Printer Friendly

Wild rabbit: the reader, the writer, & ekphrastic anxiety in Henry Miller's "Reflections on Writing".

"By daring one arrives at this mysterious X position of the artist, and it is this anchorage which no one can describe in words but yet subsists and exudes from every line that is written.'"

Henry Miller, "Reflections on Writing" (3)

"What should the artist be today? What must he be? What can he do? To what purpose? What does he affect? How does he function? What enters into it? The economic, the sociological: how is he affected? How does his being a man or a woman, one of a certain race, an American enter into it? [...] I've been writing a sentence, with all the art I can muster. Here it is: A work of art is important only as evidence, in its structure, of a new world which it has been created to affirm."

W. C. Williams, "Against the Weather: A Study of the Artist" (4)

"It is not a question of the essence, but of the event, not about 'is,' but about 'and, 'about concatenations and connections, compositions and movements that constitute a machine."

Gerald Raunig, A Thousand Machines (5)

Henry Miller has been critically asserted as "a writer who writes about writing itself"; (6) however, I would argue his essay "Reflections on Writing" denotes a difficulty, for both the writer and reader, in the representation of life in literature. Miller's oeuvre depicts, for the reader, "a running commentary (of a) process of self-discovery" by virtue of its author's biographical focus; however, this "process" is inherently complicated by virtue of Miller's implementation of autobiography across his fiction--in its becoming a literary product, this "process" of self examination is undermined by virtue of the objectivity of text. The autobiographer deploys "a variety of fictional techniques" with which to "transform the chaos of raw experiential data into a manageable, and stylistically self-contained, unit of thought"; however, Miller cannot evade a tendency to merge such "self-analysis with fabulation." (7) I would argue that this combination of such diametrically opposed facets such as fact and fiction problematizes a classification of Miller as either "confessor or factionalist" (8) to prompt a discussion revolving around the place of hermeneutics in the modern text. Nicholas Moore suggests, in a view directly attributive to Miller's biographical focus, that we can comment on "Miller" only as he "appears" to us. (9) The significance Moore attributes here to an individual's reading of character provokes the focus of this discussion; in evidencing his own experience of "life" in fiction, Miller, through his use of biography, provides an avenue with which to discuss the position of the reader and the writer in relation to the authored text, and a question of life as "assimilated" in art. Miller's theorized "life," as presented in "Reflections," promotes a focus, I would argue, upon "perception"; the difference between "the act of perceiving," "the reality perceived," and the reality "reenacted" is such that the epistemic distance between each step of this process is, in essence, disjunctive. As we observe this reenacted perception, its distance from its point of origin assures the fact that we are no longer dealing with "life," but with literature. (10) I would argue that, in spite of the enormity of this question, "Reflections on Writing" posits a view of literature's capacity for an engagement with an "abstract truth" through its allusion to the communicative qualities of a work of art; the one good writer, in this instance, requires only the "one good reader" [p. 246]. Miller then, to read his work in a postmodern context, precipitates a Barthean view of fiction, as "the undivided property of men, not of writers [...]; it is a social option by definition, not by option." (11)

Over the course of this essay, I will explore "Reflections on Writing" within the context of Miller's own literary criticism, a Derridean view of autobiography and self-representation in literature, and instances from a European Avant-Garde to discuss the manner in which Miller's interests in exclusivity and identity do not necessarily promote a solipsistic view in the modernity, but rather indicates a championship of individuality, enacted here on behalf of both the reader and the writer. To quote Ionesco, "literature is not measuring up to life: artistic expression is too feeble, imagination too impoverished to simulate the horror and the wonder of this life, or of death" (12); however, in Miller's own words, "the wonder and mystery of life" are estranged "as we become [...] members of society." (13) This sense of "mystery" is key here, and represents for Miller, a sense of the "boundless" potentiality attributive to literature: "the frontier, as it were, of the unknown." (14) Although this idea seems entrenched within Miller's status as an exile--a stranger in Paris, refusing to "follow the various blind alleys represented by [...] literary movements in England, France, and America" [p. 250]--in "Reflections on Writing," this "mystery" is ascribed as an essential feature of artistic creation: "By daring one arrives at the mysterious X position of the artist, and it is this anchorage which no one can describe but yet subsists and exudes from every line that is written" [p. 251]. This view of the "X position of the artist" incurs in itself an X position of the reader, and I would argue that it is through an application of this "mystery" that Miller preempts this focus on hermeneutics. Miller's efforts to assert his own "livingness" [p. 246] through his work is then reflected in a reader's efforts to contrive of a point of personal comparison; as "(w)riting assumes the characteristics of a reading's demand [...] the writer becomes the nascent intimacy of the still infinitely future reader." (15)

Miller's literary reflections precipitate a division in our reading of his character. On the one hand, we have a representation of Miller as "the socially conscious commentator"; on the other hand, we have Miller as isolationist--his inclinations towards biography and verisimilitude in art being marked as products of an urban alienation. (16) This latter view, with regard to Miller's status as a novelist, illustrates an impression of art as irreconcilably disconnected with the reality it may seek to represent; "(w)hat an author is capable of creating is not a reflection of his or her personal self or personal experience but innately belongs to the realm of art and literary creation. It cannot be reduced to the dominion of the real." (17) In Miller's own biographical terms, he posits a depiction of "the egocentric life" as necessarily precipitate of a process of erasure: "I lived out the social problem by dying" [p. 245].

