A short essay about Henry Miller.
| In 1934 a writer named Henry Miller published a book called Tropic of Cancer. At its surface the book is an unabashed narrative of Miller’s sexual escapades in France and the crackbrained string of characters who become his ever fleeting circle of friends along the way. But at it’s core, that is, beyond the moribund cycle of sign and signified, Miller left a carefully woven tapestry with twine of flesh, blood, loss and elation and its structure transcends the imagination. Speaking of Tropic of Cancer great American writer Norman Mailer said, “one of the ten or twenty great novels of our century” and the Saturday Review called Henry Miller, “One of the most remarkable, most truly original authors of this or any age.” Why then was it not until 27 years after its publication that the U.S allowed this book to be stocked on its shelves? “In 1938 the U.S government banned Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer, saying it dealt too explicitly with his sexual adventures and challenged models of sexual morality” (Jones). In short, the book was deemed too vulgar for the eyes of the masses. But there seems to be more than just obscenity working against the U.S cultural grain in Miller’s works. Beneath the two-dimensional presence of obscenity which seems to generate much of the interest around his works Henry Miller laid out the blueprints for an entirely new realm of thought, a perfect negative of conventional thinking, a phenomenon I have come to refer to as the sub-reality. And it is the balance of this reality with the one we are all familiar with that constitutes a truly sane mind.
The first step Miller takes in creating sub-reality is sex and profanity. When the reader is made uncomfortable or shocked in any way the logical faculties which support the notion of acceptability are weakened, thus he or she slowly becomes desensitized. Desensitization is Henry Miller’s ideal plane of consciousness upon which to communicate. The readers mind is cracked open and with the gaping mouth of their intellectual imagination gasping and inhaling, all the raw data on the page comes rushing in like a cold wind. This is not the same brand of shock and disgust as employed by a certain William S. Burroughs because the desensitization in Burroughs has no use. In Naked Lunch the reader is so uncomfortable reading that by the time they begin to understand the underlying social commentary of satirical Interzone they don’t even care anymore. By that point the reader just seeks an explanation, and even the curiosity enough for that is limited. Miller strips you of your senses only to better explain and equip you with a whole new, equally multifaceted set of senses. These are the senses needed to explore sub-reality, a set of senses which are not tethered by morality or self consciousness and therefore encompass a larger perspective providing more data for deliberation. These are the senses which transcend the groundless ideologies of the success driven social mechanism. With his writings Miller creates an expedient rout to the mind of the Hinnayana Buddhist to be traveled by any passing vagabond who happens to stumble upon it. There is a sort of waking enlightenment offered up here, and the Bodhisattva path which leads you there is lined with the same buildings and streetlights as there are in any given city. The only isolation is a metaphysical one, it is a separation of self from the primary reality, and a reconnection with the innately humane little nucleus in the center of the psyche.
Henry Miller uses sex to activate a kind of cognitive permeability within the reader. Now all of the crazy abstractions and dazzling word play inflate to such a size that they constitute reality for a time being. And once the reader is dragged stark naked, tooth and nail into the reality of Henry Miller he or she is left holding a pile of ashes which were once reason, worth, logic and life and now blow away with the wind. You are left sifting through the rubble of pre conceptions, expectations and conclusions that fell because their foundations were shaken with such staggering force. One would expect such a force to take the form of a cataclysmic explosion, some biblical transgression which instantly sucks one down into the primordial chaotic waters of Nu and renders both mind and body completely obliterated, leaving just a naked shivering soul to fend for itself amidst the hungry dynamo of the divine. Instead the doorway to the transcendental takes the form of an unassuming book, average in length and construction and written by an American author no less. But Miller has created more than a book, he has done successfully what must be the end goal of most thoughtful writers, that is, to leave a piece of ones consciousness within the pages. He combines poetry and prose and creates a whole new language which forces the interpreter to change their perceptions of things. When describing New York City, for instance;
“Rich or poor, they walk along with head thrown back and they almost break their necks looking up at their beautiful white prisons. They walk along like blind geese and the searchlights spray their empty faces with flecks of ecstasy.”(TOCAN.68)
New York is not illustrated with descriptive language or copious amounts of adjectives, instead the reader is given a snapshot of the New York that festers and molds in the core of Miller’s mind. There is never a signified, there is only a direct intellectual injection of signifiers. If Miller means “building” he will never say “building” he will give you all the thoughts and images which “building” evokes in his own mind. Sometimes an entire city can be summarized in just a couple of words which in and of themselves only provide a single image; “It wasn’t a city at all, but a huge octopus wriggling in the dark”(TOCAP.306) This tactic is often coupled with longwinded rabbit holes of sentences describing things and experiences which could only exist in the most intellectually capable compartment of the imagination.
