Abandoning Hope to Discover Life
Commemorating the 51st Anniversary of the Grove Press Edition of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, with a Special Tribute to Barney Rosset
A world without hope, but no despair. It’s as though I had been converted to a new religion. —Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
In the politically correct university town where I currently reside, each year both the town and campus libraries host a banned books exhibit. Yet I’ve never once seen any mention of Henry Miller or Tropic of Cancer in these displays, despite the fact that the 1964 Supreme Court decision to allow for its distribution represents the most important censorship case in modern publishing history. Since Miller is now viewed as misogynistic, however, the cause célèbre of Tropic of Cancer has been conveniently ignored in this and in many other “liberal” college communities.
To mark the fifty-first anniversary of the Grove Press publication of this modern masterpiece, I decided to reread the novel—for at least the fourth time—and to see if I could get not only at the core of the book but also at what so many readers find disturbing, obscene, and censorable about it. And, more importantly, I wanted to relish once again the music, the vitality, the eloquence, the unparalleled stylistic genius and love of language itself that weaves like a symphony through a landscape littered with icons of hopelessness, despair, ennui.
The leitmotif of the work may be that “the cancer of time is eating us away,” yet this theme, which runs like an open sewer throughout the text, exposing us to the slime and stink of human “civilization” at every turn, is counterbalanced by an even stranger one: that despite this—in fact, because of this—we must celebrate life and meet it with even more joy, ecstasy, and rapture. The way to kindle this rapturous, hallucinated, visionary state is through the senses: being open fully to the pleasure of the moment. To do so, we must annihilate the overly rational, vaporous dogmas and abstract notions of traditional wisdom and replace them with a sagacity that is at one with the knowledge of the body, which knows what it needs and directs us to it without hesitation, via impulse and desire.
Ultimately this is an Epicurean message, not only for its acknowledgement of the importance of pleasure but also because Miller realized that only when one abandons hope of anything beyond this immediate existence and accepts the extinction that death brings will we be able to truly live.
For those who remain blind to the miracle of life and to the wonder that confronts us at every turn, Tropic of Cancer must remain a most perplexing, irritating novel. Here is a man reduced to penury, living hand to mouth, surviving off the kindness of friends or thankless minimum-wage jobs that barely leave him with enough to eat; yet this fellow has not only the gall to celebrate life but to do so while he caricatures, critiques, lampoons, and vulgarizes everything and everyone around him. He respects no institutions, despises anything conventional, and spits on all forms of propriety. Worst of all, he views the vast social, institutional, and collective efforts of our nations and cultures as laughable, and he prophesizes they will lead nowhere and end in apocalypse, for the simple reason that the actions of most men are committed without purpose, meaning, or passion. Without wonder. And even beyond what must already seem like the ultimate cynical viewpoint, he sets the stakes a notch higher by asking if it isn’t the universe itself that may be out of kilter: that there may be something fundamentally wrong with creation itself.
Yet Tropic of Cancer certainly doesn’t read like a bleak tract of Sartrean existentialism. Neither a missive of hollow, wooden prose nor a linear, literal discourse of grim cynicism, Cancer is a live wire that burns in your hand and sets you afire. If you are open to it, you realize that a great literary torch is being passed along; if your mind is closed or offended by the author’s “bad words” and unpalatable notions, your hands are scorched by this unbridled flame.
One of the reasons Tropic of Cancer is a masterpiece is that, when Miller first composed it, he did so with little hope of it ever being published. Some of his initial and most vivid descriptions of Paris were first conceived in letters written to his Brooklyn pal, Emil Schnellock. However, as Miller’s editor George Wickes points out, often, these “were not letters in the ordinary sense but rough drafts of feature articles that Miller intended to revise for eventual publication in a book about Paris.” Besides being able to focus his voice upon an “audience of one” who would appreciate its distinct tone and phrasing, this notion of a helter-skelter guidebook with a surrealistic, Milleresque undertow—a form much less constricting than the traditional novel—also helped to liberate the author’s imaginative, lyrical prowess. In a passage from one such “rough draft” letter of April 1930, he writes:
I climb up instead of down to take the Metro, at Jean Juarès. Twilight hour, Indian blue, water of glass, trees glistening and liquescent. Juarès station itself gives me a kick. The rails fall away into the canal, the long caterpillar with sides lacquered in Chinese red dips like a roller coaster. It is not Paris, it is not Coney Island—it is crepuscular mélange of all the cities of Europe and Central America. Railroad yards spread out below me, the tracks looking black, webby, not ordered by engineers but cataclysmic in design, like those gaunt fissures in the Polar ice which the camera registers in degrees of black. I have gotten into the first-class compartment by mistake.
