When Van Norden in Tropic of Cancer wants to seduce a woman he simply shifts between life and text--the narrator tells us that transition from "Ezra Pound's cantos to the bed is made as simply and naturally as a modulation from one key to another" (138)--and later on in the book the sailor, Collins, also mingles the realms of life and fiction, moving between a boy he has fallen in love with, to Proust's Baron de Charlus, "and then to Kurtz who had gone up the river and got lost." Collins, the narrator writes, stays with Conrad until he has entered a brothel on the Quai Voltaire, and even after he had "flung himself on the divan and rung for girls and for drinks, he was still paddling up the river with Kurtz." "Only when the girls had flopped on the bed beside him and stuffed his mouth with kisses did he cease his divagations," Miller writes (206). For the expatriates, intertextuality becomes a space within which to re-imagine the self and a way of re-framing the world, and through this framing writing becomes a way of seeing. Indeed, this freedom to determine one's own frame of reference is what Miller and his fellow expatriates seek in Paris and in their self-selected bohemianism; it's important to remember that at this point Miller had no full length works published and that Miller's wanderings and scavengings are the result of refusing to compromise his imagination of himself as a writer. Starving in Paris, as the narrator tells it in retrospect, is never as unbearable as the years spent in New York selling his days to Western Union.
Possession by Gods
The way that the narrator's voice consumes, amplifies and vivifies the world suggests that the biographical and bibliographical route into Tropic of Cancer is always going to be vexed. Brassai's Henry Miller, the Paris Years was only translated into English in 1995, and post-dates all three main Miller biographies, and, like most biographies, casts into doubt much of what was assumed to be truth. Brassai does not muckrake, but he does assert firmly and convincingly that Tropic of Cancer is even more fictionalized than the established readings assume. (This digestion and transmutation of source material is consistent: Karl Orend's ongoing work on Miller's oeuvre details many more of these gaps between art and life, Caroline Blinder's analysis of Miller and Rimbaud in A Self-Made Surrealist lays out how Miller re-shapes Rimbaud's biography in Time of the Assassins, and Maria Bloshteyn's The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon lays out just how much Miller went into making Miller's Dostoevsky. (53)) Henry in Tropic of Cancer says that the Hungarian photographer talked to him about the massacre of the Jews in the reign of the Black Death (193), but Brassai gives a far more interesting source of the sentence, and of the tenor of Miller's nihilism. At the time Miller was composing Tropic of Cancer, he writes, "the plague was a very fashionable topic," and Anais Nin's psychoanalyst, Rene Allendy, along with Antonin Artaud, were both fascinated. Artaud, Brassai tells us, had sent Nin to find the "Plague chronicles" for him in the Bibliotheque Nationale, for a lecture on "The Theater and the Plague" he was to give at the Sorbonne on April 6th, 1933 which Miller, Nin, and Brassai all attended. "Artaud described a city under the plague: decaying cadavers, the stench of putrescence, the delirium of those who were suffering, the frantic sex, the superstitious practices, the ceaseless parade of flagellators, the massacre of the Jews" but what fascinated Allendy and Artaud, he writes,
was not so much the plague itself--though its victims had numbered 25 million in Europe--but its effects: to those terrorized by death, life seemed precious and sweet. People let themselves go. They tried to outdo one another in creating works of art. For Allendy and Artaud the Black Plague might have been the most desirable thing to have happened to society; its power of dissolution fascinated them even more. (54)
"... And that was the origin of the Black Death about which I never spoke with Miller," he concludes. (55) The effect of Miller's version is to subsume the lively artistic community under the single anecdotal voice and to strip others of their creative labors, to give the moving center of this incredibly fertile period to Miller's writer manque and his fictional self. Miller's work is readable in the way that, for example, many of the submissions to transition are not because he retains an American sense of the vernacular, of conversation as performance, and of the street-corner, soap-box jeremiad. However, this does mean that there's a kind of devouring of the works of others as he learns to speak in them and through them. (56) Miller's declarations of amateurism and his financial status as unpaid writer are in keeping with an approach to the writing of others that mobilizes enthusiasm in its pre-modern sense, that is, not just passion but "possession by a god," "supernatural inspiration" and "prophetic or poetic frenzy" (Oxford English Dictionary). In 1951's The Books in My Life (a book which, characteristically, includes a list that claims to contain everything important Miller has ever read) he discusses the decision to quote such large sections of The Decline of the West in Plexus:
