America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
The Rosy Crucifixion (Sexus, Plexus and Nexus)
By Dan Geddes
Henry Miller is sui generis.
It is difficult to place his works in a particular genre, though novels may still be the best category. Some have termed his works "autobiographical fantasy.” But more properly he writes about life—his own fantasized life, but life still the same.
According to the preface of Tropic of Cancer (signed by Anais Nin) "all superstructure has been lopped off" in works like Cancer. That is certainly true of The Rosy Crucifixion (Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus) as well. The conflicts are drawn directly from life, and they are mundane, or at least familiar: financial and marital woes. But they are not conflict in the usual novelistic sense; there is no suspense over Henry Miller will pay his bills or fail to get laid, or much of anything else. Causality is not so important to Miller.
What we get are unconnected prose passages, wildly disparate in their content, held together only by the consciousness of Henry Miller. Still, there are some "justifications" for this work, however obscene.
Firstly, Miller does have a "moral" in tow. That moral would seem to be simply: live life! Miller, as a character, revels in the diversity of the characters he encounters, falls into unseemly and absurd situations, pulls outrageous stunts, endures hardship, faces humiliation, and lives through all manner of triumph and tragedy. Towards the end of Nexus, he quotes Vivekananda that "Weakness is the only sin." Miller is the educated savage, animal-like, as both men and women tell him. He is above all, a survivor, by any means necessary.
Miller's work is also justified as a kind of primer for would-be writers. Indeed, it is hard to imagine many of the passages serving any other purpose. Sometimes he sounds like Nietzsche addressing the “free spirits” or J.D. Salinger addressing his youthful readers.
He describes the process of writing, his first abortive attempts, his manner of research, the difficulties of publication, the possibility that his work will never be read or appreciated, his favorite books, his ability to tap into The Voice, his unbelievable practice of writing "several books in his head," and on and on. In fact, assuming that much of his audience are would-be writers, or at least artists of various media, also explains the “fun” of reading about his life, a lifestyle we would call bohemian, though surely this a term Miller would resist.
In light of this it is not surprising that Miller has had such an impact on subsequent writers, but less so on the academic establishment, which values more of the fictional "superstructure" that Miller usually didn’t create.
These "justifications" of his work (answers to the question of what good does his literature bring to society) do not attempt to address the many reasons Miller himself felt compelled to write. Among them were: the need to express himself, as he was obviously a lover of words; the ambition to be known as a great writer; his obvious distaste for typical bourgeois life, especially steady employment; and, as another critic has pointed out, the desire to "vindicate" himself to his circle of friends.
In the end, The Rosy Crucifixion is an aesthete's dream. Much like reading literary criticism, it affords a lettered individual the "included" feeling of understanding his many elite references, and obsession with all things artistic. But more than that, much of the Rosy Crucifixion is sheer poetry, poetry in the Whitmanesque vein. It features catalogues upon catalogues, and calling the roll seems to be Miller's favorite writing style bar none. It features exotic words, a sound sense of rhythm (in the catalogues and elsewhere), and unadulterated exuberance at the use of language. This, along with the unsubstantiated insights, generalizations, proverbs, and maxims are the raison d'etre of this work.
Miller's works are batches of episodes. As Karl Shapiro says in the introduction to Tropic of Cancer, "one can pick up Miller's work" at any passage.
I am left with many feelings after reading Henry Miller, most of them pleasant. I sometimes envy his facility of language; it's the aesthete's delight; a feast of words, some high humor, utterly accurate dialogue, well-defined (if shallow) characterizations, a delightful mess of contradictions, snippets of philosophy of criticism, and equally important, a sense of a way of life; the artist's life in a more innocent, perhaps more free time.
Not only do we envy his ducking of all responsibility, but his freedom to rent rooms on informal basis, fail to pay rent, run out on restaurants. People didn't need check references for every transaction in those days, and Miller was a devil about it.
Perhaps because he depicts life in the 1920’s, the people in Miller’s works seem much more human than people of today: more willing to be gracious and expansive, to show emotion, be kind, all without fear of seeming gullible for giving, or looking sissified for enjoying art (or even for reading). The emphasis on food and drink is always pleasing, the same kind of "cosmic coziness" (as one critic put it) that Dickens created with characters around the hearth, eating bread and drinking tea.
Despite his many strengths as a writer, one does wonder what Miller would have created had he been more concerned with "superstructure"; had he employed more selectivity, left some fodder out, commented a little less on his own actions and reactions. A problem with Miller's works is that they are never more than the sum of their parts, as strong as those parts are. There is no cumulative effect.
As befits one of his mottos, everything is for the now. That there is no cumulative effect or superstructure seems consistent with his aim to provide the reader with a taste of (and for) life. Actually, that is, in the end, what we are left with.
Reading Miller can whet your appetite for life. If that is his goal, he is superbly successful (despite our misgivings that Miller is smirking, playacting, and concealing a pessimism that he rarely gives voice to).
As much he reinvigorates a "taste for the fundamental appetites" (again from the Nin-signed preface to Cancer, which can serve as a statement of his goals as a writer) we still wonder whether something greater would have been created had he had a sense of form. Once we are immersed in his world, we wonder what couldn't be done dramatically with the likes of Henry Miller, Mona, Stasia, Ulrich, Stanley, O'Rourke, and the whole bunch.
But this leads to a perhaps deeper problem in Miller: his characterizations. Aside from Mona, his characters are one-dimensional; they serve as the chorus that pays homage to Miller, that highlights human foils and neuroses (or nobility of soul in rarer cases); and generally paint the social context for the life of Henry Miller, struggling writer, who will indeed eventually become something of a world figure. His fame was in part due to literary censorship—without which he may have remained an obscure figure.
Miller himself is not all that well-defined as a character; there are short story characters that are better depicted. Yes, after 1500 pages of The Rosy Crucifixion we do get to know "Henry Miller". Oddly enough, we never get the compact, one paragraph treatment of Miller that he uses on his other characters. Much of Miller is pure bluster.
Similarly for Mona, the woman he feels he has immortalized: we actually don't get to know her so well. Miller himself confesses to be baffled by her. Mona is mercurial, but the mystery never seems profound. She is an usually sharp hustler, but she falls for Miller. She serves as the catalyst for Miller to leave his unhappy marriage (and his baby daughter) and break out into the life of a writer.
Miller's use of idiom and cliché does not bother me, even when he uses hackneyed descriptions rather than fresh coinage. There is, after all, such a bewildering onslaught of fresh diction in Miller, that when he relaxes to use a cliché it shouldn't bother us; it's almost welcome against a sometimes unattractive barrage of foreign phrases, unheard of personages, and the like. But just as his caricatures communicate all we need to know about them, so the cliché is an effective means of communication—something to latch onto—even if not the best diction that a writer's writer should be capable of. And, as a writer who only seemed to find his voice when he "wrote like he talked" Miller is somewhat justified in his use of cliché.
Many novelists cast a more sustained spell than Miller. They are better writers, certainly. But Miller offers us something better than even the most polished craftsman—especially for aspiring writers. He shows the realizations of their fears and dreams.