“And like the frost patterns which seem so bizarre, so utterly free and fantastic in design, but which are nevertheless determined by the most rigid laws, so this sensation which commenced to take form inside me seemed also to be giving obedience to ineluctable laws. My whole being was responding to the dictates of an ambience which it had never before experienced; that which I could call myself seemed to be contracting, condensing, shrinking from the stale, customary boundaries of the flesh whose perimeter knew only the modulations of the nerve ends.”(TOCAN.95).
There is no need for conventional language because there is no conventional emotion or experience to convey. These are the musings of the abstract mind in direct communication with the abstract mind of the reader. Reason and logic are of no use, only feeling and shapeless emotion. One could liken it to reading eastern poetry, the effect is as intuitive as the poem itself.
True that there are other writers who have drawn a line to the sub-reality with there work. Allen Ginsberg would be a good example. Within the rolling ferocity of his poetry there are whispers of the truth behind the social façade;
“angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
Ery of night,……
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tene-
Ment roofs illuminated,”(Howl,9)
Ginsberg speaks of something by dancing around what he means to say, giving the reader words that function like notions and discarding the ones with a direct connection to his message. Here, though, we see a poem which illuminates the struggle, the strife and the suffering of a civilization which yearns to fill an empty space and who’s yearning only widens the void. Howl is a lamentation, and it is a beautiful one at that, but although many may relate to Ginsberg there is left only the feeling of being in his same boat. In Miller, though, one finds not the same guttural cries to be found on any street corner in the city, but an answer to those cries. Miller addresses all of the “angelheaded hipsters” saying,
“You know, with a most disturbing certitude, that what governs life is not money, not politics, not religion, not training, not race, not language, not customs, but something else, something you’re trying to throttle all the time and which is really throttling you, because otherwise you wouldn’t be terrified all of a sudden and wonder how you were going to escape.”(TOCAP.306)
This is Ginsberg’s howl, this is what that blithering junky Burroughs tried to say in metaphors of anal penetration, this is the enlightenment of the modern bum which Kerouac crisscrossed the American continent in search of. Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn together are like a Buddhist sutra, the message of which is not shrouded in archaic metaphor but simply laid out like a nice juicy steak,
“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…To be civilized is to have complicated needs. And a man, when he is full blown, shouldn’t need a thing.”(TOCAP.305, 308)
Don’t get too wrapped up in the illusion of order and social merit! Use it, have fun with it, but be sure to remember that it’s all just a farce, and that the little seeds of the divine inside of you draw no sustenance from it. The water for those seeds can be produced only by you, and your spiritual crop can be tended by your hands and your hands alone. This is the message I find buried within these pages. Where others stare only at the sex, the depravity and the insult, I see Zen, truth, joy, and peace. In all of our religious texts there is a similar message, but it is either buried too deep in the ground for us to ever get to it in this lifetime (the Buddhist Sutras) or it has been paved over and a shopping mall has been erected on top of it (The Holy Bible), but Miller lays it out side by side with the carnal and the animalistic, the selfish and the ignorant. He puts enlightenment in context so as to illuminate a stark juxtaposition which the reader cannot help but appreciate.
Whether or not any of his books change your life, and regardless of your personal stance on censorship, Henry Miller is one of the greatest American writers every to grace the page with his ink. With prose that flows with the effortless poeticism of Proust and bites with the unabashed frankness of Kerouac and Burroughs (I know what I’ve said of him but if there is merit in his writing it rests upon his frankness) Miller has produced what should be regarded as one of the major landmarks in American literature. Still, though, it is rare to find his name on the spine of any books to be studied in an academic setting. There is more insight about writing, living, thinking and musing upon the divine in Miller’s texts than one could dig out of any cumbersome volume of Mailer or any of the intricate stone blocks that James left behind. In Miller there is such a freewheeling freedom, such a boundless joy which requires no ground to stand on that it opens up certain pockets of such freedom and joy within the mind of the reader. Love life, love knowledge, love people, but don’t lose yourself in it all, remain an individual. This is what Dante illustrated (perhaps by mistake) when he depicted souls who suffer the endless afflictions of Hell and yet still wrap themselves up in their own personal afflictions. Men burning in stone caskets wondering how there son is doing up there, a count having his head eaten by a hopeless Pope contemplates ethics and the nature of priority. HA! This is not hell, this is the mind torturing itself, this is simple reality. Miller understands what Dante only hinted at; Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise exist simultaneously within the mind of man, all together within each infinitely minute particle of humanity. It is what the Buddha meant when he spoke of the ten worlds spinning simultaneously inside of each individual in the Lotus Sutra. It is the perspective taken in the Diamond Sutra, that all the illusions of existence (money, culture, status and priority) are but a raft to carry us across the void. Henry Miller goes one step further to say that one should not just sit on the raft and suffer the journey, but dance, sing, drink and have sex on the raft. Relish in the raft and all the while let one hand glide along the surface of the water, of the void, of Truth. Never forget where you’re headed, and never forget the water beneath you, this is what is meant by maintaining the dichotomy of primary and sub reality. Not to go mad on a raft in a river, and not to drown seeking escape from insanity.