It was an experiment which I felt obliged to conduct, and experiment between myself and my readers. The lines I chose to quote had become my very own and I felt that they had to be transmitted. Where they not every bit as important in my life as the haphazard encounters, crises and events which I had described as my own? Why not pass Oswald Spengler on intact also since he was an event in my life? (57)
This enthusiasm becomes for Miller a way of working and thinking, but also at times an anxiety. He suggests that one of the reasons he cannot write about his favorite authors at length is not only "because I cannot refrain from quoting them copiously," but "because they have muscled so deep into my very fibers that the moment I being talking about them I echo their language. It is not so much that I am ashamed of 'plagiarizing' the masters as that I am fearful of ever being able to recover my own voice." (58) Miller's romantic conception of the self privileges and worries over the sense of an origin for the individual voice, but what his texts suggest is something much closer to the author as a collector and scribe, a writer who comes into being by writing himself into the texts of others. James Decker's assertion that Henry Miller approaches "self-knowledge from a dual process of accumulation and re-contextualization" holds true for his consumption and assimilation of the words of others, too, and, as Decker points out in "'The Agonizing Gutter of my Past': Henry Miller, Conversion, and the Trauma of the Modern," Miller's interaction with books often takes on the character of a moment of conversion. (59) At one point in Tropic of Cancer Miller proclaims "I love everything that flows," quoting Joyce ("the great blind Milton of our times"), before meditating on this flow to produce his own version of the unending inner monologue that Joyce gives Molly Bloom, but via Whitman's anaphoric repetition: "I was thinking of him [Joyce] this morning when I awoke with a great bloody shout of joy: I was thinking of his rivers and trees and all that world of night which he is exploring. Yes, I said to myself, I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences. I love the amniotic fluid when it spills out of the bag. I love the kidney with its painful gall-stones, its gravel and whatnot; I love the urine that pours out scalding and the clap that runs endlessly; I love the words of hysterics and the sentences that flow on like dysentery and mirror all the sick images of the soul" (258). By the time Miller passes through the flow of the Amazon and the "scripts that flow, be they hieratic, esoteric, perverse, polymorph, or unilateral" he has dissolved Joyce's incredible attention to the minutiae of daily life and language into elemental abstractions and geographical movement, and has boiled the body down into its fluids, "the spittle that floats away in the gutter, the milk of the breast and the bitter honey that pours from the womb, all that is fluid, melting, dissolute and dissolvent" so that everything "loses its sense of origin" and passes away into a kind of primeval sludge. It's thousands of miles away from the captivating human clutter of Joyce's writing, and although the linguistic distances Joyce travels continue to fascinate Miller, he maps them onto a tropical language not present in Joyce's original, and even, as Bochner points out, onto the imaginary adventures of Blaise Cendrar's psychopathic anti-hero: "I love the great rivers like the Amazon and the Orinoco, where crazy men like Moravagine float on through dream and legend in an open boat and drown in the blind mouths of the river. I love everything that flows...." Indeed, Miller's assimilative instincts are such that an entire unsignaled paragraph from Finnegans Wake appears in Tropic of Cancer within a suitably ambiguous and again, Orientalized context. Miller's meal ticket for the moment, Nanantatee, is trying in vain to teach Henry the sacred Hindu sound, "Ohm" and Henry can't (or won't) master it.
"No, Endree ... like this ..."
