Tropic of Cancer | Critical Essay by Linda R. Williams

This literature criticism consists of approximately 28 pages of analysis & critique of Tropic of Cancer.
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Critical Essay by Linda R. Williams

SOURCE: "Critical Warfare and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer," in Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice, edited by Susan Sellers, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, pp. 23-43.

Williams is an English educator and critic. In the following excerpt, she criticizes Kate Millett's influential attack on Henry Miller's misogyny as theoretically naive and ineffectual. Williams proposes a feminist reading which takes account of the sexual ambivalence implied by Miller's masochism and suggests that Miller embraced a desire for self-annihilation.

Tropic of Cancer is Henry Miller's polemic of antihumanism. It is an attempt to write 'The last book', an affirmation of extremity in the forms of transgression, disease and violence. For the Miller of Tropic of Cancer life is war, with Paris as its theatre. Men and women fight each other on the sexual battlefield of its pages, with a violence which makes the impossibility of impartial reading explicit: if we read the book at all, it is hard not to take sides. Want, sexual warfare, and a lack of sentiment about humanity interconnect in the cravings of the selves which populate Tropic of Cancer, and Miller's exploration of the savage and exploitative battles or contracts between men and women has made him an obvious target for feminists. The novel's grim opening movement—'toward the prison of death. There is no escape'—is a kind of perverse comeon to those of us who would not be deemed faint-hearted readers. Thus Miller begins his attempt to show a world revealing itself 'for the mad slaughterhouse that it is', in which desire becomes ultimately the desire for annihilation, a nirvana in which the hero screams exultantly '"I am inhuman!"' It is a book which wants to be literally 'beastly', setting itself an extreme aesthetic agenda which aims to violate the coherence and the ethical priorities of the conscious self. Miller's universe is apocalyptic: 'The age demands violence', and sex prowls on the volcano's edge.

Much of the novel's reputation for offensiveness can be put down to the moral perspectives of the left and right at the time of its first attempted publication (its actual American publication was delayed until 1961); the judgments against sexual explicitness and language would not be so clearly made now, and Cancer retains little of the power to shock it held for the Judge who tried it for obscenity at a failed attempted publication in 1951: 'If this be importable literature, then the dignity of the human person and the stability of the family unit, which are the cornerstones of our systems of society, are lost to us' [Louis Goodman, 'District Judge of the US, Louis Goodman on the "Tropics,"' in Henry Miller Between Heaven and Hell, 1961]. To be deemed dangerous is, however, exactly the critical response Miller sought; in Tropic of Capricorn he wrote 'I look at people murderously', and his novels invite readers to look back with critical knives at the ready. In the first section of this essay I hope to show that Miller defines the terrain of sexual warfare on his own terms, terms which are not fully challenged by early feminist critique in its hostile engagements with him, before suggesting how other readings might combat this problem. Miller delights in outrage, but outrageousness is ever more difficult. Perhaps the only reader who would now not disappoint him in this is the feminist critic.

Feminist outrage at Henry Miller has characteristically engaged with him according to that familiar dialectic of shocking fiction countered by shocked critical response. This is not difficult. Tropic of Cancer tries very hard to be nasty, embracing in its frenzy of violation an ambitious range of objects. Miller promises us a novel which is 'a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will'. However, this anti-metaphysic is not pointed enough for Miller, and he proceeds to mark out more specifically the recipient of the text's outpourings, an implied reader who will submit to a readerly 'libel, slander and defamation of character' in receipt of the text. The ideal forms insulted above soon become pin-pointed as a 'you': 'I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse.' Who, then, is this 'you' which the novel invokes in order to trample on? Who is created as listener only to become a corpse?

           It is to you, Tania, that I am singing.

The 'you' that croaks and is buried, and the 'you' that listens, is of course a woman. But she is woman as reader, as muse and inspiration, as Miller's necessary victim and—as a key inhabitant of the 'mad slaughterhouse'—the mediator of his desired annihilation. Through a deathly sexual communion which uses Tania, Miller touches 'his own' non-existence. She is the 'dirty corpse' but also the Tania who does not die, who returns and recurs as an obscure object of desire throughout the novel, one of the vilified recipients of Miller's heinous aphorisms. For whilst this Tania is the object of one of Miller's most notorious streams of violent intentions ('"I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out…. I shoot hot bolts into you…. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces"'), she is also something quite other. The tension between the violent 'intentions' of the 'I' which rants so purposefully here, and his desire for a Tania who offers him a 'chaotic' self-subversion, is a key area which I will explore. '"You, Tania, are my chaos"', Miller writes, in tandem with the key statement.

      Chaos is the score upon which reality is written.

How, then, can feminist criticism respond to such an impossible network of identifications?

The link between sexuality and death in Miller connects explicitly with Freud's theory of the death drive. Miller admits in The World of Sex that he cannot write about one without calling upon the other:

Sex and death: I notice how frequently I couple them…. For the poet, the final ecstasy does not lead into the daylight of God, but into the nocturnal darkness of passion. Sometimes life itself takes over, writes its own poem of ecstasy, signed 'Death'.

