5 APRIL 1963, Page 21


Benevolent Faun

BY COLIN MacINNES LAST summer at the Writers' Congress in Edinburgh, where we all made fools of our- selves to the delectation of the multitudes, Mr. Henry Miller was with difficulty coaxed towards the microphone. 'What are we all doing here?' he asked of the alarmed McEwan Hall. 'We Should all be out watching dancing, or paintings, or looking at pretty girls. And what's the use Of talking about the novel, anyway? It's been dead for thirty years.' That is about the life span of Tropic of Cancer,* and in its opening pages Henry Miller had already announced the credo he repeated Publicly last year:

There arc no more books to be written, thank God. But insofar as they can be, There is only one thing which interests me vitally now, and that is the recording of all that which is omitted in books.

Since then Henry Miller has written a dozen °r so of non-books, all of increasing excellence, and hundreds of thousands of words about 'what is omitted in books'; and since he has unques- tiUnablY become a major writer, he forces us to examine what his non-novels are, and the usually neglected areas of human experience he has described. To begin with, the chief personage of all Henry Miller's books is Henry Miller, and his surrounding characters real persons whose iden- tities are but thinly disguised. Mr. Miller, his oWn non-hero, reveals himself as a battered faun, a_ crafty innocent, a lonely, lazy, sometimes fear- ful, always steadfast, worshipper of life however dreadful or however gay. He is obsessed with everything about himself, including all those asPeets of the homme moyen sensuel that most of us are, and desperately pretend not to be. His determination not to keep up appearances is absolute.

His chief virtues—or non-sins—are his utter ae.eeptance of life's conditions, however blank; , total refusal to be self-deceived; his positive

-ifresigned—recognition of the unsystematic uu,. tiny of all his fellow creatures. He loves and LesPects the good things of the world (food even u)lre than sex, kindness even more than talent), and is immensely courageous in confronting his anguish. He achieves dignity by acknow- ,.:Itng without reserve his own indignity. If sought one word best to evoke Mr. Miller's 7enry Miller, one would be forced to say, ,u,_esPite all hostile evidence he himself advances, '41at this glorious layabout is benevolent. wh/iks to 'all the things omitted in books,' about eh Henry Miller has now written reams, these ,-,Alder *-raorac 25 OF CANCER. By Henry Miller. (John Calder 25 --

turn out to be chiefly the commonplace of human existence. Not for Mr. Miller the god-like in us, nor even the particularly depraved: in his pages we are caught blowing our noses, scrounging ill-cooked meals, or failing to make it adequately with a woman we don't particularly want any- way. It is the immense ordinariness of nine- tenths of the lives of most of us that his writing celebrates and, by his art, makes to seem extra- ordinary.

For these purposes, in Tropic of Cancer, he selects characters and a decor that almost prove his point before he has begun to make it. These are the no-man's-land of rootless cosmopolitan Paris, and the purposeful human driftwood that washed itself up there in the 1930s. Except for the odd whore, and on excursions to Dijon and Le Havre (both brilliantly described), it is re- markable how few French men and women appear in Mr. Miller's account of the French capital. On a backcloth of poverty, illness, pre- carious odd jobs, bug-ridden lodgings, cold nights in the streets, and touristic cafes with no money for the bill, we meet Van Norden (and his fan- tastic monologues), Fillmore, Carl and the Hindu Nahantatee far more than Ginette or Yvette. These are the displaced persons of the urban mass, characteristic of the modern world by their utter failure to belong, characteristically, to any one place or culture.

The renowned sexual passages of Cancer will be a disappointment to lovers of the erotic. For Henry Miller (of the book, if not reality), sex is ludicrous or sad : never beautiful or just plain fun. In view, of all the high-sounding nonsense written on this theme, the deflation is salutary, though it ends up by becoming just as monotonous. In his deflowering of sex, one feels Henry Miller is, like D. H. Lawrence, a victim of the Anglo-Saxon puritan inhibition. Lawrence, to escape his sense of guilt, tried to make sex an unconvincing cult of wonder; Henry Miller seeks to mock it or debase it. Neither writer knows how to leave the theme alone to speak, so to say, for its own splendid self. Says Henry Miller:

Going back in a flash over the women I've known. It's like a chain which I've forged out of my own misery.

But he also admits: I'm a bit retarded, like most Americans.

Stated baldly thus, Henry Miller's talent may not yet seem the rare wonderful thing it is. One has, indeed, in order to evoke its glory, first to deny his own trenchant aphorisms about it : It is the triumph of the individual over art.

Or. We have no need for genius—genius is dead. We have need for strong hands, for spirits who

are willing to give up the ghost and put on flesh. . . .

The end of that second epigram gives us the clue to what is positive in Miller's art—which others phrases of his will amplify: Everything interests me profoundly. Even t rifles.

One must burrow into life again in order to put on flesh.

Art consists in going the full length.

The fact is, Henry Miller .dons his sackcloth and descends into a terrestrial purgatory so as to divest himself of illusion and surface with a positive statement of man's potentiality and destiny. What he is really talking about, amid the squalor and defeats of Paris in the Thirties, is the painful means of achieving total self-know- ledge and thus a conditional freedom. And what strikes me most, re-reading Cancer after thirty years, is that it is a great prophetic book : a warning of what deadens life, an affirmation that it can yet be lived, though with extreme diffi- culty in an age whose sterile non-cultures seek to thwart all mainsprings of fertility.

Mr. Miller, the 'non-artist,' is also, of course, a consummate rhetorical—and, at times, realistic —stylist. His self-critical sense is erratic, so that reading him is like viewing superb landscapes from a road interspersed by tunnels: six pages of longueurs, and suddenly, as if he is possessed, come twelve of dazzling wit, ecstatic eloquence and practical humanity. In subsequent books, on France, Greece and on America, the radical prophet has not lost his compulsive fire, but the benevolent sage shows an increasingly benign countenance. (Though somehow England has escaped this benison: please read his devastating Dieppe-Newhaven for an embarrassed shudder.) Wherever he travels, he remains irrevocably prisoner of America: even Tropic of Cancer is more about the American soul than seedy bohemian Paris; and the book ends, charac- teristically, with some home thoughts from abroad—but with the greater thought that he will try to become the fine artist that he has.

I end with two reflections not usually appro- priate to a book review, but which I think the tardy publication of this volume in our country makes legitimate. The first is that in 1963, an English critic is bound to write of Tropic of Cancer with a certain touch of fatigue. This is not because it has lost its excellence or greatly 'dated,' but because one cannot now recapture the impression it made thirty years ago (for a contemporary evaluation, see Orwell's Inside the Whale of 1940). We all should have been able to read this book in its right time; but thanks —or no thanks—to the juvenile censorship of our nation, we had to introduce it surrep- titiously to our shores like schoolboys, while those who could not do this were deprived of one of the key books to understanding their era. Even today, we are almost the last civilised people to publish a volume long known to every- one in the literate world.

My other thought is that Henry Miller, as an artist (or non-artist—anyway, writer), is an example to us all. For twenty years he lived in appalling material conditions to discover his own truth, and he endured obloquy and denigra- tion from the ignorant or condescending. His repute is now well into harbour because life has caught up with art, and new generations see the value of his prophecies. Yet though now laurelled, he remains a presence challenging and unpredictable: he refused to make a deal with time half a century ago, and time, which can be cruel has been to him, as she can be to the valiant, kind.