When Henry Miller’s novel The Tropic of Cancer, appeared in 1935, it was greeted with rather cautious praise, obviously conditioned in some cases by a fear of seeming to enjoy pornography (95).
– George Orwell, from the essay Inside the Whale, in All Art is Propaganda
Ah, Henry Miller. We have something going on….Henry and I…. It began in the spring when I was bemusedly alerted by a shallow online quiz that my literary soulmate was M. Miller himself. Well. What to make of that, I hardly knew. I decided I better at least read his work which I wrote about here and where I blathered on a bit about the literary soulmate bit and Tropic of Cancer.
For the most part it is a story of bug-ridden rooms in workingmen’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling and temporary jobs. And the whole atmosphere of the poor quarters of Paris as a foreigner sees them–the cobbled alleys, the sour reek of refuse, the bistros with their greasy zinc counters[…]the peculiar sweetish smell of the Metro, the cigarettes that come to pieces[…]–it is all there, or at any rate the feeling of it is there.
On the face of it no material could be less promising (96) – George Orwell, Inside the Whale.
Miller and I took some heat for my praise, but then, by pure good fortune I worked with a beautiful poet/artist/activist Cecilia Vicuña this summer and on my first day of work discovered that she had had a small but lovely correspondence with Miller. She adored him, his love and passion for life. I told her the trouble I was having convincing people of his (rather lovely) sincerity, she confirmed, on a personal level, what I had felt reading his book.
Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own orthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened. This brings me back to Henry Miller (129).
That, Orwell writes, after a thirty-something page discourse on the history of early 2oth century literature and the effect of politics: fascism, communism, laissez-faire capitalism and many more isms on writers and literature. But, yes– Miller, where were we?- after another of his novels Black Spring, was thrown on my path I started to wonder what was in the water–what was in my water?! Over the course of the summer as I worked archiving collections of books, books about books, and the art of books with Granary Books, as well as Vicuña’s archive and copious notes and writing….I had compiled a long list of artists, poets, and books that I would read when I got some time. Orwell’s All Art is Propaganda was one of those books. He is, by far, one of my favorite essayist, and what a title! Imagine my lack of surprise when after flipping around reading the essays in odd order as to my interest, I came upon a quite long (45 p.) essay all about, yes, my dear soulmate Henry.
The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible (136).
Inside the Whale is sweeping, discursive, and at the very heart, brilliantly true. Orwell elucidates on the conditions which make good novels possible, how politics affect writers, directly or obliquely, and how Miller’s insouciance, and refusal to get taken in by the flimsy dictats of nation, class, and persuasion, is so sincerely expressed that one can, if one lets oneself, marvel at his genius (a human scale of genius, but genius can be writ small).
Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism–robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale–or rather, admit that you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt. A novel on more positive, “constructive” lines, and not emotionally spurious, is at present very difficult to imagine (138).
Orwell’s essay is fascinating historically, but his concerns and thoughts transport the mere temporal- finding a way to stay human in any time is the challenge. For myself, I’m convinced Miller met that challenge, and had fun doing it, I am convinced he had a good heart, and if that is what makes a soulmate for me – I’ll take it.
*title from: From a mere account of the subject-matter of Tropic of Cancer most people would probably assume it to be no more than a bit of naughty-naughty left over from the ‘twenties (97).