Henry Miller and William Burroughs: A Letter

Tags: , ,

by Ian MacFadyen

RealityStudio sent the text of Henry Miller and William Burroughs: An Overview to a few friends and scholars for input. While everyone made helpful comments, Ian MacFadyen — currently working on the introduction to the volume of essays that will comemmorate the 50th anniversary of Naked Lunch — replied with a spirited, insightful letter. RealityStudio thought that it formed a perfect complement to the overview, particularly since it adds further evidence documenting the Miller-Burroughs relationship and interprets RealityStudio’s evidence in a different way. Mr. MacFadyen kindly agreed to allow RealityStudio to post his letter.

Your essay on Miller and Burroughs is very good, and a model of clarity and precision. A comparison of the two writers and an examination of the possible influence of Miller on Burroughs is long overdue. This is an area which has interested me for a long time and I hope the following comments and suggestions are useful.

Although, as you show, Burroughs always denied any influence, and even though there is the question of the (non) availability of Miller’s work in the U.S., I have always believed that Burroughs did indeed know Tropic of Cancer — certainly in Tangier if not before. We know that Miller sent a first edition copy of Tropic of Cancer personally to William Carlos Williams (who was among many other writers in Britain, France and the States to get a copy inscribed by the author — an attempt to promote the book and raise its pedigree. Williams was the translator of Philippe Soupault and had met Miller in Paris). That’s only one of a number of possible, tantalising connections (Williams-Ginsberg-Burroughs) — but what are the chances that Burroughs did not read it? Those are truly impossible odds.

Although we cannot know where and when (or how closely) Burroughs read Tropic of Cancer (and/or other writing by Miller), there is, as you put it so beautifully, a felt connection between Miller’s text and Naked Lunch: “If you place Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch side by side, the books do seem to exhibit a secret rapport, like the telepathy of twins…” This rapport, as you say, is structural and thematic: “‘pornographic’, non-linear, autobiographical and bristling with black humour.” But I also think it is a linguistic and, crucially, a methodological rapport. Parts of Tropic of Cancer were cut and filleted from previous manuscripts and inserted and woven “into the fabric of his book” (George Wickes, Henry Miller: Down and Out in Paris, 1969) just as Burroughs wrote to Ginsberg in 1957: “But I never know whether something will fit or not until it fits into the narrative as an organic part of the structure.” The following, for example, is one of a number of passages cannibalised from Miller’s ‘Bistre and Pigeon Dung’ for the opening of Tropic of Cancer:

The rails fall away into the canal, the long caterpillar with sides lacquered in Chinese red dips like a roller-coaster. It is not Paris, it is not Coney Island — it is a crepuscular melange of all the cities of Europe and Central America. Railroad yards spread out below me, the tracks looking black, webby, not ordered by engineers but cataclysmic in design, like those giant fissures in the Polar ice which the camera registers in degrees of black.

This brings to mind Burroughs to Ginsberg from the same letter quoted above (October 28, 1957):

In a sense the action occurs in a superimposed place which is South America, U.S.A., Tanger and Scandinavia, and the characters wander back and forth from one place to another. That is a Turkish Bath in Sweden may open into a South American jungle…

“A crepuscular melange of all cities” and the Interzone’s “superimposed place” are related in generic and visionary terms — (if not geographically exploding in the same directions) — and were assembled by both writers from earlier manuscript materials and, importantly, from letters. (See Oliver’s Secret of Fascination and his edition of the Letters for Burroughs’ own use of same ). George Wickes: “Although somewhat self-conscious as literary compositions, the Paris letters marked an important stage in Miller’s writing. They were good exercises, and they provided him with plenty of material that he was soon to use in his own way… He hoped his impressions might amount to ‘something popular, saleable, palatable.’ Unwittingly, he was already at work on Tropic of Cancer. The letters contain the earliest writing that was to go into that book.” The evident correspondences (forgive the pun — no, please, approve it) here between Burroughs’ desire to write “saleable product” and Miller’s pitch, between their shared methods of “unwittingly” and consciously utilising the writing of letters in processes which would be instrumental in generating later ‘literary’ material — well, it is quite extraordinary, and, I believe, unparalleled. In the two years before it was published, Miller revised the Tropic of Cancer ‘manuscript’ many times (it was always, already, multiform and absolutely unstable as an entity), cutting about two-thirds of the material, a process of cutting and addition which he described as “Weeding out the useless shit. Putting in new shit.” But the new shit was very often the old shit re-digested and redirected. Merde! We are imagining real material fingers-on stuff. Messy. Very. The manuscript of Cancer, like Naked Lunch, was an octopus in osmosis throughout this period, and the physical elements and their manipulation or random merging were instrumental in the final creation and structure of the book ‘itself’ — the books themselves: pages and draft sections, letters and notations, phrases and variations burned and stained and shuffled and shuttled back and forth, rewritten, abandoned, spilled, trodden on, forgotten, rediscovered, congealed, chopped up, continually shifted and sifted and thrown away and recovered and overwritten and manipulated and allowed to blow out from the ceiling fan to arrive like manna in the typewriter’s roll — Hey, Presto! — and it was all good. (But some of it had to go). Both books were materially created — constructed — through a “crepuscular melange”. It is something which I will be drawing attention to in the Introduction to NakedLunch@50. Its importance cannot be stressed enough in regard to the comparable effects (textual and structural) which resulted.

