Breaking open Henry Miller’s novel Sexus is not an easy endeavor. Critics usually focus on the pornographic details which lead to the book being banned for several decades. Even when the sexual revolution of the sixties saved the book from it’s underground existence little changed in the perception of Sexus. It’s notoriety is understandable. Even in our age of rampant hardcore internet porn the descriptions in Sexus still carry an explicit edge 60 years later. But to see the book only in light of it’s candid sex is as reductionist and misdirecting as calling Melville a marine biologist.
Miller, in all his works, is a truly transcendental writer, and one of literary history’s last. His stories are not constructed by plot or drama in any conventional sense. Autobiographical in nature, Miller speaks for himself, “Plot and character don’t make life. Life isn’t in the upper storey: life is here and now, any time you say the word, any time you let rip.” Sexus is a meditation on both minor and consequential life moments, with psychologic precision and aesthetically-driven description. Miller’s point of view shifts from stream-of-consciousness to the objective, present tense to memory to mimic human thought as it is.
The story itself is inconsequential. Miller portrays himself as stuck in a dead end job. His marriage is tenuous at best and deteriorates through a series of adultery. Some focus is given to the location, New York, from the view point of the cast of lost souls who find their place in the bars and streets of the metropolis.
Of course, there’s no looking past the pornographic sex. Particularly because it stands out from the rest of the prose. Sex is written explicitly with realism, which is a stark contrast to Miller’s usual mysticism. Certainly there have been criticisms that Miller is just a common pornographer when it comes to the erotic. Non-fictional autobiographies of Henry Miller do reveal such a streak in him. However, I am not content to write off these infamous passages as pure masturbatory fantasy. Miller is far too much the craftsman to fall into cheap exploitation. My theory is these scenes are significant for what they do not portray: a sense of sexual connectivity. Miller’s protagonist cannot identify with the other; partners are exchanged so much they may as well be anonymous. Sex is without participation and the author gazes at the sexual moment with a kind of bodily detatchment. Contrasted with the protagonist’s constant search for meaning in God and artistic freedom, the lack of interpersonal relationships suggests Henry Miller wants to show us a pessemistic view of male-female rapport.
I chose to review Sexus rather than the more well-known Tropic of Cancer. Tropic of Cancer was revolutionary at the time it was published, but I feel Sexus (and two other books of the Rosy Crucifixion series) represents a more skillful Henry Miller and a better example of his experimental writing. But I would choose any book from Miller’s oeuvre as my undisputed favorite fiction. His power to portray themes of alienation, aesthetic aspirations, and social criticism is matched by gorgeous prose and wit.
In contemporary society the original, revolutionary sexuality of the book is toned down. In an age where every sexual practice finds a niche somewhere on the vast expanse of the internet there is no longer a horizon for the sexually impermissible. But even if Henry Miller no longer shocks us, there is still a glimmer of the revolutionary in this book. Upon it’s initial publication and censorship Miller brought the limits of the unspeakable into public light. Contrast that with modern “deviant” sexuality which remains permissible but only in strict privacy. A good example of this would be the current controversy over the army’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Reading Miller is an act of reaffirming his historic challenge to the unspeakable.