The reverse of Don Quixote.
Phylogenesis : Evolutionary pedigree or genealogical history.
--Chambers Dictionary, 13th ed.
Here's a Sunday newspaper from America. Did you ever notice how one reads the Sunday papers? First the rotogravure, then the funny sheet, then the sports column, then the magazine, then the theatre news, then the book reviews, then the headlines. Recapitulation. Ontogenyphylogeny. Define your terms and you'll never use words like time, death, world, soul. In every statement there's a little error and the error grows bigger and bigger until the snake is scotched. The poem is the only flawless thing, provided you know what time it is. A poem is a web which the poet spins out of his own body according to a logarithmic calculus of his own divination. It's always right, because the poet starts from the center and works outwards ...
Henry Miller, Black Spring 
"Christopher Columbus was the reverse of Don Quixote;" Miller suggests that his journeying would arrive at nothing but an adumbration of an "American Horror." That horror is a term that he had borrowed from John Cowper Powys, and, in Powys's terms, is a "horror" enacted as a "danse macabre" of "frantic self-assertion"--an induced monument to an "unspeakable decomposition" only registered by the "imaginative few." But this horror contracts even further for Miller; the pupil dilates to semantically depose any "I" for a corresponding "eye"--"these novels will give way by and by to journals"--we see nothing but ourselves in an otherwise public aberration of interests that Miller foregrounds in his visions of Columbus's early America Columbus is construed as a figure we cannot recognize without the historic figuration of the "frightening ghosts" his dreams would imbue the land with. He's the reverse of Quixote; rather than a lens for personal interaction, Columbus is here a vehicle with which to drive towards anything else only to find yourself there as an ultimate subject.
But why Quixote? Sancho had the face of "August"--circus slang for the vagrant clown--and Quixote's "big bones" were found interred under Cervantes's own unmarked grave last March--amidst spring's beginnings--fragments beneath Madrid's Convento de las Monjas Trinitarias Descalzas. Columbus was buried in old Spain with new land behind him; Cervantes would end up interred there as well, but lost with the convent's relocation in the late 17th Century. Though Cervantes's grave went missing, the Quixote is a public object. An article of clothing fit for purpose. "The structural pegs from which our [Quixote] loosely hangs," says Nabokov, forms a "photopia"--"a vision with light adjusted eyes"--set against the backdrop of Europe's cultural history ... it's a photopia of folds, "f,o,l,d,s." The "fold" is some allusion to the book's reach, to its own somatization of itself as satire, as satire on satire, as satire on response. In its outline of a joke, it makes an effort to reach outside of itself to become an inventory of all its excluded objects of attention ... Its exception, and recurrent critical status as some beginning in a long history of creative letters, is marked by the manner in which its personality performs its subject ... that there is no way of differentiating between its own and its assimilated positions. Not the greatest, but it's a sellable moment of self-reflexivity.
The light adjusts as the photographer turns the camera back against itself--the photographers themselves becoming his or her own subject.
But why is Columbus Quixote's negative? "The author is said to have wrote this satirical romance in a prison," says Cervantes. The prison is pictured in the work's opening gambit:
paean to the fact that "every production must resemble its author." Cervantes mars this admission as costly; he had "a mind to have exposed [the book] as naked as it was born, without the addition of a preface, of or the numberless trumpery of commendatory sonnets, epigrams, and other poems that usually usher in the conceptions of authors." The book was not purchased by "half so much labour" as its preface, so says Cervantes. Could this be the root of Columbus's negative? Quixote's effort seems be to afford the work as much a picture of himself as a depiction of its engagement. We don't see Columbus when we see America, Miller implies, we see his ghosts; we don't see Cervantes when we read the Quixote, we see a character of response and repose ... the character of our own complaints rather than a compliancy to the rule of other people's problems, the small triumphs of self-obsession. They're both frames in this instance; undeveloped negatives for some speculative picture. "These books will give way by and by." The "photopia" is not an ocular term but a specular one.
