8. The Last Book
Munich Crisis of September 1938
Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood. I like to dwell on this period when things were taking shape because the order, if it were understood, must have been dazzling.
"We must get going. Tomorrow, tomorrow....
Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn
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Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch
Henry Miller lived and wrote in America for nearly forty-one years after his repatriation. But whatever the similarities between his work before and after Tropic of Capricorn, and there are many, Miller's "auto-novels" and essays never again displayed the preoccupation with formal innovation, the experimentation with temporal and spatial discontinuity, that had been the strategic core of his effort to develop a modernist narrative capable of claiming the legacy of the Novel. The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), relating Miller's adventures in Greece, adheres closely to the travel genre: the story begins with a decision to "take a long vacation," and musingly proceeds from sight to sight, encounter to encounter, ending with an appended farewell letter posted by the host after the traveler's departure. Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957), one of the best of Miller's later writings, so deviates from the cultivated "confusion" of the Paris novels as to open with two short chapters entitled "Chronological" and "Topological," telling how Miller came to live at Big Sur and laying out the human, geological, and natural history of the place. The abrupt change indicates not so much a redirection of Miller's formal efforts as a repudiation of formal innovation per se. The Colossus of Maroussi mimics Count Hugo Keyserling's The Travel Diary of a Philosopher which Miller read while sailing to Corfu. Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch is Miller's Walden. And The Rosy Crucifixion pays homage to Frank Harris' My Life and Loves in its matter of fact prose style and unrelenting narration of the smallest details of the author's experience simply because they are his experience. What Harris wrote of My Life and Loves, Miller might have written of The Rosy Crucifixion: "I want [the reader] to meet a thousand instincts and confused desires, and gradually come to know me better than he knows anyone else who has given a record of himself in any literature." After Tropic of Capricorn Miller found his novel forms ready-made, much as he had once wholeheartedly adopted Dreiser's Twelve Men as the model for his first effort, "Clipped Wings." In effect, Henry Miller, who had made himself over into a "experimental" modern novelist upon his arrival in Paris, made himself over into yet another kind of writer for his return to the United States. The writer Miller became with his repatriation lies beyond the scope of this essay, but the transformation illuminates Tropic of Capricorn in double aspect--as the last book of a novelist who sought to shape the course of the modern novel and the first book of a writer whose career as a cultural hero/villain cannot be encompassed by a study of the discourse of the novel.
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The Rosy Crucifixion
When, back in America, Miller next took up the story of June, it was published as Sexus (1949), Plexus (1953), and Nexus (1960) under the umbrella title of The Rosy Crucifixion. Although in a rough fashion The Rosy Crucifixion might be said to take up the story Miller's life in New York where Tropic of Capricorn leaves off, the two works bear little resemblance other than their derivation from the same life, from the same "period when things were taking shape" prior to Miller's emigration to Paris. In the eighth chapter of Sexus Miller intimates that "significant changes" make it difficult to maintain the pretense that The Rosy Crucifixion merely continues Tropic of Capricorn; he abruptly drops the pseudonym under which June appeared in Tropic of Capricorn, "Mara," and reverts to Tropic of Cancer's "Mona." The Rosy Crucifixion, like Miller's other repatriate works, is on the whole a chronological tale. Its few temporal digressions--readily comprehended under the conventions of recollection, dream and flashback--never even intimate that reality which is fundamental to Tropic of Capricorn's radically disjunctive narrative: a "confusion" whose "order, if it were understood, must have been dazzling." To ignore or underestimate the formal difference between Miller's writing before and after Tropic of Capricorn is to read Miller's "auto-novels" as mere biography--and at that, biography insensate to the major turns of Miller's literary career. The narratives of Tropic of Capricorn and The Rosy Crucifixion assign the common themes, issues, and events of Miller's life to quite distinct fictive worlds, offering quite different accounts of how things happen in our time.
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Henry Miller, Michael Fraenkel: Hamlet Letters
An examination of Miller's post-Munich letters to Fraenkel and Nin discloses two Tropic of Capricorns, or rather Miller's understanding of the two very different discourses to which Tropic of Capricorn might be made to speak: the "novelistic" discourse that inspired his expatriate narratives and essays, and the "cultural" discourse of "self-liberation" that would dominate his later works. It will illuminate also the interpretive dilemmas encountered by those of Miller's critics who accept his revisionary accounts of Tropic of Capricorn. The distinction I draw here, between Tropic of Capricorn read as part of the unfinished "Tropic of Capricorn" of the 1930s and Tropic of Capricorn read as part of The Rosy Crucifixion "quartet" of the 1940s and 1950s, complements the distinction drawn in previous chapters, between Tropic of Cancer read in opposition to the rise of New Critical modernism and Tropic of Cancer read under the aegis of New Criticism. Such a distinction is necessary, not that we might posit, one more time, some idealized "plurality" or fundamental "ambiguity" of "The Text," but that we might recover some fuller measure of those disputes specific to the early twentieth-century history of the novel.
