December 23, 2004

Tropic of Cancer

From Narrative Detours: Henry Miller and the Rise of New Critical Modernism (1989)

Introduction: "I want to make a detour...."

I want to make a detour of those lofty arid mountain ranges where one dies of thirst and cold, that "extra-temporal" history, that absolute of time and space where there exists neither man, beast, nor vegetation, where one goes crazy with loneliness, with language that is mere words, where everything is unhooked, ungeared, out of joint with the times. I want a world of men and women, of trees that do not talk (because there is too much talk in the world as it is!), of rivers that carry you to places, not rivers that are legends, but rivers that put you in touch with other men and women, with architecture, religion, plants, animals--rivers have boats on them and in which men drown, drown not in myth and legend and books and dust of the past, but in time and space and history.
Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Few products of the self-styled "Revolution of the Word" of the 1920s and 1930s have proved more disturbing to our sense of what is or ought to be valued art than Tropic of Cancer (1934), Black Spring (1936), and Tropic of Capricorn (1939).[1] Other modernist novels, more radical and more conventional, move in and out of critical and public view, but for half a century Henry Miller's expatriate narratives have visibly marked the contentious boundary between "good" and "bad" art, "serious literature" and "popular fiction," "aesthetic creation" and "pornographic exploitation." Since he first appeared in the "twilight of the expatriates" as "the spokesman, par excellence, for the Left Bank," Miller has inspired the fervid efforts of advocates and adversaries seeking to establish his centrality to modern American literature and life, or to expunge him from literary and even popular imagination.[2] In neither direction have these partisan efforts succeeded. Miller's work continues to sell, influence contemporary fiction, and provoke violent debate whenever raised. Instead of settling the "Miller question," the debate over Miller's place in American letters has complicated and raised the stakes of an "answer." Feminists, from Kate Millet to Catharine MacKinnon, have joined in improbable alliance with Miller's partisans in impugning the methods and motives of those who would hold Miller at a tasteful distance from the literary tradition.[3] Attempts to strike a more dispassionate critical balance between the claims of Miller's friends and foes have proved inadequate, mixing hot and cold to produce the kind of lukewarm "assessment" that gives academic criticism the reputation of irrelevance: no one can read very far into Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring or Tropic of Capricorn without realizing that an "open mind" is the most inappropriate of responses. Miller emerged with a generation of writers who cultivated controversy as a sign of success in challenging established literary canons; almost alone he has remained controversial, in good conscience neither acceptable nor dismissible. Through five decades of criticism the refrain runs, "This fellow can write: but[....]"[4]

The debate over Miller's proper place inside or outside our mainstream literary tradition has obscured the more intriguing historical questions posed by the ambiguous position he already occupies and has occupied since the 1930s. Miller has been that most paradoxical of literary creatures, a "minor writer" with "major relevance" (Kingsley Widmer), a writer whose works are critically devalued and politically denounced, but whose influence upon urban American writing from the Beats of the fifties to the New Journalism of the seventies and eighties is as pronounced as Faulkner's upon southern and rural fiction.[5] I propose to explore the phenomenon of Miller's ambiguous status. How has the modern literary tradition been constructed that a manifestly serious and influential novelist can be both "minor" and "major," without and within, at the same time? What is it about Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn that has made them the object of a fifty-year open debate over literary and cultural values--continuing even as literary criticism parted company with that magisterial arbiter of taste, the gentleman scholar, in order to immerse itself in technical, linguistic and philosophic questions of textual hermeneutics?

