This section contains 8,481 words
(approx. 29 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by Alan Friedman
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.
This section contains 8,481 words
(approx. 29 pages at 300 words per page)