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Tropic of Cancer Henry Miller
American novelist, critic, short story writer, editor, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Miller's novel Tropic of Cancer (1934). See also Daisy Miller Criticism, Henry Miller Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 4, 9, 14.
Tropic of Cancer (1934), Miller's most famous and acclaimed work, is a lyrical, profane, and surreal portrait of the author's experiences in the bohemian underworld of 1930s Paris. The novel was a personal and artistic break-through for Miller, who was an obscure and impoverished writer when it was first published. The theme of sexual and artistic liberation, which pervades Tropic of Cancer, manifests itself in its Whitmanesque poetic embrace of sexuality, its open disdain for the constraints of bourgeois society, and its declarations of antagonism toward the conventions of the modern novel. At one point Miller writes: "This is not a book … this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art…." While some critics have dismissed Tropic of Cancer as a merely autobiographical rant which is reckless and nihilistic in its abandonment of literary conventions, others have recognized Miller's notoriously liberal use of profanity and sexual description as an attempt to broaden the expressive means of the novel. The unusually polemical and partisan tenor of much early criticism on Miller's novel should be considered against the background of its publication history. Before Grove Press won its censorship struggle in the early 1960s, Tropic of Cancer was ruled obscene and its sale was banned in the United States and England.
Plot and Major Characters
Tropic of Cancer begins with the narrator describing his companions, whom he depicts as bohemian aesthetes living in varying degrees of squalor. He disdains Moldorf as a "word-drunk" poetaster and dismisses Van Norden and Sylvester as failed writers, reserving his praise for Boris and Carl, who are "mad and tone deaf … sufferers." The protagonist also sings paeans to the sex organs of Tania and Llona, describes his love of prostitutes, Parisian vistas, and food, and relates his methods for cadging meals from his wealthier friends. Interspersed among these thoughts are statements that reject the conventional standards of literature and art for the spontaneous stream of consciousness which eludes artistic representation. In a conversation with Van Norden, and in watching him make love to an impoverished prostitute, the narrator realizes that his companion's understanding of sex and women is adolescent, reductive, and mechanical. On visiting an art gallery to view the paintings of Henri Matisse, the narrator expresses admiration for the vivacity and transformative power of the artist's work and recognizes a dramatic contrast between Matisse's vision and the lifeless materialism of Van Norden and Carl. After failing to seduce Tania, the narrator tries to alleviate his depression through drinking and brawling. He meets Fillmore, another neurotic American expatriate, whose attitude toward women is as degenerate as Van Norden's. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator travels to Dijon where he makes a cursory attempt at teaching a course in English. Upon his return, he accompanies a despondent and spiteful Fillmore to the train station before the latter departs for America. Pathetic in the naivete of his deflated idealism, Fillmore's whiny tirade against France allows the narrator to comprehend his own resilience in the "cancerous" environment of Paris.
A central theme of Tropic of Cancer, as suggested by its title, is the pervasive sickness and squalor of modern society and the resulting degeneracy of its literature. In reacting against conventional art and morality, Miller's protagonist adopts a Whitmanesque attitude of unblinking acceptance and affirmation and announces his intention of "recording … all that which is omitted in books." The novel's descriptions, animated by a celebratory, ribald tone, frequently linger on the deviant and sordid elements of Parisian life, particularly its prostitutes and vagabonds, and dramatize the protagonist's freedom from the lifestyles and conventions of mainstream society. This theme of personal emancipation accounts for the audacious liberties Miller takes with Tropic of Cancer's style, a pastiche of poetic exultation, bland pornography, and the banalities of a personal diary. On occasion, Miller explicitly rails against conventional artists and denounces their adherence to established artistic norms as a lack of passion and verve. Erica Jong has suggested that this theme has strong autobiographical undertones since Miller's first attempts at fiction were derivative and unsuccessful, and Tropic of Cancer was written while he was "finding himself" as an artist.
While Tropic of Cancer's setting and some of its themes evoke comparisons with the works of other expatriate American writers living in Paris in the 1920s and '30s, Miller's experiments with form in this work signal a uniquely radical departure from the conventions of the modern novel, and its extremities of expression and style have elicited sharply divergent critical opinions. For some, Miller's blatant disregard for a coherent and linear plot and his exclusive adherence to autobiography are symptomatic of his failure as a novelist. A similarly dismissive and disdainful view is taken by critics who view Miller's liberal use of profanity as little more than impish prurience. At the opposite extreme, such professional associates and friends as Lawrence Durrell and Anaïs Nin circumvent aesthetic and formal objections to Tropic of Cancer by praising it as a "vitalizing" or "nourishing" antidote to the arid intellectualism and effete sentimentality of the modern novel. Because Tropic of Cancer's legal troubles quickly made it a cause célèbre, early reviews of the novel tend to be compromised by an eagerness to either validate or indict Miller for his use of profanity and sexual candor. In the wake of other highly publicized victories over censorship, notably, Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) and William Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959), numerous studies have appeared which focus more objectively on the literary merits of Tropic of Cancer. While some feminist critics attack Miller for what they view as his blatant sexism, others contend that Tropic of Cancer embraces an emancipatory conception of women, insofar as its celebration of sexual freedom flouts the social constraints of marriage and bourgeois morality. Other commentators have suggested that Miller's imagery and visionary rhetoric are more articulate and complex than would be suggested by the author's chaotic style of writing. Although there is little overall consensus on Tropic of Cancer's literary value, novelist Norman Mailer argues that it is "one of the ten or twenty great novels of our century."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 95
Tropic of Cancer (novel) 1934
Black Spring (novel) 1936
Max and the White Phagocytes (essays and stories) 1938
The Cosmological Eye (essays) 1939
Tropic of Capricorn (novel) 1939
The World of Sex (essay) 1940
The Colossus of Maroussi (travelogue) 1941
Sunday after the War (memoir) 1944
The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (essays) 1945
∗Sexus (novel) 1949
∗Plexus (novel) 1953
Quiet Days in Clichy (essay) 1956
The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud (criticism) 1956
Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (essays) 1957
∗Nexus (novel) 1960
The World of Lawrence: A Passionate Appreciation (criticism) 1980
Crazy Cock (novel) 1992
∗These works were published in one volume as The Rosy Crucifixion in 1965.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876
SOURCE: A preface to Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller, Grove Weidenfeld, 1961, pp. xxxi-xxxiii.
[A French-born American autobiographer, novelist, short story writer, and educator, Nin established her early artistic reputation through experimental novels exploring the feminine psyche and through her association with Miller, whom she met in Paris in 1932 when he was writing the early drafts of Tropic of Cancer. In the following essay, which was originally published in 1934 as a preface to the first edition of Tropic of Cancer, she praises Miller for addressing the visceral roots of human experience.]
Here is a book which, if such a thing were possible, might restore our appetite for the fundamental realities. The predominant note will seem one of bitterness, and bitterness there is, to the full. But there is also a wild extravagance, a mad gaiety, a verve, a gusto, at times almost a delirium. A continual oscillation between extremes, with bare stretches that taste like brass and leave the full flavor of emptiness. It is beyond optimism or pessimism. The author has given us the last frisson. Pain has no more secret recesses.
In a world grown paralyzed with introspection and constipated by delicate mental meals this brutal exposure of the substantial body comes as a vitalizing current of blood. The violence and obscenity are left unadulterated, as manifestation of the mystery and pain which ever accompanies the act of creation.
The restorative value of experience, prime source of wisdom and creation, is reasserted. There remain waste areas of unfinished thought and action, a bundle of shreds and fibers with which the overcritical may strangle themselves. Referring to his Wilhelm Meister Goethe once said: "People seek a central point: that is hard, and not even right. I should think a rich, manifold life, brought close to our eyes, would be enough without any express tendency; which, after all, is only for the intellect."
The book is sustained on its own axis by the pure flux and rotation of events. Just as there is no central point, so also there is no question of heroism or of struggle since there is no question of will, but only an obedience to flow.
The gross caricatures are perhaps more vital, "more true to life," than the full portraits of the conventional novel for the reason that the individual today has no centrality and produces not the slightest illusion of wholeness. The characters are integrated to the false, cultural void in which we are drowning; thus is produced the illusion of chaos, to face which requires the ultimate courage.
The humiliations and defeats, given with a primitive honesty, end not in frustration, despair, or futility, but in hunger, an ecstatic, devouring hunger—for more life. The poetic is discovered by stripping away the vestiture of art; by descending to what might be styled "a preartistic level," the durable skeleton of form which is hidden in the phenomena of disintegration reappears to be transfigured again in the ever-changing flesh of emotion. The scars are burned away—the scars left by the obstetricians of culture. Here is an artist who re-establishes the potency of illusion by gaping at the open wounds, by courting the stern, psychological reality which man seeks to avoid through recourse to the oblique symbolism of art. Here the symbols are laid bare, presented almost as naively and unblushingly by this overcivilized individual as by the well-rooted savage.
It is no false primitivism which gives rise to this savage lyricism. It is not a retrogressive tendency, but a swing forward into unbeaten areas. To regard a naked book such as this with the same critical eye that is turned upon even such diverse types as Lawrence, Breton, Joyce and Céline is a mistake. Rather let us try to look at it with the eyes of a Patagonian for whom all that is sacred and taboo in our world is meaningless. For the adventure which has brought the author to the spiritual ends of the earth is the history of every artist who, in order to express himself, must traverse the intangible gridirons of his imaginary world. The air pockets, the alkali wastes, the crumbling monuments, the putrescent cadavers, the crazy jig and maggot dance, all this forms a grand fresco of our epoch, done with shattering phrases and loud, strident, hammer strokes.
If there is here revealed a capacity to shock, to startle the lifeless ones from their profound slumber, let us congratulate ourselves; for the tragedy of our world is precisely that nothing any longer is capable of rousing it from its lethargy. No more violent dreams, no refreshment, no awakening. In the anaesthesia produced by self-knowledge, life is passing, art is passing, slipping from us; we are drifting with time and our fight is with shadows. We need a blood transfusion.
And it is blood and flesh which are here given us. Drink, food, laughter, desire, passion, curiosity, the simple realities which nourish the roots of our highest and vaguest creations. The superstructure is lopped away. This book brings with it a wind that blows the dead and hollow trees whose roots are withered and lost in the barren soil of our times. This book goes to the roots and digs under, digs for subterranean springs.
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SOURCE: "Inside the Whale," in his The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: An Age Like This, 1920–1940, Vol. 1, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, pp. 493-502.
[An English novelist and essayist, Orwell is the author of such well-known works as Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949) as well as the autobiographical narrative Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). His essays evince a profoundly moral concern for the victims of economic, political, and social exploitation. In the following excerpt from an essay that was originally published in New Directions in Prose and Poetry in 1940, he applauds Miller's use of vernacular and poetic language in Tropic of Cancer to vividly portray the lives of impoverished American expatriates in 1930s Paris.]
When Henry Miller's novel, Tropic of Cancer, appeared in 1935, it was greeted with rather cautious praise, obviously conditioned in some cases by a fear of seeming to enjoy pornography. Among the people who praised it were T. S. Eliot, Herbert Read, Aldous Huxley, John dos Passos, Ezra Pound—on the whole, not the writers who are in fashion at this moment. And in fact the subject-matter of the book, and to a certain extent its mental atmosphere, belong to the 'twenties rather than to the 'thirties.
Tropic of Cancer is a novel in the first person, or autobiography in the form of a novel, whichever way you like to look at it. Miller himself insists that it is straight autobiography, but the tempo and method of telling the story are those of a novel. It is a story of the American Paris, but not along quite the usual lines, because the Americans who figure in it happen to be people without money. During the boom years, when dollars were plentiful and the exchange-value of the franc was low, Paris was invaded by such a swarm of artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sightseers, debauchees and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen. In some quarters of the town the so-called artists must actually have outnumbered the working population—indeed, it has been reckoned that in the late 'twenties there were as many as 30,000 painters in Paris, most of them impostors. The populace had grown so hardened to artists that gruff-voiced lesbians in corduroy breeches and young men in Grecian or medieval costume could walk the streets without attracting a glance, and along the Seine banks by Notre Dame it was almost impossible to pick one's way between the sketching-stools. It was the age of dark horses and neglected genii; the phrase on everybody's lips was "Quand je serai lance". As it turned out, nobody was "lancé", the slump descended like another Ice Age, the cosmopolitan mob of artists vanished, and the huge Montparnasse cafés which only ten years ago were filled till the small hours by hordes of shrieking poseurs have turned into darkened tombs in which there are not even any ghosts. It is this world—described in, among other novels, Wyndham Lewis's Tarr—that Miller is writing about, but he is dealing only with the under side of it, the lumpenproletarian fringe which has been able to survive the slump because it is composed partly of genuine artists and partly of genuine scoundrels. The neglected genii, the paranoiacs who are always "going to" write the novel that will knock Proust into a cocked hat, are there, but they are only genii in the rather rare moments when they are not scouting about for the next meal. For the most part it is a story of bug-ridden rooms in working-men's hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling and temporary jobs. And the whole atmosphere of the poor quarters of Paris as a foreigner sees them—the cobbled alleys, the sour reek of refuse, the bistros with their greasy zinc counters and worn brick floors, the green waters of the Seine, the blue cloaks of the Republican Guard, the crumbling iron urinals, the peculiar sweetish smell of the Métro stations, the cigarettes that come to pieces, the pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens—it is all there, or at any rate the feeling of it is there.
On the face of it no material could be less promising. When Tropic of Cancer was published the Italians were marching into Abyssinia and Hitler's concentration camps were already bulging. The intellectual foci of the world were Rome, Moscow and Berlin. It did not seem to be a moment at which a novel of outstanding value was likely to be written about American dead-beats cadging drinks in the Latin Quarter. Of course a novelist is not obliged to write directly about contemporary history, but a novelist who simply disregards the major public events of the moment is generally either a footler or a plain idiot. From a mere account of the subject-matter of Tropic of Cancer most people would probably assume it to be no more than a bit of naughty-naughty left over from the 'twenties. Actually, nearly everyone who read it saw at once that it was nothing of the kind, but a very remarkable book. How or why remarkable? That question is never easy to answer. It is better to begin by describing the impression that Tropic of Cancer has left on my own mind.
When I first opened Tropic of Cancer and saw that it was full of unprintable words, my immediate reaction was a refusal to be impressed. Most people's would be the same, I believe. Nevertheless, after a lapse of time the atmosphere of the book, besides innumerable details, seemed to linger in my memory in a peculiar way. A year later Miller's second book, Black Spring, was published. By this time Tropic of Cancer was much more vividly present in my mind than it had been when I first read it. My first feeling about Black Spring was that it showed a falling-off, and it is a fact that it has not the same unity as the other book. Yet after another year there were many passages in Black Spring that had also rooted themselves in my memory. Evidently these books are of the sort to leave a flavour behind them—books that "create a world of their own", as the saying goes. The books that do this are not necessarily good books, they may be good bad books like Raffles or the Sherlock Holmes stories, or perverse and morbid books like Wuthering Heights or The House with the Green Shutters. But now and again there appears a novel which opens up a new world not by revealing what is strange, but by revealing what is familiar. The truly remarkable thing about Ulysses, for instance, is the commonplaceness of its material. Of course there is much more in Ulysses than this, because Joyce is a kind of poet and also an elephantine pedant, but his real achievement has been to get the familiar on to paper. He dared—for it is a matter of daring just as much as of technique—to expose the imbecilities of the inner mind, and in doing so he discovered an America which was under everybody's nose. Here is a whole world of stuff which you have lived with since childhood, stuff which you supposed to be of its nature incommunicable, and somebody has managed to communicate it. The effect is to break down, at any rate momentarily, the solitude in which the human being lives. When you read certain passages in Ulysses you feel that Joyce's mind and your mind are one, that he knows all about you though he has never heard your name, that there exists some world outside time and space in which you and he are together. And though he does not resemble Joyce in other ways, there is a touch of this quality in Henry Miller. Not everywhere, because his work is very uneven, and sometimes, especially in Black Spring, tends to slide away into mere verbiage or into the squashy universe of the Surrealists. But read him for five pages, ten pages, and you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood. "He knows all about me," you feel; "he wrote this specially for me." It is as though you could hear a voice speaking to you, a friendly American voice, with no humbug in it, no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike. For the moment you have got away from the lies and simplifications, the stylised, marionette-like quality of ordinary fiction, even quite good fiction, and are dealing with the recognisable experiences of human beings.
But what kind of experience? What kind of human beings? Miller is writing about the man in the street, and it is incidentally rather a pity that it should be a street full of brothels. That is the penalty of leaving your native land. It means transferring your roots into shallower soil. Exile is probably more damaging to a novelist than to a painter or even a poet, because its effect is to take him out of contact with working life and narrow down his range to the street, the café, the church, the brothel and the studio. On the whole, in Miller's books you are reading about people living the expatriate life, people drinking, talking, meditating and fornicating, not about people working, marrying and bringing up children; a pity, because he would have described the one set of activities as well as the other. In Black Spring there is a wonderful flashback of New York, the swarming Irish-infested New York of the O. Henry period, but the Paris scenes are the best, and, granted their utter worthlessness as social types, the drunks and deadbeats of the cafés are handled with a feeling for character and a mastery of technique that are unapproached in any at all recent novel. All of them are not only credible but completely familiar; you have the feeling that all their adventures have happened to yourself. Not that they are anything very startling in the way of adventures. Henry gets a job with a melancholy Indian student, gets another job at a dreadful French school during a cold snap when the lavatories are frozen solid, goes on drinking bouts in Le Havre with his friend Collins, the sea captain, goes to brothels where there are wonderful negresses, talks with his friend Van Norden, the novelist, who has got the great novel of the world in his head but can never bring himself to begin writing it. His friend Karl, on the verge of starvation, is picked up by a wealthy widow who wishes to marry him. There are interminable, Hamlet-like conversations in which Karl tries to decide which is worse, being hungry or sleeping with an old woman. In great detail he describes his visits to the widow, how he went to the hotel dressed in his best, how before going in he neglected to urinate, so that the whole evening was one long crescendo of torment, etc etc. And after all, none of it is true, the widow doesn't even exist—Karl has simply invented her in order to make himself seem important. The whole book is in this vein, more or less. Why is it that these monstrous trivialities are so engrossing? Simply because the whole atmosphere is deeply familiar, because you have all the while the feeling that these things are happening to you. And you have this feeling because somebody has chosen to drop the Geneva language of the ordinary novel and drag the real-politik of the inner mind into the open. In Miller's case it is not so much a question of exploring the mechanisms of the mind as of owning up to everyday facts and everyday emotions. For the truth is that many ordinary people, perhaps an actual majority, do speak and behave in just the way that is recorded here. The callous coarseness with which the characters in Tropic of Cancer talk is very rare in fiction, but it is extremely common in real life; again and again I have heard just such conversations from people who were not even aware that they were talking coarsely. It is worth noticing that Tropic of Cancer is not a young man's book. Miller was in his forties when it was published, and though since then he has produced three or four others, it is obvious that this first book had been lived with for years. It is one of those books that are slowly matured in poverty and obscurity, by people who know what they have got to do and therefore are able to wait. The prose is astonishing, and in parts of Black Spring it is even better. Unfortunately I cannot quote; unprintable words occur almost everywhere. But get hold of Tropic of Cancer, get hold of Black Spring and read especially the first hundred pages. They give you an idea of what can still be done, even at this late date, with English prose. In them, English is treated as a spoken language, but spoken without fear, i.e. without fear of rhetoric or of the unusual or poetical word. The adjective has come back, after its ten years' exile. It is a flowing, swelling prose, a prose with rhythms in it, something quite different from the flat, cautious statements and snack-bar dialects that are now in fashion.
When a book like Tropic of Cancer appears, it is only natural that the first thing people notice should be its obscenity. Given our current notions of literary decency, it is not at all easy to approach an unprintable book with detachment. Either one is shocked and disgusted, or one is morbidly thrilled, or one is determined above all else not to be impressed. The last is probably the commonest reaction, with the result that unprintable books often get less attention than they deserve. It is rather the fashion to say that nothing is easier than to write an obscene book, that people only do it in order to get themselves talked about and make money, etc etc. What makes it obvious that this is not the case is that books which are obscene in the police-court sense are distinctly uncommon. If there were easy money to be made out of dirty words, a lot more people would be making it. But, because "obscene" books do not appear very frequently, there is a tendency to lump them together, as a rule quite unjustifiably. Tropic of Cancer has been vaguely associated with two other books, Ulysses and Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, but in neither case is there much resemblance. What Miller has in common with Joyce is a willingness to mention the inane squalid facts of everyday life. Putting aside differences of technique, the funeral scene in Ulysses, for instance, would fit into Tropic of Cancer; the whole chapter is a sort of confession, an exposé of the frightful inner callousness of the human being. But there the resemblance ends. As a novel, Tropic of Cancer is far inferior to Ulysses. Joyce is an artist, in a sense in which Miller is not and probably would not wish to be, and in any case he is attempting much more. He is exploring different states of consciousness, dream, reverie (the "bronze-by-gold" chapter), drunkenness, etc, and dovetailing them all into a huge complex pattern, almost like a Victorian "plot". Miller is simply a hardboiled person talking about life, an ordinary American businessman with intellectual courage and a gift for words. It is perhaps significant that he looks exactly like everyone's idea of an American businessman. As for the comparison with Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, it is even further from the point. Both books use unprintable words, both are in some sense autobiographical, but that is all. Voyage au Bout de la Nuit is a book-with-a-purpose, and its purpose is to protest against the horror and meaninglessness of modern life—actually, indeed, of life. It is a cry of unbearable disgust, a voice from the cesspool. Tropic of Cancer is almost exactly the opposite. The thing has become so unusual as to seem almost anomalous, but it is the book of a man who is happy. So is Black Spring, though slightly less so, because tinged in places with nostalgia. With years of lumpenproletarian life behind him, hunger, vagabondage, dirt, failure, nights in the open, battles with immigration officers, endless struggles for a bit of cash, Miller finds that he is enjoying himself. Exactly the aspects of life that fill Céline with horror are the ones that appeal to him. So far from protesting, he is accepting. And the very word "acceptance" calls up his real affinity, another American, Walt Whitman.
But there is something rather curious in being Whitman in the nineteen-thirties. It is not certain that if Whitman himself were alive at this moment he would write anything in the least degree resembling Leaves of Grass. For what he is saying, after all, is "I accept", and there is a radical difference between acceptance now and acceptance then. Whitman was writing in a time of unexampled prosperity, but more than that, he was writing in a country where freedom was something more than a word. The democracy, equality and comradeship that he is always talking about are not remote ideals, but something that existed in front of his eyes. In mid-nineteenth-century America men felt themselves free and equal, were free and equal, so far as that is possible outside a society of pure Communism. There was poverty and there were even class-distinctions, but except for the Negroes there was no permanently submerged class. Everyone had inside him, like a kind of core, the knowledge that he could earn a decent living, and earn it without boot-licking. When you read about Mark Twain's Mississippi raftsmen and pilots, or Bret Harte's Western gold miners, they seem more remote than the cannibals of the Stone Age. The reason is simply that they are free human beings. But it is the same even with the peaceful domesticated America of the Eastern states, the America of Little Women, Helen's Babies and "Riding Down from Bangor", Life has a buoyant, carefree quality that you can feel as you read, like a physical sensation in your belly. It is this that Whitman is celebrating, though actually he does it very badly, because he is one of those writers who tell you what you ought to feel instead of making you feel it. Luckily for his beliefs, perhaps, he died too early to see the deterioration in American life that came with the rise of large-scale industry and the exploiting of cheap immigrant labour.
Miller's outlook is deeply akin to that of Whitman, and nearly everyone who has read him has remarked on this. Tropic of Cancer ends with an especially Whitmanesque passage, in which, after the lecheries, the swindles, the fights, the drinking bouts and the imbecilities, he simply sits down and watches the Seine flowing past, in a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is. Only, what is he accepting? In the first place, not America, but the ancient bone-heap of Europe, where every grain of soil has passed through innumerable human bodies. Secondly, not an epoch of expansion and liberty, but an epoch of fear, tyranny and regimentation. To say "I accept" in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine-guns, putsches, purges, slogans, Bedaux belts, gas-masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders. Not only those things, of course, but those things among others. And on the whole this is Henry Miller's attitude. Not quite always, because at moments he shows signs of a fairly ordinary kind of literary nostalgia. There is a long passage in the earlier part of Black Spring, in praise of the Middle Ages, which as prose must be one of the most remarkable pieces of writing in recent years, but which displays an attitude not very different from that of Chesterton. In Max and the White Phagocytes there is an attack on modern American civilisation (breakfast cereals, cellophane, etc) from the usual angle of the literary man who hates industrialism. But in general the attitude is "Let's swallow it whole". And hence the seeming preoccupation with indecency and with the dirty-handkerchief side of life. It is only seeming, for the truth is that life, ordinary everyday life, consists far more largely of horrors than writers of fiction usually care to admit. Whitman himself "accepted" a great deal that his contemporaries found unmentionable. For he is not only writing of the prairie, he also wanders through the city and notes the shattered skull of the suicide, the "grey sick faces of onanists", etc etc. But unquestionably our own age, at any rate in western Europe, is less healthy and less hopeful than the age in which Whitman was writing. Unlike Whitman, we live in a shrinking world. The "democratic vistas" have ended in barbed wire. There is less feeling of creation and growth, less and less emphasis on the cradle, endlessly rocking, more and more emphasis on the teapot, endlessly stewing. To accept civilisation as it is practically means accepting decay. It has ceased to be a strenuous attitude and become a passive attitude—even "decadent", if that word means anything.
But precisely because, in one sense, he is passive to experience, Miller is able to get nearer to the ordinary man than is possible to more purposive writers. For the ordinary man is also passive. Within a narrow circle (home life, and perhaps the trade union or local politics) he feels himself master of his fate, but against major events he is as helpless as against the elements. So far from endeavouring to influence the future, he simply lies down and lets things happen to him. During the past ten years literature has involved itself more and more deeply in politics, with the result that there is now less room in it for the ordinary man than at any time during the past two centuries. One can see the change in the prevailing literary attitude by comparing the books written about the Spanish civil war with those written about the war of 1914–18. The immediately striking thing about the Spanish war books, at any rate those written in English, is their shocking dullness and badness. But what is more significant is that almost all of them, right-wing or left-wing, are written from a political angle, by cocksure partisans telling you what to think, whereas the books about the Great War were written by common soldiers or junior officers who did not even pretend to understand what the whole thing was about. Books like All Quiet on the Western Front, Le Feu, A Farewell to Arms, Death of a Hero, Good-Bye to All That, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and A Subaltern on the Somme were written not by propagandists but by victims. They are saying in effect, "What the hell is all this about? God knows. All we can do is to endure." And though he is not writing about war, nor, on the whole, about unhappiness, this is nearer to Miller's attitude than the omniscience which is now fashionable. The Booster, a short-lived periodical of which he was part-editor, used to describe itself in its advertisements as "non-political, non-educational, nonprogressive, non-cooperative, non-ethical, non-literary, non-consistent, non-contemporary", and Miller's own work could be described in nearly the same terms. It is a voice from the crowd, from the underling, from the third-class carriage, from the ordinary, non-political, non-moral, passive man.
I have been using the phrase "ordinary man" rather loosely, and I have taken it for granted that the "ordinary man" exists, a thing now denied by some people. I do not mean that the people Miller is writing about constitute a majority, still less that he is writing about proletarians. No English or American novelist has as yet seriously attempted that. And again, the people in Tropic of Cancer fall short of being ordinary to the extent that they are idle, disreputable and more or less "artistic". As I have said already, this is a pity, but it is the necessary result of expatriation. Miller's "ordinary man" is neither the manual worker nor the suburban householder, but the derelict, the déclassé, the adventurer, the American intellectual without roots and without money. Still, the experiences even of this type overlap fairly widely with those of more normal people. Miller has been able to get the most out of his rather limited material because he has had the courage to identify with it. The ordinary man, the "average sensual man", has been given the power of speech, like Balaam's ass.
It will be seen that this is something out of date, or at any rate out of fashion. The average sensual man is out of fashion. The passive, non-political attitude is out of fashion. Preoccupation with sex and truthfulness about the inner life are out of fashion. American Paris is out of fashion. A book like Tropic of Cancer, published at such a time, must be either a tedious preciosity or something unusual, and I think a majority of the people who have read it would agree that it is not the first. It is worth trying to discover just what this escape from the current literary fashion means. But to do that one has got to see it against its background—that is, against the general development of English literature in the twenty years since the Great War.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2095
SOURCE: "Tropic of Cancer," in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books, 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 211-16.
[Kauffmann is an American dramatist, critic, and educator. In the following essay, which was written shortly after the first legal publication of Tropic of Cancer in the United States, he assesses Miller as a minor figure in American literature—a bawdy and funny provocateur, but one whose incessant use of scatological language and amateur philosophy reveals an immature and unsophisticated cast of mind.]
Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer is now published in this country in an unlavish edition of 318 pages set in big type at the price of $7.50—and this in spite of a large first printing. The interest of the price is that here it relates to the content of the book—not, as is usual, to its length or format. The publisher knows that the public knows the book's reputation and is willing to pay much more than is currently charged for books of similar production cost. This gives, from the start, a different atmosphere to its publication. Rather than call it cashing in on prurience, let us say that the publisher is asking the purchaser to make a contribution to a defense fund in case of legal prosecution, although no provision is made for refunding, say, three dollars per copy if the publisher is unmolested.
The book itself, first issued in 1934 in Paris (in English) is an autobiographical first novel recounting the experiences, sensations, thoughts of Miller, a penniless American in the Paris of the early thirties. It is not so much a novel as an intense journal, written daily about what was happening to him daily, full of emotion recollected in proximity, as he scrounged for food, devoured books, conversed volubly, and flung himself into numerous beds. It is formless, in the sense that it could have continued indefinitely, but then Miller is an enemy of form. He writes of a Ravel composition:
Suddenly it all dies down. It was as if [Ravel] remembered, in the midst of his antics, that he had on a cutaway suit. He arrested himself. A great mistake, in my humble opinion. Art consists in going the full length. If you start with the drums you have to end with the dynamite, or TNT. Ravel sacrificed something for form, for a vegetable that people must digest before going to bed.
The "full length" is Miller's ideal. Frankness of fact and devotion to truth are not always concurrent, but Miller has, within his powers, both of these. He says on an early page: "There is only one thing which interests me vitally now, and that is the recording of all that which is omitted in books."
He had been a husband and a hireling in various jobs in New York and elsewhere, always a hungry reader with literary ambitions, when at thirty-nine he broke loose and, without money, went alone to Paris to write. He swore he would never take a job again. In fact he takes two in this book—as a proofreader on the Paris Tribune and as an English teacher in Dijon. But the point was made—he had broken away.
Essentially that is what the book is: a mirror-image of the testimony which is given at revival meetings. There you can hear about men who got right with God; this man got right with art and sex and the use of his brain and time. Like all converts, he is on fire. Like all converts, he simply will not leave your lapels alone. Thus he is a bit tedious. Because he came fairly late in life to a personally valid ethic, he cannot believe that anyone he talks to has ever done it before him.
The book is a fierce celebration of his enlightened freedom, which is to say his acceptance of real responsibilities instead of merely respectable ones. But in the course of this paean he exhorts us mercilessly with such discoveries as: sex can be fun; America is commercialized and doomed; civilization must refurbish its values or perish. (Edmund Wilson has called the book "an epitaph for the whole generation that migrated to Europe after the war.") All this now suffers, of course, from the passage of time. These burning messages have been the commonplaces of novelists, most of them inferior to Miller, for at least a couple of decades. But could these views have been startling even in 1934? This was eight years after the publication of a much more widely read novel of Americans in Paris, The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway is as unlike Miller as is imaginable in temperament, but surely the new liberty and the dark apocalypse are in his book.
How Miller rages at us. And what is his chief complaint? That we are not like him, living like him, desiring and perceiving like him. A prime function of art is criticism, and if the artist in question has merit, he certainly is a superior person and modest coughs are out of order. But the smuggest bourgeois has no smugness like that of the self-consciously liberated bohemian. It tainted Gauguin and D. H. Lawrence; it infects Miller.
He is often compared to Whitman, which must please him because he thinks Whitman "that one lone figure which America has produced in the course of her brief life" (despite the fact that he began by worshipping Dreiser). There is considerable basis for the comparison, especially in attitude. Miller sees no democratic vistas and certainly does not hear America singing, but he, too, is a buddy of the universe and privy to its secrets, calling on the rest of us to be as open-shirted and breeze-breasting as himself. Also there is in Miller, although on a much lower level than in Whitman, a feeling of settled iconoclasm, of artistic revolt made stock-in-trade. There are attempts at bardic sweep, some of them successful, and there is Whitmanesque rejoicing in the smack of wine and flesh.
Sometimes Miller uses language stupidly (he calls Paris "more eternal" than Rome). Sometimes, as in the rhapsody on Matisse, he writes a symbolist poem with a heat that carries us across its weaker passages. Or he can transmute sensation into images that propagate like guppies. For example, one day, broke and hungry, he finds a concert-ticket and uses it.
My mind is curiously alert; it's as though my skull had a thousand mirrors inside it. My nerves are taut, vibrant! the notes are like glass balls dancing on a million jets of water. I've never been to a concert before on such an empty belly. Nothing escapes me, not even the tiniest pin falling. It's as though I had no clothes on and every pore of my body was a window and all the windows open and the light flooding my gizzards. I can feel the light curving under the vault of my ribs and my ribs hang there over a hollow nave trembling with reverberations. How long this lasts I have no idea; I have lost all sense of time and place. After what seems like an eternity there follows an interval of semiconsciousness balanced by such a calm that I feel a great lake inside me, a lake of iridescent sheen, cool as jelly; and over this lake, rising in great swooping spirals, there emerge flocks of birds of passage with long slim legs and brilliant plumage. Flock after flock surge up from the cool, still surface of the lake and, passing under my clavicles, lose themselves in the white sea of space. And then slowly, very slowly, as if an old woman in a white cap were going the rounds of my body, slowly the windows are closed and my organs drop back into place.
I have quoted this at length because it is a good cross-section of his style. "The tiniest pin" and "after what seems an eternity" are careless spewing; but the "old woman in a white cap" is orphic.
This is Miller. Narrative is not his forte; his characterizations are sketchy; his philosophy is jejune. It is in pressing his whole existence against the warm wax of his prose and leaving there its complete imprint that he is at his best—in following every quiver of sentience to its source or destination with phrases that sometimes add up to a gorgeous fabric. Karl Shapiro, in an introductory essay streaked with gibberish, says that "everything [Miller] has written is a poem in the best as well as in the broadest sense of the word." This is a sentimental and foolishly inclusive judgment, but it points in the right direction.
Shapiro says that Miller writes with "complete ease and naturalness" about sex, as Lawrence and Joyce did not. To me, there is (speaking only of this book) much less sex than bravado. As far as specific language is concerned, Lawrence thought there was something thaumaturgic in four-letter words and had Mellors speak them therapeutically. Joyce wrote down the words that his miraculous surgery of the psyche revealed. Miller employs them—mostly outside of dialogue—to demonstrate somewhat ostentatious emancipation and contempt for slaves of convention.
Anyway, to talk about complete naturalness in the use of those words by a member of our society is arrant nonsense. The only person who could use them completely naturally would be a mental defective unaware of taboos. The foulest-mouthed longshoremen knows that he is using naughty words and is wallowing in them. Miller uses them in an exultation very much like that of a college boy away from home for the first time.
Proof of his lack of naturalness about it lies in his avoidance of earthy language when he talks about his great love, Mona. Virtually every other girl in the book, well or lightly regarded, is referred to at some time or other as a c—t. Making Mona an exception seems to show not only some residual puritanism but exhibitionism in the other cases. In fact, before one is far along in the book, the plentiful four-letter words become either irritating or tiresome. I thought of Robert Graves' remark that in the British army the adjective "f—ing" has come to mean only a signal that a noun is approaching.
Lawrence Durrell, no more reluctant than numerous other foreigners to tell Americans what their best works are, says that "American literature today begins and ends with the meaning of what [Miller] has done." Further: "To read Tropic of Cancer is to understand how shockingly romantic all European writing after Rousseau has become." (Durrell, of all artists, must know that "romantic" is a qualitative not a pejorative term.) These statements are typical of the—to me—inflated praise that this book has evoked. I hazard a couple of guesses at extrinsic reasons for this. First, when a gifted man writes a prosecutable book, it is often over-lauded as a tactical move by those interested in the freedom of letters—especially those who hold that sex is Beautiful, not sexy. Second, possibly these statements are, as much as anything else, a tribute to Miller's purity of commitment, to his abhorrence of the pietisms of Literature and the proprieties of the Literary Life, to his willingness—if not downright eagerness—to suffer for the right to live and write as he chooses. His is no small spirit, it is just not as large as some have told us.
Here, then is his first novel, available (pro tem, at least) in his own country twenty-seven years after its publication abroad. Durrell believes that its place is next to Moby Dick, which seems to me a hurtful thing to say about a frisky minnow of a book that ought not to be compared with leviathans. Far from being "the jewel and nonpareil" of American literature (Durrell again), Miller cannot be put near such twentieth-century novelists as Dreiser, Fitzgerald, early Dos Passos, early Hemingway—let alone Faulkner—without unfair diminution.
This book belongs, modestly but securely, in the American tradition of profundity-through-deliberate-simplicities that has its intellectual roots in Thoreau and continues through such men as Whitman and Sherwood Anderson until, in a changed time, it thinks it needs to go abroad to breathe. Miller stands under his Paris street-lamp, defiantly but genially drunk, trolling his catch mixed of beauty and banality and recurrent bawdry—a little pathetic because he thinks he is a discoverer and doesn't realize that he is only a tourist on a well-marked tour. We see him at last as an appealingly zestful, voracious, talented hick.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8566
SOURCE: "The Pitching of Love's Mansion in the Tropics of Henry Miller," in Seven Contemporary Authors, edited by Thomas B. Whitbread, University of Texas Press, 1966, pp. 129-53.
