Tropic of Cancer | Critical Essay by Ihab Hassan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Tropic of Cancer.
This section contains 3,083 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Ihab Hassan

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.

George Orwell on Miller's Attitude Toward Politics:

I first met [Henry] Miller at the end of 1936, when I was passing through Paris on my way to Spain. What most intrigued me about him was to find that he felt no interest in the Spanish war whatever. He merely told me in forcible terms that to go to Spain at that moment was the act of an idiot. He could understand anyone going there from purely selfish motives, out of curiosity, for instance, but to mix oneself up in such things from a sense of obligation was sheer stupidity. In any case my ideas about combating Fascism, defending democracy, etc etc were all boloney. Our civilisation was destined to be swept away and replaced by something so different that we should scarcely regard it as human—a prospect that did not bother him, he said. And some such outlook is implicit throughout his work. Everywhere there is the sense of the approaching cataclysm, and almost everywhere the implied belief that it doesn't matter. The only political declaration which, so far as I know, he has ever made in print is a purely negative one. A year or so ago an American magazine, the Marxist Quarterly, sent out a questionnaire to various American writers asking them to define their attitude on the subject of war. Miller replied in terms of extreme pacifism, but a merely personal pacifism, an individual refusal to fight, with no apparent wish to convert others to the same opinion—practically, in fact, a declaration of irresponsibility.

George Orwell, in his An Age Like This, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.

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.

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This section contains 3,083 words
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Buy the Critical Essay by Ihab Hassan
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