Tim Pendry's Reviews > The World Of Sex

The World Of Sex by Henry Miller
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Nov 08, 2009

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bookshelves: sexuality-erotica, north-american, literature-general, cultural-studies

Henry Miller wrote the original draft of this long essay when he was about to turn 50, somewhat of a turning point for any redblooded male, but the text was substantially revised for a secondary publication in 1957 when he was nearing 70.

This is a relevant set of facts. This is not a male view of sex so much as that of a highly sexualised male past his powers and frustrated at a world that had always failed to accept him publicly for what he was.

He would not have been alone in that frustration - America 're-moralised' itself in the wake of the Great Depression and the Second World War. The 1950s, even in California where he revised his text, was the high point of an age of sexual repression with few outlets for public discussion of the themes that were close to Miller's heart.

This is why this text is confusing and is going to be of limited interest to all but specialists in cultural or literary studies. It is one third deep wisdom about the human condition (of which more in a moment), one third confused and confusing memoire that clearly has meaning to him but little to us and one third apocalyptic rant against American culture and its in-built propensity to violence.

The rant is violent in its attack on violence and there are layers of meaning here that are quite Reichian (though Reich is never mentioned) but this component does not stand up to much intellectual scrutiny. Given that this essay was really for the few who already knew of Miller and his views (there is a touch of 'Apologia Pro Vita Sua' in all this), it nevertheless gives us an insight into the rage and frustration of a certain proportion of males under the grey moralism of American public culture of the day.

To his credit, and against the portentous style of the public intellectual of his day, whether liberal or Marxist, Miller does not say that all men should be as he is but only that society would be better if it allowed space for the free expression of his attitude to love and sex - and, of course, since then, our culture has given more of that space and some of us do indeed think the world is, if not actually then potentially, a better place as a result.

What is most interesting in this small book of 110 pages of script (actually more like 55 in any normal sized paperback) lies not in the ranting which is set firmly in its period (and which we won't even bother to analyse here) but in the first 30 pages where he describes a vision of love and sex which this author could identify with even if he could not identify with the man in his time.

In a better time and place, these thirty pages, with a dash of thoughts from the end, would have been distilled into an opinion piece in a modern newspaper, the sort that Norman Mailer did so well, but the subject matter (and the liberal and determined use of street terms for private parts and acts) would not have permitted it in his day. So he writes for close friends and posterity and we must read this as the latter.

As a result, the essay is self-indulgent. Yet it contains truths, albeit often expressed in that classically elliptical literary form that American essayists can prefer over simple clarity as if being an intellectual demands that some things not be explained further even if it might be easy to do so.

Miller has a vision of sex that might be called sacred-sexual today. He cannot divorce it from the emotion of love. He regards with contempt (as he notices women do) the tough guy obsessed with sexual performance and unable to make a commitment (though Miller is not talking about the commitment of traditional Judaeo-Christian morality).

Indeed, to be a man for Miller is not to bed women (as male culture crudely suggested until quite recently) but to love women and seek out a communion with life. In this sense, there are very few real men in the world - a more startling proposition to the reader then than today when a real man would have been widely seen as an unemotional potential killing machine and home provider. This was, after all, only twelve years on from the Second World War.

He is sharp on the effects of this on women ...

" The American ... oblivious of everything a woman has to offer except her body. He will treat an exceptional woman like a whore and fall madly in love with a nitwit ... What frightens the shit out of him is to give himself body and soul. The American woman, consequently, is frequently a love starved creature, clamouring for the moon. She will make a man work himself to the bone to satisfy her silly whims. Given free rein, she becomes truly insatiable."

Ouch! - does that not capture perfectly the Judaeo-Christian Anglo-Saxon culture of convention that has neither truly happy men or truly happy women in it? Or rather where some who are happy in such an environment have the help of an entire culture in bearing down on a partner, male or female, who is not.

And that is the point. Some men and some women have been oppressed by their brothers and sisters. This is not a system that works exclusively for men against women or women against men but in favour of the conventional and timid against the creative and lively. It is not a gender war but a war between personality types: "For some sex leads to sainthood; for others it is the road to hell."

There is also a tantric quality to his thinking - not in that cod-'namaste' form so beloved of modern thirty-somethings in California and North London but in its true nature as an engagement with the left hand path of darkness, repulsion and the margins. He refers once to Buddhism but only to make the point that desire cannot be eradicated but must be used for self development (though he is not crystal clear on this or, indeed, most points).

This aspect of self development is where I probably come closest to his views - not in the primacy of sex (although sexual, I see it as merely a facet of the diamond and not the diamond itself as does Miller himself) but in the value of sexuality as tool of personal development for oneself and one's partner.

I also share his view, partly Reichian we suspect, that the actual health of a culture and its propensity to violence and brutality does have some connection to the level at which persons with differing sexualities (including the wholly a-sexual) are allowed to be free in their expression without causing harm to others.

