Henry Miller: Libertine, Communard

Henry Miller is a strange character in modern literature: both more and less popular than he seems. At first ignored, then outlawed, then celebrated, then forgotten, then remembered. He seems universally known, almost old hat, and yet he still has not been accepted by the academy. Not obscure enough to appeal to the avant garde. And so here he is, standing alone, first in Brooklyn, then in Paris, then in Big Sur, trying to do the impossible and create a community of the individuated, anarchic, and autonomous. Influenced by psychoanalysis and theosophy, yet trying to move beyond them, he finally succeeds in this dream. Free associating, demolishing the Other, and writing himself into existence, as an offering to the community with nothing in common. A dream from the unconscious. A message to the future. Henry Miller: Libertine, Communard.

At the age of nearly 40 he was washed up. He considered himself a failure. He wanted to be a writer but had written and published almost nothing. He was married with a job (at the telegram message delivery service of all things) and had lived his life in New York. He felt paralyzed, suffocated. He was, as Lacan would say, between two deaths. And then something happened. He did the impossible. He left his wife, his job, his home, his country, and began again. He risked everything stable in his life and went to Paris to live and to write. He lived on the streets and at the mercy of friends and strangers, not afraid to beg, borrow, and steal.

“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

He gave up the novelistic style with its artificial characters and began to write in a style of free association, blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, autobiography and story, narrative and theory. He was no genre. He was a writer.

But more than that his writing was the writing of the lived being. Being becoming. Being there. Existence. In order to do this he could no longer work at his job and his marriage by day and construct another life at his typewriter by night. He had to shed it all to start again.

Similarly he could no longer separate writing and speech. He did not invent dialogue while writing narration from the point of the master. He wrote in a dialectical and polyphonic style with no center. His writing is thus a speech and an act: a speech act.

In the case of Miller we are not dealing with the avoidance of psychosis as in Joyce by means of re-knotting the three dimensions of the real, imaginary, and symbolic. In fact we are dealing with the unknotting and re-knotting of the neurotic. Miller’s letters are not carefully constructed mathematical puns but freewheeling enactments allowing the drive to return where there was nothing but a dead language. There is – as in Nietzsche – creative destruction. Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” is a Grundrisse – a groundwork. A prolegomena to any future writing. An uncensored free association that unleashes inhibitions, symptoms, and anxieties. On the streets of Paris Miller lived subjective destitution with one thing left: writing. And the “Tropic of Cancer” is the stellar navigation by which he re-orients his journey. For himself and his fellow man in modernity where “god is dead.”