This is reworked, condensed, and crystallized, in Cancer, into:
Twilight hour. Indian blue, water of glass, trees glistening and liquescent. The rails fall away into the canal at Juarès. The long caterpillar with lacquered sides dips like a roller coaster. It is not Paris. It is not Coney Island. It is crepuscular mélange of all the cities of Europe and Central America. The railroad yards below me, the tracks black, webby, not ordered by the engineer but cataclysmic in design, like those gaunt fissures in the polar ice which the camera registers in degrees of black.
Composing only for himself and a small circle of friends, for the first time in his life he was able to create without reservation and without any preconceived idea of what a novel or work of literature should be. Unimpeded, the river flowed. But this also meant that he’d write without caring much about whether what he was saying might offend, alienate, or disturb the reader. Therefore, this is an honest book, and therein lies its power—and its power to provoke.
Two of Picasso’s most lucid aphorisms come to mind:
Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.
To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.
Tropic of Cancer fits quite neatly into these definitions of art as both provocation and eternally modern, because Cancer is made of the stuff that will never cease to piss people off.
On the surface, the protagonist—called “Henry Miller” but not the actual Henry Miller—is a hardened, often cold, calculating, ego-driven man, with almost no sentimentality, who looks out primarily for himself, and who never fails to reveal the most disquieting details about the person or situation in front of him. He wields an unerring Machiavellian insight, coupled with an eccentric yet penetrating psychological analysis that highlights a person’s flaws, neuroses, and limitations. A third Picasso aphorism serves to explain how Cancer transcends a merely cynical, dreary, nihilistic point of view:
You must always work not just within but below your means. If you can handle three elements, handle only two. If you can handle ten, then handle only five. In that way the ones you do handle, you handle with more ease, more mastery, and you can create a feeling of strength in reserve.
The “third element” that Miller held “in reserve” was his innate gentleness and tenderness, what might be called the gentleman in him. (As Anaïs Nin wrote in her journal: “Will anyone ever be as tender . . .”) For the astute reader, this quality shines forth in a variety of nearly inexplicable and subtle manners. For one thing, there’s the narrator’s ability to provoke a sense of transcendental awe as a result of his lush vocabulary and the way he reacts to certain events. Only a man propelled by a refined sensibility and a reverence for the exquisite mystery of existence could construct something as evocative as this:
A wagon from the Galeries Lafayette was rumbling over the bridge. The rain had stopped and the sun breaking through the soapy clouds touched the glistening rubble of roofs with a cold fire. I recall now how the driver leaned out and looked up the river toward Passy way. Such a healthy, simple, approving glance, as if he were saying to himself: “Ah, spring is coming!” And God knows, when spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise. But it was not only this—it was the intimacy with which his eye rested upon the scene. It was his Paris. A man does not need to be rich, nor even a citizen, to feel this way about Paris. Paris is filled with poor people—the proudest and filthiest lot of beggars that ever walked the earth, it seems to me. And yet they give the illusion of being at home. It is that which distinguishes the Parisian from all other metropolitan souls.
The day opens in milky whiteness, streaks of salmon-pink sky, snails leaving their shells. Paris. Paris. Everything happens here. Old, crumbling walls and the pleasant sound of water running in the urinals. Men licking their mustaches at the bar. Shutters going up with a bang and little streams purling in the gutters.