[Friedman is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, he remarks on past critical opinion and legal actions concerning Tropic of Cancer, examines contradictions in some of the book's central themes, and concludes that Tropic of Cancer is ultimately a work of negation rather than affirmation.]
More than any other year, 1926 climaxed the era of the so-called "Lost Generation" of American expatriate writers, although by then almost all their important documents, from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio in 1919 to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in 1925, had already been written, published, and received. The year 1926 was climactic, however, since that year was Hemingway's—it was the year of The Sun Also Rises and it was the last of the Moveable Feast years—and Hemingway, despite his subsequent repudiation of Gertrude Stein's "dirty, easy labels," has come to epitomize the writers of his era, the writers we still glibly label "the Lost Generation."
Henry Miller, in 1926, was still in America, though he was "of" America far less than any of his self-exiled compatriots; for with the exception of the very early years, when he was growing up in Brooklyn, and the late years, when he was settled in his Big Sur Paradise, Miller has been consistently vehement in his opposition to everything he sees America symbolizing. "I can think of no street in America," he writes in Tropic of Capricorn,
or of people inhabiting such a street, capable of leading one on toward the discovery of the self. I have walked the streets in many countries of the world but nowhere have I felt so degraded and humiliated as in America. I think of all the streets in America combined as forming a huge cesspool, a cesspool of the spirit in which everything is sucked down and drained away…. Over this cesspool the spirit of work weaves a magic wand, palaces and factories spring up side by side, and munition plants and chemical works and steel mills and sanatoriums and prisons and insane asylums. The whole continent is a nightmare producing the greatest misery of the greatest number. I was one, a single entity in the midst of the greatest jamboree of wealth and happiness (statistical wealth, statistical happiness) but I never met a man who was truly wealthy or truly happy.
And elsewhere he expresses his fears of America's influence on the entire world: "I see America spreading disaster," he writes [in Black Spring], "I see America as a black curse upon the world. I see a long night settling in and that mushroom which has poisoned the world withering at the roots."
But by 1926 Miller had yet to discover Paris, the Paris where, as he puts it, he was to be "born and reborn over and over. Born while walking the streets, born while sitting in a cafe, born while lying over a whore. Born and reborn again and again" (Black Spring). In 1926 Miller was not only still in America, still unknown and still spiritually isolated, but he was already thirty-five—nearly a decade older than Hemingway—and he was just beginning to write full time. Up to this point he had written, in addition to a series of prose-poems he attempted to sell from door to door, a single still-unpublished novel, and he was to produce two more before his fourth, Tropic of Cancer, was finally published, in Paris, in 1934.
Thus, although for the next quarter of a century he remained a kind of writer non grata in England and America, Miller the artist and Miller the cause had been simultaneously born, and born, it should be noted, to the sound of trumpets and a hallelujah chorus. Here, for instance, is Lawrence Durrell, one of the many early hymnists, hailing Tropic of Cancer [in A Private Correspondence, 1963]:
It strikes me as being the only really man-size piece of work which the century can really boast of. It's a howling triumph from the word go; and not only is it a literary and artistic smack on the bell for everyone, but it really gets down on paper the blood and bowels of our time. I have never read anything like it. I did not imagine anything like it could be written; and yet, curiously, reading it I seemed to recognize it as something which I knew we were all ready for. The space was all cleared for it. Tropic turns the corner into a new life which has regained its bowels. In the face of it eulogy becomes platitude…. I love its guts. I love to see the canons of oblique and pretty emotion mopped up; to see every whim-wham and bagatelle of your contemporaries from Eliot to Joyce dunged under. God give us young men the guts to plant the daisies on top and finish the job.
Granted, Durrell was only twenty-two at the time, and might not be expected to know any better, but, with almost undeviating consistency, such self-indulgent hyperbole has characterized his view of Miller ever since—and it has become an increasingly typical attitude as more and more voices have blended in an uncritical hailing of Miller's supreme significance.
But if Miller enthusiasts have tended to view him as a cause, as a banner around which they could rally in eager defiance of all the authoritarian taboos they glibly associate with Anglo-Saxon society, at least they have not gone the way of his equally vehement detractors who completely ignored the artist for the cause. For instance, according to Elmer Gertz [in "Henry Miller and the Law," in Henry Miller and the Critics, 1963], the trial lawyer who successfully defended Tropic of Cancer in Chicago, the self-righteous California judges who had earlier ruled Miller's two Tropic books obscene, "presumed to pass upon the character, or the morals, of Miller, the unorthodox ideas that outraged them, his sexual explicitness, and the use of four-letter words of Anglo-Saxon origin, and they gave little credence to the literary experts who held the Tropic books in high esteem." In writing of the landmark Chicago trial of Cancer, Hoke Norris has noted that time and again either hearsay or a quick glance at a page or two of the book was enough for the self-appointed guardians of community morality. "This sort of instantaneous literary and judicial judgment," he writes [in "'Cancer' in Chicago," Evergreen Review, No. 25], "is to be found throughout the case, not only among police officials but also among some newspaper columnists, clergyman, and the writers of wrathful letters."
Norris goes on to cite various police actions against the book, as well as statements by the police chiefs involved; the following case is typical. One captain, the acting chief of a Chicago suburb, was asked if he believed he was enforcing the state obscenity law when, without a warrant and on his own initiative, he pressured local booksellers into removing Tropic of Cancer from their shelves. "'No, I wouldn't say the state law,' replied Captain Morris. 'We were just enforcing a moral law which I believe has a place in a town such as ours where we have good, religious people and many churches.'" The full implications of such a statement are truly frightening to contemplate.
For many of us in the English-speaking world, then, the name Henry Miller conjures up thoughts of a more or less noble crusade against proper Bostonians and their ilk throughout the land; for, despite the hopes of Miller and his many fervent supporters, he has gained a reputation in his native country based not primarily on widespread recognition of his uncommon genius, but rather on his ability to rouse the shocked sensibilities of some and the civil libertarianism of others. The censorship war, of course, has been going on at least since the time of Plato, who feared the influence of the poets on his young Guardians, and it seems likely to continue a good while longer. In 1933, in response to Judge Woolsey's now historic decision on Joyce's Ulysses, Morris Ernst wrote that
the Ulysses case marks a turning point. It is a body blow for the censors. The necessity of hypocrisy and circumlocution in literature has been eliminated. Writers need no longer seek refuge in euphemisms. They may describe basic human functions without fear of the law…. Under the Ulysses case it should henceforth be impossible for the censors legally to sustain an attack against any book of artistic integrity, no matter how frank and forthright it may be. We have travelled a long way from the days of Bowdler and Mrs. Grundy and Comstock. We may well rejoice over the result.
Unfortunately, in the afterglow of victory, Ernst mistook a single battle for the entire war—a war in which we have since witnessed the battles of Lady Chatterley's Lover, of Fanny Hill, of Tropic of Cancer, a war, in fact, which is far from ended. The Marquis de Sade, to mention only the most obvious, still looms in the future, as does perhaps a third of Miller's published writings.
One must assume, especially considering the many remarkable opinions written by various courts in the last few years, that the war is being won—and it need detain us no further. Still, it does warrant our consideration since Miller the cause—a Miller obviously noble, obviously on the side of the angels—tends to become inextricable from Miller the artist, a figure of still questionable stature. Stanley Kauffmann, in one of the most balanced reviews of Cancer, focuses on just this problem in considering the inflated praise the book has evoked. "I hazard a couple of guesses at extrinsic reasons for this," he writes.
First, when a gifted man writes a prosecutable book, it is often over-lauded as a tactical move by those interested in the freedom of letters—especially those who hold that sex is Beautiful, not sexy. Second, possibly these statements are, as much as anything else, a tribute to Miller's purity of commitment, to his abhorrence of the pietisms of Literature and the proprieties of the Literary Life, to his willingness—if not downright eagerness—to suffer for the right to live and write as he chooses.
"His is no small spirit," Kauffmann concludes, "it is just not as large as some have told us."
Let us, then, examine that spirit Miller offers us in his early fiction, Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn, focusing primarily on Cancer, the first, most important, and best of this loosely connected trilogy. Two prefatory points should be made before continuing, however. First, it should be noted that Miller is extremely difficult to quote in brief, for what most characterizes his writing—and represents both the best and the worst thing about it—is his interminable jamming together of formless, exuberant imagery. Miller, in fact, writes like a Spasmodic poet, seemingly afraid that words are going out of style and, unless he employs them all immediately, they will be lost to us forever.
Second is the question of whether these books are novels at all. Miller insists they are not, even to the point where he writes an outraged response [a letter in The New Republic (18 May 1938)] to a highly favorable article by Edmund Wilson simply because the latter had assumed that Cancer is a work of fiction. [As Wayne Booth explains in The Rhetoric of Fiction:]
Wilson praised Miller for his skilful ironic portrait of a particular kind of "vaporing" poseur, for making his hero really live, "and not merely in his vaporings or his poses. He gives us the genuine American bum come to lead the beautiful life in Paris; and he lays him away forever in his dope of Pernod and dreams." To all of this praise for irony, Miller replied:
The theme of the book, moreover, is not at all what Mr. Wilson describes: the theme is myself, and the narrator, or the hero, as (Wilson) puts it, is also myself … the narrator … is me, because I have painstakingly indicated throughout the book that the hero is myself. I don't use "heroes," incidentally, nor do I write novels. I am the hero, and the book is myself.
Wayne Booth, in his brilliant study of the novel, cites this exchange between Wilson and Miller as exemplifying the contemporary critic's dilemma when considering the crucial question of distance between author and character, and he sympathizes with Wilson for making a very natural error. But there is overwhelming evidence that, despite Miller's protestations to the contrary, Wilson is basically right and Booth wrong. In Cancer, for instance, the protagonist writes that "I have made a silent compact with myself not to change a line of what I write. I am not interested in perfecting my thoughts, nor my actions." And yet the first draft manuscript of Cancer was three times the length of the published version, and three times Miller rewrote the book. [In a footnote, Friedman suggests that the reader see "the 'Chronology,' by Miller, for the year 1934, printed in The Best of Henry Miller, ed. Lawrence Durrell" and notes that in "the same book, Miller writes that Cancer 'was written several times and in many places—in Paris.' Durrell tells us that Cancer 'was distilled out of a colossal MS which I was lucky enough to read, and which could not have been less than fifteen hundred pages long. It seemed to me that there was enough material to make three or four Tropic of Cancers from it' ('Studies in Genius: Henry Miller,' in Henry Miller and the Critics, 1963)."] With regard to his Chronology, a supposedly factual account of his life, Miller has said: "Here and there I'm deliberately putting down a lie—just to throw the bastards off the track" [Art and Outrage: A Correspondence about Henry Miller, 1959].
The same, of course, goes for his "autobiographical romances," as he calls them—only more so. For instance, after vividly detailing an extensive series of sexual conquests, the protagonist of Capricorn says: "It was going on this way all the time even though every word I say is a lie." Samuel Beckett, in a perhaps apocryphal story, was asked if the title character of Waiting for Godot was meant to be God. "Of course not," he supposedly answered, "if I had meant God I would have said God; I meant Godot." Whether the incident actually occurred is beside the point; its moral remains loud, clear, and relevant: be wary when an artist speaks of what he intended by his work. Perhaps it would be best if, as E. M. Forster suggested, we read all literature as though it were written in a single room, simultaneously and in effect, anonymously. In practice, however, we need to strive for a satisfactory mean between the two extremes, especially when, as in Miller's case, author and protagonist have identical names and largely co-extensive lives. As Kingsley Widmer, in [his Henry Miller, 1963,] the best book to date on Miller, had noted, "it is unavoidable in discussing Miller's work to call the central figure Henry Miller, as does Henry Miller, though this is not a claim that the experiences are literal fact … in all probability Miller's writings about Miller are not true, in several senses."
These early books, then, with their loosely connected, anecdotal narrative, deal primarily with an alienated aging American writer who divides his thoughts and energies between the intoxicating life of Paris and the frenzied life of New York, and who discovers that the world is essentially an uncongenial place for such sensitive, personable individuals as himself. Cancer's similarities with The Sun Also Rises have been noted many times, as for instance in this comment by Samuel Putnam, a cohort of Miller's in the early Paris days and also a minor character in Cancer: "… whatever may be said of Miller, he has summed up for us as no one else has the expatriates' Paris of the second phase: and I think it may be said that the Tropic of Cancer is to that phase what The Sun Also Rises is to the preceding one" ["Henry Miller in Montparnasse," in Henry Miller and the Critics, 1963]. In addition, Cancer has affinities with A Moveable Feast, for both truly describe, to use Hemingway's words, "how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy." For even though hungry, Hemingway tells us, the young, eager, in love, expatriate writer of the 1920's found Paris "a moveable feast." But by the time of Cancer the hopeful twenties have given way to the forlorn thirties, and the prototype of the hungry writer has become a middle-aged lecher making nihilistic gestures at all the old romantic shibboleths. And thus the causes of Miller's happiness are more complex and more obscure than Hemingway's, for the latter is young and the work is going well and he is generally satisfied with the world he inhabits. If in his early writings, Miller ultimately achieves an affirmation of sorts, it is an affirmation predicated upon despair, for one by one he has rejected all the traditional values, all the consolations conceived by other men and other artists. The very point of Cancer, in fact, as Mark Schorer has put it [in his testimony in the case of "Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Tropic of Cancer," printed in Henry Miller and the Critics, 1963], "is that he has divested himself of every connection and responsibility in order to be free to do nothing but live with no money, no obligations, no residence, nothing except himself for life, and at that point he says, 'I am the happiest man in the world'."
This world, Miller insists, is a cancerous zone, a hospital full of the dying and the deadly: "People are like lice," he says—"they get under your skin and bury themselves there. You scratch and scratch until the blood comes, but you can't get permanently deloused. Everywhere I go people are making a mess of their lives. Everyone has his private tragedy. It's in the blood now—misfortune, ennui, grief, suicide. The atmosphere is saturated with disaster, frustration, futility." And out of this misery his imagination thus imposes upon others, emerges a perverse kind of drunken glee, for "the effect upon me," he claims, "is exhilarating. Instead of being discouraged, or depressed, I enjoy it. I am crying for more and more disasters, for bigger calamities, for grander failures. I want the whole world to be out of whack, I want everyone to scratch himself to death." What Miller means, apparently, is that his spiritual malaise finds solace, even delight, in an external despair at least as negative as the one within.
In addition, Tropic of Cancer reads as a kind of scatological Down and Out in Paris and London, for like the Orwell book, it concerns the quest for food and shelter (among other things) during the days and nights of the Parisian Depression—only Orwell seeks even the most menial and degrading work in order to survive at any cost; Miller, on the other hand, becomes a parasite in order both to survive on his own terms (that is, without working) and, despite his protestations to the contrary, in order to make literature of the experience. At the beginning of Cancer, Miller offers us a miniature portrait of the artist and his art.
It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God. This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing.
Art, then, becomes non-art, for it is not only formless and eclectic, negative and destructive, but it serves for the artist not as an end in itself but as a means to life. Elsewhere Miller writes that "art is only a stepping-stone to reality. It is the vestibule in which we undergo the rites of initiation. Man's task is to make of himself a work of art. The creations which man makes manifest have no validity in themselves; they serve to awaken." Consequently, he concludes, the artist must cease "immolating himself in his work," must cease creating out of a martyrdom "of sweat and agony…. We do not think of sweat and tears in connection with the universe; we think of joy and light, and above all of play" ["Of Art and the Future," in Sunday After the War, 1944]. And this is the kind of nay-saying which, since it is ultimately affirmative, we can readily accept—for even if art is not simply a spontaneously formed outpouring, even if art is not simply unrecollected and untranquilized emotion, it is pretty to talk as if it were.
Of Miller's semiautobiographical fiction, there are, to date, a total of nine excessively large volumes. They are unified primarily by similarities of mood and atmosphere, and only secondarily by subject matter, by, for instance, the dual theme of loss of innocence and initiation into manhood—an initiation which Miller's picaro has undergone enough times to become a fraternity unto himself. From time to time he renders this theme explicit, as when he discusses the effect upon himself of Henri Bergson's book, Creative Evolution: "When I think of the book now, and the way I approached it, I think of a man going through the rites of initiation. The disorientation and reorientation which comes with the initiation into any mystery is the most wonderful experience which it is possible to have" (Capricorn). Nonetheless, and despite the rather earthy form such initiation usually takes in these writings, Miller's central concern in them "was not with sex … but with the problem of self-liberation" [The World of Sex, 1940]. Richard Ellmann, in testimony given during the Chicago trial of Cancer, expressed essentially the same view of that book when he said that "there is nothing which is attractive about sexuality as represented in it." Very much unlike, for example, Fanny Hill, a book which exalts sex, joyfully delighting in it and the life devoted to it, Cancer is rather "a criticism of life in Paris at that time and, by extension, a criticism of life throughout the world at that time."
Miller's focal theme, and he expounds it at lengths sometimes painfully graphic, sometimes enormously funny, is disgust and revulsion at the stupidity and ugliness he sees all about him—and because his disgust and revulsion are both profoundly felt and often ineffectually transmuted into art, and because disease must, after all, be represented by disease, Miller rages on like a tidal wave of sewerage:
If there were a man who dared to say all that he thought of this world, there would not be left him a square foot of ground to stand on. When a man appears the world bears down on him and breaks his back. There are always too many rotten pillars left standing, too much festering humanity for man to bloom. The superstructure is a lie and the foundation is a huge quaking fear. If at intervals of centuries there does appear a man with a desperate hungry look in his eye, a man who would turn the world upside down in order to create a new race, the love that he brings to the world is turned to bile and he becomes a scourge…. If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what is really his experience, what is truly his truth, I think then the world would go to smash, that it would be blown to smithereens and no god, no accident, no will could ever again assemble the pieces.
And because Miller would be this man and because he is a frustrated romantic whose vision of reality bears virtually no resemblance to the stagnant world he sees about him, his naïveté and his disillusionment give way, at times, to strident nihilism and profound despair. "I can't get it out of my mind," he says in Cancer, "what a discrepancy there is between ideas and living." Nonetheless, the romanticism, the wide-eyed wonder of youthful innocence, not only clings but at times breaks forth into lyric passages of perhaps surprising beauty, as in the following passage from Big Sur, a much later book by a much mellower Miller:
There were always birds: the pirates and scavengers of the blue as well as the migratory variety. (At intervals the condor passed, huge as an ocean liner.) Gay in plumage, their beaks were hard and cruel. They strung out across the horizon like arrows tied to an invisible string. In close they seemed content to dart, dip, swoop, careen. Some followed the cliffs and breakers, others sought the canyons, the gold-crested hills, the marble-topped peaks…. From the ocean depths there issued strange formations, contours unique and seductive. As if the Titans of the deep had labored for aeons to shape and mold the earth. Even millennia ago the great land birds were startled by the abrupt aspect of these risen shapes.
Even as early as Cancer, however, the lyrical Miller is not only present, but present when we might expect him. Perhaps despite himself, his bubbling enthusiasm for life, for all of life, is self-infectious, and he continually breaks out in a hives-like joyfulness. Having written, "we're all dead, or dying, or about to die," he almost immediately refers to himself as "incurably optimistic! Still have one foot in the 19th century. I'm a bit retarded, like most Americans…. The mere thought of a meal—another meal—rejuvenates me. A meal! That means something to go on—a few solid hours of work, an erection possibly. I don't deny it. I have health, good, solid, animal health. The only thing that stands between me and a future is a meal, another meal."
Food, in fact becomes Cancer's one transcending standard of value. Art may be an intrusion, love a diseased prostitution, and the world a rotting corpse, but food, that divine inspiration, is God's glory on earth. "Food," Miller writes with gusto, "is one of the things I enjoy tremendously." And perhaps it is the only thing he enjoys tremendously always, for Miller, who often seems obsessed with the fact that he is not Jewish, adopts the traditionally Jewish belief in the therapeutic powers of food, in food as a nostrum for all the ills of life. Upon his long-delayed return to his parents' home in Brooklyn, a guilt-ridden Miller writes elsewhere, he feels a sudden compassion for the lower-middle-class sterility of their lives. But then, after the tears of this necessarily temporary reunion have been shed, the family turns, as usual, to the inevitable next meal. "The table was set; we were to eat in a few moments. It seemed natural that it should be thus, though I hadn't the slightest desire to eat. In the past the great emotional scenes which I had witnessed in the bosom of the family were nearly always associated with the table. We pass easily from sorrow to gluttony" ["Reunion in Brooklyn," in Sunday After the War, 1944].
The problem in Cancer, however, is far less likely to be that of gluttony than that of hunger. At one point, Miller's hunger becomes so acute that, despite his essentially passive, nonassertive nature, he feels constrained to initiate corrective action. Realizing "that no one would refuse a man a meal if only he had the courage to demand it," he writes to a dozen or so acquaintances, asking each the day of the week it would be convenient to have him come to dinner. Not only do none refuse him, but even those who can't stand him wine and dine him royally. "They were all obviously relieved," he writes, "when they realized that they would see me only once a week. And they were still more relieved when I said—it won't be necessary any more.' They never asked why. They congratulated me, and that was all. Often the reason was I had found a better host; I could afford to scratch off the ones who were a pain in the ass." Miller, for his part, never thinks to ask why his hosts do give him up so readily, but it is apparent that his feelings for them were mutual. Miller, however, continues blithely on. "'Life,' he quotes Emerson as having said, 'consists in what a man is thinking all day.' If that be so," he adds, "then my life is nothing but a big intestine. I not only think about food all day, but I dream about it at night."
But Miller's dreams and fantasies are as much sexual as they are gastronomical, and Paris serves equally well as caterer and procurer. "I have never seen a place like Paris," Miller comments, "for varieties of sexual provender." And for the picaro of Cancer, life in Paris becomes, as much as anything else, an attempt to sample as much as possible of this so generously provided provender. The whorey hordes, like marching Chinamen four abreast, parade incessantly down the streets of Miller's cities—streets he associates, both literally and figuratively, with life in the raw and, therefore, with life unclothed in the devitalizing dehumanizing raiments worn by everyone who is not of the streets. As Miller puts it in Black Spring: "What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature." And he adds, "I was born in the street and raised in the street…. To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free."
And thus Miller seeks out his whores, creatures of the street par excellence, and romanticizes them as fellow free spirits: Tania, with her "fat, heavy garters," her "soft, bulging thighs," "a Tania like a big seed, who scatters pollen everywhere," a Tania who is the loveliest Jew of them all, and for whose sake, Miller exclaims, "I too would become a Jew" (Cancer); Germaine, who bore all the obvious signs of her way of life (the boozy breath, the cheap jewelry, the rundown heels, the pasty rouge accentuating what it was meant to conceal), and yet like Molly Bloom exhibits in bed such an earthly joyousness—a joyousness clinically or cynically called nymphomania—that Miller quite naturally finds her delightful; and Claude, who, unlike Germaine, was not really cut out for this line of work, who was, at bottom, "just a good French girl of average breed and intelligence whom life had tricked somehow," and who "had a soul and a conscience … (and) refinement, too, which is bad—in a whore," and whom for a while Miller thought he loved.
There are, of course, innumerable others—enough in Cancer and Capricorn to people a street of brothels—and with a comic detachment, a saving irony of vision which is one of the outstanding features of Miller's writing, he records them all—the fat whores and the lean whores, the immoral and the amoral, the predatory, buzzardlike whores who are fundamentally man-haters and the merely hungry ones who, with both belly and bed warm and full, care nothing at all for a man's money. And because, like Yeats's ultrarational Crazy Jane, Miller can never forget that love has pitched its mansion in the place of excrement, his amatory encounters read like a series of experimental investigations into the accuracy of her assertion. Necessarily, Miller emphasizes those human organs, traditionally unmentionable and even at times unthinkable, which serve dual functions for Crazy Jane—and for everyone else. The duality is central when Carl, for whom Miller has been ghost-writing love letters for six months, at last goes to meet his rich, widowed correspondent. Although the lady is not only willing but downright eager, the luckless Carl spends the entire evening unable to find a delicate way of telling her that his bladder is full to bursting.
Later on in Cancer, when Miller gives us a description of Carl's room, he notes that "in the bidet were orange peels and the remnants of a ham sandwich." The convenient and, in France, omnipresent bidet is, of course, the perfect symbol of the dual functioning of the sex organ, and Miller makes good use of it as when he rails at Claude's offensive delicacy. "Who wants a delicate whore!" he demands. "Claude would even ask you to turn your face away when she squatted over the bidet! All wrong! A man, when he's burning up with passion, wants to see things; he wants to see everything, even how they make water."
The bidet also plays a key role subsequently when in a typical surrealistic flight of fancy, Miller imaginatively abstracts from his picaresque narrative and arrives at an existential epiphany in which, suddenly "inspired by the absolute hopelessness of everything," he envisages a new world where he can burrow fully and freely into life. As usual, he writes of the experience in terms of a symbolism both powerful and stridently abstruse:
I made up my mind that I would hold on to nothing, that I would expect nothing, that henceforth I would live as an animal, a beast of prey, a rover, a plunderer…. At this very moment, in the quiet dawn of a new day was not the earth giddy with crime and distress? Had one single element of man's nature been altered, vitally, fundamentally altered, by the incessant march of history?… I have reached the limits of endurance…. The world which I have departed is a menagerie. The dawn is breaking on a new world, a jungle world in which the lean spirits roam with sharp claws. If I am a hyena I am a lean and hungry one: I go forth to fatten myself.
All this quasi-mystical self-aggrandizing is as much pompous posturing for an effect as it is a serious attempt to find proper expression for an ever-recurring sense of hopelessness. But then, considering Miller's point of departure, what else could we expect? The scene Miller had been describing occurs, not surprisingly, in a brothel where, perhaps despite his better judgment, he had conducted a rather dandified and panting disciple of Gandhi's. The young Hindu, despite his eagerness, is obviously out of his depth. Turning his head away and blushing violently, he asks Miller to do the choosing from among the "bevy of naked women" surrounding them. Then, in an awkward violation of decorum, he has Miller switch girls with him. Finally, he commits the ultimate "faux pas" in confusing the functions of the bidet and the toilet—and it is the resultant unflushable mess which actuates Miller's readily stimulated imagination, for he freely associates it not merely with his erstwhile companion, but with all disciples of any faith, and hence with all man's hopes for a better life either in this world or in the next. Miller believes not only that things are rotten, but that they are bound to get a good deal worse. And thus his incessant wallowing in filth and degradation, the so-called seamier aspects of life, as a kind of objective correlative for his despair.
One of the would-be burners of Cancer has said that it is "like a slut walking down a neighborhood street, half undressed and spewing filth to those near her," and that it "deals heavily with carnal experiences, with perversion, with human filth and excrement" [Jack Mabley, quoted in "'Cancer' in Chicago," Evergreen Review, No. 25]. Deal with these things it does, of course, yet such a statement is misleading. For one thing, sexual perversion occurs rarely in Miller's fiction (unlike, for instance, Lawrence Durrell in his never-banned Alexandria Quartet, Miller is not fascinated by incest and homosexuality). At one point in Cancer he even expresses revulsion at a friend's espousal of masturbation, and in Capricorn, describing a boyhood attack on a sissy of a choirboy, he says, "it was a disgraceful performance, but it made us feel good. Nobody knew yet what a fairy was, but whatever it was we were against it."
Even his seemingly endless pursuit of females—or, more precisely, of the sex organs of prostitutes—must be examined in context; for, although obviously obsessed with the "idea" of sex, Miller, especially in Cancer, is largely indifferent to it in reality. Despite his concern with his physical needs, he almost never goes out of his way to satisfy them. Taking a woman to bed—although he does so at every opportunity—seems always to be someone else's idea: the various women who accost him in the streets or the cafes, the blushing Hindu afraid to go upstairs alone, the friend who offers him the loan of his own latest bed-mate. Miller's reaction to the latter is typical: "I didn't know whether I wanted to or not," he says, but of course he does. It is free, it is convenient, and besides it saves him the cost of a night's lodging.
Miller's essential passivity regarding sex receives full treatment much earlier in Cancer. He is with Van Norden, an agreeably unsavory character who functions as a kind of alter ego, and who, in contrast with Miller, literally does think and talk of nothing but sex. Bessie, the only woman he cannot take to bed, correctly characterizes him as "just a worn-out satyr" who does not "know the meaning of passion." With Miller in tow, he engages for both of them the invariable nameless and hungry prostitute. The three of them, all equally passionless, retire to Van Norden's room, where Miller's passivity casts him into the role of voyeur. "As I watch Van Norden tackle her," he writes,
it seems to me that I am looking at a machine whose cogs have slipped…. I am sitting on a chair behind him, watching their movements with a cool, scientific detachment…. It's like watching one of those crazy machines which throw the newspaper out…. The machine seems more sensible, crazy as it is, and more fascinating to watch, than the human beings and the events which produced it. My interest in Van Norden and the girl is nil…. As long as that spark of passion is missing there is no human significance in the performance. The machine is better to watch.
Here, undoubtedly, is the crux of Miller's problem, for his sexual passivity and general malaise result from that absent spark of passion. In general, as we have seen, he attempts to make the sterility of the world about him into the villain of the piece—even to the point of faulting Paris, the one place where life has been possible for him. At times, however, Miller will attempt a more specific self-analysis, a more intimate delving after the roots of the cancerous growths within him. Of a much earlier period he writes: "things were wrong usually only when one cared too much. That impressed itself on me very early in life…. This caring too much—I remember that it only developed with me about the time I first fell in love. And even then I didn't care enough. If I had really cared I wouldn't be here now writing about it…. It was a bad experience because it taught me how to live a lie" (Capricorn).
The Miller of the Tropics, then, is a man who has trained himself to care for no one—and rather than run the risks of emotional involvement attendant upon normal intercourse, he reduces all such contact to the simply sexual. Concomitantly, when every woman becomes a whore and every whore a single anatomical feature, the process, as Miller has suggested, is a lie, or rather, the poetic technique of synecdoche. Like food, then, the simple animalistic response to sexual stimulus serves as a safe standard, for it actually involves only a minute fraction of the real personality buried beneath the brutish exterior.
But the buffoon-lecher mask slips occasionally, revealing a Miller who cares very much indeed. For throughout the autobiographical fiction, as Kingsley Widmer has indicated, there runs the pivotal theme of
the misery and inspiration connected with the Dark Lady of passion. She is partly the "femme fatale" of the romantic, and inverted traditional muse of the artist, the Eve-Lilith of primordial knowledge, a witch-goddess of sexuality and power, and, according to Miller's insistence, his second wife. Under the names of Mona and Mara, she haunts most of Miller's work; and she appears, at least briefly, in almost every book he has written.
Certainly her appearances are brief and intermittent, for her story is as fragmented as everything else in Miller's discontinuous narrative. Nonetheless, Miller's treatment of her constantly emphasizes her emotional centrality to his life and to his work. For one thing, the Mona/Mara passages are remarkably free of both censorable language and excremental references. Descriptions of Mona and of scenes with her, unlike those of other women in the Tropics, never become flights of nihilistic, semiabstract imagery indulged in for their own sake. Of the significance of Mona, the "Her" to whom Capricorn is dedicated, Miller writes: "Everything I endured was in the nature of a preparation for that moment when, putting on my hat one evening, I walked out of the office, out of my hitherto private life, and sought the woman who was to liberate me from a living death."
In Cancer she appears initially as a figure of almost virginal purity, a kind of antiwhore who embodies love rather than sex. Miller has been eagerly awaiting her return to Paris when "suddenly," he writes,
I see a pale heavy face with burning eyes—and the little velvet suit that I always adored because under the soft velvet there were always her warm breasts, the marble legs, cool, firm, muscular. She rises up out of a sea of faces and embraces me, embraces me passionately…. I sit down beside her and she talks—a flood of talk…. I hear not a word because she is beautiful and I love her and now I am happy and willing to die.
Then in bed their intense passion finds expression, as do Miller's tenderness and love—and a new emotion, fear.
She lies down on the bed with her clothes on. Once, twice, three times, four times … I'm afraid she'll go mad … in bed, under the blankets, how good to feel her body again! But for how long? Will it last this time? Already I have a presentiment that it won't…. Finally she drops off and I pull my arm from under her. My eyes close. Her body is there beside me … it will be there till morning surely…. My eyes are closed. We breathe warmly into each other's mouth. Close together, America three thousand miles away. I never want to see it again. To have her here in bed with me, breathing on me, her hair in my mouth—I count that something of a miracle. Nothing can happen now till morning.
But in the morning everything happens. They wake to find each other crawling with bedbugs; Mona, needing a bath, food, and adequate clothing, loses her temper at Miller's having forgotten to provide for money; and, although Miller does not detail the rest of the sequence of events, by the next page Mona disappears from the narrative—not to be even mentioned again for some 120 pages. Again he longs for her, wondering how different life might be with "a young, restless creature by (his) side"; but his image of her has altered drastically and, bitterly, he sees her as alien to his European world. If she ever should return, he wryly speculates,
she'll probably tell me right away that it's unsanitary. That's the first thing that strikes an American woman about Europe—that it's unsanitary. Impossible for them to conceive of a Paradise without modern plumbing…. She'll say I've become a degenerate. I know her line from beginning to end. She'll want to look for a studio with a garden attached—and a bath-tub to be sure. She wants to be poor in a romantic way. I know her. But I'm prepared for her this time.
Exactly what is good about being poor in an unromantic way Miller never explains, but certainly he is correct about being prepared for her—for he manages, at least for the moment, to blot from his mind everything that belongs to the past, especially those few years when they were together and life was, if not edenic, at least vital and intense. Now when he thinks of her—and he is not able to keep himself from doing so entirely—it is "not as of a person in a definite aura of time and space, but separate, detached, as though she had blown up into a great cloud-like form that blotted out the past." Regardless, he adds,
I couldn't allow myself to think about her very long; if I had I would have jumped off the bridge. It's strange. I had become so reconciled to this life without her; and yet if I thought about her only for a minute it was enough to pierce the bone and marrow of my contentment and shove me back again into the agonizing gutter of my wretched past.
And yet, no matter what the reason, a man who wilfully destroys his past, as Miller begins to realize, commits spiritual suicide: "It seems as if my own proper existence had come to an end somewhere, just where exactly I can't make out. I'm not an American any more, nor a New Yorker, and even less a European, or a Parisian. I haven't any allegiance, any responsibilities, any hatreds, any worries, any prejudices, any passion. I'm neither for nor against. I'm a neutral" (Cancer). But this statement serves first as manifesto and only subsequently as actual fact, for after the climactic moment when he recognizes the irrevocable loss of Mona, he gives way to a despairing loneliness so profound and so terrible that all else seems irrelevant. Yet in his hopelessness he comes full cycle, rediscovering his affinity with all the sordid and cancerous aspects of Paris, a city that "attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love," a Paris that "is like a whore. From a distance she seems ravishing, you can't wait until you have her in your arms. And five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked." Ultimately, there are only the streets for refuge, for the streets take every man's torments, every man's raging despair that is so precious because it confirms his significance as an individual capable of suffering, and the streets make something of it neither for nor against, but simply neutral. Miller, as we see him last, is a vastly diminished figure wondering "in a vague way what had ever happened to (his) wife." "A vague way"—the phrase is significant—for it suggests, and this is borne out in the later writings, that the failure of the relationship may well have resulted from Miller's intrinsic inadequacies. As Widmer has put it: "While his version of the Dark Lady myth aims to show Miller as the victim of love, he really presents himself as the victim of his own lovelessness."
Thus Miller's passionless passivity, his apathetic indifference to the things that most of us value in life. He begins his Tropics triad as a rebel without a cause—as "a James Dean character, a Hemingway of undisciplined creative yearnings"—and even though he is often ludicrous and ineffectual we are sympathetic, for he is saying things that need to be said; we have heard them before, but they bear the repeating. For, as Miller puts it in Capricorn, "even if everything I say is wrong, is prejudiced, spiteful, malevolent, even if I am a liar and a poisoner, it is nonetheless the truth and it will have to be swallowed."
Before very long, however, he is worn out and used up, a causeless nonconformist maintaining the old postures merely because they have become habitual. By the end of Cancer, Miller has even run out of defiant gestures. He is sitting in a cafe, idly watching the Seine; his pockets bulging with money—the filthy stuff he has always claimed to despise—money, moreover, he has stolen from a friend. And, perhaps strangest and unkindest cut of all, he speaks the tired conservatism of the nouveau riche: "… you can't create a revolution," he writes. "You can't wash all the dirt out of your belly" (Cancer). Thus in Capricorn Miller has nowhere to go. "To want to change the condition of affairs," he writes at the beginning of that book, "seemed futile to me; nothing would be altered, I was convinced, except by a change of heart, and who could change the hearts of men?" Miller had thought that he could, but he was wrong. "For a man of my temperament," he adds later in the same book, "the world being what it is, there is absolutely no hope, no solution."
Miller claims that the Tropics are about regeneration—"the Dionysian theme which … must be the theme for the writers to come—the only theme permissible, or possible." Miller does occasionally employ redemptive imagery—for example, the quietly flowing Seine at the end of Cancer—but he seems ultimately incapable of rising from negation to affirmation, incapable of transcending his long dark night of the soul (the very word "soul", in fact, he finds ludicrous). In Capricorn he writes that "whoever, through too great love, which is monstrous after all, dies of his misery, is born again to know neither love nor hate, but to enjoy. And this joy of living, because it is unnaturally acquired, is a poison which eventually vitiates the whole world." The Tropics, then, is not about redemption at all, but only about the death of love—and the irrevocable finality and waste of one man's spiritual suicide.
Certainly only the naive would attempt to deny that love has indeed pitched its mansion in the place of excrement, but only those uncompromisingly bitter and self-defeating—and Miller is both in these books—attempt to exalt an excremental or merely animalistic standard over that of love. Miller, it seems, would have the cancerous growths of his Tropics block out the light entering love's mansion, just as his own memory conveniently blotted out more and more of his painful past. But fortunately, and perhaps despite his intentions, Miller demonstrates that such a perverse disordering is invariably doomed to failure—and this demonstration may well be the one permanent edifice in the jungles of Henry Miller's Tropics.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3106
SOURCE: "The Life in Fiction," in his The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett, Knopf, 1967, pp. 59-67.
