Thursday, November 14, 2013

Notes on Henry Miller

I first encountered the work of Henry Miller while at Rutgers.  Not in a class, of course.  I was killing time between classes in the Alexander Library and took a paperback copy of Sexus off the shelf and flipped through it, looking for the pornographic scenes, of which there were quite a few.  Years later, while living in New York, I bought new editions of the three volumes of the Rosy Cruxificion trilogy, Sexus, Plexus and Nexus, and read them for real, from start to finish.  I can still remember sitting on Fifth Avenue, not far from the Guggenheim, my back to Central Park, laughing as I read the scene in Sexus in which Miller, sitting in the passenger seat of a car speeding through Long Island, tries to convince his friends to drive him to Walt Whitman’s birth site.

                What about visiting Walt Whitman’s birthplace?” I said aloud.
                What?” yelled McGregror.
                “Walt Whitman!” I yelled.  “He was born somewhere on Long Island.  Let’s go there.”
                “Do you know where?”
                “No, but we could ask someone.”
                “Oh the hell with that!  I thought you knew where.  These people out here wouldn’t know who Walt Whitman was.  I wouldn’t have known myself only you talk about him so goddamned much.  He was a bit queer, wasn’t he?  Didn’t you tell me he was in love with a bus driver?  Or was he a nigger lover?  I can’t remember any more.”
Just typing that passage (from page 123 of my edition) made me laugh.  In that passage you find the appeal of Miller (to me at least) in a nutshell: funny, literary, and shockingly coarse, crude and offensive, or as we say today, “politically incorrect.”

Last year I reread the Rosy Crucifixion and read for the first time several other Miller books, and then filled my e-mails to friends (among them poet and playwright Jason Irwin, immortalized as the first commenter on this blog) with discussion of Miller.  In the interest of keeping all my literary notes in one place, I paste below excerpts relating to Miller from my correspondence. 

JULY 18, 2012
I read Tropic of Capricorn, which has some good parts, and one part I found very surprising, in which Miller complains that after they built the Williamsburg Bridge the Jews invaded his beloved Brooklyn neighborhood and ruined it. Then I reread Sexus, which I think is probably Miller's best book. It has the most sex, the fewest bizarre surrealist sequences, and has a more structured plot than Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. The Tropic books are mostly disconnected anecdotes divided by the weird surrealist transports and irrational hateful rants about how he wishes the world would explode or drown in blood, how he respects a man who murders his neighbor more than a man who has a 9 to 5 job, etc. I love the anecdotes, and the insane misanthropic diatribes can be fun, but those surrealistic sequences put me to sleep. I suspect, however, that Miller thinks that those nonsensical scenes are his best work.

Unable to find it in any of the libraries out here in the wilderness, I bought Crazy Cock at the Half Price Books just west of Des Moines. I love the cover; I wish my copies of Sexus, Plexus and Nexus had such nice covers. I have not read Crazy Cock yet.

I got Moloch from the Simpson College Library. It also has a nice cover. Unfortunately, it is the worst book by Miller I have yet read. A lot of the usual Miller stuff is in there; he works for the messenger company, he cheats on his wife (in one scene he has to borrow money for his wife's abortion from his mulatto girlfriend), there are several characters from his other work, like the mulatto girlfriend and the fat Jewish medical student (I think he's called Kronski in Sexus), there is an Indian, other people keep telling Miller he is a great guy and a genius, etc. But the style is not there, partly because it is written in the third person, so it is not nearly as fun.

The most interesting things about Moloch are the fact that the whole book is an anti-Semitic diatribe, and Miller's more sympathetic treatment of his first wife and his child. The book being in the third person, Miller not only says again and again that Jews are ugly and dirty, but has Jewish characters themselves admit this. As for the first wife, the Miller character loves her and tries to reform, tries to stop cheating and make things work out right with her. He also goes on about how he loves his little daughter. In his other work I don't recall Miller showing any sympathy or affection for his first wife and their daughter. In fact, in Sexus Miller takes credit for improving his wife by making her more sexually liberated; in Moloch it is just the opposite, the wife gets the husband to behave.

Perhaps the best scene in Sexus is when Miller gets a letter from his hero, Knut Hamsun, a stupid and embarrassing letter which breaks Miller's heart but of course had me laughing out loud. I read Hamsun's Hunger in the '90s and have decided to reread it. It turns out that Robert Bly translated it in the late 90s... I doubt it was his translation I read, I think I read an old mouldering hardcover. Anyway, today, when I take the laundry I will seek a copy of this Bly trans at the Franklin Street branch of the Des Moines library.

