Extremism in the Defense of Liberty?


Long before I moved here and barely even knew what America was or stood for, I heard people say: Everything is so extreme in America: Hurricanes that rip out trailers with the people and pets still in it, earthquakes that rattle the West Coast, fires that destroy entire cities and flooding so bad that you’re a fool not to get any flood insurance. We have Death Valley, the hottest and driest spot in the world and we have lakes so big (like Lake Michigan) that any European might think it’s an ocean instead of a lake.

We also have insanely big fridges, big people and for the longest time, we have said bigger is better.

And now, we’re not just big and extreme, but we’re also a little extremist…

I’m not referring to Il Duce, but I’m referring to the #metoo movement.

Like you, I have been baffled with the number of women going on the record and the number of men who got fired. Like overnight.

In spite of an almost militant second wave of feminists who told us to burn our bras and ditch the patriarchy, we somehow allowed ourselves to be touched and groped and kissed and raped. Did feminism actually do something for women at all, if women felt they couldn’t speak out and when they did, they were often not heard, or worse: discredited? Did feminism fail us all? Maybe it did, and maybe this is why we’re now seeing such a pro-women swing of the pendulum where men are accused and fired and… discredited.

I consider myself a feminist but I also love men and I know many men, and this is probably a solid majority, who do not engage with women in what seems like an epidemic whip-out-your-dick-gate. News flash: this doesn’t turn women on, and if you’re doing it in front of a co-worker whose boss or superior you are, you have a perverted sense of yourself and the woman you’re trying to “impress”, intimidate or sway. Besides, most dicks are misshapen Smurfs and when they’re erect, they look like leaning Towers of Pisa without the gift shops and no, women don’t see them as irresistible popsicles. If you do think so, you have watched way too much porn. Mind you, vaginas are, on the basis of mere aesthetics, overrated too and I think fig leaves were there for a legitimate reason.

Suffrage, feminism came about because women wanted equal rights. Women still don’t have equal rights but we’ve come a far way. Hell, I think my daughter is ten times better off than both my grandmothers were in terms of equal rights, but equal rights are important here because if a man is accused, he has the right to apologize but he also has the right to defend himself and be acquitted if the accusation is false or not substantiated. We are throwing some men under the bus, while others stay in power because they deny the allegations, and a man, any man, in the patriarchal universe of things, is as good as his word…

But I’m also worried about backlash—about women not getting hired because they might blab or the kind of man-hating agenda that may be considered an overcompensation or “correction” of women having been oppressed, and I don’t think that’s right. It may even be a little extremist—extremism under the guise of liberty. Also, men may feel under siege too, and that, in itself, can lead to more sexism and a strained relationship between the sexes.

The vilification of men (as well as the sexual drive) is something that I’ve come across time and again in some second-wave feminists… and for them, someone like Henry Miller was the ultimate bad boy and sexist-in-chief. You’d think that, over time, feminists might have changed their tune, if even just a little bit, but I was surprised to find a New York Times Book Review of 2012 by Jeannette Winterson that kicked Henry Miller to the curb once again. In the review, which is not even a review of the Tropic trilogy itself, but a review of Frederick Turner’s book Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer, all the feminist furies are unleashed in a character assassination attempt to paint Henry Miller with the broad brush of woman hater and nothing else.

Almost half a century after Kate Millett’s blistering attack on Tropic of Cancer in Sexual Personae (1970), Winterson really adds nothing to Millett’s venom, or maybe I shouldn’t be so categorical, for while Millett actually engages in some textual analysis, Winterson just condemns Miller as if he were her stalking ex whom she’d like to wash out of her hair once and for all.

She starts with name calling à la El Trumpo (Hopeless Henry, Heroic Henry, Hungry Henry) and makes sure to weaponize Miller’s biographical details to prove he was a scumbag (deadbeat father, abandonment of daughter from of his first marriage) and a “kept” man (financially sustained by June, and then by Anaïs Nin). “Miller,” Winterson writes “was obsessed with masculinity but felt no need to support himself or the women in his life.” Biographically this is inaccurate. Though Miller was penniless for most of his life and mooched off of women, he also mooched off of men, but the moment he had any money, he would spend it generously on his friends, including the women in his life.

And anyway, what does that have to do with the work?