[Hassan is an Egyptian-born American critic and educator who has written numerous books on modernist and post-modernist literature, including Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel (1961) and The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (1971). In the following excerpt, he analyzes the themes and technique of Tropic of Cancer, characterizing the novel as a profane yet lyrical paean to the chaos of raw experience.]
The trilogy that begins with Tropic of Cancer (1934) is still Miller's most compelling work. Cancer itself is primarily an act of obedience to flow; it shows neither recognition on the part of its hero nor conversion in his outlook. There is no "hero" and no central "point," and there is no form but the shape of disintegration, the rhythm of humility and rage endured by human flesh. If the book makes a plea, it is the eternal plea of the self: more life! We need to look at the book, as Anaïs Nin put it, "with the eyes of a Patagonian for whom all that is sacred and taboo in our world is meaningless."
It is the second year in Paris for the narrator; he has no money, no illusions. In the Villa Borghese, where he lives, everyone is alone and everyone is dead. This is the beginning. But how can there be a beginning when Time is not the hero, as Miller insists, only Timelessness? The narrator pretends that he has sloughed off the dross of the world; he has found himself. The discovery, however, must be put in writing though it claims the spontaneity of a curse or song:
This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse….
The song is dedicated to Tania, "my chaos," who appears but briefly in the book, and it progresses while the world, like a cancer, is eating itself out. The progress of the book, then, is the movement of a personal song that grows from day to day with increments of action and recollection, moving toward no end. The book and the life pretend to be acts of discovery; celebration and expectation have become one.
We are introduced early to a gallery of grotesque or desperate figures—Tania, her husband Sylvester, Moldorf, Lucille, Borowski, Mona, Cronstadt, Elsa, Boris, Marlowe, Carl, Paula, Van Norden, etc.—who move on the edges of the city, jostle in its streets and disappear in its catacombs. They all seem like end-of-the-world figures, shadowy caricatures erupting suddenly into humor and life. Most of them are Jewish or half-Jewish. This is significant, Miller insists, because for the Jew, as for the narrator himself, the world is a cage filled with wild beasts. Paris is sperm and vomit; across the ocean, America is a foetus smoking a cigar. Meanwhile, the narrator feels "The Last Book" growing in him, 'the book that must include everything left out in other books. The whores come and go obscenely while the narrator fumbles for some key to the mystery and violence of creation. The tattered souls he meets in the depths glow with a secret, indestructible light. You can't put a fence around a human being, Miller believes, recognizing in his fellow men—though he may spit at their feet—the freedom of his own spirit. The spectacle of decadence and despair in Baudelaire's "fourmillante cité" is constantly relieved by sudden accesses of laughter and health. "Walking along the Champs-Elysées I keep thinking of my really superb health. When I say 'health' I mean optimism, to be truthful. Incurably optimistic! Still have one foot in the nineteenth century. I'm a bit retarded, like most Americans," the narrator confesses. Even in the heart of darkness, which is the modern city, the American can still retain his radical innocence.
The narrator does more than retain his innocence; he experiences epiphanies, usually in dives and whore-houses. A hilarious series of episodes presents him wandering through the underworld of Paris, in the company of Hindu disciple of Gandhi, and culminates in a vision. It is a vision of the justification of all things, roses and dung heaps; the sheer hopelessness of existence becomes for him proof of its many miracles. "For the fraction of a second perhaps I experienced that utter clarity which the epileptic, it is said, is given to know. In that moment I lost completely the illusion of time and space…. On the meridian of time there is no injustice: there is only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and drama." Released from hope, from the vanity of human wishes, the narrator is also released from affliction. But his anger and his rejection of the social lie persist:
I made up my mind that I would hold on to nothing, that I would expect nothing, that henceforth I would live as an animal, a beast of prey, a rover, a plunderer…. I have found God but he is insufficient. I am only spiritually dead. Physically I am alive. Morally I am free. The world I have departed is a menagerie. The dawn is breaking on a new world, a jungle world in which the lean spirits roam with sharp claws. If I am a hyena I am a lean and hungry one: I go forth to fatten myself….
Freedom, not spiritual rebirth, is what our hero finds; in his jungle world of violence and deceit a black apocalypse gathers slowly.
Yet the cunning narrator is not quite as spiritually dead as he claims. The intensity of his anger, the vitality of his written testament, are proof to the contrary. The proof is also in the contrast between him and the desperadoes, Van Norden or Fillmore, who seek his company. They, too, have laid their illusions bare and picked their souls clean; they, too, seek pleasure for pleasure's sake. But their anguish remains undiminished and their joys arid. They cannot love; nor can they disport themselves with the casual animal grace of the French toughs they meet. Unlike Miller himself, they are all undisturbed by the visions that haunt him: the earth moving out of its orbit, the deltas and river beds drying, the snow blowing in huge drifts. "A new day is dawning, a metallurgical day, when the earth shall clink with showers of bright yellow ore … at the periphery the light waves bend and the sun bleeds like a broken rectum." Visions come and go; the oscillations from one mood to another are endless. At night, the narrator works at his grubby job as proofreader for an American paper, and facts oppress his spirit. But when he hits the morning air, his imagination runs wild, releasing itself in extravagant poetry and echolalia. Soon again, memories come crowding in, and the image of Mona, the wife he has left behind in America, shuts out the light. The narrator is back in "the agonizing gutter of my wretched past"; like an abyss, lost love beckons him to the bottom. Then the fierce image of some artist, Strindberg, say, emerges from the depths:
And, as I ruminated, it began to grow clear to me, the mystery of his pilgrimage, the flight which the poet makes over the face of the earth and then, as if he had been ordained to re-enact a lost drama, the heroic descent to the very bowels of the earth, the dark and fearsome sojourn in the belly of the whale, the bloody struggle to liberate himself, to emerge clean of the past, a bright, gory sun god cast up on an alien shore.
If the narrator is reborn, we do not see it. Rebirth implies the experience of a unique moment of crisis. There is no such crisis in Cancer. There is only the experience of flow. Pain and ecstasy follow one another as surely as night follows day. We see the antics of the hero, sick and dying, in Kruger's studio; we see next his antics in bawdy houses or barroom brawls, Joy and tenderness erupt in the most unlikely places; so does misery. The vision, on the profane level of the action, remains crudely comic. When the narrator cheats a "midwife" of her fees or Fillmore entertains his Russian "princess," we follow each incident with riotous disbelief, as if the whole world had suddenly gone mad and we had been gleefully released. Anarchy prevails in its most clownish forms; the "genito-urinary friendships" of Paris mix ugliness with raucous laughter and incessant surprise. Sordid, depleted, absurd, the cankered world of Miller still swarms with the wonder of profane being.
There is also, on another level of action and vision, a sacred sense of being. To paint pre-Socratic man, a creature part goat, part Titan—this is the aim of Miller. On this level, the obscene contains the mystery of creation itself. Contemplating the door of creation, fissure and womb, Miller invokes archetypal images, which come, pell-mell, like a burst of surrealistic poetry:
Out of that dark, unstitched wound, that sink of abominations, that cradle of black-thronged cities where the music of ideas is drowned in cold fat, out of strangled Utopias is born a clown, a being divided between beauty and ugliness, between light and chaos, a clown who when he looks down and sidelong is Satan himself and when he looks upwards seen a buttered angel, a snail with wings…. If anyone knew what it meant to read the riddle of that thing which today is called a "crack" or a "hole," if anyone had the least feeling of mystery about the phenomena which are labeled "obscene," this world would crack asunder.
The rhapsody of creation and destruction, dedicated now to the Female Principle and now to the lost image of Mona, is sustained for page after indiscriminate page with shattering effect. Standing in the midst of reeking humanity, Miller suddenly steps aside and apart, knowing that true artists and visionaries alike are condemned by their race. He belongs not to men but to the earth. He belongs with the monsters of creation. Whining, childish at times, cowardly and self-indulgent, the narrator snaps out of his sweaty condition to say: "Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones, the race of artists who, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread and the bread into wine and the wine into song." Men of this race stand with their feet in a pool of blood and tears, their hands empty, clutching always for the god out of reach; and they stand on high places, with gibberish in their mouths, ripping out their entrails. How else is humanity to be redeemed?
Once again, agony is followed by peace. The apocalyptic seer screams doom with defiance in his scream: "It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for us, any of us, but if that is so then let us set up a last agonizing, bloodcurdling howl, a screech of defiance, a war-whoop! Away with lamentation! Away with elegies and dirges!" This is the song of Cancer on the upper registers. On another register, the song comes to us less as a howl than a purr.
This latter note is struck toward the inconclusive ending of the book. After a funny and horrible experience as a lycée teacher in Dijon, which is rendered even more vividly in [Henry Miller: Letters to Anaïs Nin], the narrator flees back to Paris. There he sets about helping Fillmore to escape from the clutches of his wild and greedy mistress, Ginette. After pocketing the huge sum that Fillmore leaves with him to give to Ginette, the narrator wanders happily on the banks of the Seine. He is in a state of euphoria for which there is no dramatic or objective correlative—except the stolen money. "Inside me things were running smoother than any Rolls Royce ever ran. It was just like velvet inside. Velvet cortex and velvet vertebrae. And velvet axle grease, what!" He is not thinking about Mona now, and even his bitterness toward America vanishes. There is space around him, and peace within. The Seine flows by him quietly, peacefully, like a great artery through the human body.
One is forcefully struck by the passive quality of the book, its refusal to control experience or evaluate it, the silence beneath bitterness and beatitude. "I love everything that flows." Miller quotes, and flow seems all he can love. Where can such a love lead us? To a new sense of the wholeness or even holiness of all experience? Again and again, the discrepancy between triviality of event and loftiness of reflection jars our expectations. Is this but another subterfuge to erase distinctions and level life? Then again, one wonders about the narrator himself. Is he left with a fuller knowledge of his situation? What, precisely, motivates his bursts of rage or reconciliation? And does anything really happen to him?
A partial answer to these questions may be discovered in the anti-form of Cancer. On the plane of actual experience, no "question" is really valid; things are what they are, events simply happen. But knowledge is another matter; it requires that experience be given form and value. This is the pride of the mind, seeking always some grip on the slippery stuff of life. Now Cancer is not raw experience; it is rather a song of experience. As such, it implies a kind of form. Its form, nevertheless, is almost preartistic. It rejects the ideas of purpose and control; it denies the conventions of comedy and tragedy; and it defies the abstract patterns of quest, conversion, or reversal long honored in Western literature. The anti-form of Cancer amounts simply to this: a complex gesture of the imagination that renders in language the unity of mind and nature, knowledge and experience, artist and man.
The gesture in Miller's work can be analyzed into its component elements. Considered closely, these elements do not always appear to us original. Miller's use of time is an example:
In reading my books, which are purely autobiographical, one should bear in mind that I write with one foot in the past. In telling the story of my life, I have discarded the chronological sequence in favor of the circular or spiral form of progression. The time sequence which relates one event to another in linear fashion strikes me as falsely imitative of the true rhythm of life. [The World of Sex]
Time moves obedient to the rhythm of the emotions, not the logic of history, Miller claims. But after the examples of Proust, Joyce, and Mann, this hardly seems a shattering insight. Likewise, Miller's literary point of view owes something to the romantic egoism of Walt Whitman and Thomas Wolfe in America even more than to the romantic pessimism of Céline. Furthermore, his abrupt shifts of tone find a precedent in the Symbolist and Surrealist poets before him. In Miller's work, we have seen, nausea yields to ecstasy, comic incident to solemn vision. A simple description of a scene or an action suddenly blends into surreal poetry, images crackling and twisting, words rushing and piling, language itself exploding in outrageous mockery. At times, the whole lexicon is let loose on us, marshaled by howling neologisms. Yet this technique, striking as it may seem, climaxes a literary tradition that extends from Rimbaud and Laforgue to Apollinaire and Cendrars. Miller brings that tradition to a close less by revolution than by sheer indiscriminacy.
For what finally distinguishes Miller is a peculiarly American attitude, generous, violent, prodigal toward both art and life. In his radical innocence, he sees as much truth in harlot or wife, stray object or charged symbol, seeing that everything points to, and beyond, itself to the ground of being. Cancer, which begins as a dirge to Western civilization, ends therefore as a hymn to natural man. The life of the book is in its savage texture, the pulsing surface of a rowdy and occasionally nasty egoism. For the egoism is undoubtedly there, marring the sacramental view. Presumably, the egoism is that of the narrator who relates himself haphazardly to everyone, seldom to anyone. This is his existential flaw. The limitation—or should one say uniqueness?—of the book is that it has no perspective on itself: its author, Henry Miller, has no more wisdom or art than the flawed narrator of Cancer possesses.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7949
SOURCE: "The Volcano's Eruption," in his The Mind and Art of Henry Miller, Louisiana State University Press, 1967, pp. 85-109.
[In the following excerpt, Gordon discusses the imagery, style, and themes of Tropic of Cancer, arguing that the novel is a documentation of Miller's struggle for self-liberation.]
Tropic of Cancer, which came out in 1934, was Miller's first published full length work. He had written several "novels" before this, but those who have read them, including Miller, agree that they lack his essential quality, that they are derived and imitative. Although Tropic of Cancer is not part of the central work which Miller had planned in 1927, it is a kind of spontaneous bursting forth of feeling which had been bottled up for years. It is significant for several reasons, not the least being that it is still one of his most readable books. In Cancer Miller found and developed the role of hero-narrator which he has maintained throughout his writing career. This narrator, even when he is describing his own personal experiences and feelings, remains detached and relatively free of his environment. He is what Miller has always said of himself even as a child, at once a part of and totally independent of the life around him. He is gregarious and totally alone. He is Dostoievski's "underground man" who is filled with violence, but he lacks the self-doubts and tortured inner struggle that mark Dostoievski's heroes. He is presented to us as a man who has finally, once and for all, burst out of the confines of his culture, who has himself become the arbiter of values, who is the herald of a new world to come after this present world shall finally have been destroyed. Tropic of Cancer accepts that destruction and celebrates the affirmation of individual life. Its various sections explore the undiscovered life which belongs to the self but has been covered over in the effort to come to terms with a corrupt civilization.
He is the Nietzschean man who wakes one day to exclaim rapturously with Rabelais, "Fay ce que vouldras!" Having discarded the values which he inherited from his culture, hero Miller faces life in Paris in an effort to establish new values. In the process he regresses to almost infantile levels of demand. He is consumed with the desire for food. Everything in life that he wants becomes the object not of will or desire, but of voracious appetite. The first rule of life is survival, and he takes all the means he can find to this end. He sets up a list of friends who will share the responsibility for feeding him, and he calls once a week at the house of each, until he outstays his welcome. He begs and scrounges and yet all the while seems to enjoy life to the full. Everyone worries; he is serene.
Besides developing the character of the hero, Tropic of Cancer establishes the style which will be characteristic of Miller from then on. There are generally three elements which he combines in different proportions. The first element is the life of the hero-narrator in the present, which includes his sense of body and mind, the continual rendering of the feeling of living here and now. Secondly there are the anecdotal elements which make Miller's novels one of the great collecting places of strange and unusual characters. Sometimes these anecdotes seem to be told for their own sakes, like the story of Max, the destitute refugee. But usually they function as a foil for the narrator to show his own view of life or to compare the developing values of the hero with the obsessive concerns of the unredeemed. In Cancer this role is reserved mainly for Van Norden, who occupies one long chapter besides lengthy passages later in the book.
On the third level and woven into the other material are the free-flowing fantasy-like associations by which the hero-narrator interprets the world in which he lives. These passages are not as fully developed as in later works, but they are still a significant part. They generally arise either out of the narrator's present experience of felt life or out of his anecdotes about others. The fantasy of Miller's shorter works like "Into the Night Life" is pure surrealism, but fantasy as a technique in the major novels is highly integrative. Symbols enable the narrator to reach beyond the present moment to the past and future, and beyond the present limited geographical location to the universe. The fantasy passages allow the narrator to integrate his own past life and the episodes and characters of the present with his major themes—the birth of independence, the discovery of the lines of the body. Tropic of Cancer seems to be a less-unified book than Tropic of Capricorn because the fantasy passages do not unite and integrate the material into themes as completely as they do in Capricorn. Despite this fault, however, Cancer has an excitement about it of something new; it is crude but fresh.
Miller tells us something of his own view of Tropic of Cancer in The World of Sex: "The Tropic of Cancer is a sort of human document, written in blood, recording the struggle in the womb of death. The strong sexual odor is, if anything, the aroma of birth, disagreeable, repulsive even, when disassociated from its significance." Miller calls Tropic of Cancer a work of the moment, "the volcano's eruption" [Art and Outrage, 1959]. Yet it is important because it emphasizes more than other works one aspect of Miller's development, that is, the purposeful treatment of what is ugly, repulsive, and distasteful in life. Miller's struggle in the womb of death is well worth recording, but easily misunderstood. His attitude in Tropic of Cancer is not peaceful acceptance as it will become later. It is rather the first assertion of the self against all that seeks to enslave that self, against disgust for the forms that life may take, against conventional easy adjustments to reality, against sentimentalism, self-deception, and obsessions of every sort. It proposes to face frankly the biological facts of existence and especially to treat these facts in the most immediate concrete terms available. It is against art, as Miller saw it practiced in his own day, because it refuses to gloss over anything; it is against all sentimental conceptions of God or religion, against all conventional notions of man, destiny, time, or eternity. It is for very little except the complete honesty and integrity of the individual.
As Miller has emphasized in his study of D. H. Lawrence, the refusal to face animal life leads to that idealization which is yet another form of death, because it denies the fundamental nature of man and cuts him off from his source of vital energy. The law of life is growth, and for man that means freeing himself from the womb, achieving independence. Life is a process in which man is constantly being born. The refusal to be born is the acceptance of death.
In the light of what we have already seen of Miller's early life the rebellious sexuality of Tropic of Cancer is something of a paradox. We can easily imagine a highly repressed individual breaking loose as Miller does in this book, but there is no evidence that Miller had ever been particularly repressed. Passages in other books about his early life show a freedom of approach to sexual experience and an ability to tolerate sexual images which would seem to indicate an almost total lack of repression. Yet we must assume on the basis of the imagery of Tropic of Cancer that a great release of instinctual energy is taking place, and that enabled Miller to move on to another level of experience.
We can better understand the nature of Miller's rebellion if we examine his situation at the time of writing Tropic of Cancer. Early in Tropic of Capricorn, that is while the narrator was working at Western Union, we find a discussion of the bottled up rebellion directed against all the forces of society which hero Miller felt was keeping him from achieving his full potentiality as an individual. There was at this time a tremendous upsurge of aggression which as yet had not been channeled in any constructive direction. A second great emotional upheaval takes place in Sexus when he breaks loose from the depressing relationship with his first wife to enter a new kind of relation with Mona. The relationship with Mona, however, does not free Miller; it enslaves him. He finds himself with time to write, but he is dependent upon a woman who so dominates his life that he is unable to use the time constructively. The "Land of Fuck" Interlude of Tropic of Capricorn shows us a descent to the level of instinct, but does not show us the emergence from that state. At the end of Nexus, just before Miller left for Paris, his aggressive feelings are still largely unchanneled and violent, and his sexual energies are tied up in a frustrating relationship which has progressively deteriorated. It is clear that Miller has not yet arrived at a state of free and spontaneous awareness of life which can operate effectively in achieving his full potentiality as a person.
As the great explosion in which both sexual and aggressive energy are released into the work of art, Tropic of Cancer is a disturbing book. Its violence has become heavily charged with sexual feeling, and for this reason it is a cathartic of the most violent kind. It has been attacked fanatically and defended in the same way. It is only right that it should be. A rebellion of the nature of Miller's does not usually evoke a lukewarm reaction. Some readers, caught up in Miller's mood to the extent that they feel the same release, love the book; others, disturbed by the raw state of its emotion, dislike it intensely. Such in fact, has been the history of critical reactions to Tropic of Cancer.
The hero-narrator of Tropic of Cancer is in many ways the Nietzschean hero par excellence, but his rebellion has other elements which we have touched upon. In a symbolic sense the rebellion of the hero is an effort to escape from the womb of the mother. There are many sources, as we have seen, for Miller's womb imagery; but his attitude in Cancer seems closest to that which he expressed much later in The Time of the Assassins, his study of Rimbaud, and in his comments on James Joyce. In the Rimbaud study Miller draws a character sketch of the man who is striving to break free of the mother, and he associates that effort with violence.
Failure of the individual to free himself from the mother, Miller says, means that the dark side of his nature had not been faced early in life. He explains how man rejects the dark side of life out of fear that he will lose his individuality, unique identity, and freedom. Man thus becomes a rebel striving for the "freedom to assert his ego unrestrained." The search for freedom then takes the form of a rebellion against life itself, which conceals the bondage to the mother:
All this has one meaning for me—that one is still bound to the mother. All one's rebellion was but dust in the eye, the frantic attempt to conceal this bondage. Men of this stamp are always against their native land—impossible to be otherwise. Enslavement is the great bugaboo, whether it be to country, church or society. Their lives are spent in breaking fetters, but the secret bondage gnaws at their vitals and gives them no rest. They must come to terms with the mother before they can rid themselves of the obsession of fetters. "Outside! Forever outside! Sitting on the doorstep of the mother's womb."… No wonder one is alienated from the mother. One does not notice her, except as an obstacle. One wants the comfort and security of the womb, that darkness and ease which for the unborn is the equivalent of illumination and acceptance for the truly born. [The Time of the Assassins]
Fulfillment of man's destiny, that is, the achievement of man's potentialities for freedom, means that one must leave the security of the mother's womb and accept the world as the true matrix of his development. The world then becomes a womb and man repeats in a different way the process of growth from conception to birth. Miller points out the dangers of remaining linked to the mother in his discussion of James Joyce. Of man's two choices, to accept the world as womb and be born again, or return to the womb of the mother and lose the world forever, Miller has elected the first and recorded his struggle to be born. Joyce, Miller claims [in "The Universe of Death," in his The Cosmological Eye, 1939], has elected the second; he has returned to the womb of the mother, symbolized in the person of Molly Bloom. His fight is with the mother, symbolized for him in family, country, and church. In his revolt he rejects the world once and for all and returns to this mother, who has become for him "the veridic whore of creation." In the person of Molly Bloom the mother becomes "the quintessence of the great whore which is woman of Babylon, the vessel of abominations. Floating, unresisting, eternal, all-contained, she is like the sea itself. Like the sea she is receptive, fecund, voracious, insatiable. She begets and she destroys; she nourishes and she devastates. With Molly Bloom, con anonyme, woman is restored to prime significance—as womb and matrix of life." Joyce's hero is unable to free himself from this woman-matrix. The hero returns to the womb at last:
And so, with final, triumphant vengeance, with suicidal glee, all the threads which were dropped throughout the book are recapitulated; the pale, diminutive hero, reduced to an intestinal worm and carried like a tickling phallus in the great body of the female, returns to the womb of nature, shorn of everything but the last symbol. In the long retrospective arc which is drawn we have the whole trajectory of man's flight from unknown to unknown, the rainbow of history fades out. The great dissolution is accomplished. After that closing picture of Molly Bloom adreaming on her dirty bed we can say, as in Revelation—And there shall be no more curse! Henceforth no sin, no quiet, no fear, no repression, no longing, no pain of separation. The end is accomplished—man returns to the womb.
What Miller was trying to avoid at the time he arrived in Paris was the fate which he has assigned to James Joyce, the return to the womb, the flight from life to security. Growth, he was beginning to discover, must be to greater differentiation, to freedom, to independence, and it is precisely that image of woman which he attacks in the person of Molly Bloom that he is attacking in Tropic of Cancer. His violence and his sexualizing of experience are a part of his attempt to control his own destiny, which also accounts for his prevailing womb imagery and for his attacks on sexual obsession of all kinds.
Miller's first task in Tropic of Cancer is to establish a sense of the self and a sense of the world. He must cling resolutely to the sense of self, a self which is free and independent of external events as the source of his well-being and happiness. The world is a chaos, but the self lives:
It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom.
I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought I was an artist. I no longer think about it. I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.
Miller is here in Paris, abandoned by Mona to find himself as best he can. The first year in Paris was a year of suffering; now comes the violent birth. "I had two beginnings really, one here in America, which was abortive, and the other in Europe. How was I able to begin again, one may well ask? I should answer truthfully—by dying. In that first year or so in Paris I literally died, was literally annihilated—and resurrected as a new man" [The World of Sex, 1940].
It would be premature at this point to go much further into the implicit significance of Miller's rebirth in Tropic of Cancer. He has said himself that he was not aware of the significance of these events at the time. In fact development in reflective power and insight provides the principal thematic unity in Miller's work. The very imperfection of his knowledge and his growth to greater awareness creates the essential autobiographical form.
To understand Miller's situation in Tropic of Cancer we need not go outside of the book itself. Miller has been in Paris for a year, and he has been estranged from Mona during most of that time, though she has not been absent continuously. During that year, we presume, Miller was still very much attached to her and felt her absence very keenly.
For seven years I went about, day and night, with only one thing on my mind—her. Were there a Christian so faithful to his God as I was to her we would all be Jesus Christs today. Day and night I thought of her even when I was deceiving her. And now sometimes, in the very midst of things, sometimes when I feel that I am absolutely free of it all, suddenly, in rounding a corner perhaps, there will bob up a little square, a few trees and a bench, a deserted spot where we stood and had it out, where we drove each other crazy with bitter, jealous scenes…. When I realize that she is gone, perhaps gone forever, a great void opens up and I feel that I am falling, falling into deep black space. And this is worse than tears, deeper than regret or pain or sorrow; it is the abyss into which Satan was plunged.
But reflection upon Mona, though it leads to misery, brings about a salutary awareness, and the conversion of life into art. Life with Mona had been a descent into hell, the hell depicted by Strindberg, "in that wild carnival of maggots he reveled in, in that eternal duel of the sexes, that spiderish ferocity which endeared him to the sodden oafs of the northland…." It was that duel between the sexes which brought them together. "We came together in a dance of death and so quickly was I sucked down into the vortex that when I came to the surface again I could not recognize the world. When I found myself loose the carnival was over and I had been picked clean…." Now it is time to convert life into art, and even this brief recollection of Mona leads to a reflection on art:
… I began to reflect on the meaning of that inferno which Strindberg had so mercilessly depicted. And, as I ruminated, it began to grow clear to me, the mystery of his pilgrimage, the flight which the poet makes over the face of the earth and then, as if he had been ordained to reenact a lost drama, the heroic descent to the very bowels of the earth, the dark and fearsome sojourn in the belly of the whale, the bloody struggle to liberate himself, to emerge clean of the past, a bright, fiery sun god cast up on an alien shore.
The drama of rebirth, re-enacted over and over in world history, must continue to be enacted in every man's life, and this is the stuff out of which poetry is made. Miller, we assume, has already sojourned in "the belly of the whale"; now the experience must be converted into art. His first book begins with the explosion, the emerging being, ravenously hungry. His first thoughts are aggressive, hostile, primitive, sexual. He dedicates the book to Tania:
It is to you Tania that I am singing. I wish that I could sing better, more melodiously, but then perhaps you would never have consented to listen to me. You have heard the others sing and they have left you cold…. The world around me is dissolving, leaving here and there spots of time. The world is a cancer eating itself away…. I am thinking that when the great silence descends upon all and everywhere music will at last triumph. When into the womb of time everything is again withdrawn chaos will be restored and chaos is the score upon which reality is written. You Tania are my chaos. It is why I sing. It is not even I. It is the world dying, shedding the skin of time. I am still alive, kicking in your womb, a reality to write upon.
Hunger dominates the mood of Tropic of Cancer, hunger for life, for food, for sex. And all of Miller's hunger has sexual overtones. He associates with Tania his desire for food, and his preoccupation is transformed into sexual imagery which itself is expressed in images of eating:
At night when I look at Boris' goatee lying on the pillow I get hysterical. Oh Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs. There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out…. I am fucking you, Tania, so that you'll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris' chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces.
From Tania and sex his voracious appetite moves to hunger for food, and never a meal, "Coffee without milk or sugar. Bread without butter. Meat without gravy, or no meat at all. Without this and without that!" In one of the most sensual passages in any of Miller's writing, the opening of a wine bottle becomes the equivalent of a sexual experience: "Boris is rubbing his hands again. Mr. Wren is still stuttering and spluttering. I have a bottle between my legs and I'm shoving the corkscrew in. Mrs. Wren has her mouth parted expectantly. The wine is splashing between my legs, the sun is splashing through the bay window, and inside my veins there is a bubble and splash of a thousand crazy things that commence to gush out of me now pell mell. I'm telling them everything that comes to mind, everything that was bottled up inside me and which Mrs. Wren's loose laugh has somehow released."
The sequence of imagery is easily converted into sexual symbolism, the bottle between the legs, shoving the corkscrew, the liquid feeling of the splashing wine, the liquid feeling of Mrs. Wren's laugh, her parted mouth. Food, wine, sex, Europe, the sun splashing are all the subject of voracious appetite and convertible, one into the other.
The association between birth and hunger, sex and appetite, is natural. In the world of dreams and fantasy they are easily enough converted into each other. Miller has recognized this and dealt with it specifically in "Uterine Hunger." The world, he says, has seemed as if it were "An artificial womb, a prison, it seems as though everybody and everything were conspiring to pull me back into the womb from which I broke loose too soon."
And always I am hungry, voraciously hungry. I am insatiable. It is a hunger on all fronts: alimentary, sexual, spiritual. I don't eat—I attach myself, like the amoeba, to whatever morsel of food presents itself. Once I have ingested it I split—double, triple, multiple selves floating off in search of fresh morsels of food. It goes on like that ad nauseam. Women—they too seem morsels of food. After I attach myself to them I devour them. I fuck my way through body, brain and soul, and then I split up again.
With hunger, with this voracious appetite for experience, Miller associates passion. What is missing in the world is passion; there is nothing but ideas, and ideas are bloodless; they do not support life:
Nobody as far as I can see is making use of those elements on the air which give direction and motivation to our lives. Only the killers seem to be extracting from life some satisfactory measure of what they are putting into it. The age demands violence, but we are getting only abortive explosions. Revolutions are nipped in the bud, or else succeed too quickly. Passion is quickly exhausted. Men fall back on ideas comme d'habitude. Nothing is proposed that can last more than twenty-four hours. We are living a million lives in the space of a generation. [Tropic of Cancer]
Miller's later work will become more transcendental, in the manner of Whitman. In Tropic of Cancer he is principally concerned with restoring the acceptance of bodily function to the realm of human experience. Man must restore the unity of experience; love and excrement must be felt on the same plane of existence, equally acceptable. Tropic of Cancer, however, has little to say about love, though it has a great deal to say about excrement and the failure of life. Aside from Miller's own reflections on life, the principal subject matter of the book concerns the failure of others to live fully and freely, that is, with the failure in passion. The characters in Tropic of Cancer indulge freely in sexual experience, but that experience does not flow freely from a unified life; therefore it is obsessive. The most obsessed of all the characters is Van Norden. We are given a succinct summary of his character early in the book: "I like Van Norden but I do not share his opinion of himself. I do not agree, for instance, that he is a philosopher, or a thinker. He is cunt-struck, that's all."
At first glance it might appear that there is little difference between Miller and Van Norden. They are both irresponsible, both in search of a good time. Miller is as avid for a woman as Van Norden, as eager for an orgy. But Miller takes it as it comes. He has a great sex drive, but he is not obsessed. His sexual drives can be mobilized in an instant, even his passion, his desire for love. But when he is not actively engaged sexually, he is free to do other things, to eat, to walk, to work. Van Norden is never free. Sex haunts him like another self. Yet fundamentally he is passionless. There are two major episodes which show Van Norden's deficiencies. The first is when he is trying to have intercourse with a woman and is unable, evidently, to penetrate. Miller says:
"for God's sake Joe, give it up! You'll kill the poor girl." "Leave me alone," he grunts. "I almost got it in that time." The posture and the determined way in which he blurts this out suddenly brings to my mind, for the second time the remembrance of my dream…. He's like a hero come back from the war, a poor maimed bastard living out the reality of his dreams. Wherever he sits himself the chair collapses; whatever door he enters the room is empty; whatever he puts into his mouth leaves a bad taste. Everything is just the same as it was before; the elements are unchanged, the dream is no different than the reality. Only between the time he went to sleep and the time he woke up, his body was stolen. He's like a machine throwing out newspapers … the front page is loaded with catastrophes … but he doesn't feel anything. If somebody doesn't turn the switch off he'll never know what it means to die. You can't die if your own proper body has been stolen. You can get over a cunt and work away like a billy goat until eternity; you can go to the trenches and be blown to bits; nothing will create that spark of passion if there isn't the intervention of a human hand.
What is wrong with Van Norden's performance is that passion is missing, and therefore it is meaningless and, more than that, it is uninteresting:
My interest in Van Norden and the girl is nil; if I could sit like this and watch every performance going on at this minute all over the world my interest would be even less than nil. I wouldn't be able to differentiate between this phenomenon and the rain falling or a volcano erupting. As long as that spark of passion is missing there is no human significance in the performance. The machine is better to watch. And these two are like a machine which has slipped its cogs. It needs a touch of a human hand to set it right. It needs a mechanic.
Van Norden's disintegration is completed in the last episode, which might be called the descent into meaninglessness. Like most of Miller's handling of the tragic, there is a spirit of clowning which makes the episode farcical. He has just met Van Norden again after several month's absence from Paris:
Van Norden still bellyaching about his cunts and about washing the dirt out of his belly. Only now he's found a new diversion. He's found that it's less annoying to masturbate. I was amazed when he broke the news to me. I didn't think it possible for a guy like that to find any pleasure in jerking himself off. I was still more amazed when he explained to me how he goes about it. He had "invented" a new stunt, so he put it. "You take an apple," he says, "and you bore out the core. Then you rub some cold cream on the inside so it doesn't melt too fast. Try it some time! It'll drive you crazy at first. Anyway, it's cheap and you don't have to waste much time."
This is life viewed in the crazy mirror of an amusement park. The meaning is that there is no meaning in a world inhabited by such as Van Norden because they are not rooted in reality.
Miller's own feelings about life jar sharply with those of his friends. For him the chaos of modern life is no less, but he has a source of inner strength. In a sense Miller has been brought to the absolute bottom of life at this point, but still finds he can live and be happy. The secret of life is that it must be lived on all levels, not excluding the physical. It is the wedding of ideas to action: "Still I can't get it out of my mind what a discrepancy there is between ideas and living. A permanent dislocation, though we try to cover the two with a bright awning. And it won't go. Ideas have to be wedded to action; if there is no sex, no vitality in them, there is no action. Ideas cannot exist alone in the vacuum of the mind. Ideas are related to living: liver ideas, kidney ideas, interstitial ideas, etc."
This wedding of thought and action is the basis not only of Miller's subject matter, but of his technique. In Tropic of Cancer he first explores the technique which he will perfect in later books. In general Miller's approach to the union of thought and action is to juxtapose concrete experience and fantasy life.
There are three levels of awareness which are interwoven in Miller's works: present actual experiences, present fantasy, and past experience, both fantasy and actual. Shifts in time are far more rare in Tropic of Cancer than in later works, and for this reason the work has a cruder structure than, say, Tropic of Capricorn. In Cancer the shift is from external to internal, in which the external taken up into fantasy acquires some universal quality. What makes Miller different is principally the kind of material he chooses to universalize. Emerson, no doubt, would have had misgivings about Miller's material, but the choice is not unlike what he advocated: "The meaner the type by which a law is expressed, the more pungent it is, and the more lasting in the memories of men."
This conversion of the base into the universal is exemplified in Miller's episode with a Hindu, a friend of the Hindu with whom he was leading his usual submarginal existence. The Hindu wishes Miller to accompany him to a house of prostitution, and Miller does. While there the Hindu expresses the need for a toilet. Miller tells him that it is usual to use the bidet for such purposes, assuming the Hindu wished to urinate. Miller next hears a tremendous racket coming from the Hindu's room. Everybody in the house is jabbering away in French, obviously outraged. Miller hurries into the Hindu's room. There in the bidet are "two enormous turds floating in the water." This is a clear violation even of whorehouse etiquette. The episode is converted into a dream sequence a few pages later, a fantasy about the illusion of absolute truth and justice.
And so I think what a miracle it would be if this miracle which man attends eternally should turn out to be nothing more than these two enormous turds which the faithful disciple dropped in the bidet. What if at the last moment, when the banquet table is set and the cymbals clash, there should appear suddenly, and wholly without warning, a silver platter on which even the blind could see that there is nothing more and nothing less than two enormous lumps of shit.
It might well be objected that Miller could find other, more acceptable terms in which to express his disillusionment, but that would be to mistake the point and the style. The fact is that the crude and realistic terms which Miller uses, the material out of which he creates his fantasies, are the terms in which fantasy life often works. This is not the social level upon which Miller is communicating, but the most private level of the most private thoughts of all men, the level on which the obscene and the sacred meet. These crude Anglo-Saxon terms are precise because they are the most concrete words in the language, and fantasy is always concrete.
A similar aspect of Miller's writing which has been widely attacked is his bald and often elaborate discussions of sexual organs. Cancer has few descriptions of actual sexual activity, what might be called detailed accounts of sexual play. But he does use explicit descriptions in other ways and they are worth a comment. Since Miller's general object is to record those aspects of experience which have been left out of books, then the fascination and significance of the organs of sex are bound to be a part of his material. Our culture lives mainly by denial, and descriptions or pictures of sexual organs usually arouse the righteous to full-scale attack. Children, however, are endlessly fascinated by their own and others' bodies, and it is doubtful that adults have lost much of this fundamental voyeurism. Miller's descriptions are of both the female and male genitalia throughout his work, but in Cancer it is mainly the female who comes under consideration.
It is a well-known psychological fact that the female genitals have a significance for the male far beyond their simple biological function. They are of course stimulating to the man's sexual desires, but they can be on occasion the object of fear or of obsessive curiosity. They harbor mysteries which the man seeks to solve but to which he can never find the answer, or they may symbolize fecundity in a very primitive way. Miller shows us in Cancer two different attitudes to sexual organs, one self-defeating, the other supposedly successful.