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Poor Richard's Almanac, Emerson's Essays, Walden
The mixed-mode writing that characterizes Miller's American novels and essays--more or less linear narrative punctuated by didactic meditations upon the proper "path" of Man in the modern age--suggests a continuation of the last Hamlet letter to Michael Fraenkel, rather than a sequel to Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn. In this sense Miller fashioned of his reaction to the Munich Crisis a new literary practice that would accommodate his speculations upon the ethical and psychological dimensions of his life and work. After the Munich Crisis, Miller quite deliberately and knowingly abandoned the discourse of the novel to join that broader American cultural discourse whose generic parameters may be indicated here by pointing to the ground first charted by Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, Emerson's Essays, and Thoreau's Walden. This is the ground to which Miller refers when he writes that "at the age of twenty-one I was nearer to being 'on the path' than I have been at any time since," and the ground he retrospectively explored first in writing and then in rereading Tropic of Capricorn. At the age of twenty-one Miller became a disciple of New Thought lecturer Benjamin Fay Mills. At the age of forty-seven, having reassessed his life and reread his literature, he was intent upon returning to the life of "self-liberation" he only represented in Tropic of Capricorn.
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Henry Miller: Letters to Anais Nin
Miller's letter to Nin elaborates the mid-life crisis theme by means of a tripartite division of his life: adapting the self to the world, trying to seduce the world into adapting to the self, and adapting the self to the self. This division presents in chronological form the threefold persona of "Song of Myself": (1) "Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, / Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding"; (2) the poet's "valvéd voice"; and (3) the "Me myself" who stands "apart from the pulling and hauling." The structural difficulty, for Miller as for Whitman, is that the task of "self-liberation" presupposes merely a double consciousness, a two-fold division of Being--Miller's "adapting myself to myself," or Whitman's "Me / myself"--whereas the act of self-representation inevitably introduces a third, middle term--Miller's "creative powers," or Whitman's "valvéd voice." Neither son of Manhattan can be reunited with Nature/Life/Being because, as Whitman put it in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," "I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all." As Miller put it: instead of writing, "I should have been trying to bring about that identification of the two vital centers." He explains to Nin:
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Walt Whitman: Song of Myself
Miller's post-Munich search for a clean exit from the detour of writing is constrained by the very novel, Tropic of Capricorn, from which he hoped to exit. With Whitman, Miller might regret once having "dared to open my mouth to sing at all," but there the parallel between poet and novelist ceases. Whitman, in "Song of Myself," reserved a space within his all-encompassing self for just such a self-critical contingency:
Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic.
If one leaps ahead to 1957, it is possible to hear Miller echoing Whitman:
[...] I find that, no matter how violently disagreeable a reader's reaction may be to the written work, when we meet face to face he usually ends by accepting me whole-heartedly.
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Converting words into silence: acts rather than action
Trapped by his own thoroughly novelistic rhetoric, Miller could imagine only two solutions, two "clean exits" through which writing's "welter of crisscrossed tracks" might "give way to being." The first and ultimately unsatisfactory solution, "silence," he explored in the October 1938 letter to Michael Fraenkel:
I said recently to some one that I intended to stop writing at the height of my power--not as a whimsical or defiant gesture, but as proof of the realization that art is only a means of revelation. I feel already, at times, that I have no further need to write another line; I need perhaps to go on writing until I am absolutely sure of it. But the idea is there, latent, and I am sure that it is based on a truth. And if I kept the silence it would not be to revert to a lesser manifestation of life, such as the world of action offers. I would put the significance which art reveals into living. I would close one door to open another. It would be converting words into silence: acts rather than action.
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The word is light and the truth becomes flesh
Thus in his letter to Anaïs Nin in February 1939, Miller once again recasts Tropic of Cancer's call for "strong hands, for spirits who are willing to give up the ghost and put on flesh." But here the "ghost," the dead writing of the past, is no longer Joyce's, but his own. Absolute silence being untenable for Miller, the only "clean exit" from the world of the novel is through an extra-textual mode of writing that realizes "the relation between truth and being."
The word was never meant to be engraved on tablets of stone nor imprisoned between the covers of a book. The word is light and the truth becomes flesh. It is incorruptible. The search for immortality through art is only the acknowledgment of the powers of death. Writing is life, but what is written is death. And it is death precisely because it seeks to preserve what cannot be preserved through form and substance.
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History of a Voice or Autobiography of Self-liberation
With this formulation of the relation between writing and Being, Miller makes plausible a rereading of Tropic of Capricorn: no longer a history of the emerging "voice" of Tropic of Cancer, it reads as an autobiographical account of the self-liberation of a Being at one with himself and God's universe:
The man whom God loves is the onion with a million skins. To shed the first layer is painful beyond words; the next layer is less painful, the next still less, until finally the pain becomes pleasurable, more and more pleasurable, a delight, an ecstasy. And then there is neither pleasure nor pain, but simply darkness yielding before the light. And as the darkness falls away the wound comes out of its hiding place: the wound which is man, man's love, is bathed in light. 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.
