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James M. Decker: Henry Miller’s Pyrrhic Victory

October 3, 2012

Banned Books Week: Though Miller defeated censorship, his work was misunderstood and cartoonishly simplified.

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Image from Flickr via LibraryatNight

By James M. Decker

No Disney ending awaited a tired and beleaguered Henry Miller on June 22, 1964, the day the Supreme Court reversed a Florida decision finding Tropic of Cancer obscene. While the 5-4 ruling in Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein allowed Miller’s most famous work (originally published in France by Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press) to grace the shelves of bookstores in San Diego, Boston, and Chicago—just three of the more than sixty cities that banned Tropic of Cancer—the controversy over his writing was far from over. Clergy would decry the court’s pronouncement. Editorials would lament the country’s moral decay. Worst of all, though, Miller would for the rest of his life find himself reduced in the public imagination to a sex writer, a one-dimensional purveyor of smut.

Even in an era when moms read 50 Shades of Gray not clandestinely but on the park bench waiting for their kids to tire of the slide, Miller’s reputation as a dirty writer dogs him. Imagine, then, the impact of his words in 1961, when Barney Rosset of Grove Press courageously published Miller’s book in a United States four years before birth control became legal in all states. Imagine further the effect of Miller’s language in 1934, a year when thematically genteel novels like Lamb in His Bosom and Good Bye, Mr. Chips were top-five bestsellers and Joseph Ignatius Breen’s Production Code Administration prohibited film actors from uttering the word “hell” in non-religious contexts.

For Miller, sex could function as a way to escape from the dehumanizing routine of material acquisition, but it could also—as in the case of Tropic of Cancer’s Van Norden—serve to paralyze those who would mechanize or fetishize it.

Long before George Carlin’s 1972 list of seven dirty words, Miller sprinkled vulgarities liberally in works such as Tropic of Cancer and Sexus. As any viewer of Breaking Bad or Boardwalk Empire can attest, however, most of these words have long since lost their shock value. Friends and students who served in the military, for example, tell me that “motherfucker” serves as a ubiquitous, and thus invisible, adjective: “Pass the mother-fucking toast.” Other words, such as “tits” and “piss,” seem almost quaint to modern audiences. “Cunt,” however, is a different story, Game of Thrones notwithstanding. This word still jolts and angers in 2012, and it played a prominent role in Miller’s obscenity trials. The infamous “page five” of Tropic of Cancer contains the following excerpt:

O Tania where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed.… I know how to inflame a cunt.

Many of Miller’s censors, such as the Chicago police department, never moved beyond this page, never considered context, never read the Matisse-inspired passage that immediately follows:

Indigo sky swept clear of fleecy clouds, gaunt trees infinitely extended, their black boughs gesticulating like a sleepwalker.

Throughout the book, Miller dives deep within the gutters only to soar back to the heavens a moment later. Gonorrhea, shit, lice, and hunger dissolve (or explode) into music, art, philosophy, and God, as Miller’s resurrected narrator performs an apocalyptic symphony over his own corpse: “A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am.”

Motivating Miller’s censors was fear of unleashed, primal passion, alarm over Hobbesian brutishness, and anxiety about uncontrollable bodies. Such impulses mirrored those that compelled the Pilgrims to recoil from Thomas Morton’s cavorting around a maypole, that led the government to employ the Comstock Act against Margaret Sanger, that proscribed authors as diverse as Judy Blume, Toni Morrison, and John Steinbeck. Unlike some feminists—such as Kate Millett, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and, most recently, Jeanette Winterson—who would later critique the ideology behind Miller’s sexual representations, those who sought to ban Tropic of Cancer in 1961 desired no debate with defenders like Lawrence Durrell and Anaïs Nin or the many “egghead” professors who testified as expert witnesses. They simply wanted the book, along with its language and ideas, suppressed.

For Miller, true obscenity manifested itself not in four-letter words or the sexual act, but in a dehumanizing capitalist system, in cities awash with “fear, guilt, and murder.”

Miller’s rejection of binaries such as moral and immoral—a trait that he admired in writers such as Whitman, Lao Tzu, and Nietzsche—seemed incomprehensible to many middle-class and well-meaning censors who, concerned for the children and benefitting from the luxury of privacy, created a nuance-free moral litmus test wherein true literature must “uplift the soul.” For such individuals, Miller’s admixture of the spiritual and the sexual seemed a perversion of the first order and an utter rejection of the mores that lie behind the Puritan work ethic and its attendant ideological apparatuses. Rightly so. As Miller writes to one of his attorneys, Elmer Gertz, “the true artist is always a menace and a threat to society; he is the sworn enemy of the status quo.” Sex, though, was merely the hors d’oeuvre for Miller’s nonconformist main course.

Miller predicted in his short book The World of Sex that most readers of his work would ignore the bulk of his message and dwell, either out of disgust or joy, on its sexual aspects while “only a few discerning souls seem able to reconcile the so-called contradictory aspects of [his] being as revealed through [his] writing.” Partly because of his censorship travails, Miller’s prognostication came true. During the sixty-plus trials, detractors focused on how Miller “piled garbage on top of garbage” as he recounted “the most abnormal and inexcusable type of sex diversion,” while some well meaning supporters such as Homer Cassidy ignored Tropic of Cancer’s non-sexual themes and gushed that “If nothing else Miller got down to basic animal delights of sex in animal fashion.”