Answers to these questions might be sought at any point in the history of the reception of Miller's expatriate narratives, a history which includes his subsequent novels and essays. Forty-eight years old when he returned to America after nearly a decade in Paris, Miller outlived most of his fellow expatriates, continuing to write for another four decades until his death in 1979. These later additions to Miller's oeuvre inevitably reshaped the meaning of his Paris narratives, which, like Miller himself, led a varied public life after the onset of the Second World War ended "The Revolution of the Word." The American publication of Miller's "banned books" under the banner of "freedom of expression" in the early 1960s, and Kate Millet's feminist indictment in Sexual Politics (1969) of the "sexual liberation" this "freedom" was supposed to herald, initiated major shifts in the terms under which Miller's "value" has been debated. But Miller's ambiguous position in American letters antedates and survives these developments. Already in 1938, Edmund Wilson's review of Tropic of Cancer for The New Republic uncannily anticipates the polarized outline, if not the precise terms, of all subsequent debate over Miller's work: "Today the conventional critics are evidently too shocked by it to be able to bring themselves to deal with it--though their neglect of it cannot wholly have been determined by the reflex reactions of squeamishness. [....] As for the Left-Wingers, they have ignored The Tropic of Cancer on the ground that it is merely a product of the decadent expatriate culture and can be of no interest to the socially minded and forward-looking present."[6]

If Wilson's review anticipates the tenor of ensuing dispute over Miller, it sounds a note that has escaped most subsequent critics. According to Wilson, the "historical importance" of Tropic of Cancer lies in Miller's attempt to write "the epitaph for the whole generation of American writers and artists that migrated to Paris after the war." "We are going to put it down--the evolution of this world which has died but which has not been buried," Miller wrote, setting out upon a polemical "detour" to change the direction "The Revolution of the Word" was taking.[7] Miller's ambition was unduly optimistic; Wilson's assent too sanguine.[8] As readers, writers, and critics we still live, affirmatively or antithetically, in the shadow of the consensus forged by a "Lost Generation" they thought dead and awaiting burial. Frustrated in its grand design, Miller's challenge to the aesthetic values and interpretive conventions successfully advanced by many of his fellow expatriates succeeded only in installing his narrative modernism proximate to--ambiguously inside and outside--our canon of "New Critical" modernism. In consequence, even after fifty years Miller's language has a strangely contemporary sound: his narrative modernism gives voice to intimations of modernity omitted from the "mythic" and "symbolist" consensus that formed high modernism. But equally, Miller's narrative dissent has placed his novels outside the interpretive conventions that give us ready, empathetic access to the coherence, structure, and intention of canonical texts, rendering his alternative modernism vulnerable to social and political criticism for what, though manifest throughout the received modern tradition, we tend to excuse or extenuate in the name of Art, Irony, and Tragic error. The controversy Miller's expatriate novels are still capable of stirring is but another indication that we have yet to come to terms with the legacy of his generation's literary battles.

It is Miller's historically close and antithetical relation to the writers and critics whose work would form the basis of New Critical modernism that, more than his Whitmanesque "barbaric yawp," has made it difficult to "read" Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn as anything other than second-rate Modernism or an "anti-literature" indifferent to aesthetic considerations. Miller's expatriate works are neither. They embody an ambitious writer's calculated response to the debate over the shape of the "New Novel" he joined in 1930--the year the first "guidebook" to the "classical" Ulysses, James Joyce's 'Ulysses': A Study by Stuart Gilbert, ratified and elaborated Eliot's strident declaration in "'Ulysses,' Order, and Myth," "Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method."[9] Discerning the formation of a literary and critical alliance, Miller intuited its transformative power even as he sought to resist it:

Already, almost coincidentally with their appearance, we have, as a result of Ulysses and Work in Progress, nothing but dry analyses, archaeological burrowings, geological surveys, laboratory tests of the Word. The commentators, to be sure, have only begun to chew on Joyce. The Germans will finish him. They will make Joyce palatable, understandable, clear as Shakespeare, better than Joyce, better than Shakespeare. Wait! The mystagogues are coming![10]

