Quiet Days in Clichy
Born of a Woman
Quiet Days in Clichy has the rambling form of a series of anecdotes; yet it also has moments that give emotional shape to a book so concerned with, as Miller would put it, fucking and eating. While Miller offers a series of sexual encounters indulged in by the central character and his friend Carl, so we may wonder whether Miller can achieve a sense of spirit that goes beyond the corporeal. In an essay on 'The Literary Scene' in The New Pelican Guide to English Literature: 9, Lilian Feder mentions Miller's "sensuous response to reality is a form of social criticism and political rebellion." In The Journals of Anais Nin, Miller's lover and friend Nin notes that for Miller most women seemed to be "interchangeable; his desire never became a desire to know them intimately; they were faceless, without identity except as sexual objects." It is hardly surprising, then, that Miller "was to be justly attacked", Feder notes, "by feminist critics in the seventies." The social and political rebellion never incorporated the importance of the feminine, but perhaps, as we shall see later as Miller combines the feminine with the spiritual, there is a way of reading Miller as a writer unavoidably concerned with the feminine beyond that of sexually desirable object.
Miller was born in New York in 1891, and died in California in 1980, but lived many of his most fruitful years in Paris, in a city where he perhaps felt freer to let not only his imagination roam but his bodily desires also. He was a writer interested in stripping everything bare, with Nin astutely noting "he has an eagerness to catch everything without make-up, without embellishment, women before they comb their hair, waiters before they don artificial smiles with their artificial bow ties." Often the sexual encounters are depersonalised, devoid of intimacy. With one, friend Carl says to the narrator Joey, "...listen don't leave me in there alone with her, will you. You can watch us - she doesn't give a damn. She'd fuck a dog, if we asked her to." "Colette, poor soul, had absolutely no idea what to do with herself. She could lie in bed the whole afternoon, fucking her brains out, and be ready for more when Carl arrived from work." "After a siege of it he would beg me to take a stab at her. 'I'm fucked dry', he would say. 'The half-wit, she's got all her brains in her cunt.'"
Miller's is superficially a pornographic imagination, almost in its original definition: writing on prostitution. Many of the women he encounters in his books that include Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn are women who sell their bodies. However, it is often the sort of prostitution that indicates less profit than need, emotional and culinary. Early in Quiet Days in Clichy Carl and Joey discuss what they can do for Colette. "She has no place to stay...she ran away from home. I found her walking about in a trance, half-starved, and a little demented." Another woman they sleep with "asked us how much we would give her for staying with us. In her matter-of-fact way she added that she needed two hundred francs for the rent, which was due next day."
About a quarter of the way through the book the narrator says, "When I think about this period, when we lived together in Clichy, it seems like a stretch in Paradise. There was only one real problem, and that was food." George Orwell muses in 'Inside the Whale' over what type of experience Miller is exploring. "Miller is writing about the man in the street, and it is incidentally rather a pity that it should be a street full of brothels" The pity here lies in an examination of the sort of experiences that limit man to that of mercantile animal. When the woman who comes round looking for some money to pay her rent and sells her body to get it, this is Miller finding a situation to match what Nin calls his "naturalism": man and woman as lowest common denominator.
Yet while we have noted the book is interested in this naturalism, we have also observed that Miller was not uninterested in the spirit of a person, however inexplicably. In the second section of the book, Mara-Marignan, the narrator says "I might say, in passing, that my life seems to have been one long search for the Mara who would devour all the others and give them significant reality." For the narrator this woman was actually called Christine, a woman whom he deeply loved, and where someone when noticing them together insisted, "you will never be happy unless together. You are meant for one another; you must never leave each other, no matter what happens." But they parted. One day he meets up with someone who calls herself Mara and he treats her to some dinner after she says "she was hungry, very hungry." "I was astounded. It was long past dinner hour and besides, stupid though it be, I had simply never thought of a Champs-Elysees whore suffering from hunger." After he leaves later that night, he "stood stock still. I shuddered. And then suddenly, without warning, like a great gout of blood, a terrifying sob broke loose. I wept like a child." It brings back memories of his lost love.
What is interesting about Quiet Days in Clichy is that the book is an unsentimental account of sentimentality, of deep feelings presented with inexplicability because of the sort of tone Miller adopts. A Proust or a Duras would contain this kernel of feeling within the form of the book, making memory and sensitivity the soul of it, and such an encounter explicable within the importance of love. Julia Kristeva, who has written on both Proust and Duras, notes in Interviews that in Duras "...what upsets us is not so much sex but the threat of permanent pain, of the potential cadaver that we have become". In relation to Proust she notes that what interests him is "the ultimate impression that can be attained introspectively by relying on memory, by joining two moments separated in time and space, and by reuniting them in the "rings" of his hyperbolic syntax." But Miller's airy fascination with freedom, fucking and food makes this passage an anomaly. ComparingTropic of Cancer to Ulysses, Orwell describes Miller as "simply a hard-boiled person talking about life, an ordinary American businessman with intellectual courage and a gift for words." It's as if the depth of feeling the narrator shows comes not out of the artful shaping of the material we find for example in Duras's exploration of love in The Ravishing of Lol Stein, where memories of past abandonment come back to the central character when she returns to the place in the present, or in Proust's La Captive, with the narrator's endless fascination with Albertine, but out of the surprising feeling that comes from believing the world is base but with occasional shafts of emotional intensity usually denied. When the woman in the shop "who had told me one day when Christine and I were together, that we should get married quickly or we would regret it," it is a passing remark that becomes a haunting refrain, yet Miller doesn't make it the core of his book as Duras would put such a comment at the centre of hers.
