Sexual politics

Kate Millett, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin

Miller

God’s gift to women (not).

With feminist critiques having made such progress, and becoming so well publicised, it’s worth returning to

While the whole book is brilliant, here I want to focus on her reasoned deflation of Henry Miller (1891–1980). At the time it must have seemed somewhat outspoken, but re-reading it now I realise it’s utterly reasonable.

In Part III, “The literary reflection”, Millett scrutinises D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer in turn—classic instances of dragging the icon to the trash—with a contrasting final chapter on Jean Genet.

I read Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and the Rosy crucifixion trilogy in my early 20s (As You Do), but thankfully I first read Sexual politics soon after. Miller’s time-frame is earlier than I realised. I inadvertently tend to associate him with the heady excesses of the bebop era, but born in the 19th century (!), his classic works refer to the 1920s and 30s. In a way I’m happy to be reminded that sexual intercourse didn’t really begin in 1963.

It’s great that Millett was able to unpack Miller’s works rather soon after they had been lauded on the grounds of “sexual freedom”. As depictions of the adrenalin buzz of New York and Paris, Miller’s novels are exhilarating—as long as you can blank out the misogyny, which is a tall order. But exhilaration is gendered too. Miller may have written as a boast, but we may read his works as a confession.

Indeed, Millett opens Chapter One by unpacking a typically “colourful” passage from Sexus—“a male assertion of dominance over a weak, compliant, and rather unintelligent female”. I’m sure few of Miller’s critics would deny the allure of casual sex per se [non-gendered pronoun. * Well done—Ed.], but for him, sexuality is dirty, and can only be so.

* (It’s a sign of the changing times that the default male pronoun of the first sentence of the Preface now leaps out at us:

Before the reader is shunted through the relatively uncharted, often even hypothetical territory which lies before him…)

Millett’s main chapter on Miller begins charitably:

Certain writers are persistently misunderstood. Henry Miller is surely one of the major figures of American literature living today, yet academic pedantry still dismisses him as beneath scholarly attention.

Rather than representing the new “sexual freedom”, Millett finds him

a compendium of American sexual neuroses, and his value lies not in freeing us from such afflictions but in having had the honesty to express and dramatise them. […] What Miller did articulate was the disgust, the contempt, the hostility, the violence, and the sense of filth with which our culture, or more specifically, its masculine sensibility, surrounds sexuality. And women too, for somehow it is women upon whom this onerous burden of sexuality falls.

She notes that despite evidence that he is “fleetingly conscious” of such things, we are unlikely to be persuaded that Miller the man is any wiser than Miller the character.

Her measured introduction out of the way, Millett proceeds to demolish Miller’s misogyny, his “air of juvenile egotism” and impersonal, degrading, encounters devoid of communication:

Miller’s genuine originality consists in revealing and recording a group of related sexual attitudes which, despite their enormous prevalence and power, had never (or never so explicitly) been given literary expression before. Of course, these attitudes are no more the whole truth than chivalry, or courtly, or romantic love were—but Miller’s attitudes do constitute a kind of cultural data heretofore carefully concealed beneath our traditional sanctities.

Millett observes the “cultural homosexuality which has ruled that love, friendship, affection—all forms of companionship, emotional or intellectual—are restricted to males”. Miller at least lays bare the “game” of confirming male power. In writing against conventional morality he shows his parasitic dependency on it.

Since his mission is to inform “cunt” just how it’s ridiculed and despised in the men’s house, women perhaps owe Miller some gratitude for letting them know.

We might now regard his oeuvre as “Grab ‘em by the pussy” serialized for posh people. Boys will be boys, eh.

Millett concludes

In a great many respects Miller is avant-garde and a highly inventive artist, but his most original contribution to sexual attitudes is confined to giving expression to an ancient sentiment of contempt. […]

The impulse to see even women as human beings may occur momentarily—a fleeting urge—but the terrible needs of adolescent narcissism are much greater.

