Henry Miller and the Politics of Repulsion and Desire

I promised you I would tell you more about Henry’s mother, a figure he despised and a woman he tried to exorcize in his early (sexual) work. Here’s a family picture, with her on the right, Henry on the left:


“My mother,” Henry wrote in The Time of the Assassins (1946),

was the Northern type, cold, critical, proud, unforgiving and puritanical […] It was against her, against all that she represented that I directed my uncontrollable energy. Never until I was fifty did I once think of her with affection […] I felt her shadow across my path constantly. It was a shadow of disapproval, silent and insidious, like a poison slowly injected into the veins. (The Time of the Assassins, pp. 12-16)

One cannot help but think that with a mother like that, who had such a grip on Henry’s mental state long after he had left home, a man might come to hate all women. Thus the hunger, which he described time and again, and in Tropic of Cancer especially, was not just a physical hunger, of having some bread in his belly, but an emotional one, too. He was hungering for the love and warmth he never received from his mother at home. To satisfy this hunger and drive out his demon mother, Henry went on a binge, a sexual binge, trying to recover the nurture and love he missed out on while growing up.

Surely, this is food for psychiatrists. Freud would mention the Oedipus complex, the attachment to the mother, which Freud described as the phallic stage when a (male) child is between three and six years old and when both libido and ego are formed. In Henry’s early life, the complex was never fully manifested because of the intense rejection he felt from his mother, so in other words, attachment, libido and ego, as well as individuation were not fully completed until he finished Tropic of Cancer, which coincided with his professional late blooming, at the age of 43…

Jung talked about the Electra Complex, or the hatred of the mother by the daughter, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this pathology actually applied to Henry as well. I’ve told you before: Even though some of Henry’s content is undecidedly male and sexist, his very plotlessness, lack of linearity and technique(s) of collage belong to a female sensibility (quite similar to that of Proust’s). In my rereading of Miller, I see how male and female come together in a marriage of content (male) and form (female).

But maybe you don’t believe in Freud and the Oedipus complex, and for sure, we don’t get very far with the complex as such in conjunction with Henry’s development as an artist. And this is interesting in itself, because Henry’s development could possibly be explained as an anti-Oedipal reflex. Henry’s repulsion would lead to desire, and is a construct that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari explained in their famous book Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972). Desire, Deleuze and Guattari say, leads to acquisition in that “it seeks to acquire something that it lacks”. As such, desire is a strong emancipatory force that tries to break free from repressive Oedipal structures like the nuclear family, which teaches children, and citizens to be, to be obedient to the super structure of an exploitative society that wants docility in men, not desire, as desire equals going against the status quo. Desire equals rebellion and individual liberation.

“If desire is repressed,” Deleuze and Guattari argue:

it is because every position of desire, no matter how small, is capable of calling into question the established order of a society: not that desire is asocial, on the contrary. But it is explosive […] Despite what some revolutionaries think about this, desire is revolutionary in its essence […] and no society can tolerate a position of real desire without its structures of exploitation, servitude and hierarchy being compromised.

Henry’s work is all about desire, the Dionysian force (emotion, hedonism, chaos) fighting Apollonian restraint (reason, order). In fact, desire, to Henry, is the only gateway to art: “To conceive”, he says “there must first be desire” and to act on desire means to create something new but also to rebel against society and be on the outside. In his study of Rimbaud, an artist he greatly identified with, he describes Rimbaud (and himself) as a rebel, a renegade, an outsider, looking in on a collective that’s about conformity and repression. As part of the collective, be it the nuclear family or society, one lacks the independence and vision, and for Miller and Rimbaud, being an artist means being driven by desire, to break free and thus differentiate oneself from all and everything that tries to rein them in.

Just as Deleuze and Guattari argued that the family, that early microcosm of society, represses the desire of a child, endowing it with shame and guilt, so did Henry describe his mother, and his repulsion and rejection of her led to an embrace of desire and Henry’s artistic vocation. “Like Rimbaud,” he writes, “I too began at an early age to cry “Death to God! It was death to everything which the parents endorsed or approved of.” Likewise, it is the “fuck everything” of Tropic of Cancer which I mentioned before in one of my earlier blogs. I explained it then as a Modernist rejection of everything that went before, which is a sentiment that comes back in Sextus, underscoring the need for artistic differentiation as a precondition to true liberation and enlightenment: “To move forward clinging to the past is like dragging a ball and chain.”

This kind of differentiation, rooted in desire, also means a disavowal of society, which explains why Henry was never a political writer even though he came of age as an artist during the 1930s, which, in American literature, was the decade par excellence of the political (and proletarian) novel. Rebelling against society inside a certain movement means surrendering oneself to a super structure again, and that stands in the way of the pure aesthetic lifestyle and ideal that Henry developed early on.

As an artist, a true artist, Miller had to walk away from society altogether, which is also why Henry developed such a following in the sixties, when “dropping out” seemed in sync with what Henry had been talking about all along, since the 1930s. But it was not the same thing– to Henry it was not an ideological “dropping out” but a Romantic impulse, devoted to creating art that is both truth and vision. But these aesthetics also implied solitariness and sacrifice. Here’s Henry on Rimbaud again, where the artist, the poet is perceived as an Icarus kind of figure, before his fateful fall:

Conditioned to ecstasy, the poet is like a gorgeous unknown bird mired in the ashes of thought. If he succeeds in freeing himself, it is to make a sacrificial flight to the sun. His dreams of a regenerate world are but the reverberations of his own fevered pulse beats. He imagines the world will follow him, but in the blue he finds himself alone. (The Time of the Assassins, p.74)

That said, in Miller’s oeuvre, art transcends as well as grounds oneself, because “It is only when we make ourselves a part of creation that we begin to live.” Thus Rimbaud, to Henry’s mind, was both a visionary and a discoverer of the source of life. In essence, Henry was describing himself, and quite frankly, he might not have become this kind of artist, without his repudiation of his mother (as well as God and country).

At the same time, as a mother myself, I sometimes think we get a bum rap. In fact, no matter how rigid or abusive Henry’s mother might have been, we do not know the full story here, as we only have his side of the story.

Also, did Henry ever come to terms with the mother figure in his life, and did he move beyond and evolve from these feelings of repulsion to desire/artistic destiny? Henry’s narration of a dream he had late in life may hold the answer. The dream projects a mother he would have wanted to have had, and may well have been a wish-fulfillment of wanting to reconcile with her in the end. Henry’s biographer, Arthur Hoyle writes:

Toward the end of his life he wrote up a dream he claimed to have had in which after his own death he encounters his mother in Devachan, the temporary dwelling place where souls reside until their return to earth. The mother who appears in this dream is the mother he never had — compassionate, wise, loving. She confesses to him that in her earthly form she was stupid, but now that she inhabits her astral body, she has learned contentment. She parrots Miller’s philosophy: “The universe is run by laws; if you break the law you have to pay the penalty… You may have noticed we have no schools here. Here one acquires wisdom, not learning. We live according to our instincts and intuitions. Like that we remain part animal, part human. On earth the function of the brain is greatly exaggerated.” The dream world is the “true reality,” she tells him. “Down below is an illusion. Only the imagination is real.” [The scene] ends with Miller’s mother drifting away from him as he calls after her, “Mother, I love you, I love you. Do you hear me?” (The Unknown Henry Miller, A Seeker in Big Sur, 2014, p. 215)

Henry’s belated admission of love for his mother could have been an indication that he had come full circle and that, in the end, he had found some form of closure with his mother… but only because of his art and the politics of repulsion and desire.



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