By James Gifford
The connection between George Orwell and Henry Miller has been elusive, especially as scholars of modernism and modernity leaned on Orwell’s Inside the Whale to explain everything from fascism, to Wyndham Lewis, to cultural hegemony. Equally overlooked, and less able to call attention, are Orwell’s and Miller’s ties to hotels and hospitality. That pairing and the division between its constituent parts is important to both authors.
I argued in Personal Modernisms that Orwell’s Inside the Whale is too often seen as about W.H. Auden despite being primarily concerned with Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and anarchist pacifism, just not in those words. Both Miller and Orwell used euphemisms to refer to anarchism, which adds to the confusion. The first part of my claim is easy: the book-essay opens on Miller, it has a middle on the MacSpaundays to prove a point, and it then uses that point to return to Miller. The discussion of Miller and his usefulness for understanding politics of the 1930s is central. What’s less clear is how Miller allows us to connect Orwell’s time in the Spanish Civil War in Homage to Catalonia to his time in hotels in Down and Out in Paris and London — in effect, Alcubierre anarchists to Parisian plongeurs.
Orwell’s silence on Miller’s anarchism is at the root of confusions around Inside the Whale, and in part this is because the 1940 essay was the end point of a discussion, not its beginning as it is usually understood. Orwell did not simply go to Spain to fight for POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista). He went wearing Miller’s coat given to him Paris in the closing days of 1936, and thereby encountered Miller’s pacifism first-hand. He also corresponded with Miller beginning in 1935 (Miller, “Four” 3–8), reviewed Tropic of Cancer in 1936, and later reviewed the Villa Seurat’s post-Surrealist journal The Booster for The New English Weekly in November 1937 (Orwell, “Back” 30–31). This all led him to engage in a print interaction with Lawrence Durrell, who defended what I describe via Herbert Read as the politics of the unpolitical in Miller’s and Durrell’s enterprises.
This was all part of the unstated anti-capitalist sentiments in The Booster that had Durrell, Miller, and Alfred Perlès reverse the normal mode of extraction in advertisement-driven publishing. Their art (and others’) was funded by advertisements that the artists mocked and subverted in the pages of The Booster — this is the opposite of the norm, where the caché and engagement of the arts are used to funnel advertisements to readers while corrupting the relationship between artists and audiences. This inversion is the crux of where Miller and Orwell agreed about hotels.
In his review of Black Spring, Orwell returns to Tropic of Cancer with high praise and acknowledges its class-crossing ambitions “to get the thinking man down from this chilly perch of superiority and back into contact with the man-in-the-street” (230). Orwell’s review draws on phrases Miller specifically praised in Orwell’s letters and goes so far as to adopt Miller’s own explanations of his works in response to the correspondence (231). Miller’s letters had a demonstrable impact on Orwell’s thinking, and their contents make the unpolitical politics stand out in opposition to Orwell’s.
Miller’s comments to Orwell in their letters also makes clear their shared interest in subverting systems of exploitation, even if they differ meaningfully on methods. For Miller,
the modesty and the naiveté combined give this chapter[, #22 in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, ] an eloquence and a poignancy far more effective than the dialectical tirades of the Marxists et alia. I don’t think your argument holds water, but I like it enormously. I don’t believe for a minute that we will ever get rid of the slave class, or rid of injustice. (Miller, “Four” 3)
Orwell’s chapter explored the plongeur’s social position in Paris as an exploitation of labour. It was based on his own time working at the Lotti hotel in Paris’ 8th arrondissement. He describes it as akin to slavery insofar as the false naturalization of oppression makes other better possibilities difficult for the exploited to even think of. Liberation becomes a violation of social norms or of psychological reality. In Orwell’s conception,
What makes the [plongeurs’] work in [hotels] is not the essentials; it is the shams that are supposed to represent luxury. Smartness, as it is called, means, in effect, merely that the staff work more and the customers pay more; no one benefits except the proprietor… Essentially, a “smart” hotel is a place where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things they do not really want. (Down 119)
This is a far cry from hospitality, per se, with host and guest both exploited by an invisible third parasitic proprietor. For Orwell, ultimately, “A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure” (Down 122). After a subsequent exchange of letters, Miller adds to his approval of this chapter a note on the depth of his attachment to its critique. For Miller, “It’s a frightening condemnation of society, and it ought to have stirred England, and France, to the depths. To see it dismissed in a brief paragraph by a shit of a Compton Mackenzie makes my blood boil” (“Four” 5). In this more detailed context, which is what Orwell would have understood from their correspondence, what he calls Miller’s “quietism” is not a position lacking in care for the exploitation of workers or what Stan describe as an “acceptant attitude in the face of world-scale disaster” (299), but rather a stance that finds the revolutionary potential constrained by political schemes of domination.
Quietism… It’s the same word Orwell uses as a euphemism for anarchism, as does Kathleen Raine at the same time (Raine 15). However, its turn to the personal is not quite the same as a retreat from the world. Herbert Read famously called it “the politics of the unpolitical” (37), meaning not a solipsism but rather a turn to one’s immediate community in order to evade the entanglements of political activity that appropriates everything with which it engages. “Un-political” as in “an-archons.”
