Katy Masuga received a PhD in 2007 at the University of Washington in Comparative Literature with a joint PhD in Literary Theory and Criticism. Her published works include Henry Miller and How He Got That Way and The Secret Violence of Henry Miller. She has also published on DH Lawrence, Beckett and Wittgenstein and teaches at The American University of Paris and at l’Université de Paris (III): La Sorbonne Nouvelle. Here, Katy writes about how she first discovered Henry Miller and the reasons she decided to study and write about his work.
My first introduction to Henry Miller was when I was 19, spending my final year of college in Germany earning a degree in philosophy. It was there that a fellow exchange student exposed me to the literature you don’t really get in school: William Burroughs, Irvine Welsh, Anthony Burgess, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin and so on. I read some of his recommendations, and those that I didn’t were stored in my mind for a later date.
Many years later, after college, after two more years in Germany, after a Master’s degree, after a year in Paris, and after two years of coursework to finish a PhD at the University of Washington, I was at the point of preparing to pass my doctoral qualifying exams. The preparation consists of compiling and reading literally hundreds of books over a very short period of time, in order to write the massive exams. (At one point, the reading amounted to a book a day for one hundred days.) Miller was on that reading list because I had randomly put him on that list along with all of those other writers whose day had finally come. I included everything I could imagine, in addition to the rest of what is expected from a doctoral student of comparative literature. (Hence, very long lists…)
Henry Miller immediately stuck out and made his way directly toward the center of my dissertation proposal. With my undergraduate degree in philosophy, I already had a huge passion for Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and the latter’s influence on French philosophers such as Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille. These guys were writing about the limits of language, passionately destroying meaning, taking apart words, looking in the dark corners of human experience —mythology, parables, the sacred, the unexplainable and unspeakable— that only engaged them more in the paradoxical struggle to always say the impossible.
Suddenly, it seemed only evident and necessary that some one (namely, me) needed to bring to light a couple of things: 1) Henry Miller was writing like these reputable and influential philosophers but in a language all his own; and 2) no one knew it! They were too caught up either in Miller’s obscenity or in his jovial messages about life. But what about his writing? I thought. I found my focus.
Luckily, my committee didn’t tell me that they thought I was completely crazy for choosing such a topic until we were sitting for my dissertation defense. It was at that point that the first committee member, a renowned European scholar in literary theory and criticism, said to me: “When you first chose your subject to be Henry Miller and French philosophy, I thought, ‘There’s no way this could make any sense.’ Now after reading your dissertation, I have only one question: How did you come up with this idea? I am beyond surprised and just have to say, I am completely convinced!”
It was then that I knew Henry Miller needed better press, and I was eager to bring that research to the public. The story of how I came to publish two Henry Miller books simultaneously this year, then, is something to share during my talk.
Perhaps, though, the above explanation still doesn’t account for how Henry Miller really drew me in after I had read through those long PhD exam lists. To answer that, I’ll just say the following:
During the tough times over the years of writing my doctoral dissertation, my PhD committee supervisor used to always remind me of the reason I gave him when he first asked me: Why Henry Miller?
My response? “Because he makes me laugh out loud.”