And regardless of the gangster-like façade he commits himself or his “protagonist” to in Cancer, Miller’s bark was always worse than his bite. In reminiscing about the author, the renowned First Amendment lawyer Stanley Fleishman once said: “He was a funny guy. Very gentle. I remember we were over at his house once. And we were talking about his kids, and our kids, and he was saying things like, ‘When Tony had to go doo-doo, or pee-pee . . .’ That was Henry Miller!”
This is just one example of what I mean by considering carefully how the fictional Miller and the actual Miller react to events. Of course, it might be argued that Fleishman was remembering an older, more mature Miller. Yet we have too the testimony of Samuel Putnam, who knew Miller from his earliest Parisian days and who published his first short story, “Mademoiselle Claude,” in the New Review. In Putnam’s memoir Paris Was Our Mistress, we learn that, in the early ’30s, before most of Miller’s companions were even aware that he aspired to being a writer, “To us he was a good drinking companion, a nice guy to run into at Jimmy’s or the Coupole or in those desolate shivering hours at the Dôme as we watched the dawn come creeping down the boulevard du Montparnasse to awaken M. Potin’s grocer boys across the way and send the ‘artists’ home to bed. We found him humorous, affable, generous, somewhat reserved with those who did not know him well, and with a certain timidity behind it all.”
Most significant of all, Putnam composed this warm and balanced homage even after Miller had utilized his memory of Putnam to fashion the ridiculous figure of Marlowe, a drunken magazine editor who is lampooned in the fourth chapter of Cancer. So, despite all this, something about Miller must have endeared him to his cronies. Although he attempts to mask his empathy and to promote a roguish fictional persona, Miller was usually held in high regard by his friends and was valued as a caring companion by many of the women in his life. A hardened, cynical, pathological narcissist would not have developed the kind of friendships, or elicited the everlasting devotion, that remain the hallmarks of his biography. Lawrence Durrell best exemplified this when he wrote Miller: “I think you know I love you more than any man I ever met.” In addition, in the years to come, he was deeply loved by each of his children and never deprived them of his attention, even when they burst into his studio and interrupted his writing.
Of course, there remains an unquestionable strain of narcissism running through Miller’s life and work: one that was likely imprinted upon him by his emotionally distant, self-centered mother, whom he portrays at various times as being either icy cold or raging and wrathful. Yet, while she was clearly a narcissist in the most pathological sense of the word, Miller is more accurately described merely by the adjective, narcissistic. And, as is well known among clinicians, there can be both an unhealthy and a healthy aspect to this psychic function. The dividing line is whether one is capable of extending empathy toward others, and this Miller was not only capable of but at times almost obsessed with, perhaps as a compensation for what he never received as a child.
One of the joys of Tropic of Cancer is the manner in which this seemingly ruthless individual cares about the downtrodden, forgotten dregs of humanity. He commemorates them in a series of portraits that extend throughout his oeuvre, and the impulse to do so goes all the way back to his early days as employment manager for Western Union, when he dreamed of writing a novel based on the “lost boys” who served as messengers for what he called the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company. Part of the bitterness and rage in Cancer stems from this sense of injustice suffered by the anonymous, unknown, silent souls who make the world go round and who never receive the credit or even the paychecks they so sorely deserve. (In Walt Whitman’s words: “the absentees, the forgotten: the shy nobodies who in the end are best of all.”) In a 1956 interview with Ben Grauer, he again touched on this theme:
It’s true, “the folks,” “the people,” are what supports us . . . the people who do the dirty work. Who are without name, without honor . . . It’s they who are doing the work of the world.
And in chapter seven of Cancer, he fondly recalls his Hindu messengers from New York:
Two of them were saints, if I know what a saint is; particularly Gupte who was found one morning with his throat cut from ear to ear. In a little boarding house in Greenwich Village he was found one morning stretched out stark naked on the bed, his flute beside him, and his throat gashed, as I say, from ear to ear. It was never discovered whether he had been murdered or whether he had committed suicide. But that’s neither here nor there.
