this essay from my bff george orwell has been on my mind for a few months. one guy i like talking about other doods i like & making me reconsider them, myself & you.
from: Inside the Whale Part I
by George Orwell, 1940
… When Tropic of Cancer was published the Italians were marching into Abyssinia and Hitler’s concentration camps were already bulging. The intellectual foci of the world were Rome, Moscow, and Berlin. It did not seem to be a moment at which a novel of outstanding value was likely to be written about American dead-beats cadging drinks in the Latin Quarter. Of course a novelist is not obliged to write directly about contemporary history, but a novelist who simply disregards the major public events of the moment is generally either a footler or a plain idiot. From a mere account of the subject matter of Tropic of Cancer most people would probably assume it to be no more than a bit of naughty-naughty left over from the twenties. Actually, nearly everyone who read it saw at once that it was nothing of the kind, but a very remarkable book. How or why remarkable? That question is never easy to answer.
… The truly remarkable thing about Ulysses, for instance, is the commonplaceness of its material. Of course there is much more in Ulysses than this, because Joyce is a kind of poet and also an elephantine pedant, but his real achievement has been to get the familiar on to paper. He dared — for it is a matter of daring just as much as of technique — to expose the imbecilities of the inner mind, and in doing so he discovered an America which was under everybody’s nose. Here is a whole world of stuff which you supposed to be of its nature incommunicable, and somebody has managed to communicate it. The effect is to break down, at any rate momentarily, the solitude in which the human being lives. When you read certain passages in Ulysses you feel that Joyce’s mind and your mind are one, that he knows all about you though he has never heard your name, that there some world outside time and space in which you and he are together. And though he does not resemble Joyce in other ways, there is a touch of this quality in Henry Miller. Not everywhere, because his work is very uneven, and sometimes, especially in Black Spring, tends to slide away into more verbiage or into the squashy universe of the surresalists. But read him for five pages, ten pages, and you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood… It is as though you could hear a voice speaking to you, a friendly American voice, with no humbug in it, no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike. For the moment you have got away from the lies and simplifications, the stylized, marionette-like quality of ordinary fiction, even quite good fiction, and are dealing with the recognizable experiences of human beings
… The prose is astonishing, and in parts of Black Spring is even better. Unfortunately I cannot quote; unprintable words occur almost everywhere. But get hold of Tropic of Cancer, get hold of Black Spring and read especially the first hundred pages. They give you an idea of what can still be done, even at this late date, with English prose. In them, English is treated as a spoken language, but spoken without fear, i.e. without fear of rhetoric or of the unusual or poetical word. The adjective has come back, after its ten years’ exile. It is a flowing, swelling prose, a prose with rhythms in it, something quite different from the flat cautious statements and snack-bar dialects that are now in fashion.
… What Miller has in common with Joyce is a willingness to mention the inane, squalid facts of everyday life. Putting aside differences of technique, the funeral scene in Ulysses, for instance, would fit into Tropic of Cancer; the whole chapter is a sort of confession, an exposé of the frightful inner callousness of the human being. But there the resemblance ends. As a novel, Tropic of Cancer is far inferior to Ulysses. Joyce is an artist, in a sense in which Miller is not and probably would not wish to be, and in any case he is attempting much more. He is exploring different states of consciousness, dream, reverie (the ‘bronze-by-gold’ chapter), drunkenness, etc., and dovetailing them all into a huge complex pattern, almost like a Victorian ‘plot’. Miller is simply a hard-boiled person talking about life, an ordinary American businessman with intellectual courage and a gift for words.
… As for the comparison with Voyage au bout de la unit… Both books, use unprintable words, both are in some sense autobiographical, but that is all. Voyage au beut de la nuit is a book-with-a-purpose, and its purpose is to protest against the horror and meaninglessness of modern life — actually, indeed, of life. It is a cry of unbearable disgust, a voice from the cesspool. Tropic of Cancer is almost exactly the opposite … So far from protesting, he is accepting. And the very word “acceptance” calls up his real affinity, another American, Walt Whitman.
… Millers outlook is deeply akin to that of Whitman, and neaarly everyone who has read him has remarked on this. Tropic of Cancer ends with an especially Whitmanesque passage, in which, after the lecheries, the swindles, the fights, the drinking bouts, and the imbecilities, he simply sits down and watches the Seine flowing past, in a sort of mystical acceptance of thing-as-it-is. Only, what is he accepting? In the first place, not America, but the ancient bone-heap of Europe, where every grain of soil has passed through innumerable human bodies. Secondly, not an epoch of expansion and liberty, but an epoch of fear, tyranny, and regimentation. To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons. Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putsches, purges, slogans, Bedaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films, and political murders.
… But in general the attitude is ‘Let’s swallow it whole’. And hence the seeming preoccupation with indecency and with the dirty-handkerchief side of life. It is only seeming, for the truth is that ordinary everyday life consists far more largely of horrors than writers of fiction usually care to admit. Whitman himself ‘accepted’ a great deal that his contemporaries found unmentionable. For he is not only writing of the prairie, he also wanders through the city and notes the shattered skull of the suicide, the ‘grey sick faces of onanists’, etc.,etc. But unquestionably our own age, at any rate in Western Europe, is less healthy and less hopeful than the age in which Whitman was writing. Unlike Whitman, we live in a shrinking world. The “democratic vistas” have ended in barbed wire. There is less feeling of creation and growth, less and less emphasis on the cradle, endlessly rocking, more and more emphasis on the teapot, endlessly stewing. To accept civilization as it is practically means accepting decay. It has ceased to be a strenuous attitude and become a passive attitude — even “decadent”, if that word means anything.
But precisely because, in one sense, he is passive to experience. Miller is able to get nearer to the ordinary man than is possible to more purposive writers. For the ordinary man is also passive. Within a narrow circle (home life, and perhaps the trade union or local politics) he feels himself master of his fate, but against major events he is as helpless as against the elements. So far from endeavouring to influence the future, he simply lies down and lets things happen to him.