Thursday, November 16, 2006

Inside The Whale

"When I first opened Tropic Of Cancer and saw that it was full of unprintable words, my immediate reaction was a refusal to be impressed. Most people's would be the same, I believe. Nevertheless, after a lapse of time the atmosphere of the book, besides innumerable details, seemed to linger in my memory in a peculair way."
--- George Orwell, Inside The Whale (1940)

On March 11, 1940, George Orwell's Inside The Whale was published in a limited run of 1100 copies; he had begun writing it almost exactly a year before. It contained three essays of his. The title essay, Inside The Whale, analyzed the work of Henry Miller. The blurb of the book jacket describes Miller as a "little known writer." He was indeed pretty obscure at this point, except for those in touch with the literary underground. According to this Brown University exhibit, Orwell probably earned less than ₤30 by the time the book went out of print (within the year; some copies were destroyed by bombing as well).

"[I]t will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance; and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses." [Orwell, Inside The Whale, Pt. III]

Orwell and Miller had begun a correspondence when Orwell gave some good press to Tropic Of Cancer in a review he wrote for the New English Weekly (Nov. 14, 1935). The two men met in person about a year later, when Orwell paid Miller a visit in Paris.

In Inside The Whale, Orwell declares Tropic Of Cancer an "important" book (and tells why), but the essay reserves its praise mostly for that one book alone; Black Spring is compared with less than favourable results (although he is impressed by the "opening chapters" of the latter). Orwell fires off so much humbling criticism that you sometimes forget the last complimentary thing he said about Miller.

"[Miller] seems to me essentially a man of one book. Sooner or later I should expect him to descend into unintelligibility, or into charlatanism: there are signs of both in his later work." [Orwell, Inside The Whale, Pt. III]

My purpose here is not to dissect or fully summarize the text of this essay. For that, I draw your attention to Stephen Starck's essay Damning Praise: George Orwell Confronts the Works of Henry Miller, found in the first issue of the Nexus journal. (for a smaller taste, peruse this excerpt from Narrative Detours by Raoul Ibarguen.)

"Orwell has written one of the best essays on Miller, although he takes the sociological approach and tries to place Miller as a Depression writer or something of the sort. What astonished Orwell about Miller wasd the difference between his view and the existential bitterness of a novelist like Celine." (Karl Shapiro, The Greatest Living Author (1960)]

I will, however, offer this summary: Inside The Whale is broken into three parts. (the entire essay may be read on-line at Etext and NetCharles). Orwell uses Miller as a springboard to dicuss politics, the state of literature, Paris, Communism, and a number of other topics. Parts I and III focus on Miller; Part II is a diversion. In Part III, George Orwell talks about his visit to Henry in Paris in 1936; I will cover this subject in my next posting.

Inside The Whale was later published in extended editions with the title Inside The Whale And Other Essays (see some of them at Alibris). I've been unable to find any commentary by Miller on this essay in particular.

"[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." [Orwell, Inside The Whale, Pt. I]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Orwell found Miller extremely frustrating. He greatly admired Miller's writing ability but couldn't accept the lack of political activism in his writing. It's as if he wished Tropic of Cancer to be just a better written version of Down and Out in Paris and London.

Personally, I find Miller's detachment from corruption and Whitmanesque celebration the world as it is to be one of the more engaging aspects of Tropic of Cancer.

I wonder what Orwell thought of Miller's later, more politically vocal writings like The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Sunday After the War or Murder the Murderer.

12:38 am  
Blogger RuKsaK said...

It was reading Orwell's Inside the Whale that introduced me to Miller. Until then I'd never heard of him. I was very much into the Orwell, Steinbeck, Wells sociological perspectives. Whilst I'll always like those writers, it was reading Miller which raised my appreciation of writing to a higher plane.

When it comes to questions of timelessness Miller stands up way in front of Orwell.

Of course, it's not a competition, but it's my take on the two.

9:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of fragmentary interest, I guess, found this following reference to Henry Miller in N. Hewitt's L.F. Celine biography "The Life of Celine" (1999); its very good too and a very much recommended read!

Celine's 'advice to Henry Miller in a letter written shortly after he read Tropic of Cancer:

"Take care to be discreet, More and more discretion! Know how to be wrong - the world is full of people who are right - that's whyit's disgusting."
(Hewitt refers to Brassai's first book on Miller for this letter)

Then it goes on: 'Celine never met his fellow-resident of Clichy, though he continued toi read his work, as the correspondence with [Milton] Hindus confirms'

(see Hewitt, Celine, footnote 314, page 314)

Now I can't remember exactly if Miller claimed to have met Celine or whatever (my memory's a bit hazy), but I am sure this would be an interesting "literary relation" to look more closely at...

Best wishes,

Tony G., London, UK

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