Miller's biographical precedent arguably then illuminates the parameters of a writer's medium, problematizing realism in literature by way of this issue of transference and art: "I talk now about Reality," claims Miller, "but there is no way of getting at it, leastwise by writing" [p. 244]. Derrida, discussing such an implementation of biography, cites Nietzsche, a writer with "one foot beyond life": "I am double [...] I do not mistake myself, at least not yet, for myself." "There is here," claims Derrida, "a difference of autobiography, an allo- and thanotography." (18) Derrida's distinction, illustrating the epithetic distance between "life" and "death," is significant in an address of Miller's view of literature, as these labels intermittently reflect Miller's view of both the reader and the writer, and the ekphrastic anxiety experienced in an aim to (somewhat paradoxically) "record truth truly" (19) through fiction.

The book is rendered here not as a static object, reflective of a cultural moment, but a "living" document, "(deepening) the blur" between "a writer's life and work" and exhausting, for Miller, the importance "of this domain of reality." (20) With regard to this matter of representation, the "(n)otness" is then clearer than the "isness." (21) Miller, by virtue of this biographical impetus, "(then) goes in and out of existence" (22): "(n)ameless, timeless, indefinable, the nature of (his) true identity is thus swallowed up in the manner of the dragon swallowing its tail." (23) As this disappearance charts (for Miller) his own movement into fiction, Miller expands upon this aforementioned sense of mystery through quotation: "We learn nothing by reading," said Goethe, "we become something." (24) Derrida, commenting upon the self-representation of an author in his/her prose evokes a sense of degeneration: "The poet is [...] the subject of the book [...] and the book is [...] the subject of the poet. [...] In its representation of itself the subject is shattered and opened. Writing is itself written, but also ruined, made into an abyss, in its own representation."' (25) The Derridean "abyss" is a view pertinent to a reading of "Reflections on Writing"; Miller here proposing a view of art as wholly entropic ultimately undermines any sense of purpose for the creative individual--for "the 'life' Artist" (26):

   Once art is really accepted it will cease to be. It is only a
   substitute, a symbol-language, for something which can be
   seized directly. [p. 247]

This view is inherently problematic, as Miller himself appears to undermine the capacity of literature to fully correspond with life. The role of the author, according to Miller, is rooted in falsity; "One anchors oneself in the flow, one adopts the lying mask in order to reveal the truth," and thus this view of fiction as an assimilation of truth is undermined: Writing, a "voyaging through X dimensions," is prioritized in and for itself: "what one has to tell is not nearly so important as the telling" [p. 243]; Such a self-interest, prescribed here by a writer's medium, denies a direct correlation between literature and its exterior representation. As Kenneth Rexroth comments, this dilemma (for both Miller and his audience) is protracted, then, first problematizing a writer's processes, but in turn a reader's experience:

   Can you remember when you first started to read?
   Doubtless you thought that some day you would find in
   books the truth, the answer to the very puzzling life you
   were discovering around you. But you never did. If you
   were alert, you discovered that books were conventions, as
   unlike life as a game of chess. The written word is a sieve. (27)

This view of the written word as a sieve illustrates a view of language as undermined by dissemination; Miller, to pursue this argument, then not only undermines himself by virtue of his direct intervention with his work, but in turn suggests that his employment of "self" as protagonist, and the biographical center of his work, reflects the difficulties experienced by the reader in an attribution of meaning to an otherwise abstract text. D. H. Lawrence, in whom we can read a great deal of Miller's "unconscious style," (28) posits a relativity of meaning as intrinsically valuable in a strengthening of the alternatively weakened modern text. "The universe," according to Lawrence, "isn't a spinning wheel":

   We were getting drunk on the spinning wheel. [...] Now that
   the Universe has escaped from the pin which was pushed
   through it [...] we can hope to [...] escape. We won't be
   pinned down, either. We have no one law that governs us.
   For me there is only one law: I am I. And that isn't a law, it's
   just a remark. (29)

A Lawrentian perspective here arguably problematizes a view of literature and its functionality: "(y)ou are not me, dear reader [...] what I say is not what you hear, but something uttered in the midst of my isolation." (30) For Miller I am I becomes a defining dictum, highlighting the significance of autobiography for the modern writer, and an unshakeable sense of introspection on behalf of the modern text:

   Like the spider, I return again and again to the task,
   conscious that the web is made of my own substance, that it
   will never fail me, never run dry. [p. 250]

Lawrence then expands this question beyond textually confined interests to demonstrate "a new mode" not just "of writing", but in turn "a freer living": "We must create an idea of a new, freer life, where men and women can really meet on natural terms, instead of being barred within so many barriers." (31) For Miller, this question of a "freer life" is transposed directly in textual terms, reasserting, again, the purpose of autobiographical fiction:

   The autobiographical novel, which Emerson predicted
   would grow in importance with time, has replaced the great
   confessions. It is not a mixture of truth and fiction, [...] but
   an expansion and deepening of truth. It is more authentic,
   more veridical, than the diary [...] (offering) the truth of
   emotion, reflection and understanding, truth digested and
   assimilated. (32)

This question of "assimilated truth" is, however, problematic. Anais Nin, commenting upon Miller's simultaneous existence within and outside of his literature, proposes his work as indebted to an "agony of duality":

   Always the flesh and the vision together. [...] (Miller) is at
   one and the same time the man sitting contentedly at a cafe
   table and the ghostly wanderer pursuing his secret self in an
   agony of duality and elusiveness. (33)

Nin's suggestion here as to the indivisible nature of a writer's work and life is directly corroborated within "Reflections on Writing" as Miller demonstrates the difficulties posed by the intervention of a writer within his/her own project:

   Finally I came to a dead end, to a despair and a desperation
   which few men had known, because there was no divorce
   between myself as a writer and myself as a man: to fail as a
   writer meant to fail as a mail. [p. 243]

A Derridean distinction between "life" and "death" again seems prescient here. The process of writing, for Miller, appears signified as mechanical--however the focus is upon the operator rather than the operation alone--"the bicycle and the person riding it [...] mutually (support) one another" (34)--the reader and the writer, existing here in counterpoint, are then encountered in terms of activity, passivity, and ultimately mortality:

   so far as the creative individual goes life and death are of
   equal value; it is all a question of counterpoint. What is of
   vital concern [...] is how and where one meets life--or
   death. Life can be more deadly than death, and death on the
   other hand can open up the road to life. (35)

The process of "reading" rather than "writing" Miller's character in his fiction becomes a more active one here, as Miller realizes that, in existing vicariously through his literature, he is in himself caught in state of passivity, caught between two poles--"arrestation" and "flow." A reader's integration with his work then realizes a sense of motion that Miller would regard as synonymous with "life": "There is no progress: there is perpetual movement, displacement which is circular, spiral, endless" [p. 245].