... but what with the murky light, the botchy print, the tattered cover, the jigjagged page, the fumbling fingers, the fox-trotting fleas, the lie-a-bed lice, the scum on his tongue, the drop in his eye, the lump in his throat, the drink in his pottle, the itch in his palm, the wail of his wind, the grief from his breath, the fog of his brainfag, the tic of his conscience, the height of his rage, the gush of his fundament, the fire in his gorge, the tickle of his tail, the rats in his garret, the hullabaloo and the dust in his ears, since it took him a month to steal a march, he was hard-set to memorize more than a word a week. (96)
The racially insensitive caricature of Nanantatee suggests that the sound might not be as holy to Henry as it could or should be, and that Finnegans Wake too is being caricatured as nonsensical superstition. Nevertheless, the connection of Joyce with a religion of the word remains, and the section of the Wake Miller has chosen to plagiarize appeals to the same passion for the rare word and the startling prose rhythm that we see all the way through Tropic of Cancer. Even as Miller attempts to contain and dominate Joyce he still finds the need to speak through these other texts. This consumption is not just restricted to Joyce; in Tropic of Cancer Miller appropriates and capitalizes a long quotation from Goethe's Conversations with Eckermann, and, in the process, renders it far more millennial than in its original context. Miller's narrator, appalled by the listless and lifeless complacency of his fellow humans ("Are these men and women, I ask myself, or are these shadows, shadows of puppets dangled by invisible strings?") is happy to find a fellow Jeremiah: "Excellent! At least a hundred years ago there was a man who had vision enough to see that the world was pooped out. Our Western world!" but, although his quotation is word-perfect, the invocation of Nietzsche (via Havelock Ellis's introduction to the 1930 Everyman's library translation) and the overdetermined typography give Goethe a bluster that's not really present in his genial Conversations. (Goethe's grace is perhaps is the reason that earlier in the book Miller's narrator damns him as "a stuffed shirt," "a respectable citizen, a pedant, a bore, a universal spirit" and a "German bourgeois deity" in a "drowsy stupor" ). Although Miller's narrator has taken flight again into an optimistic nihilism by the end of the section ("Stay on the earth, you eagles of the future! The heavens have been explored and they are empty," "Stay on the earth and swim another few hundred thousand years!") the capitalized thunder lays the stress on Revelation and prophecy: "I FORESEE THE TIME WHEN GOD WILL HAVE NO MORE JOY IN THEM, BUT WILL BREAK UP EVERYTHING FOR A RENEWED CREATION" (246). Miller's overworked typography all but buries Goethe's "dear old surface," even though Goethe's gentler stress seems to be the thousands of years left before the catastrophe:
"The development of mankind" said I, "appears to be laid out as a work for thousands of years."
"Perhaps millions," said Goethe--"who knows? But let mankind last as long as it may, it will never lack obstacles to give it trouble, and never lack the pressure of necessity to develop its powers. "Men will become more clever and more acute; but not better, happier, and stronger in action--or, at least, only at epochs. I foresee the time when god will have no more joy in them, but will break up everything for a renewed creation. I am certain that everything is planned to this end, and that the time and hour in the distant future for the occurrence of this renovating epoch are already fixed. But a long time will elapse first, and we may still for thousands and thousands of years amuse ourselves on this dear old surface."
