1.) James Decker (Illinois Central College) – “The agonizing gutter of my past”: Henry Miller, Conversion, and the Trauma of the Modern
Speaking of Miller’s oeuvre, Amy M. Flaxman observes that “Miller reaches out beyond tragedy to redemption”. Flaxman further contends that Miller’s writing, which investigates emotionally contradictory impulses, “reminds us of our own humanity” and functions as a way to disrupt complacency and allow readers to “know their own capacity for love”. The absence of this capacity to love, a lack predicated on a paucity of self-awareness and a misguided sense of duty, represents for Miller the nadir of modernity and manifests itself repeatedly in his works via characters such as Van Norden, Maude, and Karen. For Miller, modernity’s emphasis on rationality and productivity tended to reduce humanity to a conformist mass in mindless pursuit of material comforts and spiritual platitudes. Instilled and enforced by stultifying institutions such as schools and churches, the concept of external obligation (and the concomitant deferral of self-fulfillment) created a psychic fissure within most individuals that resulted in profound alienation.
The Henry Miller represented in Miller’s narratives experiences such psychological trauma. Only partially aware of a gnawing emptiness in his life, Henry drifts through a series of sexual trysts, creative false starts, and petty rebellions that provide temporary diversion from his external demands but never allow him to overcome his spiritual hollowness and achieve his potential. Once Mona abandons him, however, Henry’s trauma shocks him to the core, a phenomenon that allows him to experience a conversion of the soul. Writing of the conversion tradition, Peter A. Dorsey notes that “although physical discomfort and calamity were typically received as punishments, they were also the means by which God brought about repentance—considered essential for conversion” (33). In Henry’s case, such calamity spurs on the all-night session in which he hypnotically transcribes the notes that become Miller’s ur-text and serve as the almost mystical wellspring of both his self-reflection and creative output.
Miller returns again and again to this moment of conversion, and the bulk of his writing operates as an exegesis of his awakening, the mythic genesis both of his self-acceptance and artistic voice. In telling his conversion stor(ies), he rejects the linear, eschews the rational, denies the modern. While his conversion is the “structural center” of these texts, Miller employs an alinear, spiral form that shares affinities with many pre-modern spiritual traditions as well as with those esoteric and avant-garde movements intent on exploding the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment (Dorsey 36). Mingling what Raymond White describes as residual, dominant, and emerging modes of discourse (121), Miller establishes his life and inner struggle as an exemplary one that might jar his audience out of spiritual inertia and thus start to address its own sublimated desires and, in Katy Masuga’s words, “overcome passive indifference” (4).
2.) Guy Stevenson (Goldsmiths, University of London) – Henry Miller and Morality: ‘A strongly felt hierarchy of values’
Since the 1934 publication and subsequent banning of his first novel, Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller has widely been characterized either as an immoral dilettante or an amoral iconoclast. The possibility that there might be a serious, coherent set of values behind his explicit, rebellious voice was entertained by very few of the early critics – either approving or disapproving – most tending to agree with Edmund Wilson, who called Cancer ‘the lowest book of any merit I have ever read’ or George Orwell, whose 1941 essay ‘Inside the Whale’ saw no difference between Miller the author and Miller the narrator and labeled him ‘the ordinary, non-political, non-moral, passive man.’ This paper follows on from recent studies by Caroline Blinder, James Decker, Thomas Nesbitt, Katy Masuga, Sarah Garland, Indrek Manniste that have highlighted a complex and often self-contradictory system of aesthetics and morality intriguingly connected to the dominant artistic and political innovations of the early-twentieth-century. I will outline Miller’s moral approach by engaging with the 1930s European milieu out of which Tropic of Cancer emerged; a cultural atmosphere still deeply disturbed by the Great War, the ensuing economic depression and the frightening but exhilarating rise of political and philosophical extremism. As well as the scholars mentioned above I take my lead from Ezra Pound and George Bataille, two reviewers from the thirties and forties who prospected beneath what Salman Rushdie would in 1993 dismiss as Cancer’s ‘scatological surface’ and struck upon – in Pound’s words – ‘a strongly felt hierarchy of values’. Pound and Bataille’s respective leanings towards fascism and Marxism should indicate the kinds of contradictions that will come to light.
