Henry Miller and The Pull of Gravity


by Sam Bluefarb (November 2010)

“No matter what a writer says or doesn’t say, he cannot help having political alignments.” 

-Walter Lowenfels, friend of Henry Miller during the Paris years 


Henry Miller has long been admired for his fearless honesty and passionate iconoclasm. He is still so regarded by many of his admirers. However, in an earlier time he was dismissed as a “pornographer” and a hack of little importance. Indeed, The Tropic of Cancer (1934), held to be his best work, was deemed so scabrous in its uninhibited use of four-letter words and graphic sex that for many years it was banned in England and America. Early on, though, such reputable figures as George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and T.S. Eliot, recognized Miller as an important new voice. But that is now a familiar story and it has tended to gloss over a side to him that has either gone unnoticed or been deliberately avoided-his affinity for a Left that has seen America as the quintessence of wickedness.

Although Miller never took left utopianism seriously, he shared its antipathies: America’s exploitative “system,” its obsessive use of military power, its crass materialism, its arrogance, and in recent years its “imperialistic” reach. Those in themselves didn’t pull him leftward, for he was never entirely free of certain of its idiosyncrasies, as we shall see. According to Wikipedia.org–not always a reliable source–in his youth, he was “active with” the Socialist Party. That may be apocryphal and doesn’t sound like him; though Robert Ferguson, in his Henry Miller: A Life (1991) mentions a brief flirtation with Christian Socialism. What can’t be gainsaid, however, is that, in 1913, at age 22, he underwent an epiphany: he met Emma Goldman. This encounter with the celebrated anarchist would have a profound effect on him and color his views for the rest of his life.

Given the favorable opinion of those early critics of his literary gifts, it is hard to imagine them feeling the same way about his “serious” writings: on war, on society, on the entire jumble of half-formed ideas that made up his “philosophy.” After his decades-long reputation as a pioneer of a new kind of autobiographical novel and a spirit free of conventional prejudices and political sympathies, it’s now time to look at Henry Miller the thinker.

“Guilt by association.” Those words evoke the Cold War and the anti-communist fears of those years. Usually such association implies not only propinquity but a sharing of sympathies. Miller, of course, never had any sympathy for communism. And as far as we know, he never associated with communists-except in his Paris years when he shared quarters with Walter Lowenfels, a life-long communist. That could be seen as an isolated instance. But then, how could a free spirit like Miller, a despiser of a tyrannical state, have remained pals for so long with an unrepentant Stalinist who saw Soviet totalitarianism as the fulfillment of the socialist dream? That could be shrugged off with: “That’s how Henry is. . .he loved everyone. . . .” But that prompts the question: Had Miller ever discussed the brutal nature of the Soviet regime with his friend who supported it? Jim Burns, author of Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals (2000) tells it this way:

Although Lowenfels doesn’t seem to have been active as a writer or editor for the communist press after 1954[,] he remained a Party member, despite the Khrushchev revelations about Stalin, the suppression of the Hungarian uprising, and other matters which caused many members to quit. (Italics added)

Lowenfels’ identification with the communist movement never seemed to bother Miller, and he continued to associate with him without ever having felt the need to question his views on communism or the ruthlessness of the Soviet state. According to Burns, “[B]y the early-1930s [Lowenfels]. . . started to read Marx and his friendship with Miller began to weaken.

Miller being Miller, it’s quite likely that loyalty to a friend-a characteristic trait of his–over-rode any dim views he might have had of communism or its works.

*          *          *

One can be critical of one’s native land, and from time to time such criticism is called for. But when the blame becomes chronic, not directed at any one or two failings but at a country’s culture, its history, its way of life, its people, indeed, the entire American enterprise, then it’s not unreasonable to suppose that Miller not only disliked his native land-to put it charitably-but hated it. Further, it’s not at all surprising that he should be so popular in France, not just for his love of all things French, but for his denigration of America. 

Others have leveled fire at the excesses of their country-Walt Whitman at the “depravity of the business classes” (Democratic VistasWalden)–but they aimed their fire at specific targets-greed and the despoliation of nature (Thoreau); the degradation of the democratic ideal (Whitman and Henry Adams). In his collection of essays in The Cosmological Eye (1939), Miller not only directed his rage at America’s sins-its materialism; its crassness; its philistinism-but at its visible symbol-its skyscrapers!