Alternatively, "Death," symbolically speaking, appears here as synonymous with a view of Max Nordau's aesthetic degeneracy, a view which, through Nordau's question, we can appropriate in literary terms: "in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria, and it is natural that we should ask anxiously on all sides: what is to come next?" (36) Nordau's perspective, evocative here of a sense of narrative, is significant with regard to Miller's narratological "livingness" in his prose. James M. Decker, commenting upon this idea in response to Miller's work Aller Retour New York, elucidates Miller's "plan for writing concentrically," a position "which will allow him the utmost freedom whilst still preserving the illusion of motion and progress" allowing Miller to "reroute his prose at any juncture," thereby deferring closure "indefinitely even as he appears to move closer towards it." (37) This view, reminiscent of a Bergsonian sense of human memory as a process of constant "becoming," (38) arguably encourages a reader's integration with the semiology of a text--Baudelaire's flowers of evil, for example, are then here encountered as flowers from evil. (39) Miller approaches this issue directly in "Reflections on Writing," hallmarking the significance of "infinity" and "perpetuation" in the interpretation of literature: "(t)he great work must necessarily be obscure, except to the very few, to those who (are) like the author." [p. 246]

This is, for George Orwell, a strength of Miller's oeuvre: "he is passive to experience (and yet) able to get nearer to the ordinary man than is possible to more purposive writers." (40) Miller's aim withstands as the ascertaining of "truth" in art; books are to be dealt with as "vital experiences" in their own right (41), and yet this "truth" must direct us back towards the "source"--"not the scholar or philosopher, not the master, saint, or teacher, but [...] direct experience of life."' (42) However, through Miller's self-employment as protagonist, the singular perspectival focus of his fiction could be argued to narrow the interpretative autonomy of a reader. This is a point Orwell would counter: Miller's ordinary man does not "constitute a majority"; he is "the derelict, the declasse, [...] the American intellectual without roots." (43) In Miller's case, as both the "ghostly wanderer" and merely "the man," he remains simultaneously tethered to, and separated from his work. Miller's "roots" are then in fiction, itself, his own intertextual references appealing to a view of Miller as a "serious reader," (44) as well as writer --"(t)he writer's about whom Miller writes [...] are acutely present in his fiction" and again this raises the significant distinction between "Miller-the-author and Miller the figure in the text." (45)

In Proust, a repeated point of interest across Miller's work, Miller sees art as a substitute for life, and the author's "point of departure" is engendered in biographical terms; "a life of retrospect," as exemplified through both Proust's corpus and his writing practice, encourages the individual to behave as a reader approaching a given work within the context of their own specific biography. (46) In this regard, for Miller, Proust does not represent a "struggle" against "the debilitating division between art and life but instead (enables) it." (47) Miller's literature is then prefigured in a Proustian vein: "aimed against time--a concept to be grappled with and overcome." (48) As a figure "representative" of Miller's epoch," (49) Proust arguably shares in Miller's single-mindedness; however, the Proustian is marked as a fiction thriving off of its creator's suspension of reality. Proust "held himself suspended over life in a cataleptic trance, [...] corroded by the very skepticism he had employed." (50) Accepting as we are of Proust's myopic "retreat from life," (51) it is significant to consider the nature of Miller's confrontation of it. The modernist appears to Miller as homogeny, an "end accomplished" as "man returns to the womb," (52) and by very virtue of Miller's capitalization of the self, he ascribes this sense of "departure" as not only unattainable, but inconceivable. In claiming his "entire life (as) a work of art" we see Miller both support and deny his capacity to transgress the limits of his own work: "I was a self-willed failure in the [...] world of reality [...]. Writing was not an 'escape,' [...] it meant a still deeper plunge into the brackish pool" [pp. 250-251]. To return to D.H. Lawrence, the opening phrases of Lady Chatterley's Lover echo such a sense of futility:

   Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it
   tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the
   ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new
   little hopes [...] there is now no smooth road into the future:
   but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got
   to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. (53)

It is then "not the author whom we should take to task, but life" (54). With a literature indebted to a dereliction of character, and subsequently a situation whereby "the autonomous individual (will be) stamped out of existence", literature must then "suffer a temporary death." (55) Miller conceptually articulates "literature," in this sense, as predominantly introverted in its self-referentiality. Katy Masuga, exploring the intertextual center of Miller's work, describes this issue succinctly:

   Writers populate Miller's work in the following ways:
   troubling Miller-the-persona with their philosophies like
   Nietzsche or Spengler, fraternizing with him like Van Gogh
   or Mann, intimidating him at his own attempt at writing like
   Dostoevsky and Proust, passionately inspiring him like
   Balzac and Cendrars, [...] or simply occupying his back
   pocket like Hemingway or Joyce. (56)

