Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3848
Miller, Henry 1891–
Miller is a self-educated American novelist, essayist, and critic who has long been involved with searching for truth and freedom. Many of his best-known and most controversial works, such as Tropic of Cancer and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, are autobiographical; in them he describes his quest, which culminates in a rejection of modern civilization, but with an eventual realization about personal truth. Karl Shapiro says of him, "As a spiritual example he stands among the great men of our age." However, due perhaps to the frank sexuality and scatological language in his writings, and to his somewhat dissatisfied attitude with America, his reputation has only lately been changing from notorious to influential and well-respected. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
When Henry Miller settled down in Paris in 1930, it was with no mere sense of being an expatriate. He believed he had died and been reborn. From this time he dated his birth as a creative artist and the beginning of the "auto-hero," "Henry Miller," whose past and present being he was to examine throughout the whole decade of the Thirties which he spent mainly in Paris. From this time he became a citizen of the universe, occupant of that "enormous womb" which reached to and included the most distant stars. And from this time he began once more to be an American. He felt that he was American in a sense of the term that would have been meaningful to the great transcendentalist writers of America's literary renaissance. In Democratic Vistas Walt Whitman had tried to formulate anew what he felt to be the motivating ideals of America, and Miller's work gave expression to similar vistas: a recovered awareness of the roots of democracy in spiritual community; a reorientation in human as distinct from commercial and technological values; the effort to liberate individual identity from conformist pressures and from the "City"; the acceptance of change and of suffering; faith in individual creative power as a force for transforming society; and—here, perhaps, most of all like Whitman—a profound acceptance of love and of death. (p. 221)
As Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, Miller moved to Paris for fear that he would awake one morning and find that he had not lived. He wished to possess himself and to be aware. And like Thoreau's Walden, Miller's Tropic of Cancer is a mythic birth of personality, a self sculptured into full separateness from the cultural clay that would have leached away the individual nature. Miller saw the threat to individuality as more terrible than mere dissolution in its action: "By simple external pressure, by force of surroundings and example, by the very climate which activity engenders one can become part of a monstrous death machine, such as America, for example." (p. 226)
While Miller frequently raged at America's highly technological society, he believed that the root of its troubles lay in a pseudodemocratic political and social structure, one in which the common man's worst qualities flourished, power and riches were garnered by a few, and there was no foundation of respect "for the sacred human individual who aggregate makes a democracy and in the ultimate will make divinity." (pp. 226-27)
In the process of creating the material out of which he assembled Tropic of Cancer, Miller sought with hatred and contempt to cut away from himself those portions of his identity which he conceived as being the cancerous "City," and to bring into recognizable being his separate and unique personality. The narration is autobiographical, but only if one allows for the possibility that dreams, wishes and lies are essential parts of the central consciousness. Although the narrator is in Paris, he is cutting himself free of the disease of civilization which he had absorbed in America; he has reached Cancer, "the extreme point of realization along the wrong path," "the apogee of death in life," and must reverse his course. The novel begins abruptly, and unlike the stream-of-consciousness novels which seek to reproduce an apparent discontinuity of thought and an apparent dissociation from reality Cancer, in form and subject, responds to the narrator's effort to be true only to his nature as animal and as god and thereby to betray his cultural conditioning.
Order, system, pattern, these are aspects of the disease which must be destroyed. All taboos must be challenged because they are taboos; the only authoritative totem is the self. Miller was to describe America as "the schizophrenic Paradise" and as "a far-flung empire of neurosis"; in Cancer what is given is the process of analysis through which the author heals himself. Other American characters in the novel, like biblical scapegoats, are heaped with the narrator's afflictions and abandoned to the devils of the American wilderness. A young Hindu, infected with the virus of America, demonstrates that "America is the very incarnation of doom. She will drag the whole world down to the bottomless pit." The auto-hero's temporary job as proofreader of the stock market section of the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune (a job Miller actually held) provides a metaphor of his indifference to the statistical heart of American life.
While Miller hires himself out when it becomes absolutely necessary to earn money, he contrives to make each job serve his purpose of self-creation. The making (of the self, of the book) is always going on. Like Hemingway, he, too, has arrived at a sense of life as play: "Cease laboring altogether and create! For creation is play, and play is divine." Play has its own law, spontaneous and compulsive, operative always at the borderline between exterior and interior life. Early in Cancer Miller states his Dadaist determination not to let will, ethical or aesthetic, affect his creation, to make no resistance to his fate, and to pass, as it were, out of the menagerie into the jungle.
