This section contains 7,899 words
(approx. 27 pages at 300 words per page)
William A. Gordon
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.
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