Miller’s letters include both those to Emil Schnellock and others which are really articles-in-disguise — again, the differences between these and the letters from Burroughs to Ginsberg are as important as their resemblance in terms of the purpose to which they were put. Breathtakingly, Miller even wrote of his belief in the mainstream commercial and popular success of Tropic of Cancer in Hollywood and on Broadway, just as Burroughs would work with Brion Gysin and Tony Balch (‘Friendly Films Limited’) for several years on a film version of Naked Lunch and would later discuss the possibility of a Broadway production with Frank Zappa. In both cases one is left both bemused and moved by the two writers’ apparent blindness to the feasibility — not to mention the crazed delusion — of such dreams being realised at the time. Again, this is something which will be considered in an essay in the NakedLunch@50 book as a result of access to the archives of Terry Wilson. This material — including a number of important screenplays, drafts and outlines, as well as legal documents and personal and business correspondence — reveals Burroughs’ desire and commitment to bring Naked Lunch to the screen. So they can SEE it, on the end of that fork…? But there were, indisputably, other reasons… Read all about this in 2009. A doomed film is nothing new, but the doomed project of Naked Lunch — that is quite something else. Remember where you heard it last.

Wickes, in his delightfully written little book, refers to Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit as “another episodic autobiographical novel that dwells on all that is vicious, treacherous, sadistic, obscene, diseased, and repulsive in human nature.” In fact, Miller didn’t read Céline’s book until he’d finished the first version/draft of Tropic of Cancer, but he subsequently revised the m.s. (several times) which must have been influenced by his determined reading of Voyage (slow work, alone in a hotel room with a dictionary and a little opium and vin ordinaire to ward off the dawn chill). Wickes also refers to Céline’s “gallows humour” — which Burroughs provides so literally in Naked Lunch, but as well as Céline, Miller and Burroughs are linked through the carnivalesque tradition and through the work of Spengler. Frances Wilson writes in her excellent Literary Seductions: Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers (1999):

Henry Miller’s is a grotesque body, open at both ends, and his aesthetic is carnivaleque, as the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtian would describe it . . . in Henry Miller we find a writing that ‘celebrates the anarchic, body-based and grotesque elements of popular culture, and seeks to mobilise them against the humourless seriousness of official culture.’ (Simon Dentith, Bakhtinian Thought, 1994).

Wilson quotes Miller from Black Spring, where he wrote that the sound of the name Swift “was like a clear, hard pissing against the tin-plate lid of the world.” Miller is in fact Rabelaisian rather than Swiftian, and his humour and earthiness and vagabondage, his “unquenchable appetite for the fundamental realities” (Robert Nye) are essentially Whitmanesque as well as deriving from Villon’s celebrations of lowlife and Pierre Mac Orlan’s Villes. Literary influence is, of course, a board game without possibility of a winner, but any reader worth his or her salt can still really feel it — without Miller, who is Charles Bukowski? And that is how Miller’s ethos and style became beat and cool again. It’s an intriguing question: “Why was Bukowski ‘acceptable’ in the ’70s when Miller was derided, in fact, beyond the pale? Write on both sides of the paper. You have 45 minutes”. But, really, why? Actually, Bukowski is more ‘sexist’ (yes, it’s possible) and yet… These are the issues no one will engage with because you are going to get it in the horse’s neck, absolutely.

