Chapter 9

Why Must We Read Miller? Miller as Sage

I am trying to get at the inner pattern of events.


WHY MUST WE READ Miller? Because he invented a new style of writing, a style as revolutionary in its own way as Joyce’s or Hemingway’s or Stein’s, a style that reveals, as he says, “the inner pattern of events.”

Some readers of Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Nexus, Sexus, and Plexus, are at first put off by this style. They find it impenetrable, hard to follow, lacking in narrative drive. I confess that I was at first stopped by the density of the long autobiographical narratives and preferred the essays and travel books.

In the narratives, the prose seems to gyrate and meander. One association leads to another. Time sequence is jumbled. The time is the time of the unconscious—which is to say there is no time. The narratives seem like tales told by an idiot (or a brilliant dyslexic), full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. People become furious with Miller for being so hard to follow. They accuse him of having no regard for art or artifice.

The fact is they have not understood his method.

… I am not following a strict chronological sequence but have chosen to adopt a circular or spiral form of time development which enables me to expand freely in any direction at any given moment. The ordinary chronological development seems to me wooden and artificial, a synthetic reconstitution of the facts of life. The facts and events of life are for me only the starting points on the way towards the discovery of truth.

This last sentence is critical. Henry is, above all, a wisdom writer like Hesse or Krishnamurti, and the narrative is far less important to him than the philosophical digressions. He uses his life as a parable; this is not the usual novelist’s dance. He seeks to instruct far more than to please. Beyond that, he wants to liberate—both himself and the reader. “I am trying to get at the inner pattern of events,” he says,

trying to follow the potential being who was deflected from his course here and there, who circled around himself, so to speak, who was becalmed for long stretches or who sank to the bottom of the sea or suddenly flew to the loftiest peaks.

Miller is inventing a new rhetoric for inner reality—something akin to what Freud did when he analyzed the dream or what Joyce did when he found verbal notation for the meanderings of the mind during waking fantasy. Miller shares their passion to decode the inner life. Like them, he has been slandered and misinterpreted and his method pronounced no method at all. But, for him, it was the only way to get at the truth that interested him. Normal sequencing would not do.

There is distortion and deformation, but only for the purpose of capturing the true inner reality. Thus, for no apparent reason, I may often lapse back into a period anterior to the one I am talking about.

Is Miller apologizing here for his lack of artifice, or is he trying to show us that his form followed function? Clearly the latter.

By the time Henry wrote The World of Sex, he was aware that many had criticized his ramblings. But Miller is absolutely sincere when he tells us that the style he invented was necessary to the content of his books. Without the spiraling of time he depicts, we would not have the sense that we are inside his mind.

The reader may find himself puzzled: he may wonder about the relevancy of such lapses. But they are dictated by necessity. A sudden switch, a long parenthetical detour, a monologue, a remembrance which suddenly crops up, all these, without conscious effort on my part, serve to bind the loose threads together and augment the whole emotional trend. A man does not go forward through life along a straight, horizontal path; often he does not stop at the stations indicated on the time table; sometimes he goes off the track completely; sometimes he dives below and is lost for a time, or he takes to the air and is flung against the side of a steep cliff.

Henry is not only Joyce’s contemporary, but Pirandello’s and Woolf’s. This could be Virginia Woolf describing her “method” in Orlando:

Tremendous voyages sometimes occur without the person moving from the spot. In five minutes some men have lived out the span of an ordinary man’s life. Some men use up numbers of lives in the course of their stay on earth.

Change the word man to man/woman and you have Woolf’s androgynous hero.

But Miller was also pursuing a method which had much in common with Freud’s explorations:

What goes on at every moment in the life of each and every man is something forever unfathomable and inexhaustible to relate. No man can possibly relate the whole story, no matter how limited a fragment of his life he chooses to dwell on.

It was because Henry believed this that he was able to spend most of his life as a writer of narratives (as opposed to essays), focusing on one relationship of nearly seven years’ duration: his fateful marriage to June. He found in that marriage enough lives to fill several volumes: Capricorn, Sexus, Nexus, Plexus—and he still did not exhaust the mother-lode (pun intended).

