Academic journal article Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal

Henry Miller: A Study

Academic journal article Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal

Henry Miller: A Study

Article excerpt

Of all the writers in the Western modernist canon, Henry Miller (1891-1980) will turn out to be one of singular importance and unusual power. Although his popularity is owed as much to the scourge of censorship as to his own talents, in his books he was able to explore new narrative forms while challenging establishment institutions and fashioning an antidote to the way of life they represented. His works were part of a life-long quest in the continuous discovery and construction of a mythology of the self through literature, the function of which is to expose corrupt values at the heart of the modern spirit and awaken the reader to the possibilities of a life that is equated with art.

The stylistic innovations of Miller are comparable to those of Pound and Joyce, and certainly worthy of being uttered in the same breath. They must also be qualified as the catalyst to later techniques such as the automatic writing of Kerouac, or the cut-up methods of Burroughs. The most succinct summary of Miller's writing style is found in a popular online encyclopedia, which credits him with "breaking with existing literary forms and developing a new sort of 'novel' that is a mixture of novel, autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association, and mysticism" (Shifreen 75). On the first page of Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller establishes himself as counter to all that is ordinarily labeled literary art. He writes, "This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty ... what you will" (Cancer 2). It is important for the writer not only to dispense with conventions and expectations, but to begin with a shock intended to rattle the reader and violently pull his or her attention away from any world whose material emphasis does not include the values of the narrator. This type of hyperbolic and provocative introduction is a common feature of Miller's novels, as in Tropic of Capricorn, where the writer proceeds directly to the futility of struggling in a life he did not ask for, and his pity for everybody and everything. But Miller often claimed his books had no beginning or end, and he "detest[ed] all books which run chronologically, which commence at the cradle and end at the grave" (Aller Retour 33). His grievances with the limitations of linear narrative manifested in his own theory, which he called spiral form. It was decisive for him to be able to "resume the narrative at any point"--he felt that "just as life begins at any moment ... so the work" (Wisdom 27).

But what are Henry Miller's values precisely? In Black Spring he makes explicit his vision for a life that is ecstatic or transcendent, writing: "moralities, ethics, laws, customs, beliefs, doctrines--these are of trifling import. All that matters is that the miraculous become the norm." A world without those concepts is necessarily one without certain forms of strife, but if that state of affairs remains impossible to achieve, then the simulation of a revelation in the reader is an acceptable substitute to the writer. James M. Decker, in his introduction to Henry Miller and Narrative Form, describes how "certain works of art function as catalysts for a type of hyperconsciousness that constitutes the 'true' goal of the artist" (Decker 5) and notes that this was intimated and understood by Miller. As if answering his own question, Miller confides to us at the beginning of Tropic of Capricorn: "nothing would be altered, I was convinced, except by a change of heart, and who could change the hearts of men?" The writer of literature, with direct access to the mind of the reader, is positioned auspiciously to influence a revolution in thinking that can only occur at the level of each individual. Decker elaborates that Miller "abhors the logic of the many and seeks to communicate with the few." Ever the individualist and philosopher, Miller nonetheless does not pretend to have all the answers, but through all his works his philosophy remains rather consistent--that is, paradoxical and contradictory. …

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