Henry Miller: The generous, pliant, forgiving, tolerant, tender scatologist
It is no mean feat to take-away from a book an erudition. Reading Henry Miller’s work schooled me into realising that there really is “only one great adventure and that is inward towards the self”. And, more importantly that inveterate boozing and smoking, carousing, quixotic philandering and riding life out “on the wind of the wing of madness” like one has “iron in the backbone and sulphur in the blood” is elementary in the success of that adventure; and the manumitting of oneself from the ne plus ultra drudgery of life. And for that, and the fact that his writing always remained “true, sincere” and “on the side of life” and he an old roué throughout, I love him: earnestly, completely. I read Tropic of Cancer, and subsequently the Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy, some years ago, and thus was ecstatic to find Miller in my favourite Oxfam. One of the things I discovered, by sheer coincidence, prior to reading Tropic of Capricorn was that both the aforementioned and Tropic of Cancer were Miller’s choice sobriquets for his second wife June Mansfield Smith’s breasts. And for that I love him also.
Tropic of Capricorn opens with a pronunciamento that, “Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos”, a line of thought, that denotes the perspicuous resignation of the disillusioned. And Miller’s voice gets even more intractably dour a jot or two down the page when he confesses that, “Even as a child, when I lacked for nothing, I wanted to die: I wanted to surrender because I saw no sense in struggling. I felt that nothing would be proved, substantiated, added or subtracted by continuing an existence which I had not asked for.” The realisation about the innate lack of purpose and “the stupidity and futility of everything” reverberates throughout as Miller expounds at length about working dead-end jobs inimical to his creative freedom, being a myrmidon to his superiors at the redoubtable Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America – a “hideous farce against a backdrop of sweat and misery… a waste of men, material and effort” – and ploughing against the “whole rotten system of American labour” while sitting behind his work-desk “hiring and firing like a demon”.
Chronically impecunious despite full time employment with the Western Union and feeling no fealty to anyone or anything, Miller chronicles this time in his life, spent mostly with a retinue of factotums and waybills – all trapped in a system that was so rotten, so inhuman, so lousy, so hopelessly corrupt and complicated, that it would have taken a genius to put any sense or order into it, to say nothing of human kindness or consideration – with both animus and amity. Forced by his superiors to be “be firm, be hard!” instead of having “too big a heart”, Miller sticks it to the avaricious panjandrums and vows to be “be generous, pliant, forgiving, tolerant, tender”. Everything in Tropic of Capricorn is perched on a pedantically balanced scale, just as Miller’s prose, which jumps from fatalistic cynicism to Panglossian mirth, the sagacious to the fecund, the overzealous to the insouciant, the recidivistic to the enterprising, thereby mirroring his life which consists of nothing but “ups and downs…long stretches of gloom and melancholy followed by extravagant bursts of gayety, of trancelike inspiration.” And it is precisely this deft linguistic ability, albeit occasionally blemished by overindulgence in periphrasis and even unabashed flummery, to relay his variegated reminiscences so graphically and candidly that incites a sense of grandstand awe.
Above all other subjects, however, Miller spends a lot of time lamenting and lambasting his homeland, the “monstrous death machine” where “nobody knows how to sit on his ass and be content”. His avid hatred of the US is documented with effusive graphic proclivity and an unapologetic conviction, for as he sees it he had never anywhere “felt so degraded and humiliated as in America”. Miller expectorates vehemently about the country he calls a “cesspool” where “everything is sucked down and drained away to everlasting shit”, before asserting that everything he had “endured was in the nature of a preparation for that moment when, putting on my hat one evening, I walked out of the office, out of my hitherto private life, and sought the woman who was to liberate me from a living death”. The woman sought was Miller’s second wife, June Mansfield Smith, the great nostrum who turned into an obsession leading to his emotional labefaction. June was the one who convinced Miller to jack-in his job and take up writing full time while she machinated a variety of schemes to support them financially, whether parading around dance halls, running a speakeasy or collecting money from services rendered. Writing of her elsewhere, Miller once noted: “I’m in love with a monster, the most gorgeous monster imaginable.” And, she was a monster. Or to be more precise “a monstrous lying machine” one with a striking bloodless face, rouged lips, a penchant for Dostoyevsky and indiscriminate fucking. Intrepid, perfidious, prone to theatrical exaggeration and acidulous lies June became the archetypal femme fatal in Miller’s literary endeavours.