Capricorn was, as Henry said in The World of Sex, only “a preface, a vestibule to the vast edifice.” What he was trying to do in Sexus, Nexus, Plexus, or The Rosy Crucifixion, was to offer up a man’s life, his meanderings through the labyrinth, “as a sacrifice.” He offers himself as a sacrifice in order to show that every man’s life is such a sacrifice, and that it is only worthwhile if a new kind of truth is the result.

He who goes the whole way of course is slain. I have gone the whole way, I have offered myself up as a sacrifice. That is why I can live on now and record it fully with no suffering involved. I can recount the most heart-breaking events almost joyously. I am telling about another man in another life.

Here Henry becomes the man who died. Like Christ or Adonis, he dies for truth. But unlike Christ, he is both the sacrifice and its chronicler. He is reborn as a writer to write his own gospel.

This is an utterly new thing in the history of the art of chronicle. I am careful not to call it “the art of fiction,” because, like Henry, I believe fiction is outmoded, and perhaps, if we are honest, was outmoded as early as Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. For, of course, even the eighteenth-century English novels pretended to be spilled truth.

But Henry is rare in being both Christ and St. Paul, both Hamlet and Horatio. He goes down into the underworld, is reborn, and his rebirth takes the form of writing. Writing becomes redemption. And redemption is the ultimate form of self-liberation.

There is only one subject, as Henry says often, “the supreme subject”—liberation:

But the struggle of the human being to emancipate himself, that is, to liberate himself from the prison of his own making, that is for me the supreme subject. That is why I fail, perhaps, to be completely “the writer.”

So even Henry himself proclaims what his critics accuse him of! Writerliness is far less important to him than truth.

We live in an age of mannered writing, an age of writers who forget that their purpose is to tell truths, not merely to be clever. Perhaps truth-telling makes us uncomfortable because we no longer have any consensus about what truth is. We look to our writers to help us find a consensus, and, book by book, we hope to grope our way toward it. But we have no cohesive worldview. We do not really believe in the spirit, yet we are unhappy with sheer materialism and uncomfortable with the idea of imperishable realities beyond the self and beyond the flesh.

Henry reminds us that the ancient function of the writer is to be a truth-teller. He also reminds us that the only truth is self-redemption. In this, his message is not so very different from Christ’s. It was Thomas Merton, after all, who praised Henry for his “real basic Christian spirit which I wish a few Christians shared!” Merton and Miller were kindred spirits, who exchanged some fascinating letters. They both were intimate with the divine dictation of “the Voice.” Merton the poet-monk and Miller the eternal vagabond recognized each other at once as participants in the same quest—the quest for spirit in a materialistic world.

The experience of taking dictation from “the Voice” is riveting and unforgettable. A large part of a writing teacher’s task is to convince students that they, too, can listen to this inner voice. We all have it to some extent, but writers cultivate the ability to use it. This may be why they are so apt to believe in the Voice. When your daily work is to be a medium, you must believe in the Voice or it may stop talking to you.

For the most part, the “fictional” novels we read today belong to a dead genre, a genre that somnolizes rather than awakens. People read mysteries, romances, and thrillers to anesthetize themselves, not to alert their souls. Most books are enslaving rather than liberating. They lull the senses; they hypnotize the moral imagination.

That we have a whole publishing industry based on the production of verbal soma (as Aldous Huxley called his all-purpose opiate in Brave New World) is not surprising. But Miller is doing something else entirely—and it is necessary to recognize it. He is using words in the service of liberation. He cannot be judged only as an entertainer. Like Auguste in The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, his ecstasy is our entertainment.

When we consider how long it has been since Joyce, Woolf, Stein, and other geniuses of the first part of this century transformed the very nature of prose narrative, it is astounding that the contemporary novel has been influenced so little.

Film transformed the novel far more than modernist literature did. Film absorbed the lessons of surrealism. The novel speeded up its scenes to match the dwindling attention span of the contemporary reader. Fiction writers learned to cut and edit like filmmakers. But, for the most part, they ignored the lessons of Miller, Joyce, Woolf, and Stein, and continued to write nineteenth-century Dickensian or Dostoyevskian novels in the age of visual media. I suspect that it is for this reason that so many of them are being ignored.

Today’s younger generation has become totally comfortable with the sort of antichronological sequencing that Miller employed. The most banal MTV promotional video collapses or reverses time, folds reality into fantasy or fantasy into reality, all with dazzling slickness. Why do we refuse to trust readers to accept this in novels? Or, better, why do our novelists refuse to draw inspiration from the innovations of the great modernists? The reason, of course, is commercialism and the lust for bestsellers.