Nothing [sic] here has value or durability, not even the skyscrapers. Sooner or later everything gets scrapped.

“. . .even the skyscrapers”? How bitterly ironic those words in the face of 9/11! Those who flew planes into the Twin Towers also saw skyscrapers as America’s visible symbols. Had Miller been alive to witness the carnage, how might he have reacted? Would he have joined the America-hating vultures who gleefully crowed, “We had it coming!”? Or would he have directed his outrage at the murderers who had snuffed out the lives of some three-thousand sentient human beings? Perhaps unfair questions; I doubt that Miller, notwithstanding his life-long grudge against America, would have justified such an act. Here is another passage from The Cosmological Eye:

Until this colossal, senseless machine which we have made of America is smashed and scrapped there can be no hope.

Since that collection of essays was published in 1939, one might excuse such an outburst. But even after the Holocaust, after Pol Pot’s killing fields, after the murder of millions by Communist China –estimates range between 30,000,000 to 70,000,000 since 1949; 20,000,000 in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s dictatorship-Where is the comparable outrage for those truly worthy of it? In all of my readings of Miller, I have yet to run across the word “genocide.” (The deliberate and systematic extermination of entire national, racial or religious groups). That may be unfair (to Miller), for those histrionics aimed at his country were made before the Nuremberg Trials, before the jurist Raphael Lemkin had coined the word in 1943. But then Miller’s war with America antedated the larger war.     

But for all the bile leveled at America, for all his nostalgia for France, in the end he returned to his native land, not in his last ailing days, but when he was at the height of his physical and mental powers. Perhaps by then he had mellowed and all of the bitterness at the “air-conditioned nightmare” had dissipated. Perhaps. But what is there to suggest that he had undergone such a change?

Like so many on the Left-although in fairness, Miller never identified himself as a member of the left–he suffered from a misplaced compassion. One iconic victim-figure whom Miller saw as deserving his sympathy was Bud Clausen, an ex-convict.
[*] Clausen had served time for murder and Miller had run into him, as he had so many other odd-balls and eccentrics on his “nightmare” trip across America.  In the chapter “The Soul of Anesthesia,” included in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), Miller says:

Bud was not a heartless killer. He did his best not to kill, if I am to believe his story [italics added]. He was weak and vain-like most of us. He had done a bit of thieving first, not anything however to compare with the operations of our illustrious industrial magnates, our bankers, politicians, and colonial exploiters.

“He did his best not to kill,” implies that in spite of “his best” efforts (not to kill), he was impelled to kill-or, more precisely, to murder. But like a good defense attorney, Miller mitigates the crime: Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner: Clausen killed in “self-defense,” a tired legal ploy and a perfect example of an inversion of values: the killer kills reluctantly  (“He did his best not to kill.”). Then he is favorably contrasted with a prison guard (unfavorably), who is the embodiment of the evil “soul of anaesthesia:” 

[The guard is] a man, and I say it calmly and soberly, whom I could kill in cold blood. I could shoot him down. . .as if I had just brushed a mosquito off my arm. . . . He was a killer, a man who hunts down human prey-and accepts money for it. . . . I hate him and all that he stands for. I hate him with an undying hatred. . . . Law and order! . . [W]hen you see it staring at you through the barrel of a rifle, you know what it means.”

Is that a harmless blowing off of steam? A murderous fantasy summoned up to assuage some deep-seated frustrations? I suspect this is largely rhetorical overkill (pun unintended); but even when Miller launched such an outburst, he had no personal knowledge of the man he was demonizing. Could he have ever found it in himself to see the guard as a human being doing a thankless job? A man who was a husband and a father with a wife and kids? This is where (leftist?) values already decided the issue: the guard becomes a symbol of the hated system, an early example of moral equivalence we would see more of during the Cold War. i.e., America is as culpable in its aggression as communist Russia. Worse, since Clausen killed “only reluctantly,” whereas the prison guard accepted money for it, the guard becomes the metonymy for all mercenary evil. 