Van Norden represents the inadequate development. For him a woman does not exist as a person, simply as a set of genitals, his "Georgia cunt" or his "Danish cunt." For Van Norden the genitals are "the empty crack of the prematurely disillusioned man." For Miller the female genitals are the occasion for one of the longest fantasy passages in Tropic of Cancer, one in which he explores all of the fecundating energy of the cosmos.
The scene occurs when Miller and Fillmore are entertaining two whores, who are acrobats. Miller finds himself suddenly with two legs around his neck and gazing into "a dark hairy crack … set in a bright, polished billiard ball." The sight suddenly opens up a corresponding fissure in his brain out of which pours an elaborate flood of images. The mother becomes the great whore of creation, the obscene horror. Sex and obscenity and the destruction of the world become intermingled. It is the underlying reality that he discovers in these moments of revery; once again the sacred and the obscene are united, reconciling the most basic contradiction of our culture. Thus Miller has always insisted that he is for obscenity and against pornography. The obscene we ignore at our peril, the pornographic he seems to feel is worse than useless.
When obscenity has been used in modern literature, it has usually been in a Manichean revulsion from sexuality, as in Baldwin's Another Country. Miller tries something which seems to me different; he attempts to make the obscene a part of life, accepted, but without losing any of the raw shock of the primitive origins. It is the same with sex and love. We read a great deal nowadays about the need for preserving love and tenderness in sexuality, and of the many disastrous ways in which they may become separated. Miller, like Rank, points out the dangers inherent in identifying love and sexuality. For Miller sexuality must first exist fully for itself before it can take part in a love relationship. Tying sexual activity exclusively to a love relationship seems to bring the danger of diminished potency. In fact the internal split in modern man which creates the problem of psychic impotence appears, from Miller's point of view, to come more from an overemphasis on love virtue, the sacredness of marriage and the purity of mothers and sisters, than from the full appreciation of sexuality for its own sake. For him, the modern world is dried up like the whore, but the reawakening must be sexual. The writer puts "the live wire of sex right between the legs…. if there is nothing but a gaping wound left then it must gush forth though it produce nothing but toads and bats and homunculi."
Tropic of Cancer, like Quiet Days in Clichy, is concerned with Miller's present activities at the time of writing. The point of view is that of the man in the street, the man to whom these things are happening. Virtually nothing of the past appears in either book. Similarly there is little exploration of the creative process as such. The creative process is associated in Miller's mind with gestation, birth, fertilization, in general the whole sexual process and its overflow into all the areas of life. For the most part in Tropic of Cancer the emphasis is on Miller's immediate relationship with people. The urge to write, when it does appear, is an alienating rather than a unifying element. "Tania is in a hostile mood—I can feel it. She resents me being filled with anything but herself. She knows by the very caliber of my excitement that her value is reduced to zero. She knows that I did not come this evening to fertilize her. She knows there is something germinating inside me which will destroy her." The work to be created remains a minor theme in Tropic of Cancer. Miller has not settled yet on the major theme of his later work, the birth of the artist.
On two other occasions Miller touches on this creation theme. The first is in the form of a revery, confronting the works of Henri Matisse. Matisse becomes a symbol of life created in color and light, a change from "the habitual gray of the world." Miller has the impression of being immersed in the very "plexus of life." It is Matisse, "if any man today possesses the gift, who knows when to dissolve the human figure, who has the courage to sacrifice an harmonious line in order to detect the rhythm and murmur of blood…. Behind the minutiae, the chaos, the mockery of life, he detects the invisible pattern…. No searching for formulation, no crucifixion of ideas, no compulsion other than to create." For Miller creation is inevitably associated with biological processes: "Even as the world falls apart the Paris that belongs to Matisse shudders with bright, gasping orgasms, the air itself is steady with a stagnant sperm, the trees tangled like hair."
With the desire for creation comes the fear of being born. As life is taken up into art, so art is being converted into life. And the birth through creation is analogous to the birth of the self. To create is to become whole and separate, independent, but this independence is also our chief fear.
Going back in a flash over the women I've know. It's like a chain which I've forged out of my own misery. Each one bound to the other. A fear of living separate, of staying born. The door of the womb always on the latch. Dread and longing. Deep in the blood the pull of paradise. The beyond. Always the beyond. It must have all started with the navel. They cut the umbilical cord, give you a slap on the ass, and presto! you're out in the world, adrift, a ship without a rudder. You look at the stars and then you look at your navel…. What is distant becomes near, what is near becomes distant. Inner-outer, a constant flux, a shedding of skins, a turning inside out. You drift around like that for years and years, until you find yourself in the dead center, and there you slowly rot, slowly crumble to pieces, get dispersed again. Only your name remains.
The struggle, the misery, is still there. Mona is absent, but he is not yet self-sufficient. His awareness has increased; he can deal with a self—a real not a false self.
For a fraction of a second, perhaps, I experienced that utter clarity which the epileptic, it is said, is given to know. In that moment I lost completely the illusion of time and space; the world unfurled its drama simultaneously along a meridian which had no axis. In this sort of hair-trigger eternity I felt that everything was justified, supremely justified; I felt the wars inside me that had left behind this pulp and wrack; I felt the crimes that were seething here to emerge tomorrow in blatant screamers; I felt the misery that was grinding itself out with pestle and mortar, the long dull misery that dribbles away in dirty handkerchiefs.
This is the self which senses on the deepest level that it is capable of love, of crime, of any monstrosity, of unlimited generosity, in short the true self. Man begins to live when he ceases to depend upon external events for his happiness, secure in the knowledge and awareness of the self.
Somehow the realization that nothing was to be hoped for had a salutary effect upon me. For weeks and months, for years, in fact, all my life I had been looking forward to something happening, some extrinsic event that would alter my life, and now suddenly, inspired by the absolute hopelessness of everything, I felt relieved, felt as though a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders.
… Walking toward Montparnasse I decided to let myself drift with the tide, to make not the least resistance to fate, no matter in what from it presented itself. Nothing that had happened to me thus far had been sufficient to destroy me; nothing had been destroyed except my illusions. I myself was intact. The world was intact…. Had one single element of man's nature been altered, vitally, fundamentally altered, by the incessant march of history? By what he calls the better part of his nature, man has been betrayed, that is all. At the extreme limits of his spiritual being man finds himself again naked as a savage. When he finds God, as it were, he has been picked clean; he is a skeleton. One must burrow into life again in order to put on flesh. The word must become flesh; the soul thirsts. On whatever crumb my eye fastens, I will pounce and devour. If to live is the paramount thing, then I will live, even if I must become a cannibal.
Miller has returned from the complexity of the life presented to him by his environment, particularly of his early life, to the simple natural fact. At this point he says, "I have found God, but he is insufficient. I am only spiritually dead. Physically I am alive. Morally I am free."
To be secure in that inner happiness we must first be convinced that there is nothing to be hoped for from the world; it has nothing to offer but misery and pain. To accept the world as chaos is to stand on the threshold of total acceptance, of deliverance from the womb. Miller's reasoning in this argument is not hard to follow. Dependence on the mother, that is, refusal to leave the womb, is characterized by a desire to be taken care of, to be fed, to be nursed, to receive good things. As long as one looks to the world to provide those things which are in essence infantile, there is no deliverance. Deliverance comes when we look at the world for what it is and see that it gives nothing; it destroys. If we can face this fact and still be happy, then we seek nothing; we are secure in ourselves; we become fathers, capable of fathering ideas, or children, of accepting responsibility. In Tropic of Cancer Miller looks hard at the world and sees nothing but chaos. At the end, as he sits by the banks of the Seine and feels the flow of history, a serene mood of peace comes over him. He accepts life.
After everything had quietly sifted through my head a great peace came over me. Here, where the river gently winds through the girdle of hills, lies a soil so saturated with the past that however far back the mind roams one can never detach it from its human background. Christ, before my eyes there shimmered such a golden peace that only a neurotic could dream of turning his head away. So quietly flows the Seine that one hardly notices its presence. It is always there, quiet and unobtrusive, like a great artery running through the human body. In the wonderful peace that fell over me it seemed as if I had climbed to the top of a high mountain; for a little while I would be able to look around me, to take in the meaning of the landscape.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8709
SOURCE: "Cancer and Delirium," in his Americans in Paris, Doubleday, 1969, pp. 239-61.
[Wickes is a Belgian-born American critic and educator. In the following excerpt from his study of American expatriate writers of the 1920s and 30s, he discusses the crucial influence that the avant-garde, bohemian atmosphere of Paris had on Miller's artistic growth, and the personal tribulations and friendships which contributed to the genesis of Tropic of Cancer.]
On March 4, 1930, a slight, bald, middle-aged American arrived in Paris. Mild-mannered and bespectacled, he had the air of a college professor. Café waiters often took him for a German or a Scandinavian. "I lack that carefree, audacious air of the average American," he wrote in a letter at the time. "Even the Americans ignore me. They talk English at my elbow with that freedom which one employs only when he is certain his neighbor does not understand." Like so many Americans during the previous decade he had come to write, but his circumstances were altogether different. They came mostly from families which could afford to support their idleness. They usually sowed a very small crop of unpublishable literary oats and indulged in mild libertinage with their own kind along the Boulevard Montparnasse: got drunk in the American cafés for a season or two, mastered a few dozen French clichés, read a little, wrote a little, then went home to bourgeois respectability. They were the university wits of their day, following the pleasant fashion of their class, but their creative impulses were largely wishful and soon dissipated.
Henry Miller came from another world. An outcast from the lower middle class, a dropout after two months of college twenty years before, an outsider in his native land, he had worked at a succession of odd jobs and seen more of life than most men. He had no desire to associate with his compatriots in Montparnasse when he first arrived, referring to them scornfully as "the insufferable idiots at the Dôme and the Coupole." And this was more than the usual reflex of the American abroad, to whom all other Americans were a source of embarrassment. Miller had a deep-seated hatred of all things American. For him the United States represented "the air-conditioned nightmare" of technology without a soul. He had come to Europe to get away from America and to find a way of life that would answer to his psychic needs. Like most Montparnasse Americans he was a sentimental expatriate. Unlike them he found what he wanted and succeeded as a writer.
Miller had been to London and was on his way to Madrid, according to his later accounts, when he ran out of money. But the letters he wrote at the time reveal no intention to travel any farther. On his first Sunday in Paris he wondered, "Will I ever get to really understand the true spirit of this people?"—not a question asked by the casual transient. A few weeks later he wrote, "I love it here, I want to stay forever." Paris was the destination toward which he had been moving for years, ever since his friend Emil Schnellock had described it to him. Schnellock, whom Miller had known as a schoolboy, had lived abroad and become a painter. To Miller it was incredible that his friend, "just a Brooklyn boy" like himself, should have been magically transformed into an artist and cosmopolite. No doubt his example more than anything else affected Miller's decision to become a writer at all costs. Years later in Tropic of Capricorn Miller was to write:
Even now, years and years since, even now, when I know Paris like a book, his picture of Paris is still before my eyes, still vivid, still real. Sometimes, after a rain, riding swiftly through the city in a taxi, I catch fleeting glimpses of this Paris he described; just momentary snatches, as in passing the Tuileries, perhaps, or a glimpse of Montmartre, of the Sacré Coeur, through the Rue Laffitte, in the last flush of twilight…. Those nights in Prospect Park with my old friend Ulric are responsible, more than anything else, for my being here today.
Miller's wife June also played a crucial role. As Mona or Mara she appears in Tropic of Capricorn and other autobiographical romances, an enigmatic figure who entered his life in the early twenties, a Broadway taxi dancer with literary aspirations. Their love was often tempestuous, but through it all she was determined that he would become a writer. She persuaded him to quit his job at Western Union, she worked so that he could write, she found patrons for his work among her admirers by passing herself off as the author. Thus she raised money for a trip to Europe, convinced that he would be able to write there. They went together in 1928, but only on a tour. In 1930 she found the money to send him alone, intending to join him when she had more. As she knew better than Miller, he had reached a dead end in New York.
In one of his first letters from Paris in 1930 he voiced his deep sense of frustration: "I can't understand my failure…. Why does nobody want what I write? Jesus, when I think of being 38, and poor, and unknown, I get furious." By the time he landed in Paris he had been writing for eight years. He had completed four books and countless stories and articles. Only three articles had ever been published. Discouraged by poverty, debts, and the fact that his wife had to work so that he could lead "the true life of the artist," he still yearned for the comforts of bourgeois life. These contradictory feelings of guilt and self-pity, the compulsion to succeed and the interpretation of success as money, were all neuroses of Protestant America, with its gospel of work and wealth. In Paris Miller was never troubled by such worries. Though he lived more parasitically and marginally than ever, he was psychologically liberated as he had never been in New York. Hence the euphoric mood that marks all his writing during the decade he spent in Paris. There at last he was able to write, on the first page of Tropic of Cancer: "I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am."
Miller's first impressions of Paris—and the most reliable account of his first eighteen months there—are to be found in the letters he wrote to Emil Schnellock at the time. His first letter, written three days after his arrival, announces: "I will write here. I will live quietly and quite alone. And each day I will see a little more of Paris, study it, learn it as I would a book. It is worth the effort. To know Paris is to know a great deal. How vastly different from New York! What eloquent surprises at every turn of the street. To get lost here is the adventure extraordinary. The streets sing, the stones talk. The houses drip history, glory, romance." From the start he liked everything about the city, its cosmopolitan atmosphere, the variety of people, their nonconformity. "Here is the greatest congregation of bizarre types. People do dress as they please, wear beards if they like, and shave if they choose. You don't feel that lifeless pressure of dull regimentation as in N. Y. and London."
The letters written within a month of his arrival are full of wonder and delight. Everything is new and charming, the language, the way of counting, the procedure in the restaurants, the tipping. The police are allowed to smoke on duty. Gourmet meals are cheap. The writing in the newspapers and magazines is intelligent and sophisticated. Miller was prepared to see good in everything, from the fifty thousand artists of Paris selling their work to an appreciative public to the custodian in the underground toilet writing a love letter, happy with her lot, unlike the silly stenographer in a New York skyscraper. As on his previous visit he was overcome by the setting, particularly at night. "I am on the verge of tears. The beauty of it all is suffocating me…. I am fairly intoxicated with the glamour of the city." His second letter, sixteen pages long, describes that emotion peculiar to the place, la nostalgie de Paris, nostalgia that can be experienced at the moment itself.
At the same time Paris gave him an inexhaustible supply of material and the urge to write. Within three weeks of his arrival he reported, "I have added a hundred pages to my book and done excellent revision work also. No water colors. I am overwhelmed yet by the multifarious, quotidien, anonymous, communal, etc. etc. life!" The program announced in his first letter of exploring the city and writing about it was carried out in a number of long letters written during his first two months or so. Actually these were not letters at all, but feature articles for circulation to magazine editors and for eventual use in a book on Paris Miller planned to write. Bearing such titles as "Spring on the Trottoirs" and "With the Wine Merchants," they usually described itineraries in quest of local color.
Paris was always a great city for walkers, and Miller was one of its most tireless pedestrians, covering enormous distances in his search for the picturesque. The paintings he had seen colored his vision so that wherever he went he found scenes from Monet, Pissarro, Seurat. In painting even more than literature Paris has always drawn its lovers back toward the past. Miller was particularly susceptible to this nostalgia for a city he had never known, regretting that he had been born too late. Many years later, in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, he was still wishing he had been there as a young man:
What would I not give to have been the comrade or bosom friend of such figures as Apollinaire, Douanier Rousseau, George Moore, Max Jacob, Vlaminck, Utrillo, Derain, Cendrars, Gauguin, Modigliani, Cingria, Picabia, Maurice Magre, Léon Daudet, and such like. How much greater would have been the thrill to cycle along the Seine, cross and recross her bridges, race through towns like Bougival, Châtou, Argenteuil, Marly-le-roi, Puteaux, Rambouillet, Issyles-Moulineaux and similar environs circa 1910 rather than the year 1932 or 1933!
Actually the world he yearned for was older than 1910; it was the impressionists' Arcadia painted in that string of sparkling villages along the Seine before they were industrialized into grimy suburbs.
Although somewhat self-conscious as literary compositions, the Paris letters marked an important stage in Miller's writing. They were good exercises, and they provided him with plenty of material that he was soon to use in his own way. Miller thought he was writing a book on Paris to match Paul Morand's slick guided tour of New York, which he had been reading with considerable envy at its success. He hoped his impressions might amount to "something popular, saleable, palatable." Unwittingly he was already at work on Tropic of Cancer. The letters contain the earliest writing that was to go into that book. One of them in particular, entitled "Bistre and Pigeon Dung," contains several passages that Miller saved and later wove into the fabric of his book. Here is one that reappears on one of the opening pages of Tropic of Cancer, only slightly revised:
Twilight hour, Indian blue, water of glass, trees glistening and liquescent. Juares station itself gives me a kick. The rails fall away into the canal, the long caterpillar with sides lacquered in Chinese red dips like a roller-coaster. It is not Paris, it is not Coney Island—it is crepuscular melange of all the cities of Europe and Central America. Railroad yards spread out below me, the tracks looking black, webby, not ordered by engineers but cataclysmic in design, like those gaunt fissures in the Polar ice which the camera registers in degrees of black.
Another passage in the same letter describes a nude by Dufresne with "all the secondary characteristics and a few of the primary," likening it to a thirteenth-century déjeuner intime, a vibrant still life, the table so heavy with food that it is sliding out of its frame—exactly as it appears at the beginning of the second chapter of Tropic of Cancer. Still another passage describes the animated street market in the rue de Buci on a Sunday morning, then moves on to the quiet Square de Furstenberg nearby, providing a page at the beginning of the third chapter of the book. Here is Miller's original description of the Square de Furstenberg, a spot that particularly appealed to him:
A deserted spot, bleak, spectral at night, containing in the center four black trees which have not yet begun to blossom. These four bare trees have the poetry of T. S. Eliot. They are intellectual trees, nourished by the stones, swaying with a rhythm cerebral, the lines punctuated by dots and dashes, by asterisks and exclamation points. Here, if Marie Laurencin ever brought her Lesbians out into the open, would be the place for them to commune. It is very, very Lesbienne here, very sterile, hybrid, full of forbidden longings.
When he incorporated this passage into Tropic of Cancer, Miller revised for economy and sharpness of outline, but kept the imagery unchanged. The original, written in April 1930, shows his particular vision of the city; he had yet to discover how to use it.
"Bistre and Pigeon Dung" was probably rattled off in one day, like other fifteen- or twenty-page letters. Under the stimulation of Paris Miller was indefatigable: "I feel that I could turn out a book a month here. If I could get a stenographer to go to bed with me I could carry on twenty-four hours a day." Walking in the city was a creative act in itself. He was forever composing in his head as he walked, the writing as vivid to him as if he had put it down on paper. Sometimes he could not remember what he had actually written and had to ask Schnellock. His books of the thirties were all to be written in this state of exaltation, as he walked around Paris in the present tense.
Other letters anticipate Tropic of Cancer even more in spirit. Miller lost no time in getting acquainted with the most squalid sights. He had always been attracted to the ghetto and the slums; now he often painted the ugliest street scenes.
I looked around and there stood a brazen wench, leaning against her door like a lazy slut, cigarette between her lips, sadly rouged and frizzled, old, seamed, scarred, cracked, evil greedy eyes. She jerked her head a few times inviting me to come back and inspect her place, but my eyes were set on a strange figure tugging away at some bales. An old man with enormous goitres completely circling his neck, standing out below the hairline like huge polyps, from under his chin hanging loosely, joggling, purplish, veined, like gourds of wine—transparent gourds. Here the breed is degenerate and diseased. Old women with white hair, mangy, red lips, demented, prowl about in carpet slippers, their clothes in tatters, soiled with garbage and filth of the gutters.
This was Quasimodo's Paris, he pointed out, visible from the towers of Notre Dame, the inhabitants no different from those in the Middle Ages. But there was nothing romantic about the way he saw them. "They have bed-bugs, cockroaches and fleas running all over them, they are syphilitic, cancerous, dropsical, they are halt and blind, paralyzed, and their brains are soft."
Picturesque and sordid, this is Miller's Paris. Here even more than in the passages he actually used can Tropic of Cancer be anticipated. Again and again he dwelt with relish on the cancerous street scenes he found in the old quarters. He also explored the uglier regions of the modern industrial city, walking through endless dead stretches of suburb, bleak neighborhoods like those of his native York-ville or Brooklyn. Paris provided local color of the particular kind that appealed to his imagination. Some six or seven weeks after his arrival he listed the topics he wanted to write about, including in addition to such standard items as the flea market, the six-day bicycle races, and the Grand Guignol, some that appealed to his rather special tastes: the slaughterhouses, the mummies at the Trocadéro, the Moslem cemetery, sexual perversions, the pissoirs, a comparative study of toilets on the Left Bank and toilets on the Right Bank. As this list suggests, Miller took particular delight in all that was unappetizing and macabre.
Miller's accounts of his first two months in Paris are full of enthusiasm. His feelings never changed, but the idyll soon ended. The troubles recorded in Tropic of Cancer were just beginning: the long walks to American Express for the check that never arrived, the constant change of address, the search for cheap hotels, soon followed by homelessness and hunger. He had arrived with enough money to last him till the middle of April and with expectations that his wife would send more. By the latter part of April his money had run out, and he had to go without food for five days. Then he received a small amount, not enough to last long, for in early May he was penniless again and desperate enough to think of looking for a job. A week later he was solvent again, quoting prices and urging Schnellock to come to Paris where he would show him how to live on less than twenty-five dollars a week. Miller's standards were still fairly grand.
As his circumstances grew progressively worse, his notions of poverty became more realistic. In August he was living with Monsieur Nanavati, the Hindu he calls Mr. Nonentity in Tropic of Cancer, and complaining of his lot as a servant: "Life is very hard for me—very. I live with bed-bugs and cockroaches. I sweep the dirty carpets, wash the dishes, eat stale bread without butter. Terrible life. Honest!" After that his friend Alfred Perlès took care of Miller off and on, sneaking him past his concierge and hiding him in his hotel room; Perlès worked at night, so Miller could sleep in his bed then.
He became well acquainted with hunger and vagrancy and discovered that the climate was miserable most of the year. October was rainy and cold. June came for a visit, but she brought no money and stayed only three weeks under wretched circumstances. Miller began to realize that he could not live on hopes indefinitely and resigned himself to leaving before long. Several letters mentioned plans to return to New York. But he managed to hang on till December, when he found a friend who took him in for the winter. Then his constant obsession was food: "What we artists need is food—and lots more of it. No art without food." Phagomania, his chronic complaint, is as prominent as lust in Tropic of Cancer.
He spent the winter months in a studio with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Ten years later he dedicated The Wisdom of the Heart to the man who took him in, Richard Galen Osborn, "who rescued me from starvation in Paris and set my feet in the right direction." Osborn was a Connecticut Yankee who worked in a bank by day and indulged his fondness for French culture in all its forms by night. He liked to talk with Miller about modern French writers, he liked to drink Anjou, and he had a weakness for the ladies. One day he added a third member to the household, the Russian princess who appears in Tropic of Cancer as Masha. The book presents a fairly faithful portrait of their absurd ménage à trois based on a letter Miller wrote to Schnellock at the time: "Irene has the clap, Osborn has bronchitis, and I have the piles." The letter records Irene's dialogue for four pages, later reproduced almost verbatim when the episode was expanded into half a chapter. Osborn wrote his own story about their life together, "No. 2 Rue Auguste Bartholdi," presenting the same basic circumstances from another point of view and rather unexpectedly portraying Miller as a man who worked all the time.
In the same letter Miller described the full beard he grew that winter, a shaggy, dark red beard that would soon make him look like Dostoevsky. According to Tropic of Cancer, he grew the beard at the request of a painter, who then did his portrait with his typewriter in the foreground and the Eiffel Tower in the background. The painter was John Nichols, a great talker who regaled Miller with anecdotes about the artists he knew and who accompanied him to that favorite resort of painters, the Cirque Médrano, where they had "a fine Seurat night." Miller, who always sought the company of painters, acquired many artist friends in Paris. When Osborn had to give up the studio, Miller went off to stay with a sculptor, Fred Kann, who lived near the Montparnasse cemetery.
Nichols' portrait has vanished along with the beard, but a verbal portrait survives from about the same period in an article that appeared in the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune with a caricature of Miller by the Hungarian artist Brassaï. The writer was an American newspaperman with the unlikely name of Wambly Bald who wrote a weekly column called "La Vie de Bohème." What he had to say was not particularly memorable, except as evidence that Miller was already a notorious character who in his daily life enacted the role he was about to turn into literature. The role came to him naturally; he was simply acting himself as a clochard, a Paris bum. He was of course fully aware of the impression he created and capable of exploiting it. He could even have ghost-written the article himself, for he often wrote Bald's weekly column; and certainly the man who wrote Tropic of Cancer was not above self-portraiture. Miller returned the compliment by depicting Bald—probably without the least malice—as his most scabrous character.
After a year in Paris Miller calculated that he could live on six dollars a week, if only he had it, but actually he was living on nothing at all. How he managed is explained by Alfred Perlès in My Friend Henry Miller: "Henry was always to be seen at one or the other of the terraces, the Dôme or the Coupole, surrounded by people he had just met or was just meeting. Impossible to say how he picked them up and where and why." After his first few months in Paris Miller had overcome his prejudices against the Montparnasse cafés, finding them good places to cadge food and drink. He had a great talent for making friends, and as he explains in Tropic of Cancer, "It's not hard to make friends when you squat on a terrasse twelve hours a day. You get to know every sot in Montparnasse. They cling to you like lice, even if you have nothing to offer them but your ears." Eventually he worked out a rotating dinner schedule with his friends, dining with a different friend every evening of the week. Sometimes he performed small services in exchange, giving English lessons or walking a child in the Luxembourg Gardens. But usually his friends were only too willing to feed him for the pleasure of his company. He was a most ingratiating person, a spellbinding talker, and a man of completely unaffected charm. Perlès observed that people loved to watch him eat and drink.
Miller did not begin writing Tropic of Cancer until the end of August 1931, but everything he experienced during that first year and a half in Paris went into the book as substance or style, the world's rottenness or his crazy hallucinated vision of it, that particular combination of "cancer and delirium" which gives the book its own very special atmosphere. By the time he began writing the book he had thoroughly explored the lower depths. What he had seen and heard would have depressed any other man beyond words; Miller was fully alive to it but buoyed up by his sense of humor, and because he had gone to rock bottom himself, elated that he had survived, more alive than ever. Then at last he succeeded in writing what had been bottled up inside him for so many years.
Toward the end of his first year in Paris he took stock of himself and his writing. To Schnellock he reported the opinions of friends who urged him to stay on: "I'm supposed to be a guy with promise. Besides that, I'm supposed to be a romantic. People wonder and shake their heads. How is it that things happen to that guy the way they do? Always in the midst of exciting things, adventures, confessions, etc. But the question in my mind is: what am I doing for literature?" He was still trying to finish the manuscript he had brought with him from New York, probably the novel called "Crazy Cock," [published as Crazy Cock, 1991] but was disgusted with it, unable to express his true feelings, boxed in by too much careful plotting and form. When he finished he wanted to burst through all such barriers. "I will explode in the Paris book. The hell with form, style, expression and all those pseudo-paramount things which beguile the critics. I want to get myself across this time—and direct as a knife thrust." In another letter written about the same time he gloried in the life he was leading: "Great days—full of missing meals—but rich in paint, verbiage and local scenery. Getting into such a bummy condition that people everywhere nudge one another and point me out." Despite hunger and hardship he felt he had lived more richly during one year in Paris than in all the rest of his life. Here is the protagonist of Tropic of Cancer: "I feel now exactly as all the great vagabond artists must have felt—absolutely reckless, childish, irresponsible, unscrupulous, and overflowing with carnal vitality, vigor, ginger, etc. Always on the border of insanity, due to worry, hunger, etc. But shoving along, day after day." Finally on August 24, 1931, having finished his novel at last, he announced that he was ready to go to work on the book he had been wanting to write: "I start tomorrow on the Paris book: first person, uncensored, formless—fuck everything!"
At the end of his second summer in Paris, Miller worked for a time as a proofreader for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. His friend Perlès, who earned his small income as a proofreader, got him the job. Miller disapproved of jobs on principle but liked this one. He enjoyed the atmosphere of the newspaper office, the noise of the machinery, and the company of his fellow workers, especially the typesetters who were all like characters out of a French novel. Working at night had a charm all its own. Every evening he, Perlès, and Wambly Bald would make their long walk across Paris to the newspaper office. After work they would eat in a nearby bistro, the favorite haunt of pimps, whores, newspapermen, and others who worked by night. Then in the early morning hours, when all Paris was deserted, they would walk home again. Though Miller worked only a short time for the newspaper, the impressions of that time remained among the most vivid of his Paris years. Of the many writers and would-be writers who worked on the Tribune or the Paris edition of the New York Herald, only Miller and Bravig Imbs have given any sense of the atmosphere. Most of the journalists' accounts are full of sophomoric clichés.
Although Miller preferred the subterranean drudgery of proofreading to the more exalted editorial work upstairs, he was only too willing to be published in a newspaper, even anonymously or pseudonymously. Long before he was employed by the Tribune he wrote feature articles for that paper's Sunday edition. Only employees were supposed to contribute such articles, so Perlès submitted them as his own. In his biography Perlès reprints one of these articles, "Rue Lourmel in Fog," which is very much like the impressionistic compositions Miller had sent to Schnellock when he first arrived in Paris. Other articles appeared in the Tribune or in the Herald during his first year in Paris: "The Cirque Médrano," "The Six-Day Bike Race," "Paris in Ut Mineur." The usual rate was fifty francs, and once Miller received three hundred and fifty francs, but the important thing was that he was getting his work published readily for the first time in his life. He had tried to write for newspapers and popular magazines in the past, but with no success.
During his second year in Paris Miller's work also appeared in a literary magazine for the first time, Samuel Putnam's recently founded New Review. Putnam was a scholarly newspaper correspondent who had come to Paris in 1926 to translate Rabelais. Besides the standard modern translation of that difficult author, he produced translations of contemporary authors ranging from François Mauriac to Kiki. For all his mastery of the written language, Putnam spoke French with such an abominable accent as to be almost unintelligible. He was a steady customer of the Montparnasse bars, where Miller probably met him about the time he quit as associate editor of This Quarter and decided to found his own quarterly. Miller appeared twice in the New Review and edited one issue with Perlès. Putnam made the mistake of asking them to see the magazine through the press when he had to go to America for a visit. They promptly threw out some of the contents they found boring, including a long article by Putnam, and put in material they thought livelier, including a story by Miller. They also decided to add a supplement, a bawdy, vituperative, nonsensical parody of all manifestoes called "The New Instinctivism," denouncing everything: "A proclamation of rebellion against the puerilities of art and literature, a manifesto of disgust, a gob of spit in the cuspidor of post-war conceits, a healthy crap in the cradle of still-born deities." When the printers sent proofs to Putnam, he quashed the supplement, but the review appeared with the contents Miller and Perlès had chosen.
Miller first appeared in the New Review as a film critic. The second number, which came out in the summer of 1931, included his review entitled "Buñuel or Thus Cometh to an End Everywhere the Golden Age." Miller, who had been a cineast since childhood, was delighted to be in Paris where he could see avant-garde films that were never shown in New York. On the first Sunday after his arrival he had made a pilgrimage to Studio 28 in Montmartre to see one of the great surrealist films, Un Chien Andalou, made by Buñuel in collaboration with Dali the previous year. A week or so later he went to a ciné club meeting and was impressed by the brilliant discussion. By October 1930 he had made friends with the film maker Germaine Dulac, who promised June an important role in a talkie that was to be made in two or three months; nothing ever came of this proposal, and Madame Dulac, whom Miller described as "one of the celebrated Lesbiennes of Paris and all Europe," may have had only a passing interest in June. Toward the end of October he saw the new Buñuel-Dali film, L'Age d'Or, and in December he sent Schnellock a draft of his article for the New Review. His admiration for Buñuel never diminished. In the mid-thirties he paid tribute to him again in a long article on the cinematic art entitled "The Golden Age." Less explicit but even more pervasive is the influence of Buñuel's films on certain surrealist sequences in Miller's writing, particularly "Into the Night Life" in Black Spring.
Miller's first published story, "Mademoiselle Claude," appeared in the third number of the New Review in the fall of 1931. That story marks the actual beginning of his literary career, announcing all the characteristics of the Tropics—the first person monologue, the progressive narrative moving into the present tense, with events happening and time passing as the story unfurls. Here too are the tropical moral values—the generous whore who is almost an angel, the narrator-maquereau who wants to be a saint. He finds her customers to keep her from being sad, and they end up going to the clinic together every day, more in love than ever. Even the imagery is here: "Paris looks to me like a big, ugly chancre. The streets are gangrened. Everybody has it—if it isn't clap it's syphilis. All Europe is diseased, and it's France who's made it diseased."
The style anticipates Tropic of Cancer with its flowing rhythms:
The idea, though, of waking up in the morning, the sun streaming in the windows and a good, faithful whore beside you who loves you, who loves the guts out of you, the birds singing and the table all spread, and while she's washing up and combing her hair, all the men she's been with and now you, just you, and barges going by, masts and hulls, the whole damned current of life flowing through you, through her, through all the guys before you and maybe after, the flowers and the birds and the sun streaming in and the fragrance of it chocking you, annihilating you. O Christ! Give me a whore always, all the time!
Miller liked that long sentence well enough to quote part of it in Tropic of Cancer.
Miller was fascinated by the Paris whores. On his first Sunday in Paris he had noted with surprise: "Montmartre is simply lousy with whores. Little bars, hardly bigger than a coffin, are jammed with them." The imagery is typical, if not the reaction. "Wow! they make you shiver those dolled-up spectres. They sit in the cafés and beckon to you from the window, or bunk smack up against you on the street, and invite you to come along." By May he had found his first girl friend, a whore named Germaine. In December he wrote, "And who is Mlle. Claude? Ah, the prettiest, juiciest, cleverest little cocotte in Montparnasse. Osborn and I share her once in a while. Such taste, such discretion, such politesse." He found her intelligent, well-read, animated, and refined. He recommended her to Schnellock, who could address her in care of the Coupole. Though the letter ends half-humorously, sounding like an advertisement, Claude is described in similar terms in Tropic of Cancer, but compared unfavorably with that ordinary hustler Germaine, who according to the book, served as the real model for the story. "She was a whore all the way through," Miller concludes, "and that was her virtue!"
By the time "Mademoiselle Claude" appeared in print Miller had started writing Tropic of Cancer. He had already met most of the characters and had most of the experiences that went into the narrative. But there is more to that book than mere storytelling; Tropic of Cancer dramatizes a particular outlook, a satiric blend of humor and iconoclasm, a fiercely critical view of the world. In the fall of 1931 Miller was being exposed to some of the ideas that gave the book its philosophical bias. He then lived for a time with Michael Fraenkel, a prophet of doom whose theories appear in the first two chapters and elsewhere. On the opening page Miller summarizes Fraenkel's death philosophy, complete with Fraenkel's favorite weather metaphor.
Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.
There is usually a note of ridicule in Miller's treatment of Fraenkel's ideas, but he also admits that Fraenkel is one of the two writers he respects, the other being Perlès. The reason he takes them seriously is that, unlike other writers he knows, these two have fervor. "They are possessed. They glow inwardly with a white flame. They are mad and tone deaf. They are sufferers."
Fraenkel was a small intense man with a goatee who bore a marked resemblance to Trotsky. Born in Russia and brought to the United States as a boy, he became the greatest book salesman in America and saved enough money to retire at the age of thirty in 1926. He had always wanted to write, and Paris seemed the best place for a writer to go. His writing was the product of a philosophical mind obsessed with one subject, the spiritual death of modern man as symbolized by the millions of deaths of the Great War. His friend Walter Lowenfels plays upon the central paradox of Fraenkel's life in an unpublished biographical sketch, "The Life of Fraenkel's Death," pointing out that Fraenkel earned his living in America so that he could retire in Europe to write about death.
Lowenfels himself followed a similar pattern. He too had been in business in America, the family butter business which he later treated as something of a joke, contrasting butter with poetry, and which he quit at the age of twenty-nine, having decided to go to Europe to write. His ideas were akin to Fraenkel's, though not nearly so extreme. At the time they became friends he had just finished an elegy on Apollinaire. Under the influence of Fraenkel he then took death as his central theme and wrote a sequence of elegies called Some Deaths, lamenting the suicides of poets such as Hart Crane and Harry Crosby, René Crevel and Jacques Rigaut. Fraenkel and Lowenfels also formed what they called an anonymous school, writing books together anonymously in the spirit of French writers and painters before them. In Tropic of Cancer Miller jokes about an anonymous collaboration proposed by Fraenkel, to be called "The Last Book," and some years later Miller and Fraenkel actually did collaborate on a book, the Hamlet correspondence, which was published by Fraenkel's Carrefour Press.
Miller became acquainted with Fraenkel about the time he started writing Tropic of Cancer. Lowenfels and Fraenkel had already been in league for two years or more. Now the three of them formed what Lowenfels calls "the avant-garde of death." Neither he nor Miller took Fraenkel's monomania altogether seriously. "Henry and I really joked about Fraenkel's death business—turning it into something else, something we could use in our business, which was, say what you like, writing." Fraenkel was useful to Miller in more immediate ways, for he owned an apartment building at 18 Villa Seurat and was better off than Miller's other friends. A number of people have claimed an influence on Miller when he was still unknown, but their most important contribution at this time was keeping him alive. This was Lowenfels' motive in bringing Miller and Fraenkel together, this and Fraenkel's need for an intelligent audience, which was as great as Miller's need for bed and board.