Goethe was in a particularly good and elevated mood. He ordered a bottle of wine, and filled for himself and me. Our conversation again turned to the Grand Duke Charles Augustus. (60)
These original fragments made new by a change in context might be viewed as surrealist "ready-mades," and Miller does mention seeing the Duchamps at the 1913 Armory Show. (61) However, when Miller uses found material in "The New Instinctivism" there's a much greater sense of mischief than there is in Tropic of Cancer: "the semi colons in General Pershing's speech are ours. We assume full responsibility for them," (62) write Perles and Miller in "The New Instinctivism" before a parody of the surrealist manifesto, "Soluble Fish," where "one day a guy said, 'Zigaboo' and was proclaimed a genius," "the next day a guy said 'Zogibee' and was burned in effigy" and the soluble fish itself is boiled down into a bomb "about the size of a liver pill," together with "stale shit, uric acid, green ink distilled from the leaves lying in front of the Cafe Cosmos, and the spermatoblastic properties of Messrs. S. and R.'s testicles." (63) Unfortunately this surrealist bomb has rather unforeseen side-effects--"aimed at M. Jean Cocteau, it hit an innocent little girl named Gertrude Stein." (64) The glee in his parody, as well as the sheer literality of Miller's use of sources throughout Cancer suggests that surrealist displacement wasn't his goal as much as the digestion of these vibrant and startling literary voices.
Through this assimilative aesthetic reading becomes a form of writing and there's comparatively little imaginative distance between Miller's frenzied annotation of other people's books, the lists of strange words and phrases pinned to his study wall, and the devouring of their work in his own. As early as 1922 when he took a month off work to write a Horatio Alger type-novel for Western Union, Miller is writing to Emil of his joy in writing born out of quotation (and here you get a snatch of Miller's vernacular before the apocalyptic overtones were developed, although Miller's characteristically exultant use of the list is already in place): "Say, many thousands of thanks to you for introducing me to Ezra Loomis Pound. I have him and the whole tribe of modern poetasters on my desk. Eight volumes of modern poetry all at once," "Boy, I can swallow it like Home Brew. And what's more, I can understand it, that's the mystery! Sounds like stuff I say to myself all day long." He continues: "Man, I'll quote you so full of quotations you won't know plop from zowie. I ask myself: Is it for this I have read Haeckel, Darwin, Spencer, Freud, Huxley, Weininger, Rolland, Dewey, Andreyev, France, D'Annunzio, Havelock Ellis, Forel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Tolstoi, Gorki, Mencken? I ask you as a friend to tell me it is not true!" (65) By the time he reaches the early thirties Miller seems to have a slightly greater sense of irony about this kind of consumptive desire, dramatizing it in the figure of Papini's failure:
The books he read--at eighteen! Not only Homer, Dante, Goethe, not only Aristotle, Plato, Epictetus, not only Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, not only Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire, Villon, Carducci, Manzoni, Lope de Vega, not only Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant, Hegel, Darwin, Spencer, Huxley--not only these but all the small fry in between. This on page 18. Alors, on page 232 he breaks down and confesses. I know nothing, he admits. I know the titles, I have compiled bibliographies, I have written critical essays, I have maligned and defamed ... I can talk for five minutes or for five days, but then I give out, I am squeezed dry. (71)
Interestingly though, Papini's version isn't a confession of fraud as much as an exasperated sense that no matter how much he reads he can't seem to get to the core of these writers, or to satisfy his own desire for them. The feeling of fraud comes from Miller's text, not Papini's; the Italian is condemning the dilettantism that Miller still finds exhilarating, despite (or perhaps because of) his marvel at its excesses. Miller hasn't quite come to terms with the sense of diminishing returns in Papini's autobiographical fiction, and it's worth quoting the Italian writer at length to show just what kinds of indictments Miller has sublimated or denied:
I have read many books, books innumerable, too many books perhaps, yet I may say that I have never read at all. In my mind are stored a vast number of names, hordes of titles, a very arsenal of note, but the books I really know inside and out, in their words and in their spirit, because I have read them again and again, have pondered and absorbed them, are very few in number, and of this fact I am ashamed, although I am by no means the only wretched being who wastes his time tracing words upon the sand for the winds to carry away. The one-book man is forbidding and funereal, but the man of too many books is like a sewer that retains only the worst and the outside of what passes through it. Such a man am I. Mea culpa. (66)
Instead, what connects Tropic of Cancer's narrator to Papini is Miller's sense that what's inside these books matters less than the sense of having connected them in a person and a voice. Miller misreads Papini like he misreads Goethe, but he's still taken stock of the way they compose their personas through speech--Papini, as a failure is "marvelous," as Miller writes, because of the incredible mad charisma of Papini's first person narration. In Tropic of Cancer Miller places the voice and the narrator at the center of a created universe, walking the streets of Paris with "Dante, Rabelais, Van Gogh" ringing in his ears, and yet Miller is distinctive in the way he feasts on and subsumes this sense of a whole vivid realm of the paintings, writings and thoughts of others into a continuous first person narrative. Gathering together the traces of Miller's voracious literary and artistic consumption brings together some of the brightest and most lurid points of cultural crisis, but also gives him a still center within that crisis as he grafts himself onto the texts of others and builds a strong and distinctive voice out of the words of others.