But a comparison between Miller and Burroughs is very productive in terms of their shared relish for the ‘grotesque body’, the carnivalesque and the burlesque and the crudely satiric, and also because they utilise these disgraceful modes in quite different ways. Interestingly, both Miller (as you note) and a number of critics have denied that his work was in any way ‘perverse’, whereas Burroughs, I would maintain, is both wilfully and strategically so, in all senses. Bataille comes to mind, though Burroughs was never philosophical and intellectual in that way, Bataille’s speculations on amputated fingers and the ‘Solar Anus’ notwithstanding. Burroughs is excoriating, emotionally damaged, psychologically fractured, psychopathological from the fucking bone, and he is “open at both ends” in ways which more than ‘radically challenge’ Miller’s deceptive but omnipresent humanism — his writing despises and derides it and completely fucks it over. Despite Miller’s confession to Michael Fraenkel that Tropic of Cancer was written out of “hatred and vengeance”, and despite his passion for Dostoevskian soul-searching, Miller’s delighted irreverence and sheer indefatigability always contradict his attempts at a doomed philosophy. But Burroughs is the very last word from the “windy, bodiless rock”. Miller’s shroud is a covering cloth: beneath it, it’s an orgy, boys. But the boys aren’t there. The ‘Ovarian Trolley’ is on the night-shift – despite protests from one particular male participant, actively engaged…

Another comparison between the two writers would be in regard to charges of misogyny (especially in relation to Sexus in Miller’s case), which is an area worth exploring from their very different heterosexual and queer perspectives. (Interestingly, when I dealt in books — a lovely phrase — in the 1970s, I visited a Gay Women’s bookshop where I was provided with a free list of authors whose works they would not stock under any circumstances — Norman Mailer, Henry Miller and William Burroughs topped the list. I guess there is nothing so different that it isn’t the same when looked at from the right angle.). Miller’s commercial pornography, which includes male homosexuality, raises some very interesting questions. (By the way, Brion Gysin always maintained that Miller was at the very least bisexual and that this was… understood at the time). Burroughs blurbed the 1984 Opus Pistorum, the $1 per page written-to-order 1941 pornographic novel by Miller: “Miller at his buoyant bawdy rollicking best — a spicy whiff from the 1920s.” This quote is useful actually because it does indeed show Burroughs actually appreciating Miller’s writing and very carefully picking exactly the key words to show what he thought was “best” about Miller’s writing. The use of “buoyant” is particularly telling. The quote — admittedly a blurb — goes some way towards mitigating Burroughs’ previous reluctance on the subject. But note that Opus Pistorum is a work of apparently hack commercial pornography, albeit pornography written for an educated elite of Hollywood Directors such as Wilder, Mankiewicz, and Julian Johnson — connoisseurs of limited edition erotica, “by hand”. But in the 1984 publication there is absolutely no differentiation readily apparent between this work and Miller’s ‘real’, ‘literary’ writing — we are told he wrote it for a dollar a page at the beginning of this ‘official’ ‘recognised’ version, but ‘pornography’ is not mentioned until one reaches Luboviski’s little Epilogue on page 287. And neither does Burroughs’ blurb recognise or suggest a distinction. There is a case to be made for looking at this work in detail and comparing it with Miller’s contemporary ‘literature’ — we get the sex and the humour and the vicious pen portraits, but melancholy and Spengler are totally out of the mix. How do we place this ‘production’ in Miller’s oeuvre? There is certainly more to it than meets the eye of the beholder, or the holder of the organ itself.

Above all, few would charge Miller with misanthropy — despite his Spenglerian world-view and his suffering, despite the cruelty of his ‘portraits’, his literal hunger and his rhetorical lambasting, he is inescapably a writer of appetite and relish who loves life and people — despite everything. (This can be shown, for example, by looking in detail at passages from the Tropics in which there is an extraordinary contradiction between the linguistic appetite (adjectival and adverbial) and the apparent squalor and the professed nihilism at work.) “Always Happy and Bright.” Well, not always, but more than most. Despite the melancholia in Cancer, there is little resembling Burroughs’ haunted isolation, driven repugnance, and visceral terrors. Something crucial happens in the few years between the publication of Cancer and Lunch, between these writers’ Paris lives, between a kind of Dostoevskian pre-existentialism and an unremitting psychotic fury… Despite the similarity of their methods, and their shared loathing of bureaucratic collectivism, an enormous chasm opens up — and leaves Miller as an almost apologist for the medieval. The unimaginable BEGINS HERE. “A word to the Wise Guy…”