In this regard, "Reflections on Writing" contradicts its own titular focus to rather incur a reflection on "reading"; to repeat Goethe's claim as appropriated by Miller, "'we learn nothing by reading, we become something." Miller can then be argued as paralleling the situation of "the one good reader" with the otherwise isolated fiction writer, both caught in a somewhat heteroglossic dialogue with one another: "I do not believe in words [...] I believe in language" [p. 245]. To return to a Lawrentian theory of relativity, Miller then rearticulates Lawrence's claim; I am I becoming for Miller "in my own way" [p. 251]. The slight phraseological difference here marks, I would argue, the situation for both the reader and writer as one posed against a clear and singular interpretation of the "life" Miller sought to represent: "Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It merely points the way" [p. 246]. In Miller, however, we still recognize a dilemma vis-a-vis this matter of his own biographical focus as, in admitting this pluralistic interest, Miller again falls foul of Nin's "agony of duality"; "recognizing the absolute arbitrariness of all language systems," Miller demonstrates literature as insisting upon its self-containment: "while each text [...] investigates the linguistic interplay between what Jean Ricardou calls the 'dimension litteralle' and the 'dimension referentielle,' the primary condition of the work is to assert its basic hermeticism." (57) For Miller, "the great writer is [...] the symbol of life [...] giving the illusion of perfection from some unknown center" [p. 246]; however, to appropriate a Yeatsian verse, this "center" can no longer hold. (58)

Questioning the "interpretative origin" of a work, and the "point of departure" necessitated by a reader's integration with a text, Georges Poulet asserts the role of the novelist as one "engaged in creating a character by the description of acts and feelings that seem spontaneous," and yet this character must pre-exist as a "consciously served" point of departure, 59 thereby countering the problematic hermetic qualities of the novel:

   The figure (of the acts that narrate a story) exists at all times.
   Before acting it is already formed. Its only movement is a
   gradual unfolding. It moves in order to breathe, to exist.
   Only after this preparatory labor can it begin to grow. One
   may be surprised in thus hearing a truth conceived
   simultaneously in two modes, that of being and that of
   becoming [...] we behold a hero who has been consciously
   selected, his acts precalculated and his behavior adapted to
   an adventure that was foreseen even before it came into
   being. (60)

Paul de Mall, here discussing the compatibility between Poulet's thought, and a view of Bergsonian temporality, argues a disjunction within fiction--the conflation of the "fluid, dynamic, and continuous world of the fictional narrative" and the necessarily precedent 'static and determined that serves as (this) point of departure." (61) In Miller's case, this view becomes confused; representative of both the point of interception and departure, Miller's work is problematized by the specificity of his own intervention when established against the freedom of a reader's own interpretative position--authorship then becomes a "point of departure" in its own right, caught between "arrestation and flow" [p. 248]:

   All art, I firmly believe, will one day disappear. But the artist
   will remain, and life itself will become not "an art," but art,
   i.e. will definitely and for all time usurp the field. [...] We are
   no longer animals, but we are certainly not yet men. [p. 247]

"The artist," in this regard, "has no choice but to make his life the material of his art" (62)--however, this relation between art and life has been critically regarded as contradictory, leading to "the paradox that a poem ostensibly about art could be read as a poem about the artist and his art, and that its theme could be understood as having pertinence to the life of every man." (63) Miller, in emphasizing his own exclusivity, then presents the "authentic word" as one degraded--tethered to a sense of futility--caught between these two poles, and again foregrounding the place of degeneracy in his writing:

   In an age marked by dissolution, liquidation seems to me a
   virtue, nay a moral imperative. Not only have I never felt the
   least desire to conserve, bolster up or buttress anything, but I
   might say that I have always looked upon decay as being just
   as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth. [p. 250]

Miller's process of "liquidation" is significant, contextualizing "Reflections on Writing" within a key Modern convention indebted to an authored experience of marginality. Octavio Paz, writing with relation to the various fictional identities of Fernando Pessoa asserts that "(p)oet's do not have biographies [...] their work is their biography" (64); "the ocean of reality," defamed and "tongue-tied" by perception, only retains authenticity when "dragged up from (one's) own guts": it is not "adaptation," but "daring" [p. 251]. Harold Bloom comments upon this issue of a work's objectivity, as "ill (proposing) a theory of how poems come into being" Bloom asserts that "(f)ew critics would claim that an account of a (text's) genesis is an account of its meaning":

   In the beginning, this daring is taken for will, but with time
   the will drops away and the automatic process takes its
   place, which again has to be broken or dropped and a new
   certitude established which has nothing to do with
   knowledge, skill, technique or faith. [p. 251]

Miller oscillates around two points of contention. On the one hand, "absolute freedom in art," "always limited to a particular," questions the "perennial unfreedom of the whole"; owl the other hand, "art's constituent elements" are resultantly "withered by art's own law of movement," (65) thereby limiting the autonomy of the "particular." Writing in the midst of the "serious question" of "banned books, burned books, and a fear of books in general," (66) Miller champions the potentiality of fiction in spite of a clear yearning for a "concrete visualization" (67) of "truth," here compromised in a representation of both "objective" and 'subjective" positions in terms of the hermeneutic freedoms of a reader:

   [...] Whatever effects I may obtain by technical device are
   never the mere results of technique, but the very accurate
   registering of my seismographic needle of the tumultuous
   [...] and incomprehensible experiences which I have lived
   through and which, in the process of writing, are lived
   through again, differently [...] more incomprehensibly.