He had found himself becoming, in New York, "a city, a world of dead stone, of waste light, of unintelligible motion, of imponderables and incalculables, of the secret perfection of minus," whereas he wished to become "a wild and natural park," where people go to rest and dream. (pp. 228-29)
In his efforts to become a writer, Miller had copied pages of the work of Hamsun, Dostoievski and Céline, fascinated by the way in which these authors could create a protagonist who threaded his holistic way through frenzy like the eye of a hurricane. While Miller shared the destructive need of these authors, he did not as yet possess the deep, upwelling strength—a different kind of strength in each case—which enabled them to hurl their anathemas. With Cancer Miller for the first time got off "the gold standard of literature," and instead of creating from what he had drawn from the "City" and "Man" sought to be incorruptibly true to his inner generation….
In creating the disorder of Cancer, he created the rebellion of his actual life; he opened the black spring, the "dark, mysterious realm in the absence of which nothing could happen"; he made himself into the sublime, absurd rebel who, he believed, was closer to Divinity than was the saint with his revelations in that the rebel was responsive to the sources of human nature. (p. 230)
Miller's concern with change and his contempt for the institutions of western civilization are not necessarily related. He felt that contemporary institutions were particularly destructive of the human spirit, but his concern was almost exclusively with changing the individual—almost exclusively with the creation of that individual, Henry Miller. As an American in Paris he found it possible to stay free of institutions, and to live as though governments, religions, laws, political organizations, social movements and the rest did not exist. (p. 231)
Being concerned with self-fulfillment, Miller felt that the men devoted to social reform were caught in an imaginary wheel rolling clockwise into the future. In their concern with the problems of arranging life to come they failed to solve the problem of living; their action was evidence of individual failure. Miller believed in "spreading" nothing—neither gospel, nor education, nor the wealth, nor brotherhood. To try to do so was to interfere with the sacred privacy of others. He saw "the brotherhood of man" as a permanent delusion common to idealists everywhere in all epochs; it always fails because it reduces men as individuals "to the least common denominator of intelligibility." Individuals and peoples, he believed, can only be helped—and should only be helped—after suffering has played its necessary part in the resurrection of the spirit. (p. 232)
The struggle of the creative artist is not with politics and social reorganization; it is a personal and religious effort to make life a poem. Such an effort, because it is creation, is play, "which just because it has no raison d'être other than itself is the supreme motivating power in life." Instead of trying to impose his ideas of order upon the world, the individual had to learn acceptance, to put himself in order with the world. How? "Through art then, one finally establishes contact with reality: that is the great discovery." (p. 233)
Although the autobiographical material of the Tropics might suggest otherwise, even in the Paris years he was an avid reader and absorbed much of what he read into his creative process. The growth of his theme of the disease of American life found rich nutriment in the prophecies for western culture made by Nietzsche and Spengler. Civic decay, he discovered, had been richly imaged by the French symbolist poets. Joyce, Proust, Lawrence, Céline, all were converted to use in Miller's varied denunciations. A civilization was dying and Miller said bad cess to it in hundreds of pages purportedly dealing with Shakespeare's Hamlet. The prospect of the decline and fall of America was to Miller something to be regarded with great joy, for only through its suffering and death could America be reborn. The nation, too, must have its rosy crucifixion. To elaborate this fundamental theme, Miller absorbed Walt Whitman (albeit first through parallels drawn from Balzac novels) into his process of creative realization.
Miller was struck by the similarity between the view of France given in the 1830s by Balzac in Louis Lambert and Seraphita and the view of America expressed in 1870 by Whitman in Democratic Vistas. Even more striking to Miller was the coincidence of Balzac and Whitman's views with his own view of America in the 1930s. In exploring these related views, especially Whitman's concept of death, Miller arrived at his deepest understanding of the relation of America to his "being." Unlike the successive generations of Americans who have gradually come to a recognition of the virtues of many elements in Whitman's poetry but still cannot truly accept his views of love and death, Miller at once absorbed these views into his own. What America needed, both agreed, was great poems of death.
