Thoughts on Henry Miller and Surrealism
In the introduction to the Dada and Surrealism section of the 1968 essay anthology Theories of Modern Art, Herschel B. Chipp noted, “During the ‘thirties, Surrealism dominated poetry and painting in Europe and exerted an influence upon the work of virtually every major artist everywhere.” One example is Henry Miller, the author of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, as well as an enormous influence on the Beats, perhaps the most important group of U.S. writers to emerge since World War II. According to Miller, “Scarcely anything has been as stimulating to me as the theories and products of the Surrealists, ” and when one considers his writing in light of Breton’s 1924 “Manifesto of Surrealism,” one sees he was firmly rooted in Breton’s ideas. Miller apparently found inspiration in Breton’s notions of automatism, a form of writing Breton defined as “Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” He also shared what scholar J. H. Matthews describes as the Surrealists’ ambition:
[T]o explore reality by the best means available to them, both the outer reality of the world in which we all find ourselves and the inner reality of our relationship to that world and those we encounter there.
Miller’s starting point is always the “outer world,” defined as physical experience and/or social interaction. Apart from essays, his work consists of autobiographical narratives, compellingly written in what George Orwell described as a “flowing, swelling prose.” One of the most striking aspects of Miller’s writing, what gives it much of its expanse and lift, is his use of digression; his flights of rhetoric stick in the mind long after his books’ incidents and characters fade away. These arabesques are Miller’s ventures into automatism, and they constitute his most intense explorations of (and interactions between) his inner and outer worlds; the most sophisticated ones overwhelm the narratives that provide their springboards.
In his book-length study of Miller’s work, Kingsley Widmer calls these passages “apocalyptic essays.” He describes them as “long passages of philosophizing on metaphors [for which] many of the anecdotes simply provide an incongruous scaffolding.” In the most distinctive of these, Miller seizes on a word or phrase that he uses to anchor himself, and to which he returns again and again throughout the flow of verbiage. The technique, as Philip Rahv noted in a 1949 essay, “permits him to gain a measure of control over his swelling language.” It is also directly related to automatism. In the 1924 manifesto, Andre Breton writes that, in automatic writing:
the images appear like the only guideposts of the mind. By slow degrees the mind becomes convinced of the supreme reality of these images. At first limiting itself to submitting to them, it soon realizes that they flatter its reason, and increase its knowledge accordingly. The mind becomes aware of the limitless expanses […]. It goes forward, borne by these images which enrapture it […].
In Tropic of Cancer, the most striking of these passages appears in an episode where the narrator and his friend Van Norden indulge in a session with a prostitute. Neither man has any enthusiasm for the session as it begins. The narration seizes on a trope for their disaffection, the prostitute’s fee of fifteen francs, and, as can be seen in this excerpt, uses the phrase as a fixed point in a contemplative reverie:
No, there’s fifteen francs somewhere, which nobody gives a damn about anymore and which nobody is going to get in the end anyhow, but the fifteen francs is like the primal cause of things and rather than listen to one’s own voice, rather than walk out of the primal cause, one surrenders to the situation, one goes on butchering and butchering and the more cowardly one feels the more heroically does he behave, until a day when the bottom drops out and suddenly all the guns are silenced and the stretcher-bearers pick up the maimed and bleeding heroes and pin medals on their chest. Then one has the rest of his life to think about the fifteen francs. One hasn’t any eyes or arms or legs, but he has the consolation of dreaming for the rest of his days about the fifteen francs which everybody has forgotten.
Miller’s repetition of the phrase “fifteen francs”—it appears sixteen times over the course of the episode—is used to create an abstract verbal structure upon which he builds a discourse. The larger subject is the mechanized, dehumanizing quality of a session with a prostitute, which Miller likens to a soldier’s wartime experiences, as well as, elsewhere in the episode, the activity of a newspaper printing press. This section of the book, as Widmer writes, is a “devastating perception of modern systematic dehumanization,” an insightful portrayal of how, in modern life, “the machine goes on and on in its nightmarish logic simply because the mechanism has started, though it satisfies no one’s real desires.” Automatism, seen by Breton as a reaction to the dehumanizing tendencies of modern life, is used by Miller to provide both a doorway and scaffolding for a critique of these tendencies.