   It should be borne in mind, of course, that there is an
   inevitable discrepancy between the truth of the matter and
   what one thinks, even about himself: but it should also be
   borne in mind that there exists an equal discrepancy
   between the judgment of another and this same truth.
   Between subjective and objective there is no vital difference.
   [p. 247]

W. J. T. Mitchell, in his work Picture Theory, implicates the reader in an effort to initiate "life" in literature, (68) centralizing "(t)he supposedly 'static' image that (we strive) to temporalize with verbs of making." (69) This implies, for Mitchell, a notion of ekphrastic ornamentation: a realization of personality as representative of "a kind of foreign body [...] that threatens to reverse the natural literary priorities of time over space, narrative over description, and turns the sublimities of (fiction) over to epideictic (70) rhetoric." (71) Mitchell then indicates a definition of experiential ekphrasis in prose which straddles two polarities: one the one hand, ekphrastic hope, and on the other ekphrasticfear. This anxiety manifests itself as a "moment of resistance of counter-desire that occurs when we sense that the difference between the verbal and visual representation might collapse." (72) Miller is, indeed, prepossessed by the visual in his writing: "(t)o my amazement I succeeded in obtaining a real likeness. [...] I could copy what I saw [...] I drew a chair, a teapot, a chest of drawers. The odd thing was that what I drew resembled a chair, a pot." (73) However, when this likeness is reenacted, the writing, as a process, defames experience as its point of comparison: "As often as I gaze at houses, and am extremely aware of architecture, when it comes to putting them on paper I am baffled." (74) This dilemma, charting the movement from micro- to macrocosm portrays literature as inherently dependent upon a reader's interaction--the minutiae of life can be delineated through prose, but is a reader's responsibility to bind these otherwise disparate elements together.

When taken singularly, Miller struggles to contrive a "network of relationships" between his signs (74), be they corporeal or intellectual, in his attempt to crystalize a sense of a "life lived" in writing, and yet this correspondence between a work and its exteriority compromises this idea of a living text: these objects, and arguably Miller himself, through his own self-employment as subject, shift "in and out of existence." (76) The result, as Miller demonstrates at the conclusion of "Reflections on Writing" is mystery:

   By daring one arrives at this mysterious X position of the
   artist, and it is this anchorage which no one can describe in
   words but yet subsists and exudes from every line that is
   written. [p. 251]

Merlau-Ponty demonstrates the trouble behind such "mystery":

   [T]aken singly, signs do not signify anything, and that each
   one does not so much express a meaning as mark a
   divergence of meaning between itself and other signs. (77)

"Without symbolism," maintains Arthur Symons, "there can be no literature, not even language"; a symbol in this regard "might be defined as a representation which does not aim for a reproduction." (78) Miller's position in "Reflections" appears to echo Symons's claim--prioritizing "expressionism" over reproduction--"(f)iction and invention (being) the very fabric of life" [p. 247]. However, when observed in isolation, as the central symbol of his work, Miller himself is proffered as a meaningless symbol: "life only begins when one drops below the surface, when one gives up the struggle, sinks and disappears from sight" [p. 244]. Expanding upon this sense of disappearance, Masuga refers to Miller's "expectations (of a) portrait of Dostoevsky" and the "twofold imaging that occurs with a name", in that he treats the portrait both as the image of a man (the life) and as the image of a figure of greatness (the work)." (79) Miller's denigration, as Deleuze comments, can only then be rectified through a reader's engagement with text; "It is possible that the conceptual persona only rarely or allusively appears for himself, nevertheless, he is there, and however nameless, he must always be reconstituted by the reader," (80) referring us back to Nin's "agony of duality":

   Just as life begins at any moment, through an act of
   realization, so the work. But each beginning, whether of
   book, page, paragraph, sentence, or phrase, marks a vital
   connection, and it is in the vitality, the durability, the
   timelessness and changelessness of the thoughts and events
   that I plunge anew each time. [p. 249]

The vitality of a work, for Miller, seems then to be not necessarily contingent upon his authored self within the work, but rather the capacity for fiction to incur a more subjective hermeneutics; "my own way" then becomes here a more universal statement. Returning to Adorno, with regard to this matter of interpretation, this issue features largely in his thinking; the novel is prioritized in instigating this human struggle with epistemology, and yet the significance placed upon fiction is problematized in relation to this want, on behalf of both the reader and writer, to engage with a reflection on "truth," appropriated here, by Theodor Adorno, again in terms of "life" and "death":

   He who wishes to know the truth about life in its immediacy
   must scrutinize its estranged form, the objective powers that
   determine individual existence even in its most hidden
   recesses. To speak immediately of the immediate is to
   behave much as those novelists who drape their marionettes
   in bygone passions like cheap jewelry [...] as if something
   depended on their actions. Our perspective on life has
   passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that life is no
   longer. (81)

Language, for Miller, undoes the writer, becoming (to again partner his work with a Barthean perspective) "a kind of natural ambience wholly pervading the writer's expression, yet without endowing it with form or content: it is, as it were, an abstract circle of truths." (82) This problematized view of representation in art is, essentially, Platonic; the writer "(uses) the written word to give a distorted image [...] just as a painter might produce a portrait which completely fails to capture the likeness of the original." (83) Miller arguably then presents himself, and his work, as though we are dealing with photography, to repeat Moore's perspective, we can speak only of Miller "as he appears to (us)." Barthes, writing on such "analogical reproductions of reality," refers to the significant "treatment" of such an image as referent; its signification, be it "aesthetic or ideological," refers to a "certain culture of the society receiving the message [...] these imitative arts (comprising) two messages: a denoted message, which is the analogon itself, and a connoted message, which is the manner in which the society to a certain extent communicates what it thinks of it." (84) Barthes here illustrates a conflict central to Miller's "Reflections" and his effort as a writer to merge the private and public elements of authorship, his effort to encapsulate "life" through "assimilated truth." In this regard, to pursue Barthes's notion of a reproduced reality, Miller's employment of "mystery" as the apparent x position of both the reader and writer aids the idea that both parties respond to the text in their own manner--again, Miller's dictum is represented; regardless of the author's perspectival exclusivity, the elemental truth in literature will be established individually, "in (our) own way." Miller's biographical focus then arguably directly reflects a reader's position in response to a given text, partnering a fascination with "existential incertitude" (85) established against the "certitude" of literary representation (86); a notion which (to employ Miller's own elucidated influences) we can regard as succinctly Nietzchean:

   To divide the world into a "real" and an "apparent" world
   [...] is only a suggestion of decadence--a symptom of a
   declining life ... That the artist places a higher value on
   appearance than on reality constitutes no objection to this
   proposition. For "appearance" here signifies reality once
   more, only selected [...]. The tragic artist is not a pessimist--it
   is precisely he who affirms all that is questionable and
   terrible in existence. (87)

Miller appears to hallmark Nietzsche's perspective here; rather than necessarily qualifying a clear distinction between the "real" and "apparent worlds" as alluded to in his work, Miller rather explores the role of literature as a correspondence between these two "realms"--caught in this state between "attestation" and "flow."

