Henry Miller: A Different Kind of Silence Breaker

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.

It follows from this that the description of sexual intercourse and perhaps even of sexual abuse in Miller’s prose serve to denounce and protest against a prudish and hypocritical code of conduct which defends a notion of decency in social relations that is in actuality painfully absent therein. Just take the systematic exploitation and malfunctioning that all employees are subjected to at the “Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company”; take the violence and misery in the Brooklyn neighborhood, Miller grew up in; or take the false pretexts usually employed rather happily when trying to achieve the company’s sales objectives. In matters of sex, openness and honesty are likewise wanting. Take the example of Trix’s sister who quite enjoys the intercourse she has with Henry as long as she doesn’t have to admit to herself that this is what is actually happening. (p332ff)  Or take Agnes, the crazy Irish catholic, who can only be saved from an attack of hysteria by an act of intrusion. (327f)

Obviously, one might argue that Miller’s sexually explicit writing is to be seen in the historical context of the theories of Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Reich had argued back in 1924 that the failure to attain “orgastic potency” would necessarily have to result in all kinds of neuroses, since the lack of said orgastic potency would impede the release of accumulated muscular tensions. Subject unreleased tensions however would necessarily have to result in all sorts of mental exaggerations, overreactions and derangements (sadness, anger, anxiety, low self-esteem etc.) since the otherwise unreleased energy would have to be processed and discharged somehow.

Miller very likely wouldn’t object to this view. And the fact that his episodic portrayal of  orgasm more often than not is the result of an intercourse that took place in rather wild, daring, uninhibited and not always consensual ( -at least initially) circumstances would probably echo somewhat with other sexologists’ views about the need to experiment in matters of carnal fulfillment. But ultimately, Miller is less about defending theories, propagating ideologies or negotiating world views. He is about living, he is about surviving, and he is about maintaining his own personal mental balance in the process. This is why Noah denkt™ believes that the majority of the sexual material in Tropic of Capricorn isn’t just about protest against and liberation from protestant prissiness; it is also about putting in explicit depictions just for the hack of it. More often than not these descriptions do not contribute all that much to the overall narration of the author’s evolution towards recognizing his artistic calling.  Often times these scenes stand somewhat alone without an immediate connection to what’s being discussed before and after the graphic encounter. This has to do with the brainstorming style of writing that Miller adopts in his prose. He focuses on whatever comes to his mind next and of course his intimate experiences with women pop up with insisting regularity.

His work is clearly influenced by the philosophy that carried the Dada movement (see quote below***).  Miller consequently writes in no small amount for himself, out of real necessity and for his own benefit. He extemporizes from “the awareness of a supreme egoism, wherein laws become insignificant” and where the objective is that “every page explodes”.  In other words, his sexual explicitness is in large measure a simple act of creating a poetic  “vortex, vertigo (and) newness”***.

All that however does not address the question of whether the way he writes about sex is deeply macho and insensitive to women. If pressed on the issue, Mr. Miller might probably argue that the description of his pushing and shoving wasn’t of the Weinstein kind. “No”, we imagine him saying, “there was always an element of seduction in my main character’s approach.  He was acting and writing on the basis of a deeper, world-class understanding of human existence. Such profound de-construction of existence can never be insensitive to the plight of anybody, let alone to that of his female sex partners. His existential undertaking is quite naturally in a subtle and sublime communication with the predicament of everybody that he is engaging with,-  especially when the latter is in a more intimate manner. In other words, my main character may have manipulated people but he has done so in the name of passion, freedom and humanity and not because he gained pleasure from abusing his power.” (****)

Noah denkt™, however, has a hard time to accept that a mind permeated by the deepest of wisdoms can never be insensitive and abusive just because of the depth of that wisdom. We would find such an argument too self-serving for it to still betray a truly wise mind. Instead we would hope that a “No” can be taken just as much as an answer in the field of erotic proposals as it should be taken in the field of sales and marketing. Obviously, it takes quite a bit of maturity to reach this level of restrain and it is difficult to be there when you are young and confused. In many ways, however, Henry Miller’s descriptions of sex are that of a youngster.***** He is the first to pioneer subject topic in high literature and his portrayal of it is indeed “uncouth” and “galloping”(Dada***). May we therefore give him some leeway for his “manque de finesse”, i.e. his lack of refinement in subject matters. He is only just a beginner. And the knowledge about female sexuality is still in its infancy.  Let us therefore be generous with him and not measure him against a yardstick of gender equality that probably wasn’t all that available in Brooklyn at the time. He has done a lot for us as it is, – despite the imperfections that his rough sex approach may have betrayed.


