Henry Miller was the prophet of the modern man—particularly, the modern American man. He was the prophet of a traumatized existence—not traumatized physically, but in every other way: psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Like most prophets and poets (for he was a poet also), he did not say anything unusual, but only said what a million others would have said if they could have found the words. He said the same thing other writers have said, only he said it better. He was able to testify in crystal clear language to those subtle pains and pleasures which to most of us stay buried beneath layers of confusion, ignorance, and inner noise. He took our “sneaking suspicions” and made them undeniable realities. His intuition was unobscured, and he wields it masterfully.
It’s a crying shame that in many ways he suffered the same fate as D.H. Lawrence before him. He took it for granted the carnal lifestyle in which he was immersed, and therefore he spoke of his escapades freely. It proved to be too much for the scrupulous, and he was branded obscene—a pornographer in fact. This misapprehension shows through even in the acclaim his work received once it was no longer banned in the United States. For example, on the back cover of my edition of The Tropic of Capricorn, a reviewer from The Nation says: “The greatest passage are the scenes of lovemaking. Who will ever forget Rita in the vestibule…?” A Newsweek writer claims that “The most enthralling explosions are the sexual ones, which are many.” And so it goes…
Truth be told, part of the purpose of the article is to vindicate Miller not only from his enemies, but also from “friends” like these reviewers, who in their praises only proved that they entertained a notion of the book which was just as superficial as those who dubbed it pornography and rejected it as such. Like D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, both critics and fans latched onto the most vulgar elements of the masterpiece and left everything else to rot. These are the folks who would look at the Sistine Chapel and remark only on Adam’s nudity. They take the rind and discard the fruit.
What fruit? Well that, clearly, is my real purpose here. Explore these few excerpts from his most characteristic work, Tropic of Capricorn, and judge for yourself the character of the work.
On New York
It was like a page out of the telephone book. Alphabetically, numerically, statistically, it made sense. But when you looked at it up close, when you examined the pages separately, or the parts separately, when you examined one lone individual and what constituted him, examined the air he breathed, the life he led, the chances he risked, you saw something so foul and degrading, so low, so miserable, so utterly hopeless and senseless, that it was worse than looking into a volcano.
Outwardly it seems to be a beautiful honeycomb, with all the drones crawling over each other in a frenzy of work; inwardly it’s a slaughterhouse, each man killing off his neighbor and sucking the juice from his bones. Superficially it looks like a bold, masculine world; actually it’s a whorehouse run by women, with the native sons acting as pimps and the bloody foreigners selling their flesh. Nobody knows what it is to sit on his ass and be content. That happens only in the films where everything is faked, even the fires of hell. The whole continent is sound asleep and in that sleep a grand nightmare is taking place…
At night the streets of New York reflect the crucifixion and death of Christ. When the snow is on the ground and there is the utmost silence there comes out of the hideous buildings of New York a music of such sullen despair and bankruptcy as to make the flesh shrivel. No stone was laid upon another with love or reverence; no street was laid for dance or joy. One thing has been added to another in a mad scramble to fill the belly, and the streets smell of empty bellies and full bellies and bellies half full. The streets smell of a hunger which has nothing to do with love; they smell of the belly which is insatiable and of the creations of the empty belly which are null and void.
Just as the city itself had become a huge tomb in which men struggled to earn a decent death so my own life came to resemble a tomb which I was constructing out of my own death. I was walking around in a stone forest the center of which was chaos; sometimes in the dead center, in the very heart of chaos, I danced or drank myself silly, or I made love, or I befriended some one, or I planned a new life, but it was all chaos, all stone, and all hopeless and bewildering. Until the time when I would encounter a force strong enough to whirl me out of this mad stone forest no life would be possible for me nor could one page be written which would have meaning…
Everybody and everything is a part of life, but when they have all been added together, still somehow it is not life. When is it life, I ask myself, and why not now?
As an individual, as flesh and blood, I am leveled down each day to make the fleshless, bloodless city whose perfection is the sum of all logic and death to the dream. I am struggling against an oceanic death in which my own death is but a drop of water evaporating. To raise my own individual life but a fraction of an inch above this sinking sea of death I must have a faith greater than Christ’s, a wisdom deeper than that of the greatest seer. I must have the ability and the patience to formulate what is not contained in the language of our time, for what is now intelligible is meaningless. My eyes are useless, for they render back only the image of the known. My whole body must become a constant beam of light, moving with an ever greater rapidity, never arrested, never looking back, never dwindling. The city grows like a cancer; I must grow like a sun. The city eats deeper and deeper into the red; it is an insatiable white louse which must die eventually of inanition. I am going to starve the white louse which is eating me up. I am going to die as a city in order to become again a man. Therefore I close my ears, my eyes, my mouth.
