J. Wain's Review of Naked Lunch and Henry Miller

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edward_de_vere
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J. Wain's Review of Naked Lunch and Henry Miller

Post by edward_de_vere » Fri Jul 14, 2017 12:01 pm

One of the more famously negative reviews of Naked Lunch in the early 60's came from British "angry young man" writer Jon Wain (misspelled "Wayne" in this printing).

https://newrepublic.com/article/116474/ ... ghs-affair

Although I obviously disagree with his completely negative assessment of NL, his review is worth reading because it contrasts Burroughs with Henry Miller, with whom he is frequently compared. As most readers here know, RS has a great article on the surprising lack of connection (personal or professional) between the two writers:

http://realitystudio.org/scholarship/he ... -overview/

Among the reasons given for this lack of affinity are differences in worldview due to a generation gap (Miller was about a quarter century older than WSB) and different sexual orientation. Wain thinks that the most important divide between the two writers is more fundamental, having do with their attitude towards life:
The idea seems to have got about that Burroughs is the same kind of writer as Henry Miller; indeed, I have seen it stated several times that Naked Lunch is, so to speak, Miller’s Tropics carried a stage further. In fact, they are writers of entirely opposite tendency. Miller is an affirmative writer. He preaches incessantly, and his “message,” boiled down to its essentials, is that happiness is attainable by anyone who sheds his responsibilities and lives by impulse, never doing anything that he doesn’t feel exactly like doing at that moment. ...

Miller, then, is contagious because he is an enjoyer. The “freedom” he proclaims would in practice turn out to be self-defeating, but at least it is a freedom to enjoy life. Burroughs, by contrast, belongs more to the tradition of Celine. He doesn’t want to enjoy himself and he doesn’t want us to, either. Imagine him looking at a landscape and getting anything out of it! The nearest he gets to a description of pleasure, of anybody doing anything because they liked it, is (at the worst) in his obsessive descriptions of fearful sadistic violence
I agree that Wain's description gets at why in spite of superficial similarities (stream of consciousness writing style, pornographic content, explorations of the underbelly of society, interest in Spengler's theories), one really can't speak of Burroughs and Miller in the same breath. Miller thinks that life is beautiful, that people generally have a lot to offer, and that the world is a great place in spite of its flaws. Burroughs takes a much darker view, especially in his earlier works - that desire and pleasure are addictive traps, that most people's lives are driven by their addictions, first and foremost a desire for power over others, and that human life isn't something beautiful but a host for disease and parasites prior to inevitable death. Where Wain is wrong is in dismissing WSB's view as something fundamentally flawed and incorrect.

Burroughs does belong to the same tradition as Celine (and Beckett, even though Beckett was not a direct influence), while Miller belongs to the "celebrate myself" tradition of Walt Whitman. I think that this fundamental difference in attitude towards the world and humanity is why one never really took much interest in the other.
Last edited by edward_de_vere on Mon Jul 17, 2017 2:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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dheadley
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Re: J. Wain's Review of Naked Lunch and Henry Miller

Post by dheadley » Sat Jul 15, 2017 1:39 pm

Wasn't Miller homophobic.....or is the jury still out? Perhaps he just didn't see any advantage in hanging out with 'the Beats'.

Not so with Ginsberg (Whitman) and Burroughs (Celine) who got along well.... most of the time. To their mutual advantage.

edward_de_vere
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Re: J. Wain's Review of Naked Lunch and Henry Miller

Post by edward_de_vere » Sun Jul 16, 2017 12:34 pm

Wasn't Miller homophobic.....or is the jury still out? Perhaps he just didn't see any advantage in hanging out with 'the Beats'.
Miller certainly had his own circle of literary lickspittles and hangers-on (Anais Nin, etc), so the second part of your statement is probably true. Why compete for groupies with the Beats when you have your own? As to the first statement, while Miller obviously didn't have much interest in homosexuality, I doubt he was particularly offended by it either, after all Walt Whitman was Miller's favorite poet.

I do think that Wain is onto something when he says that there really isn't much in common between Miller's celebrate-life-and-myself vision and WSB's darker outlook on the human condition. Incidentally, have you read anything by Wain? I never have nor have I seen any adaptations of his works, though being an admirer of fellow angry young man John Osborne, I probably ought to look into Wain's works at some point.

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dheadley
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Re: J. Wain's Review of Naked Lunch and Henry Miller

Post by dheadley » Sun Jul 16, 2017 4:15 pm

I don’t know much about Wain other than that he had some trouble with Kingsley Amis. I’ve read most of the ‘Angries’ but not him.

The Miller/Burroughs comparisons seem well thought out but hardcore WSB fans would probably say 'so what?'.

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