To Whitman and to Miller it was essential to sing of death in its relation to divinity and to democracy. The civilization dominant in the United States, in the estimation of both men, had lost the sense of death wherein each man, individually, knew his death as passage—a stage in the process of being—a part of divinity being restored to the whole. Out of their separate experiences, both men had arrived at the conception of America as idea. America was an idea synonymous with the idea of "Religious Democracy." Like Emerson they believed each individual to be "part or parcel of God," and in this divinity and in this being part of a whole lay the essence of democracy. (pp. 233-34)
The special sense in which, for Miller, Whitman was "America" was expressed in Cancer as follows: "Whatever there is of value in America Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said. The future belongs to the machine, to the robots. He was the Poet of the Body and the Soul, Whitman." When Miller ends Tropic of Cancer he is at rest where the Seine leaves Paris and flows on toward the sea. "I feel this river flowing through me—its past, its ancient soil, the changing climate. The hills gently girdle it about: its course is fixed." He is one of Whitman's "identified souls," at one with the flowing river of Man's past, part of nature and part of divinity. In leaving his homeland he was not the man who ran away from something, but "the man who ran towards something"—toward those timeless democratic vistas that had the local and temporary name of "America." (p. 235)
Harold T. McCarthy, "Henry Miller's Democratic Vistas," in American Quarterly (copyright © 1971 Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania), May, 1971, pp. 221-35.
Miller is not an artist. He never knows when to stop. He suffers from logorrhea, writing on and on about a scene with gusto, detailing sights, sounds, smells (especially smells), using many long words found only in dictionaries and more than a few that did not use to be in order to capture the essence of a scene, which he has the talent to do. But after he's captured the feeling of the moment he goes on and on speaking until the very sound of his written voice obtrudes and drives the sense of scene away to leave only the sense of that irrepressible voice. (p. 251)
Nor is that the end. Having overwritten a scene in one book, obviously to his dissatisfaction, too, Miller returns to it in another book. And so Quiet Days of Clichy repeats episodes from Tropic of Cancer, and Tropic of Capricorn is regurgitated ad infinitum and ad nauseam in The Rosy Crucifixion. He admits freely, of course, that all of his writing is more or less autobiographical.
Miller himself boasts of his antiart: "This," he says on the second page of Cancer, "is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art…." Nine pages later he continues this assault on form: "I have made a silent compact with myself not to change a line of what I write. I am not interested in perfecting my thoughts, nor my actions."… They all ramble hither, thither, and yon. Although the Tropics have symbolic underpinnings, these are not apparent. Cancer, for instance, as the name implies, is supposed to depict the corruption abounding in the world: "No matter where you go, no matter what you touch, there is cancer and syphilis. It is written in the sky; it flames and dances, like an evil portent. It has eaten into our souls and we are nothing but a dead thing like the moon."… But such simple statements are few and usually lost in the rush of sensation, are contradicted by their opposites: sentences that capture life, feeling, activity. There certainly is both symbolic and actual death all around, but we cannot become very concerned with it when Miller barges through it, barely acknowledging the existent pathos in his enormous gusto for life. His Whitmanesque acceptance and his emphasis on the comic or the mystic make the tragic seem negligible, insufficient—certainly not the center of attention, Cancer's title notwithstanding.
Miller's books start in hectic medias res and end, except for flights of expectable but not really prepared-for mystic affirmation, the same way. There is no pattern, no order, no real conclusion; in Cancer, what does the ominous hint about Collins mean; does Fillmore ever get to New York, sane; what happens to Ginette; does Miller keep the money that Fillmore gave him for her? These questions would perhaps be impertinent if Miller hadn't the skill he has of bringing these characters and their problems to life on the page. We're not all as dead as he sometimes accuses us of being, and he creates in us empathy for these characters which goes frustrated, sympathy that gets short shrift, as when he says of Max (of Max and the White Phagocytes): "I have no idea [what became of him]. I presume he was killed by the Germans when they overran France." (pp. 252-54)
He sings of life, praising it, wallowing in it, while constantly depicting its dregs, filth, dirt, despair, and disease. His energy does convince me, or at least underscores my own sense of life's possibilities, but he rubs my face in the dirt so much while saying it that the message remains somewhat overpowered by the stench in my nostrils and the bad taste left in my mouth. There are also the wonderful grotesques he introduces us to, moving them on stage at random, then off again. Which brings me back to what I said before—Miller is not an artist, for an artist deals with form, selection, and order, and Miller does not. (p. 254)
[When] Miller says, "The terrible emphasis today upon plot, action, character, analysis, etc.—all this false emphasis which characterizes the literature and drama of today—simply reveals the lack of these elements in our own life," he's right…. And it's for [this very reason] that I seek order in art, balance there if nowhere else, man as artistic, if not artist-as-man, giving something a definite and satisfying shape. Which Miller does not. And, of course, I do not simply wish that all literature be Pollyannaish in nature, but I do wish that what Miller wrote was more like literature. Whole chunks of his books could be omitted, for the segments present are discontinuous and are not linked at all by causality and only vaguely by chronology. He wants to recreate life as he lived it, with no moral judgments. I disagree: I think an author should indicate, if only by negation, how life should be lived. And I think that writers should shape their material. Writers as diverse as Keats, Wallace Stevens, and Hemingway wrestled with the problem of passion and form. Even someone as hedonistic in his poetry as E. E. Cummings is far from formless, and, in fact, depends upon our knowledge of standard forms and plays against them for the effects that he gets.