Footnote *: This is our own translation back into English from Spanish edition of Tropic of Capricorn. Henry Miller: Trópico de Capricornio, Santillana Ediciones Generales, SA de CV, México, D.F., 2010, pages 35, 36-37

The original Text in Spanish, translated from English by Carlos Manzano reads as follows:

[Yo] hacia el trabajo de cinco hombres. En tres años apenas dormí. No tenía ni una sola camisa en buenas condiciones  (pagina35) (…)

Lo mejor de la nueva etapa fue la introducción  de repartidoras. Transformó la atmósfera entera del local. Sobre todo para Hymie [su asistente quien distribuye los recién contratados a las varias oficinas] fue un regalo del cielo. … Pese al aumento del trabajo, tenía una erección permanente. … Al final del día, yo siempre tenía una lista de cinco o seis a las que valía la pena probar. El truco consistía en mantenerlas en la incertidumbre, prometerles un empleo, pero conseguir primero un polvo gratis. Por lo general, bastaba con convidarlas a comer para llevarlas de nuevo a la oficina por la noche y tumbarlas en la mesa cubierta de zinc del vestuario. Si, como ocurría a veces, tenían un piso acogedor, las llevábamos a su casa y acabábamos la fiesta en la cama. … (paginas 36-37)

Footnote **:  “Mi familia estaba formada por nórdicos puros, es decir, idiotas. Suyas eran todas las ideas equivocadas que se hayan podido exponer en este mundo. Entre ellas, la doctrina de la limpieza, por no hablar de la probidad. Eran limpísimos, pero por dentro apestaban. Ni una sola vez habían abierto la puerta que conduce hasta el alma; ni una sola vez se les ocurrió dar un salto a ciegas en la obscuridad.”  Page 13

Footnote ***: Here is an excerpt from the Dada movement Manifesto

Writers who like to moralize and discuss or ameliorate psychological bases have, apart from a secret wish to win, a ridiculous knowledge of life, which they may have classified, parceled out, canalized; they are determined to see its categories dance when they beat time. Their readers laugh derisively, but carry on: what’s the use?

There is one kind of literature which never reaches the voracious masses. The work of creative writers, written out of the author’s real necessity, and for his own benefit. The awareness of a supreme egoism, wherein laws become significant. Every page should explode, either because of its profound gravity, or its vortex, vertigo, newness, eternity, or because of its staggering absurdity, the enthusiasm of its principles, or its typography. On the one hand there is a world tottering in its flight, linked to the resounding tinkle of the infernal gamut; on the other hand, there are: the new men. Uncouth, galloping, riding astride on hiccups. And there is a mutilated world and literary medicasters in desperate need of amelioration. (see: Dada Manifesto, by Tristan Tzara, 23rd March 1918 (http://391.org/manifestos/1918-dada-manifesto-tristan-tzara.html#.Wibi7Hlryic))

Footnote ****: Some quotes by Anaȉs Nin who had a passionate love affair with Henry Miller suggest that she would support this view. This is quote form one of her letters:

Before, as soon as I came home from all sorts of places I would sit down and write in my journal. Now I want to write you, talk with you… I love when you say all that happens is good, it is good. I say all that happens is wonderful. For me it is all symphonic, and I am so aroused by living – god, Henry, in you alone I have found the same swelling of enthusiasm, the same quick rising of the blood, the fullness… Before, I almost used to think there was something wrong. Everybody else seemed to have the brakes on… I never feel the brakes. I overflow. And when I feel your excitement about life flaring, next to mine, then it makes me dizzy.” (see:  Anaïs Nin, A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin Henry Miller, 1932-1953)

Footnote *****: Miller was 48 when Tropic of Capricorn was first published in France.

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