Yet it is also one of the elements that make the novella far more sensitive than the general impression Miller gives. When Orwell says Miller's characters are hardly ordinary since they "are idle, disreputable, and more or less 'artistic'", he adds "Miller's ordinary man is neither the manual worker, nor the suburban householder, but the derelict, the dclass, the adventurer, the American intellectual without roots and without money." Here is a figure of insensitivity, making a buck, getting laid and living by his wits and not through his feelings. Miller is in an all-American tradition that includes Mailer, Bukowski and perhaps even Roth, where tough posturing takes precedence over sensitive emotions. At the beginning of Roth's The Dying Animal, for example, the first person narrator says, "a man wouldn't have two-thirds of the problems he has if he didn't venture off to get fucked. It's sex that disorders our normally ordered lives." But by the end of the book the woman he did love is having chemotherapy for cancer. It is a reality check - real feeling comes through the shallower passion of sexual desire. It is however the case that in such writers the initial emotional reaction to events is pragmatic: they're hardly Proustian projectors, fascinated by the object of love; more figures brought up short by feelings they feel day to day living needn't acknowledge.
Certain female critics have of course attacked Miller vehemently. At the beginning of Sexual Politics, Kate Millet quotes Miller. "The great artist is he who conquers the romantic in himself." Millet later reckons "rather more informative than this sober doctrine of the cave (of women who for example break the barter system of marriage deservedly being beaten) is the insight it provides into Miller's sexual/literary motives and their undeniably sadistic overtones." However, while Millet's purpose is to critique writers including Miller, Mailer and Lawrence from a militant feminist angle, a writer like Marguerite Duras might say that reading Miller etc. is useful for understanding elements of masculinity that a more liberal male writer might hide. When Duras says in her essay collection Practicalities, "I think men's behaviour to women is generally brutal and high-handed," and adds "that doesn't necessarily mean men are like that in the context of the heterosexual couple", she wants to open up problems between the sexes, not condemn someone for their outmoded, 'cave' like views.
Near the beginning of Quiet Days in Clichy, Miller says "in fact it is obvious enough that the sexual life flourishes better in a dim, murky light: it is at home in the chiaroscuro and not in the glare of the neon light". 'Orwell notes in 'Inside the Whale' a new type of novel being written by Miller. "In his books one gets right away from the 'political animal' and back to a viewpoint not only individualistic but completely passive - the view point of a man who believes the world process to be outside his control and who in any case hardly wishes to control it." Orwell adds that he first met Miller in 1936 in Paris, and Miller couldn't understand the sense of obligation many were feeling to fight for the Communist cause in Spain. There is a deliberate political absence in Miller's work, so that all the hunger, opulence, selfishness and cruelty are individualistic inevitabilities, not political contingencies. It is as though everything comes out of the libidinous urges, and to try and impose upon them socio-political perspectives would be a form of literary bad faith. When Miller says in the book "It takes all sorts to make the world and, though up to that time I had never met a generous Frenchman, I believed they existed", this is about as political as he is likely to get. It is a Nietzschean sense of the political, when Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil, "few are made for independence." "It is a privilege of the strong. And he who attempts it, having the completest right to it but without being compelled to, thereby proves that he is probably not only strong but also daring." It makes sense that Miller could understand someone fighting in the Spanish civil war out of selfish motives like curiosity. It would be part of testing one's individuality; not conforming to a herd mentality, however politically justifiable. If sex plays such an important role in Miller's work it rests on the principle of its selfishness. Love comes in, as we have noticed, but as a slightly alien, unfathomable feeling. When Miller says that the sexual life flourishes in a murky light, someone might say what sort of light is required for love, or for that matter politics. Are these acts of compassion as readily as passion, of purpose as opposed to blind desire? And maybe Miller should be right to be wary of love when he so often desires sex. As Nietzsche also says in Beyond Good and Evil: "sexuality often makes love grow too quickly, so that the root remains weak and is easy to pull out."
Miller's perspective isn't only individualist; it is also immediate, aware that the self is a capricious being looking for the next fix of the now. With one of his friend's lovers the narrator mentions that "he was also getting worn out from the heavy sexual diet. And a little irritated because she was eating up all his spare time." Later the narrator says, "I had witnessed these performances before - with other women whom he had been in love with. His emotions usually went through the same cycle: passion, coolness, indifference, boredom, mockery, contempt, disgust. I felt sorry for Eliane." Yet as we have noticed, Miller acknowledges love nevertheless. Even the narrator's position in this passage is from a relative one of compassion, rather than from the irritated angle of Carl. Also the key moment of the book is surely when the narrator feels compassion for the woman he feeds, and how it releases in him feelings for the woman he should have married.
Miller may pride himself on the individualistic and the insensitive but, as Nin says in her Journals, maybe deeper truths lie elsewhere. Talking of Miller in relation to his mother, Nin says "If a person continues to see only giants, it means he is still looking at the world through the eyes of a child. I have a feeling that man's fear of woman comes from having first seen her as the mother creator of men. Certainly it is difficult to feel compassion for the one who gives birth to man." It is as though Miller's individualism cannot quite countenance the importance of women - the very fact that he is born of a woman; that for all his notions of freedom his existence is predicated on her creative act. Is this the tension in Miller's work; and vital to Quiet Days in Clichy? The terrifying sobs that break loose from the narrator are those of the young: "I wept like a child", the narrator insists. It is this combination of the bullish and the sensitive, the individualistic and the vulnerable, that elevates Miller's book far above the pornographic, even if it often descends into the lower functions. There is a haunting paradox in Miller's novella, a paradox where the narrator thinks he is in a world of sexual freedom, but perhaps still more encapsulated by the deep love for a woman, and also by the child within.
© Tony McKibbin