Miller goes into a somewhat fantastic riff on the new society that might emerge if this was recognised - this is his one lapse into daft 'public intellectualism' - but his mix of noble savage meets new age is rather silly. There is some 'age of innocence' stuff that really does not stand up to scrutiny at all. He is still a man of his time in believing in exceptional men and great religious leaders, a position scarcely tenable amongst most thinking people today.

Yet his analysis of the culture of his day is not stupid, although, in my view, the process of social improvement through sexual freedom may be possible, it is a long process involving the settling of more material concerns and a determined assault on authority.

Resources are scarce and authority bites back so the good society is a long way off yet. It cannot be hurried. Free spirits would do well to conserve their agenda, protect their freedoms, cut back the ambitions of any future Constantines and assist others in making society prosperous. But still, as Miller puts it, "If there is something wrong about our attitude to sex then there is something wrong with our attitude towards bread, towards money, towards work, towards play, towards everything."

His approach is not only avowedly 'spiritual' but seen in religious terms (I go with the former but not the latter). He also sees women as persons in themselves rather than as objects for use. Indeed, the first thirty pages, though perhaps unsatisfactorily for many modern women, is a determined assault on the idea that men and women should treat each other clinically or as tools.

Beneath his maleness and use of prostitutes and easy sex, a sex-positive feminist is working hard to get out. It is no accident that it is often women who prefer to read Miller (and Anis Nin) nowadays rather than men, who can get meatier fare elsewhere. But, at the end of the day, he is still caught between worlds with no public debate to help hone his thoughts. Even his five marriages testify to ambiguity (the last to a Japanese pop singer nearly fifty years his junior) - the jewel of high sexuality is still being set in the stone of convention.

What Miller is really doing is trying to create space for 'his' world, as we all do. With some courage, given the period, he calls this world, the 'Land of Fuck'. The cognitive assault here is as sharp now as then but he is not talking about some cold-hearted permanent orgy amongst strangers - quite the opposite. He is struggling towards another vision where emotional engagement is not sanctified as eternal, caught in aspic, but is still recognised as 'true', naturally driven towards its physical expression.

Both parties in a relationship (although he does not state this directly, being a little egotistic as artists often are) should leave the process in better state than when they left it. The biological truth is probably that, for whatever neurochemical reason, Miller needs the process of 'fuck', actually the process of intimate confused engagement with another person, in order to be Henry Miller and that this process of discovery inevitably reaches a natural termination unless renewed positively through consent and understanding (perhaps the private dream of all such men).

In a sense, not truly being a 'swinger' (where emotion is deliberately laid aside from sex) or a 'romantic' (where sex is something inconvenient and perhaps to be avoided as soiling a dream), Miller insists on merging the two - even with prostitutes. He may not love a hooker in quite the same way as a wife but he is determined that she be treated as a person and not an object - a lesson for the drafters of current legislation going through the British Parliament.

Nor does he claim to understand sexuality. He is not interested in understanding it. He is interested in experiencing it. To him (indeed, I share this) it is a component of the 'life force', that which drives us to creativity and becoming. Life is not linear nor is it ordered. Sexual expression, by its very nature, represents the non-linear and disordered nature of being more than do most other expressions of that force.

His vision is existentialist, there is no doubt about that. It is also a life of struggle freely chosen. He points out that there is disconnect between the person he is to those who know him and his writings and that this exists in their minds not his.

His book reeks with frustration at not being understood. He is not the hypocrite. They are blind to his nature. He is not even a proselytiser for sex but for a freedom of which he would be a beneficiary. If we have to bring politics into this, he is an anarchist.

And what he says about 1940 and 1957 could equally apply to 2009 - "Today we seem animated almost exclusively by fear. We fear even that which is good, that which is healthy, that which is joyous." Fear, he appears to suggest, can only be overcome by taking calculated risks or, in the words of others, 'just do it!' And do it with integrity - "If we live like weasels, we fuck like weasels; if we behave like monsters, we die like monsters. Now we eat, sleep, work, play - and even fuck - like automatons. It is the land of nod, with everyone spinning like tops."

He adds: "If we were truly awake we would be stunned by the horror of everyday life. No one in his right senses could possibly do the crazy things which are now demanded of us every moment of the day. We are all victims, whether on top, at the bottom or in the middle. There is no escape, no immunity."

In fact, things are not that bad now. A residual fear is still there but the instincts of the population are increasingly to resist being treated as an object by authority. Sexual expression is still naive and perhaps not overly spiritual but great strides have been made in liberating the creative and the lively without oppressing those who prefer convention.

How less resources and the fight-back of authority will affect this balance has yet to be seen, but we are reaching a point of critical mass, assisted by the internet, for libertarians. People who think like Miller are now easily available as bloggers and twitterers without any attempt at censorship. The rage is subsiding and resistance is growing to an inherited culture of violence, especially state violence. Things could even get better.


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