Her brilliant final paragraph reads:

While the release of such inhibited emotion, however poisonous, is beyond question advantageous, the very expression of such lavish contempt, and disgust, as Miller has unleashed, and made fashionable, can come to be an end in itself, eventually harmful, perhaps even malignant. To provide unlimited scope for masculine aggression, although it may finally bring the situation out into the open, will hardly solve the dilemma of our sexual politics. Miller does have something highly important to tell us; his virulent sexism is beyond question an honest contribution to social and psychological understanding which we can hardly afford to ignore. But to confuse this neurotic hostility, this frank abuse, with sanity, is pitiable. To confuse it with freedom were vicious, were it not so very sad.

And then came the internet… No wonder it has taken such determined efforts to reclaim the c-word.

In music, Millett’s deflation of Miller was soon to be echoed in Susan McClary’s unpacking of the gender imbalance in WAM, with Beethoven as chief witness for the prosecution.

* * *

I still think Millett’s critique is the Last Word, but inevitably the discussion has continued. Most subsequent feminists build perceptively on her themes, and I hesitate to discuss glossy contrarians such as Erica Jong, yet her discussions have a certain relevance.

The devil at large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (1993) is a “celebration” of his work (reviewed e.g. here, and here; for a succinct exchange, see here).

Reading Miller’s ouevre whole, and with critiques of her own work in mind, Jong views him as a kindred spirit (a “disappointed romantic”, a “prophet”, “always looking for the secret of life”). While she concurs with some of Millett’s points, she takes issue with her—or at least with caricatures of her analysis.

Relevant to the current discussion is Chapter 7, “Must we burn Henry Miller? Miller and the feminist critique”. While Jong balks at “feminist zealotry”, and falls for Miller’s “ruthless honesty”, she expresses strong support for feminist agendas.

* * *

Yet, though Miller generally concealed it beneath the detritus of cynical one-night stands, he did seek enduring bonds—with women who would submit to his will, to own and degrade? A more complex picture emerges in the diaries of Anaïs Nin (1903–77), alongside her many biographies.

Nin journalNin was an articulate, talented, independent, sensitive, psychologically attuned, sensual woman. One might think that such attributes would make her safe from Miller attentions, and that of all people, Nin would see right through his narcissistic misogyny. True, she boldly put psychology into practice, engaging in carnal relationships with her analysts; and having been abandoned in childhood by her father, she embarked, confidently, on an affair with him in her 30s—which at least inspired the headline “Sins of the Nins“.

A distressingly enduring pattern emerges. Do women’s choices consist only of boring husbands or predatory men? If Miller was happy to prey on women he perceived as fucktoys, Nin had loftier expectations. In their relationships, he could have tried harder, while she may have been frustrated by the available material.

Nin’s Paris diaries for 1931–34 cover the most intense period of her relationship with Miller and his then wife June—whom she found “the most beautiful woman on earth”. Relevant passages are assembled and augmented in Henry and June (1986)—with Nin’s relationships with her husband Hugo and psychoanalyst René Allendy thickening the plot.

Left: Anaïs Nin c1920; right, June Miller, c1933.

Her journals are full of praise for Henry’s genius. She supported him in Paris, and found a mission in helping him publish—the old “muse” trap. At the same time, he appreciated the originality of her work. Their affair was intense, and communicative.

But she and June were totally enchanted by each other. Nin’s sensual, nuanced descriptions make a complete contrast to Miller’s accounts of degrading conquests.

Her “intense adoration” of Miller did indeed give way to disillusionment: she described him as “crude, egotistic, imitative, childishly irresponsible, a madman”.

Still, does all this suggest that Miller was deceiving his readers, even himself, about his need for human communication? And how might Millett have incorporated this into her account? Sadly, she only mentions Nin in a brief footnote, although the relevant first volume of her journals was published in 1966. Still, Millett might have wanted to refine her maxim that

Miller’s hunt is a primitive find, fuck, and forget.

* * *

For a younger generation pondering gender issues anew, one might hope that Millett has stood the test of time better than Miller. For the decline in Miller’s reputation, see e.g. this article from 2016.

Readers are no longer shocked by the sex; it’s the sexism they shrink from now.

For a roundup of some posts from the gender category, see here—including Vera and Doris, and Dressing modestly.

One thought on “Sexual politics

  1. Pingback: Gender: a roundup | Stephen Jones: a blog

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