“– long before he met [Michael] Fraenkel, Miller was steeped in the thinking of Oswald Spengler, whose apocalyptic view he had taken as his own. Miller had in fact reread the first volume of The Decline of the West since coming to Paris and in doing so had concluded that Spengler was the greatest of contemporary writers…” (Wickes). Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac were readers and admirers of Spengler over many years and identified themselves as the fellaheen of disintegrating Western civilisation, waiting for the Apocalypse. As Kerouac wrote in 1950 in The Town And The City: “All the neurosis and the restrictive reality and the scatological repressions and the suppressed aggressiveness has finally gained the upper hand on humanity — everyone is becoming a geek!” I believe that it was their shared readings and discussions of, and their enthusiasm for The Decline of the West which connects Cancer and Lunch — both books are clearly indebted to Spengler and I hope to make this clear in the Introduction to NakedLunch@50. The Miller-Fraenkel ‘Hamlet’ correspondence is extraordinary, by the way. Do you know it? The breadth of reference and philosophic, psychological and social analysis certainly validate Miller’s serious intellectual concerns, even though these ideas are regularly eclipsed in Cancer and his other literary works by his exuberant style and sensuality. (The 1962 third printing of the Correspondence Called Hamlet by Edition du Laurier/Carrefour is an unusual production, bound with red ribbons which pass through holes drilled in the thick, uncut pages. I looked for this edition for a long time — pre-Internet — and finally found it in a junkshop in South London which disappeared the following week. It was an exemplary and fortuitous conjunction absolutely in accord with my extension of Iain Sinclair’s cosmic theory of book dealing, which runs as follows: a). you spend twenty years looking for ‘it’; b). you find ‘it’ and ‘it’ costs 10 pence; c) the ‘bookshop’ is bulldozed into a crater of ash as you depart the premises; d). you now REFUSE TO SELL IT, under any circumstances, including starvation, death, and eternal torture. Congratulations, you just got a real Beat Bargain.

Again, I really like your essay and hope the above is of interest. By the way, it may still be the case that Burroughs did not wish the comparison with Miller and especially Tropic of Cancer to be made and so he disclaimed (too silently). The writer Terry Wilson (who knew Burroughs well) believes that Burroughs was very influenced by Charles Hoy Fort, but when the subject came up, Burroughs would always show annoyance or indifference. Burroughs didn’t want the link to be made, Terry felt, because he feared being perceived as some eccentric as portrayed by the academic intelligentsia, a weirdo with boxes of data and piles of scrapbooks in a city attic… As well as that might be, I still think it inconceivable that Burroughs — and Kerouac, Ginsberg, Bowles, Ansen, Gysin, Girodias, Sinclair Beiles, etc, etc (and so, by extension, Burroughs himself) — did not know Tropic of Cancer BEFORE Burroughs went to Paris. I think you have captured a degree of dissimulation in the record — and of course this is an important question in itself: Why Deny? One thinks of Burroughs and Gysin at the time of the cut-ups, refusing all comparisons with Tzara, the Surrealists, the Lettrists, indeed all ‘literature’. (Though they did refer to all the latter). Why Deny? Because it was necessary to do so, just as Miller protested, “This is not a book . . .” — in his own book. Miller projects “a gob of spit in the face of Art” in Tropic of Cancer while hoodlums throw acid in the Mona Lisa’s face in Naked Lunch… perhaps that’s both the resemblance and the difference: from spit to acid.

Very Best Wishes,


And please use or follow up any of the above if it’s useful.

PS. Always something else and another place to go. One important connection between Miller and Burroughs is in their use of cancer as a metaphor — this is present both in their letters and in their great books (indeed it is punned in Miller’s title of course). Curiously, when Gerard Malanga asked Burroughs about his “theory of cancer” (which Robert Creeley had mentioned to him) Burroughs couldn’t remember what it was. But there is a generalised, ad hoc and yet sometimes telling employment of the metaphor which connects them. Entropy of course is also there in both (it was reading Miller that generated Pynchon’s story of the same name and related work) but there is more to be said about the history of this Cancer with a really big ‘C’ — and it is not to be found in Sontag’s otherwise excellent essay, ‘Illness As Metaphor’.

PPS. And there is Miller’s The Time of the Assassins — 1946, New Directions. This was a crucial book of its time, with Rimbaud — “the wandering spirit in revolt” — praised as apocalyptic prophet of the Atomic Age. And significantly, Miller is entranced by… Rimbaud’s early Letters. But of course. (If memory serves, this work by Miller was used in a cut-up by Brion Gysin… I will have to check on that).