Contra the charges of pornography leveled against him, Miller repeatedly declared that graphic depictions of sexuality were not his primary goal. In Tropic of Cancer, Miller wrote “There is only one thing which interests me now, and that is the recording of all that which is omitted in books.” In The World of Sex he observed of Tropic of Cancer that as “Liberally dosed with a sexual content as was that book the problem of the author was never one of sex, nor even of religion, but of self-liberation.” For Miller, sex could function as a way to escape from the dehumanizing routine of material acquisition, but it could also—as in the case of Tropic of Cancer’s Van Norden—serve to paralyze those who would mechanize or fetishize it.

Miller’s use of raw sex attempts to acknowledge animal passion, to demystify a natural act, and to break through the stultifying tedium of bourgeois propriety. For Miller, true obscenity manifested itself not in four-letter words or the sexual act, but in a dehumanizing capitalist system, in cities awash with “fear, guilt, and murder.” He argued in “Obscenity and the Art of Reflection” that “To speak only of what is indecent, foul, lewd, filthy, disgusting, etc., in connection with sex, is to deny ourselves the great gamut of revulsion-repulsion which modern life puts in our service.”

In addition to drawing attention to Miller’s most sexually charged passages, various prosecutors, hoping to draw parallels between the book and a common pornographic convention, honed in on Tropic of Cancer’s lack of linear plot. One witness, attempting to link Tropic of Cancer with episodic pornography declared, “The book … has no story, no plot…. Instead it contains simply a series of revolting sexual encounters.” Miller, though, abandoned plot on purpose in order to acknowledge the falsity of photographic realism: “Everything that was literature has fallen from me.” Advocating for what he called spiral form, Miller sought not mimesis but emotional essence, writing in The World of Sex that

The ordinary chronological development seems … wooden and artificial, a synthetic reconstitution of the facts of life. The facts and events of life are for me only the starting points on the way towards the discovery of truth. I am trying to get at the inner pattern of events.

One wonders how many readers abandoned the book part way through, having discovered that they would need to work to reach the salacious material, just as years later readers complained about the difficulty of Oprah-sanctioned works by Toni Morrison.

Miller once told Digby Diehl, “Being known doesn’t mean a thing to me.” One wonders whether he would have preferred to remain unknown rather than be caricatured as the public face of perversion.

Economically, the publicity over the trials—and the perception that his books consisted of nothing but sleaze—helped Miller, who moved from a modest cottage in Big Sur to a spacious house, complete with a swimming pool, in affluent Pacific Palisades. Among the top-ten selling books for the latter half of 1961, Tropic of Cancer made Miller financially independent, even if many readers missed his message. Rosset’s release of Tropic of Capricorn also in 1961, brought Miller even more money. Indeed, Miller’s letters from the sixties—a period with a 90 percent tax rate that would make Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan faint—are full of complaints about what he called “the money problem.” With his new found wealth, Miller could once again tour Europe, this time making a sort of victory lap. The publication of Tropic of Cancer eventually led to a lucrative movie deal with Paramount, and Miller was in high demand as a celebrity.

Nevertheless, the publicity surrounding Tropic of Cancer’s trials tarnished Miller’s long-term Anglo-American reputation, and many defenders and detractors oversimplified his work. Men’s magazines such as Fling and Cavalcade ran cartoon after cartoon depicting Miller and his work as nothing more than scandalous titillation. In the 1990s, Barnes and Noble sold t-shirts representing Miller as a flasher, while Seinfeld based an entire episode around the scurrilous content of Tropic of Cancer. A writer working on a book about American expatriates even told me once that the administrators of his grant grew leery of his including Miller in the book. Yes, Miller won his censorship battle, but he may have lost the ability to control his artistic image. Miller once told Digby Diehl, “Being known doesn’t mean a thing to me.” One wonders whether he would have preferred to remain unknown rather than be caricatured as the public face of perversion.

In 2012, American authors have much more freedom to write graphically about sex, and bookstores need not pander to the censor when they stock their shelves. In a world where the works of writers such as Yan Lianke are regularly banned by their governments, Miller’s most enduring legacy, along with others who helped the courts redefine the first amendment, may have been in laying the foundation for writers to transgress social limits: though their work may be challenged, it cannot be legally suppressed. During Banned Books Week, we should remember that this opportunity came at a significant cost for pioneers such as Henry Miller.

James M. Decker is Professor of English and Language Studies at Illinois Central College. Writer of the books Ideology and Henry Miller and Narrative Form: Constructing the Self, Rejecting Modernity, he also edits Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal.

Check out all the pieces in our Banned Books Week series:


Interviews

Sherman Alexie interviewed by Ed Winstead

Katherine Paterson interviewed by Nicole Deming

Alice Walker interviewed by Megan Labrise

Essays

James M. Decker on Henry Miller

Lucy McKeon on Toni Morrison

Nathaniel Rich on Mikhail Bulgakov

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