Whilst the Romantic force of this eulogy to the erotics of annihilation is characteristic of Miller, the coupling of Eros and Thanatos is not of course unique. Miller's lack of originality is of little interest to me, however, what is more important is the way in which sexual violence, aggression and submission come together in his corpus, and the implications of this for feminism. My concern here is to show how that plexus in Tropic of Cancer can unlock and illustrate questions which still nag feminist criticism and theory; indeed, the poetics of sexuality and violence which Miller struggles to activate impinges on territory occupied not only by feminism, but also by psychoanalysis and military science. Miller offers a key articulation of the kind of desire made explicit in Freud's last topography, in which the sexual model of libido is subordinated to that of the death drive. What happens when feminism, late Freud and strategic theory come together in relation to Miller's Tropic of Cancer is the subject of this essay.


Men and women come together like broods of vultures over a stinking carcass, to mate and fly apart again…. A huge intestinal apparatus with a nose for dead meat. Forward! Forward without pity, without compassion, without love, without forgiveness. Ask no quarter and give none! More battleships, more poison gas, more high explosives! More gonococci! More streptococci! More bombing machines!

Henry Miller writes his way into the front line of the sex war, declaring that peace is only possible on the other side of conflict. If Tropic of Cancer as a whole is the war in which Miller tries 'fighting with ink' (to borrow his phrase about D. H. Lawrence), its sexual passages are the individual battles or bouts. As I will explore when I look at the disruptions in Miller's language, this inky battle is not fought to enshrine a sexist self in writing, but to fend off the 'self', ostensibly made coherent by grand narratives. Miller—for the hero of Tropic of Cancer is called 'Henry Miller'—goes to Paris like a war correspondent going straight to the front line; but he is not an innocent reporter. Paris invades him and makes him participate, intoxicating like a poison or addiction; he is a delirious but willing victim infiltrated by 'her' contagion or drug. Some of Miller's most passionate writing is reserved for Paris, which he is both inside of and, in reading her, 'other than'; she is a city which 'attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love'. But the city's importance lies in its openness to the conflicts which obsess Miller—it is his vision of a city which says Yes to everything, and as such it is both dubiously feminised and acts as an externalisation of the affirmative Freudian unconscious. At another point Paris is the maternal incubator of reality: 'Paris is the cradle of artificial births'. The whole novel is then enacted within the body of a voracious woman, for 'Paris is like a whore': 'From a distance she seems ravishing, you can't wait until you have her in your arms. And five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked.'

This five-minute fuck is elsewhere in the novel likened to an exhausted military operation:

It's like a state of war: the moment the condition is precipitated nobody thinks about anything but peace, about getting it over with. And yet nobody has the courage to lay down his arms, to say, 'I'm fed up with it…. I'm through.'

Sex between a prostitute and her client is like taking up arms, when both agree on a price and begin to fulfil the contract from positions of enmity. It is important to recognise the complex way in which Cancer's metaphorics of warfare work; the opposition is not simply that of hatred between men and women, who hardly engage on an emotional level but instead lock themselves into a pattern of opposition already historically marked out for them. In Cancer prostitutes are mercenaries, paid to 'fight', so that sex-as-contract is simultaneously sex-as-battle, and winning is getting one's money's worth or getting the contract fulfilled. The individual encounter between whore and customer thus becomes a microcosm of wider human relations for Miller; the whore's space, the woman herself, is the city scaled down and intensified. Miller is keen to emphasise that this particular state of war is not passionate or personally aggressive; both opponents are forced to engage not because of individual desire or human feeling but because of their conflicting roles. Whore and client are the foot soldiers of the sex war, whose own egoistic priorities are irrelevant. Whilst it is often said that Miller's women do not have their own identities and are seldom even named ('"Imagine that! Asking me if I loved her. I didn't even know her name. I never know their names"'), in Miller's world personal characteristics are ruthlessly subjected, either to the ecstatic experience of loss which I will explore later ('"Sometimes I get so lost in my reveries that I can't remember the name of the cunt or where I picked her up"'), or to the roles which history has ascribed men and women and which render them simply active servants of the war (in this sense Miller's men can be equally nameless, like '"that cute little prick who drives me bats about his rich cunt"').

In the whore's world the exchange of money becomes 'the primal cause of things' which opens hostilities, and thus three forms of exchange, of sex and bodies, of money, and of violence, are conflated: '"She's got her mind set on the fifteen francs and if I don't want to fight about it she's going to make me fight."' The sexual contract between prostitute and client signifies a declaration and acceptance of war, which silences any pacific voice of reason. They are locked in a tunnel-vision of the inevitability of conflict.

rather than listen to one's own voice, rather than walk out on the primal cause, one surrenders to the situation, one goes on butchering and butchering and the more cowardly one feels the more heroically does he behave, until a day when the bottom drops out and suddenly all the guns are silenced and the stretcher-bearers pick up the maimed and bleeding heroes and pin medals on their chest.