It is paradoxically Miller's attention in formulating his narrative strategy to the politics of modern aesthetic debate--his prescient engagement with that coalition of writers, critics, and theorists who would successfully reshape twentieth-century aesthetics in their own image--that has left him an inexplicable, harsh voice on the margins of "the modern tradition." Miller's radically digressive, free-flowing prose style advances a post-realist/post-naturalist "narrative method" that closely pursues and disputes, almost point for point, the then emerging "mythic" consensus. Resembling Leopold Bloom's wandering excursions through the streets of Dublin, Miller's narrative method suggests, but in whole and in part refuses, the symbolic, mythic, and perspectival integration that has become fundamental to our sense of what "truly" Modern texts are "about." As a consequence of Miller's own efforts, any attempt to pursue a "close reading" of his Paris narratives as if they were New Critical texts is an experience in frustration: Miller seems either a writer who knows what he ought to do but can't do it, or a writer who doesn't know what he's doing but occasionally does it--"it" being some recognizable, interpretable, and hence valuable variation of what Ulysses, the paradigmatic novel of New Critical modernism, does so thoroughly when "read closely."

If Miller's more explicit diatribes against Joyce receive some notice, the extent to which his narratives embody a thoroughgoing critique remains largely unexplored--the very idea that a writer as "undisciplined" as Miller might mount anything approaching a "serious" challenge to Ulysses seems preposterous. But we view Ulysses through a long history of adulatory exegesis, forgetting that Eliot's influential unveiling of the "Order, and Myth" of Ulysses served an occasional, polemical purpose: to fend off Richard Aldington's charge that Joyce's was a "great undisciplined talent" and his work "an invitation to chaos, and an expression of feelings which are perverse, partial, and a distortion of reality."[11] When Miller wrote, "Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood," it was still a resonant call to battle and not yet hollow vanity.[12] The hegemony of New Critical modernism--the naturalization of interpretive techniques that give us ready access to the coherence, structure, and intention of canonical texts--has replaced Joyce's modernist "experiment," first among equals, with the one and only, insurmountable Modernist "monument." To recover the structure, coherence, and intention of Miller's narrative "experiment" it is necessary to effect an imaginative return to Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, to the vociferous debate over the shape of the "New Novel," and to the polemical "detour" that first took Miller to the margins of twentieth-century literature.

Read as one of many expatriate efforts to wrest control of the modern novel's future, Miller's Paris narratives, and especially Tropic of Cancer, reveal a dense weave of "tactical" allusions, engaging not "myth and legend and books and dust of the past" according to Eliotic prescription, but the contemporary positions, literary and critical, of Miller's Modernist rivals. Through such allusions Tropic of Cancer's declaration of intention--"I want to make a detour[....]" (epigraph to this introduction)--specifies the aesthetics around which its narrative seeks a path. As the phrasing of this manifesto suggests, Miller's response to the emerging Modernist consensus involves no broadside denigration of Joyce's achievement in Ulysses and "Work in Progress," but rather a canny challenge to these works as interpreted by Louis Gillet in transition ("'extra-temporal history'"), by Edmund Wilson in Axel's Castle (where the talking tree and stone, and river puns of Anna Livia Plurabelle were cited to evaluate "Work in Progress"), and by T. S. Eliot in "'Ulysses,' Order, and Myth." The argument uniting these allusions draws upon the "meta-fiction" novelists and their critical partisans have always invoked to legitimate their formal innovations over and against all others: the novel is "the historical genre," distinguished by its protean ability to embody and represent the historical forces that constitute a changing world. Miller turns the rhetoric of the novel's historicity to his own ends, insinuating that the "mystagogues" who read and value in Joyce's novels an "'extra-temporal history,' that absolute of time and space [...] and mere words," are but revealing and canonizing Ulysses and "Work in Progress" as dead ends in the genealogy of the novel: the "true" modern novel must follow Tropic of Cancer's narrative "detour" to return to the proper path of "the historical genre" through "time and space and history." The generic discourse of Miller's dissent points to the vitality of an aesthetic debate broader than any linear, genealogical approach to the novel's history, however "revisionary," can discern--a debate within which New Critical modernism, Miller's narrative modernism, and many other contending "modernisms" were first forged and only subsequently obscured.