Returning to this matter of photography; "(w)hile a [...] prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency." (88) In a discussion of Miller's literature, and this distinction between his textual persona, and position as author, George Brassai, a contemporary and friend of Miller's, (89) echoes this view of the mutual dependency between an artist, their subject, and their audience--however, as Susan Sontag identifies, "despite the presumption of veracity that gives (a photograph) authority, the (photograph) is no generic exception to (this) shady commerce between art and truth" (90):

   When I do a picture of someone I like to render the
   immobility of the face--of the person thrown back on his
   own inner solitude. The mobility of the face is always an
   accident [...] but I hunt for what is permanent.

These images, regarded as "fugitive" by the photographer, rearticulate Miller's claims as to a literature caught between motion and stasis. The crucial point of comparison remains, however, the capacity for self-reflection on behalf of the photographers subject--illustrating the mutual dependency of the reader and writer: "Brassai does not 'interpret' but allows the subject to interpret itself on film. His task is only to open the door, [...] on the experience, to choose his moment and [... ] press the trigger." (91)

Brassai, photographing a group of young Parisians in a dance hall, demonstrates this idea. "The Gala Soiree at Maxim's" appears, in the immediate, to be a "straight forward transcription of an observed reality" (92); however, its subjects are doubled by virtue of a mirror. This duplicitous representation is prescient in a discussion of Miller's literature, as we are forced to question what brings this "sequence of duplication" to its closure (93) The book, to pursue this image, is arguably enacted for Miller as "the mirror." "Reflections on Writing" proposes a view of art as contingent upon a sense of "infinitude" [p. 243], and I would argue that that this infinity incurs this view of a reader's place within the text. Miller's self-representation is duplicitous: "I heard my own voice (and) I was enchanted: the fact that it was a separate, distinct, unique voice sustained me" [p. 243]. Miller's words are here evocative of Brassai's use of the mirror, instigating this interest in dissemination, and a "perpetuation" of meaning as crucial within his work:

   The great work must necessarily be obscure, except to the
   very few, to those who like the author [...] are initiated into
   the mysteries. Communication then is secondary: it is
   perpetuation which is important. [p. 246]

Expostulating on a photograph by Brassai, a "simple chair in a Paris park," Miller clarifies this position:

   It is a chair of the lowest denomination, a chair which has
   been sat on by beggars and by royalty [...]. [...] The most
   unostentatious, the most inexpensive, the most ridiculous
   chair, if a chair can be ridiculous, which could be devised.
   [...] Brassai chose precisely this insignificant chair and
   snapping it where he found it, unearthed what there was in
   it of dignity and veracity. THIS IS A CHAIR. (94)




The "auratic" (98) quality Miller designates the chair (99) proves not only indicative of the universal elements of Miller's prose, but illuminates further the purpose of his autobiographical interest. Critical schools appear divided when it comes to such a discussion--on the one hand, the autobiographical detail of his novels illustrate a sense of "self-realization" as central to his literature: exposing "the life that led up to his identification as an artist" (100); on the other hand, Miller's self-involvement in his prose can be viewed as essentialist. However, the "chair" here can be read as the "mirror"; it is not a question of either object, but rather the mirrors reflection, the character sat upon the chair, that qualifies it.

In conclusion, Miller here acts as a segue with which to discuss the broader situation for the modern reader--defined, I would argue, by Nin's proposed "agony of duality," caught between a representation of "life" in literature, and the application of literature in "life." To approach this idea directly in Miller's own terms, the reader and the writer exist simultaneously between "arrestation" and "flow." With regard to the question of authorship, Miller appears to emblemize the movement from micro--to macrocosm--from art to life--by virtue of his autobiographical interests. The sense of "mystery," with which Miller concludes "Reflections," arguably renders literature, in itself, as fundamentally autobiographical in itself due to the inherently individualized nature of interpretation and the attribution of meaning to a work of art engendered here, rather, as a work of life: this "mystery" is "not mysterious, it is logical, natural, [...] implicitly accepted" [p. 245]; "(i)t is not a question of the essence, but of the event, not about 'is,' but about 'and,' about concatenations and connections, compositions and movements" that constitute literature here. (101) Thus, Miller's interest in the "one good reader," the punctum of this discussion, is then phrased most succinctly by Lawrence Durrell, here writing with direct regard to Miller's work: "(I) was very much struck by the number of different Henry-faces which emerge; they were all Henry to be sure, but refracted by the observer [...] (containing) a lesson which the wise reader will be able to interpret (for) himself. "Truth" I want to get to. The truth about myself."' (102)

Further Reading

Barthes, R., (tr.) R. Howard, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (London: Vintage, 2000)

Baudelaire, C., (tr.) W. Martin, Flowers of Evil, in Complete Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2006) pp. 285-317

--, (tr.) L. Varese, Paris Spleen (New York: New Directions, 1970)

Beckett, S., "Assumption", in (ed.) P. Auster, Samuel Beckett: The Grove Centenary Edition; Vol. IV--Poems, Short Fiction, Criticism (New York: Grove Press, 2006), pp. 57-61

Breton, A., (tr.) R. Howard, Nadja (London: Penguin, 1999)