Miller despises forms. He's an anarchist, and not just in literature, which is why I consider his philosophy dangerous. Not his preoccupation with sex. Certainly sex is an important if not central element of life, as Freud said, and as Lawrence and Miller have campaigned to allow authors to say. And while we can't hold these individuals responsible for the freedoms they initiated, from Peyton Place to Portnoy's Complaint, had their messages been heeded and sex been accorded its natural, not illicit or sordid, place in our existence, the hang-ups described by more modern writers might not exist. Moreover I agree with Miller that what he writes is obscene, but not pornographic: he graphically describes sexual intercourse and the evacuation of excrement, but his purpose is not to excite or titillate. Once the shock is over—and it was only a shock when Miller was hard to obtain, no longer—Miller is not that exciting. The Tropics are not books one (or at least I) cannot put down; the discontinuous segments even invite such a reading. In fact, such passages as that where Miller watches a whore trying to earn fifteen francs from Van Norden, is not at all prurient: it's terribly sad and depressing. (pp. 255-56)
No, the sexual portions of Miller do not disturb me as much as his anarchy does, his celebration of life, energy, passion, ecstasy, and his condemnation of anything that restricts free enjoyment. He almost worships passionate, powerful speakers, men like Katsimbalis, but unfortunately demagogues, manipulators of emotion from Hitler to George Wallace frequently speak with more passion than more quiet, reasonable men like Adlai Stevenson or Eugene McCarthy. Miller worships energy, explosions of energy, that result in ecstasies of sadism, and the only things created are more pain and confusion. (p. 256)
Miller is the prophet of the Apocalypse, to which we may well be headed: he describes the causes of our self-destruction well, and I agree with him about them. But I neither agree that we ought to rejoice at our world's collapse, bad as it is, nor do I believe as he does that it will be replaced, if there is a planet left on which to replace anything, by something better, finer, and true. That's why I'm frightened by such statements as "Until this colossal, senseless machine which we have made of America is scrapped there can be no hope." (p. 257)
Miller admired Nietzsche, but probably the equally apocalyptic Zarathustra, rather than The Genealogy of Tragedy. There Miller would have found the Dionysian qualities he loves. But he would have been reminded that Dionysian energy led not only to creation, but to orgies of dismemberment, guilt, insanity, and death. The art of which Nietzsche spoke blended this Dionysian force with Apollonian control, which gave it shape, which gave it form—the qualities which Miller's writing and thought drastically lack.
In Cancer again he says that he is not attracted to men who express themselves perfectly; rather, "Show me a man who over-elaborates and I will show you a great man!"… A neat pat on the back for his own logorrhea. In The Time of the Assassins, he says, "I call that man poet who is capable of profoundly altering the world"—which makes the greatest poets of this century Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler. He is a pacifist, but he is for violence. In his own words he is antiart; in Ihab Hasan's terms, antiform. He is a revolutionary who sees the task of the artist—he uses the term though he denies art—as the need "to overthrow existing values, to make of the chaos about him an order which is his own, to sow strife and ferment so that by the emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life …"…. (pp. 257-58)
Peter L. Hays, "The Danger of Henry Miller," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1971 by the Arizona Quarterly), Vol. 27, No. 3, Autumn, 1971, pp. 251-58.
Miller … pretends that he is examining erotic folly and romantic heartbreak [in "Insomnia"], but old hands will know better, for the detail of his courtship of Hoki Tokuda is merely incidental to the parable of the divine clown in the fallen world which for forty years has informed every word he has written. The book is slight, a fragment only of the Henry Miller of the grand manner, and perhaps it can stand as little more than an appendix to the single Work of which his entire life and art have been the making. But it is an expression of the same energy that gave us "Capricorn" and "The Colossus of Maroussi," and it is rich with the excess that leads a certain kind of fool to the Palace of Wisdom. Above all, it can make us proud of Henry Miller, who bears so gaily his burden of flesh and years. (p. xl)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring, 1975).