The moment of peace and strength that ends Miller's first published book--where he has finally got enough money to leave Paris and solve the problem of his loneliness and yet decides to stay--is a small instance of calm and decisiveness which brings to a temporary end his chaotic manifesto: "After everything had quietly sifted through my head a great peace came over me. Here, where the river gently winds through the girdle of hills, lies a soil so saturated with the past that however far back the mind roams one can never detach it from its human background. Christ, before my eyes there shimmered such a golden peace that only a neurotic could dream of turning his head away," [...] "The sun is setting. I feel this river flowing through me--its past, its ancient soil, the changing climate. The hills gently girdle it about: its course is fixed" (316-317). Suitably enough though, even this moment where he finally decides to remain still for a while comes out of the layering of text upon text upon text, figured here in an American vision of old Europe as a soil saturated with the human past. The center that is still as the Seine flows round it is the center that Miller has found through creating a firm voice for himself out of the words of others, and so it's fitting that this is a moment with a literary history too. The movement of the sentences draws substance from the movement of Hamsun's more elegiac sentences in Pan and Mysteries, but the model for the moment is from the closing chapter of Papini's A Man--Finished:
Upon this rocky hilltop where the wind is never still I have once more found myself and my serenity. Within the circle of these dark and pointed hills, in these fields, poor in flowers and grasses and rough with stones, in the shadow of these sturdy, untended oaks, to the sound of this clear and narrow stream which will flow through Rome broad and dirty, beneath this sky which is really blue, is transparent and delicate even when it is strewn with clouds, I have come once more to know the true smell of the earth, the taste of the air, the flavor of bread, the pleasant heat of a fire of logs and brushwood. Little by little life has won me back through the beauty of its simplicity. I have become a child again, have become primitive, wild, and sylvan. I have set myself in order with the ancient family. (67)
(1) Henry Miller, "Uterine Hunger" in Selected Prose 1 (London: MacGibbon and Key, 1965), p.17.
(2) Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (Paris: Obelisk, 1934; New York: Grove Press, 1961; London: John Calder, 1963; London: Flamingo, 1993). All quotations are from the Flamingo edition and will be cited parenthetically.
(3) See Paul Hansom, "Turd in the Whorehouse, Bomb Up the Ass: The Anal Apocalypse of Henry Miller," Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal: The International Henry Miller Journal, 2 (2005) 117-130 for a fuller reading.
(4) Katy Masuga, Henry Miller And How He Got That Way (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 2. Masuga gives readings of moments of intertextuality with Whitman, Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Lewis Carroll, Proust and D. H. Lawrence, and in The Secret Violence of Henry Miller (Rochester, New York: Camden House, 2011), projects that intertextuality forward through Bataille into the Deleuzian French post-structuralist tradition.
(5) See Henry Miller, Paris 1928, Nexus II (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012) for a late version of this trip.
(6) Alfred Perles, My Friend Henry Miller (New York: Belmont, 1962), 14.
(7) Perles, My Friend Henry Miller, 14; 15.
(8) Perles, My Friend Henry Miller, 18.
(9) Henry Miller, Moloch (London: Flamingo, 1993) 65.
