An essay on Henry Miller triggered by Charlie Rose’s sex scandal and the #Metoo Campaign
The same day we learned that US news icon Charlie Rose had been fired by CBSNews and PBS on substantiated allegations that he too of all people may have sexually harassed female co-workers our literary pursuit had us stumble upon the following text:
[I]did the work of five men at a time. In three years I hardly slept. I did not have a single shirt in good condition (…)
The best of the new approach was the introduction of female telegram messengers. It transformed the entire atmosphere on the premises. Especially for Hymie [my assistant who assigns the new hires to the various offices] this was a gift from heaven. (…) Despite the increase in work, he had a permanent erection. … At the end of the day, I always had a list of five or six [female applicants] that were worth trying. The trick was to keep them in uncertainty, promise them a job, and get laid in the process. In general, it was enough to invite them to eat, to take them back to the office at night and go after them on the zinc-covered table in the dressing room. If, as sometimes happened, they had a cozy flat, we would take them home and finish the party in bed.
(see footnote *)
This is an excerpt from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, a semi-autobiographical novel which was originally published in 1939 and banned in the US until 1961. In the age of the Matt Lauer et al. sex scandal, it isn’t easy to take note of a passage like this without considering it twice. After all, we are talking about an unabashed description of a sexual harassment here. And subject description is even included in a piece of art which undoubtedly forms part of the US canon of literature. So what is going on here? Is this another example of men dominating what is considered to be legitimate art, i.e. another example of male insensitivity towards the needs and rights of women? Or does art get a free pass here because it is considered to be a mind-game only?
Before we get too excited though about Miller’s daring prose we need to put it into perspective. Tropic of Capricorn is above all a novel about the existential challenges a writer has to face in order to discover his artistic calling and then run with. Miller explains that his effort to survive as an employee in the American economy pushed him to such a point of despair that he had to consider suicide before finding the guts to bank on the artistic capacity he had earlier diagnosed in himself (On the connection between considering suicide and becoming a writer see also our own “Businessplan Existenzphilosoph” on this). So, the novel is first and foremost about Miller’s own self- resurrection from near-annihilation. On a second tier it is also about the inhumanity of human existence in general and in New York in particular. According to Miller the capitalist reality in New York likes to pretend that everything’s running fine and smoothly when it actually “stinks from within”(**). Hence the excruciating devastation he experiences when trying to make a living there in a run-of-the-mill fashion. Only in a third tier, finally, Tropic of Capricorn is also about explicit descriptions of sexual encounters. Clearly, these different layers of the book are interconnected with each other and they influence one another. But it wouldn’t be right to say that Tropic of Capricorn is mainly about sex or loose talk about it. It is a contemplation of life, – at times poetic, at times direct -, that naturally includes the portrayal of sexual encounters which clearly are an essential part of human existence. And this is precisely one of the aspects which explain Miller’s inclusion into the canon of literature. We have to bear in mind that all talk about sex was effectively taboo in the Victorian and pre-Wilsonian ages. The topic was considered to be dirty and salacious. And taking issue with this uptight and potentially dangerous silence on one of the most powerful aspects of human nature is a big part of the social liberation fight that is being waged after World War I and in the 20s of the last century. Henry Miller is part of that liberation movement and breaks new ground here. Others will later follow in his footsteps and will face considerably less obstacles in discussing intimate aspects of their life and how they impacted their evolution. Continue reading