Of course Henry Miller remains the forbidden writer of American fiction. Where once he was forbidden for the right reasons, he is now forbidden for the wrong, where once he was forbidden by conservatives and moralists he is now forbidden by liberals and the culturally correct—though what originally made him forbidden hasn’t really changed at all. He is forbidden because he speaks from the dark heart of some place beyond ideology or the refinements of civilization, he is not progressive or regressive but the literary inhabitant of a place in the psyche where human experience recognizes no forward or backward, where the shadows of the soul know no time.
I’m not here to make excuses for him now. I’m certainly not here to make excuses for myself or for the way, as when I heard Ray Charles for the first time, Henry Miller rearranged the furniture in my head, where the sofa of “aesthetics” had been placed just so, against the window, and the reclining chair of “taste” had been moved ever so carefully before the fireplace, and everything was where I and all my teachers and all the other writers I had read assumed they were supposed to be. Miller swept through and left everything in turmoil and in the process said, to paraphrase the notorious opening declaration of Tropic of Cancer, here is a gob of spit in the face of excuses. So I won’t make excuses for him; he would hate it and I would hate myself. Clearly much of what he wrote about women is infantile when it isn’t appalling, as further demonstrated, for whomever needs the demonstration, by the evidence of his own biography, ever younger women populating an ever aging life, until all you could do was be embarrassed for him. That he was first and foremost a romantic cannot excuse some of these attitudes, since a romantic man can be as destructive to women as the stalker hiding around the corner at midnight; in his own mind, of course, the stalker is a romantic himself. It was Miller’s own emotional limitations that prevented him from transcending the botched and bleeding love affair he had with his second wife, that made him unable to really write about her at all until it was too late, at which point love had ebbed away leaving only wounds. That he could not change the way he loved left him a man who, for periods of his life, apparently could not love at all in any way that could fulfill himself, let alone a woman.
It excuses nothing to point out that all of his gorgeous spleen is part and parcel of an assault on the artifices of human dignity as democratic as it is gleeful. One sometimes wishes of course that he had confined this assaultive gusto to those who could afford it most, such as the powerful and the social elite, and spared those who could afford it least, particularly in the thirties when scapegoating would be raised first to political art, then to governmental institution, ultimately to millennial nightmare. The truth was that Miller’s feelings about Jews, for instance, were nearly as complicated as those about women, anchored as they were by his deepest disgust of all, which was for the Aryan, which is to say himself, since Miller openly hated everything about his German heritage and strove to reinvent himself free of it, perpetuating the self-image of a carefree bohemian living in happy and willful squalor when it has been duly recorded he was the most teutonic of housekeepers, the tidiest of domestic managers, the most compulsive and anal antithesis of the joyful anarchist in Tropic of Cancer who watches the lice leap to and fro on the bed mattress with great amusement and jauntily chucks extra francs and centimes out the taxi window just because they get in the way of his lower finances.
This may be where I come in. I am not German but I am half Scandinavian, which is altogether close enough to being German, sharing that pathological German orderliness and, as Miller did, so detesting it that once, years ago, I begged an old girlfriend to go into my apartment and completely disorganize all my books and records beyond recognition, while I waited outside. Naturally, as soon as she finished I cried out in anguish, “My God, what have I done?” and rushed back into the apartment and frantically put everything back in its place. So for me the heroism of Henry Miller is the way that he—or, to be more precise, his literary incarnation—disrupted the order of my head beyond repair; after I read Tropic of Cancer as an aspiring young novelist of twenty-one there was no putting everything back where it was. Art was not about rules or formalism or structure or “dramatic unity” or what the literature teacher could diagram on the blackboard, it was about passion and imagination and courage, and when it wasn’t about those things in at least some measure, there was no point to it at all and it was just a waste of everyone’s time. And for all the many things that Miller was wrong about in his work, he was right about that; one of his best books, called The Books of My Life, so renews its reader with the exhilaration of reading that by the time the reader has finished, it has become one of the books of his or her life.
He wrote only one truly great novel, his first published and still his most famous. Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn and The Cosmological Eye fill out the story and almost constitute the Miller bible that Lawrence Durrell encouraged his mentor to write; but Tropic of Cancer remains the great hurled gauntlet of early twentieth-century fiction, a book that more persuasively and passionately than any other says to art and history and all their mavens: I truly do not give a fuck. On one level this is pure nihilism; beneath that is the level of pure outrage; but beneath that there is the brave Moment in which, when everything else seems shallow and fleeting, all of us sooner or later aspire to live, and end up wondering why we cannot. The narrator of Tropic of Cancer is another literary American Henry pushed through the glass darkly, the Henry James who lived in America but was haunted by Europe now returned to the heart of Europe only to be haunted by America, and in the process returning with a voice and heart stripped of all continental sensibilities, an American voice stripped of every reassurance but Whitman’s electric song and the Ginsberg howl to come, in rapacious pursuit of one sensual interest above everything else. That interest, of course, is eating. There is a misconception, largely among those who have never read Tropic of Cancer, that the book is about sex. In fact Miller’s interest in sex in Tropic of Cancer is only intermittent, which was the truly shocking thing about the book when it first appeared, that it talks about sex not heatedly but casually, and no differently than it talks about survival in general. What Miller really cares about in Cancer is scoring a good meal. He constantly puts his genius to the matter of getting fed with a determination he only rarely applies to getting laid, devising an elaborate plan that finally commits seven different friends to each inviting him to dinner one night a week.
Though it is the book I have read more often than any other—I suppose a half dozen times, but out of respect to Miller’s anarchy I’ve tried not to keep track—I would certainly not want a whole literature of Tropic of Cancers. A literature of Tropic of Cancers just becomes cranky and self-indulgent in an obvious and cheap way; it is one of the very greatest American novels, but only in the context of an American literature that also includes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Light in August and Invisible Man and Appointment in Samarra and The Member of the Wedding and The Long Goodbye and Moby-Dick and Native Son and The Sheltering Sky and Tender Is the Night and A Lost Lady and Red Harvestand Cane and The Deer Park and The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Violent Bear It Away and Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Killer Inside Me and The Names and Blood Meridian and Gravity’s Rainbow and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer and Ozma of Oz. You can’t always live among overturned furniture. Whether the reclining chair is before the fireplace or not, sooner or later you want to sit on it. But though you might not approve of it, though you might reproach the book, remove Tropic of Cancer from the above canon and, if you’re honest, you will acknowledge that everything about fiction in the twentieth century changes, and it changes for the worse. Everything about twentieth-century fiction becomes less vital, less alive and of course less free; it is startling to note how recently and publicly Miller has been dismissed by writers whose very right to sensational provocation was won in the battles Miller fought for them. That’s all right, though, because Miller’s true importance is not as a pioneer of free expression but as an exhibitionist of the soul, and lies in the triumph of one man over chaos that is achieved in an ironic collusion with chaos. The great passion of Henry Miller and Tropic of Cancer is nothing less than life-sized, or maybe even cosmos-sized, the relentless raging juxtaposition of the gutter with the heavens, of the beastly with the transcendent, never judging one above the other, loving not the harmony of it all but the disharmony, delirious at the prospect of the great pending Crack-Up of mankind. This is a writer beyond the reach of your reproach, because he has so completely obliterated the value of that reproach; his is the long love-riddled guffaw of failure that is too mad to be fearful and too sane to survive unscarred.