(10) Perles, My Friend Henry Miller, 21.
(11) Perles, My Friend Henry Miller, 21.
(12) Perles, My Friend Henry Miller, 47.
(13) George Wickes, ed., Henry Miller: Letters to Emil (Manchester: Carcanet, 1990), 14.
(14) For more on this see Finn Jensen, "The Scandinavian Connection: Impulses from Strindberg's Inferno and Hamsun's Hunger in Miller's Tropic of Cancer," Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, 2 (2005), 130-144.
(15) George Orwell, Inside the Whale and Other Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962)
(16) Frank L. Kersnowski and Alice Hughes, eds. Conversations with Henry Miller (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 35. For more on Miller and Hamsun see Chapter 1 of, Indrek Manniste, Henry Miller, the Inhuman Artist: A Philosophical Inquiry (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).
(17) Knut Hamsun, Hunger (Edinburgh: Rebel Inc., 1999), 123.
(18) Caroline Blinder, A Self-Made Surrealist: Ideology and Aesthetics in the Work of Henry Miller (Rochester, New York: Camden House, 2000). See also Paul Jahshan, Henry Miller and the Surrealist Discourse of Excess: A Post-Structuralist Reading, (New York: Peter Lang, 2001) and Gay-Louise Balliet, Henry Miller and Surrealist Metaphor: 'Riding the Ovarian Trilogy' (New York: Peter Lang, 1996); James M. Decker, Henry Miller and Narrative Form: Constructing the Self, Rejecting Modernity (London: Routledge, 2005)
(19) Thomas Nesbit, Henry Miller and Religion (New York: Routledge, 2007); also see Eric D. Lehman, "Big Sur and Walden: Henry Miller's Practical Transcendentalism" in Henry Miller: New Perspectives, edited by James M. Decker and Indrek Manniste (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015) pp. 127-136.
(20) Walter Pater, The Renaissance (London: Fontana, 1961), 224.
(21) J. Gerald Kennedy, Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 145.
(22) Wickes, Letters to Emil, 27.
(23) Brassai, Henry Miller: The Paris Years, translated by Timothy Bent (New York: Arcade, 1995), 36.
(24) Brassai, Henry Miller: The Paris Years, 36.
(25) For more on Miller and Spengler see Indrek Manniste, Henry Miller, The Inhuman Artist. See also my "'The Dearest of Cemeteries': European Intertexts in Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, European Journal of American Culture, 29:3 (2010), pp. 197-215 for more discussion of Miller and European modernist intertextuality.
(26) See Nesbit, Henry Miller and Religion, 37.
(27) Elie Faure, History of Art, translated by Walter Pach (London: John Lane, 1924), 493.
(28) For a discussion of Miller as a Romantic in the American tradition see Kingsley Widmer, Henry Miller (New York: Twayne, 1963).
(29) Manniste gives a detailed account of the relationship between Miller's work and the philosophy of Nietzche, Spengler, and Jung in Henry Miller, The Inhuman Artist.
(30) For a fuller discussion of Miller's intersection with modernism, particularly with Ezra Pound's work, see also Guy Stevenson, "Blast and Bless--The Radical Aesthetics of Henry Miller and Ezra Pound," PhD dissertation (Goldsmiths University, UK), available on http://research.gold.ac.uk/12309/.
(31) Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000),100; 99.
(32) Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, 100.
(33) Sarah Garland, "'The Dearest of Cemeteries': European Intertexts in Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, European Journal of American Culture, 29:3 (2010), pp. 197-215
(34) Longinus, Cassius (attr.), On The Sublime, trans. by Penelope Murray and T.S. Dorsch, in Classical Literary Criticism (London: Penguin, 2000), 120.
(35) Giovanni Papini, A Man - Finished (Un Uomo Finito), translated by Mary Prichard Agnetti (London: Hodder and Stoughton, c. 1928), 205.