Today, this antipathy for cops on the beat, jailhouse guards, prosecutors, judges-the entire law enforcement establishment–has filtered down to become the b?te-noir of the over-enthusiastic ACLU. Thus convicts are “misunderstood,” are mentally sick, need treatment and/or “rehabilitation.” Prison guards are cruel mercenaries, while the criminal, is a victim of “the system,” ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
Clausen goes on to tell Miller what it means to be in prison, separated from the woman he “loves”:

In one prison–[Miller tells us…(Has he been in more than one?} ] –Clausen fell in love with a woman who was also an inmate. They were never able to speak to one another, never able to touch finger-tips even. Now and then a note was smuggled through. For five years it went on. The woman had killed her children with an axe-that was her crime. She was a beautiful woman with a soul. It was not she who slew the children, but the sharp blade of the axe. . . .What a wild, hopeless, tormenting agony love can be under such circumstances.”

The whole passage reads like a macabre, surrealist joke. Be that as it may, let’s extract two short segments:

“That was her crime.”

Its subtext: An understandable act committed in an impulsive moment-you call that a crime! 

“It was not she who slew the children, but the sharp blade of the axe. . . .”

Short of a plea of insanity-Miller never introduces that as a defense-the axe is simply a lethal extension of a robot without free will. It was not she who committed the act, but a disembodied axe; not Clausen who killed a man in cold blood. The tip-off here is that Clausen showed not a scintilla of remorse for his act. Even cold-blooded murderers will occasionally utter an apology to the victim’s family moments before an execution.

Miller’s misplaced compassion is nowadays repeated on an ever-growing scale by the candlelit crowds outside jails on the eve of an execution. Apart from those who object to capital punishment on religious grounds, these are invariably persons who identify with left-wing causes (“Free Mumia!”). Even if the condemned man is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the guilt is not his but that of the society that formed him–abusive parents, the wrong company, racism, (Mumia Abu Jamal). By extension, we must understand the “desperation” of the Palestinian suicide-murderer who blows himself up in a crowd.

The late Norman Mailer had a chummy relationship with Jack Abbot, a jail-house author like Mumia. Abbott was already serving time for the murder of a fellow inmate; but in 1981, following a long exchange of letters with Mailer, the distinguished author, impressed by Abbott’s literary abilities, helped gain his release on parole, much against the misgivings of prison psychiatrists and officials. Mailer argued that Abbott should be given another chance so that he could fulfill his potential as a writer and thus transform himself from a social misfit into a social asset. Six weeks later, after an altercation with David Adan, a young waiter, Abbott stabbed him to death. He was caught, convicted of manslaughter, and given fifteen years. Eventually, he committed suicide. Once, when a reporter asked Mailer whether he had second thoughts about helping to put Abbott back on the street, the author, with a shrug of cavalier insouciance, responded: “culture’s worth a little risk.”–an embarrassment he later apologized for.

The indefatigable Susan Sarandon was another celebrity whose impassioned support for Jack Abbott matched Norman Mailer’s. It exhibited itself by her assiduous attendance at Abbott’s trial. She and her common-law husband Tim Robbins named their son-Jack Henry Robbins–after the murderer. Note: Mailer, Sarandon, Abbott were all leftists. Indeed, like converts who find God in jail, Abbott, after reading the works of Karl Marx, became a convert to Marxism, Not surprisingly he placed the blame for his plight on society.

Miller was a literary hero for Norman Mailer-“One has to take the English language back to Marlow or Shakespeare before encountering a wealth of [Miller’s] imagery equal [to theirs]. . .”–so there is no surprise that Mailer and Miller shared that topsy-turvy perception of who was the victim, who the predator.

