8. The Last Book

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."[34] 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."[35] As Miller put it: instead of writing, "I should have been trying to bring about that identification of the two vital centers."[36] He explains to Nin:

The most solid materials perish, as do the mightiest thoughts. And the greatest book ever written can convey only a tiny fragment of the artist's real emotion. No, we are only building tombs for posterity to admire with our words. We are trying to record the changing ego, but the Self will not be revealed thus. We are only throwing off sparks.]
While one sits in the body of the Whale recording the changing temperature, mapping and charting the inner dynamism, the great whale itself is plowing through the deep. We must drop the pen, the pencil, the brush and become the whale itself. The real experience lies yonder, in the deep waters through which the whale is swimming. You think you are nourishing the world--but you are only nourishing the whale.[37]

To "become the whale," and so ebb with Whitman's "Ocean of Life," perception and action must become simultaneous: consciousness must "experience" rather than "record" the changing, historical ego. So rendered, Miller's desire appears in direct conflict with the rhetoric of the historical genre. The novel's generic boundaries are maintained by claims and counter-claims to "record" accurately, among other historical phenomena, "the changing ego." Conspicuously absent from this rhetorical tradition is the concern with ontological self that preoccupies much of Romantic and Modern poetry. To reveal the "Self" it seems that Miller must give up the project of writing and defending the novel, "The Last Book," "the greatest book ever written." To "give way to being" Miller passes back through Whitman, searching for the Emerson he left behind with the epigraph to Tropic of Cancer:

These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies--captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly.[38]

The truth of the Self's experience Emerson would have recorded is not the truth of the "changing ego" Miller recorded in Tropic of Cancer. But in 1939, seeking to escape the detour of the historical genre, Miller cast backward for the abandoned agenda of his youth: "Only two items on the bill of fare: the self and the not-self. And an eternity in which to work it out."[39]

Miller's whale story presents the solution to years of writing as if "giving way to being" were simply a matter of deciding to "drop the pen, the pencil, the brush and become the whale," but Miller's language represents the impediments to "giving way to being" having once "dared to open my mouth to sing at all." It may readily be observed that Miller's whale offers an allegory on the biblical allegory of Jonah, thus making Miller's figure for "presence" already heavily "written." In fact, as Anaïs Nin would have recognized, the allegorical tail of Miller's whale is much longer. It is a kind of fourth degree allegory rewriting George Orwell's rewriting ("Inside the Whale") of Miller's rewriting (in "Un Etre Etoilique") of the biblical allegory.[40] More significantly, the whale story rendered in Miller's letter to Nin contemplates barriers to "giving way to being" in that it is couched in the very language Miller used to figure the writer's task throughout the expatriate period:

To carry on the artist must act as God at the dawn of creation. [....] That reality which you call the day-face of the world is a cultural stew of ideological components which once made up a cosmos. [....] As the day fades the putty face crumbles, vanishes, leaving a free field for the "gaseous invertebrates" swimming in an ideological ether.[41]

Miller's artist acting as "God at the dawn of creation" has, as I have noted previously, no separable, identifiable Being; a "gaseous invertebrate," the writer is as Beingless as the "void" within which he swims.[42]

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