The Miller-Fraenkel relationship was a strange and amusing one, founded on phagomania and the death obsession and kept alive by talk. Both men were prodigious talkers. Miller remembers that Fraenkel used to drop in at breakfast time, stay through lunch, through dinner, and far into the evening, talking, talking all the time, leaving Miller exhausted. Fraenkel in turn was overwhelmed by Miller's talk. "It was extraordinary, amazing, incredible. A compulsion mechanism, a kind of sickness, if you like, something pathological." But he also adds, "It was talk of the highest order I ever heard." Though by nature stingy and indifferent to food, Fraenkel would occasionally buy Miller a meal just to be able to keep talking. In Tropic of Cancer Miller complains that there is not a scrap of food in the house. He also registers a feeling of impermanence, fearing his chair will be pulled out from under him as he types. Fraenkel, ever the businessman, rented out apartments and soon evicted Miller by renting the room he occupied. Miller liked the Villa Seurat and returned there to live three years later; meanwhile his discussions with Fraenkel continued and turned into correspondence when Fraenkel traveled about the world.
Years later, in an article entitled "The Genesis of the Tropic of Cancer," Fraenkel reminisced about the beginning of their acquaintance: "And then one day Walter told me about a strange man he had run across in Montparnasse, a fellow called Miller. He was described as one of tremendous vitality, zest, enthusiasm, an amazing talker, without visible means of support, a kind of derelict, but gay and happy withal, alive. 'Not alive exactly,' he said, 'but certainly not dead. Alive in a kind of confused, old-fashioned way. An interesting chap. Why not drop him a line, a pneu? He is down and out and maybe he can do some typing for you.' And then with a twinkle in his eye: 'Take him on. Just your meat.' Did he perhaps see a possible disciple in him?" According to Fraenkel there were no preliminaries between them, no reservations; they immediately talked to each other like old friends. Fraenkel gave Miller his book Werther's Younger Brother, a self-portrait ending in suicide. Miller responded with a long enthusiastic fan letter which Fraenkel quotes: "You say things that no one in America is saying—that I would dearly love to say myself." Miller, who had been told that Fraenkel's book was pessimistic and confused, "found everything touched with a wild beauty, and if there were disorder, then it was, as Bergson said, an order of disorder which is another order."
Though Fraenkel claims too much credit for his influence on Tropic of Cancer, he gives the best explanation on record of Miller's state of mind at the time. And though he was only the latest in a series of friends to advise Miller to write spontaneously, his insight may have been the clearest. Certainly his advice was most timely. Beneath Miller's restless confusion Fraenkel detected a determination to be himself. Miller had come to Paris to make a new start but had not yet found himself. When Fraenkel read Miller's novel in manuscript, "Crazy Cock," he immediately saw that Miller was trying to write for the publishers, not for himself.
By this time I knew the sort of person he was, impulsive, erratic, anarchic, a mass of contradictory moods, ideas, feelings, and I told him to sit down before the machine and white paper and write anything and everything that came to his mind, as it came, red-hot, and to hell with the editors and the public. Write as you talk, I told him. Write as you live. Write as you feel and think. Just sit down before the machine and let go—tell everything you are going through now; you've got all the material you want right in this, in what you are thinking and feeling and going through now.
As they talked endlessly of death, Miller found the theme that could integrate his creative impulses and give him the direction he lacked. His obscenity, his violence, his inner chaos, and love of corruption are all expressions of "The Death Theme." So Fraenkel thought at any rate, though at times his disciples may have had their little joke at his expense. Lowenfels wonders whether the Fraenkel they remember is not a creature of their imagination. He feels that Fraenkel did not come through very well in his own writing. A greater thinker than writer, he left more of himself in the writings of others, in Miller's early work and Lowenfels' poems written between 1929 and 1934. Lowenfels also remarks that Fraenkel was at his best when writing under the stimulus of Miller. No doubt they inspired each other, but long before he met Fraenkel, Miller was steeped in the thinking of Oswald Spengler, whose apocalyptic view he had taken as his own. Miller had in fact reread the first volume of The Decline of the West since coming to Paris and in doing so had concluded that Spengler was the greatest of contemporary writers, greater than Joyce, Mann, or even Proust. "There is great music, great literature, great ideas." Surely his thinking in Tropic of Cancer was fired by Spengler, though Fraenkel undoubtedly fanned the flames.
The book that most immediately anticipated Tropic of Cancer was Louis-Ferdinand Céline's first novel, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit. Not only the Spenglerian sense of doom is there, but the very idiom and tone, the picaresque narrative and the gallows humor that Miller adopted. Céline's Voyage is another episodic autobiographical novel that dwells on all that is vicious, treacherous, sadistic, obscene, diseased, and repulsive in human nature. The central character is an underdog adventurer who lives by luck and by his wits. Céline's favorite setting is the ugly, working-class Paris where he was born and where he practiced medicine, though he also traveled about the world like Candide, finding inhumanity wherever he went. His experience eventually drove him to bitter misanthropy, but his first book achieved a balance between laughter and pessimism that is much the same as Miller's comic treatment of inherently tragic matter. After reading Voyage au Bout de la Nuit it is easier to understand Tropic of Cancer, for Céline's war experience exposes the "civilization" that both writers attacked. Céline lost his innocence in the Great War, suffered shell shock, was cured of his illusions, learned to distrust all ideals and to place the law of self-preservation above all others. Miller, despite his imagery of trench warfare and poison gas, had no direct experience to compare with Céline's, yet he had gone through the same process of disenchantment, emerging with even fewer scruples. He too had become a militant anarchist, declaring war on society.
Despite the many striking parallels between the two books, Céline and Miller produced their works quite independently. Miller had finished the first draft of Tropic of Cancer before the publication of Voyage au Bout de la Nuit in November 1932. He read the book soon after it appeared and was overwhelmed, although he found it difficult reading and had to spend a week isolated in a hotel room with a dictionary to decipher its colloquial French. During the next two years he was to revise his own book three times before it appeared in print, so conceivably Céline could have influenced the rewriting. But the letters to Schnellock reveal that Miller had found his style and subject matter before he had ever heard of Céline. It was simply another case of two writers responding to their time and place with the same perceptions.
Like Céline's novel, Tropic of Cancer is autobiographical, but it is not to be taken as documentary. Although Miller protests that he is writing the plain unvarnished truth, this gambit is one of the oldest in fiction. He is closer to fact than most novelists, but his method is theirs, his powerful imagination producing a metamorphosis as it colors and heightens the original circumstances. Miller has confessed that he has difficulty remembering what he imagined and what actually happened.
Tropic of Cancer gives a more or less fictionalized account, then, of the adventures of a character named Henry Miller who explored the lower depths in Paris during the depression. The book is a jumble of sensations, reflections, conversations, encounters, and hallucinations, all filtered through the consciousness of its narrator in the first person, present tense. The chaos is deliberate, for Miller wanted to put down impressions and thoughts as they occurred to him, to depict a man "in the grip of delirium." He also wanted "to get off the gold standard of literature," to write without revising, and to record "all that which is omitted in books."
Tropic of Cancer is sometimes compared to The Sun Also Rises, not for the similarities but for the differences between them. The comparison is absurd yet apt, for it shows how much the world had changed between the mid-twenties and the early thirties. Henry Miller's adventures in Paris present a burlesque of the expatriate romance. Instead of a potentially tragic hero, the protagonist is a clown whose escapades mock all sense of human dignity. Instead of investing his characters with a glamour that excuses their faults, Miller caricatures his friends, bringing out all that is grotesque, ludicrous, or contemptible in their private lives. He also sees his surroundings in a jaundiced light and thereby makes more meaningful use of his Paris scenery. For Hemingway Montparnasse provided an appropriate backdrop, a likely setting for the lost generation, but his characters stayed on the surface and could just as well have dissipated elsewhere. Miller penetrated far deeper into Paris than any other American writer and projected a vision of the city that was altogether different. He succeeded only as Céline had done in making its ugliness symbolic of private and universal anguish, a sordid modern-day inferno, a labyrinth of cancer and despair.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11350
SOURCE: "Fragmentation and Confession in Tropic of Cancer," in her Form and Image in the Fiction of Henry Miller, Wayne State University Press, 1970, pp. 19-49.
[Nelson is an American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, she analyzes the structure of Tropic of Cancer using Jungian theories of unconscious, primitive archetypes and Erich Neumann's writings on ancient myths about the "primordial Great Mother."]
The demonic, obsessive quality of the erotic experience in Henry Miller's fiction has been sufficiently recognized, as have the Medusa characteristics of his women. This recognition, however, has not led his critics to examine the formal functions these darker aspects of the erotic have in his work. Kingsley Widmer in his remarks on Miller's obsession with the Dark Lady even asserts the contrary, arguing [in his Henry Miller, 1963] that this important theme does not provide a significant measure of concentration in individual works. Instead, in a chapter devoted to an analysis of Tropic of Cancer, he finds the disorder of Miller's world the only important ordering principle:
If the discrete fragments, as in the first two chapters of Tropic of Cancer, seem beyond order, then the very disorder, by imitative form, gives the quality of his "anecdotal life."
Probably the term fragmentation best describes what happens in these first two chapters of Cancer, but not in the sense Widmer intends when he charges that this and the following sections have no formal unity. The moments sharply and brutally created by the imagery are not as entirely discrete as Widmer finds them. Many of them are part of a constellation of images revealing the outlines of a single archetypal image. The presentation of these images may be described as an attempt to dramatize the hero's confrontation with the archetypal and primordial figures of the Terrible Mother, the negative aspect of the Great Mother archetype described by Jung and others from their studies of myth, literature, religion, and clinical phenomena. Erich Neumann's account of the psychological process of fragmentation [in The Origins and History of Consciousness, 1954] suggests the parallel literary process in Tropic of Cancer through which this archetypal figure begins to emerge:
The power of the primordial Great Mother archetype rests on the original state where everything is intermingled and undifferentiated, not to be grasped because ever in flux. Only later do images emerge from this basal unity, forming a group of related archetypes and symbols revolving about this indescribable center. The wealth of images, qualities, and symbols is essentially a product of the fragmentation effected by a consciousness which perceives, discriminates, divides, and registers from a distance. Determinatio est negatio. The multiplicity of images corresponds to a multiplicity of possible attitudes and possible reactions of consciousness, contrasted with the original total-reaction that seizes upon primitive man.
The overpowering dynamism of the archetype is now held in check: it no longer releases paroxysms of dread, madness, ecstasy, delirium, and death. The unbearable white radiance of primordial light is broken up by the prism of consciousness into a multicolored rainbow of images and symbols. Thus from the image of the Great Mother the Good Mother is split off, recognized by consciousness, and established in the conscious world as a value. The other part, the Terrible Mother, is in our culture repressed and largely excluded from the conscious world.
The archetype appears in groups of symbols, some human, some not:
Delayed reaction and de-emotionalization run parallel to this splitting of the archetype into groups of symbols. The ego ceases to be over-whelmed as consciousness becomes more capable of assimilating and understanding the individual symbols. The world grows clearer, orientation is more possible, and consciousness is enlarged. An anonymous and amorphous primal deity is inconceivably frightful; it is stupendous and unapproachable, incomprehensible and impossible to manipulate. The ego experiences its formlessness as something inhuman and hostile, if indeed it ever tackles the impossible task of experiencing it. So we often find an inhuman god at the beginning in the form of a beast, or some horrid anomaly and monster of miscegenation. These hideous creatures are expressions of the ego's inability to experience the featurelessness of the primal deity. The more anthropomorphic the world of gods becomes, the closer it is to the ego and the more it loses its overwhelming character. The Olympian gods are far more human and familiar than the primeval goddess of chaos.
I am making extensive use of this convenient correlation between mythology and psychology for two reasons. First, Neumann's explanation of the fragmentation of the archetype describes one significant and controlling aspect of form in Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer: the movement from a vaguely defined and surrealistically expressed representation of the Terrible Mother to a more sharply focused but stylized description of human figures who represent the archetype and establish the patterns by which the I can become aware of its relationships to these chthonic forces. Second, Neumann's description of the process by which the contents of the psyche are made available to consciousness defines and reveals precisely the nature of confession and anatomy as Miller employs these forms.
Many readers of Miller's fiction have understood that they were reading an account of the author's life, close to actual in some instances. His intimate disclosures of sexual activity are still dear to the cultist who wishes to attack American puritanism. But it is necessary to take seriously his comments on Tropic of Cancer in The World of Sex: "Liberally larded with the sexual as was that work, the concern of its author was not with sex, nor with religion, but with the problem of self-liberation." To define the nature of this self-liberation is more difficult than seems immediately apparent.
The question of Miller's form, moreover, becomes important if one recognizes in his work an unmasking of the contents of the unconscious. Simon O. Lesser suggests [in Fiction and the Unconscious, 1957] that Miller fails as a writer because he fails to "disguise and control" his revelations. His fictional unconscious brings us too close to the real:
In its zeal to do justice to our repressed tendencies fiction is in constant danger of overstating the case for them. Particularly if it does this too directly, with a minimum of disguise and control—we think at once of such a writer as Henry Miller—it is likely to arouse aversion rather than pleasure. But it is not always easy to say whether a work of fiction or a reader is responsible for a failure of this sort. A work which in the perspective of time may seem well balanced may cause us to recoil because it insists on telling us more of the truth, above all more of the truth about ourselves, than we are prepared to accept.
The control and disguise exercised by form will not be recognized in Miller if one approaches his fiction expecting the conventions of novel and romance. Even George Orwell, whose essay on Miller ["Inside the Whale"] remains one of the best, insists that the tempo and narrative method of Cancer are those of the novel. He does recognize that Cancer is fiction, however, not autobiography.
Kingsley Widmer castigates Miller for failing as a novelist, objecting to the weakness of Miller's narrative patterns and to his lack of narrative coherence. He finds the surrealistic episodes simply escapes from reality lacking relevance in structures of individual works. He objects to characterization which does not provide sufficient "past, future, and depth" for the characters. Nor can he accept Miller's own shady moral character.
For several reasons, such a response to Miller must miss or distort whatever formal elements might be available to analysis. Widmer, for example, overlooks the significance of the seasons in Cancer, the descent into winter and the return to spring, which serve to organize the work more than may be immediately apparent. One cannot insist on a past or a future for his characters, moreover, because many are deliberate abstractions identified by stylized analyses of their weaknesses. Others are images of archetypes. His surrealistic episodes are not an escape from the reality of a dirty Paris and the everyday monotony of Bohemian existence (a reality which is not external at all—Paris, for example, has only symbolic existence), but a movement into an inner reality in which certain images bring us close to the archetypes Jung described. Here the fragmentation described by Neumann is especially operative.
In neither confession nor anatomy, as Northrop Frye has pointed out [in The Anatomy of Criticism, 1957], is narrative pattern the important means of organization; hence, to insist on sustained narrative in Miller is irrelevant. In confession, the coherence of the author's character and attitudes and his integration of the significant events in his life provide the fictional pattern. In anatomy, moreover, people are not people, but representatives of mental attitudes. To insist on realistic characterization in such a form is also irrelevant. In neither form is the actual structure of society a concern, as it is for the novelist. Much more remains to be said on all these points in connection with Cancer. But at the beginning it is necessary to consider formal devices not usually identified with the analysis of the novel. Fragmentation is such a device.
The fragmentation of the Archetypal Feminine permits Miller to present or bring into "consciousness" the chthonic forces of the unconscious which are, according to Jung, symbolized by the feminine. Miller's I must come to terms with these forces before it can be liberated or integrated. In fact, it is by means of this fragmentation that the events in the "author's" life are integrated and the requirements of the confession form are met. The literary presence of the Great Mother figure is manifested not only in human forms, but in almost all congeries of images in Cancer, including the inorganic and animal. These elemental symbols of the Archetypal Feminine are more important in Tropic of Cancer than in Capricorn, in which a later stage in the process of the integration of the I is dramatized.
The central symbol of the Archetypal Feminine in Cancer is not a human figure but Paris itself. Miller's world is a city world. But his harlot-thronged streets and filthy alleys do not provide the reader with a tourist's guide to a Paris nether world. In passage after passage the symbolic significance of the city emerges with such insistence that a real Paris never appears. This characteristic led one of Miller's critics [Homer K. Nicholson, Jr.] to complain [in his Ph.D. dissertation "O Altitudo: A comparison of the writings of Walt Whitman, D. H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller," 1957] that Miller is incapable of developing a sense of place:
So extreme is this defect that it is often difficult to remember which of the Tropics deals with Paris, and which one with New York. When Miller describes a scene, he injects so many of his personal intellectual responses that the scene scarcely exists as a visual entity any longer.
Frank Kermode, who recognized that Miller's Paris is pointedly symbolic, saw the city [in Puzzles and Epiphanies, 1962] as representative of twentieth-century American and European civilization, especially (and oddly) the "puritan cultures" of the North. However, his subsequent insight—the basic situation is that of the artist in a slum civilization—is too narrowly sociological. Interpretations which see Miller's nightmare city-world as symbolic of the diseased cultures of an unfortunate century do not explain why his descriptions of this city-world reproduce it almost exclusively in images and symbols that are traditional representations of the Archetypal Feminine.
Womb, cave, underworld, city, house, abyss, sea, and fountain are elemental symbols of the Archetypal Feminine. As a maternal symbol, the city is the harborer of her inhabitants But the faithful city can also become a harlot, the diseased organism that Miller describes:
The city sprouts out like a huge organism diseased in every part, the beautiful thoroughfares only a little less repulsive because they have been drained of their pus.
Miller's Paris is also a womb, the belly of the whale into which the artist must descend before he can be reborn or transformed:
After leaving the Pension Orfila that afternoon I went to the library and there, after bathing in the Ganges and pondering over the signs of the zodiac, I began to reflect on the meaning of that inferno which Strindberg had so mercilessly depicted. And, as I ruminated, it began to grow clear to me, the mystery of his pilgrimage, the flight which the poet makes over the face of the earth, and then, as if he had been ordained to reenact a lost drama, the heroic descent to the very bowels of the earth, the dark and fearsome sojourn in the belly of the whale, the bloody struggle to liberate himself, to emerge clean of the past, a bright, gory sun god cast up on an alien shore. It was no mystery to me any longer why he and others (Dante, Rabelais, Van Gogh, etc., etc.) had made their pilgrimage to Paris. I understood then why it is that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love.
The journey into the belly of the whale is fraught with danger, for the female figure is terrible as the representative of death for the individual. For Jung the belly of the whale is the land of the dead where the monster Mother figure must be conquered before transformation or rebirth can occur.
The Feminine is the belly-vessel as woman and also as earth. She is the vessel of doom, guiding the nocturnal course of the stars through the underworld; she is the belly of the "whale-dragon," which, as in the story of Jonah, swallows the sun hero every night in the west; she is "the destroyer at eventide."
The Great Mother as Terrible Goddess of the earth and of death is herself the earth, in which things rot. The Earth Goddess is "the devourer of the dead bodies of mankind" and the "mistress and lady of the tomb." Like Gaea, the Greek Earth Mother, she is mistress of the vessel and at the same time the great underworld vessel itself, into which the dead souls enter, and out of which they fly up again. [Erich Neumann, The Great Mother, 1963]
Such is the significance of the remainder of the passage in Cancer in which Miller compares his sojourn in Paris to the journey into the belly of the whale:
One walks the streets knowing that he is mad, possessed, because it is only too obvious that these cold, indifferent faces are the visages of one's keepers. Here all boundaries fade away and the world reveals itself for the mad slaughterhouse that it is. The treadmill stretches away to infinitude, the hatches are closed down tight, logic runs rampant, with bloody cleaver flashing. The air is chill and stagnant, the language apocalyptic. Not an exit sign anywhere; no issue save death. A blind alley at the end of which is a scaffold.
An eternal city, Paris! More eternal than Rome, more splendorous than Nineveh. The very navel of the world to which, like a blind and faltering idiot, one crawls back on hands and knees. And like a cork that has drifted finally to the dead center of the ocean, one floats here in the scum and wrack of the seas, listless, hopeless, headless even of a passing Columbus. The cradles of civilization are the putrid sinks of the world, the charnel house to which the stinking wombs confide their bloody packages of flesh and bone.
The first descriptions of the city to appear in Cancer are found in section one, in what may fairly be called intense, separate, and distinct moments.
But there is a substratum to be explored in these first two disorderly sections of Cancer. We are moving in a twilight world of semi-consciousness, and symbolic relationships among the numerous images can be mapped.
In the first two descriptions of Paris, for example, the traditional symbols of the Archetypal Feminine appear and hence the forces of the unconscious which the Feminine represents. In the first of these passages the city is realized as a watery, darkening world in which spider web and serpent figures are dimly suggested:
Twilight hour. Indian blue, water of glass, trees glistening and liquescent. The rails fall away into the canal at Jaurès. The long caterpillar with lacquered sides dips like a roller coaster. It is not Paris. It is not Coney Island. It is a crepuscular melange of all the cities of Europe and Central America. The railroad yards below me, the tracks black, webby, not ordered by the engineer but cataclysmic in design, like those gaunt fissures in the polar ice which the camera registers in degrees of black.
The theriomorphic emblem of the spider appears throughout Cancer associated with the female figure: "… I could no more think of loving Germaine that I could think of loving a spider; and if I was faithful, it was not to Germaine but to that bushy thing she carried between her legs." Elsewhere Miller describes "the great sprawling mothers of Picasso, their breasts covered with spiders, their legend hidden deep in the labyrinth." Erich Neumann discusses the symbolism of spider and web in connection with the witch characteristics of the negative Mother: "Net and noose, spider, and the octopus with its ensnaring arms are here the appropriate symbols." He points out that these images appear in situations in which an individual is struggling to free himself from the Great Mother. Jung, commenting on the significance of this symbol, fixed its meaning for the passage we have been examining: "The center of the unconscious process is … often pictured as a spider in its web, especially when the conscious attitude is still dominated by fear of unconscious processes" [The Collected Works, Vol. XII: Psychology and Alchemy, 1953]. An example of this symbolism in Jung's text is similar to the formation of the symbol in Miller's passage; a section from the frontispiece of a collection of Brahminic sayings is reproduced, showing a web encircled by the uroboros, the figure of the snake biting its tail. The parallel is not as important here as the observation that serpent, water, and spider—traditional symbols of the Archetypal Feminine—are the symbols chosen for the first impression of Paris and are symbols which appear again and again in connection with the city. Whenever the movement in Cancer is toward a "surreal" description of events or psychic states, these symbols and other equally important ones emerge. And they are related to the movement toward the frozen, motionless world of ice developed at great length in the episode when Miller visits Dijon, the penultimate episode of the book.
In the second passage describing Paris in the first section of Cancer equally significant images appear:
Indigo sky swept clear of fleecy clouds, gaunt trees infinitely extended, their black boughs gesticulating like a sleepwalker. Somber, spectral trees, their trunks pale as cigar ash … For the moment I can think of nothing—except that I am a sentient being stabbed by the miracle of these waters that reflect a forgotten world. All along the banks [of the Seine] the trees lean heavily over the tarnished mirror; when the wind rises and fills them with a rustling murmur they will shed a few tears and shiver as the water swirls by. I am suffocated by it. No one to whom I can communicate even a fraction of my feelings….
The mixed figures of speech destroy any illusion of an actual scene, and it is only in context that the river described can be identified as the Seine. The scene is experienced entirely in terms of the observer's reactions to images of sky, water, trees, and wind. These images produce a sense of isolation and of suffocation. The I is aware of feelings which cannot be communicated. But the symbols have important traditional values which are unmistakably involved here. [In The Collected Works, Vol. IX, Part I: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 1959] Jung has identified water as "the commonest symbol of the unconscious. The lake in the valley is the unconscious, which lies, as it were, underneath consciousness, so that is often referred to as the 'subconscious'…." Water is also one of the most persistent archetypal symbols of the maternal and the feminine. The Archetypal Feminine is identified by Jung with the positive forces of the unconscious: "The water that the mother, the unconscious, pours into the basin belonging to the anima is an excellent symbol for the living power of the psyche." But the unconscious is also the terrifying and destructive Terrible Mother.
In the passage in which Miller walks along the Seine, he is walking along a dreadful river—a tarnished mirror, lined by somber and spectral trees, trees that shiver in the wind that rises and fills them. Jung has described the archetypal pattern of such experience as the apprehension of the autonomous nature of the spirit rushing over dark waters. The mirror at the bottom of the water is the unconscious into which consciousness must look. Jung comments on the need for this experience in the symbolically impoverished twentieth century:
Whoever has elected for the state of spiritual poverty, the true heritage of Protestantism carried to its logical conclusion, goes the way of the soul that leads to the water. This water is no figure of speech, but a living symbol of the dark psyche.
The appropriateness of these comments for Miller's quest, although their language is perhaps too religious or vaguely "mystical" for literary analysis, is confirmed by the over whelming repetition of such experience in Cancer.
The city scenes of Cancer represent only one group of symbols which make the figure of the archetypal Terrible Mother available to the consciousness of the I. The process of fragmentation also produces monstrous female figures which combine animal and human features or coalesce with the streets and buildings of the city itself. The symbolic role of the city as representative of the Archetypal Feminine is verified in these figures, for the identification of the two permits them to coalesce, the parts of the female revealing the feminine significance of the city. Such almost human figures belong to the grotesque iconography of Miller's world, and in their archetypal dimension are interchangeable with images of the city scene:
Tania is a fever, too—les voies urinaires, Café de la Liberté, Place des Vosges, bright neckties on the Boulevard Montparnasse, dark bathrooms, Porto Sec, Abdullah cigarettes, the adagio sonata Pathétique, aural amplificators, anecdotal seances, burnt sienna breasts, heavy garters, what time is it, golden pheasants stuffed with chestnuts, taffeta fingers, vaporish twilights turning to ilex, acromegaly, cancer and delirium, warm veils, poker chips, carpets of blood and soft thighs.
The destruction of spatial barriers between entities is even more apparent in the description of Llona:
She had a German mouth, French ears, Russian ass. Cunt international. When the flag waved it was red all the way back to the throat. You entered on the Boulevard Jules-Ferry and came out at the Porte de la Villette. You dropped your sweetbreads into the tumbrils—red tumbrils with two wheels, naturally. At the confluence of the Ourcq and Marne, where the water sluices through the dikes and lies like glass under the bridges. Llona is lying there now and the canal is full of glass and splinters; the mimosas weep, and there is a wet, foggy fart on the windowpanes.
Several of these visually fragmented female figures appear in the twilight consciousness of section one in Tropic of Cancer. By different names—Tania, Irène, Llona—they are manifestations of a devouring, castrating, chthonic Aphrodite, fascinating and deadly aspects of the Terrible Feminine. But their effect on the I can be positive: Tania is equated with chaos, which is destructive but also the source of the writer's inspiration. Her "Jewishness" makes her both fascinating and hateful. Irène is another deadly figure: "The trouble with Irène is that she has a valise instead of a cunt. She wants fat letters to shove in her valise." The letters here are creative efforts, productions, aspects of the individual which are devoured. Of Llona:
Men went inside her and curled up…. She would cut off your prick and keep it inside her forever, if you gave her permission…. her tongue was full of lice and tomorrows. Poor Carol, he could only curl up inside her and die. She drew a breath and he fell out—like a dead clam.
The roles of these figures as wives and mistresses in the Bohemian fringe world Miller appears to inhabit are incidental to their function as symbols of the unconscious. They share this function with the city.
Like the whores and hags which throng the streets of Miller's Paris, these women are stylized by terms which insist on outlining their sexual functions. Scientific or discreet references to human anatomy could scarcely serve as effectively to underline the sexual characteristics of the human figure. Such stylization emphasizes their symbolic possibilities as efficiently for the contemporary reader as did the crude reproductions of the female exposing herself carved on the doorways of Irish churches or the ritual exhibitionism of an Etruscan goddess for those in other ages. The terms used are not those of the medical textbook, which would suggest a dead world of clinical abstractions. On the contrary, in certain circumstances they are quite ordinary and would pass unnoticed. Only in a literary context from which they are ordinarily excluded can they serve to effect the kind of stylization needed to render the significance of these half-realized figures. For the figures themselves are taboo.
The Gorgonesque quality of the chthonic feminine is clearly recognized in the figure of Mona, a character of even greater significance in Tropic of Capricorn. She never becomes a realistically developed character, for it is the outline of her symbolic role that is important. In her manifestation in Cancer, she belongs to the same configuration of images as the other female figures and the city. Like Aphrodite, she rises
… out of a sea of faces and embraces me, embraces me passionately—a thousand eyes, fingers, legs, bottles, windows, purses, saucers all glaring at us and we in each other's arms oblivious. I sit down beside her and she talks—a flood of talk. Wild consumptive notes of hysteria, perversion, leprosy. I hear not a word because she is beautiful and I love her and now I am happy and willing to die.
The "sea" from which she rises is itself created from a number of non-human symbols of the Feminine. In a later passage her Gorgonesque nature is revealed:
I wake from a deep slumber to look at her. A pale light is trickling in. I look at her beautiful wild hair. I feel something crawling down my neck. I look at her again, closely. Her hair is alive. I pull back the sheet—more of them. They are swarming over the pillow.
The figure of the Gorgon is one of the most familiar representations of the Terrible Mother in ancient mythology, and the symbolism of this figure is intimately related to the significance of the other symbols I have pointed out:
Among the symbols of the devouring chasm we must count the womb in its frightening aspect, the numinous heads of the Gorgon and the Medusa, the woman with beard and phallus, and the male-eating spider. The open womb is the devouring symbol of the uroboric mother, especially when connected with phallic symbols. The gnashing mouth of the Medusa with its boar's tusks betrays these features most plainly, while the protruding tongue is obviously connected with the phallus. The snapping—i.e., castrating—womb appears as the jaws of hell, and the serpents writhing round the Medusa's head are not personalistic—pubic hairs—but aggressive phallic elements characterizing the fearful aspect of the uroboric womb. The spider can be classified among this group of symbols, not only because it devours the male after coitus, but because it symbolizes the female in general, who spreads nets for the unwary male. [Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness]
The crawling vermin in Mona's hair, the serpents and spiders, the lice and bedbugs of the "filthy" scenes of Tropic of Cancer represent only a few of the important theriomorphic images in the book, but images peculiarly appropriate to the demonic world of the Terrible Feminine. [In The Grotesque in Art and Literature, 1963] Wolfgang Kayser has noted their appearance as one of the distinguishing motifs of grotesque literature:
Certain animals are especially suitable to the grotesque—snakes, owls, toads, spiders—the nocturnal and creeping animals which inhabit realms apart from and inaccessible to man. Partly for the same reason (to which their uncertain origin is added) the same observation applies to vermin.
The appropriateness of the images is clear if we remember Kayser's final definition of the grotesque as "an attempt to invoke and subdue the demonic aspects of the world." It is the power and scenery of this world that Miller's fragmentation is attempting to describe in Tropic of Cancer. The demonic underworld is inescapable. It is another "fragment" in which the Archetypal Feminine, the persistent symbol of the unconscious and its dangerous but fecund character, appears.
Often the filthy world in which these vermin thrive erupts, like the autonomous and powerful unconscious, into the world of cleanliness and order, as in the opening section of Cancer:
I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.
The filthy world is necessary to the "sterile world," for without it, fertility, creation, and life are impossible. At the end of the first section, Mona and Miller leave the "filthy" Paris hotel for the Hôtel des Etats-Unis: "No more bedbugs now. The rainy season has commenced. The sheets are immaculate." But encounters with the demonic world are dangerous and unpleasant. Just before an important scene in which the hero confronts the surrealistically developed figure of the Terrible Feminine, the filthy world is described in terms which register his fear and aversion:
When I sit down to eat I always sit near the window. I am afraid to sit on the other side of the table—it is too close to the bed and the bed is crawling. I can see bloodstains on the gray sheets as I look that way, but I try not to look that way. I look out on the courtyard where they are rinsing the slop pails.
The crawling vermin belong to the archetype of the Terrible Mother, clearly apparent in the serpentine hair of the Gorgonesque Mona.
Much of the animal imagery also belongs to the primordial world of the Great Mother archetype and thronging animal images in Tropic of Cancer are one of the means by which Miller dramatizes twilight states of consciousness. Even the theriomorphic significance in the title of the book is appropriate to its thematic concerns. Cancer, the crab, is first of all a feminine sign in the zodiac. It is the sign in which the sun begins to retreat and the days grow shorter, a cold sign. Jung speaks of its significance in astrology as "feminine and watery." Cancer is also the house of the moon, Luna, believed to secrete the dew or sap of life, and when all the planets are in Cancer, the end of the world by water will occur.
Not all of the animal images in Tropic of Cancer delineate or belong to the archetypes of the Great Mother or the Terrible Mother, however. The animal figures or images can also be the symbolic carriers of the archetype of the self, Jung's "supraordinate personality" which includes the unconscious as well as the "ego":
Because of its unconscious component the self is so far removed from the conscious mind that it can only be partially expressed by human figures; the other part of it has to be expressed by objective, abstract symbols. The human figures are father and son, mother and daughter, king and queen, god and goddess. Theriomorphic symbols are the dragon, snake, elephant, lion, bear, and other powerful animals, or again the spider, crab, butterfly, beetle, worm, etc. Plant symbols are generally flowers (lotus and rose). These lead on to geometrical figures like the circle, the sphere, the square, the quaternity, the clock, the firmament, and so on. The indefinite extent of the unconscious component makes a comprehensive description of the human personality impossible. Accordingly, the unconscious supplements the picture with living figures ranging from the animal to the divine, as the two extremes outside man, and rounds out the animal extreme, through the addition of vegetable and inorganic abstractions, into a microcosm. These addenda have a high frequency in anthropomorphic divinities, where they appear as "attributes."
However, among those which appear in section one of Cancer—and the list is long—many symbolize or "decorate" the world of the Archetypal Feminine. In the following passage, for example, the lion is emblematic of the forces which destroy the figure of the over-intellectualized Jew who refuses to recognize their reality:
There are people who cannot resist the desire to get into a cage with wild beasts and be mangled. They go in even without revolver or whip…. [The Jew's] courage is so great that he does not even smell the dung in the corner. The spectators applaud but he does not hear. The drama, he thinks, is going on inside the cage. The cage, he thinks, is the world. Standing there alone and helpless, the door locked, he finds that the lions do not understand his language. Not one lion has ever heard of Spinoza. Spinoza? Why they can't even get their teeth into him. "Give us meat!" they roar, while he stands there petrified, his ideas frozen, his Weltanschauung a trapeze out of reach. A single blow of the lion's paw and his cosmogony is smashed.
As a primordial image of powerful forces—forces which oppose the independence of consciousness—the lion is a primitive symbol frequently associated with the figure of the Great Mother, often in her terrible aspect as goddess of night, evil, and death. To single out one image for comment, however, only draws attention to the entire complex of animal images in Miller's prose and their significance for the process of fragmentation in Miller's development of the confession.
The male figures of Tropic of Cancer are the subject of later discussion except that I wish to point out here that their significance in Cancer is not in their social roles of Jewish intellectual or Bohemian playboy but in their relationship to the chthonic feminine. Castration, dismemberment, and mutilation are the motifs which define this relationship in the descriptions of Paris and the accounts of various male "characters." The narrator draws attention to A Man Cut in Slices, the title of a book placed in a Paris shop window. In a dream he sees Van Norden, one of the important male figures, "about to walk away when suddenly he notices that his penis is lying on the sidewalk. It is about the size of a sawed-off broom-stick." Paris streets "remind one of nothing less than a big chancrous cock laid open longitudinally."
It is the relationship with a smothering, castrating, dismembering aspect of the Terrible Feminine that is important in Miller's description of Moldorf, who appears briefly in sections one and two. The archetypal nature of this relationship is underlined by the characteristics of Moldorf: Moldorf, Miller writes, is God. He is a dwarf: "Moldorf, multiform and unerring, goes through his roles—clown, juggler, contortionist, priest, lecher, mountebank." His fate is to be symbolically dismembered in a fantasy scene in section two which ends when his wife Fanny consumes him: "There is something inside her, tickling, and tickling." The entire scene, the figure of the dwarf himself, produces a curious melange of images and events that appear to justify one critic's characterization of Miller's fiction as an "overflowing surrealist cocktail" [Isaac Rosenfeld, "Henry Miller," in An Age of Enormity, 1962].
But reduced to its elements, the archetypal pattern emerges. The devouring destructive Feminine is represented in Moldorf's life by a domestic and conventional wife. But she shares with her whorish sisters in Cancer a destructive role described in almost the same terms as the others I have mentioned. Moldorf's "fate," his dwarf's stature, his designation as "God"—even perhaps Miller's choice of the sacred dung-beetle image to describe him (the Egyptian scarab was the emblem of the sun as the God who begets himself)—suggest an archetypal pattern familiar in the mythology of the Great Mother. Moldorf is the companion God of the Great Mother:
The young men whom the Mother selects for her lovers may impregnate her, they may even be fertility gods, but the fact remains that they are only phallic consorts of the Great Mother, drones serving the queen bee, who are killed off as soon as they have performed their duty of fecundation.
For this reason these youthful companion gods always appear in the form of dwarfs. The pygmies who were worshiped in Cyprus, Egypt, and Phoenicia—all territories of the Great Mother—display their phallic character just like the Dioscuri, the Cabiri, and the Dactyls, including even the figure of Harpocrates. [Neumann, The Origins of Consciousness]
The young God-dwarf was killed or castrated as soon as he performed his function of fecundating the Great Mother:
Death and dismemberment or castration are the fate of the phallus-bearing, youthful god. Both are clearly visible in myth and ritual, and both are associated with bloody orgies in the cult of the Great Mother.
Moldorf's experience is similar to Van Norden's:
"I tell you, when she climbs over me I can hardly get my arms around it. It blots out the whole world. She makes me feel like a little bug crawling inside her." [Tropic of Cancer]
Moldorf is the traditional homunculus, belonging, as does the satyr Van Norden, to the figure of the Terrible Mother and representing one of the "human" figures in terms of which the power of the Terrible Goddess is demonstrated.
I have been speaking somewhat indiscriminately of the Great Mother and the Terrible Mother archetypes as representation of the Archetypal Feminine. Although they are related, these figures should be separated insofar as their "literary presence" is important for an analysis of the fragmentation of archetypes in Tropic of Cancer. For the Jungian psychoanalyst, the archetype an sich cannot be visually represented, and I am describing only the "perceptible, actualized representation or 'archetypal image." The attempts to make the archetype perceptible to consciousness through a variety of images is called fragmentation, a term I have borrowed to describe the proliferation of "archetypal" images in Miller. The form of his fiction should not be considered a transcription of a psychic process, or a "case history," however. Such exclusive focus and concentration on certain experiences which could be called "archetypal" would seem unlikely to occur in a case history.
