Stephen Turner has lived in Florida most of his life and longed to be there the rest of it. He is Graduate Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida and lives in Pass-a-Grille. He has published on everything from the history of geology to the methodology of international relations theory. For decades he has wrestled with the ghost of Max Weber. His best-known books are The Social Theory of Practices and The Impossible Science, and he has a new book due out next spring - Explaining the Normative. Here Stephen discusses Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy.
Stephen Turner on Quiet Days in Clichy by Henry Miller
Sex is difficult. Especially to write about. Henry Miller still incites discomfort, sniggers, feminist condemnation and all the rest of it. Erica Jong herself manages to be prim when writing about Miller. She dismisses books like Quiet Days in Clichy as spoiled by sexual boasting, and instead commends Miller's windy excursions into philosophy, particularly his travelogue to Greece, instead - as representing the best of American transcendentalist philosophy, no less. But Quiet Days in Clichy, and the others like it, still sell. And they sell despite the ready availability of massive amounts of actual pornography, amateur erotic writing on the web, and also despite the fact that Departments of English don't put them on the syllabus. Perhaps they should be on ethics reading lists instead, as I will explain.
The setting is the Paris demimonde, 1928. The book consists of a series of encounters with women - whores, a runaway who moves in with the narrator's flatmate Carl, a woman with children who Carl has become a surrogate husband for, a Danish widow named Christine - and various remembered infatuations, including another Christine, and seductions. It is about hunger, the real hunger of the whores and the narrator himself, who often gives away his last sou to them. It is a record of acts of kindness like this, but also of exploitation which is sometimes returned in kind, as when some demanding whores are sent off with worthless cheques.
The encounters, however, are ethics teaching by example. Nys, the plump whore who is an infatuation of the narrator, becomes the archetype of the life of pleasure lived well and for its own sake.
Just to watch Nys eat was inspiring... She could drag the meal out interminably, her good humor constantly augmenting, her indolence becoming more and more seductive... There were no worms devouring her conscience, no cares which she couldn't throw off.
The runaway Colette and many others represent a stupid and cow-like existence. In a visit to Luxemburg - whose inhabitants lived in 'a beautiful, orderly, easy-going prosperous sort of world, everyone full of good humor, kindly, charitable, tolerant', whose inhabitants' only concern 'was to know on which side their bread was buttered' - they encounter a café owner who hands them a card which reads, in German, 'Café free of Jews'. The narrator and Carl insult and abuse him for his anti-Semitism, but he is uncomprehending. Stupidity is never virtuous in Miller's world, and there is no excuse for it.
But the deepest lessons are stoic, in the classical sense of the teaching that happiness is in our control, because we are in control of our feelings and desires; and that virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature. Nys is exactly this. We are given many things: the occasional fleeting promise of life-long bliss, moments of exaltation, and the pleasures of the flesh. As the remembered Christine parts from the narrator for a new life in Copenhagen, a girl serving them in a Jewish shop tells them, 'You will never be happy unless together. You were meant for each other; you must never leave each other, no matter what.' Christine leaves. This is the human condition in nuce: 'some enter your life for a moment or two, and then are gone, forever.' And in such a world one must live as Epictetus said: 'Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own; nothing to grow to you that may give you agony when it is torn away.' This is the narrator's ethic, though he would never stoop to quoting Epictetus in getting it across.
Women are portrayed sympathetically, but as trapped by their enormous sexual power over men, a power that is mismatched with their own desires, resulting in chronic unhappiness and confusion. But they are also the authors of their own unhappiness. The other Christine, the Danish widow who bolts in the advanced stages of a foursome, had 'the cold seductive charm of the Northern woman in whom prudery and lasciviousness battle for supremacy'. An object lesson in failure. Nys, or the Nys of the narrator's imagining, is the one woman who overcomes this mismatch of mind and desires in good stoic fashion, by matching her desires to her considerable natural powers, and who, the narrator supposes, could 'die, naked and alone, when the time came, without guilt, without regret, without remorse...'
The narrator teaches by his own example - as not free from desire (far from it), but as taking even greater pleasure from the power of his own acts of impetuous generosity. Is a generous stoicism, leavened by humour, the recipe for the good life? I don't think there is a better one.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]