Miller’s reaction in the same letter also provides Orwell with his interpretation of quietism. While suggesting Orwell have Down and Out in Paris and London published in America, Miller states, “I should think now with the hue and cry for Communism there, that your book would be gobbled up…. I have written several of my more radical friends over there about it. I don’t take the least interests in politics myself ” (“Four” 4). From this, Miller gives his rationale:
I think we’re in a mess that is bound to last a century or two…. I think that human society is founded on injustice absolutely, and any attempts to alter that fundamental aspect must be tentative and transitory and doomed to failure. Everything we believe in has to go to the boards, lock, stock and barrel…. I think we are in for an era of the bloodiest tyrants the world has ever seen. I think it will be a nightmare. (4)
This perspective is hardly the unconsciously apolitical man taken up by Samuel Hynes (217). As Miller would later say, “I regard politics as a thoroughly foul, rotten world. We get nowhere through politics. It debases everything” (Conversations 56). With these added materials, Orwell’s depiction of an imagined Henry Miller who hides from the world inside the whale, a surrogate womb to which he consciously retreats, makes more sense (even if it is a horrific image of a hotel). It’s also a result of Miller’s anarcho-pacifism and previous experiences as an anarchist, labourer, and with organized labour (Orend 54). Finally, Orwell’s comparison of Miller’s works to James Joyce’s “nightmare of history” (“Inside” 102–03,105–06) is made sensible by Miller’s closing sentence on the coming age as “a nightmare.” After all, we already know Miller read Joyce carefully because of his quotation of the OOMAHARUMOOMA passage from Work in Progress in Tropic of Cancer (Miller, Tropic 89; Joyce, Finnegans 180).
So what is really at stake here in the unpolitical plongeur? It returns to hotels and hospitality. As Orwell and Miller both recognized, the conditions of modernity and accumulation of capital render hotels as sites of extraction. The plongeur works in hospitality in quasi-slavery with labour extracted for less than its value while the hotel “guest” pays for more than is given. Both become resources from which value is extracted. And what is lost? Hospitality itself, I would argue. Hospitality and guest friendship with mutual aid, the great virtues of the ancient world, fall beneath that which usurps their namesake in modernity. “Hospitality” is lost to the “hotel,” or rather a relational ethics succumbs to modernity’s alienation and reduction of love to systems of exchange and accumulation. But as Orwell knew, that change in modernity and the plight of the plongeur has a moment of visibility in Miller’s politics of the unpolitical. That momentary sighting, that fleeting recognition, must make visible the antithesis of the politics of the unpolitical in a hospitality of the inhospitable: the modern hotel.
If Miller is calling for a retreat, a quietism, inside the whale, this is it — a hospitality without a hotel based on the pre-modern code of guest friendship. Which is why, in the spirit of mutual aid, he would give, if not the shirt off his back, at least the more helpful corduroy jacket from his shoulders like some pre-modern Colline saying “Vecchia zimarra, senti, io resto al pian, tu ascendere il sacro monte or devi.”
Dr. James Gifford is Professor in the Department of Literature, Languages, Writing & Humanities at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the director of FDU Press. He is the author and editor of several books, including Personal Modernisms: Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes (2014) and A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, & the Radical Fantastic (2018), the latter of which won the 2020 Mythopoeic Scholarship Award. He has edited three critical editions of Lawrence Durrell’s works, including Durrell’s first two novels Pied Piper of Lovers and Panic Spring.
Gifford, James. Personal Modernisms: Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes. U Alberta P, 2014.
Hynes, Samuel. The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s. 1972. Viking, 1976.
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Penguin, 1999.
Miller, Henry. Conversations With Henry Miller. Eds. Frank Kersnowski and Alice Hughes. U of Mississippi P, 1994.
———. “Four Letters from Henry Miller to George Orwell.” Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, vol. 7, 2010, pp. 3–8.
———. Tropic of Cancer. 1934. Grove Press, 1994.
Orend, Karl. “Fucking Your Way to Paradise.” Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, vol. 6, 2009, pp. 44–77.
Orwell, George. “84. Letter to Henry Miller.” George Orwell: An Age Like This, 1920–1940. Eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. David R. Godine Publisher, 2000, pp. 227–29.
———. “85. Black Spring by Henry Miller, A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, A Hind Let Loose by C.E. Montague, A Safety Match by Ian Hay.” George Orwell: An Age Like This, 1920–1940. Eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. David R. Godine Publisher, 2000, pp. 230–33.
———. “Back to the Twenties.” The New English Weekly, vol. 12, no. 2, 21 October 1937, pp. 30–31.
———. Down and Out in Paris and London. 1933. Penguin Books, 1989.
———. “Inside the Whale.” 1940. The Penguin Essays of George Orwell. Eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 101–33.
———. “Review of Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.” George Orwell: An Age Like This, 1920–1940. Eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. David R. Godine Publisher, 2000, pp. 154–56.
Raine, Kathleen. “Are Poets Doing Their Duty?” New Road: New Directions in European Art and Letters, vol. 1, 1943, pp. 11–16.
Read, Herbert. “The Politics of the Unpolitical.” To Hell With Culture: And Other Essays on Art and Society.1963. Routledge, 2002, pp. 37–47.
Stan, C.M. “A Passionate Misunderstanding: Orwell’s Paris, Miller’s China.” English Studies, vol. 97, no. 3, 2016, pp. 298–316.