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Balancing at the edge of the abyss
Tropic of Capricorn, read as a history of Miller's writing, fleshes out Tropic of Cancer's equation of writing with the diminution of Being. It represents the social, economic, and cultural forces that "historically" produced Miller's "voice" by reducing his spirit to zero:
If you continue this balancing at the edge of the abyss long enough you become very very adept: no matter which way you are pushed you always right yourself. Being in constant trim you develop a ferocious gaiety, an unnatural gaiety, I might say. There are only two peoples in the world today who understand the meaning of such a statement--the Jews and the Chinese. If it happens that you are neither of these you find yourself in a strange predicament. [....]
In a way, in a profound way, I mean, Christ was never pushed off the dead end. At the moment when he was tottering and swaying, as if by a great recoil, this negative backwash rolled up and stayed his death. The whole negative impulse of humanity seemed to coil up into a monstrous inert mass to create the human integer, the figure one, one and indivisible. [....] The earth rolls on, the stars roll on, but men, the great body of men which makes up the world, are caught in the image of the one and only one. [....]
If one isn't crucified like Christ, if one manages to survive, to go on living above and beyond the sense of desperation and futility, then another curious thing happens. [....] You become an anomaly of nature, a being without shadow; you will never die again but only pass away like the phenomena about you.
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The World of Sex
Under Miller's revisionary interpretation, "zero hour" becomes the moment when the empty subject of Tropic of Capricorn is prepared to liberate himself from the discourse of the novel and write The Rosy Crucifixion. Miller's "clean exit," his transvaluation of the "Arabian zero," is no more than a revisionary acceptance of the idea that "true" Being was, all along, the anchorless drift he took to be writing. By shifting the weight of the equation "Writing is life" from writing to life, Miller's reinterpretation of Tropic of Capricorn, like the "Arabian zero" upon which it turns, leaves "no trace of remainder"--except the formal rupture in Miller's literary practice that retrospectively turns Tropic of Capricorn into a curious "vestibule or ante-chamber" to The Rosy Crucifixion. Without doing injustice to the "text," Tropic of Capricorn may be "read" as a novel or as an autobiographical essay in self-liberation. But each "reading" precludes and denounces the other as misdirected or epiphenomenal. They cannot coexist in Tropic of Capricorn as Miller was forced to concede in veiled terms in The World of Sex (1957) when he tried to explain how "one and the same individual could produce such vastly dissimilar works." A later work, The World of Sex advances Miller's American agenda, but one passage, because it echoes the language of Miller's 1939 letter to Nin, presents the dilemma that makes Tropic of Capricorn pivotal for any interpretation of Miller's career:
The Tropic of Capricorn represents the transition to a more knowing phase: from consciousness of self to consciousness of purpose. Henceforward what metamorphoses occur manifest even more through conduct than through the written word. The beginning of a conflict between the writer who is resolved to finish his task and the man who knows deep down that the desire to express oneself must never be limited to a single medium, to art, let us say, but to every phase of life. A battle, more or less conscious between Duty and Desire. That part of a man which belongs to the word seeking to do its duty; the part which belongs to God striving to fulfill the demands of destiny, which are unstatable. The difficulty: to adapt to that desolate plane where only one's powers will sustain one. From this point on the problem is to write retrospectively and act forwardly. To slip is to sink into an abyss from which there is no rescue possible. The struggle is on all fronts, and it is ceaseless and remorseless.
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A clean exit, such as the Devil himself might make
The passages cited thus far from Tropic of Capricorn permit Miller's transvaluation of the metaphoric complex of writing/being because the rhetorical affect of the tale Miller tells in those passages remains unchanged under either the discourse of the novel or the discourse of self-liberation: "pain becomes pleasurable, more and more pleasurable, a delight, an ecstasy." There is, however, a stretch of narrative in which Miller imbues the flight of self-liberation with an entirely different aspect: pleasure becomes terror. There the empty subject's desire for self-expression--not in writing which is "parallel" to life but in Life without parallel--inaugurates a process that ends in the loss, rather than the recovery, of identity in the universal. This flight of Being degree zero transforms the self into neither a "writing machine" nor a revelatory Self, but into a "microcosm of the world's lying machine." The flight Miller would take after the Munich Crisis is represented in Tropic of Capricorn, but it is emphatically not represented as his. It is Mara's. And Miller puts all his skill as a novelist in the service of his misogyny to condemn this flight of Being degree zero away from history, origins, the past, family, friends--and, of course, abandoned husbands:
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The Last Book - Notes
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