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The male mystique of Henry Miller
February 5, 2012 3:54 PM   Subscribe

The Male Mystique of Henry Miller by Jeanette Winterson.
posted by latkes (33 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
The conclusion of the article asks: Why do men revel in the degradation of women?

Thing is, I know of more women who are fans of Miller than men.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 4:24 PM on February 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


I loved Miller's work back in the early 80s day, when I was of the age where a young man who writes and drinks would love him -- from the ages of 18 to 22, mostly. Even at that callow age, I understood and was skeeved out by the mysogyny of it (while understanding that a good deal of it came out of a kind of dumb (and indefensible) rage and resentment he felt towards a couple of women in particular, a rage he was deliberately trying to work through in his writing).

But the sex, and even to some extent the picaresque Parisian, proto-beat, American dropout-in-Europe thing, they didn't matter as much to me as the sheer, self-indulgent, pyrotechnical tricks he performed with language. I found the way he wrote intoxicating, and in my revisiting bits and pieces of it in the decades since, I still do. I don't think he was the towering intellect that I once did -- just, as he admitted, a voracious reader and note-taker -- but for all his glaring faults as a person, there are passages in some of his books that still thrill me, more than half a lifetime later.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:40 PM on February 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


This is the first time I have seen what has always felt like the right question about Henry Miller clearly enunciated. The first time I encountered Tropic of Cancer was in Manhattan in the mid-fifties when it was still being smuggled in from Paris and there was great peer pressure to be part of the scene and admire Henry Miller so I really tried. I couldn't say I ever liked him. The guys did, so the girls mostly smiled, as we did back then.
posted by Anitanola at 4:49 PM on February 5, 2012 [10 favorites]


Oh god we're going to have to wait until they're all dead before we can talk about anyone else, aren't we?
posted by The Whelk at 4:49 PM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


The conclusion of the article asks: Why do men revel in the degradation of women?
And doesn't the article answer its own question? It notes a few sentences earlier: "as well as hatred".

Why is a more sophisticated or complicated explanation than hatred of women needed?
posted by planet at 4:54 PM on February 5, 2012




The question is not art versus pornography or sexuality versus censorship or any question about achievement. The question is: Why do men revel in the degradation of women?

This is a fine question. I don't think it's a very helpful way to approach Henry Miller's work.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:56 PM on February 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


Miller schmiller, I've tried and I couldn't stand it. What's he even on about. Fucking...Kerouac with croissants. Henry de Montherlant is where it's at, utterly brilliant and riveting stuff.
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:03 PM on February 5, 2012


Why is a more sophisticated or complicated explanation than hatred of women needed?

I think "Men revel in the degradation of women because they hate women" kind of a circular argument. It seems to me that the phenomena of "men hating women" and "men weakening and degrading women" are twins who come from one set of parents. But it's probably just fear. Fear of the unknown, the scary wilderness, fear of our own bodies. Any time there's an unexplained behavior, it usually stems from fear of some kind. We pick on someone weaker to make ourselves feel powerful.
posted by bleep at 5:27 PM on February 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've tried with Miller in youth and middle-age, and it's clear that the one thing he hates more than people in general is women in particular. He's basically unreadable, as a result, I think. However, Winterson's concluding question is as absurd as much of Miller's writing. All dogs bark but not all men revel in the degradation of women. And Miller is hardly a central figure in Western culture, even if his pathologies are symptomatic of it. Women are degraded everywhere and men are generally agents in that degradation and some, many even, may revel in it. My sense though is that this stand would be better taken against those contemporary writers whose influence on gender dynamics is more widely, though insidiously damaging to gender dynamics. No-one cares about Henry Miller, really, and no-one reads him. Perhaps the question should be why the authors of the Harry Potter and Twilight and Hunger Games novels revel in the degradation of women. Anyway, Miller sucks.
posted by tigrefacile at 5:32 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have enjoyed Miller for almost fifty years. He was not a misogynist. He was a product of his time and culture. For all his shortcomings he had a brilliant, inventive mind. He will always have a seat at my ideal, imaginary dinner party...
posted by jim in austin at 5:37 PM on February 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


He was not a misogynist. He was a product of his time and culture.

Yeah, so is my grandpa who can't believe we elected "a colored" as president.
posted by cmoj at 5:41 PM on February 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


He was not a misogynist. He was a product of his time and culture.
These two things don't contradict each other.
posted by craichead at 5:49 PM on February 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yeah, so is my grandpa who can't believe we elected "a colored" as president.

Actually, yes. Flaws and prejudices are most clearly defined in hindsight...
posted by jim in austin at 5:49 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


In twenty, thirty years, we'll be having this same discussion on the "mystique" of Frank Miller.
posted by SPrintF at 5:54 PM on February 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


I feel like I just read Memento the essay.

Also, I want to be a priapic prophet.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:00 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can't help but think that someone who claims that Miller hated people hasn't read much of his actual work. Perhaps I am wrong.

