Humanism after humanism: Henry Miller: Colossus upon Colossus.
--Ford Madox Ford No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction, 106
He talked about himself because he himself was the most interesting person he knew. I liked that quality very much--I have a little of it myself....
He could galvanize the dead with his talk. It was a sort of devouring process: when he described a place he ate into it, like a goat attacking a carpet. If he described a person he ate him alive from head to toe. If it were an event he would devour every detail, like an army of white ants descending upon a forest. He was everywhere at once, in his talk. He attacked from above and below, from the front, rear and flanks....
Nobody can explain anything that is unique. One can describe, worship and adore. And that is all I can do with Katsimbalis' talk....
--Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi, 28, 20, 32
The very art I practice also runs counter to the idea of a calm farewell to a thinned self. Whatever the writer's aesthetic--from subjective and autobiographical to objective and author-concealing the self must be strengthened and defined in order to produce the work. So you could say that by writing this sentence I am making it just a little harder for myself to die.
--Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened of, 88
When most people think of Henry Miller, they think of him as either a writer of smut and pornography, or as an early avatar of the sexual revolution in the sixties of the last century, around which time his most iconic books, such as Tropic of Cancer (1934), were released from their ban in the United States and elsewhere. Indeed, well before I myself had read any Miller, I distinctly remember (a great intellectual of eighteen!) seeing footnote after footnote adverting to Miller in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus--a book, at that unripe age, I only partially grasped. But the Miller of the "gob of spit" in the face of form and art, the bare-knuckled, rebel Miller, is only a small, but operative part of the Miller I want to discuss. I'm more interested here in the visionary Miller, that Jeremiah, elegant or inelegant, most consummately revealed (and revealing) in what I--following in his own train, if his biographers are to be believed--consider his most accomplished, moving, and truthful book, The Colossus of Maroussi (1941).
This book was written after a rare holiday in Greece, just before and on the cusp of the outbreak of the Second World War. The main gambit of these cursory reflections though is to see how far Miller is able to both express and represent a kind of humanism in the wake of a dying humanism. Indeed, one might say that there are two possible ways out of Nietzsche (whom I see, tritely no doubt, as the most prone historical icon of the death of a meta-narrative, humanism): one being the abstract, ratiocinative prose of Beckett, where the patterns and the recursions, the vertiginous "technique" are the keystone of an almost Judaic art; the other, the way of empathy and concretion, being the highly expressive telltale mosaics of Miller. This binary distinction, however heuristically useful here, is aptly argued for (without relation to these authors of course) in Wilhelm Worringer's Abstraction and Empathy. Worringer sees the first kind of art finding its etiology in panic and anxiety occasioned by the world of time and space, the cosmos--such inquietude leading to the salve or tonic of pattern, as desperate filler; the second, empathic or representational art being a result of being at-one with the surrounding cosmos. It's serendipitous indeed, that regarding the latter, Worringer makes use of ancient Greek art: Miller's Colossus book being a work of art about the guilelessness, the open-handed, open-hearted lack of artifice belonging to the mytho-poetic Greece he encountered and the mytho poetic Greeks he encountered, eponymously captured by Katsimbalis: a man and persona whose rhapsodic monologues mirror Miller's own virtuosity, as he himself notes in the book. Put otherwise, Miller isn't an (or the) "aloof" kind of artist--he is directly engaged and engaging, spilling from the wrists and the jugular. He is at-one with the world, having realized the world is one in essence. Or at least becomes and does so at the time of writing this fabulous book.
Every individual thing that exists, whether made by God or man, whether fortuitous or planned, stands out like a nut in aureole of light, of time and of space. The shrub is the equal of the donkey; a wall is as valid as a belfry; a melon is as good as a man. Nothing is continued or perpetuated beyond its natural time; there is no iron will wreaking its hideous path of power. (1)
In a very recent (philosophical) study of Miller, Henry Miller: The Inhuman Artist, Indrek Manniste has argued that a central part of what Miller espoused as the "inhuman" was his denial of enlightenment or progressivist notions of history and its linear determination upon the present; or, equally, the cowering of that present from some chronological future. Manniste distinguishes between what Miller saw as dying in his time, the "traditional present," and the a-historical or, better, ex-static, "full present," which was to take its place. This latter was elicited by, if not fully instantiated by, the "artist." (Indeed, this mutual immanence or reflexive loop between, or about, destruction and creation is at the heart of much of Nietzsche's thinking and writing.) While I find Manniste's close readings extremely helpful, I propose to show how there is a very strong case to be put forward, which incorporates Manniste's argument, but, if not going thus beyond it, gives it a very different inflection.