This urge to, if not immortalize, then at least pay his respects to such men closely resembles that of another Brooklyn-born author, one who also held his profound empathy “in reserve.” In recalling the inspiration behind his first novel and its unforgettable drag queen, Georgette, Hubert Selby said: “I met someone from the old neighborhood and they said Georgie had been found dead in the street, evidently an O.D. He was only about twenty years old when he died . . . I guess I felt Georgie needed more than a death in the street. He needed a memorial . . . Thus, in a very real way, Georgie is responsible for the book Last Exit to Brooklyn.”
While briefly working as a language instructor at Dijon, in one of his early letters to Anaïs Nin, Miller wrote:
God, it is maddening to think that even one day must pass without writing. I shall never, never catch up. It is why, no doubt, I write with such vehemence, such distortion. It is despair . . . And with it grows a certain hard selfishness—or self-interest. I don’t know whether I am becoming a solipsist or a narcissist. Certainly, more and more the world revolves around me, in me.
When I reread this the other day, it struck a most discordant note. I realized that, like other children of narcissistic parents, Miller’s own needs were deferred; the authentic self had long remained under the shadow of a domineering mother who always expected nothing but conventionality from her son. And this line to Nin signaled to me that it was only when he arrived in Paris and escaped not only the narcissistic demands of his mother but also those of his second wife, June, that his own needs could finally be attended to.
This, more than anything, explains the self-centered, self-obsessed nature of the protagonist of Tropic of Cancer. And it also explains the kind of naïve surprise with which Miller frames this revelation of perhaps being egoistic. Deep in his guts, he felt an obligation to nurture his daemon, no matter how unpalatable this might appear to others. So, part of this unbolting of the floodgates involved allowing himself to serve himself, to feed his soul on the most profound psychic level, to tend to the self whose needs had been eclipsed for so long, and which is nourished in normal development in the early and adolescent years but which was not properly succored in that period of Miller’s life. Food of all kinds, exotic and mundane, and rhapsodies to hunger and to sustenance appear like fragments of an ancient opera in Tropic of Cancer. Yes, he was literally starved, but he was also emotionally starved and he needed to engorge, no matter how unsavory that appetite might appear to a well-heeled politically correct graduate student skimming over the novel fifty years later. Again, this is an honest book, and the world does not always appreciate honesty. As he would clarify in a letter to Nin a few months later: “Really, I can’t consider myself an egotist . . . No, I feel merely like a force which must express itself, at any cost.”
Norman Mailer thought he’d detected a whiff of this narcissistic pattern in Miller and tried to explore it in Genius and Lust, but lacking any real understanding of the clinical definition of the disorder and, more importantly, being a full-blown narcissist himself, he possessed no way of grasping or seeing with any clarity the extent of its implications for Miller. A bully who thought nothing of intimidating and physically attacking people with whom he disagreed, he was perhaps not the person best suited for this task.
Another reason Mailer may have been thrown off track is that, in popular usage, the term “narcissist” has been distorted to simply imply self-centeredness or self-aggrandizement: symptoms of the illness but certainly not the core of the problem. Instead of being based on love, the narcissist’s relationships are focused on gaining control over others. A thirst for power obliterates any possibility of empathy or tenderness. The pathological narcissist is interested only in abusing others for material or emotional gain. To the extent that he lacks empathy, to the same degree does he revel in disempowering, tormenting, and torturing others. When the need to torture increases to the point of fearlessly breaking serious laws in order to do so, we enter the realm of the sociopath: just a step beyond the narcissist in the spectrum of personality disorders.
Again, although Miller wasn’t a pathological narcissist, he was narcissistic in that he preferred to pursue romantic obsessions and infatuations rather than authentic love based on commonality and reality. He could state unequivocally “I don’t want the truth, I want illusion, mystery, intrigue” because only illusion fuels the drug of infatuation and promotes all its joys. But the modest love of spiritual union is grounded through truth, takes roots in reality, and blossoms only there.
