Review of The World of Sex

I’ve read most of Henry Miller’s work but hadn’t heard of his composition entitled The World of Sex until recently reading The Selected Letters between him and Anais Nin. Impulsive Ariel, of course, jumped onto the internet, set my web browser to Amazon and two dayed it. Both delivery and in time spent reading it.

The World of Sex is an extended essay written at the time that Henry Miller’s work was being censored from publication, importation or sale of his work in the United States. He was becoming a cause célèbre in France, where he’d wrote much of his early work. However in puritanical America a number of graphic depictions of sex lead to suppression of his work. A number of copies made it into the US, making his book literally an underground phenomenon until his work was finally deemed not categorized by the legal definition of pornography, however this dynamic caused Miller much consternation and a cause for deep reflection on what sex can mean to the individual as well as the relationships between sex and art, sex and fiction, and sex and society.

As one would expect given his oeuvre, Miller tells the story of how he came to have a number of his views on sex and love through a recounting of his personal narrative. Describing his infatuations and frustrations from the vantage point of decades of distance, not to mention much internal and psychological research, provides the necessary detached frame that allows him to describe impact these impulses and urges being contained had on his – and indeed all peoples – development. Because of these constraints, be it social taboos or ideologies and religions which seek to shame the body, he comes to see these as invalid for they vastly limit our knowledge of others and ourselves.

Society takes much of the brunt of Miller’s animosity, it is an assemblage of conflicting messages that engenders neurosis is listened to. Real truth is the self, Miller believes and shows through his life and work. By rejecting those as a means for guiding oneself and allowing the internal direction one feels to fully take hold – be that in the pursuit of sexual conquests to gain self-knowledge or through living something other than the typical “get married, work hard, follow your dreams leads to failure” mantra then great things start to occur:

Our laws and customs relate to social life, our life in common, which is the lesser side of existence. Real life begins when we are alone, face to face with our unknown self. What happens when we come together is determined by our inner soliloquies. The crucial and truly pivotal events which mark our way are the fruits of silence and solitude. We attribute to chance meetings, refer to them as turning points in our life, but these encounters could never have occurred had we not made ourselves ready for them. If we possessed more awareness, these fortuitous encounters would yield still greater rewards. It is only at certain unpredictable times that we are attuned, fully expectant, and thus in a position to receive the favors of fortune. The man who is thoroughly awake knows that everything “happening” is packed with significance. He knows that not only is his own life being altered but that eventually the entire world must be affected.

Much of the many underlined passages that I have in Miller’s work relates to these moments of revelation – be it as it relates to friendship, lovers, the role of literature in society or something else. It saturates his fiction and here too, such insights appear. In one section on page 33, Miller describes a deep spiritual relationship to numerous authors that I’ve too suggested other people spend time with. Their stories, their vision, their analysis, their dynamic tension, their message, their… “X factor” was something that made it worth’s one attention to read them as well as it makes your inner vision that much more expansive.

A quote of Miller’s

There are comments Miller makes about the sexes that are open to being considered misogynistic. For instance while describing the archetypical psychological aspects of male-female sexual and romantic relationships he states the following:

“A man is usually plagued with all kinds of disturbing notions with regard to love, sex, politics, art, religion and so on. A man is always more muddled than a woman. He needs woman if for no other purpose than to be straightened out. Sometimes it takes nothing more than a good, clean, healthy fuck to do the trick.”

I’m not going to place what he says for the women here lest I seem to be endorsing it outright, but having had a lot of experience with women I think that there is some truth to it. Obviously it doesn’t apply to all, just as the above need not be the truth for all men, however I would largely agree with the above statement and feel that much of what he says is true even if not universally so. Miller, certainly, didn’t place himself fully within this mass, instead identifying himself with the “man of genius,” who through his work or by personal example, seems ever to be blazing the truth that each one is a law unto himself.

As someone versed in Miller’s work I found his reflections on his own writing to be particularly rewarding as it matched much of my memories of them. I’ve only recently begun to remind myself of him due to events in my life, but when I read this, his letters and passages like the below it all came back to me:

The Tropic of Capricorn represents the transition to a more knowing phase: from consciousness of self to consciousness of purpose. Henceforward what metamorphoses occur manifest even more through conduct than through the written word. The beginning of a conflict between the writer who is resolved to finish his task and the man who knows deep down that the desire to express oneself must never be limited to a single medium, to art, let us say, but to every phase of life. A battle, more or less conscious between Duty and Desire. That part of a man which belongs to the word seeking to do its duty; the part which belongs to God striving to fulfill the demands of destiny, which are unstable. The difficulty: to adapt to that desolate plane where only one’s powers will sustain one. From this point on the problem is to write retrospectively and act forwardly. To slip is to sink into an abyss from which there is no rescue possible. The struggle is on all fronts, and it is ceaseless and remorseless.

For fans of Miller as well as those that are interested in essay’s on sex, art, and social matters I highly recommend this book.