After an absence of four years-1930-1934–Miller returned to America from Paris for a brief stay. The three-months sojourn and the return to France resulted in a long, disjointed letter to his friend Alfred Perl?s. In it he gave his impressions of America, especially of New York, the city of his birth; the letter was later published as Aller Retour New York (1935), a segment of which was included in The Cosmological Eye. Perl?s called it “an indictment of the American way of life;” it would anticipate the bilious Air-Conditioned Nightmare, though lacking that work’s biting satire:

I thought, as we pulled into the harbor, that the sight of the skyline would have its effect on me. After all, I was born here, right close to the river, and I grew up in this changing skyline. I had a right to expect some little thrill, some pull, some vestige of lost emotions. But no, I saw [that skyline] just as I have always seen [it] in the past-with a sinking heart.  

One can understand such embittered sentiments, given Miller’s memories of the harsh life of his early years. But what a contrast to those millions who saw in that skyline a land filled with hope and freedom! For them, Emma Lazarus’s lines, “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . . .” within the Statue of Liberty, were not empty words; they expressed the yearnings of millions who fled persecution and death.

*          *          *

There is a seamlessness between Henry Miller’s antipathy for America and his pacifism, passionately demonstrated in his anti-war screed, “Murder the Murderer-1941, 1944,” later included in Remember to Remember (1947).In going back after so many decades to that “Excursus on War”–I was twenty-six when I first read it–I am amazed how readily I accepted his most hyperbolic charges aimed at America then at war. For some 90 pages of about 35,000 words, the size of a small book, there are scores, if not hundreds, of passages that cry out for responses, but they are so numerous, so reckless, so embarrassing in their exaggeration, that it would take another  90 pages to respond to each. But here are a few, typical examples:


“The moment war is declared it is impossible to dissent.”

That was more the case in World War II than in World War I and certainly not the Vietnam War. When America entered the First World War in April, 1917, scores of anti-war groups went into action; some were religious pacifists; others like the Socialist Party and the IWW were political. As American casualties mounted, The People’s Council of America held an anti-conscription rally in Madison Square Garden; it drew some 20,000 protesters. (“impossible to dissent”?) In 1918, Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs agitated against the war and was convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917. He went to jail in 1919, ran for President while in jail, and received almost one million votes. (He did not serve out his ten-year sentence, but his time was commuted by President Harding in 1921.) 

Emma Goldman and Charles Schenk were also convicted under the same Act–in Goldman’s case for founding the No Conscription League whose aim was to hamstring the application of the Selective Service Act of 1917 (the draft). Charles Schenk, like Goldman, was arrested under the provisions of the Espionage Act and charged with distributing flyers to draft-age men; these bore detailed instructions on how to avoid the draft. While Goldman, Schenk, and Debs were high-profile cases that drew attention, it needs to be conceded that there was an over-zealousness to prosecute anti-war activists whose convictions would not have passed legal muster today. Miller’s claim that, once war is declared, dissent “is impossible” is belied by the many anti-war groups and individuals who spoke out against the war. Had the government attempted to prosecute every single protester, there would not have been enough jails to accommodate them. And, besides, cases like Schenk’s and Goldman’s were (unsuccessfully) appealed, all the way up to the Supreme Court.           

In the Second World War, there was scattered opposition from communists (until Germany invaded Russia), the American Friends Service Committee, and isolationists on the Right like Charles Lindbergh and Senator Robert Taft. But with the attack on Pearl Harbor, the nation, now conscious of the greater threat, overwhelmingly united behind the war effort.
During the war, the relocation of Japanese-Americans (Nisei) was a dark chapter, not because they opposed the war, but because of the erroneous perception, long corrected and apologized for, that they were a threat to national security. Indeed, many young Japanese-Americans volunteered and served with honor in Italy and Southern France during World War II. (The 442nd Infantry became the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the United States Armed Forces.)     

Miller again:

We know from previous experience that all [sic] the nations now engaged in this [Second World] [W]ar will emerge from it defeated.

What “previous experience?” He was obviously alluding to the First World War and the harsh Versailles Treaty which ineluctably led to the Second. And while wars do not usually settle anything in perpetuity, in most wars-barring stalemates and the long-lasting Arab-Israeli conflict-there is usually a side that prevails and a side that doesn’t. Miller’s prediction–that “all the nations now engaged in this war will emerge from it defeated”–now looks foolish in the light of events that Henry Miller lived to see: the Allies victorious and his beloved Paris liberated!