Of course, infatuation can lead to love and even spark and ignite it. And what would life be without such delicious obsessions? Miller’s oeuvre is in many ways an epic poem celebrating an infatuation with every aspect of life—even with its “cancer” or, at least, with the acceptance of it. That he refused to complete the epic with a realistic or convincing portrayal of love, however, is what so many readers find unbearable and obscene. They may focus upon and object to his “dirty” words, but this is the real reason Miller alienates certain readers. And, as H. L. Mencken might say, this alienation becomes a moral condemnation. Rather than accepting the novel for what it is, and valuing the truth of its portrait, we feel compelled to render a moral judgment upon the work—and then upon its author. The reaction is typical since, as Mencken reminds us, “There has never been any question before the nation, whether political or economic, religious or military, diplomatic or sociological, which did not resolve itself, soon or late, into a purely moral question.”
One of the most effective tools against what Mencken calls the “dirty-mindedness of Puritanism” is humor. And one of the great powers that explodes like a minefield beneath the reader of Tropic of Cancer is Miller’s unparalleled wit. Again, at this stage of his career, since Miller had nothing to lose and only himself to please, he didn’t give a rat’s ass whether you’d be horrified, amused, or both. And, as is well known among the poor, humor is the one thing you cannot take away from a man who has been stripped of everything else. Humor is also the medium through which you will be reborn. Because Tropic of Cancer is nothing if not a renaissance document—a testament of naissance and a manual for how to effect it. Only if you are truly free of the manacles of propriety can you laugh so heartily—or even laugh at all—at the wit and wisdom of this diabolical tract.
Like any renaissance man worth his salt, Miller was also moved by the power of beauty in art. There is, entwined in the substrate of Cancer, a perennial root and vine that surfaces here and there: sometimes in no more than a passing reference, sometimes in an ode of a few sentences or paragraphs, sometimes as a keynote around which everything harmonizes and resounds into a major chord. I am speaking of Miller’s awareness of and respect for the antique Parisian Muses and his attempt to return something to them in the creation he titles Tropic of Cancer. The most significant image and form this embodies is his continual homage to what many regard as the “soul of Paris”: la Seine. Here are two such examples:
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 . . .
The sun is setting. I feel this river flowing through me—its past, its ancient soil, the changing climate. The hills gently girdle it about: its course is fixed.
For the moment I can think of nothing—except that I am a sentient being stabbed by the miracle of these waters that reflect a forgotten world. All along the banks the trees lean heavily over the tarnished mirror; when the wind rises and fills them with a rustling murmur they will shed a few tears and shiver as the water swirls by. I am suffocated by it. No one to whom I can communicate even a fraction of my feelings.
This hauntingly beautiful passage is just a paragraph away from the more vaudevillian and censorable one made famous by Lenny Bruce, who would read it to audiences as part of his comedic routine: the passage where Miller tells Tania, “I will make your ovaries incandescent” and “After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards.” One has the impression that the comic, like so many others, including the lusty American GIs who smuggled the book back from Paris and made it a cause célèbre, never bothered to carefully read the adjacent paragraph. And, if they had, one wonders who among them would have understood or appreciated it, regardless of the fact that it contains the real message of Tropic of Cancer.
And, in a nod to the splendors of the antique Mediterranean world, we have this eulogy to the nameless veilleur de nuit (night watchman) at the lycée in Dijon: Miller informs us that he “is the only human being in the whole institution with whom I feel a kinship. He is a nobody.” Yet something about him, particularly the way he imbibes his bottle of wine, fascinates the author: “To me it’s like he’s pouring rubies down his gullet. Something about this gesture which seizes me by the hair. It’s almost as if he were drinking down the dregs of human sympathy.” Then, two pages later, comes a proclamation that completely distinguishes Miller from the typical American writer:
The whole Mediterranean seemed to be buried inside him—the orange groves, the cypress trees, the winged statues, the wooden temples, the blue sea, the stiff masks, the mystic numbers, the mythological birds, the sapphire skies, the eaglets, the sunny coves, the blind bards, the bearded heroes.
It’s of note that although Cancer takes place almost entirely within the crucible of Paris, the two main adventures that occur outside the city happen not only within the vicinity of the Seine but at its culmination, at la Havre, and near its source at Saint-Seine, which is close to Dijon. Thus, the chronicle is framed between the beginning, middle, and end of this historic, mythic, and majestic river.