Their connubial life was marked by volatility, mutual jealousies, June’s mercurial vagaries, and eventually their great big love was reduced to something like a “soft prick slipping out of an overheated cunt.” When the two first met, however, they were as one like, “Siamese twins whom love had joined and whom death alone could separate.” But it was not to be. The inchoate despair comes to the surface in Tropic of Capricorn when Miller begins to realise that June is prone to “transformation; almost as quick and subtle she was as the devil himself”, later likening her to the “queen mother of all the slippery Babylonian whores,” for she was just as inconstant. Their love was intense, both in a spiritual and physical sense, with Miller once describing her in copulation like a wild creature “radiant, jubilant, an ultra-black jubilation streaming from her like a steady flow of sperm from the Mithraic Bull. She was double-barrelled, like a shot-gun, a female bull with an acetylene torch in her womb. In heat she focussed on the grand cosmocrator, her eyes rolled back to the whites, her lips a-saliva. In the blind hole of sex she waltzed like a trained mouse, her jaws unhinged like a snake’s, her skin horripilating in barbed plumes. She had the insatiable lust of a unicorn,” but one he couldn’t tame. In turn, he became “possessed like a full blooded schizerino” while she taunted him by launching her powers “toward the fabrication of [herself as] a mythical creature” and whoring like a nymphomaniac on day release from AA because she simply didn’t “give a fuck about anything”. The two split eventually, and the ruptures in the relationship are documented toward the end of the book with melancholic retrospection, and thereafter in Miller’s later works. June remained a permanent fixture throughout Miller’s early years, indelibly looming over his life and his literature.
Her spectre is firmly entrenched in the Tropic of Capricorn, but mostly the book is about Miller himself – the scatologist who is transfixed by shit, vermin, booze, fucking and disease, albeit one who has an inexorable knack for finding poetry in the grotesque. And he does, without fail, in “people’s stories, the banal tragedies of poverty and distress, of love and death, of yearning and disillusionment”. Miller is not frugal with the scope of his subject matter either. He writes about everything from eating meat balls to eating pussy by way of St Thomas Aquinas, who omitted from his opus “hamburger sandwiches, collar buttons, poodle dogs, slot machines, grey bowlers, typewriter ribbons, oranges sticks, free toilets, sanitary napkins, mint jujubes, billiard balls, chopped onions, crinkled doilies, manholes, chewing gum, sidecars and sour-balls, cellophane, cord tyres, magnetos, horse liniment, cough drops, feenamint, and that feline opacity of the hysterically endowed eunuch who marches to the soda fountain with a sawed off shotgun between his legs”. Not to mention the strip-teasers with nothing more than “a little patch to cover their twinkling little cunts”. And his turn of phrase remains truly unique with asides and observations such as: “The chaff of the empty soul rising like monkey chatter in the topmost branches of the trees,” and “…music is a diarrhoea, a lake of gasoline, stagnant with cockroaches and stale horse piss,” or “the black frenzied nothingness of the hollow of absence leaves a gloomy feeling of saturated despondency not unlike the topmost tip of desperation which is only the gay juvenile maggot of death’s exquisite rupture with life,” and “We are of one flesh, but separated like stars” and “Look at your heart and gizzard – the brain is in the heart.” Gems like these stud his stream-of-consciousness prose from start to finish. You might scowl or snigger as he wrestles with the salacious and the sad, but you will not be unaffected.
As a follow up to Tropic of Cancer, Capricorn ruminates over the same old grounds, “speaking about what is unmentionable” and according to Miller “what is unmentionable is pure fuck and pure cunt” and must not be mentioned “otherwise the world will fall apart”. But of course sex is not the only unmentionable subject that Miller mentions, in fact, he pontificates on every topic that springs to mind while “rubbing elbows with humanity”, realising “truth is not enough,” watching men “scurrying through a cunty deft of a street called Broadway”, and claiming that “heartbreaks and abortions and busted romances,” are nothing in comparison to “lousy” coffee; and the result is this sagacious irreverent hulk of a picaresque. But I think Miller’s work is summarised best by the thought that in any great book, “Each page must explode with the profoundly serious and heavy, the whirlwind, dizziness, the new, the eternal, with the overwhelming hoax, with an enthusiasm for principles or with the mode of typography.” Henry Miller’s work certainly does.