3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon
Only the myth lives in myth
But the question, it seems to me, is this: are we born Hamlets? Were you born Hamlet? Or did you not rather create the type in yourself? Whether this be so or not, what seems infinitely more important is--why revert to myth?... This ideational rubbish out of which our world has erected its cultural edifice is now, by a critical irony, being given its poetic immolation, its mythos, through a kind of writing which, because it is of the disease and therefore beyond, clears the ground for fresh superstructures. (In my own mind the thought of 'fresh superstructures' is abhorrent, but this is merely the awareness of a process and not the process itself.) Actually, in process, I believe with each line I write that I am scouring the womb, giving it the curette, as it were. Behind this process lies the idea not of 'edifice' and 'superstructure,' which is culture and hence false, but of continuous birth, renewal, life, life.... In myth there is no life for us. Only the myth lives in myth.
Henry Miller to Michael Fraenkel, Hamlet (1936)
Henry Miller sailed from New York in February 1930 and arrived in Paris in March. He had visited Paris two years earlier during a nine month European tour with his second wife June Mansfield, the apocalyptic "Mona"/"Mara" of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. This time, however, he made the crossing alone and came to stay, bringing with him several changes of clothing tailored by his father, ten dollars, the manuscript of a novel he would never publish, and a first draft of a work he would abandon. He also brought Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. In retrospect it is plain that the Whitman volume constituted Miller's most significant baggage, but this was not clear in 1930 when Miller had yet to break fully with realism and naturalism. He carried Leaves of Grass with a sense of bitter irony, as a token of personal failure, rather than a model for writing. Whitman could proclaim,
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin[....]
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Theodore Dreiser: Twelve Men
Of greater consequence to Miller's literary development was an encounter in San Diego with Emma Goldman and her lecture-circuit companion Ben Reitman. They turned Miller toward the social and aesthetic vision of the European realists and naturalists. In the ensuing years, Miller read Balzac, Zola, Hamsun, Ibsen, Shaw, Gorki, and others. By 1919, when Miller managed to get a few reviews in print, he was comparing Emerson and Whitman unfavorably with Shaw, Balzac, Zola, Joseph Conrad and Jack London--writers "who keep the theory within the realm of pragmatic truth." He unsuccessfully tried to integrate their literary techniques with the philosophical aesthetics of Nietzsche, the writer who, along with Whitman, would dominate his Paris years. Unable to achieve such a synthesis, Miller settled upon a compromise: he would emulate Theodore Dreiser, who had just published a book of socially critical sketches entitled Twelve Men (1919).
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Michael Fraenkel: Write as you talk, I told him.
Henry Miller's improvident expatriation to Paris was intended to precipitate a crisis. It did. In Paris he fell in with a group of writers and intellectuals thoroughly versed in what the expatriate magazine transition, inspired by Ulysses and Joyce's "Work in Progress," had been trumpeting as "The Revolution of the Word." In a city of slogans, the circle Miller joined had taken to styling itself "The New Instinctivists": Michael Fraenkel, Walter Lowenfels and Alfred Perles composed its ruling triumvirate. Once again Miller apprenticed himself to a new set of literary masters. They confirmed what he had suspected but refused to admit: not simply "Clipped Wings," but his novelistic techniques on the whole, were obsolete, outdated by an emerging modernist aesthetics. With this latest set of friends, and particularly with Michael Fraenkel, who became Miller's host and subsequently his landlord and co-author of Hamlet, Miller reread Shakespeare, Goethe, Dostoevski, Proust, Lawrence, Eliot, Joyce, Nietzsche, Spengler, Faure, and others. For the first time he studied Dada, Surrealism, Freud, Jung, and contemporary British-American literary criticism. Through Anaïs Nin, Miller met Otto Rank, who eventually read a draft of Tropic of Cancer and advised Miller on its psycho-cultural import. Miller learned his lessons. By the late thirties he was no longer a fringe adopted son of "The New Instinctivists," but the energizing center of an international assortment of artists who orbited about Miller and Fraenkel's apartment at 18 Via Seurat.
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The age demands violence
Miller's antagonistic encounter with the writers to which Fraenkel guided him brought him to something of a historical understanding of modernism, which is only to say that Miller began to grasp the meta-fiction every novelist implicitly understands. "The Revolution of the Word" declared in transition 16/17 of 1929 had only just assumed hegemonic form with the publication of Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's 'Ulysses'. But in Miller's new understanding, this newly emergent modernist consensus would also pass. History made it vulnerable:
Nobody, so far as I can see, is making use of those elements in the air which give direction and motivation to our lives. Only the killers seem to be extracting from life some satisfactory measure of what they are putting into it. The age demands violence, but we are getting only abortive explosions.
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Emerson and Whitman
The particular autobiographical mode upon which Miller settled--the temporally digressive, first-person narrative style of Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn--was crucial to this process of literary-historical revelation as Miller understood it. His previous novelistic efforts in New York were autobiographically based: the twelve messengers of "Clipped Wings" were individuals whose lives had crossed Miller's, "Dion Moloch" and "Tony Bring" were Miller personae. But these early efforts were written in the third person and presented chronologically, after the fashion of the realists and naturalists Miller then admired. When he later wrote of the "chain of one's life" as "but starting points along the path of self-discovery," it was in the double sense of past events as raw material and of his early literary efforts as the starting point for his later digressive narratives. The novels circulating in Paris, especially Ulysses, suggested the alternative of autobiographical "stream of consciousness," but Miller instead adopted conversation and storytelling as his mode of revealing the relation between past and present. In conversation he had already demonstrated to his satisfaction an ability to joust with his new-found, formally educated Modernist mentors, drawing upon his Brooklyn past and eclectic education to out-maneuver Fraenkel's Modernist weltanschauung as he could not within the fictive forms he had been using. The effort to consolidate this advantage triggered a reconsideration of autobiographical "self-discovery," and with it a reevaluation of the American Romantic idols of his youth.