Yet such focus and "unity" are familiar formal characteristics of works of literature. If at the end of this study the reader is convinced that the images and experiences analyzed can be described acceptably in Jungian terms, then he may also be willing to see in the total form of Miller's work a unified allegorical structure. Miller's technical problem was one of making archetypal processes and experiences plausible to his audience. This he accomplishes in part by creating the illusion of a twentieth-century city world in which his isolated protagonist wanders on an endless "quest." The nature of this city world, however, is clearly archetypal, rendered in images which reveal the character of the Archetypal Feminine, the most inclusive term of those I have used. In Tropic of Cancer these images are traditionally those which have symbolized the archetype in myth, dreams, literature, and art. They appear in several strata.
The least ordered of these projections produces the archetype in elemental terms:
The world around me is dissolving, leaving here and there spots of time. The world is a cancer eating itself away…. I am thinking that when the great silence descends upon all and everywhere music will at last triumph. When into the womb of time everything is again withdrawn chaos will be restored and chaos is the score upon which reality is written. You, Tania, are my chaos. It is why I sing. It is not even I, it is the world dying, shedding the skin of time. I am still alive, kicking in your womb, a reality to write upon.
The symbolism of this passage is that of the Great Round, the womb of chaos; even the figure of the circular snake that bites its own tail is suggested in the cancer eating itself away and the world that sheds its skin of time. Spatial entities do not exist in the "womb of time." This chaos is fertile for the self, "the score upon which reality is written."
This symbolism develops into the differentiated symbolism of the Archetypal Feminine, which has both negative and positive significance: tomb and womb, underworld and cave; symbols of containing and protection such as shield, veil, bowl, grail, earth, and water. When human forms, however monstrous, begin to emerge in the symbolic representations of the Feminine, the Terrible Mother appears in the Gorgons and other destructive goddess figures; the Good Mother appears in quite different projections. All of these projections are manifestations of aspects of the transpersonal unconscious, especially the negative forces of the unconscious, which are seen as feminine antagonists to the efforts of consciousness to free itself. Moreover, these figures are alternately frightening and fascinating. From the unconscious, with its intermingling of positive and negative forces, must flow not only what is evil, but what is vital. The integration of the individual, the transformation of the artist "in the belly of the whale," the confrontation of the deadly aspects of the Feminine and the escape from them—these are the patterns into which the images of Miller's confession are arranged.
The I cannot escape confrontations with the deadly aspects of the Archetypal Feminine. In Cancer, the androgynous, Gorgonesque figure at the center of Paris, who first appears in Miller's description of the Lesbian Madame Delorme, reappears in a later surrealist episode unmistakably parallel to the first. In his encounter with Madame Delorme, he must penetrate deep into a palace in the city:
How I ever got to Madame Delorme's I can't imagine any more. But I got there, got inside somehow, past the butler, past the maid with her little white apron, got right inside the palace with my corduroy trousers and my hunting jacket—and not a button on my fly. Even now I can taste again the golden ambiance of that room where Madame Delorme sat upon a throne in her mannish rig, the goldfish in the bowls, the maps of the ancient world, the beautifully bound books; I can feel again her heavy hand resting upon my shoulder, frightening me a little with her heavy Lesbian air.
All the symbolic possibilities of this scene are realized in the later episode:
Standing in the courtyard with a glass eye; only half the world is intelligible. The stones are wet and mossy and in the crevices are black toads. A big door bars the entrance to the cellar; the steps are slippery and soiled with bat dung. The door bulges and sags, the hinges are falling off, but there is an enameled sign on it, in perfect condition, which says: "Be sure to close the door." Why close the door? I can't make it out. I look again at the sign but it is removed; in its place there is a pane of colored glass. I take out my artificial eye, spit on it and polish it with my handkerchief. A woman is sitting on a dais above an immense carven desk; she has a snake around her neck. The entire room is lined with books and strange fish swimming in colored globes; there are maps and charts on the wall, maps of Paris before the plague, maps of the antique world, of Knossus and Carthage, of Carthage before and after the salting. In the corner of the room I see an iron bedstead and on it a corpse is lying; the woman gets up wearily, removes the corpse from the bed and absent-mindedly throws it out the window. She returns to the huge carven desk, takes a goldfish from the bowl and swallows it. Slowly the room begins to revolve and one by one the continents slide into the sea; only the woman is left, but her body is a mass of geography.
Miller's familiarity with the experiments of surrealism may have influenced his choice of images here, but the relationship with the earlier scene would argue against considering it an irrelevant literary exercise. The symbols clearly outline the archetype of the Terrible Feminine:
The terrible aspect of the Feminine always includes the uroboric snake woman, the woman with the phallus, the unity of child bearing and begetting, of life and death. The Gorgon is endowed with every male attribute: the snake, the tooth, the boar's tusks, the out-thrust tongue, and sometimes even with a beard.
In Greece the Gorgon as Artemis-Hecate is also the mistress of the night road, of fate, and of the world of the dead. As Enodia she is the guardian of crossroads and gates, and as Hecate she is the snake-entwined moon goddess of ghosts and the dead….
… As Good Mother, she is mistress of the East Gate, the gate of birth; as Terrible Mother, she is mistress of the West Gate, the gate of death, the engulfing entrance to the underworld. Gate, door, gully, ravine, abyss are the symbols of the feminine earth-womb; they are the numinous places that mark the road into the mythical darkness of the underworld. [Neumann, The Great Mother]
This is the enthroned, androgynous, frightening figure that Miller descends to meet symbolically in the cellar of a Paris courtyard. A mistress of the dead, deep in cave or palace, behind doors, a figure that can coalesce with continents that slide into the sea (itself one of the most persistent symbols of the Feminine)—here in many of its manifestations is the archetypal figure of the Terrible Feminine. The motif of swallowing underscores the deadliness of this figure for the I is symbolized by the fish in its womb-like vessel. Another ancient symbol of the self, the eye, appears in this passage. In the "courtyard," however, the eye is inadequate—a glass eye that sees only half the world.
Miller's ubiquitous mistress of the dead, her body a mass of geography, is a figure of fantasy; her symbolic trappings belong to the surreal world. But in the passages immediately preceding the cellar scene, the androgynous figure is suggested by the "character" Olga, apparently a part of the "real" world, the filthy Paris which both attracts and repels the I, filled as it is with the odors of rancid butter and halitosis, crawling with vermin and misshapen human figures. It is a Paris in which Miller sees Notre Dame rising like a tomb from the water.
The figure of Olga is unmistakably marked by masculine characteristics and even plays a masculine role in the filthy world, although the maternal, providing role of the Archetypal Feminine figure—its positive aspect—is more apparent than the destructive:
It was just a few days ago that Olga got out of the hospital where she had her tubes burned out and lost a little excess weight. However she doesn't look as if she had gone through much suffering. She weighs almost as much as a camelbacked locomotive; she drips with perspiration, has halitosis, and still wears her Circassian wig that looks like excelsior. She has two big warts on her chin from which there sprouts a clump of little hairs; she is growing a mustache.
The day after Olga was released from the hospital she commenced making shoes again. At six in the morning she is at her bench; she knocks out two pairs of shoes a day…. If Olga doesn't work there is no food.
The "Madame Delorme" fantasy scene is an inner experience of the Archetypal Feminine. The external world in Cancer reveals a less direct (because it is projected on the outside world) but nevertheless similar relationship between the I and aspects of the Archetypal Feminine outlined in this analysis. The movement between this inner and outer world is part of the action of the book.
Appropriately, at the center of Paris the I finds an androgynous symbol of the elemental Feminine. In Cancer, moreover, elemental symbols dominate. In the later Capricorn, Mona/Mara appears in almost human form and dominates the symbolic structure. New York (the negative Feminine) is not quite as important in Capricorn as Paris is in Cancer. And the difference should be noted, for Paris, although deadly and destructive, is also a city of creation and birth. The negative and positive aspects of the Feminine lie side by side.
Although the confrontation of the negative can occur in Paris itself, Paris is contrasted with an entirely negative city in Cancer: Dijon. Winter is the season in which the hero of Cancer leaves Paris for Dijon, where he has secured a position as teacher of English. The stay in Dijon is a "descent into Hell," into a winter land where he confronts most directly the images which haunt the book. Only by such a descent and confrontation, however, can the I be truly integrated. Isolation drives him far into himself, where he must meet the implications of the archetypal experience:
Who am I? What am I doing here? I fall between the cold walls of human malevolence, a white figure fluttering, sinking down through the cold lake, a mountain of skulls above me. I settle down to the cold latitudes, the chalk steps washed with indigo. The earth in its dark corridors knows my step, feels a foot abroad, a wing stirring, a gasp and a shudder. I hear the learning chaffed and chuzzled, the figures mounting upward, bat slime dripping aloft and clanging with pasteboard golden wings; I hear the trains collide, the chains rattle, the locomotive chugging, snorting, sniffing, steaming and pissing. All things come to me through the clear fog with the odor of repetition, with yellow hangovers and Gadzooks and whettikins. In the dead center, far below Dijon, far below the hyperborean regions, stands God Ajax, his shoulders strapped to the mill wheel, the olives crunching, the green marsh water alive with croaking frogs.
Miller finds himself in the dark corridors of the earth. The archetypal labyrinth is suggested by these dark corridors, and by the corridors through which the I must grope every night, seeking his room in darkness. Its image belongs to the Archetypal Feminine:
The labyrinthine way is always the first part of the night sea voyage, the descent of the male following the sun into the devouring underworld, into the deathly womb of the Terrible Mother. This labyrinthine way, which leads to the center of danger, where at the midnight hour, in the land of the dead, in the middle of the night sea voyage, the decision falls, occurs in the judgment of the dead in Egypt, in the mysteries both classical and primitive, and in the corresponding processes of psychic development in modern man. Because of its dangerous character, the labyrinth is also frequently symbolized by a net, its center as a spider.
In the rites of Malekula, the monster Le-hev-hev, as negative power of the Feminine, is also associated with the spider; with the mandevouring "mythical ogress," "the crab woman" with two immense claws; with the underworld animal, the rat; and with a giant bivalve that when opened resembles the female genital organ, and in shutting endangers man and beast. [Neumann, The Great Mother]
We are often in a similar world in Cancer. In descriptions of Paris, for example, the web of the spider appears in scenes where it is not deliberately emphasized:
The railroad yards below me, the tracks black, webby, not ordered by the engineer but cataclysmic in design, like those gaunt fissures in the polar ice which the camera registers in degrees of black.
In the Dijon episode, Ajax labors at the negative wheel of life, for the mill and loom are symbols of fate and death; this symbol has appeared before in Cancer when it is clearly at the center of the land of the dead:
In the middle of the street is a wheel and in the hub of the wheel a gallows is fixed. People already dead are trying frantically to mount the gallows, but the wheel is turning too fast….
In Dijon Miller comes to a sterile dead world that is figuratively his "voyage to the land of the dead," the winter world into which he must descend before he can obtain the equilibrium he reaches in the last section of the book. Here he recognizes that he has to live "separate," not separate from others, but separate from the psychic pull of the unconscious, the symbol of which is the Archetypal Feminine:
Going back in a flash over the women I've known. It's like a chain which I've forged out of my own misery. Each one bound to the other. A fear of living separate, of staying born. The door of the womb always on the latch. Dread and longing. Deep in the blood the pull of paradise. The beyond. Always the beyond. It must have all started with the navel. They cut the umbilical cord, give you a slap on the ass, and presto! you're out in the world, adrift, a ship without a rudder. You look at the stars and then you look at your navel. You grow eyes everywhere—in the armpits, between the lips, in the roots of your hair, on the soles of your feet. What is distant becomes near, what is near becomes distant. Innerouter, a constant flux, a shedding of skins, a turning inside out. You drift around like that for years and years, until you find yourself in the dead center, and there you slowly rot, slowly crumble to pieces, get dispersed again. Only your name remains.
The eyes that he grows everywhere are symbols of the self, the inner self, the Purusha, "thousand-eyed," the Rudra with eyes on all sides, symbols of consciousness and of the creative powers of the soul, hence separate from the Great Mother, which in her devouring, paradisaical aspect is deadly, and destroys the individual. The I finds himself in the dead-center of winter Dijon, the land of the dead. In this penultimate section of Cancer he has reached the bottom. With spring he returns to Paris, and finally (after an episode in which he encourages and assists his young friend to escape from a predatory French girl) he reaches the equilibrium of the final section of the confession:
After everything had quietly sifted through my head a great peace came over me. Here, where the river gently winds through the girdle of hills, lies a soil so saturated with the past that however far back the mind roams one can never detach it from its human background…. So quietly flows the Seine that one hardly notices its presence. It is always there, quiet and unobtrusive, like a great artery running through the human body. In the wonderful peace that fell over me it seemed as if I had climbed to the top of a high mountain; for a little while I would be able to look around me, to take in the meaning of the landscape.
Human beings make a strange fauna and flora. From a distance they appear negligible; close up they are apt to appear ugly and malicious. More than anything they need to be surrounded with sufficient space—space even more than time.
The sun is setting. I feel this river flowing through me—its past, its ancient soil, the changing climate. The hills gently girdle it about: its course is fixed.
Its course is fixed to the sea. One has only a brief time on the mountain. The river here seen is positive, fecundating, flowing, connecting the individual with the past, especially the human past. But the I has achieved a certain independence and equilibrium in this last scene in Cancer: a considerable transformation has occurred. The flowing of the river through his body suggests that the creative power of the unconscious is now available to him, whereas in Dijon all was frozen and dead.
The flowing imagery of Cancer, one of the most important of the non-human forms into which the Archetypal Feminine is fragmented, is complex and polysemous. These images belong to the water symbolism associated with the Great Mother. They are among the most primordial representations of her essential nature, and reflect the ambivalent response of man to the forms and powers of his unconscious. As "water" she is the source of life and—in dissolution—transformation and death.
Neumann has summarized the forms taken by this figure in ancient mythology and religion:
The Great Goddess is the flowing unity of subterranean and celestial primordial water, the sea of heaven on which sail the barks of the gods of light, the circular life-generating ocean above and below the earth. To her belong all waters, streams, fountains, ponds, and springs, as well as the rain. She is the ocean of life with its life—and death—bringing seasons, and life is her child, a fish eternally swimming inside her, like the stars in the celestial ocean of the Mexican Mayauel and like men in the fishpool of Mother Church—a late manifestation of the same archetype.
Such images of the Great Mother may be fearful and repellent at times, dangerous to the individual consciousness. Yet they are incestuously attractive in the promise of a womb-like release from the shocks sustained by consciousness.
The images of flowing have been noticed by most readers of Cancer, as have the womb symbols. But for the most part, Kingsley Widmer's comment on the meaning of these symbols is typical. They have been considered emblems of the flux of the events in life, an interpretation which can explain the river imagery but which seems inadequate if one considers the traditional meanings associated with fountain, urine, sweat, menstrual blood—in fact all flowing, fluid substances in Miller. Widmer's reading, moreover, does not explain the ambivalence of the I toward this imagery, and the different relationships the I establishes with it. His comments [in Henry Miller] on the relationship between the central imagery of flowing and the events of Cancer illustrate my point:
Miller seems defeated by the sordidness of the place [Dijon], the futility of teaching, the loneliness of the displaced bohemian among the pedants, and even by a childish fear of the dark and the foreign. His exuberance falters; he recognizes "a fear of living separate, of staying born." Though the message throughout Cancer turns on the acceptance, even embracement, of the flowing chaos of life, here the "constant flux" brings the shipwrecked sailor of the American voyage to "dead center, and there you slowly rot." Unable to accept the flux in its ordinary round of misery or to continue shouting King of the Hill from the top of the quite unmiraculous pile of everyday excrement, Miller abruptly flees Dijon and goes back to Paris where he can play the artist as burlesque and apocalyptic confidence man. The meaningless world can best be accepted in romantic and rebellious terms, as an artistic-religious vision, and not as the ordinary substance of life. Perhaps partly in spite of himself, Miller makes a striking confession in this episode which just precedes the final chapter of the book and which helps explain his culminating refusal to return to ordinary American life: the excremental absurdity of life demands that one have a rebellious role as the outsider abroad.
If one considers the archetypal significance of Miller's images, he reaches quite different conclusions.
These conclusions affect the reader's recognition of Miller's form. The essential formal element of confession, according to Northrop Frye, is that the author's "mind" be integrated on subjects that are introverted but intellectualized in content. Hence the passages in which the "inner" meaning of the Dijon episode is examined by Miller and the relationship of the self to the images in which the archetype appears are central. Just before the Christmas holidays (again, it is in the winter of the year that the "hero" leaves for Dijon) Miller had visualized in brutal sexual imagery the obscenity of contemporary experience—paralysis, inertia, and the attempt to make the earth into an "arid plateau of health and comfort." These are obscenities because they indicate that the source (the crater—the familiar womb symbol, feminine symbol of the unconscious) is dry:
The dry, fucked-out crater is obscene. More obscene than anything is inertia. More blasphemous than the bloodiest oath is paralysis. If there is only a gaping wound left then it must gush forth though it produce nothing but toads and bats and homunculi.
(Toads, bats, and homunculi are the familiars of the grotesque world, for the unconscious must have negative as well as positive aspects.) Even if the dark forces produce only the demonic, at least we are in touch with the sources of "reality." It is not the impermanence of life, filled with horror and hell as well as heaven, that dismays the hero, but the denial of its source and the loss of its vitality.
The I must free for himself the "flow" of the unconscious, by challenging its threat to overwhelm consciousness (the desire to return to the womb) and by confronting its negative as well as its positive character:
"I love everything that flows," said the great blind Milton of our times. I was thinking of him this morning when I awoke with a great bloody shout of joy: I was thinking of his rivers and trees and all that world of night which he is exploring. Yes, I said to myself, I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences. I love the amniotic fluid when it spills out of the bag. I love the kidney with its painful gallstones, its gravel and what-not; I love the urine that pours out scalding and the clap that runs endlessly; I love the words of hysterics and the sentences that flow on like dysentery and mirror all the sick images of the soul; I love the great rivers like the Amazon and the Orinoco, where crazy men like Moravagine float on through dream and legend in an open boat and drown in the blind mouths of the river. I love everything that flows, even the menstrual flow that carries away the seed unfecund. I love scripts that flow, be they hieratic, esoteric, perverse, polymorph, or unilateral. I love everything that flows, everything that has time in it and becoming, that brings us back to the beginning where there is never end: the violence of the prophets, the obscenity that is ecstasy, the wisdom of the fanatic, the priest with his rubber litany, the foul words of the whore, the spittle that floats away in the gutter, the milk of the breast … all that is fluid, melting, dissolute and dissolvent, all the pus and dirt that in flowing is purified, that loses its sense of origin, that makes the great circuit toward death and dissolution. The great incestuous wish is to flow on, one with time, to merge the great image of the beyond with the here and now. A fatuous, suicidal wish that is constipated by words and paralyzed by thought.
All symbols of creative power in this passage acknowledge the fecundity of the "crater," the womb, the great Feminine Archetype of the unconscious. But the lines in italics point out the danger facing the self: the powerful, incestuous wish. The "acceptance" without differentiation of this flow and flux leads to "death," and the wish for such dissolution is primordial. Here is a clear statement of the intellectual recognition of the nature of the fecund depths of the individual, and of the necessity of avoiding the "fatuous, suicidal wish." The relationship described is elemental (certainly all the images in the passages support such an interpretation) and dangerous: the incest described suggests the uroboric incest outlined in Neumann's analysis of the elemental representations of the Great Mother archetype, along with the problem of "transformation" on the elementary level which faces the development of the individual consciousness.
The life feeling of every ego consciousness that feels small in relation to the powers is dominated by the preponderance of the Great Round that encompasses all change. This archetype may be experienced outwardly as world or nature or inwardly as fate and the unconscious. In this phase the elementary feminine character, which still contains the transformative character within it, is "worldly"; natural existence with all its regular changes is subservient to it. The central symbol of this constellation is the unity of life amid the change of seasons and the concurrent transformation of living things…. the death character of the material-maternal is an expression of this archetypal domination of nature and the unconscious over life, and likewise over the undeveloped childlike, or youthfully helpless, ego consciousness. In this phase the Archetypal Feminine not only bears and directs life as a whole, and the ego in particular, but also takes everything that is born of it back into its womb of origination and death. [Neumann, The Great Mother]
When the narrator speaks of the incestuous wish to dissolve in the flow, he is not advocating a simple acceptance of the flow of life; he is speaking of what has been described as uroboric incest:
Uroboric incest is a form of entry into the mother, of union with her, and it stands in sharp contrast to other and later forms of incest. In uroboric incest, the emphasis upon pleasure and love is in no sense active, it is more a desire to be dissolved and absorbed; passively one lets oneself be taken, sinks into the pleroma, melts away away in the ocean of pleasure—a Liebestod. [The Origins of Consciousness]
Neumann is not speaking of the personal mother:
This incest reflects the activity of the maternal uroboros, of the Great Mother archetype, mother of life and death, whose figure is transpersonal and not reducible to the personal mother. [The Origins of Consciousness]
Miller's desire to escape the Mother, a theme which pervades his fiction, is a desire to escape the dissolution of the self that surrender to the unconscious would demand.
The relationship with the "flow" that the I must establish if it is to become independent and escape the frozen wastes of the "dead center" requires an assertion of independence and at the same time a winning of creative energy from the unconscious. Equilibrium, or integration of the I, establishes just such a relationships, although it is only temporary. No real end to the glittering and deadly power of the unconscious exists, nor would such an end be desirable.
Only by experiencing the archetype through the images into which it is fragmented and arriving at conscious or intellectual recognition of "divisions" of the Archetypal Feminine is the I "born." And this integration and intellectualization provides the integrated pattern which identifies the confession form.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11185
SOURCE: "Tropic of Cancer: The Journal of a 'Year' in the Surreal City," in his Henry Miller: The Major Writings, Schocken Books, 1986, pp. 75-103.
[In the following excerpt, Lewis provides an overview of the major themes of Tropic of Cancer.]
Henry Miller's first book, Tropic of Cancer, remains startling and unique. The radiant spirit and exuberant anger which Miller projected from the opening sentences of Cancer are as alive now as the day when they were released. Twenty-five years after its first publication in the United States, and half a century after Miller began his final revisions on the manuscript, Cancer is one of the best exemplars of Pound's definition of literature: News that stays news. Many writers have taken advantage of Miller's victories in the war against censorship and suppression, but Miller does not look like a pioneer who is interesting only as a precursor.
In an age when nothing is "outrageous" any more, Miller still has the power to out rage almost anyone writing today. As Mailer notes, "a revolution in style and consciousness" was taking place in Cancer, and like any real revolution, it has not been entirely absorbed. Tropic of Cancer is still threatening and elusive, perhaps more so than works by Miller's famous contemporaries. Miller, in Cancer, is still at least a little dangerous, still strangely exciting, still curiously liberating.
The mock invocation with which Miller opens Cancer seems dreadfully timely in the mid-1980s amidst economic uncertainty, international tension, political incompetence and social disintegration—is it the 1930s come back to haunt us in a terrible new form? Instead of cringing in fear, Miller, his own "rebellion" giving him the will to declare himself, snarls: "This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will." This, indeed, is a declaration of human necessity, a prophetic demand that man must resist all the so-called "solutions"—the neat, packaged answers of the advertising world, the offers of all the salesmen and spokesmen who represent official versions of religion, politics, business and culture. It is an attack on what purports to be scientific rationality (educational science, managerial science, and so forth) and it leads to a countercommitment to mystery and ecstasy, anticipating and inspiring the social delirium of the 1960s. It is also, in somewhat less obvious terms, an exhortation to preserve the principle of free inquiry and to reject the security of any totalitarian system. Because Miller hardly provides a conventional argument in analytic steps, this is generally overlooked, but what Miller has done is less familiar and more effective. Cancer is not a tract but a demonstration, an exhibition of psychic survival.
When he crossed the Atlantic, Miller must have entertained some picture of Paris as an international refuge for the eager artist, but instead of finding a community of kindred spirits, Miller found a city crawling with the detritus of America's spiritual decay. The fabled City of Light was there too, but it took him quite a bit longer to find it. As the book opens, the artist/hero who is Miller's narrator and protagonist has given up the idea of living in any sort of conventional manner and has become a kind of Dostoevskian underground man. We see him first in Cancer prowling through the bottom strata of a civilization in decomposition, recording disasters to which he remains immune. His rage cuts through the lachrymose posturing of his fellow expatriates like a sword, while his dream/vision is drawn around him like a shield. His isolation is his protection, but it has its costs. He has no real friends (how different from the corporeal Henry Miller!), just acquaintances he spends time with, gets drunk with, gets laid with and so on, and his relationship with women is ghastly. But Tropic of Cancer is not a cosmos—it is a picture of a time and a place from the perspective of a person who is so delighted to feel and show his strength that everything else is secondary. The book is a product of careful calculation, and some sacrifices have been made. Because Miller knew that Cancer was just the beginning, a part of a larger story, he made his artist/hero, as Nin pointed out, mostly sex and stomach, although there is plenty of heart too, if one looks closely. And of course, the book is relentless in its refusal to put a good face on anything.
It is this tone of absolute candor that originally upset so many people. To a world that had shut its ears to all accounts of sexual adventure in fear that it might be reminded of its own inclinations, Miller gleefully raised his voice to sing, just as Allen Ginsberg, to a world deteriorated somewhat further, felt compelled to Howl. "I am going to sing for you," Miller boasts, "a little off key perhaps, but I will sing…. To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing." But this is not a "Song of Himself," that will come later, in the Rosy Crucifixion. Here, Miller's most active and intense personal reactions are primarily contemplative or fantastic since he is basically an observer. His reverie about Tania, his muse of "chaos," is typical: "I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt…. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris' chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces." Although there is a sense of the immediate about these promises (or threats), Miller's artist/hero is contemplating what he will do (or what he has done), not what he is doing. The "song" that runs through the book is a song of the world, and the most erotic verses involve the damaged men and women who live in that world, desperate and weakened creatures who resort to sexual frenzy to reclaim the life they are losing. Passages like the address to Tania are crude and vicious, but they are designed to establish Miller's fierce, defiant stance toward the culture that has been responsible for this human erosion. Unlike Tania, Boris, Sylvester and the others, Miller is not a citizen of this world, although he moves easily there and knows it well. He is more like an explorer, and the bitter humor with which he describes it is a reflection of his disengagement:
Llona—a wild ass snuffing pleasure out of the wind. On every high hill she played the harlot—and sometimes in telephone booths and toilets. She bought a bed for King Carol and a shaving mug with his initials on it. She lay in Tottenham Court Road with her dress pulled up and fingered herself. She used candles, Roman candles, and door knobs. Not a prick in the land big enough for her … not one. Men went inside her and curled up. She wanted extension pricks, self-exploding rockets, hot boiling oil made of wax and creosote. She would cut off your prick and keep it inside her forever, if you gave her permission. One cunt out of a million, Llona! A laboratory cunt and no litmus paper that could take her color. She was a liar too, this Llona. She never bought a bed for King Carol. She crowned him with a whiskey bottle and her tongue was full of lice and tomorrows. Poor Carol, he could only curl up inside her and die. She drew a breath and he fell out—like a dead clam.
This is a hard passage to read without experiencing a feeling of uncertainty. Is this the only way Miller's artist/hero sees women? Is it true, as Kate Millett claims [in Sexual Politics, 1970], that Miller "is a compendium of sexual neuroses, and his value lies not in freeing us from such afflictions, but in having had the honesty to express and dramatize them." I believe that Millett's comments might be most appropriately applied to a discussion of the books in the triad, "The Formation …," because the distance between author and "character" is considerably narrowed there. In Cancer, as I hope will become more apparent, both the men and the women Miller spends time with are treated with similar harshness. The contempt, disgust and fear which Miller exhibits in the passage on Llona is matched by equally contemptuous descriptions of men throughout Cancer. The element of fear is another matter, and it lends credence to Millett's claims. I will refer to this aspect of Miller's attitude while examining the triad, but it should be mentioned here that because of Miller's determination to maintain the tone of great confidence in his "I" narrator, some very significant facets of his life are purposefully excluded.
The point of the passage about Llona and King Carol is that the social landscape is very bleak. The women seem to have magic powers locked in their bodies but the men lack the proper keys. The myth of the fertile, life-giving earth/mother female figure has been distorted so that woman is now an insatiable, self-absorbed, castrating whore. The myth of the male as a noble warrior and a pillar of dignity, integrity, justice and reasoned discourse has been distorted so that man is now a frightened, egoinflated phallus without feeling or wisdom. The film of Cancer by Joseph Strick had Rip Torn play Miller's artist/hero as this kind of man—all cock and no heart. But Miller's "I" narrator is not like these men. He can step out of the cancerous domain at any time. Between the passages on Tania and Llona, the artist/hero, sounding like Joyce Cary's Gulley Jimson, sees another "world" altogether:
Indigo sky swept clear of fleecy clouds, gaunt trees infinitely extended, their black boughs gesticulating like a sleepwalker. Somber, spectral trees, their trunks pale as cigar ash. A silence supreme and altogether European. Shutters drawn, shops barred. A red glow here and there to mark a tryst. Brusque the façades, almost forbidding; immaculate except for the splotches of shadow cast by the trees. Passing the Orangerie I am reminded of another Paris, the Paris of Maugham, of Gauguin, Paris of George Moore. I think of that terrible Spaniard who was then starling the world with his acrobatic leaps from style to style. I think of Spengler and of his terrible pronunciamentos, and I wonder if style, style in the grand manner, is done for. I say that my mind is occupied with these thoughts, but it is not true; it is only later, after I have crossed the Seine, after I have put behind me the carnival of lights, that I allow my mind to play with these ideas. For the moment I can think of nothing—except that I am a sentient being stabbed by the miracle of these waters that reflect a forgotten world. All along the banks the trees lean heavily over the tarnished mirror; when the wind rises and fills them with a rustling murmur they will shed a few tears and shiver as the water swirls by. I am suffocated by it. No one to whom I can communicate even a fraction of my feelings.
This is the Paris of Henry Miller—a timeless realm of wonder which the artist/hero can share with no one else, except perhaps the eternal company of artists with whom Miller wishes to establish kinship. This Paris is like the prelapsarian America of his imagination, but it is something more at the same time, a place which he can actually observe and enjoy. There is a certain sadness about this Paris too, because he cannot enjoy it with his "friends" ("No one to whom I can communicate…."), but that makes it a kind of sanctuary for him, a refuge from the rot. He is sustained in his pleasure and wonder at this world by his confidence that one day he will be able to join the land of light to the rest of his existence, but in Cancer, the two worlds stand apart. And for the moment, that is sufficient, especially since he is comfortable in both of them. With his identity as the man with the most extreme passion staked out and secure, the artist/hero walks through both worlds, one dying and the other "busy being born" (in Bob Dylan's words), his outlook in very sharp contrast to all the inhabitants of the dying land:
Walking along the Champs-Elysées, I keep thinking of my really superb health. When I say "health" I mean optimism, to be truthful. Incurably optimistic! Still have one foot in the nineteenth century. I'm a bit retarded, like most Americans. Carl finds it disgusting, this optimism. "I have only to talk of a meal," he says, "and you're radiant!" It's a fact. The mere though of a meal—another meal—rejuvenates me. A meal! That means something to go on—a few solid hours of work, an erection possibly. I don't deny it. I have health, good solid, animal health.
Although Miller means "meal" literally, since he often didn't know until it appeared where the next one was coming from, his appetite is clearly for experience itself, and his optimism is based on his belief that any experience will be nourishing for the artist/hero. While Cancer describes a world that is perishing, Miller sees beyond it to a time when art ("a few solid hours of work") will give man his soul, and love (unavailable here, only an "erection" is a possibility now) will give him his heart. In order to survive until that time comes, in fact to work to make it happen, the artist/hero needs the strength to live through the cancerous time of his life, and as Martin points out [in Always Merry and Bright: The Life of Henry Miller—An Unauthorized Biography, 1978], "at the end of the book the man who can write the book is born." In other words, Cancer is a record of Miller's resistance to the squalor which he could easily have slipped into. He is susceptible to the various disorders that have infected the people of Cancer—has, as a matter of fact, been infected himself throughout most of the previous decade—and he needs all of his devices (scorn, casual cruelty, the withdrawal of sympathy) to remain relatively healthy ("good solid, animal health"). His relationships with both men and women should be seen in this light. Without this "health" as a base, Miller could never get out of the Villa Borghese, where, as he says on the first page, "We are all alone here and we are dead."
Cancer is divided into fifteen "sections" but they are not chapters, just as Cancer is definitely not a novel. Rahv speaks of the "dissolution of genre" in Miller, but he is not particularly specific about what this amounts to. Cancer is really a mutant of sorts, a journal that resembles a diary, a packet of sketches, a rough collection of essays, an assemblage of anecdotes—"what you will," as Miller says. The narrative consciousness of the artist/hero gives it some continuity, but it does not have any real character development, a chronological linear progression, a plot one could outline, or any dramatic denouements or even a "conclusion" that ties things up. The word novel confuses the issue and tends to induce expectations that are not satisfied, as Miller may have sensed when he disagreed strongly with Edmund Wilson's review of Cancer. I think the word journal is most useful, and it might be helpful to call Cancer a journal of the surreal city, with its implications of a kind of newspaper that has many departments or features reflecting different concerns and modes of activity, especially if one also recognizes a parallel with the so-called "new journalism" of the 1970s. This journal, however, is not a "daily" in any sense, or regular in its record. The span of time which is covered is very elastic, and the edges are purposely hazy, as are the various divisions. It opens during the "fall of my second year in Paris," which we discover is 1929, and seems to end in the spring of 1931, but those "years" might be months, or decades. The entire concept of a calendar is burlesqued as Miller starts sections by saying, out of nowhere and with no further point, "Easter came in like a frozen hare"; or "I think it was the Fourth of July"; or "It was close to dawn on Christmas Day." One of the points behind this technique is that the artist/hero has very little to do with the demarcations of a conventional society. There are other rhythms in his life, and they gradually become apparent.
Within each of the fifteen sections, four motifs are repeated with varying emphasis. They are:
- Rage at "a world crumbling and polished like a leper's skull," expressed sometimes as loathing, sometimes as hilarity.
- Male bonding, including passages of men together eating, drinking, debating, scheming, fighting and fornicating.
- Lust, primarily from the point of view of the conventional male narrative consciousness, with women as its object, but also as its inspiration.
- Quasi-philosophical excursions about art, nature, religion and cosmology, including some fairly powerful lyric "poetry."
These four motifs occur to some extent in each section, and are like four threads interwoven in complementary fashion throughout the book. Whichever one is used to begin the section, the fourth motif is employed in its conclusion in nine of the last ten sections. A systematic analysis of the entire book following this pattern would be possible, but it would become dreary after awhile, just a recitation of the already understood. A brief outline of the fifteen sections, followed by a closer examination of four representative ones, will suffice. The separate sections of Cancer are organized in the following manner [the page references are from the 1961 Grove Press edition]:
I (1-19): The scene, mood and style of the book are set. Tania, Llona ("a wild ass snuffing pleasure out of the wind"), Carl and Boris, writers like Miller ("They are possessed. They glow inwardly with a white flame. They are mad and tone deaf. They are sufferers"), and Moldorf ("Thyroid eyes. Michelin lips. Voice like pea soup") are introduced. Mona's departure for America is recalled as a cutting of ties, the removal of connections to previous concerns.
II (20-33): Domestic chat; cultural baggage recorded in homes of people where artist/hero cadges meals, a bed, social contact. Attack on America as cause of rot everywhere.
III (34-43): Germaine, the whore the artist/hero finds most compatible.
IV (44-48): Carl and Marlowe, neurasthenic expatriate Americans defeated by life in Paris; Marlowe returning to America directly, Carl looking for a pension or similar sinecure ("I hate Paris!… All these stupid people playing cards all day … look at them!").
V (49-62): More domestic conversation; the artist/hero finds various households stifling, his distaste for acquaintances is growing, his sense of himself as an artist is clarified ("The artist, I call myself. So be it.").
VI (63-71): He is grateful for help offered by a fellow he meets, but is obliged to reject the companionship of this boring if well-meaning person whose mattress for the artist/hero is "a morgue for lice." Attends a concert, reflects on aesthetic experience of music, its hold on the audience, and what the audience might do if the artist (Ravel) did not hold back at some point.
VII (72-90): A somewhat sympathetic but also destructively comic account of young Hindu man visiting brothel with Miller as guide; parody of Dante, parody of any religious commitment, debunking of blind faith, spiritualism as a solution to the mess and filth of world.
VIII (91-150): Fabulous description of Van Norden, the anti-Colossus of Cancer, a polar-opposite of the Hindu of the previous chapter; the nonspiritual man as mechanical monster and something of a psychic double for Miller's worst impulses.
IX (151-167): Tentative effort at liaison with Tania—no real relationship develops; he recalls life with Mona through prism of selective nostalgia, and recognizes an irrevocable commitment to the present in Paris and suffers momentary depression.
X (168-188): He attempts to overcome depression with booze, brawls, broads in company of men—much brutality.
XI (188-197): No satisfaction with whore who offers interesting persona when dullness beneath mask becomes apparent. Tends to equate unsatisfactory woman with city of Paris, dwelling on disappointment. Fails, momentarily, to see how one's outlook colors incidents and locations.
XII (199-215): The artist/hero is living with Fillmore, another desperate expatriate. Fillmore's crudity and ugliness point toward dead end inherent in the artist/hero's worst behavior with women.
XIII (216-233): Grand apostrophe to art and life: A reemergence from chaos, the lowest point of Cancer now firmly in permanent past.
XIV (234-259): Visit to Dijon as commitment to art, work, the possibility of viable community. Dijon episode mostly unsuccessful, but effort is worthwhile in itself.