3.) Indrek Manniste (University of Warwick) – Tropic of Cancer and Henry Miller’s Inhumanism
In only four pages in Tropic of Cancer, Miller summarises his passionate thesis of the inhuman: an antithesis to the human of the modern era. After presenting the intellectual evolution of the inhuman term, I introduce its essentially twofold nature, which Miller expressed in assigning a Beelzebub and a St. Anthony side to the inhuman artist. Then, due to the prevailing similarities, I analyse the affinity between Miller’s inhuman and Nietzsche’s Übermensch. It appears that while there are many overlapping aspects between Miller’s and Nietzsche’s concepts, the two thinkers seem to have been connected more by their respective criticism of the human and last man than by some clear-cut congruity between the philosophical tasks of the inhuman and Übermensch.
In 1935, while having drinks at Cafe Zeyer in Paris, Henry Miller, Michael Fraenkel and Alfred Perlès conceived the thousand-page correspondence that would be known as the Hamlet letters. The trio began writing near the end of the year, with Perlès eventually dropping out and the correspondence itself coming to a halt in 1938 well before the anticipated 1,000-page length. Nevertheless, the work that stands was published in 1939 and its content is singular. Though an actual exchange of private letters, Hamlet was written and designed to be published, setting it somewhat in the epistolary tradition yet peripherally, insofar as the two contributors were genuinely producing letters for one another. Using this epistolarity as a starting point, this paper assesses how Miller’s writing during the Tropic of Cancer, or Obelisk, period provides a vivid example of ‘transcendent correspondence’, the manner in which writers like Whitman and Miller communicate out of space and time with their ancestors and, perhaps more importantly, descendants. My third point is to investigate how expatriation affects community, identity and the production of art from within the context of Miller’s Cancer period in Paris.
5.) Ondřej Skovajsa (Purkyně University, Prague) Tropic of Cancer: The Word Becoming Flesh
The paper examines how Tropic of Cancer, as a textual product of modernity, strives to kill the reader’s “life-in-death”, if the reader is willing to suspend his or her hermeneutics of suspicion and approach Cancer through the hermeneutics of hunger (D. Soelle). This will be examined from the linguistic, anthropological and theological vantage point of oral theory as well as through the contribution of Marcel Jousse (1886-1961) who understood parallelism as a bodily mnemonic aid of oral cultures, embedded in the symmetrical structure of the human body, breath and walk. As I will argue, the structural parallelism in Tropic of Cancer is accompanied by the paedagogic use of obscenity, designed to make the reader laugh, feel their body, and thus “wed ideas to action”. The prevalent present tense and the strong I also strengthen the mimetic and kinetic qualities of the text. The composition of Cancer from earlier notes, letters and jottings is also in some respects analogous to the oral bard’s sewing of formulas together. Since the I has no place to “plot” the plot, the very fragmented, and formulaically repetitive text is by its very structure a critique of the novel as the “epic of the middle classes” and with its lavishness, a critique of the frugal narrative of modernity as well. The text’s critical ethos is warranted by the story of the I: after the central epiphany in a Parisian brothel, the I is “picked clean” of all self-illusions and ambitions. It dies “spiritually” and “morally”, yet the I soon abandons its hyena ethics and stands up for the downtrodden. In the last paragraphs a picture is painted and I is an artist: the writing’s “course is fixed” in a green and calm suburb of Paris, where in Whitmanesque fashion Miller’s I merges with the body of the landscape. The reader is asked to resurrect the dead, fixed words of Tropic of Cancer into body, action and vivify the relationship with themselves and the “talking landscape” (D. Abram). This “crucial” moment augurs Miller’s moving away form the modern city, towards the Collossus of Maroussi and Big Sur of Central California.
6.) Dominic Jaeckle (Goldsmiths, University of London) – Antagonizing a diurnal real in Henry Miller’s literary reflections
In an effort to define literary fiction in the nascent 21st Century, David Shields qualifies the idea of retreat as essential. Although Shield’s stance is broadly an effort to define an age cultivated by the ramifications of a technological as well as an epochal shift, this view of the “withdrawn” or “retreating” underscores a significant contest between the anecdotal and the aphoristic within the work of Henry Miller.
In Shield’s dictum, Miller is, more accurately, the essayist. He is concerned most pivotally with an explication of the interiority of the human psyche, envisioning various notions of self in a fashion that not only overwhelms his literary marginalia, it problematizes any direct classification of his fictions as, indeed, fiction. This, then, provides a significant thread between the pre-war auteur and re-evaluations of the novel’s form in the 21st Century.
Responding to these delineations, this paper will examine Miller’s conflation of the imagistic, the aphoristic and the anecdotal, in order to discern a theory of literature in Miller’s oeuvre linked to the contemporary. Looking specifically at Black Spring , I will argue that Miller acts not only as a significant conduit into the avant-garde, but as a writer who consolidated the Modernist project within our contemporary context.