(36) August Strindberg, The Inferno, translated by Claud Field (London: William Rider & Son, 1912), 31
(37) Friedrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. and edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 1992), 97.
(38) Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller: A Private Correspondence, ed. George Wickes, (New York: Dutton, 1963), p. 4. Quoted by Hassan, p. 36. See Manniste's work for an in-depth analysis of this rhetoric of humanity and inhumanity.
(39) Jan. 20th 1937, The Durrell-Miller Letters, p. 48.
(40) Guy Stevenson, "Henry Miller and Morality" in Henry Miller: New Perspectives, edited by James M. Decker and Indrek Manniste (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).64; 66
(41) Jay Bochner, "An American Writer Born in Paris: Blaise Cendrars Reads Henry Miller Reading Blaise Cendrars," Twentieth Century Literature, 49 (Spring 2003).
(42) Mary Ann Caws, Manifesto: A Century of Isms (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), xx.
(43) Wyndham Lewis, Blast 1 (London: John Lane, 1914), 151.
(44) Caws, Manifesto: A Century of Isms, xxiii.
(45) Henry Miller and Alfred Perles; notes by Karl Orend, "The New Instinctivism (A Duet in Creative Violence)," Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, 4 (2007), pp. 3-56. 3.
(46) Miller and Perles, "The New Instinctivism," 3.
(47) Reproduced in Caws, Manifesto: A Century of Isms, 297.
(48) Graham, Kenneth, "Conrad and Modernism," in The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, edited by John Henry Stape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 214.
(49) D.H. Lawrence, D.H. Studies In Classic American Literature (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971)
(50) Elie Faure, History of Art, translated by Walter Pach (London: John Lane, 1924), 494.
(51) Henry Miller, Plexus, (London: Flamingo, 1993), 47.
(52) Miller, Plexus, 47.
(53) See, for example Karl Orend, "His Eyes Were the Color of the Sea--Fragments on The Unknown Henry Miller in Paris, 1931-1933," Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, 5, pp. 178-215 and Brotherhood of Fools and Simpletons: Gods and Devils in Henry Miller's Utopia (Paris: Alyscamps, 2005); Caroline Blinder, A Self-Made Surrealist: Ideology and Aesthetics in the Work of Henry Miller (Rochester, New York: Camden House, 2000); Maria Bloshteyn, The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller's Dostoevsky, (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2007), 138.
(54) Brassai, Henry Miller: The Paris Years, translated by Timothy Bent (New York: Arcade, 1995), 134.
(55) Brassai, Henry Miller: The Paris Years, 134.
(56) See my essay on Miller's Into the Night Life for an analysis of the way Miller uses quotation from transition in that work. Sarah Garland, "A Surrealist Duet: Word and Image in Into the Night Life with Henry Miller and Bezalel Schatz" in Henry Miller: New Perspectives, edited by James M. Decker and Indrek Manniste (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), pp. 137-158.
(57) Henry Miller, The Books in My Life (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1951), 27.
(58) Miller, The Books in My Life, 198.
(59) James M. Decker, Henry Miller and Narrative Form: Constructing the Self, Rejecting Modernity (London: Routledge, 2005), 161; "'The agonizing gutter of my past': Henry Miller, Conversion, and the Trauma of the Modern," in Henry Miller: New Perspectives, edited by James M. Decker and Indrek Manniste (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015) pp. 21-32; 23.
(60) Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann, edited by J.K. Moorhead, translated by John Oxenford (London: Dent, 1930), 275.
(61) Wickes, Conversations with Henry Miller, 53.
(62) Miller and Perles, "The New Instinctivism," 10.
(63) Miller and Perles, "The New Instinctivism" 12.
(64) Miller and Perles, "The New Instinctivism," 12.
(65) Wickes, Letters to Emil, 5.
(66) Papini, A Man--Finished (Un Uomo Finito), 244.
(67) Papini, A Man--Finished (Un Uomo Finito), 296.
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|Publication:||Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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