But to choose a counterexample, The Colossus of Maroussi (which he apparently thought was his best work, and is probably the only one that, as a much older man, I still am inclined to return periodically) is luminous with his love of Greece and the people he meets there. A great deal of his later, lesser-known work, particularly his nearly-forgotten essays, once he gave up the deliberate and tedious self-mythologizing, are cut from the same cloth.

That said, though, taste is, as always, personal, and I'm not here to defend the man (far from it -- he was a reprehensible fellow in many ways, like many other authors whose work I have enjoyed) or his work (which speaks for itself, good and bad).

When I was much younger, and discovering love for the work of writers like Miller and Hunter Thompson and Kerouac and Burroughs and Bukowski, Celine and Sartre and Camus, and a whole wide swath of other 20th century authors who were not pleasant men at all, I found it very hard indeed to reconcile how much I enjoyed and felt I was learning from their work and the fact that they were, well, assholes, to one degree or another.

But I am of an age now where I have grown more comfortable with separating an appreciation for an author's work from the author him- or herself. I think it may be because I am no longer searching (actively, at least) for literary heroes or role models.

I'm sure there are many authors whose work I have loved over the years that were actually swell, likeable people.

A few, maybe.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:02 PM on February 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


Just to be clear though, the article is a critique of a Miller biography, which should in theory provide context of his life and times, for being overly fawning and ignoring the misogyny. It's not so much a critique of Miller's literature, although that critique does make an appearance.
posted by latkes at 6:15 PM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


The first time I encountered Tropic of Cancer was in Manhattan in the mid-fifties when it was still being smuggled in from Paris...

Kids these days will never know the thrill of a smuggled book. Maybe they can hack a server, but it just doesn't quite have that same tactile feel to it...
posted by ovvl at 7:07 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just to be clear though, the article is a critique of a Miller biography, which should in theory provide context of his life and times, for being overly fawning and ignoring the misogyny. It's not so much a critique of Miller's literature, although that critique does make an appearance.

Good point.

Let me expand a little on what I said above about my take on Miller's misogyny, because it's something I've thought about a fair bit over the years, trying to work out a way to personally understand it.

We've all known men who hated women, even if they didn't realize it. I've met a few over the years, myself. In almost every case, these men I've known who were quite literally misogynist, the resentment and anger and, yes, hatred they felt was born in hatred of one or more specific women -- sometimes their mother, or the first woman to 'break their hearts' -- and they weren't smart or self-aware or [something] enough to deal with their fear and anger. They generalized their hurt and insecurity, needed a target for their resentment, and ended up directing it at women in general. This is not an unusual mechanic I'm talking about, at least in people I've met, so I assume others have seen it too. I always thought of it as a kind of arresting of the maturation process, where they just couldn't seem to get to the next plateau of emotional development. About half of these guys, probably, ended up being little casanovas, expressing their hatred through promiscuity, and reinforcing the vicious cycle in their minds by thinking of and describing the women they managed to bed as whores.

I was recognizing this kind of trope in young men I knew when I was 20, and 30, and 40. It's everywhere, and horrifying, of course.

That's pretty much what I thought was happening to Miller when I first encountered him, and understood as one of the roots of his confessional (but self-mythologizing, grandiose) writing starting with the Tropics and continuing through the Rosy Crucifixion books. I think he actually knew -- as much as a man like him and a man of his time was able, without all the psychological tools and ideas we have at our disposal today to try and get to the roots of things -- what he was doing, and that he embraced it, in all its unpleasantness, in an effort to burn it out of himself. Hell, he said as much in the books themselves. I think he was hurt by women (poor little booboo), and he kindled that hurt into a blaze of resentment, confused with both love and lust, and I think his first 5 books or so were him trying to work that out in a way that had never been done before in writing (while undermining himself by turning Writer Miller into a classical hero, rather than the slightly nebbishy fellow he really was).

I don't excuse it, by any means. I think, as I have of men I've met in my actual life who are stuck in the same emotional gulag, that it's childish and lazy and destructive. But if Miller -- and other men -- did and do revel in the degradation of women, I think it is at least sometimes because in their infantile rage, women as a whole stand in for them for individual women towards whom they feel an anger they just can't let go of.

I don't know. I may give him entirely too much credit. And, as always, it's almost certainly more complicated.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:54 PM on February 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


I can't help but think that someone who claims that Miller hated people hasn't read much of his actual work. Perhaps I am wrong.

Not from my experience.

I've learned way more about love from reading Mr. Miller than sex, but granted, I haven't read much of his early stuff (neither of the Cancers). I discovered him via the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (Sexus-Plexus-Nexus) which starts out raunchy (Sexus) but then branches out in all manner of remarkable ways, first exploring the bliss of being in love (Plexus), then the abyss that appears in its wake (Nexus). The "rosy crucifixion" ends up being the realization that all emotional suffering is unnecessary, but you don't get to grasp this wisdom until you have first suffered (still one of my favorite paradoxes).

So to hear him described as a reveler in the degradation of women (or any kind of hater) just strikes me as absurd.
posted by philip-random at 8:17 PM on February 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


When Henry appeared, what was always so obvious in him was his tremendous joy in life, his humor, his enjoyment of everything, his curiosity about everything. As soon as he appeared, one felt elated by his presence.