He then proceeds to make an even more preposterous observation:

However much we may detest the German way of life, as exemplified by the Nazi regime, [italics added] we cannot in all honesty pretend that ours is the only true way of civilization.

No, ours may not be “the only true way of civilization”-which civilization is?-but to imply that the difference between America and Nazi barbarism is a matter of taste undercuts whatever credibility Miller may have had in other areas involving moral judgments; it anticipates the morally neutral, post-modernist view that no culture is any better or worse than any other.

And again:

People often say. . . what would you do if you were obliged to live under Nazi rule? Frankly, I don’t know at this moment. . . . I don’t believe in crossing bridges beforehand. But there is one thing I do know. . .and that is I am not terrified of the idea. Some say. . .that you would never be allowed to write as you do if you were living under a Nazi regime. No doubt I wouldn’t. But then neither am I allowed to write such books in England and America.

But of course he would have been able to write such books: he just couldn’t publish them. O tempora! O mores! With time, attitudes change, That is not to say that the court battles Miller fought-as did James Joyce-were not necessary and not without merit. But the banned novels were eventually unbanned, to the advantage of Miller’s fame and fortune. And further, the claim that his fate under the Nazis would have been no different from how his life turned out to be in America begs a question that answers itself. Had he been a Jew, then having his work banned in Nazi Germany would have been the least of his problems.
Between Russia and America, Henry Miller felt himself to be au- dessus de la bataille, above the battle. He damned communist Russia equally with capitalist America. But which side evokes in him the greater sympathy, if not support? The following could have been penned by any columnist for The Daily Worker, when the U.S. had yet to recognize the Soviet government (as it did in 1933):

We refused for years to recognize the one government which had taken the lesson of the [First World War] to heart and was endeavoring to bring about a more intelligent and equitable order of human society.

This, about a regime that had never been free of repression and terror. Even Miller’s idol, Emma Goldman, in her two years in Russia (1919-1921), came to see the Bolshevik state as worse than the hated Tsarist order it had come to replace. And when her high hopes for a free society had not come to pass, she and her companion, Alexander Berkman, left Russia, seriously disillusioned.

After suffering grievous losses in the First World War, and having “taken the lesson of the war to heart,” Russia sued for peace. With her soldiers and civilians dying by the hundreds of thousands-estimated total by November 1917, when Russia left the war, close to four million–with whole divisions short of weapons and lacking even the ammunition to load them with, Russia quit. But to state that she was “the one government which had taken the lesson [of the war] to heart and was endeavoring to bring about a more intelligent and equitable order of human society” (italics added) demonstrates a naivet? that can only be matched by Russia’s starry-eyed communist supporters. Thus the cognitive dissonance between Miller’s “realistic” anti-America iconoclasm and his rosy view of the Soviet state.

As a rebel and a free spirit, one would have thought that he might have supported such courageous Russian dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyovsky, Yuli Daniel, Natan Sharansky, and Andrei Sakharov to name a few. But after thousands of dissidents were exiled, shot, and starved in slave labor camps, their identities turned into non-persons-all of which Henry Miller had witnessed in his own lifetime!–there was not one word of outrage, no murmur of protest. If there was, it remained muted, drowned out by the greater decibel level of his anti-American rage. It would be voices like those of Whittaker Chambers, Milovan Djilas, Arthur Koestler, Walter Krivitsky, and George Orwell early on in Spain, to reveal to the world the nature of that “intelligent and equitable order of human society.”

The banning of Miller’s early work was a mixed blessing-for him–for it eventually brought him the notoriety that led to his world-wide recognition. But what is the banning of a book compared to the hellish experiences of those Russian dissidents who suffered jail, labor camps, exile, so many of whom disappeared, never to be heard from again. Banned books are eventually unbanned, as Miller learned when he lived to enjoy the acclaim due an important literary hero, even one deserving the Nobel Prize, though, unfairly, he was never honored with it. Today, Miller is lionized and looked up to, le grand iconoclast sans peur, no longer the obscure “pornographer.” The irony is that it was in America, in his last years, that he finally enjoyed the celebrity denied him in his Paris years!

