Academic journal article Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal

Nostalgia without Chaos: Henry Miller and the Book of Friends

Academic journal article Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal

Nostalgia without Chaos: Henry Miller and the Book of Friends

Article excerpt

In her path-breaking book The Future of Nostalgia (2001), Svetlana Boym argues that "Nostalgia is not merely an expression of local longing, but a result of a new understanding of time and space that made the division into 'local' and 'universal' possible" (xvi). For Boym, an investigation of nostalgia allows critics a way to assess the ideological foundations of political, economic, or cultural progress. Following Fred Davis, Boym classifies nostalgia according to its level of self-awareness and critical distance. Her principal division is between restorative and reflective nostalgia. (1) She characterizes nostalgia for a past that never was as restorative (41). For Boym, restorative nostalgia "characterizes nationalist revivals," that "reconstruct the monuments of the past" and "offer a comforting script for individual longing" while providing a constant "value for the present" (41, 42, 49). Boym contrasts restorative nostalgia with reflective nostalgia, which "lingers on ruins" and offers a "mediation on history and [the] passage of time" (41, 49). She continues to distinguish between the two by suggesting that restorative nostalgia contains little irony, while reflective nostalgia "reveals that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from comparison, judgment, or critical reflection" (49-50).

Boym's concepts hold important ramifications for a study of Henry Miller's work. (2) While casual critics sometimes view Miller as either a gritty realist or a comic surrealist, commentators rarely address his nostalgic rhythms. Those who do, such as Kingsley Widmer, generally focus on Miller's late period and deride his writing as "slight addenda" to his earlier productions (93). Miller himself seems to reinforce this strategy, writing to Lawrence Durrell that his final major undertaking, the Book of Friends project, would be "Simple, nostalgic, perhaps even sentimental" (Durrell-Miller Letters 461). Critics are in virtual agreement that the later books seem inferior to those written prior to the sixties, and Durrell himself diplomatically called volume III of the Book of Friends "great fun," although his comment that "I wish you could have brought the portrait up to date" subtly expresses his disappointment with the trilogy and, indeed, with most of Miller's later work (509). (3) Despite this perception, however, few analysts attempt to trace the source of their distaste for Miller's final narratives, apart from some brief, pejorative remarks about nostalgia or repetition. Nevertheless, while definitely foregrounding nostalgia in his final decade, Miller also employs nostalgia in most of his more acclaimed books, although he does so in a much more technically sophisticated way. While in most, but not all, of his later books Miller uses restorative (generally) nostalgia in isolation, in his Parisian and Big Sur books he combines his reflective nostalgia with a wide array of stylistic strategies. In valorizing Miller's early period, critics are in part receptive to what Boym labels the "ironic, inconclusive, and fragmentary" ideology concomitant with reflective nostalgia (50). In addition, they prefer the rhetorical pyrotechnics of what Paul Jahshan labels Miller's "marked" passages, verbal flights that serve as counterpoints to his more anecdotal prose (17). Via an analysis of Miller's shifting use of nostalgia in his early and late periods, readers will better grasp Miller's philosophical and aesthetic evolution from Modern Skepticism to "Chinese" Acceptance. In this way, readers should also recognize the ideological basis for preferring Miller's more technically complex work to that of his more straightforward narratives.

Henry Miller is an unabashedly nostalgic writer. Given his reputation as a literary gangster and sexual bad boy, such an observation will no doubt meet with disapprobation by some. Part of the confusion rests with an overemphasis on certain aspects of certain of his narratives, while much of the remaining befuddlement stems from a deeply rooted semantic bias that ignores recent efforts to clarify the phenomenon known as nostalgia. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.