Miller is the "Powys-Hero," to borrow G. W. Knight's phrase: his is an admission of literature's confessional dimension--a caricature of ownership and assimilation, of affect and intention. If Columbus is Quixote's reverse, Miller is his first step forwards: a movement on into the language of copyism, and argument by assemblage ... of syncretic interpretation and the personal frameworks that limit interpretation. The way that body, as both a fact and an idea, gets in the way. An admission to the significance of the viewer--not the reader--as his subject. There is a case that can be made for Miller's writing as a treatise on application--on looking--and enacting an aggressive subjectivity that fights any notion of subjection. His maxims are all built on eyes that fight evaluation but look to plot a total figuration; either dromoscopic or kinescopic, the television says more about the individual in front of it than the matter screened on the flickering tube. An American horror is entertaining for Miller. A story is nothing but a response. As we respond to any unanswered question received information is antagonised. Is that Miller's movement from the particular to the universal? That a word or a picture is just an image of its purposes? The dressing and undressing of a thought? A cross-section of his prose talks in wants for the machinery of image making, of life seen through a lens. "Those who read our stories," John Berger suggests, reflecting on his own practices as a writer, "see everything as though through a lens. The lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless. If we storytellers are death's secretaries, we are so because in our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses." If we are "grinders" of these lenses then we are as good as "millers." Again the negative is a propitious thing; anything captured gets reversed in its articulation ... for Miller the camera always turns around on its operator.
Miller's books open and close like any other--diurnal like a flower that's no ornament but relays little other than its own self-referential testimony. A picture of him, there, in his own context: imaged as a young man and outliving that picture. The bind between Miller the writer and the urban repaints him as a salient photographer intent on capturing the beaten path and calling it self-portrait. But to talk about images, for Miller, is to talk about impressions; to talk about impression is to engage in a literary activity--in language and a little talk on value.
Alexander Garcia Duttmann defines an image as something written and immediately abstracted. As a thing "that has detached itself from the object." It is "a doubling of the world in the domain of semblance, or a doubling of the world which brings about the domain of semblance as a domain drifting between being and non-being, (between) matter and spirit. [...] The image is a trace of the world. It is as much a form of participation as a sign of solitude. It is both a bond and a rupture that splits the world." This sense of the contradictory truths cohabiting a single image encourages a view of both the participatory and the exceptional elements of its form. The image bleeds into an intellectual lineage concordant with an effort to define Miller's novelistic tendencies and the paradoxes attached that provide its armature--an attempt to study the epoxy of emotions and cache of experiences specific to its makeup. The way in which the written attaches itself to its object and yet announces itself as something entirely else; the way in which it belongs as much to its reader as to its writer, pertaining in both cases to a myriad of memories and misdirected punches. These are a trite means with which to talk on content, context and the essential vagaries of meaning, but for Miller they become an extension of his literary praxis. It's an Emersonian predicament: we see Miller in Miller's Paris and the city is canon-like in its character, but the titles run without identificative attribution, and in talking about the city Miller talks about "talking" to talk about the beauty of flawed or mistaken attribution. Emerson writes that "Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone; yet he is no more to be credited than the acaleph which adds a cell to the coral reef which is the basis of this continent." Miller would be Emerson's echo: leaving the house, he is "out for a short walk"--a short walk as his entirety a life--"all accomplished in the turning of a page." Attribution is never wholly his interest, but he attaches himself to anything he looks at.... An aggressive and self-aggrandized subject in a subjective house of fiction.
For Lukacs the novel is a question of "throwing away in order to win"--an aspirant totality that can only procure its imagistic qualities, its fulfilment as a whole, so long as it provides space for alteration. It is the owner of an "imminent transcendence"--a movement of the solitary voice towards an allusion to, or the possibility of, a concatenate harmony. As we come to ask "what is an image," to concentrate on the image in both its singular and participatory guises, Miller's work not only exemplifies the historical thread that extends beyond him, but also provides a means with which to approach the complicated utility of canon, reference and its manoeuvrability in a terrain so driven on personalism as the creative conception of fiction. Miller panning either above or around the action--the simultaneous writer and reader. A steadicam looking for a subject rather than subjugation, we need to remember that every scene is a mechanical fabrication.