Whilst Miller's mind might be 'on the peace treaty all the time', he must nevertheless proceed in the knowledge that the armistice can only come when the battle is over.

Simply because of the explicitness with which Miller shows the violence of sex and gender relations in their unfeeling extremity, Tropic of Cancer is an important novel for feminist criticism. What happens between the whore and her customer makes Miller's attitude to war more explicit than his attitude to sex, even if it does both at the same time. Her bed is the theatre of war, and a space within which the public/private division explicitly breaks down; it is a microcosm of Paris as 'an artificial stage, a revolving stage that permits the spectator to glimpse all phases of the conflict'. Making love with a whore can be synonymous with waging war in a frenzy of territorialism against those who have come before. The man who fucks her 'fights like a thousand devils … to wipe out that regiment that has marched between her legs'. It is 'a fight in the dark, a fight single-handed against the army that rushed the gates, the army that walked over her, trampled her, that left her with such a devouring hunger that not even a Rudolph Valentino could appease.' Here again there is no question of love; it is an impersonal engagement which subordinates sexuality to the death drive, and Miller never even bothers to tell us who won. She is trampled but she also devours. And just as individual personality is immaterial to the conflict, there is never any question that 'pure' sexual desire—Freudian Eros, or libido in the form of a life instinct—has led to this.

In order to explore more fully this loveless engagement, I want to look at the way in which Miller's sexual writing can be seen as a literary encounter with the death drive. The callous tone of Cancer comes from its blithe disregard for the humanism of self-respect; bodily drives and the active role one fulfils, neither of which one necessarily chooses, are more important and determining. In his sadomasochistic world personal bodies are political in the sense that they are cannon-fodder in a conflict which they do not control and which subordinates personal identity to the exigencies of sexual warfare. What is important for a feminist reading of Miller is not, however, the position he occupies in relation to this struggle, but rather his obsession with it in the first place. A feminist understanding of the 'origins' of this war require, for me, a detour via Freud's late analysis of 'devouring hunger'. If there is any 'truth' in Miller's representation, it emerges from the way he brings together his disturbing vision of desire with a strong image of the exploitative manner in which men and women relate to each other. This is a representation which requires an equally complex feminist response—one which can incorporate not only the wealth of feminist work on the social and historical bases of hostile gender relations but which also makes use of the more controversial aspects of psychoanalytic theory. Encountering a disturbing vision of desire like Miller's, which embraces sadism, masochism and the desire to 'let go' of the self, requires a theory which disturbs any notion that libido is a healthy, humanistic life-instinct.

Miller articulates sexuality through the metaphorics of warfare because it allows him to bring together the violent and violating forms of sexual desire which are given a particular power within the historical framework which enlists men and women against each other. Existent conventional patterns of gender enmity are energised by and enter into a grim alliance with sadomasochistic violation. The materially fixed gender relations upon which Miller's sexual warfare is mapped is combined with a celebration of desire which violates or disregards the self, painfully and sadistically or, as I shall explore, ecstatically. These apparently separate forms of desire—first, to enter erotically into a painful scenario, and second, a desire which seeks nirvana as the 'zero-point' of self—are what Freud attempted to explain together, as two forms of the same drive, in the theory of the death drive, developed in his work during the First World War, introduced most fully in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), and then maintained as the basic structure of his theory of the instincts. What we have seen so far on Miller's battlefield is the first kind of desire—the sado-masochistic desire for pain, restraint or simply the battle for domination; what I shall explore next is the second kind of desire—the desire to abolish subjective unities and to enter the blissful extinction evoked by the nirvana principle. The death drive becomes the exemplary instinct for Freud; desire is the desire for non-self, a state of equilibrium, or, more radically, the desire to take the self back to its 'original' inorganic state of zero tension. Only this ultimate trajectory could explain to Freud the sexual expressions of sadism and masochism, as elaborate or warped forms of the desire to return. Despite its obvious importance in the analysis of the sexual power-relations with which feminism is concerned, the death drive has proved to be one of Freud's most controversial theories and has been largely ignored by feminists interested in psychoanalysis, except by those explicitly concerned with the taboo areas of feminine masochism and dangerous pleasures.

Bringing historical constructions and the form of desire explained by the death drive together in this way needs to be worked through more fully. Whilst feminism has used psychoanalysis productively, and has showed the political gaps at certain moments in the history of psychoanalysis, the discussion which occurs in later Freud of sadism, masochism and the transgression of egoistic boundaries has not been extensively linked to the needs of feminism. Tropic of Cancer requires this link to be made. Whilst any discussion of the violence of heterosexual sex is interesting to feminism, what is at stake in the literalisation of the sex war in Tropic of Cancer is more disturbing and less clear than has been acknowledged. Miller is exploring an at times confused conflation of the history of gender conflict and a form of desire closer to the death drive than to straightforwardly sexual models of libido.

