Tropic of Cancer | Critical Essay by Stanley Kauffmann

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of Tropic of Cancer.
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Critical Essay by Stanley Kauffmann

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.

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This section contains 2,069 words
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