Miller defines "literature" by way of equivocal repetition "one creation matches another"--the literary is a "regenerate world"--its author "an unknown bird." His position on repetition is reminiscent of Clement Greenberg's subsequent thinking; authorial interests, or genetic criticisms, formulate a kind of kitsch whereby the work becomes a closed system, analogous in and for itself, self-determinate as a closed statement. We all give in, for Miller, to the narrow specifics of an autobiographical determinacy. This classification constellates with Duttmann's image--it is at once a thing necessitating an impression of community surrounding it, its point of reception, and in turn reflective only of itself and its own unique ideological solitude. We think, for example, of Camus's painter in "The Artist at Work," and the thin veil that segregates a reading of either the solidary or the solitary when writ on his canvas. Miller inherits this issue from the transcendentalists; in his essay "New England Reformers," Emerson addresses the paradox that sits so centrally to a reading of the American democratic. The union aspires towards a perfect, but its perfection can only ever maintain itself so long as all of its inhabitants remain isolated. Every individual stands as a mode of classification; every classifying principle points in the same direction--a finger pointing vaguely to the lives of other people and the possibility of interaction.
Gore Vidal, speaking of Miller and Norman Mailer, suggests that "words govern us more than anatomy." But the twinning of these two facets (echoing the effort to accommodate the singular within the plural) inescapably constitutes the foundations of art for Miller. In any mergence of a one within a crowd--any reconstitution of the articulate body or "self" as work--Miller sees a processual erasure. We attempt to ally body and mind as though reflective of a will to accommodate the one within many, but in so doing we disappear again along some vanishing point of the present. "I think I am forgetting my subject," Miller would say, "(I am forgetting)--myself."
The "social void," an "opaque nebula," is for Baudrillard accountable to the notion that "mass" is not a concept concordant with an understanding of the sociological; "it is a soft, sticky, lumpenanalytical notion" that purports little but a legitimation of a symbolic bondage to this broader network or systemic hive-mind. The mass is a "speechless mass"--a "black box of every referential, of every uncaptured meaning, of impossible history, of untraceable systems of representation." This is the kind of implication we are quick to form around any conception of a book's interpretation or, the Miller's work, if its logic has purchase. Accountable, for Baudrillard, to a "terror of simplicity" which exists behind such an ideated hegemony that reduces "all articulate discourse to a single irrational and baseless dimension, where signs lose their meaning and (simply) peter out in fascination," Miller needs application. Reading is an exercise in impersonation.
To this end, Miller coins his own prison; life flickers as a stunted film, each frame racked and locked away from its antecedent and its follower; his subject, he says, is himself--he closes in on the Cervantean rule, closing in on the fact that "every production must resemble its author":
One passes imperceptibly from one scene, one age, one life to another. [...] The years have flown, that all this will pass and live on only in memory, and then the memory turns inwards with a strange clutching brilliance and one goes over these scenes and incidents perpetually, in dream and in reverie [...]. A parallelogram in which we drop from one platform of our scaffold to another.
If we are to accept his life in documents as a series of fixed pictures negatives half developed--Miller is again talking on the application of technologies; when you are the camera the camera is you.
"The writer's work," Proust suggests, "is only a kind of optical instrument which he offers the reader to enable him to discern what without this book he might not perhaps have seen in himself." For Miller, looking more specifically here at Black Spring, this facilitates a significant problem. Presented as a lens rather than an object, autobiographical memory converges within the operations of an author--the author's accommodation in this venerable house of fiction only persists as though behind some thin imaginary veil. We're all writing novels, for Miller, when we're living day to day. A calendar month is a chapter, a year a significant prologue to the next. To follow such a thought, Miller borrows Haeckel's key phrase, that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" and condenses this supposition into a single compound--ontongenyphylogeny. This compression, with the two terms of argument so adjoined, presents an impression of prose as broadly tethered to Duttmann's impression of an image. The writer is synonymous with their work and, according to this terminological play, the work accommodates both the principles of its own intellectual arrangement, the moment of its creation, and the deterministic qualities innate to its makeup. "Man's task is to make himself a work of art," claims Miller, but in so doing, this initiates a fundamental separation--supportive of an anonymity that distinguishes art as "only a stepping stone into reality"--a point of correlation, but perpetually a separate thing. The resultant "unreal superstructure," as Miller terms it, is constituted, in the first instance, as an inevitability of personality--tethered, in terms of style, manner and execution to the experiential development of character and the narratology we apply to a conception of life as lived. Miller's writer is in essence an uncreative thing. The statement of "being" as an artistic practice in and for itself positions medium as a fallacy. We are freest in our moments of refusal, for Miller--in our willful repudiation of the commitment of thought to paper. There's little he finds more entertaining.