Miller is clear, then, that sex is war when men and women come together—the fact that the woman is being paid only clarifies what exists for him implicitly in all cross-gender encounters. When Freud explores the warfare of sexuality, however, he does so via a series of discussions of sadism and masochism, forms of erotic violation which Miller enthusiastically indulges. Nevertheless it is not only, or even primarily, Miller's women who want to be violated. For instance Mona (the long-time love of several Miller novels) recognises that Miller's masochism matches her understanding of Strindberg's, who she reads voraciously, delighting in an image of masculine desire which meets her sadism:

I can see her looking up from her book after reading a delicious passage, and, with tears of laughter in her eyes, saying to me: 'You're just as mad as he was … you want to be punished!' What a delight that must be to the sadist when she discovers her own proper masochist! When she bites herself, as it were, to test the sharpness of her teeth. In those days, when I first knew her, she was saturated with Strindberg. That wild carnival of maggots which he revelled in, that eternal duel of the sexes, that spiderish ferocity which had endeared him to the sodden oafs of the northland, it was that which had brought us together.

The obvious point to be made about this is that it reverses the sado-masochistic model so familiar to our culture; it is more often Miller's men 'who cannot resist the desire to get into a cage with wild beasts and be mangled'. Here it is Mona, like the original Wanda in Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, who finds in Miller her masochist; she is the sadistic lover and reader. At another point in Cancer Miller's (male) friend Van Norden talks about sex in this curiously masochistic way:

'I get so goddamned mad at myself that I could kill myself … and in a way, that's what I do every time I have an orgasm. For one second like I obliterate myself. There's not even one me then … there's nothing … not even the cunt. It's like receiving communion.'

'But what is it you want of a woman, then?' I demand.

'… I want to be able to surrender myself to a woman,' he blurts out. 'I want her to take me out of myself. But to do that, she's got to be better than I am….

This takes up the idea of orgasm as a 'little death' but twists it in the service of an expression of masculine masochism, a male character's manifest desire to submit to an experience of absence, at the same time as his submission to a woman. Thus the point when Van Norden says in the middle of this discussion, '"There's something perverse about women … they're all masochists at heart"', has to be read as a moment of audacious self-irony. What is surely more important for feminism here is the way Miller finds himself—perhaps despite himself—asking his own version of Freud's famous question, which becomes 'What does the man want?' This is not at all obvious; the composite image of masculine desire formed across the whole of Tropic of Cancer is bizarrely diverse. Miller is exploring forms of masculine sexuality which incorporate the ostensibly feminine desire for submission, as well as a variety of experiences of self-loss towards which masochism can form a pathway.

This exploration is important for feminism because as a representation or fantasy of masculine sexuality it challenges what Jessica Benjamin [in The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination, 1990] calls the 'major tendency in feminism [to construct] the problem of domination as a drama of female vulnerability victimized by male aggression'. It is a 'tendency' in readings of misogynous literature which is exemplified by Kate Millett.


Miller's talent for irritating everyone does not fail him in his encounter with Kate Millett. She takes the bait and fights back venomously in her highly combative reading of Miller in Sexual Politics, which exemplifies an early moment of feminist criticism. Millett's work on Miller became a model for feminist readings of violently sexual 'masculine' writing. She fights back, but she fights on Miller's terms, and all too often reads like a repetition of Miller; her extensive quotes and enraged comments would hardly be destructive of a writer already so keen to offend. In Millett one senses that Miller found his perfect reader, one who offers back revitalised images of 'gender relations according to Miller' which have been freshly charged with the energy of feminism. Miller may have met his match, but the battle continued to rage on the terms he set up.

A more effective feminist strategy, for me, would be one which either rewrites the rules of 'conventional' hostile encounter—the strike and counter—strike which occurs in the open from clearly opposite sides—or a kind of critical guerrilla operation which uses the 'arms' of the text against it to show how the text capitulates and contradicts itself. The latter strategy is perhaps most appropriate to a text like Cancer which offers such a contradictory range of masculine images. Whilst these responses may seem bizarrely violent ways to read books, violence is already present in Miller's writing, and in a whole history of feminist critical responses to the literature of misogyny. Reading Miller is often a painful experience, and if we read through the lens of identification with a character of the female sex, we are put in the position of the nameless 'cunts' and whores Millett defends, when defence is unnecessary: Miller's women can surely look after them selves. What, then, would an effective strategy of engagement be? Miller revels in the voracious desire both to consume and to be violated which is taken to extremes in his representations of masculine and feminine sexuality. Crucial questions of identity are raised when the masculine 'I' of Tropic of Cancer repeatedly calls for his own sexually engineered non-existence. But what for Miller is a positive 'impersonality' for Kate Millett is a necessarily negative dehumanisation: 'The perfect Miller "fuck" is a biological event between organs, its hallmark—its utter impersonality.' Any desire to explore psychic and sexual splitting is in Millett's language 'a pathological fear of having to deal with another, and complete human personality.' Her priorities are integrative and holistic, prescribing the humanisation of erotica against Miller's 'cheap dream of endlessly fucking impersonal matter … a childish fantasy of power untroubled by the reality of persons or the complexity of dealing with fellow human beings'.