One way (exemplified in the Maroussi book) in which Miller is "inhuman," is that in nearly all his mature work he represents himself as (or as reflecting for us) the worst-off in a so-called progressive modernity (pace Manniste) at which he is at odds. Abyssal poverty for him, reaching ground-zero in the bourgeois (common)sense of material life, is often the sine qua non of his humanism, or that type of humanism I am arguing for. For instance, here he is, echoing the violent rebelliousness of his more famous Tropic books, but in a far more controlled and soft-souled, soft-spoken manner:
Shepherds are crazy folk. So am I. I am done with civilization and its spawn of cultured souls. I gave myself up when I entered the tomb. From now on I am a nomad, a spiritual nobody. (2)
I'd like now to link this evident motif in Miller, hallowing the worst-off, with a different part of the same nexus of ideas, namely his relation to narrative. For part of Manniste's discussion of Miller and the "inhuman" has to do with the rejection of narrative, or at least linear narrative.
Manniste argues that part of Miller's (implicit or not) bugbear was Hegelian teleology. And Hegel is the philosopher of (grand) narrative par excellence. However, to (re)invoke Ford--a modernist Manniste doesn't connect Miller with--stories are most compelling and truthful when the protagonist is lost or losing (in said grand narrative). In line with some of Manniste's Millerian notions, Ford writes in two places, criticizing modern industrial then technological civilization, as well as (like Miller) rendering the loser, in extremis, in that same modern game a spur to that truer (fuller) being which is story, or "art":
Science changes its aspect as every new investigator gains sufficient publicity to discredit his predecessors. The stuff of humanity is unchangeable. I do not expect the reader to agree with me in this pronouncement but it would be better for him if he did. The world would be a clearer place then. (3)
Let your generous sympathies go with the loser--with Pompey as against Caesar; with Anthony as against Octavian; with Romulus Augustulus as against Odoacer; with the Albigenses as against the Catholics; with Charles as against Cromwell; with Napoleon as against the Holy Alliance; with Lee as against Grant; with the Second Empire as against the big battalions; with the South always as against the North--and even with Carpentier as against Dempsey. Always and forever.
For you may be sure that in almost every victory in this category the defeated cause fails because it stands for a higher civilisation.... (4)
What I want to suggest, after making this unwitting comparison, is that there is a way of connecting (pace Manniste) the discarded traditional present with the so-called full present, which does not do away with narrative, but rather takes the claim of narrative at its utmost word. In a sense, one must show allegiance, not to the biographical Hegel, but rather to the form of his insight. Not, thus, what both Miller and Ford reject as modernists, "the" univocal grand narrative of modernity, but rather the implicit truth of the latter: namely, that the normative notion of narrative is best served precisely by the polymorphous or infinite multiplying of narratives. In what is an extremely deft reading of Hegel, Ermanno Bencivenga writes towards the end of his Hegel's Dialectical Logic, that it is part of Hegel's legacy that we are (after the impact of modernism no doubt) able to:
Think of the past, of history, as a repertory of diversity, in the specific sense of projectual diversity. We must see a lot going on there besides the official line: a multiplicity of false starts, of crushed hopes, of sidelined, forgotten dreams. And we must insist that, for all their being forgotten and sidelined and crushed, those projects are still there, and their presence in the past is an indictment of the official line--as much of a substantial incarnation of a normative stance on it as we can get but also, maybe as much of one as we need. We must feel the cutting corners of the little rocks to which those (never realized) majestic boulders have been reduced, and sense that they can still draw blood. (5)
Similarly out-Hegeling Hegel, Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" illuminates the same modernist insight, rigorously playing up the discarded counterfactual in the infinite interstices of some supposed victor's "positive" history. He would develop this liberating intellectual move in his unfinished Arcades Project, (in particular, "Convolute N.")
Indeed, in an essay on "Fate and Character," Walter Benjamin cites Nietzsche. He quotes Nietzsche proposing that fate is character, and then concludes that Nietzsche's thought means that therefore there is no (more) "fate." The idea of the gods of yore, supposedly, was the principle of stuff happening to one, out of and beyond the neurotic or fixated control of one's intentionality. Hence in modernist novels, we witness on the whole the disintegration of character. In vital contrast, Miller holds fast to this (epic, hopeful) idea of letting the world affect you. In this sense he is looking back over Nietzschean shoulders. It is the sine qua non of his most celebrated insight, that "acceptance" is the key to happiness: his seductive and rhapsodic humanism--a potent but latent prayer owing just as much to St. Augustine as Whitman--after the slow eking away of humanism.