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My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach
Miller's diagnosis of the condition of the modern novel is invisible without an understanding of the two means by which Miller "naturalizes" the critical discourse of Tropic of Cancer within the "unnatural" urban world the novel represents: caricature and obscenity. I pause to consider these means at some length, before taking up the consequences of Miller's diagnosis for his fiction. In caricaturing "great writers" and their thought, Miller might be said to treat them on a "first name basis," familiarizing them much as "Walt" might have. But Miller's caricatures are representations, rather than personalizations. He takes "idolization" literally, representing literary figures for the aesthetic "totems" they were within the expatriate circles of Paris. When, for example, Miller formulates his opposition to Fraenkel's Modernist aesthetics in a burlesque of "Boris" and "Carl," he attacks by caricaturing their Romantic idol Goethe:
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Tropic of Cancer's Genito-Urinary System
At the conclusion of Tropic of Cancer, Miller offers an oblique apology for his method. For a brief moment he figures the whole human self within a Romantic landscape:
In the wonderful peace that fell over me it seemed as if I had climbed to the top of a high mountain; for a little while I would be able to look around me, to take in the meaning of the landscape.
Human beings make strange fauna and flora. From a distance they appear negligible; up close they are apt to appear ugly and malicious. More than anything they need to be surrounded by sufficient space--space even more than time.
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Otto Rank: Art and Artist.
The historical polemic driving Miller's transitive symbolism was inspired in significant part by discussions with Otto Rank, who had migrated to Paris in the 1920s, after publication of his The Trauma of Birth precipitated a break with Freud. In March 1933 Miller first met with Rank to discuss the draft of Tropic of Cancer and Rank's recent book, Art and Artist. By that time Miller was thoroughly versed in Nietzsche, Spengler, Freud, and Jung. He found common ground with Rank immediately, and left the first meeting convinced that in Tropic of Cancer he was on the right track. Rank had written of the artist's struggle--and through the artist, culture's struggle--against previous "aesthetic ideologies and the people who represent them" as a process of "separation that is so hard, not only because it involves persons and ideas one reveres, but because the victory is always, at bottom and in some form, won over a part of one's own ego." Miller believed this was the key to making Tropic of Cancer the novel of the historical moment: "Read into this all you want of ego, make the necessary subtractions--it remains a fact that I conquered, and not the least important fact that I consider the conquest a victory over myself, my Romantic self, if you will."
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Paris is simply an artificial stage
In Tropic of Cancer Miller deploys a series of shifting figures in which Paris appears first, as "the cradle of artificial births," then, as "an artificial stage":
"It is not accident that propels people like us to Paris. Paris is simply an artificial stage, a revolving stage that permits the spectator to glimpse all phases of the conflict."
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Miller's autobiographical writing makes it easy to misread Tropic of Cancer--to read it under the aesthetics of American Romanticism or New Critical modernism. Miller appears self-absorbed in familiar ways: his narrative is most offensively first person. But his voice eludes easy identification. Nowhere does the self long contemplate itself. To paraphrase Miller's "victory over myself, my Romantic self" letter to Nin, one can "read all you want of ego" into Tropic of Cancer. But, the narrative "makes the necessary subtractions." The narrator is a "zero" among zeros:
I'm lying there on the iron bed thinking what a zero I have become, what a cipher, what a nullity, when bango! out pops the word: NONENTITY! That's what we called him in New York--Nonentity. Mister Nonentity.
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Oscar Wilde: The Portrait of Dorian Gray
This shift was not without precedent. In challenging Emerson, Miller made use of his recent explorations of literary history. His paraphrase of Emerson follows Oscar Wilde, who, in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, had Lord Henry explain the task of the "modern" to young Dorian:
"I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream--I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget the maladies of medievalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal--to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be."
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Not a Stable Equilibrium, but a Fluid Imbalance
In Hamlet, Miller recasts Emerson's poet/God. The novelist must follow another course:
To carry on the artist must act as God at the dawn of creation. [....] Nothing can rear itself organically any longer. [....] Henceforth, he moves with dead certainty in the midst of live doubt. Thought and life take form, and in the quick of the form he anchors himself. The life of this form depends, not upon a stable equilibrium, but on a fluid imbalance.
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The Pure Flux and Rotation of Events
Reviewing his Paris narratives in The World of Sex, Miller explained the autobiographical mode he settled upon:
The man telling the story is no longer the one who experienced the events recorded. Distortion and deformation are unavoidable in the re-living of one's life. The inner purpose of such disfigurement, of course, is to seize the true reality of things and events. Thus, for no apparent reason, I revert now and then to a period not only anterior but unrelated to the one in hand. The puzzled reader may well wonder if these switch-backs are not the work of caprice. Who can say? To my mind, they have the same raison d'être as all invention. Devices, certainly, but to analyze them gets one nowhere. A sudden switch, a long parenthetical detour, a crazy monologue, an excursus, a remembrance cropping out like a cliff in fog--their very instantaneity kills all speculation.
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Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon - Notes
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