Thus the grotesqueness of Miller for some women readers, taken at face value, easily provokes engaged repulsion—Millett's combative response—if not a bizarre masochistic identification, which casts the text in the role of sadist who inflicts a painful experience on the reader. Miller's obsession with warfare, conflict and disease imagery (the enemy within) on a metaphoric and a narrative level, provokes Millett to set up his corpus as an enemy. But Miller fights dirty, inconsistently and apparently unsystematically, so that ascribing a motive or model to his attack is difficult. Disturbed by one who characterises himself as a murderous and 'roving cultural desperado' ('Blow it to hell! Kill, kill, kill!…' he writes in Capricorn), Millett is poked into indignant defensiveness.

What happens when someone marks out another as their enemy? Despite the pleas of some pacific women, feminism has had to affirm the act of taking sides and recognising the need for strategies. Kate Millett is right to deploy a criticism of conflict with reference to Miller, both because this is what Miller invites and because we often use a military lexicon when we discuss criticism (strategies, defences, engagements, etc.). But what is at stake in the notion of a feminist critical strategy? Feminism engages with the sex war on the page in its critical writing and in the academy, and it does so through deploying the language and tools of a number of military strategies. At its strongest, feminist literary criticism is not applied feminist theory, which would approach texts through a preordained perspective, practising secondarily what it theorises first. If we are to take terms like 'critical strategy' at all seriously, it is necessary to make critical militarism explicit. Both the practice of playing on the contradictions of a political force until it capitulates, and the practice of meeting the opposing force straight on in conventional terms, armed with a coherent strategy, are military operations. Attacking the text head-on with a critical strategy developed prior to a knowledge of that text produces responses which perhaps inadequately meet the 'enemy' threat since they lack a tactical understanding of its form. This conventional attack/defence approach is much less appropriate to reading than are the operations of guerrilla or 'people's war'. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, writing in his seminal 1832 text On War, characterises a 'people's army' as a diffuse, subversive and non-totalising force which overturns the balance of power not by 'cracking the nut' but, having ascertained the nature of the terrain of encounter and the form which the enemy force takes, by deploying a strategy based on the strength of dispersal, unpredictability and difference, not like a conventional 'platoon of soldiers … [who] cling together like a herd of cattle and generally follow their noses'. The flexibility of this approach is important, and it requires a knowledge of the other which is like reading, but reading as reconnaissance. Constructing one's enemy at his strongest point requires the space to imagine, listen to, and 'know' him, and precludes the existence of combative theories constructed prior to the event—theory is engendered in practice. Projecting thought beyond the enemy lines is a powerful exercise in reading. The success of a guerrilla war is described by Clausewitz in these terms: 'The flames will spread like a brush fire, until they reach the area on which the enemy is based, threatening his lines of communication and his very existence.'

If one has already set up a text as a threatening or aggressive force, this would surely be the desired result—a reading which sets the text on fire, and allows that fire to destroy the text as culturally important if it is not strong enough to survive the attack. At its most dextrous, feminist criticism listens to the other voices of writing, finding sources of power—points at which literature becomes something other than it seems—as well as showing how texts position themselves politically. Feminist criticism deals most effectively with violently misogynous writing when it opens up paradoxes where the text promises certainty, when it shows inconsistencies beneath a ruthless logic, and finds fault-lines in monoliths. There is something far more satisfying in showing how a piece of sexist writing trips over its own doubts and, in its ideological capacity, self-destructs, than in meeting that writing head-on with a pre-formed theory, often deploying the opponent's rules of engagement, and battling it out at the risk of losing. A more subversive strategy acts 'Like smouldering embers, it consumes the basic foundations of the enemy forces … a general conflagration closes in on the enemy'. A feminist reading of Miller is, then, more complex and more successful if it kindles the doubts already inherent in Cancer—a novel so obsessed with disease as an internal other, the cancer of its title—causing the text to burn itself out or capitulate to the gnawing enemy within.


When a feminist reads a writer like Henry Miller she engages in a kind of critical warfare. Oppositional feminism like Millett's holds Miller up as the exemplary fiction of misogyny, a fit enemy for feminist critique to pit itself against. Miller is 'offensive' to some feminists because he is seen to go on the offensive against women in his writing: he offers an example of Klaus Theweleit's dictum in Male Fantasies: 'the erotic woman is the terrain of warfare.' However, we need to distinguish between what happens when women such as Millett find Miller 'offensive', and the moral castigation of Miller's obscenity which underpinned the debate about whether he should be published, in order to avoid once more evoking that uneasy and paradoxical alliance of feminism and the Right which has occurred in recent debates on pornography. This is a question which has been opened up particularly strongly since the early 1980s, and two critical anthologies, the Barnard collection Pleasure and Danger and Snitow, Stansell and Thompson's Desire: The Politics of Sexuality contain especially important feminist work carried out recently on the question of dangerous pleasures, showing Millett's early position clearly in relief. The difference between Millett on Miller and, say, Alice Echols or Muriel Dimen on more recent anti-porn feminist positions represents a crucial historical move. Echols discusses feminism's emphasis on forms of 'politically-correct sex' which would prohibit not only pornography but sexual fantasy per se. Dimen succinctly writes: 'When the radical becomes correct, it becomes conservative', although whether this makes Miller's rampant incorrectness radical is another question.