In August 1932 the manuscript was shown to book agent William Bradley, along with Miller’s more traditional novel, Crazy Cock. Yet when Bradley offered to represent Cancer and send it to the publisher Jack Kahane, Miller made little of the gesture and instead tried to convince him to take on the far-inferior Crazy Cock.
Biographer Jay Martin regards this “curious” reaction as a “backpedaling loss of confidence exactly at the moment of his triumph.” Was Miller’s hesitation due to a sudden realization that, if it were published, the unwavering provocations in the text would open him to a variety of attacks for which he was not yet prepared? A more likely explanation is that, to the end, there remained something in him that refused to take seriously the prospect of its success, and those very doubts had allowed Miller to hold nothing back in the actual writing of it.* (And in fact, it wasn’t until Anaïs Nin subsequently helped to whittle it down to its present form that its success would become inevitable.) In April 1932 he had even asked Nin: “Are you sure I am not crazy? I mean, is all this personal narration justifiable? . . . I begin to think even you will balk. But I have said to myself ‘there must be no limits.’ I must be the one person in the world to risk everything, tell everything.” And as late as July 18, just a few weeks before Bradley agreed to represent the book, he added: “Yes, I am going completely nuts these days, not knowing whether I have failed again or not, but feeling as I wrote certain passages that they were fine, splendid, the best I ever wrote, only nobody will take the pains to read them.” Put another way, Miller’s hyperconscious approach to Crazy Cock—agonizing over it for years in the attempt to create a saleable novel—had yielded nothing of value, while the playful, intuitive approach to Cancer’s creation yielded a success that surprised even Miller, since it was the product not merely of his conscious efforts but also of an instinctive urge to give free rein to his unconscious psyche.
Perhaps as a result of holding nothing back, Cancer remains more didactic than his other novels, in that he returns time and again to an overt message of hopelessness and destruction in the narrative (due to the influence of Spengler’s Decline of the West), even though it’s the dramatized, humorous, and vaudevillian scenes that remain more firmly planted in the reader’s memory. Yet, despite the directness of their message, these passages represent some of the most lyrical ones in the book (and I use the word didactic simply to describe their nature and purpose and not to imply any shortcoming):
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 now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that would wound and sear, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defenses left are his words and his words are always stronger than the lying, crushing weight of the world, stronger than all the racks and wheels which the cowardly invent to crush out the miracle of personality. If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what is really his experience, what is truly the 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, the atoms, the indestructible elements that have gone to make up the world.
Once Cancer was published in Paris and a small but significant readership began to respond, the novelistic character of “Henry Miller” began to shift a bit closer to the man Henry Miller in one subtle way. As someone once said in comparing Miller and Céline, the difference between them was that Miller wanted to be liked, while Céline went out of his way not to be liked. (In the single correspondence that he allotted him, Céline warned Miller: “Learn how to be wrong—the world is full of people who are right—that’s why it is so revolting.”) In the major novels that followed Cancer, even when Miller portrays himself at his “worst,” there is a cunning sleight of hand that warms the reader up to the protagonist and shows him in a redeeming light sooner or later; or that evokes our pity or concern; or that encourages us to forgive him simply because he’s so witty, so bright, so naïve, so human. To put it in the context of our earlier discussion: we’re reminded of the narcissist’s need to be liked, while the sociopath doesn’t care whether you like him or not. Miller was deeply wounded by his mother’s callous denial of love and spoke of it repeatedly throughout his life and work, and, like anyone suffering under such circumstances, he tried to replace this basic emotional sustenance with attention and approval from others.
In the superb documentary Henry Miller Asleep and Awake, Miller points to a German poster advertising the cinematic adaptation of Tropic of Cancer and translates the caption: “Without love, we’re nothing.” Then, with a laugh and a sparkle in his eye, he adds: “But of course, the Tropic of Cancer wasn’t very much about love!” Yet, one could argue that this is one of the marvelous things about it. For here is a character who lives not only without proper employment, or regular meals, or the propriety and respect that one is expected to accord social and cultural institutions, but he also lives without what we’d normally define as romantic love. In its place are obsessions, infatuations, and what we might call a love of the universe itself: an openness to and continual embrace of the Epicurean sense of cosmic awe, carefully balanced by an unceasing acknowledgment of the horror and futility of life as it’s ordinarily lived. Yet the author has conceived of a protagonist who not only finds peace; he prospers and flowers as few men do. And for this to happen, we suspect that the author himself, although perhaps not identical with his creation, shares this essential aspect of it.