The poor old popular novel plods along in the footsteps of the past, while occasionally Martin Amis or Harold Pinter makes use of reverse chronology (Time’s Arrow, Betrayal) to jolt his audience. That such a technique is still jolting only proves how very conventional most contemporary writing remains.

Of course there are adventurous souls like Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Cormac McCarthy, T.C. Boyle, John Hawks, and Robert Coover who do bravely experiment. But most of our published fiction is structured along nineteenth-century lines.

Henry himself invented spiraltime, structured like the DNA molecule, time that curves back on itself. His “novels” constitute an immense Mobius strip. In the end is their beginning. Is this “the true inner reality” of our lives? Henry thought so. And it is time our contemporary fiction writers trusted his lead. They have followed him into the bedroom, but not into the world of unconscious time. The writers who can pick up the mantle of Miller and reinterpret him for a new generation will tap a young audience that is largely bored with contemporary popular fiction.

Henry also led the way for contemporary writers in the manner in which he took fact and made it into parable. He often predicted that autobiography would be the fiction of the future and I think he has been proven right both by the hunger for “docudrama,” and by CNN’s instant history, which rivets us far more effectively than television sitcom-land. Our most disturbing novels blend fiction and fact. News and novels mingle boundaries everywhere. Even the words mean the same thing.

The birth of the novel in the eighteenth century—the same century that gave us the newspaper and consumer capitalism—owes its impetus to the elevating of the daily life of the average individual to the level of heroism. Instead of kings and queens and mythical heroes and heroines, we have Pamela, Clarissa, and Tom Jones. There is surely a direct line from the serving-maid scribbler of Pamela or the orphan Tom Jones to the Paris vagabond Henry Miller. Miller, with his elevation of daily life to myth, with his blurred boundaries between fiction and autobiography is, in fact, squarely in the central tradition of the English novel. If this is so, why has he been seen only as an outcast and renegade?

Part of the problem is sexomania/sexophobia. Henry stirs outrage because of his lust for life. He also stirs outrage because of his happiness at being alive and his truly Christ-like lack of envy. Perlès once called him an amateur writer—in the literal sense: he loved to write. Miller also says in Tropic of Capricorn, “Envy was the one thing I was not a victim of.”

This was surely true when I knew him. He was unstinting in helping me and others. He did not calculate his gifts. He saw the world as having enough gifts for all. He did not hold back as if inspiration were finite.

The rarity of his generosity made others hate Henry. They mocked his openness because they could not emulate it. All his faults were the faults of excess. But it was out of excess that all his virtues also flowed.

Norman Mailer indicted The Rosy Crucifixion (in Genius and Lust, his meditation on Miller) as “a great cake that fails to rise.” And it is true that the trilogy is full of Henry’s most uneven writing—great wisdom cheek by jowl with great banality. Reminiscences of childhood in Brooklyn stop the flow of the story, plot gets lost, characters change names, and yet, for all the sloppy writing, one feels one is looking right into the author’s skull. There is an unparalleled intimacy, no veil between author and reader. This intimacy was one of Miller’s greatest gifts. Try to replicate it and you will see how hard it is to give up literature and have life, how self-consciousness always threatens to intrude and how, even when you do get into the flow, all sorts of flotsam and jetsam come with it.

Miller discovered the automatic-writing technique of never lifting the pen from the page—and so his books have both the feel of life and its dross. They taunt us with nuggets of truth, and disappoint us with flat language from which the clichés have not been pruned. But they give an unmistakable impression of a man who is alive and for whom writing is a way of being even more intensely alive. Many writers use writing as an evasion of life. The book becomes a place to rewrite personal history and avoid the pain of confrontation. Miller’s works are confrontations, not evasions. For his life force alone, Miller is unique.

The creative life! Ascension. Passing beyond oneself. Rocketing out into the blue, grasping at flying ladders, mounting, soaring, lifting up the world by the scalp, rousing the angels from their ethereal lairs, drowning in stellar depths, clinging to the tails of comets.

This was Miller’s gift: to lift up the world by its scalp.

I want to send you back to read him—with an open head and heart.

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