D. H. Lawrence had a handle on entertainment:
"We want to be taken out of ourselves. Or not entirely that. We want to become spectators at our own show. We lean down from the plush seats like little gods in a democratic heaven, and see ourselves away below there, on the world of the stage, in a brilliant artificial sunlight, behaving comically absurdly, like Pa Potter, yet getting away with it, or like King Lear, and not getting away with it.
We see ourselves: we survey ourselves: we laugh at ourselves: we weep over ourselves: we are the gods above our own destinies. Which is very entertaining."
"The secret of it all, is that we detach ourselves from the painful and always sordid trammels of actual existence, and become creatures of memory and of spirit-like consciousness. We are the gods and there's the machine, down blow us."
"In moving pictures he has detached himself even further from the solid stuff of earth. There, the people are truly shadows: the shadow-pictures are thinkings of his mind. They live in the rapid and kaleidoscopic realm of the abstract. And the individual watching the shadow-spectacle sits a very god, in an orgy of abstraction, actually dissolved into delighted, watchful spirit." "No wonder this passion of dramatic abstraction becomes a lust."
Maybe Miller didn't know what to do with all the good things around him.
"That is our idea of entertainment."
Watching, and never writing things down.
Attempting to outline the hold of the literary work as accountable to a contemporary reality in the 21st Century, David Shields suggests that "living as we perforce to do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the "real," [for] semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all of the fabrication autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter." However, "more invention, more fabrication" is not what we need. Shields admits, "I doubt very much that I'm the only person who's finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels." Citing Pierre Larousse's grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siecle, in Black Spring Miller would refer to an entry on Robinson Crusoe in an effort to tease out the purposes of literary fiction: "The point of the novel is not its psychological veracity, but its abundance of minute details which give a striking impression of reality." This appears to be the key principle we can read out of a Millerian literature; as his work transcends the trappings of pornography and censorial mandates it now appears as an oeuvre endemic of a concerted effort to build a path out of the canon and into the immediacy of daily existence. But statement, for Miller, seems apparently a dead thing--only a constitutive commitment to an inability to move outside of an accepted hierarchy of accepted moments. This is the basis of Miller's envy of the image, that their wordless evocations present enough of an empirical proof of an author's place, and their simultaneous drift away from any strict confine of understanding. Miller's interest is in building a house, but a house built on sea--a moveable feast that'll make sense only in its digestion and distance--a structure that'll still hold strong as against the sway of any lunar tide.
Columbus was the reverse of Quixote. Miller entertains himself with his transgressions. Talks to himself in the mirror. He snows over all his books, a quiet presence carpeting the ground. But in his heavy presence he begs that we assess the ways in which we allow books to relate to their subjects. The books in my life will always differ from those in yours--a history of minor changes and interferences, the history of the individual development of an organized being. Distinct and clear. Miller was the reverse of Columbus. He never encounters new land, just an evolutionary rendition of self, paginated and perfectly bound. Miller is entertaining, but we cannot entertain his ideas without him. His is a personally elected thread of philosophies, and they'll all relay a significant version of the personality that frames their power. As a negative, everything gets reversed in the chemical fix. We see life through a lens, grounded and ground through the authority of individual will ... and if we are the grinders of these lenses we may as well be millers.
(1) This photo-essay is an abridgment and adaptation of a video-essay entitled "Thoreau was an Atlas," screened as an element of a one-day symposium, A Gob of Spit in the Face of Art, curated by Guy Stevenson and Caroline Blinder to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the publication of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. The symposium was held on September 19th, 2014, at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
(2) All images are excerpted from Robert Snyder's 1969 motion picture The Henry Miller Odyssey. The video-essay originally presented was a reassembled edit of footage from Snyder's original picture, emphasizing the tracking shots of Miller's Paris of the late 1960s rather than an attention to Miller himself as the focus of our interest.
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|Publication:||Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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