There are two aspects of Nietzsche's revolutionary thought, at strident and opposed extremes to each other, when developed in a fertile manner. While with one aspect of his thinking he does away with (a humanistic) Ratio--whether we want to call it a discursive, symbolic or transcendental register--celebrating the (erotic) surface, and being in Sontag's terms "against interpretation"--with another he offers an implicit caveat and saving clause. By attacking (not so much arguing against) transcendence, reducing all to immanence--a philosopher's thought, say, no longer arrived at in an intelligible and objective way, but part of his temperament, universalizing the ad hominem--he also opened the way to what some might call panlogism. The latter is in effect the idea that different (to use Kantian terms) "faculties" are no longer clinically bordered off from each other, the empirical from the transcendental say, but are dialecticized, and feed into each other osmotically, polymorphous and perverse. For instance, if it weren't for Nietzsche (and thus Freud) one modernist philosopher, Adorno, exemplary here, wouldn't have been able to have a section or vignette in his Negative Dialectics titled "Idealism as Rage" in which what is in a strict sense an epistemic category is cashed out in (empirical) psycho-sensual clothes or, indeed, nearly every entry in his Minima Moralia.
It is this osmosis that typifies Miller's conceit of "Cancer"--the crab being able to move in any direction at once, rather than bound by binaries of forward and backward, or strictly left and right. (Not to mention the nominal parallel of the, metaphorical or not, use of astrological "constellations.") To invoke Ford again, witness this slaying of chronological or linear sensibility. He is discussing technical discoveries and insights shared with his sometime early modernist collaborator, Conrad:
We agreed that the general effect of a novel must be the general effect that life makes on mankind. A novel must therefore not be a narration, a report. Life does not say to you: In 1914 my next-door neighbour, Mr. Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with the Cox's green aluminium paint. If you think about the matter you will remember, in various unordered pictures, how one day Mr. Slack appeared in his garden and contemplated the wall of his house. You will then try to remember the year of that occurrence and you will fix it as August 1914, because having had the foresight to hear the municipal stock of the City of Liege you were able to afford a first-class season ticket for the first time in your life. You will remember Mr. Slack--then much thinner because it was before he found out where to buy that cheap Burgundy of which he has since drunk an inordinate quantity, though whisky you think would be much better for him! Mr. Slack again came into his garden, this time with a pale, weaselly-faced fellow, who touched his cap from time to time. Mr. Slack will point to his house wall several times at different points, the weaselly fellow touching his cap at each pointing. Some days after, coming back from business, you will have observed against Mr. Slack's wall ... At this point you will remember that you were then the manager of the fresh-fish branch of Messrs. Catlin and Clovis in Fenchurch Street ... What a change since then! Millicent had not yet put her hair up ... You will remember how Millicent's hair looked, rather pale and burnished in plaits. You will remember how it now looks, henna'd; and you will see in one corner of your mind's eye a little picture of Mr. Mills the vicar talking--oh, very kindly--to Millicent after she has come back from Brighton ... But perhaps you had better not risk that. You remember some of the things said by means of which Millicent has made you cringe--and her expression!... Cox's Aluminium Paint!.... You remember the half-empty tin that Mr. Slack showed you--he had a most undignified cold--with the name in a horseshoe over a blue circle that contained a red lion asleep in front of a red-gold sun ...
And, if this is how the building of your neighbour's greenhouse comes back to you, just imagine how it will be with your love affairs that are so much more complicated. (6)
Of another, though less central, colossus, George Seferiades, Miller writes with admiration: "He had a way of looking forwards and backwards, of making the object of his contemplation revolve and show forth its multiple aspects." (7)
At first blush one might think of Foucault's "webs" of infinite and radical asymmetry, the zero-sum world of differential powers, in the first volume of his History of Sexuality--another version of a polymorphous rejection of enlightenment or progress or humanism. Indeed (to revert to my opening), Foucault wrote an Introduction to that very Deleuze and Guattari work. But it is my intention here, however briefly, to elicit the way in which there remains a humanistic hopefulness in Miller's vision, especially instanced by this illuminating work of illuminations, The Colossus of Maroussi.
In this work as elsewhere, Miller often thinks of man, at his normative best, in his essence, in "angelic" terms. And from Aquinas we know, or are piqued to be informed, that angels, unlike men, are each and every one of them a species unto themselves. Miller's vision, implicit throughout his work, is equivalent to the "utopia" or the "messianic" regulative ideal often invoked by Adorno or his mentor, Benjamin: namely, a society of absolute individuals--a paradox and contradiction in terms for our finite minds. Furthermore, in this work, Miller forever intimates, as another topical motif, the central moral of Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment. He signally links outward or civilizational repression (a witless and soulless technological expansion) with inward repression--of our sensual and dependent natures. He evinces the by turns the Foucauldean dialectic of an instrumental reason targeted to free the subject, which (up-)ends up by subjectifying him.