This essay proceeds as a "local study" in the history of the modern novel, using the instance of Henry Miller's Paris narratives and their ambiguous place in our received tradition to test the grounds of a literary history attentive to the formation of literary values, tracing their genesis and legacy in dissent as well as assent. How can we, as literary historians, recover from the "texts" we examine a sense of the past that is something more than a linear genealogy of "great, influential works" around which lies a disordered library of "lesser works," "curiosities," and "failures" into which we periodically venture to "invent" new "usable pasts," new genealogies of "great works"? My local study of a most controversial novelist, who for so long and for so many highly charged reasons has been held at arm's length from the Modernist canon, is intended to suggest the outlines of an answer. If attention to the aesthetic discourse within which coalitions of writers and critics vie for the authority to promulgate "the tradition" discloses a heretofore unsuspected density and coherence to Miller's narrative and aesthetic polemics, such an approach is likely to do the same for other apparent "detours," past and present, from the literary genealogy New Critical modernism traces back to Homer. At stake is not simply Miller's "place" within a divisive twentieth-century literature, but our understanding of other alternatives to New Critical modernism, less controversial, whose polemical engagement in "serious" novelistic discourse yet remains concealed beneath the literary and critical consensus first forged in the 1920s and 1930s.

Two relatively recent developments in literary scholarship signal a renewed need for literary history as an integrative mode of analysis, even as they undermine the premises that once made literary history a matter of checking biographies, tracing influences, and constructing of these the literary genealogies of Great Writers and Great Works. The first is the "deconstructive" critique of hermeneutics, which has dispossessed the text of that isolate, self-contained structural integrity of meaning which the New Critics viewed as the key to interpretation and cultural value. Perhaps more important, the second development is the renewed interest in the values and techniques of those works from which high modernism and New Criticism maintained a studied distance: realism, naturalism, ethnic/local color, and proletarian literature. Feminist scholarship, with its search for difference in writing and its desire to recover women's experience, has participated in and energized both these developments. The result on all scores has been an "information explosion" in literary studies which, I believe, awaits a renewed sense of literary history to weigh, distribute, relate, and assimilate; for only a sense of history, and not the theoretical imagination, however "decentered," can juggle the simultaneous and sequential proliferation of competing views and values which the current "explosion" discovers to be constituent of our literary past and present.

Yet in the face of this task, literary history remains in quest of its own grounds. How does one locate the meaning of a text and its relations to other texts when meaning seems no longer a property of the text and every text appears an "intertext" equally related and unrelated to every other text? Where does one place the "canon" and how does one recognize its imaginative power when a vast body of once "marginal" works and literatures are subject to an increasing scrutiny which has had the effect of making the "canon" suddenly appear "marginal" itself, a preoccupation of a few individuals and institutions dwarfed by the onward rush of popular culture and history? This essay explores the possibility of a literary history in the current critical landscape: one capable of asking not what or how texts mean, but what they have meant; one capable of describing the literary and interpretive acts whereby the aesthetic hegemony of New Critical modernism was first forged and then sustained in the face of many alternatives. To find such a capability is to make it possible to ask a new, distinctively historical set of questions concerning the "meaning" and "place" of Miller's expatriate narratives. How must we read Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn in order to understand them in dialogic relation with other modernist "experiments" such as Joyce's Ulysses--more simply, how did Miller's narratives speak to the contemporary struggle to define the nature of modern literature? And, in turn, how must we narrate literary and critical history in order to explain how among many competing modernist "experiments" some, but not Miller's, became Modernist "monuments"? It is through these two questions and their interrelation that I hope to retain for this essay in the history of the modern novel some of the rigor of "close reading" lost to more sweeping accounts, and as well to lend broader and, I intend, unsettling implication to such a local study of a "minor" modernist.


[1] Epigraph: Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (Paris: The Obelisk Press, 1934; New York: Grove Press, 1961; New York: Ballantine Books, 1973), 231.

[2] Edmund Wilson, "The Twilight of the Expatriates," in A Literary Chronicle: 1920-1950 (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company-Doubleday Anchor Books, n.d.), 212. This is a collection derived from Classics and Commercials (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1950) and Shores of Light (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1952). "The Twilight of the Expatriates" first appeared in The New Republic (March 9, 1938).