XV (260-287): Fillmore's pathetic return to America. A man who has been crushed, returning in ruin. Artist/hero helps him on his way, recognizes his own survival, emerges from "year" in world of cancer stronger and fitter.
The four sections I will examine more carefully each concentrate on one of the four motifs I have described, although the others are still present as a kind of muted background. Section III deals primarily with lust, VIII with the male impulse at its worse, XIII is Miller's most serious attempt at a prolonged metaphysical discourse and XIV is concerned with the social order Miller despises.
Kate Millett calls Germaine "the archetypal French prostitute of American tourism," and quotes eight passages out of context in which woman is assigned to a "mindless material capacity." Although I would suggest that the artist/hero and the corporeal Henry Miller are not quite equal entities here, and that all of Cancer presents people living under circumstances of considerable nastiness which Miller describes to illustrate things as they ought not to be, Millett makes a pretty convincing case that Germaine is treated, like so many other women in Miller's work, with "anxiety and contempt." And yet, there is Norman Mailer arguing [in Genius and Lust: A Journey through the Major Writings of Henry Miller, 1976] that lust "takes over the instinct to create life and converts it to a force," and that Miller "captured something in the sexuality of men as it had never been seen before, precisely that it was man's sense of awe before woman, his dread of her position one step closer to eternity (for in that step were her powers) which made men detest women, revile them, humiliate them, defecate symbolically upon them, do everything to reduce them so that one might dare to enter them and take pleasure of them." Although Mailer wrote his essay on lust almost as a direct response to Millett's attack on his thinking in Sexual Politics, the two are not listening to or talking to each other at all. Mailer's conclusion is that passages like those that Millett condemns are "screams [of] his barbaric yawp of utter adoration for the power and the glory and the grandeur of the female in the universe." When they are read separately, both arguments seem convincing. But "utter adoration" is surely nothing like "anxiety and contempt." A close look at the section in Cancer where Germaine appears is in order.
The section begins with the artist/hero pretending not to be hungry so as to avoid disturbing the Cronstadts (actually the family of Walter Lowenfels) who are sitting down at a special meal just as he arrives. He mockingly calls himself "delicat" in his pretense, but adds poignantly, "On the way out I cast a lingering glance at the bones lying on the baby's plate—there was still meat on them." As he walks down the Rue de Buci, he notices "The bars wide open and the curbs lined with bicycles. All the meat and vegetable markets are in full swing." The streets are seething with life, "a fresh hive of activity. Long queues of people with vegetables under their arms, turning in here and there with crisp, sparkling appetites." Amidst the people rushing to satisfy their appetites, the artist/hero is both delighted by the motion and color and troubled by his own persistent hunger. The dual nature of his reaction is caught by his comparison of the Square de Furstenberg as he sees it now "at high noon" and as he saw it, "the other night when I passed by … deserted, bleak, spectral." He compares the trees at night to T. S. Eliot's poetry, calling them "intellectual," trees with their roots in stone, bare branches not yet in bloom. Images of aridity are overcoming the artist/hero's delight in the sensuality of the world.
As the day continues and the artist/hero wanders on through the streets, "guts rattling," it begins to rain and the light and joy of the city are replaced by images of confusion and disease. In a bookstore window, he sees the title, A Man Cut in Slices and recognizes its applicability to his life since he is often so completely occupied with the tasks of finding food, lodging, good company that he cannot see any larger picture of things. The title suggests food again, but the food seems to be spoiling now, less enticing since he can't get it anyhow. The street begins to look like a wax reproduction of organs "eaten away by syphilis," suggesting the reversal in Hamlet where the prince describes Polonius at supper, but where he is "food" for maggots.
The "beautiful day" has turned 180 degrees, and the artist/hero pauses "a few minutes to drink in the full squalor of the scene." Food has become repulsive as he describes "a clump of decrepit buildings which have so rotted away that they have collapsed on one another and formed a sort of intestinal embrace. The ground is uneven, the flagging slippery with slime. A sort of human dump heap which has been filled with cinders and dry garbage…. There is the shrill squawk of children with pale faces and bony limbs, rickety little urchins marked with the forceps. A fetid odor seeps from the walls…." The images here are of rot, starvation, indigestion and waste. But it is not just the visible world that has been spoiled. The artist/hero turns away from the Place du Combat, and his mind "reverts to a book I was reading the other day." The book describes a town in a shambles, "corpses, mangled by butchers and stripped by plunderers, lay thick in the streets; wolves sneaked from the suburbs to eat them." The town is Paris during the days of "Charles the Silly," and the artist/hero mentions that he has "thought long and ruefully over the sad fate of Charles the Silly. A half-wit, who prowled about the halls of his Hôtel St. Paul, garbed in the filthiest rags, eaten away by ulcers and vermin, gnawing a bone, when they flung him one." A debased monarch, without proper food, eaten away by his own hunger, reminding the artist/hero of his need for nourishment. And then, in a typical application of associative logic, the artist/hero mentions the main "diversion" of Charles the Silly, "card games with his 'low-born companion' Odette de Champdivers."
Here, then, is a picture of a man in an ugly world who is a little desperate and very hungry. "It was a Sunday afternoon, much like this, when I first met Germaine," he recalls. Miller has spent several pages showing how one of the most basic of the natural appetites has been perverted. It would be nice to be able to choose one's food, not to have to scramble for it and accept what you can get. It would also be nice to be able to develop a relationship with a woman under ideal conditions, but in the world of Cancer, both the men and women Miller knows are operating under less than ideal conditions. Maybe it is arrogant to condemn the behavior of these people from the comfort of an academic cloister. In a landscape where one is either starving or being "eaten," there are different orders of primacy. And even in this setting, Germaine stands out among her "colleagues."
The artist/hero remembers that he was walking on the Rue du Pasteur-Wagner, on the corner "of the Rue Amelot which hides behind the boulevard like a slumbering lizard," when he sees, continuing the image of eating; "a cluster of vultures who croaked and flapped their dirty wings, who reached out with sharp talons and plucked you into a doorway. Jolly, rapacious devils who didn't even give you time to button your pants when it was over." "Germaine was different," he says, although, "There was nothing to tell me so from her appearance." What distinguishes her is the fact that amidst a clearly commercial transaction ("It was not difficult to come to terms"), she notices and responds to those things which make a person distinct as an individual, "she liked the knickerbockers I was wearing. Très chic! she thought." Just the sort of statement to make a person feel a bit special, although that could be construed as part of her "job." However, when Germaine presents herself to the artist/hero, he describes her pride in herself as an aspect of a kind of dignity that cannot be demolished by the rude manners of others. "There was something about her eloquence at that moment and the way she thrust that rose-bush under my nose which remains unforgettable." Germaine's pride in her sexuality is very sad in that she has nothing else that the world values, but her courage is impressive. And whether it is lust alone, or something more, the artist/hero says, "That Sunday afternoon, with its poisonous breath of spring in the air, everything clicked again." The starving man has found food. After their assignation, the artist/hero is ready to look on her with his cold, discerning eye again, but in spite of his defensive stance, some humane instinct has been ignited in both of them:
As we stepped out of the hotel I looked her over again in the harsh light of day and I saw clearly what a whore she was—the gold teeth, the geranium in her hat, the run-down heels, etc., etc. Even the fact that she wormed a dinner out of me and cigarettes and taxi hadn't the least disturbing effect upon me. I encouraged it, in fact. I liked her so well that after dinner we went back to the hotel and took another shot at it. "For love," this time.
The artist/hero is not prepared for much more than a satisfying of appetites, but he is forced to admit that he liked Germaine's sexuality and that he liked her too. "I liked them separately and I liked them together," he says. When she discovers the artist/hero's "true circumstances," she offers him food and a kind of friendship, and it is at this stage of the narrative that Kate Millett begins to quote Miller's final estimation of Germaine. I would suggest an alternative interpretation. The words which describe Germaine as "a whore from the cradle," and refer to "her whore's heart which is not really a good heart but a lazy one." are an indictment of the artist/hero at this point in the narrative. He has been rendered unfit to judge the nuances of a person's motivation because of his own reduced vision. All he can admire in Germaine are those things which he values in himself—guts, fire, stamina, courage and cunning. That she may have more to offer, a complex, caring, sharing side; possibly a reflective, even philosophic inclination, distresses the artist/hero because he has become accustomed to regarding sex as he regards food—the answer to a physical urge to be satiated however possible. In comparing Germaine to Claude, another prostitute, the artist/hero mentions to Germaine's "credit" that "she was ignorant and lusty, she put her heart and soul into her work. She was a whore all the way through—and that was her virtue." Claude troubles the artist/hero because she "had a soul and a conscience; she had refinement, too, which is bad—in a whore. Claude always imparted a feeling of sadness; she left the impression, unwittingly, of course, that you were just one more added to the stream which fate had ordained to destroy her." Without any explanatory message, Miller has made it pretty clear that the artist/hero, at this early point in the narrative, has shut down a vital part of his sensory apparatus because he is not capable of dealing with a woman beyond certain prescribed, formulaic rituals of passion-plus-commerce. Millett claims that this is Miller "giving voice to certain sentiments which masculine culture had long experienced but always rather carefully suppressed." I would disagree to some extent, and suggest that within the context of the entire section, Miller is not just "giving voice" to these sentiments, but criticizing them by showing the narrowness and fear of the person who is delivering them. The dismissal of Germaine's qualities as a person at the end of the section are not the words of a person we can trust on this subject, but of someone who has been temporarily warped by the accumulated pressures of living "down and out" in an urban wasteland.
Miller's attitude toward this kind of man becomes more clear in the section (VIII) that presents the bizarre Van Norden, a character with many discomforting similarities to the artist/hero at his worst. The long section is one of the most vivid in Cancer. What kind of a country, what kind of a civilization could produce such a monster, it almost demands to know? Van Norden is not a murderer in the conventional sense, but he is a killer of the soul, and his homicidal tendencies extend to everyone he meets, including himself. The fact that he goes unpunished, that he is not even discouraged in any way, is a clear indication that something is drastically wrong. This man is, in Millett's words, the one who "yearns to effect a complete depersonalization of woman into cunt," and the one who turns sex into "a game-fantasy of power untroubled by the reality of persons or the complexity of dealing with fellow human beings." The opening paragraphs of the section introduce him and also establish at the outset a separation between him and the narrator:
At one-thirty I called on Van Norden, as per agreement. He had warned me that if he didn't answer it would mean that he was sleeping with someone, probably his Georgia cunt.
Anyway, there he was, tucked away comfortably, but with an air of weariness as usual. He wakes up cursing himself, or cursing his job, or cursing life. He wakes up utterly bored and discomfited, chagrined to think that he did not die overnight.
The artist/hero often gets angry or discouraged, but he invariably wakes up in high spirits and stays that way until worn down by some problem. He never curses "life."
The first few pages of the section are taken up entirely by a rambling monologue in which Van Norden makes his attitude toward women all too clear. These pages are a masterful example of gruesome comedy, and the comedy is at Van Norden's expense. His pathetic self-centeredness and his simplistic reduction of everything make him a parody of a man. Miller does not have to comment at all as Van Norden is condemned in his own words:
"My teeth are all rotten," he says, gargling his throat. "It's the fucking bread they give you to eat here." He opens his mouth wide and pulls his lower lip down. "See that? Pulled out six teeth yesterday. Soon I'll have to get another plate. That's what you get working for a living. When I was on the bum I had all my teeth, my eyes were bright and clear. Look at me now! It's a wonder I can make a cunt any more. Jesus, what I'd like is to find some rich cunt…."
Vain, stupid, consumed by self-pity—and in Paris, he doesn't like the bread! And lacking in both ideals and faith: "'The married ones! Christ, if you saw all the married cunts I bring up here you'd never have any more illusions. They're worse than the virgins, the married ones. They don't wait for you to start things—they fish it out for you themselves. And then they talk about love afterwards. It's disgusting. I tell you, I'm actually beginning to hate cunt!'" In their basic outlook, Van Norden and the artist/hero are at polar opposites, and even though they share each other's company and go whoring together, this should be apparent immediately. If the tone of Van Norden's whining doesn't get the point across, then his incredible statement, "Would you believe it, I've never been to the Louvre—nor the Comédie-Française. Is it worth going to those joints?", must separate him from Miller whose reactions to the work of painters approaches reverence.
Miller listens to Van Norden rather noncommittally, but when Van Norden starts to invite him to various social engagements, the artist/hero begins to demur ("I can't tomorrow, Joe. I promised to help Carl out …"), and when Van Norden proposes they "share" a mother and daughter, his reluctance is apparent ("Listen, Joe, you'd better find somebody else …"). At this point, Van Norden becomes almost desperate, practically pleading with the artist/hero for companionship: "'What do you do with yourself all day? Don't you get bored? What do you do for a lay? Listen … come here! Don't run away yet … I'm lonely. Do you know something—if this keeps up another year I'll go nuts. I've got to get out of this fucking country. There's nothing for me here. I know it's lousy now, in America, but just the same….'" Van Norden's monologue concludes, and during the next few pages, the same theme is played again with minor variations as Carl tells the artist/hero about his visit to a woman named Irene whom he has been courting by letter for months. Miller mentions at one point that as Carl headed for Irene's apartment, "he threw me a last despairing glance, one of those mute appeals which a dog makes when you put a noose around its neck. Going through the revolving door I thought of Van Norden…." Carl's hesitancy and confusion as he relates the details of their meeting become steadily more preposterous and then gradually pitiful:
"And that's not all. I promised her a letter in the meantime. How am I going to write her a letter now? I haven't anything to say…. Shit! If only she were ten years younger. Do you think I should go with her … to Borneo or wherever it is she wants to take me? What would I do with a rich cunt like that on my hands? I don't know how to shoot. I am afraid of guns and all that sort of thing. Besides, she'll be wanting me to fuck her night and day … nothing but hunting and fucking all the time … I can't do it!"
Both Carl and Van Norden are cases of arrested development, adolescents who need constant reassurance because they have so little sense of who they are. Miller is wryly sympathetic, almost like an older brother ("Maybe it won't be so bad as you think. She'll buy you ties and all sorts of things…."), but Carl is a defeated man, and his last words have the stuff of horror about them: "'That's it—that's the best solution for a writer. What does a guy want with his arms and legs? He doesn't need arms and legs to write with. He needs security … peace … protection…. All I'd want is a good wheelchair and three meals a day. Then I'd give them something to read, those pricks.'" Obviously, Miller himself does not believe "that's the best solution for a writer." And similarly, he does not share Van Norden's view of women, even if there is some overlapping. The first fifteen pages of this section show plainly that Miller does not endorse Van Norden's rampant sexism or Carl's pitiable retreat from life. On the other hand, he does not quite condemn them either. His attitude is somewhat ambiguous because he has experienced several crises himself that have brought him, momentarily, rather close to their psychic states. What interests Miller is the way they behave, and the world which must be partially to blame for this kind of behavior.
As I have noted previously, Miller is an observer in this book. Following Carl's account of his night with Irene, Van Norden tells Miller the whole story again, repeating the details that Carl told him. The next few pages are as imaginatively pornographic as anything Miller has written, and they present an interesting double perspective because Carl is inclined to put a romantic gloss on things while Van Norden has a fixation for specific anatomic detail. Neither man can see the woman herself: In Carl's case she is lost in fantasy, while in Van Norden's she is never more than a collection of erotic accessories. Although Miller does not attempt to psychoanalyze Van Norden, there is one very revealing moment when Van Norden, in a moment of "overwhelming futility," confesses, "I want to be able to surrender myself to a woman…. I want her to take me out of myself. But to do that, she's got to be better than I am; she's got to have a mind, not just a cunt. She's got to make me believe that I need her, that I can't live without her." Of course, such a woman will never exist for Van Norden. He does not know how to share any part of himself with anybody, much less "surrender," and he has such an inflated sense of his own "qualities" and such a superficially critical view of all women that he would never admit one is "better" than he is. Miller does not tell us any of these things, but Van Norden's words make it all apparent. (In this section, the artist/hero hardly ever ventures an opinion on anything and rarely explains character except to say why Van Norden cannot write at all.) By the time Van Norden expounds upon the limitations of all women, it is obvious he is not speaking either for the narrator of Cancer or for its author, as Millett claims. His "philosophy" is presented as the false gospel of a failure:
The thing is this—they all look alike. When you look at them with their clothes on you imagine all sorts of things; you give them an individuality like, which they haven't got, of course…. Listen, do you know what I did afterwards? I gave her a quick lay and then I turned my back on her. Yeah, I picked up a book and I read. You can get something out of a book, even a bad book … but a cunt, it's just sheer loss of time….
What follows this bit of wisdom is one of the most harrowing scenes in modern literature, an emblem of an age much like Chaplin's berserk assembly line in Modern Times. Van Norden has persuaded Miller that they should pick up a whore, and the artist/hero, once again the observer, watches "with a cool, scientific detachment":
As I watch Van Norden tackle her, it seems to me that I'm looking at a machine whose cogs have slipped. Left to themselves, they could go on this way forever, grinding and slipping, without ever anything happening. Until a hand shuts the motor off. The sight of them coupled like a pair of goats without the least spark of passion, grinding and grinding away for no reason except the fifteen francs, washes away every bit of feeling I have except the inhuman one of satisfying my curiosity. The girl is lying on the edge of the bed and Van Norden is bent over her like a satyr with his two feet solidly planted on the floor. I am sitting on a chair behind him, watching their movements with a cool, scientific detachment; it doesn't matter to me if it should last forever. It's like watching one of those crazy machines which throw newspaper out, millions and billions and trillions of them with their meaningless headlines…. As long as that spark of passion is missing there is no human significance in the performance. The machine is better to watch. And these two are like a machine which has slipped its cogs. It needs the touch of a human hand to set it right. It needs a mechanic.
For Miller, the "mechanic" is the artist, the person who can see the infinite variety of the cosmos, the endless intricacy of the human heart and mind—what a piece of work is man. After several more pages commenting on the great richness of Paris and his almost relentless desire to see, to know, to contemplate (à la Whitman), Miller concludes the section by showing just how far from Van Norden he is. If the world of Cancer is to be "drawn back again to the proper precincts of the human world," then it is artists like Matisse (and Miller himself) who will be instrumental in the process. Miller describes the effect of Matisse's work on his own sensibility (an effect that Van Norden and the other damaged figures in Cancer could not feel) in terms of light versus darkness, one of the most prevalent patterns of his writing. The light is a symbol of creative energy, and when it is present, the full range of imaginative possibility of the human mind is brought into play so that everything is seen as marvelous and fascinating. For Matisse, the world could never be boring.
The artist/hero enters the art gallery on the Rue de Sèze as if he were entering a genuinely new world. He has come from what he calls "the world of men and women whose last drop of juice has been squeezed out by the machine—the martyrs of modern progress." The transition from the cancerous world of Van Norden, Carl and the others to "a world so natural, so complete, that I am lost"—the world of Matisse's paintings—is literally staggering: "On the threshold of that big hall whose walls are now ablaze, I pause a moment to recover from the shock which one experiences when the habitual gray of the world is rent asunder and the color of life splashes forth in song and poem." Miller attempts to find verbal equivalents for Matisse's images, knowing that there is no real substitute for seeing the paintings, but trying to capture the spirit behind their creation in his writing. It is the attempt that is most significant, because by his own efforts here he is displaying the active response and total involvement that an artist hopes for but rarely receives from his "public." In doing this, Miller is trying to show that, like Matisse, he can also see a world alive with color and light; and he is also trying to indicate that his own real audience is composed of people who share his knowledge of and appreciation for what Matisse has accomplished. All of these ideas are a part of his strategy to separate himself momentarily from his existence amongst the damaged people he lives with in Cancer, the people to whom he can't "communicate even a fraction of" his feeling.For several paragraphs, Miller engages in what might be called an appreciative participation in Matisse's art: "Vividly now I recall how the glint and sparkle of light caroming from the massive chandeliers splintered and ran blood, flecking the tips of the waves that beat monotonously on the dull gold outside the windows. On the beach, masts and chimneys interlaced, and like a fuliginous shadow the figure of Albertine gliding through the surf, fusing into the mysterious quick and prism of a protoplasmic realm, uniting her shadow to the dream and harbinger of death." Beneath or beyond the paintings themselves, Miller sees the figure of Matisse, an emblem for the artist as one who is "capable of transforming the negative reality of life into the substantial and significant outlines of art." "He stands at the helm peering with steady blue eyes into the portfolio of time. Into what distant corners has he not thrown his long, slanting gaze?… He is a bright sage, a dancing seer who, with a sweep of the brush, removes the ugly scaffold to which the body of man is chained by the incontrovertible facts of life." The section concludes with several images of women in Matisse's work, women who are seen with an awe and wonder diametrically opposite from Van Norden's view. It is true that Miller is not writing with sympathy and understanding of one particular woman, but his evocation of Matisse is a part of a vision that is as exalting as Van Norden's is degrading. For the artist/hero, women are never interchangeable, they do not "all look alike":
But in Matisse, in the exploration of his brush, there is the trembling glitter of a world which demands only the presence of the female to crystallize the most fugitive aspirations…. I stumble upon the phantom odalisques of Matisse fastened to the trees, their tangled manes drenched with sap…. Even as the world falls apart the Paris that belongs to Matisse shudders with bright, gasping orgasms, the air itself is steady with a stagnant sperm, the trees tangled like hair….
What is missing from Cancer until the Dijon section, the next to last one, is even the most tentative suggestion that the artist/hero can operate anywhere between the tremendous extremes of the hell of "the incontrovertible facts of life" and the heaven of "the significant outlines of art." This may be seen as a weakness, but Cancer has been conceived of as a book of absolutes, and its lack of a subtle investigation of human relationships in the middle ground is a part of its character and design. I will reserve comment on Miller's failure to deal with these matters effectively until I examine those books of the triad, "The Formation …" in which they become the central subject. What is important here is to continue to investigate Miller's vision of the world of art as an antidote, or a redemptive force, to be employed against the nightmare of a machinelike people locked into a sterile land. The paean to Matisse is like many of the concluding passages to the separate sections of Cancer, a rhapsodic celebration of not only the life-giving powers of art, but also of what Charles Feidelson has called the "symbol-making intelligence" of the human consciousness. It is the ability to see with wonder the endless phenomena of the universe and the desire to try to find language to convey this feeling of "wonder" that marks Miller's sensibility here. It is his relish for naming things and for placing them in bizarre juxtapositions which create new and unusual harmonies that keeps Miller's artist/hero inviolate in the worst sectors of Cancer's awful blight.
It is in his passages of "impure poetry" that Miller comes closest to actually offering a "philosophy" of existence, and because his writing is much closer to the form of poetry than traditional philosophic discourse, to consider it in terms of philosophic strictures can only lead to misunderstanding and even condemnation. These passages are not logical arguments but attempts to create a mood in which some idea might be seen, or felt or understood. They work, if at all, by the strength and originality of their imagery, by the establishment of a certain ethos through the use of rhythm and structure and by their ability to generate a kindred emotion in the reader. They are, obviously, dependent on the willing participation of a reader with similar sympathies, and as such, their appeal is much more to the mystical than the rational. In other words, they have the very personal, singular and difficult to defend attributes of much contemporary poetry. The section (XIII) which precedes the Dijon trip offers some of this "poetry" at its best and worst.
Miller opens the "poem" with a statement of the conditions that led to its genesis:
And now it is three o'clock in the morning and we have a couple of trollops here who are doing somersaults on the bare floor. Fillmore is walking around naked with a goblet in his hand, and that paunch of his is drumtight, hard as a fistula. All the Pernod and champagne and cognac and Anjou which he guzzled from three in the afternoon on, is gurgling in his trap like a sewer. The girls are putting their ears to his belly as if it were a music box. Open his mouth with a buttonhook and drop a slug in the slot. When the sewer gurgles I hear the bats flying out of the belfry and the dream slides into artifice.
The time, the place, the company, the activity, all these are inducements to shut down the mind and turn up the skin/senses; but not for Miller. The artist/hero is seemingly inspired to mental intensity by just those things which encourage sensual abandon for most people, which is a partial explanation of his "philosophy"—a kind of emotional reasoning that parallels a heightened sensory indulgence; a progression by instinct and a building of the argument by repetition of related images in increasing intensity.
The subject of this "poem" is woman, and how she contains the mystery of life. Millett uses it to suggest that Miller is reducing women to sexual apparatus, Mailer to prove that Miller is a genius. I would suggest that it is an extraordinary series of images, a catalog of passionate responses like the lists of Rabelais, and in terms of "meaning," a tribute to a sort of Lawrentian life force and a prayer of appreciation for Blake's God of Energy as Eternal Delight. My temptation is to quote ten full pages of it, but instead, here are some selections of what I feel are the most effective "stanzas" with a few comments.
First, blending art, literature, archetype and inspired nonsense, Miller indicates his awe at woman as the living incarnation of some universal power:
I see again the great sprawling mothers of Picasso, their breasts covered with spiders, their legend hidden deep in the labyrinth. And Molly Bloom lying on a dirty mattress for eternity. On the toilet door red chalk cocks and the madonna uttering the diapason of woe. I hear a wild, hysterical laugh, a room full of lockjaw, and the body that was black glows like phosphorus. Wild, wild, utterly uncontrollable laughter, and that crack laughing at me too, laughing through the mossy whiskers, a laugh that creases the bright, polished surface of the billiard ball. Great whore and mother of man with gin in her veins. Mother of all harlots, spider rolling us in your logarithmic grave, insatiable one, fiend whose laughter rives me!
Then, like chaos swirling into shape, Miller narrows the focus and makes one mode, the mathematical, the controlling vessel in which to concentrate the rampage:
When I look down into that crack I see an equation sign, the world at balance, a world reduced to zero and no trace of remainder. Not the zero on which Van Norden turned his flashlight, not the empty crack of the prematurely disillusioned man, but an Arabian zero rather, the sign from which spring endless mathematical worlds, the fulcrum which balances the stars and the light dreams and the machines lighter than air and the lightweight limbs and the explosives that produced them.
One wishes that Miller had followed Pound on the principle of condensare, because the "poem" is surrounded by sentences of murky theorizing and awkward expostulation. At times, it lapses back into mere argument, and these tend to destroy the mood because, as Mailer pointed out, "his polemical essays read like sludge." But then the poem picks up again, extravagantly extending the image of woman still further:
The earth is not an arid plateau of health and comfort, but a great sprawling female with velvet torso that swells and heaves with ocean billows; she squirms beneath the diadem of sweat and anguish. Naked and sexed she rolls among the clouds in the violet light of the stars. All of her, from her generous breasts to her gleaming thighs, blazes with furious ardor. She moves amongst the seasons and the years with a grand whoopla that seizes the torso with paroxysmal fury, that shakes the cobwebs out of the sky; she subsides on her pivotal orbits with volcanic tremors.
This is a classic apostrophe to great Venus, the goddess of love, and it is very specifically from a male point of view. Perhaps Miller realized that it was a bit superficial, because the next "stanza" describes woman in her sorrow:
And then her sorrow widened, like the bow of a dreadnought and the weight of her sinking flooded my ears. Slime wash and sapphires slipping, sluicing through the gay neurons, and the spectrum spliced and the gunwales dipping. Soft as lion-pad I heard the gun carriages turn, saw them vomit and drool: the firmament sagged and all the stars turned black. Black ocean bleeding and the brooding stars breeding chunks of fresh-swollen flesh while overhead the birds wheeled and out of the hallucinated sky fell the balance with mortar and pestle and the bandaged eyes of justice.
Miller might have actually set this as a poem if he hadn't been bound by the typological barriers of typeset prose. Consider this arrangement:
And then her sorrow widened
like the bow of a dreadnought
and the weight of her sinking
flooded my ears
Slime wash and sapphires slipping
sluicing through the gay neurons
the spectrum spliced and the gunwales dipping
Soft as lion-pad
I heard the gun carriages turn
saw them vomit and drool:
the firmament sagged [and]
all the stars turned black
black ocean bleeding
and the brooding stars breeding
chunks of fresh-swollen flesh
Overhead the birds wheeled [and]
out of the hallucinated sky fell the
balance with mortar and pestle [and] the
bandaged eyes of justice
A few "ands" have been removed, but essentially, this is the "stanza" that Miller wrote. It reminds me of Hart Crane, particularly The Bridge, which was composed about the same time as Tropic of Cancer.
From page 228 through the middle of page 231, the "poem" hovers on a back burner while Miller delivers some more "argument," but then it concludes with some of his best and most powerful writing. Here, he is no longer talking about woman, but about an aspect of women's nature, and about its significance in the world for both men and women. The mood is regenerated by a rhapsody on rivers as the symbolic carriers of life—indeed, the water of life:
I want a world of men and women, of trees that do not talk (because there is too much talk in the world as it is!) of rivers that carry you to places, not rivers that are legends, but rivers that put you in touch with men and women, with architecture, religion, plants, animals—rivers that have boats on them and in which men drown, drown not in myth and legend and books and dust of the past, but in time and space and history. I want rivers that make oceans such as Shakespeare and Dante, rivers which do not dry up in the void of the past.
Then, Miller shifts from the specific, water, to one of its basic properties. Beginning with a generous nod to Joyce (an invocation to the muse?), Miller sings in his most powerful voice of a world at once awful and wondrous; a world in which the artist/hero can thrive and his art can prosper:
"I love everything that flows," said the great blind Milton of our times. I was thinking of him this morning when I awoke with a great bloody shout of joy: I was thinking of his rivers and trees and all that world of night which he is exploring. Yes, I said to myself, I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences. I love the amniotic fluid when it spills out of the bag. I love the kidney with its painful gallstones, its gravel and what-not; I love the urine that pours out scalding and the clap that runs endlessly; I love the words of hysterics and the sentences that flow on like dysentery and mirror all the sick images of the soul…. I love everything that flows, everything that has time in it and becoming, that brings us back to the beginning where there is never end: the violence of the prophets, the obscenity that is ecstasy, the wisdom of the fanatic, the priest with his rubber litany, the foul words of the whore, the spittle that floats away in the gutter, the milk of the breast and the bitter honey that pours from the womb, all that is fluid, melting, dissolute and dissolvent, all the pus and dirt that in flowing is purified, that loses its sense of origin, that makes the great circuit toward death and dissolution.
As Mailer says, "No, there is nothing like Henry Miller when he gets rolling."
Cancer concludes with two sections, one almost an interlude and the other as close to a summary of his faith as Miller gets. The interlude (IXV) involves the artist/hero taking a job at a lycée where he is supposed to teach French schoolboys the English language. The section is something of a practical demonstration of how one can actually work toward the realization of a community that has its roots in the life-flow Miller loves. It is set in Dijon, significantly outside Paris, and Miller uses the school as a model for the world he has just left. The dull, oafish, small-minded professors stand for the mind-numbing establishment wisdom which has led to a cultural catastrophe. The boys are still young enough to be saved, and Miller is a guide to and exemplar of an alternative life vision. He attempts to wake the boys up, to make them aware of the world and of themselves. "Here I was," he says, "the emissary of a corpse who, after he had plundered right and left, after he had caused untold suffering and misery, dreamed of universal peace":
What did they expect me to talk about, I wonder? About Leaves of Grass, about the tariff walls, about the Declaration of Independence, about the latest gang war? What? Just what, I'd like to know. Well, I'll tell you—I never mentioned these things. I started right off the bat with a lesson in the physiology of love. How the elephants make love—that was it! It caught like wildfire. After the first day there were no more empty benches. After that first lesson in English they were standing at the door waiting for me. We got along swell together. They asked all sorts of questions, as though they had never learned a damned thing. I let them fire away. I taught them to ask still more ticklish questions. Ask anything!—that was my motto. I'm here as a plenipotentiary from the realm of free spirits. I'm here to create a fever and a ferment.
Miller doesn't really save the boys, possibly because he is too busy trying to save himself. Since Dijon offers him no excitement, he must flee back to Paris to stay alive, but he has made his mark and other forays will follow.
On the last pages of Cancer, the artist/hero seems to step permanently away from the dying people and the doomed culture of the surreal city and into a landscape of gentle hills rising serenely above a great river. First, Miller helps poor Fillmore onto a boat headed back to England and then America. Fillmore has succumbed and is returning to his home a beaten man. In contrast, Miller has survived, and thus can feel at home anywhere. Although he feels sorry for Fillmore, he can't help noticing that his own strength has been proven in a dangerous combat zone that has produced many casualties. After the dark, depressing winter world in Dijon, "Paris had never looked so good to me," he says. With money meant for Fillmore's pregnant mistress divided in two shares so that he might have a reward for his good offices, the artist/hero calls for a cab and magnanimously tells the driver to go "anywhere…. Go through the Bois, go all around it—and take your time, I'm in no hurry." The cab cruises around Paris for awhile, and Miller eventually directs it toward the Seine. As he looks at the great river, he experiences a sense of peace that is unlike anything he had known anywhere in Cancer. For the first time, he has actually succeeded in transcending the terrors of the immediate present and is able to turn off the tremendous flow of energy that has been driving him. And in doing this, with his defensive network not acting as an impedance, the artist/hero is able to merge for a moment with a much greater energy flow—the river of light from the natural world. The moment may not last, but it augurs well for the future:
Christ, before my eyes there shimmered such a golden peace that only a neurotic could dream of turning his head away. So quietly flows the Seine that one hardly notices its presence. It is always there, quiet and unobtrusive, like a great artery running through the human body. In the wonderful peace that fell over me it seemed as if I had climbed to the top of a high mountain; for a little while I would be able to look around me, to take in the meaning of the landscape.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8369
SOURCE: "Critical Warfare and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer," in Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice, edited by Susan Sellers, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, pp. 23-43.
[Williams is an English educator and critic. In the following excerpt, she criticizes Kate Millett's influential attack on Henry Miller's misogyny as theoretically naive and ineffectual. Williams proposes a feminist reading which takes account of the sexual ambivalence implied by Miller's masochism and suggests that Miller embraced a desire for self-annihilation.]
Tropic of Cancer is Henry Miller's polemic of antihumanism. It is an attempt to write 'The last book', an affirmation of extremity in the forms of transgression, disease and violence. For the Miller of Tropic of Cancer life is war, with Paris as its theatre. Men and women fight each other on the sexual battlefield of its pages, with a violence which makes the impossibility of impartial reading explicit: if we read the book at all, it is hard not to take sides. Want, sexual warfare, and a lack of sentiment about humanity interconnect in the cravings of the selves which populate Tropic of Cancer, and Miller's exploration of the savage and exploitative battles or contracts between men and women has made him an obvious target for feminists. The novel's grim opening movement—'toward the prison of death. There is no escape'—is a kind of perverse comeon to those of us who would not be deemed faint-hearted readers. Thus Miller begins his attempt to show a world revealing itself 'for the mad slaughterhouse that it is', in which desire becomes ultimately the desire for annihilation, a nirvana in which the hero screams exultantly '"I am inhuman!"' It is a book which wants to be literally 'beastly', setting itself an extreme aesthetic agenda which aims to violate the coherence and the ethical priorities of the conscious self. Miller's universe is apocalyptic: 'The age demands violence', and sex prowls on the volcano's edge.
Much of the novel's reputation for offensiveness can be put down to the moral perspectives of the left and right at the time of its first attempted publication (its actual American publication was delayed until 1961); the judgments against sexual explicitness and language would not be so clearly made now, and Cancer retains little of the power to shock it held for the Judge who tried it for obscenity at a failed attempted publication in 1951: 'If this be importable literature, then the dignity of the human person and the stability of the family unit, which are the cornerstones of our systems of society, are lost to us' [Louis Goodman, 'District Judge of the US, Louis Goodman on the "Tropics,"' in Henry Miller Between Heaven and Hell, 1961]. To be deemed dangerous is, however, exactly the critical response Miller sought; in Tropic of Capricorn he wrote 'I look at people murderously', and his novels invite readers to look back with critical knives at the ready. In the first section of this essay I hope to show that Miller defines the terrain of sexual warfare on his own terms, terms which are not fully challenged by early feminist critique in its hostile engagements with him, before suggesting how other readings might combat this problem. Miller delights in outrage, but outrageousness is ever more difficult. Perhaps the only reader who would now not disappoint him in this is the feminist critic.
Feminist outrage at Henry Miller has characteristically engaged with him according to that familiar dialectic of shocking fiction countered by shocked critical response. This is not difficult. Tropic of Cancer tries very hard to be nasty, embracing in its frenzy of violation an ambitious range of objects. Miller promises us a novel which is 'a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will'. However, this anti-metaphysic is not pointed enough for Miller, and he proceeds to mark out more specifically the recipient of the text's outpourings, an implied reader who will submit to a readerly 'libel, slander and defamation of character' in receipt of the text. The ideal forms insulted above soon become pin-pointed as a 'you': 'I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse.' Who, then, is this 'you' which the novel invokes in order to trample on? Who is created as listener only to become a corpse?
It is to you, Tania, that I am singing.
The 'you' that croaks and is buried, and the 'you' that listens, is of course a woman. But she is woman as reader, as muse and inspiration, as Miller's necessary victim and—as a key inhabitant of the 'mad slaughterhouse'—the mediator of his desired annihilation. Through a deathly sexual communion which uses Tania, Miller touches 'his own' non-existence. She is the 'dirty corpse' but also the Tania who does not die, who returns and recurs as an obscure object of desire throughout the novel, one of the vilified recipients of Miller's heinous aphorisms. For whilst this Tania is the object of one of Miller's most notorious streams of violent intentions ('"I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out…. I shoot hot bolts into you…. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces"'), she is also something quite other. The tension between the violent 'intentions' of the 'I' which rants so purposefully here, and his desire for a Tania who offers him a 'chaotic' self-subversion, is a key area which I will explore. '"You, Tania, are my chaos"', Miller writes, in tandem with the key statement.
Chaos is the score upon which reality is written.
How, then, can feminist criticism respond to such an impossible network of identifications?
The link between sexuality and death in Miller connects explicitly with Freud's theory of the death drive. Miller admits in The World of Sex that he cannot write about one without calling upon the other:
Sex and death: I notice how frequently I couple them…. For the poet, the final ecstasy does not lead into the daylight of God, but into the nocturnal darkness of passion. Sometimes life itself takes over, writes its own poem of ecstasy, signed 'Death'.