That said, for Miller the whole man is the man who becomes a god by realizing that the gods are beyond his (strictly speaking) egotistical control or, more tellingly, "organization." Those discarded dregs of society, as he often portrays himself, are thus icons and indices of the essence of humanity. Indeed, towards the end of this Greece book, he laments and concludes that it wasn't men who humanized the gods, but the gods who humanized men. In one sense, for all his vitriol against inhibitive religious organization, Miller is highly religious: he believes that suffering, wound-ability, the privation incumbent on love, is a transcendental spur--quite unlike so-called "post-structuralists." Indeed, I have always felt it a potent paradox that such post-modern thinking holds in common with a pre-modern religious ethos the idea that man is not his own regulator pulling himself up from his own bootstraps. Whether we call it God, or "nom de pere," both say that there was a world before us and there will be a world after us. And yet, Miller's soliciting of epiphany and "realization" in order to grow (transcend) as artist and (thus) as man is far less over-determinant (and emptying, or (quite literally) soul-destroying) than the "post-structuralist" rut. He may seem deterministic here, below, but his godly determinism is a source of liberation, manumission, not of the chains of a radically imperfect, zero-sum world. Transcendence: in a word, the "solution."
At its best thought is but speculation, a pastime such as the machine enjoys when it sparks. God has thought everything out in advance. We have nothing to solve: it has all been solved for us. We have but to melt, to dissolve, to swim in the solution. We are soluble fish and the world is an aquarium. (8)
Another way of expressing this humanism or hopefulness, if via negativa, is to invoke perhaps one of Miller's most central writerly techniques, in this magnificent book as elsewhere: the litany. Umberto Eco writes in his (recent) Confessions of a Young Novelist that the centrality of lists, in medieval gothic as in his own work, is not only to list an empirical plethora, but also, and more significantly, to rhythmically indicate and point to the infinite or to infinitude, which is another way of making the writerly soul--in essence, for Miller or his eponymous hero, a monologist--a-kin to a god. Each point of a web-like rambling monologue is the (mythic or timeless) center; or, to put it in Ford Madox Ford or Conrad's terms, "life does not narrate." The element of true, live quidditas, of rubble and contingency is registered in his tale-telling. It is forever more story than plot. We learn in Miller of a thousand ways in which, to paraphrase Forster on Aspects of the Novel, the "king married the queen," but very rarely of the totalizing motivation or rationalization that would render event and annal of event infertile and defunct, obsolete. He is what Benjamin would call a "storyteller." (The first aphorism in Nietzsche's The Gay Science praises a life for life's sake, rather than one servile to a "because....")
What I'm trying to intimate is that when Nietzschean perspectivism is embraced, when the writer recognizes the in-adequacy of language and understanding to the world, artifact of the hermeneutic circle or what Kermode called in a different setting, the "genesis of secrecy," he approaches a new kind of transcendence: where the (un-honed) expressive echolalia, however noisome and unmanning, becomes sublimated into the life--something Miller hints at towards the end of his ecstatic experiences and ecstatic renderings of his (deontic) day of rest in Greece. If Miller means anything, he means that kind of "real assent" opposed to "notional assent" (Newman) which allies the suffering artist with (all) the wretched of the earth, all those radically at the mercy of the gods.
I give this record of my journey not as a contribution to human knowledge, because my knowledge is small and of little account, but as a contribution to human experience. Errors of one sort and another there undoubtedly are in this account but the truth is that something happened to me and that I have given as truthfully as I know how. (9)
And this: despite his very un-Sartrean and a-political anarchism. His politicization of civilizational failures is as I say more epic than quotidian. He admits to rarely reading newspapers: he talks of the contemporary civilizational failures from the perspective of millennia beyond. And so on....
Miller's life and art are different, parallel vessels towards sublimating egotism, but not by self-effacement, but rather by an electrically-charged self-expression that runs into silence at the last, when each atom or morsel of self is spent in (onto) the world, and the page. A deep-bellied kenosis, then. In Adorno's terms, he uses "the subject to critique the subject." However much he may have rejected purposiveness, his diatribe against such is very much purposive. And his aesthetics is one of salutary exhaustion, rather than scenic delicacy and tiptoeing precision. The latter is perhaps the more "artful"; but the former's artifacts only exist or go rendered into type in order for them to be transcended, like a ladder kicked away after the climb, like Zarathustra's mountain, Christ's Golgotha--from wherefore unto commending....
Perhaps the temporal (and narratological) paradox is named best by Nietzsche's slogan and/or injunction to: "become what you are."
(1) Miller, Maroussi, op. cit., 146.
(2) Ibid., 93.
(3) Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday, Manchester: Carcanet, 1999, 139.
(4) Ford Madox Ford, Provence: From Minstrels to the Machine, New York: The Ecco Press, 1979,182-83.
(5) Ermanno Bencivenga, Hegel's Dialectical Logic, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 88. Bencivenga's emphases.
(6) Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, New York: The Ecco Press, 1989,193-94.
(7) Miller, Maroussi, op. cit., 47.
(8) Ibid., 162-3.
(9) Ibid., 237-8.
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|Publication:||Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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