Anais Nin on Henry Miller ...
(from this Youtube clip, which includes the two of them in discussion around the 6 minute point)
posted by philip-random at 8:24 PM on February 5, 2012


what was always so obvious in him was his tremendous joy in life, his humor, his enjoyment of everything, his curiosity about everything.

This describes well the feeling I always got from him, even in the midst of his joyful ruminations on sex and death and dirt and decay.

Some folks called him the Buddha of Brooklyn. Maybe not without reason.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:33 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


[Warning: I just watched that video for the first time -- there's a fair bit of nudity.]
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:59 PM on February 5, 2012


I scanned the first few comments on this post to decide if I wanted to read an article about the guy who designed the Aeron chair and I felt so very, very confused.
posted by telegraph at 9:15 PM on February 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


I read the Tropics and Black Spring in my 20s. Loved the language, the humor, the wildness, the joy. Most of all, loved that he referred to Wittgenstein's Tractatus in Tropic of Cancer — in 1938! That just blows my mind.
posted by stargell at 9:22 PM on February 5, 2012


I was going to say basically what stav said (except not as well, because the coffee hasn't kicked in and I have a cold). Of course people eager to reject artists because of their unacceptable views on society/sex/race/whatever will reject Miller as eagerly as they reject Ezra Pound, Céline, Hemingway, et hoc genus omne, but I feel sorry for anyone who refuses to read The Colossus of Maroussi (and stavros's luminous is the mot juste) because of Miller's attitude toward women.

> I know of more women who are fans of Miller than men.

I don't know if I'd go that far, but note that Winterson herself said "There is beauty as well as hatred in Cancer, and it deserves its place on the shelf." (Which made me take the rest of what she said more seriously; as far as I'm concerned, you have the right to criticize a writer only if you know what good writing is.)
posted by languagehat at 5:55 AM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I adore Henry Miller--like when I am asked to list my favorite writers, he's one of my top four. (Annie Dillard, Margaret Atwood, and Nelson Algren are the others, though I think Barbara Kingsolver might be edging out Annie these days.)

And I am a feminist.

I think stavrosthewonderchicken put it best. He surely has severe issues with women, but he's honest about it, I think. He is trying to confront it and all of his flaws and feelings by diving into them deeply. His writing has always inspired me with its deeply felt fire and effort. (I don't feel anywhere near the same about Kerouac, who I think has the same love for life but is laced too liberally with a naivete I find grating.)

I used to always say, when people would tell me I should read Tom Robbins (which became sort of a refrain for my friends in the 1990s, and I did try to like him, succeeding somewhat but not too much), that I couldn't bear Tom Robbins' female characters. To him, I felt, women were hyper-sexed little puppy dogs, whereas to Henry Miller, women were frightening monstrous goddess-creatures who could eat you right the hell up. He doesn't pretend to completely adore women. He doesn't pretend to understand them, even, really. He loves them and hates them and is terrified of them. So as much as Henry has his misogyny, he at least respects women for their power. I have not always felt that way about other old school male writers.
posted by RedEmma at 7:48 AM on February 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's been a long while since I've read The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (or any Miller) but from what I remember, it could have been written yesterday.
posted by Sailormom at 8:38 AM on February 6, 2012


Even at the peak of my interest in Miller (about 20 years ago), I lacked the patience for the Tropic books or the Rosy Crucifixion books, but some of the others, Money And How It Gets That Way, What Are You Going To Do About Alf?, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, The Colossus Of Maroussi, Big Sur And The Oranges Of Hieronymus Bosch, etc. still seem like minor classics. Big Sur, in particular remains a favorite; a fascinating description of the California of Jaime de Angulo, Robinson Jeffers, and John Steinbeck as it becomes the California of the Beats and Hippies. Somewhere, too, maybe it's in Henry Miller's Book of Friends, I can't remember, there's a piece about eating good bread. I recall that it was one of the best evocations of the pleasures of eating honestly-made food I'd read until then, something I'm sure would speak to today's artisanal foodies.

Kind of a shame Miller's fame is still linked to his writing about sex, because sex is the least interesting part of his work. (Though those late pictures of a tiny, wizened Miller playing ping-pong with his naked Japanese wife still make me chuckle.)
posted by octobersurprise at 10:16 AM on February 6, 2012


once he gave up the deliberate and tedious self-mythologizing

Which reminds of me of my favorite Henry Miller zing by Paul Theroux (who should know from self-mythologizing). Something like: "'You're so brilliant, Henry," 'You're so sexy, Henry,' 'You're so bad, Henry' everyone says in Miller's books, but no one ever says 'You're so full of shit, Henry.'"
posted by octobersurprise at 10:28 AM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Perhaps the question should be why the authors of the Harry Potter and Twilight and
> Hunger Games novels revel in the degradation of women.

Harry Potter is Considered Harmful now? Wowee.
posted by jfuller at 2:55 PM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Book of Friends is from the Buddha of Brooklyn period. It's actually quite beautiful, and not at all burdened with egotism.
posted by Wolof at 11:29 PM on February 6, 2012


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