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Book Review: Killing the Buddha: Henry Miller’s Long Journey to Satori

1 September 2021

John Clegg, University of British Columbia

Jennifer Cowe, Killing the Buddha: Henry Miller’s Long Journey to Satori (Vancouver: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 2020)

Vancouver has become quite the centre for late modernist studies, the locus of which is the Fairleigh Dickinson University Press offices, headed by Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell scholar, James Gifford. Although it in many ways keeps with the general trajectory of late modernist studies, the latest work to emerge out of this milieu, Jennifer Cowe’s svelte Killing the Buddha: Henry Miller’s Long Journey to Satori (2020), attempts to pave a new spiritual path in reading, thinking and writing about Henry Miller. 

Cowe – a lecturer in the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism, Writing and Media – aims, in this work, to demystify the notoriously polarizing Miller by way of situating the entirety of his oeuvre in relation to both his perceived and voiced absorption in the world of Zen Buddhism. Cowe begins by confirming her belief in the widely accepted factoid that Miller was “a deeply spiritual man who had gained a level of awakening through his suffering” (12), and that “he [came] to see the suffering he endured through the lens of Zen Buddhism; Miller seeks to understand his suffering through the Second and Third Noble Truths” (15). 

At first, for those familiar with Henry Miller and the critical studies that have emerged about him and his writing, the thrust of Cowe’s argument might seem to lack novelty, perhaps veering towards derivativeness. Indeed, much critical attention has been paid to Miller and his relationship with Buddhism. A cursory glance at preceding studies which Cowe herself includes in the bibliography of the text displays just how well-trodden is the paper on which the author at hand writes; a representative but not exhaustive list evidences titles including: Thomas Nesbit’s Henry Miller and Religion (2007), David S. Calonne’s “Samhadi All the Time: Henry Miller and Buddhism” and David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism (2008). What’s left, in the wake of these many pedantic studies, to uncover about a writer in relation to their religious philosophy? After all, one doubts that there is much industry left for the base study of James Joyce vis-à-vis Catholicism. 

However, what is novel about Cowe’s study is the ways in which it traces Miller’s spiritual advancement through his pre-Buddhist phases and all the attendant-isms (anarchism and surrealism, for example) that the author engaged with and subsequently shirked. Cowe deftly shifts from a reading of Miller’s life via Otto Rank’s psychoanalysis to the same apposite Henri Bergson’s own form of continental philosophy, Surrealism et al, and religion broadly; all the while keeping in mind, though perhaps in the back of it, the revelatory notion that all are in some way connected to Miller’s Buddhist intuitions. As Cowe introduces the first chapter, in which she discusses the profound influence that Otto Rank had on Miller before he turned to Buddhism, she tacitly implies that the personality trait that rendered Miller appreciative of psychoanalysis was the same as that which opened him up to religious fervor: “Having painfully broken the prevailing social contract, Miller opened himself up to an eclectic range of influences; he was actively searching for new ways to comprehend society and his place in it” (21). 

This is not to say that Cowe, in this work, covers all that there is to say about Miller. More than once, there seems to be a door opening unto previously overanalyzed topics with a new and halcyon backlight – Miller’s misogyny and vitalism amongst them – only for that same door to be abruptly slammed in the reader’s face. It is generally agreed upon that Miller’s problematic writing (or, perhaps, nature) was a blasé aside of his personality, rather than a deep-seated aspect of his belief-system. However, Cowe’s insular reading of Miller goes so far as to not even follow a path to enlighten the less in-group reader of its existence. Like Miller, who “sees no difference between Fascism, Communism, and Democracy, because they are all variations on a theme,” (69) Cowe reneges her scholastic obligation to differentiate whilst also conscientiously objecting to do so in order to reinforce her overarching argument.

Cowe’s purposive rejection of following self-evident critical thoroughfares might be her most impressive display of double-mimetism and, thus, the most practical argument for the philosophic genius of Miller’s life/work. It is as if, while reading this academic treatise, the reader is immersed in the authentic literary lineage of Miller himself. The reader barely has time to object to Cowe’s seemingly lackluster interrogative breadth before they are thrown into the next section or chapter, besieged by an entirely new narrative and an entirely new form of critique. This rhetorical technique seems to be drawn directly from Miller’s playbook; Cowe notes that Miller left the reader with “little opportunity to absorb each image. Instead, we are left with the feeling of having been overwhelmed by the onslaught of imagery, to stop and consider is to forgo the power of Miller’s writing” (43). Much of Cowe’s own image-onslaught is made possible by her lack of close-reading. Coming to Killing the Buddha, the reader should be prepared for more of a biography than a literary study – a move that deftly places Cowe’s writing alongside a figure who quite obviously exerts immense influence over her. 

Miller, Cowe asserts, utilized philosophies “only insofar as they [were] useful to him” (26). And the author at hand does much the same in this work. The self-serving nature of Miller’s grocery-cart belief system meant that Miller could craft “art [that] was not to change society, but to change the artist,” (36) because for Miller art was part “of a post-artistic life, where one’s own life became the creation” (37). Cowe, in this work, does an admirable job of academizing a life rather than a text, whilst staying firmly rooted in the field of literature rather than, say, history. By focusing on Miller’s life rather than his texts, and convincingly remaining a piece of literary criticism, Killing the Buddha convinces one simultaneously of Miller’s greatness and the importance of Cowe’s study.

Cowe unfortunately does not overcome another of the obstacles in writing about Henry Miller as an academic – the fact that “Miller had a well-known disdain for academics,” and a “contempt for those who portray themselves as educated and knowledgeable” (52). A challenge for her next book perhaps? And one that, given the innovativeness of Killing the Buddha, I look forward to.


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