I'm reading Thomas Mann's “The Black Swan.” I liked The Magic Mountain and “Death In Venice” but this thing is damn lame. It is mostly two women talking about humanity's relationship with “Nature,” largely as reflected in the menstrual cycle and menopause! Thank heavens it is short.

AUGUST 23, 2012
I just finished Plexus, book two of The Rosy Crucifixion.  It was good, because there were lots of scenes of Miller being down and out and being a dick to everybody.  He and his second wife Mona try to sell candy door to door, try to run a speakeasy, hurry down to Florida during a real estate boom, and other crazy schemes, all of which end up with them stealing money from their creditors.  Most of the time they live on money Mona extracts from her "admirers" (she assures Miller that she never has sex with them, but also insists he never meet them.)  Fortunately the many long scenes in which Miller's friends tell Miller he is a genius don't bother me.   

Unfortunately, way too many of Plexus's 640 pages are given over to surrealist and Dadaist scenes, including dream sequences and a scene in which Miller retells the story of Goldilocks; in Miller's version Goldilocks is stripped, cooked, and eaten by the Three Bears.  There is also lots of mystical doubletalk, especially after Miller discovers Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West.

Next week I will start Nexus, the third volume of The Rosy Crucifixion.  I think I will read some Thomas Mann stories this weekend.

I read Thomas Mann's "Tonio Kroger," a story Miller specifically praises in Plexus.  I liked it, but, as usual, I found Mann too long-winded, thought he was belaboring his points, and included too many long "philosophical" dialogues.  I am almost finished with Nexus, the third volume of The Rosy Crucifixion.  After reading the anti-Semitic Moloch it is kind of funny how every good character in The Rosy Crucifixion is Jewish, and how Miller will say things like "I have never met a Gentile of genius" and "every Jewish doctor I met was a man passionately interested in music, art, and literature."  Miller is a wacky character, it is hard to take much of the stuff he says seriously. 


  1. I was big into Miller in my early twenties, back in the second half of the '70s, and read the two Tropic books, Black Spring, and just about every title published by New Directions - Colossus of Maroussi, Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Books In My Life, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, etc., etc. Plus, I had a secondhand dealer track down all the books that influenced Miller, so I could read them for myself.

    Several things about Miller appealed to me: his mysticism; his idiosyncratic taste in literature, which freed me from the notion that I should read all the important books one is supposed to read; his insistence on remaining an artist, an outsider, and a loser by all the standards of the world - while at the same time determining to be happy anyways. The latter was a real revelation for me. I had no idea that happiness was a choice for artists, losers, and outsiders.

    Eventually, I grew to reject his mysticism - all the stuff in his books that his contemporary critics called "flapdoodle." It now groan and roll my eyes when I reread those many passages.

    As for statements like the one you quote, about respecting a man who murders his neighbor, that's just Miller saying whatever he has to say to show that he rejects normal values. It's also Miller adding to the myth of Henry Miller, by deliberately sounding like Rimbaud and all the other outsiders he admired.

    If Miller's books are anything, they're the record of Miller creating the myth of Miller. Looked at another way, it's Miller selling you on his art by selling you on the man behind the art. Not that he was unique in this. Picasso, Hemingway, Warhol and umpteen other artists since the end of the 19th century have done the same thing - consciously, deliberately. It's what artists have to do to get to the top of the modern/post-modern art game in a celebrity/mass media culture. (Others will do the myth-making for the artist if he doesn't do it for himself. But that's usually done posthumously, and so, not as much fun for the artist.)

    1. Thanks for the interesting comments. You've read quite a few Miller things I have yet to. I'm quite curious about Books In My Life; Miller's love of books is infectious, and scenes like the Whitman one I quote, and when Miller stares at a portrait of Dostoyevsky in a bookstore window, trying to gain some insight into the writer's character, always strike a chord in me.

    2. I certainly found Books In My Life infectious! I tracked down the big influences on Miller, like John Cowper Powys (perhaps the most genuinely strange stuff I've ever read). The odd "masterpieces" like Nijinsky's Diary, Long's Interlinear to Cabeza de Vaca, and Welch's Unveiling of Timbuctoo. But I think the authors Miller recommended who've really stuck with me have been Blaise Cendrars, Jean Giono, and Arthur Rimbaud. I still read and reread them.

      You might find that Books In My Life ends up emptying your wallet. As a fellow inhabitant of genteel poverty, I sympathize!