PPPS. And then there is exile, expatriation, the remittance man — Miller in Paris, and Burroughs in Paris. And of course Burroughs was aware of all that and didn’t wish to be cast in that light — or in that shadow. But both writers, returning to the U.S. at the end of their lives, shared a nostalgia for the Paris which each had known — different, but in crucial ways the same. Burroughs’ essay ‘Paris Please Stay The Same’ is an elegy for a vanished place and time and a love letter to the City of Light which is unashamedly lyrical and evocative of loss and brings to mind Miller’s 1927 trip to Paris and the view of the city from the dirty window of a shabby hotel’s pitch-black third floor toilet — a view which was “so sweepingly soft and intoxicating it brought tears to my eyes.” Robert Ferguson in his engaging biography of Miller (A Life, 1991) comments on this epiphany: “This experience of his, mingling the smells of the toilet with a sensation of ecstatic reverence for his ancient and grimy surroundings, sounded the keynote of the long love-affair with Paris on which he was about to embark. Indeed, it may have been the moment at which he actually fell in love with the city.” When Miller was “putting… new shit” in the manuscript(s) of Tropic of Cancer, it was truly the shit of Paris — the old, human, intimate and intoxicating odour and raw stuff of streets, sex and sewers. And that’s where Burroughs’ “spicy whiff” comes from. Little wonder that Miller expressed his loathing of U.S. ‘civilisation’ through the term air-conditioned nightmare. “Me, I can’t even smell that I’m alive.”

PPPPS. The works of both Miller and Burroughs must now suffer the rectitude and prudery of political correctness — but really, this is fine, it is absolutely as it should be – Miller and Burroughs’ provocations and delirious humour are still finding their appropriate targets. Disgust and outrage and heart attacks lie in wait for the moral arbiters of p.c. — their hypocritical prurience will be generously rewarded. AS INTENDED. That is the litmus test of these books’ longevity — “The Mark Inside was coming up fast…” Fast, furious, and forever. HIT THEM WHERE IT HURTS — the solar plexus, the Sexus, the Very Seat of Laughter. “Darling, I nearly died. Could hardly toddle home…” That was always the kill in view: give those suckers exactly what they deserve. Miller and Burroughs had that, at least, as their shared ‘programme’. Give them what they (don’t) want… it will (in any case) destroy them. So: CHOOSE.

How do we locate misogyny and how do we resist the dangers of explaining it away through “that was then, this is now”? And how can we avoid censoring its history without ‘correcting’ a masterpiece? Is it truly hatred that we encounter in the words of a writer like Miller from so many decades ago, and if so, what to do about it? The ‘debate’ about Miller’s misogyny is not going away, ever, even though his ‘case’ has been superseded by an industry of oppression. We should look and think but above all read again — because it is not necessarily so. But if it is so, then we must recognise and address it. Because: Calla Otorga (see below). This is still an area which should trouble us when it comes to Beat Studies and related histories. Those writers, straight or gay or every which way, who so delight us but whose writing, as it is said, demeans and degrades women — if that is the case, do we merely acknowledge the ‘fault’ and then continue to read with relish or with detachment, ‘correctly’ or critically or otherwise, warily or regardless? And doesn’t this note itself assume at some level that the readers of ‘problematic’ texts such as Miller’s are always necessarily men?

There is a lot more still to be discussed in this fascinating area, but what you have written is excellent and we should definitely CORRESPOND about this. Sometimes one just knows that it’s going to be… interesting.

As you live so must you die

He who hits first hits twice

Silence gives consent

He who does something once can do it a hundred times

Ciao — Ian XXXXX

Posted by RealityStudio on 18 July 2007. Many thanks to Ian MacFadyen
Permalink | Print This Page | Email This Page
Comments Total: 3
Aaron Goldberg
Jul 30 2007
5:29 am

Is Ian MacFadyen the same Ian macFadyen that is a well known Australian comedian and actor?

Jul 30 2007
1:34 pm

According to the “Burroughs Ian,” he and the Australian comedian are not related.

Graham Rae
Mar 12 2009
3:55 pm

I still don’t understand. Was Burroughs truly into Miller or not?



Add Comment  

All comments become the property of RealityStudio.org.

Required and published
Required but not published