7.) Sarah Garland (University of East Anglia) -‘A garbage can of a novel’: Things in Tropic of Cancer
Lawrence Durrell tells us that the published version of Tropic of Cancer came out of a colossal manuscript the photographer Brassaï referred to as a ‘garbage can’ of a novel, part narrative and part collage, which, Durrell writes, ‘could not have been less than fifteen hundred pages long’. This paper looks at the genesis of Tropic of Cancer in found objects (menus, cinema tickets, watercolours, photographs), in letters, in quotations, and in Miller’s Paris notebooks, to ask what role this aesthetic of the trace, of fragments and clippings and, even, of garbage, has in the overall voice of the novel.
This paper reads Miller’s moments of externalisation by considering his relationship with objects and others; both textual ones he has created through epistolary dialogues with correspondents like Anais Nin, Michael Frankel and Emil Schnellock, through the binding together of notebooks, and through the drafting of the novels, and the traces of material ones he incorporates into those forms. One way of reading Tropic of Cancer, this paper argues, is to take seriously that moment in the book where Miller talks about ‘collaborating with himself’ and to look at the material production of the novel as both a translation of and a phenomenological trace of where Miller encounters the world of Paris, and of other writers, as both radically and excitingly other and yet also as lost and reclaimed fragments of his self. The aim of this investigation is to produce a reading of Miller’s exuberant and visceral literary voice in the Paris years that places him back into dialogue with other people and with found objects, and that takes account of the uses he makes of, and the transformations he effects upon, the material world.
8.) Magnus Toren (The Henry Miller Memorial Libarary, Big Sur)
Miller’s good friend Emil White opened up his own home on the Big Sur coast to be a memorial to his friend Henry in 1981. Since 1993 I have been the Director. Though Miller outwardly disapproved of memorials, he was also a voracious and exuberant supporter of the arts, and I believe that as the “beating cultural heart of Big Sur,” the Library reflects this enthusiasm in a way that Henry would wholeheartedly embrace.
I will talk about the extraordinary people who have stopped by, from the disciples from Europe who’ve come to kiss the floor and give thanks, to his most bitter detractors. I will give a brief description of some of Miller’s life on the coast in Big Sur drawing from interviews of the people who knew Henry Miller. My ambition is to complement the symposium’s academic insights with entertaining and uplifting testimonials about the ‘living’ Henry Miller, eighty years hence in 2014. (I also may even sing a song!).
9.) Caroline Blinder (Goldsmiths, University of London) – The American in Paris: Regurgitation, Ejaculation and other Writerly Fantasies in Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon 1994
Roman Polanski’s 1994 film Bitter Moon, starring Peter Coyote as Oscar – the expat American author whose love affair with the considerably younger Mimi (played by Mrs. Polanski, Emmanuelle Seigner) goes horribly wrong – has been alternatively critiqued as a sophomoric fantasy of male misogyny or one of Polanski’s best films. A debauched saga of amour fou, the film is both haunted and inspired by the figure of Henry Miller, as Oscar – a bon vivant with a trust fund and literary aspirations – surrounds himself with images of Miller on his walls and an incessant drive to sample all that Paris has to offer, particularly women. At first glance, the alignment between Oscar/Polanski/Miller seems like a rather crass shortcut, designed to establish the film’s territory as a Parisian hunting ground replete with illuminated Eiffel Tower and cobbled streets. Nonetheless, with a significant part of the plot taking place on a cruise ship, as a now paraplegic Oscar narrates his story to an uptight Englishman, the plot seems to remind us that not only do narrative and sexual ambitions go hand in hand, the combination of the them is lethal.
This paper, rather than reframe the question of misogyny in the respective works of Polanski and Miller, thus offers up the possibility that Polanski’s seemingly crude story of lust, incorporates a more complex re-imagining of narrative digression as a form of literary as much as physical foreplay. Told in a series of flashbacks, Oscar’s account of his sexual exploits – as in Tropic of Cancer – display a knowingness of textual strategies that belie the many clichés concerning what it means to be a writer, an American, and perhaps most surprisingly a woman. Rather than argue that Polanski and Miller simply share a common form of marginalization in the public perception, this paper will argue that sex in Bitter Moon, through the lens of a Millerian aesthetic, becomes the downfall of the Bourgeoisie as well as the downfall of its perpetual observer, the American in Paris.