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Prescient v. Prurient: Reconsidering Henry Miller for Banned Books Week September 24, 2013

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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I had a particularly juicy bit of the Tropic of Cancer, which I am reading for Banned Books Week, ready to post up when I came across this passage:

Nobody, so far as I can see, is making use of those elements in the air which give direction and motivation to our lives. Only the killers seem to be extracting from life some satisfactory measure of what they are putting into it. The age demands violence, but we are getting only abortive explosions. Revolutions are nipped in the bud, or else succeed too quickly. Passion is quickly exhausted. Men fall back on ideas, comme d’habitude. Nothing is proposed that can last more than twenty-four hours. We are living a million lives in the space of a generation.

Miller is remembered for his free-wheeling obscenity and obsession with sex, freely catalogued in a genre of his own creation, a transparent not-quite-roam a clef (in the sense that it did not fit the conventions of the novel of his time), works with Henry Miller as an indispensable central character. Tropic of Cancer, in this fashion, prefigures what would become the New Journalism in the 1960s. The passage above, written in the early 1930s, sounds like a something written last week, not last century.

I read The Air Conditioned Nightmare last year and was again shocked at how well Miller dissected the American character, how clearly he observed in the early 1940s the traps our transparent vision of individualism and exceptionalism would lead to, the ones we struggle to gnaw off our own legs today. While Miller is remembered by most, if at all, for his obsession with sex he ought to be remembered among figures like H.L. Menken and Hunter S. Thompson as fiercely perceptive critics of the inherent flaws in the American Dream.

If you want the prurient, you’ll just have to stop by Esoterotica tomorrow night where I’m seriously considering reading some of Tropic of Cancer instead of something original.


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