Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer

Contemplating the fate of Henry Miller’s first published novel, Tropic of Cancer, I can’t help but be amused. It was available in France from 1934 onwards, but British and American readers, constrained by their nations’ obscenity laws, could only read it clandestinely, in underground reading circles. Until a 1964 Supreme Court decision officially declared the book “non-obscene,” it was sold in brown wrapping, labeled with a warning reminiscent of modern cigarette packages: “Not for sale in the United States.” At the trial itself, no less than 19 literary critics – in surely the crowning moment of their careers – were brought in to give depositions, testifying to the book’s literary value. A dissenting judge, Michael Musmanno, was unsparing: “It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.” Six years later, Miller’s autobiographical novel endured a different kind of puritanism, this time from the political left, when it was the focus of Kate Millet’s famous Sexual Politics, a highly influential feminist work that denounced Miller and his writing as misogynous, and has consigned Tropic of Cancer, in recent years, to a lower status than it perhaps deserves.

The book recounts Miller’s misadventures in Paris, beginning roughly one year after his arrival in 1930, with $10 in his pocket, and a wife and young daughter still in America. “I have no money, no resources, no hopes,” he tells us. “I am the happiest man alive.” What we’re reading, then, is his chronicle of that time, though he himself refuses to view it as a mere journal.

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 …

Amaïs Nin, Miller’s one-time lover and financial supporter, and the author of one of this volume’s two prefaces, likens this book to a blood transfusion, an injection of vitality into the deadening spirits of its readers. “This book brings with it a wind that blows down the dead and hollow trees whose roots are withered and lost in the barren soil of our times.” This is Miller as Walt Whitman, singing the body electric, thumbing his nose at society and its censors, at life as he is expected to live it. One page later, we get the first of what will be many graphic descriptions of sex – with prostitutes, with society women, with young women and married women:

O 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. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt. I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something, does he? He feels the remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider, I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards.

An entire generation of American writers fled for Paris in the ’20s and ’30s, but none wrote so candidly or graphically about sex. We don’t need to read very far to discern what incensed the feminists, for “cunt” is used both anatomically (“She had a German mouth, French ears, Russian ass. Cunt international”) and as a short-hand for a woman or all women, together with “twat.” Miller lays bare the most primal aspects of male sexuality, as Philip Roth would do by following in his footsteps, and this is an enterprise guaranteed to offend the sanctimonious, but those same critics failed to catch his equally explosive exposé of female sexuality: the prostitutes who turn tricks for profit rather than out of necessity; the married society women deceiving their husbands from the apartments of their paramours; the industrious social climber who fakes a pregnancy in an attempt to ensnare a wealthy American into marriage. In Miller’s world, there is no superior sex; we are all equally human, equally animal. “Men and women come together like broods of vultures over a stinking carcass, to mate and fly apart again,” he tells us. “Vultures who drop from the clouds like heavy stones. Talons and beak, that’s what we are! A huge intestinal apparatus with a nose for dead meat.” It is not an edifying vision, but then again, he did warn us: “This is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face…”

Miller comes to Paris not merely to escape America but to discover himself, and if that sounds like a cliché, it’s only because he and his generation made it one. “I don’t ask to go back to America, to be put in double harness again, to work the treadmill. No, I prefer to be a poor man of Europe. God knows, I am poor enough; it only remains to be a man.” But what does it mean to be a man, and why is that something to learn? Miller’s answer is Nietzsche’s and Freud’s and Spengler’s: that society cannot allow men to be free, that it demands conformity and obedience and passive acceptance, even instills these things as virtues: “If there were a man who dared to say all 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.” The world, as he sees it, is “pooped out,” and the men and women lifeless actors obeying an obsolete script:

When I see the figures of men and women moving listlessly behind their prison walls, sheltered, secluded for a few brief hours, I am appalled by the potentialities for drama that are still contained in these feeble bodies. Behind the gray walls are human sparks, and yet never a conflagration. Are these men and women, I ask myself, or are these shadows, shadows of puppets dangled by invisible strings?

Against this stultifying conformity, Miller seeks to raise the banner of the artist, the heretic who thumbs his nose at the sterile pieties, who asserts once more the forgotten power of the body. Small wonder, then, that it is Walt Whitman whom he most reveres:

He was the Poet of the Body and the Soul, Whitman. The first and the last poet. He is almost undecipherable today, a monument covered with rude hieroglyphs for which there is no key. It seems strange almost to mention his name over here. There is no equivalent in the languages of Europe for the spirit which he immortalized. Europe is saturated with art and her soil is full of dead bones and her museums are bursting with plundered treasures, but what Europe has never had is a free, healthy spirit, what you might call a MAN.

Goethe, he concludes, was an end to something; Whitman was a beginning.

It is inconceivable to us, in the present day, that a book would be banned for obscenity. We have obscenity at our fingertips, 24/7. And yet in many ways Miller’s art and insights are less palatable to us now than they were even in the 1930s. The life script of that era is gone, and the counter-culture long ago vanquished the mainstream culture of the early 20th century, and yet somehow we’ve found ourselves bound in a straitjacket, rehearsing new pieties with old devotion. We once again find ourselves in dire need of a life-giving transfusion of spirit, of an artist who sings the body electric.