"Choking on My Own Saliva": Henry Miller's Bourgeois Family Christmas in 'Nexus.'(Family Systems Psychotherapy and Literature/Literary Criticism)

By Decker, James M. | Style, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview
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"Choking on My Own Saliva": Henry Miller's Bourgeois Family Christmas in 'Nexus.'(Family Systems Psychotherapy and Literature/Literary Criticism)


Decker, James M., Style


Due to his hyperfragmented narrative style and abiding interest in sexual candor, Henry Miller remains one of American literature's most enduring literary gangsters, a figure chided both for supposedly propounding a "theology of the cunt" (Gilbert and Gubar 116) and for "bad writing and silly thinking" (Widmer viii). Ever the "bad boy," Miller, who once declared that "the most boring group in all communities were the university professors," would probably relish such critical lashings ("Preface," The Air-Conditioned Nightmare 19). Indeed, he generally maintained that he desired to show the scoundrel in himself and that conventional literary form meant nothing to him. Sexuality, as he often stressed, never served as his literary goal, and one may trace much of what commentators attribute to bad writing to Miller's experiments with narrative form. Nevertheless, such acerbic statements reflect a larger critical tendency to ignore the cathartic nature of Miller's literary project. Miller frequently asserts that he writes only to free himself from the bonds of the past and that the process of writing helps him attain a more complete level of self-awareness. From what, however, did Miller need to escape?

The more obvious answer to this question would no doubt center on some notion of capitalist society. In books such as Sexus (1949), Miller represents his persona "Henry Miller"(1) deriding the American business ethos and "Mr. and Mrs. Megalopolitan," who, "hobbled and lettered," experience their "realest moments" while defecating, an act symbolic of the "big shit-house" where everything they "touch is shitty. Even when it's wrapped in cellophane the smell is there. Caca! The philosopher's stone of the industrial age" (374-75). A more sensitive reading of Miller's oeuvre, however, suggests that his quarrel with capitalism reveals a deeper conflict within his own family. Although Miller readily launches into jeremiads concerning the public sphere, he reserves some of his more vitriolic attacks for his own family, such as in this passage from Tropic of Capricorn (1939):

My people were entirely Nordic, which is to say idiots. Every wrong idea which has ever been expounded was theirs. Among them was the doctrine of cleanliness, to say nothing of righteousness. They were painfully clean. But inwardly they stank. Never once had they opened the door which leads to the soul. (3)

While he occasionally tendered some kind words for his father, his Uncle Dave, or his Aunt Caroline, Miller's recollections of his family - especially of his mother - lean toward the vicious sentiments of the above citation. In his condemnation of his family's values, Miller positions(2) himself as an independent artist searching for Truth and Beauty quite apart from the insipid platitudes and unexamined mores of his family of idiots, and, indeed, most readers would agree with J. D. Brown that Miller's autobiographical quest "powerfully expressed the rebellious nature of an individual narrator in a collapsing culture" (108). Through his writing, Miller desperately seeks to abandon the sterility of the American life typified by the family alcove where he "heard nothing but inanities" (Black Spring 22).

Nevertheless, many adherents of contemporary family systems therapy recognize that even the most ostensibly autonomous individuals owe much of their behavior to their reactions to others. Michael E. Kerr and Murray Bowen elaborate:

Both "rugged individualism" and obligatory conformity are strongly influenced by the togetherness force. The "rugged individual" operates as much in reaction to others as the compliant person. His determination to be independent stems more from his reaction to other people than from a thoughtfully determined direction for the self. He has trouble being an "individual" without permanently disrupting his relationships with others. (64)(3)

Such a perspective suggests that Miller's fierce individualism may well find its roots not in high intellectual sources, but in the family.

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