Henry Miller wrote a novel over seventy years ago in which the narrator spoke fondly and admiringly of prostitutes – and low-rent prostitutes at that. One of them was quite exuberant in her whoredom – “a whore all the way through,” the narrator says proudly, because she acted the part “with feeling,” even though it was a part she acted for anybody.
The novel was Tropic of Cancer. The narrator is an expatriate American writer, committed due to circumstance to live in the present, with a focus on the satisfaction of bodily needs, sort of the way animals live (at one point, he declares himself, happily, to be “inhuman”). The descriptions he gives of how these needs were satisfied – especially those satisfied by prostitutes – shocked and mortified several states and the U.S. Post Office, leading to an obscenity trial that eventually produced a ruling in the publisher’s favor in 1964.
I’ve read the opinion that this ruling ushered in what some call the Sexual Revolution – a distinction it shares with some other cultural shifts in post-World War II America. At the very least, it was part of a trend toward more and more openness in the discussion of sex in the United States.
Those who came along in the generations after Tropic of Cancer was published sometimes applauded it as an example of a modernistic, stream-of-consciousness style of literature that broke through convention in the same way some earlier novels had.
But a lot of people were impressed with it in a different way – they were appalled by the graphic descriptions of sex acts, in the context of sordid encounters, and by the way Henry Miller wrote about women. Women were “cunts.” If they weren’t “cunts” they were “sluts” or “bitches.” But they were mainly “cunts,” whether they were whores or respectable.
Feminists have long had a problem with Henry Miller, n’est-ce pas?
Seen as some kind of maven of sexual liberation (and perhaps excess), Miller was interviewed during the 1960s by Esquire magazine and others. Naturally, he was asked for his assessment of the “new” sexual climate in America.
The interviewer David Dury asked Miller if he was bored with sex – referring to the openness with which Americans could speak of it and partake of it. Miller responded:
One can’t get bored with sex. But one is bored with making such a tremendous issue of it. This constant harping on sex all the time is so immature, not just sexually, but socially and politically. It’s as though we’re a race of adolescents.
Dury tells Miller, that it is he, Miller, who harps on it in his books, but Miller’s not having it.
I harped on trying to get at the whole truth of one man: myself. Sex was a big part of that, but no matter how you add it up, in pages or print or words or volumes, it was only a part. It just happened that this was the part that had shock value.
Miller agrees with Dury that all the talk about sex is better than the old ignorance and secrecy that once prevailed. He adds:
But because in the past we have been so Goddamned backward about sex, this revolution is causing sex to become a preoccupation. This I find sad, and even deplorable in many ways.
According to Miller, sex is now a commodity, but what’s worse is that women were becoming commodities. There is a lot of promiscuity, but no passion or vitality.
Miller lets Dury in on what things used to be like in the “bad” old days:
During my time, the girls were so shut in, and you were always watched. Now everybody’s free about sex, but they’re shut in in other ways. In the old days the great difference was that when we were committing these – What are they calling them? Adulteries? Fornications? Illicit sex? Ridiculous words!
When we did it, we did it! We didn’t sit around and talk about it first, intellectualize it. There was always pleasure involved. I mean, great fun! For everybody! Joy, do you see? That’s the big difference, that element of joy! Joy in sex! You’d have to be a blind man not to see it.
In my time, either they weren’t having any sex because of too much guilt, or they were having wonderfully joyous sex. Now everyone’s having sex, the guilty ones probably more than anyone – but it’s so joyless, so much of it.
Dury asks Miller, “Do you consider sex without love to be harmful?” To which Miller replies:
There’s nothing wrong with sex without love. But much more is needed, because just to have a good sex fling isn’t enough, there has to be something more. A man has to fall in love. He has to want something more of the woman and see more in her than an object to be used.
Does this sound like any misogynist you know?
The next question is, “What exactly do you think men are missing in the way they relate to women sexually now?” I love Miller’s response, as most women probably would!
They’re missing a lot of things. For one, there’s no adoration for women! Now there’s another word I would like to emphasize – adoration! Where do we have any adoration today in our talk about women and sex? I believe in adoration, not only in relation to women, but in relation to men as well, where the man above you is someone you adore and admire and want to emulate, the adoration for a master.
This is completely lost in our society today. Instead of adoration for women, men seem to be just always on the chase.
This was all from a man who was seen as someone who despised women and saw sex as nothing but an outlet for a crude impulse – a conclusion people arrived at on the basis of a work of art.
Miller gave this interview back in 1966. I can only imagine what he would think of the way a lot of men see women today. The contempt with which some of these pickup artists speak of women would probably be gravely disturbing to him!
But, as always, the problem is not that simple. The feminism that opened so many doors for women and created so many opportunities for them – a development Miller looked upon favorably – has contributed enormously to the disgust so many men exhibit toward women. In another interview with Dury, Henry Miller expressed a fear that the sexual revolution was “masculinizing” women – something that would be to their detriment.
With foresight, he told his interviewer:
These aggressive females, particularly the American type, aren’t improving their situation vis-a-vis the male…I am sincerely convinced that a woman’s greatest reward comes from the role of – what shall we call it? – stimulator and comforter.
Now if she takes the greater independence and equality necessary for her own development, and becomes masculinized by it, then she is the tragic loser, as much or more than the man. She loses her powers as the seductress, when she becomes masculinized…She’s best when she’s that way. And it’s also best for the man. It brings out all that is masculine about him.
But Dury isn’t giving up entirely on the idea of female independence and equality. Couldn’t these make the woman a better seductress? Miller answers:
Yes, it really should. But if it makes her equally aggressive in the male sense, instead of truly seductive, then it will be like two machines coming together…put a coin in the slot and bang! bang! You see? The poetic prelude and the art of it all will be gone. Just get it over with, bim-bam! I still believe a man really wants to woo a woman. It gives him great satisfaction, don’t you think?
Henry Miller dismissed the idea that he had ever set out to be some kind of expert on sex or love. But for someone who for decades endured a reputation for being some kind of hypermasculine woman-hater, the truth about him is quite refreshing.
Could it be that lurking inside your average latter-day misogynist is a romantic who, sadly, has given up?
- Miller, H., Kersnowski, F. & Hughes, A. 1994. Conversations with Henry Miller. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.