The cultural feminisms Echols discusses would consign Miller to the censor's bonfire not only for his violence but also for his exploration of psychological aberration, and for his insistence on the politically difficult notion that sexual desire and conscious intent do not always work together: the danger of desire is that what I want is not necessarily good for me, and I might want it more if it isn't. The alternative propounded not only by Millett but more recently by writers such as Susan Griffin, Andrea Dworkin and Adrienne Rich is an idealised notion of 'loving and being loved by women in mutuality and integrity', a 'love' which is consciously ordained, simultaneously enforcing psychic coherence and prohibiting fantasy: '"Integrity", their answer to patriarchy's dangerous dualism, entails the transformation of all aspects of our lives into one seamless, unambiguous reflection of our politics. Such a view assumes that we can and should be held accountable for our desires.' Echols's question, 'How has it come to pass that some lesbians are in the forefront of a movement which has resurrected terms like "sexual deviance" and "perversion" …?' opens up an incisive discussion of the alliance between forms of lesbian cultural feminism and the New Right. But in pin-pointing the polemic against porn as also a fear of fantasy, she moves the debate one stage on: 'in advocating sexual repression as a solution to violence against women, cultural feminisms resort to mobilizing women around their fears rather than their visions.' Jessica Benjamin in her excellent volume The Bonds of Love, which uses late Freud in its analysis of sadism and masochism, puts it in this way: 'a theory or a politics that cannot cope with contradiction, that denies the irrational, that tries to sanitize the erotic, fantastic components of human life cannot visualise an authentic end to domination but only vacate the field.'

Benjamin's whole book is written with a Hegelian vision of 'an authentic end to domination' as its goal, taken through a thorough analysis of contradiction. Any approach to Miller which cannot cope with his insistence on irrational sex and dehumanised bodies, or which would sanitise his erotics, as conventional Miller criticism has done, into a transcendence of bodies and disease in a wholesome and integrative experience of self-liberation, is obviously a non-starter. However there is no straightforward reason why what Gore Vidal [in 'Women's liberation meets Miller-Mailer-Manson man', in Collected Essays 1952–1972, 1972] calls 'Miller's hydraulic approach to sex and his dogged use of four-letter words' should a priori be offensive to feminists. The problem is rather what misogynous machinery runs on Miller's hydraulic power. For Millett this is clear; her Miller is a 'brutalised adolescent' whose 'formula is rather simple': 'you meet her, cheat her into letting you have "a piece of ass", and then take off. Miller's hunt is a primitive find, fuck, and forget.' Miller is indeed a gift to Millett, since his insistence on sex as an inhuman and dissolute experience, and on women as cunts, acts as a perfect foil for Millett's plea for wholesome sexual relations, for women's right to integrated subjectivity. She eloquently develops her position as the negative of Miller's and D. H. Lawrence's misogynies:

Lawrence had turned back the feminist claims to human recognition and a fuller social participation by distorting them into a vegetative passivity calling itself fulfilment. His success prepared the way for Miller's escalation to open contempt. Lawrence had still to deal with persons; Miller already feels free to speak of objects. Miller simply converts woman to 'cunt'—thing, commodity, matter.

Henry Miller was notoriously sexist, and thus if one is interested only in producing a chamber of sexist horrors he is a soft if eager target. When Millett identifies Miller as enemy she unwittingly allows him to choose the weapons. Taking on his lexicon of warfare she fights his game rather than her own. But it is one thing for feminism to engage with misogyny on its terms, and quite another when feminism appropriates those terms as armaments—fighting with its terms. When Millett identifies with Miller's representations of femininity she prosecutes him for winning a sex war for which he has written the strategic rules of engagement. For Millett Miller is something of a case history: an example to diagnose, the articulation of the offensive position: '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'. This is the nearest Millett gets to defeating Miller, using his corpus in service of the project of Sexual Politics. But this is also the point at which she ceases to read him; not only is the essay about to end, but here he becomes important only as a piece of pathological evidence. This leaves feminist criticism in a position of impasse which is hard to break. Once the terrain of engagement has been set up as either attack or defence, Millett's defensiveness means that in the end she ceases to read.

[In Self and Form in Modern Narrative, 1989] Vincent Pecora offers a clarification of critique which is less defensive than Millet's and thus offers a powerful purchase on the text: 'The objective of critique is then to read a specific narrative … as if it were the narrative a contradictory social order told to itself to make sense of its own inconsistencies.' I have said that the key 'experience' for Miller is the desire to escape into a nirvana space of inhumanity; he paradoxically wants his 'lines of communication' to be consumed and inflamed. But not, presumably, by feminist flames: the means of destruction has to be of his own choosing. My task is then to read Miller's desire for annihilation, which I shall now look at briefly, as a theory of his self-inconsistency, first as a possibility of anti-humanist and perhaps 'feminine' disruption, and secondly as possibly a means of closet-reintegration—the absurdity of a masculinity beyond death.