Infinitely better, as life moves toward a deathly perfection, to be just a bit of breathing space, a stretch of green, a little fresh air, a pool of water. Better also to receive men silently and to enfold them, for there is no answer to make while they are still frantically rushing to turn the corner.
[T]his thoroughly restricted life of early boyhood seems like a limitless universe and the life which followed upon it, the life of the adult, a constantly diminishing realm. From the moment when one is put in school one is lost; one has the feeling of having a halter put around his neck. The taste goes out of the bread as it goes out of life. Getting the bread becomes more important than the eating of it. Everything is calculated and everything has a price upon it…Now we are eating of the same bread, but without benefit of communion, without grace.
We are eating to fill our bellies and our hearts are cold and empty.
I have gained nothing by the enlargement of my world; on the contrary, I have lost. I want to become more and more childish and to pass beyond childhood in the opposite direction. I want to go exactly contrary to the normal line of development, pass into a superinfantile realm of being which will be absolutely crazy and chaotic but not crazy and chaotic as the world about me.
Everything which the fathers and the mothers created I disown. I am going back to a world even smaller than the old Hellenic world, going back to a world which I can always touch with outstretched arms, the world of what I know and see and recognize from moment to moment. Any other world is meaningless to me, and alien and hostile. In retraversing the first bright world which I knew as a child I wish not to rest there but to muscle back to a still brighter world from which I must have escaped. What this world is like I do not know, nor am I even sure that I will find it, but it is my world and nothing else intrigues me.
On alienation and aggression
I am desperate. But I am not lost. No, there is a reality to which I belong. It’s far away, very far away. I may walk from now till doomsday with head down and never find it. But it is there, I am sure of it. I look at the people murderously. If I could throw a bomb and blow the whole neighborhood to smithereens I would do it. I would be happy seeing the fly in the air, mangled, shrieking, torn apart, annihilated. I want to annihilate the whole earth. I am not a part of it. It’s mad from start to finish…Kill them all, Jews and Gentiles, young and old, good and bad.
It was some such gigantic collapse which Dante must have experienced when he situated himself in Hell; it was not a bottom which he touched, but a core, a dead center from which time itself is reckoned. Here the comedy begins, from here it is seen to be divine…
I have a friend who talks to me from time to time about the Miracle of Golgotha of which I understand nothing. But I do know something about the miraculous wound which I received, the wound which killed me in the eyes of the world and out of which I was born anew and rebaptized. I know something of the miracle of this wound which I lived and which healed with my death…The identity which was lost is recovered. Man walks forth from his open wound, from the grave which he had carried about with him so long.
What people did to me didn’t bother me nearly so much as what they were doing to others or to themselves. I was really so damned well off inside that I had to take on the problems of the world. And that’s why I was in a mess all the time…
I’m talking generosity…Generosity—do you hear? You never practice it, any of you, either in peace or in war. You don’t know the meaning of the word. You think to supply guns and ammunition to the winning side is generosity…You think a bonus twenty years too late is generosity…To be generous is to say Yes before the man even opens his mouth.
Activity in itself means nothing: it is often a sign of death. 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…One has only to read the stupid twaddle of the scientific and philosophic textbooks to realize how less than nothing is the wisdom of these energetic Americans.
I will never again sell anything, even if I have to starve…I want to prevent as many men as possible from pretending that they have to do this or that because they must earn a living. It is not true. One can starve to death—it is much better. Every man who voluntarily starves to death jams another cog in the automatic process. I would rather see a man take a gun and kill his neighbor, in order to get the food he needs, than keep up the automatic process by pretending that he has to earn a living.
Work meant nothing to me, because the real work to be done was being evaded.
It is only the just whose eyes never light up. It is the just who have never known the secret of human fellowship. It is the just who are committing the crimes against man, the just who are the real monsters.
If I am against the condition of the world it is not because I am a moralist—it is because want to laugh more. I don’t say that God is one grand laugh: I say that you’ve got to laugh hard before you can get anywhere near God.
Yes, there is sex. Henry Miller epitomizes the trauma he describes, and so we should expect nothing less. Sex and the city were to Henry Miller what silence and solitude were to Thomas Merton. Both men both contained multitudes, but they wrote as each other’s alter-ego. So yes, there is sex. But there’s also Meister Eckhart, Dante, and Dostoevsky.