In his book The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt describes how
Christian polemicists had to find a way to turn the current of mockery against Epicurus and his followers. Ridiculing the pagan pantheon did not work in this case, since Epicureanism eloquently dismantled the whole sacrificial worship of the gods and dismissed the ancient stories. What had to be done was to refashion the account of the founder Epicurus so that he appeared no longer as an apostle of moderation in the service of reasonable pleasure but instead as a Falstaffian figure of riotous excess. He was a fool, a pig, a madman. And his principle Roman disciple, Lucretius, had to be comparably made over.
I see an identical strategy at work in besmirching modern Epicureans such as Henry Miller and one that ran a similar course against his predecessor, Walt Whitman. Like Epicurus and Lucretius, they were each accused of exactly the same thing. Thus, it comes as no surprise that critics continue to attack the author of Tropic of Cancer with as much vehemence as they excoriate its hero.
Toward the end of his life, Miller confessed to his housekeeper Twinka Thiebaud: “Looking back, I realize that my loves were, in actuality, obsessions,” and added: “I don’t want the truth, I want illusion, mystery, intrigue. That is why women have been able to take advantage of me so often.” When I read this, I see evidence of the wound he suffered at the hands of his mother, Louise Marie Neiting, and how it bit into him like a slowly burning acid all his life. And when I see him proclaiming to Twinka, “Love is the be-all, end-all, and cure-all,” I harbor lasting doubts about whether Miller, even at eighty-eight, really knew what love was. I see this limitation reflected in his work, yet I also see that, despite this, he created not one but several masterpieces to the human spirit. Like a tree trunk forced to grow round an obstacle blocking its path, Miller grew round this impediment and was simultaneously shaped by it.
This lack of authentic love in his novels is certainly linked to the accusation of misogyny. Yet rather than simply a case of misogyny, I see in Cancer a man who thumbs his nose at men and women alike, who has decided for once in his life to enjoy himself even if it means being a bit selfish and callous; I see a character who is living on so few material resources that he cannot always afford to be honest, caring, or sincere; and I see a fellow who is desperately trying to understand himself and define himself, one who is ever aware of a fecund creative power surging within but who has not learned everything about how to channel it or where to direct it, or what forces to train upon it, or how to balance it with the merely human and profane needs that comprise quotidian life. I see a silhouette bobbing along the quai de la Seine, admiring each gleaming cobblestone while the dismal clouds of hatred, violence, war, and chaos swell ever larger over the Continent. And this man is also aware of the coming catastrophe and weaves that too into his prose:
If you want bread you’ve got to get in harness, get in lock step. Over the earth a gray desert, a carpet of steel and cement. Production! More nuts and bolts, more barbed wire, more dog biscuits, more lawn mowers, more ball bearings, more high explosives, more tanks, more poison gas, more soap, more toothpaste, more newspapers, more education, more churches, more libraries, more museums. Forward!
And I see an American who was even more horrified by the acultural life that drove him into deep anguish in New York, and now this same soul is reborn and he walks electrified, surrounded by a mystery and beauty he can hardly find words for, but find them he does, and with these words—admittedly, “dictated” to him by an inner voice that wells up from a completely transpersonal source—he succeeds in handing back to the Parisian Muses what they have been giving him all along.
A word as loaded as misogyny has come to have all sorts of subjective and unintended meanings. And it’s casually tossed about, just as the word witch or communist was tossed about in earlier epochs. If misogynist means someone who uses the word cunt to describe part of a woman’s anatomy, then Miller is guilty, and if you need to crucify him so be it. But if, as Merriam-Webster defines it, it means someone who hates women, then he is not guilty, because no matter how the protagonist of Cancer behaves toward others it’s never with actual hatred, and the same can be said, with even greater emphasis, for Miller himself.