The man watching the clock was shackled and gagged; inside him were a thousand different beings tugging for release…. My only recourse—I no longer had a choice—was to lose my identity. In other words, flee from myself. [The World of Sex]

Millett has identified Miller's writing as murderous but its misogyny is not on any obvious level taken to the point of death—the male 'I' fucks an awful lot of women, but they are not fucked to death. On the other hand Miller's 'own' desire for annihilation, or the erasure of personal identity, is a form of ecstatic self-violation which Millett ignores. Whilst sex and violence might be inextricable, death in Miller is more likely to be an exultant male suicide than murder; 'vast relief' comes with violence to the self not to woman as other. What obsesses Miller is what has been characterised as a feminine state of openness, and an inability to identify with any conventional image of humanity. His 'I' wants to be not an 'I', in a novel which is about want.

What I am interested in is how Miller desires to lose in the sex war he fights. His desire becomes, despite itself, not the desire for victory over the enemy, but the desire for an experience of emptiness, the annihilation of restrictive economies, and an affirmation of a position which, according to the rules he is working with, is uncannily feminine; he is blamed for stripping women of their identities, but then reclaims this loss as his own in a struggle to lose himself. His concern is to plunge into a state of radical self-loss, an experience of 'letting go' which at one point he calls the Absolute. His openness to suffering is a craving for orgasmic negation, the emptiness of the 'spent', suffering as literally 'allowing'—being open to anything. The novel is written on the knife-edge of loss; on one side Miller wanders the streets in 'the splendour of those miserable days … a bewildered, poverty-stricken individual who haunted the streets like a ghost at a banquet', whilst on the other this loss turns inside out into an ecstatic experience of egolessness which comes close to the writing of jouissance. By risking feeling loss painfully, he gains access to its freedom and weightlessness, unencumbered by the spirit of gravity.

Millett discusses Miller's euphemistic use of 'spending', but prefers to concentrate on its contractual aspect rather than the fact that it affirms a state in which he is in possession of nothing, reaching out to a point as near as possible to his own non-existence. Miller has nothing, and nothing to lose: 'I am the one who was lost in the crowd.' This is indeed part of a longer project, picked up again in his essay 'My life as an echo': 'My ideal is to become thoroughly anonymous—a Mr What's-his-name … I am at my best when nobody knows me, nobody recognises me.' 'I' is, of course, still present here, paradoxically calling for its own extinction; it is a paradox incorporated into his statement 'I am inhuman', where the 'I' militates against its proclaimed inhumanity. Miller is primarily exploring desire as that which wants nothing, which is directed toward radical self-destruction. Nothing, therefore, is quite tangibly attractive: 'No appointments, no invitations for dinner, no program, no dough. The golden period, when I had not a single friend.' Austere as this may sound, this is no stoical sensual deprivation but Miller's road of excess, driving him towards his culminative affirmation of dehumanised sex.

In his famous essay 'The Brooklyn Bridge' Miller shows the characteristic mechanism of transgression which inverts an opposition—here emptiness and possession, or loss and gain—in an attempt to fracture that whole economy, gouging a gap into which he can jump, a point at which he is neither lost nor found: 'in the city I am aware of … the labyrinth. To be lost in a strange city is the greatest joy I know; to become oriented is to lose everything.' By throwing away one's egoistic compass one can find one's way to a labyrinth of 'joy' inaccessible to the psychically 'oriented'. The moment one recognises—boundaries, pathways, identities and landmarks—one 'loses everything'. At this point, Miller wants not to map out enemy territory so as to wage war more effectively, but to jump into its strangeness—'the city is crime personified, insanity personified'—so that sides are forgotten. The experience of poverty in a strange city is valuable in the way that it estranges self from self, and facilitates desire as loss of self:

It was only in moments of extreme anguish that I took to the bridge, when, as we say, it seemed that all was lost. Time and again all was lost, irrevocably so. The bridge was the harpy of death, the strange winged creature without an eye which held me suspended between two shores.

Suspended between two shores, he is unfixed and positioned over a flow rather than stasis—as he tells us in his eulogy to movement in Cancer, 'I love everything that flows.' But this is a repeated experience of all being lost, one which recurrently fulfils his anonymous ideal. Death never comes to the textual Miller as an absolute end; rather it is an interruption of identity which manages to return. This uncanny 'Time and again' sensation is what gives the self its discontinuity, and it is what gives Cancer its formal fragmentation. Here is perhaps another example of a male writer producing écriture féminine, for Cancer, like its central 'I', is discontinuous; it slips into repeated narrative deaths so that its identity as a 'whole' novel is problematic. It jumps across time with no warning, allowing half-notions to spread like a disease, expanding into streams of elements (Miller's famous raving lists). At the risk of turning Miller into a postmodernist, his surreal collage of disparate sexual landscapes can be understood as being engendered by an 'esthetic of interruption which structures contemporary consciousness' in the terms used by Sylvere Lotringer in Pure War.

it's the death of intimacy. All the reflection of these last years on an exploded, 'schizophrenic' model of subjectivity corresponds to the great esthetic of the collage. The ego is not continuous, it's made up of a series of little deaths and partial identities which don't come back together, or which only manage to come back together by paying the price of anxiety and repression.

