“Liberation,” by Alpha Unit

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?

References

Miller, H., Kersnowski, F. & Hughes, A. 1994. Conversations with Henry Miller. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
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9 thoughts on ““Liberation,” by Alpha Unit”

  1. I’m not one to look back on the old days of sexual “ignorance and secrecy” with some kind of fondness, BTW. There was a lot about those days that I wouldn’t necessarily want to bring back!

    1. Which parts would you not want to bring back? America was strongest and most homogenous in the 1950s. I know SOME of it was due to all our competition being destroyed, but that can’t have been ALL of it.

      We DID progress, we DID make things, we made things better, we even made better things (NOT just a word joke)! We had a space program that WASN’T just an outreach center for terrorists!

      We had the respect of our allies and fear of our enemies. We didn’t make threats lightly, and enemies took those threats at value, because when an enemy crossed our Little Red Lines, we actually DID something to them!
      We WOULD talk with our enemies, sure, but if they balked too long, it was “You make things difficult, prepare for war.” Now, our enemies know they can stall us indefinitely at the negotiating table, until they get/do what they want, and our threats mean essentially nothing.

      Women were more wholesome, more respectful AND more respectable, and I can’t believe that was ALL just a PR job. Now we have Miley Cyrus vs. Nikki Minaj. Oh, and the Kardashians. Our female role models are whores!

      Men were polite, respectful, but also…aggressive in a good way.
      This aggression was tolerated, even when it was not rewarded, but DEFINITELY not punished! Robert has collected increasingly ridiculous stories about male “aggression” being “punished”, which would be hilarious, IF they were sitcom episodes instead of reality!

      I agree totally with your last sentence, that “misogynists” are just romantics who gave up and bought into the new coin-slot mentality.
      Hope turns to cynicism when thwarted!

  2. Well, I tried reading Tropic of Capricorn, long, long time ago. I think I got about 1/3 of the way through it. All I recall is this guy was bored with his marriage, and then one night he goes along to a party with some guy from his work and they meet some women and fuck them; then he realises that New York is full of women who want fucked, so he goes somewhere else and meets some women and fucks them; then he does something else and meets some more women and fucks them. And there’s no seduction, dialogue, the women have no personalities – scarcely even described – there’s no detail – erotic or pornographic – just page after page after page of the same faux hard-bitten fuck this bitch then fuck that bitch then go get some more bitches. Stream of consciousness like a telephone directory, and about as entertaining.

    1. I read Tropic of Cancer long ago, in 1979. Then I read Tropic of Capricorn. Good books!

      As far as the plot goes that you outline above, I like plots like that! Actually, I would like for my life to be like that. 😉

      I don’t know about the rest. He didn’t write many more good books after that. Black Spring is the closest, and I am not sure how good that is.

    2. What I’ve seen is that Henry Miller is a polarizing figure. Those that like him seem to *really* like him, and those that don’t like him can be really vicious in their put-downs of him.

      What those who don’t like him seem to be saying is that they can’t understand him. Is that really what it amounts to?

      His views of women didn’t necessarily coincide with those of his protagonists, though.

    3. Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn both come off as pretty misogynous books. Also the protagonits seem like total assholes! I enjoyed reading them anyway though. Why is it that quite a few womanizers have a reputation for being misogynists? Does that make any sense? Of course, a lot of women who have sex with lots of men are man-haters (whores). I don’t get it. It’s like the more people of the opposite sex you have sex with, the more you start to despise the other gender.

      I also don’t understand how these misogynists clean up with women. Are women idiots? What’s the appeal of a misogynist anyway. This guy hates women. You’re a woman. What are you, a masochist?

    4. I agree, Robert, that the protagonists come across as woman abusers and woman haters.

      Maybe I don’t read these books the way a lot of other people do! To me, they show what the unrestrained, unfiltered male imagination is like. And that imagination can be pretty brutal to women, it seems.

      How misogynists clean up with women is sort of a mystery to me, too. You notice that these misogynistic protagonists don’t have any real intimacy with women, typically. They consort with prostitutes and with other women they can’t really have for one reason or another.

    5. When you read the letters Henry Miller wrote to Anais Nin, a woman he loved passionately, it gives you an entirely different perspective on how he viewed women.

      In one of them, he urges her to be careful in her dealings with this influential man she has to meet with. He tells her, “You think you know something about the masculine mind, but I can tell you you don’t.” He then tells her she would squirm if she could listen in on some of the conversations he and his male colleagues had sometimes.

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