24.1.13

Tropic of Cancer

I started reading Sexual Politics straight after finishing Tropic of Cancer, and immediately skipped forward to the chapter on Henry Miller. I had been ready to look past his objectionable attitude towards women because it was bound up with an objectionable attitude to pretty much everything. Miller's whole project seemed to be about detailing the rank corruption of a twilight zone at the end of all things, from a perspective embedded in, and participating in, that corruption. Miller is describing a civilization eaten away by cancer (hence the title), the hero an embodiment of Nietzsche's brutal individualist master-race. There is a kind of ironic distance between the reader and the protagonist – an 'artist' living a life uninhibited by conventional morality, alluring but repulsive. Van Norden is a caricature aimed to show this up, referring to all women as "cunts" and at one point hysterically exclaiming, "can you imagine what she'd be like if she had any feelings?" Are we supposed to take that at face value, actually ADMIRE this collection of sad, wandering, expat freaks?

Millet doesn't spend much of her time on these ironies and ambivalences, although her discussion of Miller ranges across his entire output, which is far more distasteful and provides much more to disapprove of. It looks to me like after the success (or notoriety) Tropic of Cancer achieved, Miller couldn't help himself and kept producing cruder and cruder variations of the same book. But Millet's most interesting criticism, which applies to everything Miller wrote, is that EVEN IF he was out to cause outrage, that very act nevertheless reinforces anti-female (and anti-human) attitudes. Miller is actually DEPENDENT on the conservative sexual mores he flouts, since that is how he achieves his effects. By exposing the hypocrisy of Victorian politeness, he underlines the 'fact' that there is no possibility for harmony or equality between the sexes.

But SHOULD we take that reading at face value? Once again I think back to Ellen Willis's point about art which is "antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman", but can support your "struggle for liberation". Aggressive exclamations of THIS IS ME I EXIST can have a profound impact whatever their content. Miller's happens to be at a time at the cusp of modernity, where writers and thinkers are adjusting to a life without the certainties of a religious ethic:

"I have found God, but he is insufficient. I am only spiritually dead. Physically I am alive. Morally I am free. The world which I have departed is a menagerie. The dawn is breaking on a new world, a jungle world in which lean spirits roam with sharp claws. If a am a hyena I am a lean and hungry one: I go forth to fatten myself."

Reading Lovecraft for the first time last year, I've become increasingly interested in this collection of writers at the turn of the 20th century dealing with the collapse of a Christian culture, and turning to Nietzsche in order to build out from that ground zero: either exhaling the triumph of the individual, or reveling in the empty meaninglessness of our reality.

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