Henry Miller Long Fiction Analysis
Henry Miller’s books, in their frank sexual description, pushed back the last frontier of American literary realism. Sex was, for Miller, a means by which to study the cosmos: He noted in The World of Sex that to enter life by way of the vagina is as good a way as any. If you enter deep enough, remain long enough, you will find what you seek. But you’ve got to enter with your heart and soul—and check your belongings outside.
Whatever he sought, women became his connection to the universal. Although women are often depicted as sexual objects in his fiction, sex, he insisted, is “an elemental force. It’s just as mysterious and magical as talking about God or the nature of the universe.” The way in which Miller used obscenity against the bourgeoisie is telling: that sex was considered “dirty” reflected the puritanical nature of the culture he was attacking.
Because of his use of the obscene, the world of Miller’s books is often repulsive and degrading, filled with grotesque characters living on the margin of society. The harsh reality of life must be accepted, he felt, before it could be transcended. In My Life and Times (1971), he explained, “The only way you can prove you are not of it is by entering into it fully.When you fully accept something, you are no longer victimized by it.” Savoring the dregs of civilization, Miller castigated its pretensions with anarchic glee. Indeed, Miller’s value lies not in a depiction of some salvific (redemptive) vision (reality always remains a bit hazy in his fiction), but in his searing indictment of the modern world’s impoverishment of “soul life.” Miller shared D. H. Lawrence’s horror of the mechanical modern world and endorsed Lawrence’s response—the instinctual life—yet for all his apocalyptic prophecies, Miller was no Lawrentian messiah. Indeed, the “Henry Miller” of the novels is a flâneur, an American picaro.
Tropic of Cancer
Miller admitted in an interview at age eighty-four that Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) was the impetus for his own journey to Paris, the artists’ mecca. What Miller found there in the 1930’s forms the basis of his first and best novel, Tropic of Cancer. Paris, which provided both the impetus and the substance of his disjointed narrative, is, Miller writes, like a whore, “ravishing” from a distance; but “five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked.” Whores—Germaine, Claude, Llona, and others—and their hangouts dominate Miller’s Paris, suggesting the debunking of romantic ideals, which was necessary for Miller before he could write. This is apparent in the evolving nature of his relationship to his wife Mona in the book.
The book begins with Miller’s anticipation of their reunion, which proves blissful but short-lived. Although he claims that “for seven years I went about, day and night, with only one thing in my mind—her,” after she returns to America, her image—like all the rest of his old life—“seems to have fallen into the sea,” until he can only wonder “in a vague way” at the novel’s conclusion whatever happened to her. Paris has replaced her as the center of his attention, and Paris makes far fewer demands on his inner self. Like his superficial relationships with whores, his stay in Paris is a fruitful form of self-destruction out of which a new self emerges.
The predominant metaphor in Tropic of Cancer is that of the river, of all that flows, in contrast to the stultifying conceptions and conventions of modern civilization. Early in the book, the sight of the Seine, and the great unconscious life that it represents, is inspirational. He later learns to see the world without “boundaries” or preconceived notions and recognizes it “for the mad slaughterhouse it is.” His two trips outside Paris demonstrate his acclimatization and the death of his illusions. Returning from Le Havre, he recognizes the essential attraction of Paris for him, and he demonstrates in his outwitting of a whore his adjustment to the scene. Returning from Dijon, that bastion of medievalism that reminds him of the north (a bad place in Miller’s geography, redolent of the coldness and sterility of his German ancestors), where everybody is constipated and even the toilet pipes freeze, he recognizes his previous dependence on women, “a fear of living separate, of staying born.” This realization enables him to free Fillmore from the clutches of the rapacious Ginette and himself from Mona. The climax of the episode, and of the book as well, takes him again to the River Seine. He has already announced his love for everything that flows—“rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences”—and in this climax, he surrenders himself with religious intensity to the flux of time and space: “I feel this river...
(The entire section is 2012 words.)