[3] Kate Millet opens Sexual Politics (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970; New York: Avon Books, 1971) with an explicit attack upon literary history, narrowly conceived, and "New Criticism":

It has been my conviction that the adventure of literary criticism is not restricted to a dutiful round of adulation, but is capable of seizing upon the larger insights which literature affords into the life it describes, or interprets, or even distorts. [....] I have also found it reasonable to take an author's ideas seriously when, like the novelists covered in this study, they wish to be taken seriously or not at all. Where I have substantive quarrels with some of these ideas, I prefer to argue on those very grounds, rather than to take cover under tricks of the trade and mask disagreement with "sympathetic readings" or the still more dishonest pretense that the artist is "without skill" or a "poor technician." (Sexual Politics, 12)

Protesting the critical marginalization of Miller's work, Millet writes: "The anxiety and contempt which Miller registers toward the female sex is at least as important and generally felt as the more diplomatic or 'respectful' version presented to us in conventional writing," in which Millet includes "not only traditional courtly, romantic and Victorian sentiment, but even that of other moderns [such as] Conrad, Joyce, even Faulkner" (Sexual Politics, 389).

Extending Millet's suspicion that Miller is excluded because his inclusion would reveal the misogyny of the "tradition," Catharine MacKinnon writes: "sometimes I think that the real issue is how male sexuality is presented, so that anything can be done to a woman, but obscenity is sex that makes male sexuality look bad." She gives new sense to the ideology of "protecting innocence": "is it just chance that the first film to be found obscene by a state supreme court depicts male masturbation? [....] Did works like Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer get in trouble because male sexuality is depicted in a way that men think is dangerous for women and children to see?" (Catharine MacKinnon, "Not a Moral Issue" in Feminism Unmodified [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987], 154, 270n.).

[4] Jay Martin, Always Merry and Bright: The Life of Henry Miller (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1978; New York: Penguin Books, 1980), 317. Martin quotes George Bernard Shaw, apparently the first to strike this note about Miller: "This fellow can write: but he has failed to give any artistic value to his verbatim reports of bad language." Evidently, iconoclasm is not made of the same stuff from generation to generation. Frank Kermode took up the refrain: "Everybody agrees that Miller can write[....]" (Frank Kermode, "Henry Miller and John Betjeman," Puzzles and Epiphanies, reprinted in part in Edward B. Mitchell, ed., Henry Miller: Three Decades of Criticism [New York: New York University Press, 1971], 94).

[5] Kingsley Widmer, Henry Miller (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1963), 157.

[6] Edmund Wilson, "The Twilight of the Expatriates," A Literary Chronicle: 1920-1950, 212.

[7] Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, 24.

[8] As editor, advocate, publicist, central author and creator of Obelisk Press's "Villa Seurat Series," Miller tried to gather the adherents necessary to remake a literature during his final years in Paris, but his effort was overtaken by the coming war. He returned to America alone, prepared to pursue new interests.

[9] T. S. Eliot, "'Ulysses,' Order, and Myth," in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and Farrar, Straus and Giroux--A Harvest/Noonday Book, 1975), 178. Eliot's essay was first published in Dial, November 1923.

[10] Henry Miller, "The Universe of Death from The World of Lawrence," in Henry Miller, The Cosmological Eye (1939; New York: New Directions Paperbook, 1961), 114. The World of Lawrence was written contemporaneously with the revisions of Tropic of Cancer. Abandoned, it was not published in its entirety until the year of Miller's death. (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1980). The Cosmological Eye, the first collection of Miller's Paris work published in America, contains a number of essays originally published in Max and the White Phagocytes (Paris: The Obelisk Press-Seurat Editions, 1938).

[11] T. S. Eliot, "'Ulysses,' Order, and Myth," in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, 176.

[12] Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (Paris: The Obelisk Press-Seurat Editions, 1939; New York: Grove Press, 1961), 170. Miller's direct allusion is to Henri Bergson's discussion of "The Idea of Disorder" in Creative Evolution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911; New York: Random House-The Modern Library, 1944), 240-258.

Copyright 1989 Raoul R. Ibarguen All Rights Reserved.

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