Whilst the Romantic force of this eulogy to the erotics of annihilation is characteristic of Miller, the coupling of Eros and Thanatos is not of course unique. Miller's lack of originality is of little interest to me, however, what is more important is the way in which sexual violence, aggression and submission come together in his corpus, and the implications of this for feminism. My concern here is to show how that plexus in Tropic of Cancer can unlock and illustrate questions which still nag feminist criticism and theory; indeed, the poetics of sexuality and violence which Miller struggles to activate impinges on territory occupied not only by feminism, but also by psychoanalysis and military science. Miller offers a key articulation of the kind of desire made explicit in Freud's last topography, in which the sexual model of libido is subordinated to that of the death drive. What happens when feminism, late Freud and strategic theory come together in relation to Miller's Tropic of Cancer is the subject of this essay.
Men and women come together like broods of vultures over a stinking carcass, to mate and fly apart again…. A huge intestinal apparatus with a nose for dead meat. Forward! Forward without pity, without compassion, without love, without forgiveness. Ask no quarter and give none! More battleships, more poison gas, more high explosives! More gonococci! More streptococci! More bombing machines!
Henry Miller writes his way into the front line of the sex war, declaring that peace is only possible on the other side of conflict. If Tropic of Cancer as a whole is the war in which Miller tries 'fighting with ink' (to borrow his phrase about D. H. Lawrence), its sexual passages are the individual battles or bouts. As I will explore when I look at the disruptions in Miller's language, this inky battle is not fought to enshrine a sexist self in writing, but to fend off the 'self', ostensibly made coherent by grand narratives. Miller—for the hero of Tropic of Cancer is called 'Henry Miller'—goes to Paris like a war correspondent going straight to the front line; but he is not an innocent reporter. Paris invades him and makes him participate, intoxicating like a poison or addiction; he is a delirious but willing victim infiltrated by 'her' contagion or drug. Some of Miller's most passionate writing is reserved for Paris, which he is both inside of and, in reading her, 'other than'; she is a city which 'attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love'. But the city's importance lies in its openness to the conflicts which obsess Miller—it is his vision of a city which says Yes to everything, and as such it is both dubiously feminised and acts as an externalisation of the affirmative Freudian unconscious. At another point Paris is the maternal incubator of reality: 'Paris is the cradle of artificial births'. The whole novel is then enacted within the body of a voracious woman, for 'Paris is like a whore': 'From a distance she seems ravishing, you can't wait until you have her in your arms. And five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked.'
This five-minute fuck is elsewhere in the novel likened to an exhausted military operation:
It's like a state of war: the moment the condition is precipitated nobody thinks about anything but peace, about getting it over with. And yet nobody has the courage to lay down his arms, to say, 'I'm fed up with it…. I'm through.'
Sex between a prostitute and her client is like taking up arms, when both agree on a price and begin to fulfil the contract from positions of enmity. It is important to recognise the complex way in which Cancer's metaphorics of warfare work; the opposition is not simply that of hatred between men and women, who hardly engage on an emotional level but instead lock themselves into a pattern of opposition already historically marked out for them. In Cancer prostitutes are mercenaries, paid to 'fight', so that sex-as-contract is simultaneously sex-as-battle, and winning is getting one's money's worth or getting the contract fulfilled. The individual encounter between whore and customer thus becomes a microcosm of wider human relations for Miller; the whore's space, the woman herself, is the city scaled down and intensified. Miller is keen to emphasise that this particular state of war is not passionate or personally aggressive; both opponents are forced to engage not because of individual desire or human feeling but because of their conflicting roles. Whore and client are the foot soldiers of the sex war, whose own egoistic priorities are irrelevant. Whilst it is often said that Miller's women do not have their own identities and are seldom even named ('"Imagine that! Asking me if I loved her. I didn't even know her name. I never know their names"'), in Miller's world personal characteristics are ruthlessly subjected, either to the ecstatic experience of loss which I will explore later ('"Sometimes I get so lost in my reveries that I can't remember the name of the cunt or where I picked her up"'), or to the roles which history has ascribed men and women and which render them simply active servants of the war (in this sense Miller's men can be equally nameless, like '"that cute little prick who drives me bats about his rich cunt"').
In the whore's world the exchange of money becomes 'the primal cause of things' which opens hostilities, and thus three forms of exchange, of sex and bodies, of money, and of violence, are conflated: '"She's got her mind set on the fifteen francs and if I don't want to fight about it she's going to make me fight."' The sexual contract between prostitute and client signifies a declaration and acceptance of war, which silences any pacific voice of reason. They are locked in a tunnel-vision of the inevitability of conflict.
rather than listen to one's own voice, rather than walk out on the primal cause, one surrenders to the situation, one goes on butchering and butchering and the more cowardly one feels the more heroically does he behave, until a day when the bottom drops out and suddenly all the guns are silenced and the stretcher-bearers pick up the maimed and bleeding heroes and pin medals on their chest.
Whilst Miller's mind might be 'on the peace treaty all the time', he must nevertheless proceed in the knowledge that the armistice can only come when the battle is over.
Simply because of the explicitness with which Miller shows the violence of sex and gender relations in their unfeeling extremity, Tropic of Cancer is an important novel for feminist criticism. What happens between the whore and her customer makes Miller's attitude to war more explicit than his attitude to sex, even if it does both at the same time. Her bed is the theatre of war, and a space within which the public/private division explicitly breaks down; it is a microcosm of Paris as 'an artificial stage, a revolving stage that permits the spectator to glimpse all phases of the conflict'. Making love with a whore can be synonymous with waging war in a frenzy of territorialism against those who have come before. The man who fucks her 'fights like a thousand devils … to wipe out that regiment that has marched between her legs'. It is 'a fight in the dark, a fight single-handed against the army that rushed the gates, the army that walked over her, trampled her, that left her with such a devouring hunger that not even a Rudolph Valentino could appease.' Here again there is no question of love; it is an impersonal engagement which subordinates sexuality to the death drive, and Miller never even bothers to tell us who won. She is trampled but she also devours. And just as individual personality is immaterial to the conflict, there is never any question that 'pure' sexual desire—Freudian Eros, or libido in the form of a life instinct—has led to this.
In order to explore more fully this loveless engagement, I want to look at the way in which Miller's sexual writing can be seen as a literary encounter with the death drive. The callous tone of Cancer comes from its blithe disregard for the humanism of self-respect; bodily drives and the active role one fulfils, neither of which one necessarily chooses, are more important and determining. In his sadomasochistic world personal bodies are political in the sense that they are cannon-fodder in a conflict which they do not control and which subordinates personal identity to the exigencies of sexual warfare. What is important for a feminist reading of Miller is not, however, the position he occupies in relation to this struggle, but rather his obsession with it in the first place. A feminist understanding of the 'origins' of this war require, for me, a detour via Freud's late analysis of 'devouring hunger'. If there is any 'truth' in Miller's representation, it emerges from the way he brings together his disturbing vision of desire with a strong image of the exploitative manner in which men and women relate to each other. This is a representation which requires an equally complex feminist response—one which can incorporate not only the wealth of feminist work on the social and historical bases of hostile gender relations but which also makes use of the more controversial aspects of psychoanalytic theory. Encountering a disturbing vision of desire like Miller's, which embraces sadism, masochism and the desire to 'let go' of the self, requires a theory which disturbs any notion that libido is a healthy, humanistic life-instinct.
Miller articulates sexuality through the metaphorics of warfare because it allows him to bring together the violent and violating forms of sexual desire which are given a particular power within the historical framework which enlists men and women against each other. Existent conventional patterns of gender enmity are energised by and enter into a grim alliance with sadomasochistic violation. The materially fixed gender relations upon which Miller's sexual warfare is mapped is combined with a celebration of desire which violates or disregards the self, painfully and sadistically or, as I shall explore, ecstatically. These apparently separate forms of desire—first, to enter erotically into a painful scenario, and second, a desire which seeks nirvana as the 'zero-point' of self—are what Freud attempted to explain together, as two forms of the same drive, in the theory of the death drive, developed in his work during the First World War, introduced most fully in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), and then maintained as the basic structure of his theory of the instincts. What we have seen so far on Miller's battlefield is the first kind of desire—the sado-masochistic desire for pain, restraint or simply the battle for domination; what I shall explore next is the second kind of desire—the desire to abolish subjective unities and to enter the blissful extinction evoked by the nirvana principle. The death drive becomes the exemplary instinct for Freud; desire is the desire for non-self, a state of equilibrium, or, more radically, the desire to take the self back to its 'original' inorganic state of zero tension. Only this ultimate trajectory could explain to Freud the sexual expressions of sadism and masochism, as elaborate or warped forms of the desire to return. Despite its obvious importance in the analysis of the sexual power-relations with which feminism is concerned, the death drive has proved to be one of Freud's most controversial theories and has been largely ignored by feminists interested in psychoanalysis, except by those explicitly concerned with the taboo areas of feminine masochism and dangerous pleasures.
Bringing historical constructions and the form of desire explained by the death drive together in this way needs to be worked through more fully. Whilst feminism has used psychoanalysis productively, and has showed the political gaps at certain moments in the history of psychoanalysis, the discussion which occurs in later Freud of sadism, masochism and the transgression of egoistic boundaries has not been extensively linked to the needs of feminism. Tropic of Cancer requires this link to be made. Whilst any discussion of the violence of heterosexual sex is interesting to feminism, what is at stake in the literalisation of the sex war in Tropic of Cancer is more disturbing and less clear than has been acknowledged. Miller is exploring an at times confused conflation of the history of gender conflict and a form of desire closer to the death drive than to straightforwardly sexual models of libido.
Miller is clear, then, that sex is war when men and women come together—the fact that the woman is being paid only clarifies what exists for him implicitly in all cross-gender encounters. When Freud explores the warfare of sexuality, however, he does so via a series of discussions of sadism and masochism, forms of erotic violation which Miller enthusiastically indulges. Nevertheless it is not only, or even primarily, Miller's women who want to be violated. For instance Mona (the long-time love of several Miller novels) recognises that Miller's masochism matches her understanding of Strindberg's, who she reads voraciously, delighting in an image of masculine desire which meets her sadism:
I can see her looking up from her book after reading a delicious passage, and, with tears of laughter in her eyes, saying to me: 'You're just as mad as he was … you want to be punished!' What a delight that must be to the sadist when she discovers her own proper masochist! When she bites herself, as it were, to test the sharpness of her teeth. In those days, when I first knew her, she was saturated with Strindberg. That wild carnival of maggots which he revelled in, that eternal duel of the sexes, that spiderish ferocity which had endeared him to the sodden oafs of the northland, it was that which had brought us together.
The obvious point to be made about this is that it reverses the sado-masochistic model so familiar to our culture; it is more often Miller's men 'who cannot resist the desire to get into a cage with wild beasts and be mangled'. Here it is Mona, like the original Wanda in Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, who finds in Miller her masochist; she is the sadistic lover and reader. At another point in Cancer Miller's (male) friend Van Norden talks about sex in this curiously masochistic way:
'I get so goddamned mad at myself that I could kill myself … and in a way, that's what I do every time I have an orgasm. For one second like I obliterate myself. There's not even one me then … there's nothing … not even the cunt. It's like receiving communion.'
'But what is it you want of a woman, then?' I demand.
'… I want to be able to surrender myself to a woman,' he blurts out. 'I want her to take me out of myself. But to do that, she's got to be better than I am….
This takes up the idea of orgasm as a 'little death' but twists it in the service of an expression of masculine masochism, a male character's manifest desire to submit to an experience of absence, at the same time as his submission to a woman. Thus the point when Van Norden says in the middle of this discussion, '"There's something perverse about women … they're all masochists at heart"', has to be read as a moment of audacious self-irony. What is surely more important for feminism here is the way Miller finds himself—perhaps despite himself—asking his own version of Freud's famous question, which becomes 'What does the man want?' This is not at all obvious; the composite image of masculine desire formed across the whole of Tropic of Cancer is bizarrely diverse. Miller is exploring forms of masculine sexuality which incorporate the ostensibly feminine desire for submission, as well as a variety of experiences of self-loss towards which masochism can form a pathway.
This exploration is important for feminism because as a representation or fantasy of masculine sexuality it challenges what Jessica Benjamin [in The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination, 1990] calls the 'major tendency in feminism [to construct] the problem of domination as a drama of female vulnerability victimized by male aggression'. It is a 'tendency' in readings of misogynous literature which is exemplified by Kate Millett.
Miller's talent for irritating everyone does not fail him in his encounter with Kate Millett. She takes the bait and fights back venomously in her highly combative reading of Miller in Sexual Politics, which exemplifies an early moment of feminist criticism. Millett's work on Miller became a model for feminist readings of violently sexual 'masculine' writing. She fights back, but she fights on Miller's terms, and all too often reads like a repetition of Miller; her extensive quotes and enraged comments would hardly be destructive of a writer already so keen to offend. In Millett one senses that Miller found his perfect reader, one who offers back revitalised images of 'gender relations according to Miller' which have been freshly charged with the energy of feminism. Miller may have met his match, but the battle continued to rage on the terms he set up.
A more effective feminist strategy, for me, would be one which either rewrites the rules of 'conventional' hostile encounter—the strike and counter—strike which occurs in the open from clearly opposite sides—or a kind of critical guerrilla operation which uses the 'arms' of the text against it to show how the text capitulates and contradicts itself. The latter strategy is perhaps most appropriate to a text like Cancer which offers such a contradictory range of masculine images. Whilst these responses may seem bizarrely violent ways to read books, violence is already present in Miller's writing, and in a whole history of feminist critical responses to the literature of misogyny. Reading Miller is often a painful experience, and if we read through the lens of identification with a character of the female sex, we are put in the position of the nameless 'cunts' and whores Millett defends, when defence is unnecessary: Miller's women can surely look after them selves. What, then, would an effective strategy of engagement be? Miller revels in the voracious desire both to consume and to be violated which is taken to extremes in his representations of masculine and feminine sexuality. Crucial questions of identity are raised when the masculine 'I' of Tropic of Cancer repeatedly calls for his own sexually engineered non-existence. But what for Miller is a positive 'impersonality' for Kate Millett is a necessarily negative dehumanisation: 'The perfect Miller "fuck" is a biological event between organs, its hallmark—its utter impersonality.' Any desire to explore psychic and sexual splitting is in Millett's language 'a pathological fear of having to deal with another, and complete human personality.' Her priorities are integrative and holistic, prescribing the humanisation of erotica against Miller's 'cheap dream of endlessly fucking impersonal matter … a childish fantasy of power untroubled by the reality of persons or the complexity of dealing with fellow human beings'.
Thus the grotesqueness of Miller for some women readers, taken at face value, easily provokes engaged repulsion—Millett's combative response—if not a bizarre masochistic identification, which casts the text in the role of sadist who inflicts a painful experience on the reader. Miller's obsession with warfare, conflict and disease imagery (the enemy within) on a metaphoric and a narrative level, provokes Millett to set up his corpus as an enemy. But Miller fights dirty, inconsistently and apparently unsystematically, so that ascribing a motive or model to his attack is difficult. Disturbed by one who characterises himself as a murderous and 'roving cultural desperado' ('Blow it to hell! Kill, kill, kill!…' he writes in Capricorn), Millett is poked into indignant defensiveness.
What happens when someone marks out another as their enemy? Despite the pleas of some pacific women, feminism has had to affirm the act of taking sides and recognising the need for strategies. Kate Millett is right to deploy a criticism of conflict with reference to Miller, both because this is what Miller invites and because we often use a military lexicon when we discuss criticism (strategies, defences, engagements, etc.). But what is at stake in the notion of a feminist critical strategy? Feminism engages with the sex war on the page in its critical writing and in the academy, and it does so through deploying the language and tools of a number of military strategies. At its strongest, feminist literary criticism is not applied feminist theory, which would approach texts through a preordained perspective, practising secondarily what it theorises first. If we are to take terms like 'critical strategy' at all seriously, it is necessary to make critical militarism explicit. Both the practice of playing on the contradictions of a political force until it capitulates, and the practice of meeting the opposing force straight on in conventional terms, armed with a coherent strategy, are military operations. Attacking the text head-on with a critical strategy developed prior to a knowledge of that text produces responses which perhaps inadequately meet the 'enemy' threat since they lack a tactical understanding of its form. This conventional attack/defence approach is much less appropriate to reading than are the operations of guerrilla or 'people's war'. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, writing in his seminal 1832 text On War, characterises a 'people's army' as a diffuse, subversive and non-totalising force which overturns the balance of power not by 'cracking the nut' but, having ascertained the nature of the terrain of encounter and the form which the enemy force takes, by deploying a strategy based on the strength of dispersal, unpredictability and difference, not like a conventional 'platoon of soldiers … [who] cling together like a herd of cattle and generally follow their noses'. The flexibility of this approach is important, and it requires a knowledge of the other which is like reading, but reading as reconnaissance. Constructing one's enemy at his strongest point requires the space to imagine, listen to, and 'know' him, and precludes the existence of combative theories constructed prior to the event—theory is engendered in practice. Projecting thought beyond the enemy lines is a powerful exercise in reading. The success of a guerrilla war is described by Clausewitz in these terms: 'The flames will spread like a brush fire, until they reach the area on which the enemy is based, threatening his lines of communication and his very existence.'
If one has already set up a text as a threatening or aggressive force, this would surely be the desired result—a reading which sets the text on fire, and allows that fire to destroy the text as culturally important if it is not strong enough to survive the attack. At its most dextrous, feminist criticism listens to the other voices of writing, finding sources of power—points at which literature becomes something other than it seems—as well as showing how texts position themselves politically. Feminist criticism deals most effectively with violently misogynous writing when it opens up paradoxes where the text promises certainty, when it shows inconsistencies beneath a ruthless logic, and finds fault-lines in monoliths. There is something far more satisfying in showing how a piece of sexist writing trips over its own doubts and, in its ideological capacity, self-destructs, than in meeting that writing head-on with a pre-formed theory, often deploying the opponent's rules of engagement, and battling it out at the risk of losing. A more subversive strategy acts 'Like smouldering embers, it consumes the basic foundations of the enemy forces … a general conflagration closes in on the enemy'. A feminist reading of Miller is, then, more complex and more successful if it kindles the doubts already inherent in Cancer—a novel so obsessed with disease as an internal other, the cancer of its title—causing the text to burn itself out or capitulate to the gnawing enemy within.
When a feminist reads a writer like Henry Miller she engages in a kind of critical warfare. Oppositional feminism like Millett's holds Miller up as the exemplary fiction of misogyny, a fit enemy for feminist critique to pit itself against. Miller is 'offensive' to some feminists because he is seen to go on the offensive against women in his writing: he offers an example of Klaus Theweleit's dictum in Male Fantasies: 'the erotic woman is the terrain of warfare.' However, we need to distinguish between what happens when women such as Millett find Miller 'offensive', and the moral castigation of Miller's obscenity which underpinned the debate about whether he should be published, in order to avoid once more evoking that uneasy and paradoxical alliance of feminism and the Right which has occurred in recent debates on pornography. This is a question which has been opened up particularly strongly since the early 1980s, and two critical anthologies, the Barnard collection Pleasure and Danger and Snitow, Stansell and Thompson's Desire: The Politics of Sexuality contain especially important feminist work carried out recently on the question of dangerous pleasures, showing Millett's early position clearly in relief. The difference between Millett on Miller and, say, Alice Echols or Muriel Dimen on more recent anti-porn feminist positions represents a crucial historical move. Echols discusses feminism's emphasis on forms of 'politically-correct sex' which would prohibit not only pornography but sexual fantasy per se. Dimen succinctly writes: 'When the radical becomes correct, it becomes conservative', although whether this makes Miller's rampant incorrectness radical is another question.
The cultural feminisms Echols discusses would consign Miller to the censor's bonfire not only for his violence but also for his exploration of psychological aberration, and for his insistence on the politically difficult notion that sexual desire and conscious intent do not always work together: the danger of desire is that what I want is not necessarily good for me, and I might want it more if it isn't. The alternative propounded not only by Millett but more recently by writers such as Susan Griffin, Andrea Dworkin and Adrienne Rich is an idealised notion of 'loving and being loved by women in mutuality and integrity', a 'love' which is consciously ordained, simultaneously enforcing psychic coherence and prohibiting fantasy: '"Integrity", their answer to patriarchy's dangerous dualism, entails the transformation of all aspects of our lives into one seamless, unambiguous reflection of our politics. Such a view assumes that we can and should be held accountable for our desires.' Echols's question, 'How has it come to pass that some lesbians are in the forefront of a movement which has resurrected terms like "sexual deviance" and "perversion" …?' opens up an incisive discussion of the alliance between forms of lesbian cultural feminism and the New Right. But in pin-pointing the polemic against porn as also a fear of fantasy, she moves the debate one stage on: 'in advocating sexual repression as a solution to violence against women, cultural feminisms resort to mobilizing women around their fears rather than their visions.' Jessica Benjamin in her excellent volume The Bonds of Love, which uses late Freud in its analysis of sadism and masochism, puts it in this way: 'a theory or a politics that cannot cope with contradiction, that denies the irrational, that tries to sanitize the erotic, fantastic components of human life cannot visualise an authentic end to domination but only vacate the field.'
Benjamin's whole book is written with a Hegelian vision of 'an authentic end to domination' as its goal, taken through a thorough analysis of contradiction. Any approach to Miller which cannot cope with his insistence on irrational sex and dehumanised bodies, or which would sanitise his erotics, as conventional Miller criticism has done, into a transcendence of bodies and disease in a wholesome and integrative experience of self-liberation, is obviously a non-starter. However there is no straightforward reason why what Gore Vidal [in 'Women's liberation meets Miller-Mailer-Manson man', in Collected Essays 1952–1972, 1972] calls 'Miller's hydraulic approach to sex and his dogged use of four-letter words' should a priori be offensive to feminists. The problem is rather what misogynous machinery runs on Miller's hydraulic power. For Millett this is clear; her Miller is a 'brutalised adolescent' whose 'formula is rather simple': 'you meet her, cheat her into letting you have "a piece of ass", and then take off. Miller's hunt is a primitive find, fuck, and forget.' Miller is indeed a gift to Millett, since his insistence on sex as an inhuman and dissolute experience, and on women as cunts, acts as a perfect foil for Millett's plea for wholesome sexual relations, for women's right to integrated subjectivity. She eloquently develops her position as the negative of Miller's and D. H. Lawrence's misogynies:
Lawrence had turned back the feminist claims to human recognition and a fuller social participation by distorting them into a vegetative passivity calling itself fulfilment. His success prepared the way for Miller's escalation to open contempt. Lawrence had still to deal with persons; Miller already feels free to speak of objects. Miller simply converts woman to 'cunt'—thing, commodity, matter.
Henry Miller was notoriously sexist, and thus if one is interested only in producing a chamber of sexist horrors he is a soft if eager target. When Millett identifies Miller as enemy she unwittingly allows him to choose the weapons. Taking on his lexicon of warfare she fights his game rather than her own. But it is one thing for feminism to engage with misogyny on its terms, and quite another when feminism appropriates those terms as armaments—fighting with its terms. When Millett identifies with Miller's representations of femininity she prosecutes him for winning a sex war for which he has written the strategic rules of engagement. For Millett Miller is something of a case history: an example to diagnose, the articulation of the offensive position: 'Miller does have something highly important to tell us; his virulent sexism is beyond question an honest contribution to social and psychological understanding which we can hardly afford to ignore'. This is the nearest Millett gets to defeating Miller, using his corpus in service of the project of Sexual Politics. But this is also the point at which she ceases to read him; not only is the essay about to end, but here he becomes important only as a piece of pathological evidence. This leaves feminist criticism in a position of impasse which is hard to break. Once the terrain of engagement has been set up as either attack or defence, Millett's defensiveness means that in the end she ceases to read.
[In Self and Form in Modern Narrative, 1989] Vincent Pecora offers a clarification of critique which is less defensive than Millet's and thus offers a powerful purchase on the text: 'The objective of critique is then to read a specific narrative … as if it were the narrative a contradictory social order told to itself to make sense of its own inconsistencies.' I have said that the key 'experience' for Miller is the desire to escape into a nirvana space of inhumanity; he paradoxically wants his 'lines of communication' to be consumed and inflamed. But not, presumably, by feminist flames: the means of destruction has to be of his own choosing. My task is then to read Miller's desire for annihilation, which I shall now look at briefly, as a theory of his self-inconsistency, first as a possibility of anti-humanist and perhaps 'feminine' disruption, and secondly as possibly a means of closet-reintegration—the absurdity of a masculinity beyond death.
The man watching the clock was shackled and gagged; inside him were a thousand different beings tugging for release…. My only recourse—I no longer had a choice—was to lose my identity. In other words, flee from myself. [The World of Sex]
Millett has identified Miller's writing as murderous but its misogyny is not on any obvious level taken to the point of death—the male 'I' fucks an awful lot of women, but they are not fucked to death. On the other hand Miller's 'own' desire for annihilation, or the erasure of personal identity, is a form of ecstatic self-violation which Millett ignores. Whilst sex and violence might be inextricable, death in Miller is more likely to be an exultant male suicide than murder; 'vast relief' comes with violence to the self not to woman as other. What obsesses Miller is what has been characterised as a feminine state of openness, and an inability to identify with any conventional image of humanity. His 'I' wants to be not an 'I', in a novel which is about want.
What I am interested in is how Miller desires to lose in the sex war he fights. His desire becomes, despite itself, not the desire for victory over the enemy, but the desire for an experience of emptiness, the annihilation of restrictive economies, and an affirmation of a position which, according to the rules he is working with, is uncannily feminine; he is blamed for stripping women of their identities, but then reclaims this loss as his own in a struggle to lose himself. His concern is to plunge into a state of radical self-loss, an experience of 'letting go' which at one point he calls the Absolute. His openness to suffering is a craving for orgasmic negation, the emptiness of the 'spent', suffering as literally 'allowing'—being open to anything. The novel is written on the knife-edge of loss; on one side Miller wanders the streets in 'the splendour of those miserable days … a bewildered, poverty-stricken individual who haunted the streets like a ghost at a banquet', whilst on the other this loss turns inside out into an ecstatic experience of egolessness which comes close to the writing of jouissance. By risking feeling loss painfully, he gains access to its freedom and weightlessness, unencumbered by the spirit of gravity.
Millett discusses Miller's euphemistic use of 'spending', but prefers to concentrate on its contractual aspect rather than the fact that it affirms a state in which he is in possession of nothing, reaching out to a point as near as possible to his own non-existence. Miller has nothing, and nothing to lose: 'I am the one who was lost in the crowd.' This is indeed part of a longer project, picked up again in his essay 'My life as an echo': 'My ideal is to become thoroughly anonymous—a Mr What's-his-name … I am at my best when nobody knows me, nobody recognises me.' 'I' is, of course, still present here, paradoxically calling for its own extinction; it is a paradox incorporated into his statement 'I am inhuman', where the 'I' militates against its proclaimed inhumanity. Miller is primarily exploring desire as that which wants nothing, which is directed toward radical self-destruction. Nothing, therefore, is quite tangibly attractive: 'No appointments, no invitations for dinner, no program, no dough. The golden period, when I had not a single friend.' Austere as this may sound, this is no stoical sensual deprivation but Miller's road of excess, driving him towards his culminative affirmation of dehumanised sex.
In his famous essay 'The Brooklyn Bridge' Miller shows the characteristic mechanism of transgression which inverts an opposition—here emptiness and possession, or loss and gain—in an attempt to fracture that whole economy, gouging a gap into which he can jump, a point at which he is neither lost nor found: 'in the city I am aware of … the labyrinth. To be lost in a strange city is the greatest joy I know; to become oriented is to lose everything.' By throwing away one's egoistic compass one can find one's way to a labyrinth of 'joy' inaccessible to the psychically 'oriented'. The moment one recognises—boundaries, pathways, identities and landmarks—one 'loses everything'. At this point, Miller wants not to map out enemy territory so as to wage war more effectively, but to jump into its strangeness—'the city is crime personified, insanity personified'—so that sides are forgotten. The experience of poverty in a strange city is valuable in the way that it estranges self from self, and facilitates desire as loss of self:
It was only in moments of extreme anguish that I took to the bridge, when, as we say, it seemed that all was lost. Time and again all was lost, irrevocably so. The bridge was the harpy of death, the strange winged creature without an eye which held me suspended between two shores.
Suspended between two shores, he is unfixed and positioned over a flow rather than stasis—as he tells us in his eulogy to movement in Cancer, 'I love everything that flows.' But this is a repeated experience of all being lost, one which recurrently fulfils his anonymous ideal. Death never comes to the textual Miller as an absolute end; rather it is an interruption of identity which manages to return. This uncanny 'Time and again' sensation is what gives the self its discontinuity, and it is what gives Cancer its formal fragmentation. Here is perhaps another example of a male writer producing écriture féminine, for Cancer, like its central 'I', is discontinuous; it slips into repeated narrative deaths so that its identity as a 'whole' novel is problematic. It jumps across time with no warning, allowing half-notions to spread like a disease, expanding into streams of elements (Miller's famous raving lists). At the risk of turning Miller into a postmodernist, his surreal collage of disparate sexual landscapes can be understood as being engendered by an 'esthetic of interruption which structures contemporary consciousness' in the terms used by Sylvere Lotringer in Pure War.
it's the death of intimacy. All the reflection of these last years on an exploded, 'schizophrenic' model of subjectivity corresponds to the great esthetic of the collage. The ego is not continuous, it's made up of a series of little deaths and partial identities which don't come back together, or which only manage to come back together by paying the price of anxiety and repression.
Tropic of Cancer is a montage of bodies and cheap hotel rooms, of formal disruptions and narrative gaps partly created by Miller's aphoristic style (Lotringer again: 'It's … by interruptions that writing is worked on…. aphorisms … are interruptions of thought.') Formal disunity emphasises the 'I' as a possible source of coherence, but it is here that Miller would defy our need for an old-fashioned great narrative most, when the 'I' itself insists on slipping away, apparently at will. But then 'he' comes back, denying even the certainty of absolute disappearance.
Clearly, then, this 'blissful' experience is an important moment for Miller, but that does not make it in itself important for feminism. And what has become of his gendered vision? One simple answer is that the interruption of identity which Miller slips into in this reverie is, negatively speaking, a self-violation—a turn-about in the fortunes of war, when the 'I' transgresses the terms of gendered combat and turns upon himself—and, positively, a 'feminine' gap, both of which render a monolithic feminist critique problematic. Miller is one site upon which we can question the priorities of feminism when confronting what at first seems to be a straightforwardly misogynous text.
In his notes on D. H. Lawrence, written in his Paris Notebooks at the same time as he was writing Tropic of Cancer, Miller conflates his 'aesthetics of death' with sexual warfare:
[With t]he great sexual interpretation of all things … comes the silent admission…. that death can not be averted. It can only be glorified. It gets aestheticized. And men forget too, that in this final period which Lawrence represents woman must fight man desperately.
For Miller the desperate fight comes at the same moment as the aestheticisation of death; political conflict is part of the historical 'final period'—as the moment of Cancer's writing is apocalyptically identified—which is more important for Miller because it is also the moment at which loss or ecstasy is given an artistic rather than a religious or ethical importance. This is the key to what the 'I' says he is doing in writing 'The last book': the prioritisation of an ostensibly unlimited artistic self-overcoming over political battles: the 'complete release' which Clausewitz calls 'Going to extremes', and which can only come when the limits of political expediency are abandoned. This is what Virilio [in Pure War] terms 'an infernal tendency'
heading toward an extreme where no one will control anything. There, Clausewitz says something fundamental: 'Politics prevents complete release.' It's because war is political that there is not complete release. If war weren't political, this release would reach total destruction.
In attempting to abandon the political limits of social morality and, apparently, the imperatives of the reality principle, Miller-as-'writing machine' desires this extreme point of release.
What is at stake in the loss or interruption Miller defies is not simply subjective sensation, or the radical lack of it. This final moment of annihilation takes Miller to the space of writing, and at this point the moral response of certain feminisms comes into its most direct confrontation with Miller's aesthetic, for when he becomes 'a writing machine' he casts off everything except irresponsibility. 'The last book' is the death of him: 'I have simplified everything…. I am throwing away all my sous. What need have I for money? I am a writing machine. The last screw has been added. The thing flows. Between me and the machine there is no estrangement. I am the machine. Once the machine is turned on it is inhuman; the body it uses dies as a human being, the book it produces is written 'anonymously', and Tania, who has humanly invested in him, is destroyed too: 'She knows there is something germinating inside me which will destroy her.' So when Tropic of Cancer plays out its conflict between artistic production and personal ethics, it sets up an extreme agenda which separates inhuman artists from ethical humans:
Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones, the race of artists who, goaded by unknown impulses … turn … everything upside down, their feet always moving in blood and tears, their hands always empty, always clutching and grasping for the beyond, for the god out of reach: slaying everything within reach in order to quiet the monster that gnaws at their vitals.
The morality of personal relations which so concerns Millett is subordinated to the needs and desires of the writing machine. This is clearly a problem for a feminist criticism which in its political readings has been most concerned with ethical fair play. Tropic of Cancer is important to this discussion not because it actually is 'The last book', but because it keeps returning to the question of the amoral psychic and sexual conditions which would engender such a book. When feminism subordinates writing to morality the call for politically correct sex becomes a call for politically correct art. This is not a priority I am happy to echo.
At the end of a long and violent meditation on a girl's 'dark, unstitched wound' Miller has a vision of 'The story of art whose roots lie in massacre'. It is this image which Cancer celebrates. Whilst many feminisms have confronted and analysed massacre, the writing which violence produces cannot be understood through a blindly ethical perspective. To borrow again from Lotringer, Tropic of Cancer is a text written in 'the discourse of war': 'It's a whole politics of writing. It's not an organised discourse of war, even less a discourse on war, it's a discourse at war. Writing in a state of emergency.'
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741
Moore, Thomas H., ed. Bibliography of Henry Miller. Minneapolis, Minn.: Henry Miller Literary Society, 1961, 33 p.
Comprehensive primary and select secondary bibliography, with sections listing doctoral dissertations on Miller's works, recordings by Miller, and the locations of early first editions of his works.
Shifreen, Lawrence J. Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1979, 477 p.
Extensive secondary bibliography.
Brown, J. D. Henry Miller. New York: Ungar Publishing Co., 1986, 147 p.
Critical biography which includes three chapters on Miller's formative years in Paris when he wrote Tropic of Cancer.
Dearborn, Mary V. The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991, 368 p.
Contains several chapters focusing on Miller's life in Paris and his experience in writing Tropic of Cancer.
Ferguson, Robert, "1933–34: Tropic of Cancer and 'a Half-dozen Terrifying Words.'" In his Henry Miller: A Life, pp. 208-234. London: Hutchinson, 1991.
Offers a detailed account of Miller's life during the composition of Tropic of Cancer.
Martin, Jay. Always Bright and Merry: The Life of Henry Miller. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1978, 560 p.
An unauthorized biography that questions Miller's claim that such books as Tropic of Cancer are strictly autobiographical.
Tytell, John. "Henry and June and Anaïs." In his Passionate Lives: D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath—In Love, pp. 143-197. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1991.
Views Miller and his lovers as "Dionysian" romantics whose bohemian lifestyles inspired the orgiastic, visionary rhetoric of Tropic of Cancer and his other works.
Dick, Kenneth C. Henry Miller: Colossus of One. The Netherlands: Alberts-Sittard, 1967, 218 p.
Praises Miller's artistic achievements, particularly Tropic of Cancer, and offers a portrait of his relationships with Anaïs Nin and June Miller.
Gottesman, Ronald, ed. Critical Essays on Henry Miller. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992, 411 p.
Comprehensive critical anthology which includes essays on the genesis of Tropic of Cancer, the sexual dimensions of Miller's novel, and its relation to "Orphic" or visionary poetry.
Hutchison, E. R. "Tropic of Cancer" on Trial: A Case History of Censorship. New York: Grove Press, 1968, 300 p.
Offers a detailed account of the legal struggles in the early 1960s between Grove Press and the numerous censors who sought to ban Tropic of Cancer on grounds of obscenity.
Jackson, Paul R. "Caterwauling and Harmony: Music in Tropic of Cancer." Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction XX, No. 3 (1979): 40-50.
Discusses the metaphorical significance of musical references in Tropic of Cancer, asserting that Miller's howling, cacophonous lyricism forms a thematic counterpoint to the insipid popular and classical music which symbolize the effete, decadent sensibility of European culture.
Jong, Erica. "Crazy Cock in the Land of Fuck." In her The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller, pp. 81-118, New York: Random House, 1993.
Extensive analysis and appreciation of Tropic of Cancer.
Millett, Kate. "Henry Miller." In her Sexual Politics, pp. 294-313. New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1970.
Influential feminist analysis and attack on Tropic of Cancer which delineates the nature and extent of Miller's misogyny. See the excerpt reprinted in CLC-43.
Wickes, George, ed. Henry Miller and the Critics. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, 194 p.
Anthology of Miller criticism which includes such critics as Lawrence Durrell, Kenneth Rexroth, Harry Levin, and Kingsley Widmer. The book is divided into three periods covering Miller's life in Paris and America, and the publication history and reception of Tropic of Cancer in America.
Widmer, Kingsley, "The Apocalyptic Comedian." In his Henry Miller, pp. 17-40. New York: Twayne, 1963.
Critical analysis of Tropic of Cancer which views Miller as a comic nihilist whose rebellion against convention represents a critique and reversal of traditional values.
Woolf, Michael, "Beyond Ideology: Kate Millett and the Case for Henry Miller." In Perspectives on Pornography: Sexuality in Film and Literature, edited by Gary Day and Clive Bloom, pp. 113-128. London: MacMillan Press, 1988.
Argues that Kate Millett's feminist opposition to Miller in her Sexual Politics is contradicted by her embrace of sexual liberation in her novel Flying, which shares with Tropic of Cancer an understanding of sex as a means of escape from ideological and social constraints.
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