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  ICONOCLASTIC RETORT

 

The fascist oligarchs running the show in Washington, DC aren't burning books yet, but they're trying to limit access to them. Neoliberal cuts in public spending are having a devastating impact on the nation's libraries. As Nilanjana Roy points out in her December 1, 2019 Financial Times column, "In the US for the third consecutive year, Donald Trump advocated drastic cuts in his 2020 budget, and proposed to eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which would, in effect, stop federal funding for libraries."  

 

The trend is a consequence of deliberate policies to dumb-down the population, diminish the civic realm, and crush democracy. The intent is also to extinguish dissent aimed at the insidious totalitarian political forces now corrupting the rule of law and denying free access to sources of information critical of the economic and political status quo. The plutocratic thugs manipulating the levers of power have already demonstrated that they will go to any lengths to stifle democratic resistance. Starving public libraries is one more step toward tyranny and it's an effective one for suppressing creative, spiritually liberating voices like my favorite iconoclast, the great American literary renegade Henry Miller, the genius who wrote Tropic of Cancer. Without libraries, Miller's and many other critical literary voices are in danger of being extinguished altogether since there's not much chance of encountering books like Miller's in public schools.

 

Miller died in 1980, but his iconoclastic spirit is alive and well at your public library, at least for now. A friend and enthusiastic Miller fan like myself recently suggested that America needs to find a place for Miller in its classrooms, but it's a tall order. One barrier is Miller's acerbic iconoclasm. "What is called education is to me utter nonsense and detrimental to growth," he wrote in Sextet."Despite all the social and political upheavals we have been through, the authorized educational methods throughout the civilized world remain, in my mind at least, archaic and stultifying. They help to perpetuate the ills which cripple us."

 

Another case in point is this Miller comment from My Life and Times: "The job of discovering things for yourself is far better than learning it in school. That's why I am against schools in general. I tried not to send my children to school when I was in Big Sur, but the authorities would not permit it. I believe all schools are destructive. They kill curiosity and the desire to learn."

 

Miller's writings contain numerous assaults on the American education system and may help explain why school administrators dread his influence and are so reluctant to teach his work. As the author of comments such as "Literature can only be self-taught," and "We are not educating our children to be heroes or saints; we are making robots of them," Henry poses too great a threat to the status quo. It's ironic that the iconoclastic spirit that makes him so valuable as a contributor is what bars him from admittance to the debate, but how could it be otherwise? "I don't believe in education," he told Julie Burns of Mademoiselle magazine. "The only part of education I approve of is Kindergarten. The rest cripples you, makes an idiot of you. I know this sounds crazy, but I believe that we're born creative. We all have the same creative instincts. Most of us are killed off as artists, as creative people, by our schooling."

Judging by such comments, it's unlikely that a place will ever be found in American classrooms for Henry Miller simply because he was more interested in destroying the educational system as we know it than in becoming part of it. Another reason Miller's star is neglected might be his penchant for racy language, a feature of his writing that, along with his iconoclastic vision, continues to ruffle the feathers of our arbiters of taste in academia. I imagine too that Miller's position behind the proverbial eight ball is what makes him so appealing to artists and renegade scholars out there in TV land hell bent on conducting their own educations. It seems to me that Miller is right in saying that schools are something we could easily do without as long as one has a healthy curiosity, a willingness to learn and access to a good library. As Henry Miller's friend, UCLA Special Collections librarian Lawrence Clark Powell wrote in his memoir, Books in My Baggage, "Just about everything comes in and goes out of a university library: books on French roulette and the dynamics of turbulent flow, on vector analysis and psychoanalysis, books of missals and on missals, on flood and drought, law and disorder, books for and against, of good and evil, all free to all, a storehouse as powerful as any uranium stockpile, each volume awaiting the touch of hand, the sight of eye to release its energy." 

But the question remains, how would Henry Miller, the consummate iconoclast, react to the fascist threat to libraries if he were around today? His retort might be a quote from his classic Tropic of Cancer: "Away with lamentation! Away with elegies and dirges! Away with biographies and histories, and libraries and museums!" Or perhaps he would simply recommend his favorite reading venue as an alternative. 

"All my good reading, you might say, was done in the toilet. There are passages in Ulysses which can be read only in the toilet--if one wants to extract the full flavor of their content."