Tropic of Cancer is a montage of bodies and cheap hotel rooms, of formal disruptions and narrative gaps partly created by Miller's aphoristic style (Lotringer again: 'It's … by interruptions that writing is worked on…. aphorisms … are interruptions of thought.') Formal disunity emphasises the 'I' as a possible source of coherence, but it is here that Miller would defy our need for an old-fashioned great narrative most, when the 'I' itself insists on slipping away, apparently at will. But then 'he' comes back, denying even the certainty of absolute disappearance.

Clearly, then, this 'blissful' experience is an important moment for Miller, but that does not make it in itself important for feminism. And what has become of his gendered vision? One simple answer is that the interruption of identity which Miller slips into in this reverie is, negatively speaking, a self-violation—a turn-about in the fortunes of war, when the 'I' transgresses the terms of gendered combat and turns upon himself—and, positively, a 'feminine' gap, both of which render a monolithic feminist critique problematic. Miller is one site upon which we can question the priorities of feminism when confronting what at first seems to be a straightforwardly misogynous text.

In his notes on D. H. Lawrence, written in his Paris Notebooks at the same time as he was writing Tropic of Cancer, Miller conflates his 'aesthetics of death' with sexual warfare:

[With t]he great sexual interpretation of all things … comes the silent admission…. that death can not be averted. It can only be glorified. It gets aestheticized. And men forget too, that in this final period which Lawrence represents woman must fight man desperately.

For Miller the desperate fight comes at the same moment as the aestheticisation of death; political conflict is part of the historical 'final period'—as the moment of Cancer's writing is apocalyptically identified—which is more important for Miller because it is also the moment at which loss or ecstasy is given an artistic rather than a religious or ethical importance. This is the key to what the 'I' says he is doing in writing 'The last book': the prioritisation of an ostensibly unlimited artistic self-overcoming over political battles: the 'complete release' which Clausewitz calls 'Going to extremes', and which can only come when the limits of political expediency are abandoned. This is what Virilio [in Pure War] terms 'an infernal tendency'

heading toward an extreme where no one will control anything. There, Clausewitz says something fundamental: 'Politics prevents complete release.' It's because war is political that there is not complete release. If war weren't political, this release would reach total destruction.

In attempting to abandon the political limits of social morality and, apparently, the imperatives of the reality principle, Miller-as-'writing machine' desires this extreme point of release.

What is at stake in the loss or interruption Miller defies is not simply subjective sensation, or the radical lack of it. This final moment of annihilation takes Miller to the space of writing, and at this point the moral response of certain feminisms comes into its most direct confrontation with Miller's aesthetic, for when he becomes 'a writing machine' he casts off everything except irresponsibility. 'The last book' is the death of him: 'I have simplified everything…. I am throwing away all my sous. What need have I for money? I am a writing machine. The last screw has been added. The thing flows. Between me and the machine there is no estrangement. I am the machine. Once the machine is turned on it is inhuman; the body it uses dies as a human being, the book it produces is written 'anonymously', and Tania, who has humanly invested in him, is destroyed too: 'She knows there is something germinating inside me which will destroy her.' So when Tropic of Cancer plays out its conflict between artistic production and personal ethics, it sets up an extreme agenda which separates inhuman artists from ethical humans:

Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones, the race of artists who, goaded by unknown impulses … turn … everything upside down, their feet always moving in blood and tears, their hands always empty, always clutching and grasping for the beyond, for the god out of reach: slaying everything within reach in order to quiet the monster that gnaws at their vitals.

The morality of personal relations which so concerns Millett is subordinated to the needs and desires of the writing machine. This is clearly a problem for a feminist criticism which in its political readings has been most concerned with ethical fair play. Tropic of Cancer is important to this discussion not because it actually is 'The last book', but because it keeps returning to the question of the amoral psychic and sexual conditions which would engender such a book. When feminism subordinates writing to morality the call for politically correct sex becomes a call for politically correct art. This is not a priority I am happy to echo.

At the end of a long and violent meditation on a girl's 'dark, unstitched wound' Miller has a vision of 'The story of art whose roots lie in massacre'. It is this image which Cancer celebrates. Whilst many feminisms have confronted and analysed massacre, the writing which violence produces cannot be understood through a blindly ethical perspective. To borrow again from Lotringer, Tropic of Cancer is a text written in 'the discourse of war': 'It's a whole politics of writing. It's not an organised discourse of war, even less a discourse on war, it's a discourse at war. Writing in a state of emergency.'

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