If we are to believe Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway was a liar and a cheat, stealing others’ work (including hers) and impossibly hard to be married to, but does that mean college kids shouldn’t be reading A Farewell to Arms?

Miller’s anti-Semitism gets thrown into the mix as well, even though Miller also spoke warmly about Jews and none of it seems to have been part of his later work. Yes, he was anti-Semitic, just like TS Eliot and Ezra Pound were but Pound’s Cantos and The Waste Land are still part of the canon the last time I checked. Likewise, Twain’s use of the N-word doesn’t disqualify him either from being Middle School fare (and to aggravate matters, I recently read Twain had a strange fetish for little girls… must be a Southern thing?)

But I digress.

My biggest objection to Winterson’s assessment is that she’s a bit of a one-trick/one-issue pony, as she reduces everything to being a women’s issue. There is a complete and utter reluctance to see Miller’s oeuvre holistically. Nor does it occur to her that the sex in his early work may actually have had an aesthetic function. One only has to explore Surrealism, a tradition Miller was clearly influenced by and working in: Surrealists, Gay Louise Balliet writes in Henry Miller and Surrealist Metaphor (1996) lauded the “Freudian Id, i.e. the libido or life’s energy, the center of sex” just as “Henry Miller exalted the sexual, instinctive part of us and felt the purity of sex could transcend and enlighten the individual out of the dark suppressive society” (9). Instead, Winterson calls Miller’s prostitutes “body slaves” whom he likes to get “as cheaply as possible,” in addition to arguing that all the women only enter the narrative as half-witted “piece(s) of tail”.

On the subject of prostitutes, I do want to get the following out of the way. Most feminists condemn prostitution as they see it as a commodification of women, but coming from a place like the Netherlands where prostitution has been tolerated since the seventeenth century because it had a public function and kept the streets safer when the ships rolled in, I strongly feel that the legit prostitutes (take forced prostitution out of it—and when you sell your body for drugs that is, in my book, forced prostitution as well) in Amsterdam have a certain pride in their profession. Many of them may tell you that they’re “social workers” not “sex workers”. In fact, if we were to describe them as mere “sex objects” or “victims”, they might take offense. They made a professional choice, and if they weren’t enjoying a part of it, they wouldn’t be doing it. And they’re adults—and as adults they’re responsible for their our own choices, even though others may see it as “sin”, “demeaning to women” or the commodification of women.

Furthermore, Miller’s description of prostitutes as mere pieces of tail, is a misconception—Miller is down and out with them. They are all the dregs of society, the hapless products of a world in decay, darkness and dirty alleys, and, are as such, the archetypal metaphor of a Spenglerian vision that so many of the modernists embraced. Finally, if women/prostitutes are so one dimensional as Winterson seems to argue, why is it, that in Miller’s first serious piece of fiction (“Mlle Claude”), he portrayed a prostitute with such warmth and romantic tenderness, that we simply cannot make blanket statements about Miller portraying women, or prostitutes, as mere sex kittens or brainless vaginas. To give you a flavor of that story, he ends it with:

When she cuddles up to me—she loves me now more than ever—it seems to me that I’m just a damned microbe that’s wormed its way into her soul. I feel that even if I am living with an angel I ought to make a man out of myself. We ought to get out of this filthy hole and live somewhere in the sunshine, a room with a balcony overlooking a river, birds, flowers, life streaming by, just she and me and nothing else (The Wisdom of the Heart, 150).

However, for Winterson, Miller has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And she takes it a step further, for she ends her review with a damning condemnation of men in general: “The question is,” she cries out in indignation, “Why do men revel in the degradation of women?”

The answer is: many do not. Nor did Miller. But this is the danger if we adopt extremist views to make up, or so it seems, for the oppression of women in the past… which doesn’t take anything away from my belief that the sexual revolution is far from over…


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2 Responses to Extremism in the Defense of Liberty?

  1. Pingback: Extremism in the Defense of Liberty? – Spending Time with Henry Miller

  2. Stephn J Lewis says:

    But you digress… good read. Thanks for that. So to your point… if I can suss it out. A narrow vision of other is not a gender specific malady. The professional working woman is every woman… be she on her knees for cash or before a collage class room. The templet or stereotype will always be flawed. Dig a bit deeper and find the person. Then respect the free-will of the person.

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