Canetti, E., (tr.) C. V. Wedgwood, Auto da Fe (London: Pan Books, 1981)

Celine, L. F., (tr.) R. Manheim, Death on Credit (London: One World Classics, 2009)

--, (tr.) R. Manheim, North (London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2006)

--, (tr.) J. Harman, Semmelweis (London: Atlas Press, 2008)

Cendrars, B. "Un Ecrivain Americain Nous est Ne", in (ed.) G. Wickes, Henry Miller & the Critics (London: Feffer & Simons, 1967), pp. 23-24

Cocking, J. M., Proust (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1956)

Culler, J., The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (London: Routledge, 1981)

Deleuze, G., Guatarri, F., (tr.) B. Massumi, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minnesota: The University of Minneapolis, 1987)

Dinner with Henry Millet', dir. by Richard Young (Chesko and Young, 1979)

Fisher, P., "Democratic Social Space: Whitman, Melville, and the Promise of American Transparency" in (ed.) P. Fisher, The New American Studies: Essays from "Representations'" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 70-111

Foucault, M., (tr.) J. Harkness, This Is Not a Pipe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983)

Fromm, The Fear of Freedom (London: Routledge, 1960)

Garland, S., "This temptation to be undone ... " Sontag, Barthes, and the Uses of Style" in (ed.) K. Comfort, Art and Life in Aestheticism: Dehumanizing and Re-humanizing Art, the Artist, and the Artistic Receptor (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 189-208

Hassan, I., The Literature of Silence; Henry Miller & Samuel Beckett (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967)

Huxley, A., "Art and Life", (eds.) R. S. Baker, J. Sexton, Aldous Huxley: The Complete Essays, Vol. L 1920-1925 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), pp. 161-174

Ibarguen, R. R., "Celine, Miller, and the American Canon", (ed.) A. Kaplan, P. Roussin, Celine, USA: The South Atlantic Quarterly, 93.2 (1994), pp. 489-505

Kristeva, J., (tr.) Roudiez, L. S., Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)

Miller, H., Big Sur & the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (New York: New Directions, 1957)

--, Black Spring (London: One World Classics, 2010)

--, "The Cosmological Eye", The Wisdom of the Heart (New York: New Directions, 1960), pp. 63-71

--, The Time of the Assassins (New York: New Directions, 1962) Montaigne, M., On Solitude (London: Penguin, 2009)

Nerval, G. D., (tr.) R. Sierburth, Selected Writings (London: Penguin, 1999)

Pessoa, F., (tr.) R. Zenith, The Book of Disquiet (London: Penguin, 2001)

Proust, M., (tr.) L. Davis, The Way by Szoann's (London: Penguin, 2003)

Rimbaud, A., (tr.) L. Varese, A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat (New York: New Directions, 1961)


(1) "Ever since then I've known how wild rabbits must feel," Louis-Ferdinand Celine, (tr.) R. Manheim Journey to the End of the Night (London: One World Classics, 2010), p. 22

(2) "Ekphrasis" (noun) A description of a work of art, possibly imaginary, produced as a rhetorical exercise. (Chambers Dictionary, 11th Ed.)

(3) Henry Miller, "Reflections on Writing", in (ed.) Lawrence Durrell The Henry Miller Reader (New York: New Directions Paperbacks, 1969), p. 251 [All further references will be to this edition, and will appear within the main body of this article.]

(4) William Carlos Williams, "Against the Weather: A Study of the Artist" in Selected Essays (New York: New Directions Paperbacks, 1969), p. 196

(5) Gerald Raunig, (tr.) A. Deriag, A Thousand Machines: A Concise History of the Machine as Social Movement (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2010), p. 19

(6) Katy Masuga, Henry Miller and Hozo He Got That Way (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), p. 2

(7) James M. Decker, Henry Miller and Narrative Form: Constructing the Self, Rejecting Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 7

(8) Paul R. Jackson, "Henry Miller, Emerson, and the Divided Self", American Literature, 43.2. (1971), p. 240

(9) Nicholas Moore, Henry Miller (Herts: The Opus Press, 1943), p. 7

(10) Egbert J. Bakker, "Mimesis as Performance: Rereading Auerbach's First Chapter", Poetics Today, 20.1. (1999), p. 11

(11) Roland Barthes, "Writing Degree Zero" in (ed.) S. Sontag, A Barthes Reader (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982), p. 32

(12) Eugene Ionesco, (tr.) D. Watson, Notes and Counter-Notes (London: John Calder, 1964), p. 10

(13) Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (London: John Calder, 1964), p. 131

(14) Ibid.

(15) Masuga, p. 37

(16) Caroline Blinder, A Self-Made Surrealist: Ideology and Aesthetics in the Work of Henry Miller (New York: Camden House, 2000) p. 157

(17) Masuga, p. 183

(18) Jacques Derrida, (ed.) C. McDonald, (tr.) P. Kamuf, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1988), p. 19

(19) Miller, citing Ralph Waldo Emerson as epigraph to his novel Tropic of Cancer (New York: Black Cat Editions/Grove Press, 1961)

(20) Henry Miller, The Books in My Life (London: Peter Owen, 1961), p.13

(21) Ibid., p. 97

(22) Masuga, p. 30

(23) Miller, The Books in My Life, p. 93

(24) Ibid., p. 96

(25) Jacques Derrida, (tr.) Alan Bass, Writing and Difference (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 79

(26) Henry Miller, "A Letter to Lawrence Durrell, Big Sur, 05/14/49", (ed.) G. Wickes, Henry Miller & the Critics (London: Feffer & Simons, 1967), p. 108

(27) Kenneth Rexroth, "The Reality of Henry Miller", (ed.) G. Wickes, Henry Miller & the Critics, p. 121

(28) Masuga, p. 157

(29) D.H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious--Psychoanalysis qf the Unconscious (London: Penguin Books, 1981), p. 25

(30) Ibid.

