I GREW UP IN A PRUDISH, unbelievable era -- the 1950s. Hard to believe now, but in the movies of that time, married couples usually slept in twin beds and unmarried couples didn't "sleep" at all -- if you know what I mean. In fact, that last phrase pretty much sums up the era: You had to know what a lot of things meant in order to know what was going on. For instance, in the movies, waves breaking on the beach meant sex.
And so it was understandable that someone of my generation, someone born in the early '40s and coming of age, as they say, in the 1950s, would greet the arrival on these shores of Henry Miller as something of an event. Ever since the 1930s, Miller's writings had been banned in the United States. When, in the 1960s, Miller's Tropic of Cancer finally was published here, I bought it right away and have it still, an artifact of an era, not to mention of my own thinking.
Tropic of Cancer is the book Miller is working on in "Henry & June," a footnote of a movie, hereafter to be remembered as the first flick to earn the rating NC-17, a rating apparently concocted for movies in which the sex scenes are so dull an X would be tantamount to false advertising. The sex in the movie may be dull; not so the Henry Miller it presents. The movie Henry is a charmer, attractive in a Belmondo-ish sort of way, a rough-hewn guy, lacking some social graces but, hey, no one's perfect. But the real Henry had one other imperfection: He was a rapist.
Now we must back up a bit. Long after I first read Miller's Tropic of Cancer (I remember next to nothing about it) and was impressed, if not awed, by its frank sexuality, I was sent a "review copy" of his Sexus. This is one third of his trilogy (Plexus and Nexus are the others) and is classified as a "fictional autobiography." (That term, incidentally, could be applied to almost everything Miller wrote.) Anyway, in Sexus, Miller and some of his friends rape a woman -- at least that's what it would be called now. Because they find the woman haughty, because they think she's "got it coming," they force themselves on her.
In Sexus, the rape is depicted as truth. Is it? I care not. No matter what it is, it is certainly not described with the slightest bit of disapproval. Anyone who reads Sexus is to be forgiven for thinking that Henry Miller either raped a woman or is hardly offended by someone who did. Either interpretation comports nicely with Miller as an authentic pig who saw women as nothing but sex objects -- not a womanizer, but a brutalizer.
This is not the Miller we see in "Henry & June." But it's the Miller I could not get out of my mind while watching the flick. The engaging American, the sensualist, the eroticist, even the astringent writer who instructs his lover, Anais Nin, in the craft of writing -- this is the man on the screen. But when he is off-screen, when he is out of my sight, I see him as he depicted himself in Sexus. Today, he would be jailed.
But in one review of the movie, I am told not to see Miller this way. In fact, in New York magazine, David Denby criticizes the director, Philip Kaufman, because his Nin "states the current feminist position on Miller . . . a craven bow . . . to contemporary taste." I wonder, though, if the taste of Parisians of the 1930s was all that different from today's. Did they -- particularly women -- think that haughty women deserved a good raping? Please, Mr. Denby, let me know.
I would not go on about this not very good film, or about Henry Miller himself, if it were not for the fact that I am always being instructed not to judge someone by the standards of my time. This is the argument made in defense of H.L. Mencken, who confided both racism and antisemitism to his diary, and it is the defense of Christopher Columbus, who enslaved and eradicated the Indians he came across.
Similarly, I have read how J. Edgar Hoover held certain views about blacks because he was a man of his time. Dwight Eisenhower, a president whose greatness is extolled even though he did nothing great, is somehow not responsible for his racism and lethargy in the face of illegal segregation -- as if no one at the time knew better or thought differently.
What galls me about those who instruct us not to judge people by the standards of our times is that these standards are usually majoritarian views. I doubt if the Arawak Indians, exterminated by Columbus, were forgiving of him, saying that he's just a man of his time. In fact, had they had access to some contemporary accounts of Columbus's expeditions, they would have seen that not all Spaniards were in agreement. Some were horrified by what they saw.
Similarly, by extending the critics' logic, it's whites, the majority, who can tell blacks to ignore some historical figure's racism, to be reasonable and look at the bigger picture. And, I suppose, it takes a man to instruct women in what they should think of Henry Miller.
And so forgive me, critics and others who know better, if I watched this movie and wondered about how men confuse eroticism with brutality and how there's a very thin line between a Henry Miller and the campus goons of late who think the sexual humiliation of women is nothing but good sport. In the movie, Henry loves June and June loves Anais Nin and she, vacant of head, loves everyone. But this viewer, sitting with recollections of Sexus in his head, kept wondering about the woman Miller says he raped and wondering, further, if she approved of Miller. Maybe she didn't. But, then, maybe she just wasn't a woman of her time.