Notes on James M Decker’s Concept of “Spiral Form”: An Essay Review

Page numbers refer to “‘The agonizing gutter of my past’: Henry Miller, Conversion, and the Trauma of the Modern” by James M Decker, in Henry Miller: New Perspectives, ed. James M. Decker and Indrek Männiste (Bloomsbury, 2015) pp. 21-31

Abandoned by his wife, Henry Miller is shocked “to the core”, traumatised by the realisation of who he is and what he’s done in his life. He experiences a “conversion of the soul”. James M Decker therefore places him in the “conversion tradition” of writing: Miller’s mental discomfort is a punishment for what he’s done, and his punishment brings about a kind of repentance, which will lead to a kind of conversion. (21)

In Nexus, Miller describes what happened next: he writes down the story of his life “rapidly, in telegraphic style”. It all comes out in chronological order. But later on, having developed as a writer, he would write in “an alinear, spiral form”. (22)

The conversion proper happens when Miller is able to reject the freedoms of modernity and find his own personal creative freedom. The “boundless freedom and opportunity” of modernity “has dissolved into vacuity and mechanisation”: “alphabetically, numerically, statistically, it made sense. But . . . when you examined one lone individual . . . you saw something so foul and degrading, so low, so miserable, so utterly hopeless and senseless, that it was worse than looking into a volcano.” You have to “close your eyes” to the promises of modernity to find yourself, and this amounts to a kind of faith. (23-24)

Closing your eyes to reality and searching for creative metaphors to capture the truth of events is something you do in the face of trauma. Miller was explicit about his practice of distorting the facts and using “creative memory” to reconstruct events. It’s a way of coping with trauma. (25)

But to reconstruct events this way, Miller had to become an artist. His response to trauma in the first instance was just to put down events as they occurred – in “telegraphic style”, as we saw above – but this wasn’t enough: he had to become an artist to get to the “greater reality”, since only an artist can create something new out of his or her experience. (25)

You start not with form but with formlessness, just putting it all down, you “wade through rivers of shit to find a germ of reality”. Then you “spiral around” the self over and over again before you find the form that fits the reality you’ve found. You need to spiral around because you’re trying to get to the traumatic truth and you can’t simply state it. And you never quite hit that truth, so the form becomes a spiral form. (25-26)

“Overwhelmed – or perhaps amused – by his inability to replicate experience, the narrator . . . generates metaphor after metaphor, mask after mask, that can only intimate (imitate?) his trauma and stand for his conversion.” This is what makes Miller’s writing appear formless: metaphor after metaphor that can seem arbitrary, because Miller can never quite express what these metaphors refer to. He’s always “at play” with the reality he’s trying to express, moving around it. (26)

Conversion involves “antisocialisation”: in other words, the convert turns away from his old mode of existence – even friends and family – and towards the new. The “marked” passages in Miller, the “rhetorical pyrotechnics that blast off the page” serve this process of antisocialisation. Decker is suggesting that, in these wild passages in his books, Miller is breaking away from the old forms of literature to create something new, using his own voice. He’s “converted” once “everything that is literature has fallen from [him]”, and so he’s no longer copying other writers and he’s writing in his own voice. (27)

But Decker suggests that Miller’s conversion didn’t end there. He continues to move away from and closer to the self in an endless spiral, each cycle being a rebirth, and “more and more himself with each rebirth.” (27)

Decker’s essay is a nice overview of lots of ideas about Miller, trauma and conversion from various writers – Paul Jahshan, Peter A. Dorsey, Leigh Gilmore, to name a few. It’s given me a sense of what “spiral form” means. Next I’ll read Decker’s book Henry Miller and Narrative Form, in order to get a fuller sense of the concept.

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