(31) Masuga, p. 161

(32) Miller, The Books in My Life, p. 169

(33) Moore, p. 6

(34) Raunig, p. 19

(35) Henry Miller, "The Universe of Death", The Henry Miller Reader, p. 205

(36) Max Nordau, from "Degeneration" [1883], (ed.) Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman, & Olga Taxidou, Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), p. 22

(37) Decker, p. 7

(38) Blinder, p. 13-15

(39) Maurice Nadeau, (tr.) R. Howard, The History of Surrealism (London: Penguin, 1978), p. 19

(40) George Orwell, "Inside the Whale", Inside the Whale and Other Essays (London: Penguin, 1962), p. 18

(41) Miller, The Books in My Life, p. 11

(42) Ibid.

(43) Orwell, p. 19

(44) Masuga, p. 1

(45) Ibid., p. 3

(46) Miller, "The Universe of Death", p. 221

(47) Masuga, p. 125

(48) Andre Maurois, (tr.) G.Hopkins, The Quest for Proust (London: Penguin Books, 1962), p. 329

(49) Henry Miller, "The Universe of Death", p. 203

(50) Ibid., p. 207

(51) Ibid., p. 209

(52) Ibid., p. 227

(53) D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover (London: Penguin Books, 1960), p. 5

(54) Miller, "The Universe of Death", p. 216

(55) Orwell, p. 48

(56) Masuga, p. 3

(57) Charles Russell, "Towards Tautology: The Nouveau Roman and Conceptual Art", MLN: Centennial Issue: Responsibilities of the Critic, 91.5. (1976), p. 1045

(58) W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming", (ed.) D. Albright, The Poems (London: Everyman, 2004), p. 235

(59) Paul de Man, (ed.) W. Godzich, Blindness & Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 81

(60) Ibid.

(61) Ibid.

(62) Masuga, p. 22

(63) Ibid.

(64) Octavio Paz, "Unknown to Himself", (ed.) E. Lisboa, A Centenary: Pessoa (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1995), p. 3

(65) Thedor Adorno, (ed.) G. Adorno, R. Tiederman, (tr.) R. Hullot-Kenner, Aesthetic Theory (London: Continuum, 2011) p. 1

(66) Karl Shapiro, "The Greatest Living Author", as preface to Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, p. xv

(67) Craig Owens, "Photography en Abyme", October 5: Photography (1978) p. 73

(68) Masuga, p. 30

(69) W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), p.178

(70) Epideictic: done for show or display (Chambers Dictionary, 11th Ed.)

(71) Mitchell, p. 179

(72) Masuga, p. 30

(73) Henry Miller, To Paint is to Love Again (Alhambra: Cambria Books, 1960), p. 12

(74) Ibid., p. 14

(75) Masuga, p. 28

(76) Ibid., p. 30

(77) Maurice Merlau-Ponty, "Indirect Languages and the Voices of Silence" in (ed.) Galen A. Johnson, The Merlau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1993), p. 76

(78) Arthur Symons, from "The Symbolist Movement in Literature" [1899], Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, p. 134

(79) Masuga, p. 47

(80) Giles Deleuze and F61ix Guatarri, (tr.) G. Burchell, H. Tomlinson, What is Philosophy? (London: Verso, 1994), p. 62

(81) Theodor Adorno, (tr.) E. F. N. Jephcott, Minima Moralia (London: Verso, 2005), p. 15

(82) Barthes, "Writing Degree Zero", p. 31

(83) Plato, (tr.) R. Waterfield, Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 72

(84) Barthes, (tr.) S. Heath, Image-Music-Text (London: Fontana Press, 1977), p. 17

(85) Masuga, p. 3

(86) In "Reflections on Writing," Miller brackets the text with the "term" certitude: "With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief." [p. 243], "In the beginning, this daring is taken for will, but with time the will drops away and the automatic process takes its place, which again has to be broken or dropped and a new certitude established which has nothing to do with knowledge, skill, technique or faith." [p. 251]

(87) Frederich Nietzsche, (tr.) R. J. Hollingdale, Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ (London: Penguin, 1988), p. 39

(88) Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 2008), p. 6

(89) Lawrence Durrell, in Introduction to George Brassa'f, (ed.) J. Szarkowski, Brassai" (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1968), p. 12

(90) Sontag, p. 6

(91) Durrell, Brassai; p. 12

(92) Owens, p. 73

(93) Ibid.

(94) Blinder, p. 77

(95) Szarkowski, Brassai; p. 23

(96) "(Joseph Kosuth's) sculpture consisted of a real chair; a large, life-size photograph of a chair; and a dictionary definition of the word 'chair' [...]. The work is Kosuth's most formal and perhaps most graphic statement of [...] the artist's preoccupation with language." Corinne Robins, The Pluralist Era: American Art, 1968-1981 (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), pp. 26-27

(97) Szarkowski, Brassai, p. 18

(98) "[The Chair containing] an indefinable and yet real property] which aligns Miller] with Benjamin's call for a historically informed version of the marvelous, one which allows the marvelous to insert itself into a social context as opposed to a purely mythical one. The chair is auratic because it represents a continuum of proletarian experience from a historical perspective--albeit in an extremely discrete manner." Blinder, p. 77

(99) Ibid.

(100) Masuga, p. 21

(101) Raunig, p. 19

(102) Lawrence Durrell and Alfred Perles, Art & Outrage: A Correspondence about Henry Miller (London: Putnam, 1959), p. 9
COPYRIGHT 2013 Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Jaeckle, Dominic
Publication:Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
Previous Article:Editor's note.
Next Article:Examining the dump heap: prejudice in Henry Miller's Moloch.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |