I have felt the gravitational pull from a number of writers over the years. Most writers go through stages of falling under the spell of another author who they’re convinced has a grand creative mind perfectly designed to tell stories about the human condition. Two of these authors standout above the others—Henry Miller and George Orwell. These two literary writers, literary jugglers, whose lives overlapped during the 1930s and 1940s, have a small bridge that connects them. I’ve explored that bridge crossing a number of times: in an anthology of essays titled The Orwell Brigade, in a short-story titled Star of Love, and in two essays. The last two novels (Missing in Rangoon and The Marriage Tree) in the Vincent Calvino series, and a new Calvino novel, the fifteen in the series, weave the Orwell and Miller worldviews into the lives of the characters.
Both authors continue to be read and their books remain in print. Both remain controversial. Their books have been banned and censored. That is a testament to any writer’s success in hitting an official nerve. It is also evidence their literary work touched upon universal human values that persist through time but are sheltered behind a wall of taboos. It is also evidence that the powerful have an interest in monitoring our reading choices.
In most times and places, there is a unifying theme: What is not propaganda is a threat. Neither Orwell nor Miller wrote propaganda, and instead sought to explore the truth.
The truth telling is a dangerous business.
In the world of noir, the world is a shabby, corrupt place and the whip cracks on the backs of those who fail to make the required compromises. Most readers don’t think of either Miller or Orwell as noir writers. Orwell created dystopia worlds; Miller created neither dystopia nor utopian worlds. Henry Miller placed a literary magnifying glass over a sub-culture in Paris where hedonism, creativity, poverty, the arts and friendship bloomed.
Usually there is a reason why a writer continues returning and drawing water from the same well. In this essay, I will explain why I continue to toss a bucket into the Miller and Orwell drinking hole.
Henry Miller and George Orwell shared an obsession with one word that sticks in the crawl of a man—obey. You can sometimes find it as graffiti. A one-word reminder of our condition makes everything clear.
We’ve been domesticated for so long that our condition is accepted as the ‘normal’ and obeying leaders the bedrock of our survival. Not to obey is an indictment that someone has gone feral. In that case, those with the guns put the beast down to stop the rest of the herd of learning dangerous ideas.
We live in servitude as our parents, grandparents before them, a long string of people who obeyed. Disobedient people are less likely to pass along their genes. To disobey carries penalties from social censure and disapproval to disappearance. It all depends on who has disobeyed and to whom. We know of people who disobeyed, and continued disobeying after warnings to obey, that they disappear.
No one would ever hear of them. No body, no final words, no one found to be responsible. Sometimes you come across a news story marking the fifth or tenth or twentieth year of the disappearance. The police are still investigating.
The disobedient are routinely imprisoned, impoverished, exiled or executed. The newspapers are filled with cases. People glaze over with the latest 24-hour news cycle of casualties of those who failed to follow an order, instruction, decree, or a whim.
Henry Miller’s world of disobey was played out in the bars, cafes, and streets of Paris in the 1930s. Tropic of Cancer was a first-hand account of a writer who found his muse and subject in tales of sexual disobedience. The strict puritanical rules over sexuality struck in Henry Miller’s crawl and when he spit them out, the Americans censored him. Barney Rosset fought on behalf of Miller in multiple court battles. He took the matter to the United States Supreme Court. It cost Barney Rosset a fortune and his security in old age was compromised as a result. But Barney never regretted that decision. He would have done it over again knowing the real cost of fighting against the forces of “obey.”
Given the politics of the United States Supreme Court for many years, it may be hard for a new generation to believe there was once such a court that could be convinced that an author had a right to write novels where the characters disobeyed the prevailing sexual mores. Even though Henry Miller’s book offended the sensibilities of those with the power to make others obey, a line was drawn. Henry Miller had a right to disobey them. That included writing about prostitution, using explicit language about sex and bodily functions, and to portray a life of decadence and debauchery.
Rabelais had prowled inside these bedrooms long before Henry Miller’s arrival. Every generation needs a Henry Miller to keep the tall grass from growing and the new ambush points set up by the latest sources of power seeking to enforce the obey commandment over sexual matters.
George Orwell’s essays and novels cast a larger shadow over our overlords who use guns to force us to obey. While Henry Miller was a sensualist, George Orwell thought preoccupation with the sensual was a diversion away from the real war zone. The political implications of “obey” were far reaching and threatened to enslave people in all areas of life. In the essay An Orwellian Look at Henry Miller, I found an ambivalence Orwell felt toward Miller’s writing. As a genuine working-class writer, Miller was the last writer Orwell would have attacked. But that didn’t stop Orwell from expressing his fear that Miller was shooting at small time targets that weren’t worthy of his talents. Orwell had, it seems, a secret wish—to take Henry Miller aside, sit him down and lecture him on the real threat in the 1930s such as Hitler and Mussolini. He might have said to Miller, “Please pay attention. These men have large-scale plans for extending the concept of ‘obey’ across Europe.”
George Orwell was fearful of what he saw—the jackboot on the face of freedom grinding it into the dirt as a warning of what happens when the man in charge is not obeyed. Henry Miller was off in the streets exploring neighborhoods, exchanging stories, gossip, dreams, and rushing back to type them out at 90 words per minute on a manual typewriter. The sound of Henry Miller’s machine was said to be like a machine gun. The rush of exploration into a new language, culture, city and down and out expats fueled Henry Miller’s imagination. He’d disconnected with America. Finding liberation from its constraints created a raging fire inside his imagination.
The coolness of George Orwell’s version of the obedient hell like a sharp blade slowly pierces the skin, then the flesh, and finally the bone. It is surgical in its accuracy of the main malady affecting the patient. His willingness to ignore the cost of his obedience was the message in the bottle found throughout Orwell’s writings.
Like it or not, we are stuck with some system that creates mass obedience, as it is a way to achieve co-operation across a population of millions. In Yuval Noah Harai’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, he makes a persuasive case is made that beliefs, myths, and legends are essential ingredients in order for there to be cooperation required when millions of people occupy congested space in modern society. Since the Agriculture Revolution, every culture that scaled its population has accomplished the task, in part, through the use of a sacred store of ‘ghost stories.’ The storytellers have given rules the means to unify its population.
Those who dare to question the sacredness or validity of the local version of the sacred ghost story endanger the emotional bases for mutual co-operation. Myths only work when they are not too closely examined. When activists, scholars, artists, and critics challenge and question the prevailing myths as serving the interest of the elites, the authorities fear chaos. Chaos is the word we use when co-operation breaks down and it is every man and woman acting individually, shedding a sense of a collective self. What glue that bound a band of a couple dozen people before the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago, and what superglue has been used since illustrates how the puzzle pieces have been kept in place.
When millions of people live cheek-by-jowl in megacities, co-operation among people is the only alternative to conflict and strife. This explains why a threat to the emotional infrastructure of belief that binds people will ignite an official crackdown. Those in power fear the loss of control of the population. Orwell saw through the cynical use of myths, beliefs and legends as disguised power grabs by elites that resulted in the exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few. He warned that propaganda was the enemy of truth. But this is a two-edged sword, an enemy of truth in the form of constructed reality has allowed vast numbers of people to largely co-operate with one another as they share the same constructs.
Miller’s novels subverted a set of beliefs about marriage, relationships, and family units. These are social institutions, which are embedded in the structure of co-operation. They regulate and define the limits of what is permissible within our co-operative social, economic and political lives. By freeing oneself from the straightjacket of sexual restraints, Miller’s worldview threatened, in the view of the censors, to bring down the whole house of cards in a sexual free for all.
In the last two Vincent Calvino novels, the conflict of vision between Henry Miller and George Orwell is explored. A private eye novel may seem an odd location to report on the battle line between the narrow and wide version of resistance, but that is only because we have a bias about the scope and purpose of such novels. I refuse to accept that a novel about a private eye must be contained solely within the boundary of storytelling, an entertainment. A reader is searching for more than story. She or he wishes to connect on a deeper level with the characters. When a character faces choices that humanize or dehumanize him and others, a mirror appears. The reader can feel the process, the doubts, emotions, irrational thought that accompany such choices especially those made under great stress. What a reader wishes to know as well is what price a character will pay. Strip a book of these dilemmas and the story and its characters are the literary equivalent of a can of Zero Coke.
In Missing in Rangoon (2013), Calvino enters the lobby of a shabby hotel in Rangoon and the old woman at reception is reading a book:
“The second bag was heavy; inside he had two one-liter plastic bottles of coke. He walked back to the guesthouse carrying the bags. The old woman behind the reception desk glanced at him as he turned to walk up the steps. She lowered her glasses. “Mr. Smith buys his dinner at the Savoy Hotel,” she said. It was out of the ordinary in her part of the universe where the Savoy lay in an inaccessible part of the Rangoon universe for her guests. She looked up from another Georgette Heyer novel. He caught the title—The Toll-Gate.
“How’s the book?”
“Stolen gold, highway men, mysterious strangers,” she said.
“Makes you feel right at home,” he said.
“Mysterious strangers and a missing toll-gate keeper,” she said.
“I am familiar with the plot,” said Calvino.
“I thought you might be,” she said. “You don’t look like a reader.”
“I’ve been reading Orwell.”
“That man had no romance in his books.”
Calvino thought about it; she was right. Orwell was a lot of things, but writer of romance novels wasn’t one of them. “But he had a lot to say about the toll-gate keepers.”
In another scene, a bar owner captures the magic power that Henry Miller unleashed in the Black Cat:
“Gung took the spliff from Alf, inhaled, eyes hooded, and the smoke rolled from his lips, “She wanted Rob to be Henry Miller walking the earth, fucking whores, hungry at midnight with no money, but a fire in his belly and figuring out to stop the world from stepping on his shadow, capturing his soul, selling it to the devil for a weekly pay check. Fuck that,” Mya Kyaw Thein had said according to Gung.”
It is a feeling shared with Vincent Calvino:
“In the back of the cab, Calvino’s thoughts drifted. It’d been a long time since he heard that name. The writer was from Brooklyn. He’d written Tropic of Cancer, a diary of sexual adventures as Miller lived down and out in Paris in the 1930s. Miller’s wife had sold her body to support him. Vinny Calvino was from Brooklyn. He knew of the legend of Miller who had defied morality, family, marriage, and home to break free—to roam as a free man. Some men escaped; most were trapped. Who were the saddest of them all? Those without a home, living free under Paris bridges, or those who stayed behind in their old neighborhoods thinking they were free?”
In The Marriage Tree (2014) Henry Miller plays the role of the nihilist who believed no one could protect you. No one could be trusted to cover your back but you. The way to freedom from the force of violence was escaping into a smaller world of like-minded outsiders on the run from ‘obey me’ mantras of the shepherds watching the sheep.
“In Rangoon I had a similar discussion with a singer about taking sides. She said there’s a war raging inside everyone. On one side you have George Orwell, and Henry Miller on the other. Those who refuse to accept injustice and violence and inequality quote Orwell’s work. Miller accepted that the murderers would continue to roam free, making the rules to their own advantage, and for the free man, escape was losing oneself in the world of song, dance, wine and sex. Miller didn’t believe that any principle could protect you against those with real power. He thought that nothing could blunt the exercise of power over the exploited. Miller’s idea was simple: stay off the predator class’s grid. When someone puts their life in the hands of a human smuggler, they ignore the fact that it’s his job to deliver them to their new masters. It doesn’t matter that you pray for a savior who thinks like Orwell because you’ll never have a chance to live the free life of a Henry Miller.”
Missing in Rangoon (2013) and The Marriage Tree (2014) are part of trilogy within a larger series. The final book in the trilogy will be published in January 2015. The territory of obeying is mapped in each novel and the fingerprints of Orwell and Miller are to be found everywhere at the scene of the crime.
In 2000 when Chairs was published, the collection of interconnected short stories included one titled Star of Love. It was based on a long conversation one afternoon with Barney Rosset at an outdoor beer bar in Patpong. The premise of Star of Love is Barney’s view on how Henry Miler’s life would have changed had he chosen to travel, live and write in Bangkok rather taking the boat to Paris. Miller would still have escaped from New York but the experiences as a writer would have been shaped by very different cultural, historical and linguistic forces.
The second piece is an essay titled Re-Imagining Henry Miller, which examines the influences on his life in Paris, especially the two women who held a special place in his affection. It is also an exploration of what it means to be an expat and how that experience shapes the creative powers of a writer. The essay raises the question as to what happens to those memories after the expat returns to his or her home shores? Are the memories of that time harvested for further books? Are the memories locked away and the key thrown away?
The third piece, An Orwellian Look at Henry Miller contrast the two authors’ literary commitment to fighting against the command to obey. Their differences were far more than literary taste. They had different biases. Their education, upbringing, and culture made them as alien as any two writers could be. Orwell patrolled the corridors of power. Like Paul Revere in the 18th Century American Revolution he warned that the powerful were approaching with guns at the ready; Orwell swung a bright lantern to expose their hypocrisy, abuses, and lies. To Henry Miller, it didn’t much matter, local tyrants or foreign ones, none of them could be trusted, and none of them were worth dying for or arguing with. He laughed at them, turned his back, and manufactured a life of minimal contact with those who retained the right to inflict violence.
Those who had mastered the nightlife of the street, the bars, and the cafes could run their grifts and were largely left to the margins; the powerful left them alone, a self-contained amusement in the pre-Internet world. They had an ocean of fish to fry. These were the ones who were scared into obeying. Fear and obedience, the twin monsters harnessed by tyrants, will never succeed by threats of violence on everyone. Somewhere, in some crack of the wall joint, a Henry Miller and his gang of expats, sing and dance and drink and make love and forget the rest of the fish in the ocean are scooped up in industrial strength nets.