In the “fifteen francs” episode, Miller pushed automatism beyond Breton’s conception of it. He doesn’t seem to be after a synthesis of the inner and outer worlds, of the irrational and the rational; he seemingly wants to use the irrational tendencies of his psyche to mount an attack on what he perceives as his external reality. Or, more specifically, what he sees as the external reality’s oppression of himself. But whatever his motivation, his automatist technique, using random repetitions of a word or phrase to spark and unify a larger discourse, is a commonplace in his work. Elsewhere in Tropic of Cancer, the word “gold” is used to build a free-floating, light-hearted rap about the “discrepancy between ideas and living.” In “A Sunday Afternoon” (fromBlack Spring), the name of the poet Vergil and the phrase “this is better than reading Vergil” are used to punctuate a rhapsody about the enjoyment of life. In Tropic of Capricorn, Miller, in an obvious homage to another of his idols, the French novelist Marcel Proust, uses references to a slice of sour rye bread to anchor a nostalgic reverie about the narrator’s childhood. Other examples abound.
However, Miller doesn’t let the technique stagnate. The phrases and references cited in the above paragraph are used for greater and greater ironic purpose in the passages in which they appear. In Tropic of Cancer, gold, the symbol of value for civilization, is subverted into a trope for the falsification and devaluing of contemporary man’s needs and ambitions: “the gold standard in ideas, dress, morals, etc. The gold standard of love! […] my idea in collaborating with myself has been to get off the gold standard of literature.” Vergil’s name is used in “A Sunday Afternoon” to suggest the aridity of most literature as compared to life. The rye bread in Tropic of Capricorn, Miller’s trope for childhood pleasures, is revealed by the book’s larger context to be the prelude to the “ovarian trolley” that leads man into misery, affectlessness, and death.
Miller’s use of the technique reaches its apogee in a passage from Tropic of Capricorn. The catch-phrase is not just used to create a structure for discourse; nor is it just used, within the discourse, to create irony. The phrase’s repetitions provide the structure, they provide the ironies, and they function as the discourse themselves:
To walk in money through the night crowd, protected by money, lulled by money, dulled by money, the crowd itself a money, the breath money, no least single object anywhere that is not money, money, money everywhere and still not enough, and then no money or a little money or less money or more money, but money, always money, and if you have money or you don’t have money it is the money that counts, and money makes money, but what makes money make money?
The sentence’s construction is extraordinary: Miller fixes the reader’s attention on the word “money” by using it to create a rhyming effect in a succession of sentence clauses. From there, he develops it by varying the manner of a succeeding series of repetitions: “money, money, money everywhere” gives way to “no money or a little money or less money or more money,” and so on. Even if one had no idea what the words meant, the passage would still stand up as an effective piece of rhythmic writing. But knowing the words’ meaning gives the reader the added dimension of Miller’s sense of irony. The presence of money in people’s lives is supposed to give them a sense of security and protection; it is meant to be their servant. But money is insidious: it overwhelms people, ultimately defining them by its presence or lack thereof, so much so that it subsumes their individuality, their life functions—everything. Humanity’s tool has become redefined as its master, in the process becoming an abstract concept whose ways are beyond its understanding. Humanity has enslaved itself to a God of its own creation.
As noted, Miller’s digressive reaches into the subconscious seem to be a way of pitting his inner and outer worlds against each other. Automatism is not, as Breton intended, used as a bridge to create a new world; Miller sees it as the gateway to an arsenal with which he can combat the oppressions of the old within his consciousness. His target is society and its values, particularly how his failure to live up to them weighs on his mind. In the two passages discussed above, the target is society’s highest value, money. And he fights money with money; his weapons are verbal referents to their target. The “fifteen francs” does battle with the ugliness money leaves in its wake (prostitution, war, the mechanization and dehumanization of man), while “money” does battle with money itself. Miller’s imagination is the victor over his sense of inadequacy; in these two passages, money is rendered as both a source of horror and a target of ridicule.
Miller used Surrealist technique to mount an assault on the oppressions of life as experienced in his consciousness. Of course, one certainly isn’t inclined to consider this assault necessarily a practical one; Miller wasn’t a social critic looking to effect change. His goal wasn’t to analyze society’s deficiencies with an eye towards correcting them. But his effectiveness in finding a freshly pejorative view of those deficiencies is a worthwhile triumph of sorts. The greatest loss in the failure to be “good” or successful in society’s terms is the blow to self-esteem. Miller used Surrealism to locate his identity as an individual rather than as a member of society. He rose above society’s oppressions to put them in their place on the most important battleground of all: his own mind. And in doing so, he pointed the way for others (such as the Beats) to use Surrealism as a path to self-reliance. One can’t quite say that Miller left his readers with, to borrow Andre Breton’s phrase, “nothing but the marvelous,” but he certainly left them with a great deal of it.
BIOGRAPHY OF HENRY MILLER