*          *          *
The over-all premise of “Murder the Murderer” is that before human beings can destroy the impulse to murder others, they must first destroy that impulse within themselves. That’s a kind of metaphor for Miller’s pacifism. But If Miller was a pacifist, then what follows is an example of pacifism collapsing into idiocy. In this passage, Miller makes a preposterous proposal, hard to believe he seriously advanced it during the war years, much less today when we have the advantage of 20/20 hindsight:

The surest way to defeat Hitler would, in my opinion, be for Europe to surrender willingly. I go farther-I say let him have the whole world. Can you see what would happen to his grandiose ideas [sic] if there were no resistance? Hitler, or anyone who seeks power, is only a force as long as he is opposed. Imagine laying out the problems of the world before him [and expecting him] to solve them. The man would die of brain fever overnight.”

What Miller assumes in this highly fantastic scenario was that Hitler was a rational being who would set out to solve “the problems of the world”-a pretty tall order, for any single mortal! But given what we now know about him, he would not have acted in any way other than what his “destiny” demanded of him. The end result would have been the same: many more Jews beyond the six million would have perished, as would hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of homosexuals, gypsies, Slavs, and so forth.

If that bit of rodomontade is Henry Miller at his most pacifistic, here is another, less familiar side. It is from the Introduction to The World of Lawrence: A Passionate Appreciation (1980):

I am for a complete fanatical and religious revolution. I don’t care how much blood is spilled, nor how many people are exterminated. I wouldn’t mind if half the earth were depopulated, if there sprang up a plague that strewed the earth with cadavers so that the very heavens stank. I think it would be a relief to have a genuine stench, a putrescent stench and not just the stench of SHIT [Miller’s capitalization]. . . .

Does this sound like a man who abhors violence? Or was that a harmless blowing off of steam? A gory fantasy summoned up to assuage some deep-seated frustrations? Personally, I have my doubts. If memory serves, from my two short visits with him in 1947 and in 1955, discussed in slightly greater detail in James Joyce Quarterly, Spring, 1999, he appeared to be a gentle person. But if he was just sounding off for effect, then one would think that enough time had passed since those words were written for him to have corrected for error. What is revealing is that, as late as 1980, pending the publication of The World of Lawrence, he allowed the passage to stand. By then, he had witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust and Pol Pot’s killing fields, yet there is not even a footnote disclaimer to such an outburst. But if it was vintage Miller out to shock, that would not only be a bad joke but an assault on conscience, his own as well as ours.

One doesn’t need to gainsay the truism that war is not a good thing. But to deny the reality that there are times when a nation, like a person, has the right-indeed the moral duty–to defend itself, renders Miller’s pacifism not only immoral but dangerous.

That Henry Miller left an indelible imprint on American writing is now axiomatic. However, he should have stuck to what he knew best–his life as filtered through The Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn. As for the the posturer, the pacifist anarchist, the un-shy pornographer (pace Kenneth Patchen!)-these were an integral part of the whole man, but they diminished his stature and finally pulled him into the gravitational field of the Left, which undercut his credibility not only as an artist but, even more pointedly, as a thinker.

[*] A not-so-curious coincidence. Some forty years later, Norman Mailer-who was also an admirer of Henry Miller– in a similar outburst of charitable compassion, was instrumental in getting Jack Abbott released from prison, so that he, too, could fulfill his potential-as a writer. Discussed further below.

[?] Two of Miller’s early apprentice works, resuscitated in later years, Crazy Cock, and Moloch: or, This Gentile World  were peppered with anti-Semitic sideswipes. Ironically, they would not have been banned in Germany. In later years, Miller suffered pangs of remorse for their anti-Semitism. They are now seen as crude, early efforts at the conventional novel-before Miller found his literary sea legs with Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Capricorn (1939). Crazy Cock was belatedly published in 1991 and Moloch in 1994, literary curiosities rather than landmarks.

[?] Reminds one of a similar proposal made by Mohandas Gandhi during World War II, in which the Mahatma-“Great Soul”-urged the Jews of Germany to go gladly to their deaths, and thus gain the moral sympathy of the world-that same world that seems to have a similar view toward another Jewish community-the State of Israel.

Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.

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