Instead, I would argue that the key figure of this novel has one goal, and that is to make fun of everyone and everything he encounters, including himself, and in so doing create not only a new world but also a new self. Tropic of Cancer caricatures everything, analyzes and dissects everything, bemoans of everything and rejoices in everything. Whether one agrees with this treatment or with the conclusions drawn by its fictional hero, it remains one of the great books. Therefore, I have no ultimate interest in explaining, excusing, forgiving, or condemning the morality of the author or his protagonist. But I do wish to commend both: for what they are and for what they accomplished.
And I would offer a final proviso: that we’d be better served when appreciating literature if we took heed of the words of a critic who was an early supporter of Miller’s work, calling it “one of the most beautiful prose styles today.” Almost a hundred years ago, in his essay “Puritanism as a Literary Force,” H. L. Mencken warned:
the prevailing American view of the world and its mysteries is still a moral one, and no other human concern gets half the attention that is endlessly lavished upon the problem of conduct, particularly of the other fellow . . . The American, save in moments of conscious and swiftly lamented deviltry, casts up all ponderable values, including even the values of beauty, in terms of right and wrong. He is beyond all things else, a judge and a policeman; he believes firmly that there is a mysterious power in law; he supports and embellishes its operation with a fanatical vigilance.
Even more to the point, he goes on to say: “the American, try as he will, can never imagine a work of the imagination as wholly devoid of moral content. It must either tend toward the promotion of virtue, or be suspect and abominable.” It’s also in this essay, published in book form in 1917, that Mencken coins the terms “the new Puritanism” and “neo-Puritanism,” phrases that are often bandied about today, and he concludes:
Any questioning of the moral ideas that prevail—the principal business, it must be plain, of the novelist, the serious dramatist, the professed inquirer into human motives and acts—is received with the utmost hostility. To attempt such an enterprise is to disturb the peace—and the disturber of the peace, in the national view, quickly passes over into the downright criminal.
In other words, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Even if it involves as unsympathetic a person as Céline, we must judge the work itself primarily on its own merit. The witch hunt that has commenced to either accept or condemn the labors of each artist based on whether he fits into our current notion of what is politically correct is, at heart, no different from the puritanical hypocrisy that has always assailed the so-called land of the free. As Mencken says, in America, eventually every question turns into a moral question. Miller’s key contribution is that he revealed what it was like to be a particular man, an American, floating like a cork through the human wasteland of the underclass of Paris in the early 1930s. He didn’t lie about the thoughts and fantasies that went through his mind and body; instead, he unveiled them, and, as Whitman did in the previous century, he celebrated them.
In his Preface to Tropic of Cancer—signed by Anaïs Nin but obviously composed by Miller himself—he calls it a “naked book” (a remark that bears a prophetic resonance to the title of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch). There, you may be sure, he wasn’t stretching the truth. He unabashedly exposes himself and demands—if you are to be as honest a reader as he is a writer—that you do the same, even if it causes quite a bit of discomfit.
In a country where, in general, it’s all right for a woman to call a man a prick but an abomination for a man to call a woman a cunt, this has created a bit of a ticklish problem for old Henry. And when every thirteen-year-old hipster considers herself a “Goddess,” what dear me are we to do about an author who uses the vagina as a symbol and metaphor with which to promulgate various disturbing images from The Decline of the West? In Tropic of Cancer the cunt is a crack through which the meaningless pursuits of modern “progress” are seen as null and void; the cunt is the acme and nadir of emptiness and ennui; the cunt is as “fucked out” and as “pooped out” as the universe itself. And on the microcosmic level, the cunt, in the character Van Norden’s words, doesn’t even contain a harmonica or a calendar: there’s nothing inside, nothing that would redeem us, and he knows because he’s carefully trained a flashlight upon its barren walls. Worse still, Fillmore (such a fitting name since his cock is gargantuan!) is so cunt struck that he’s nearly plunged into the abyss of a loveless marriage ruled over by a vicious, conniving, thieving cunt, and he only escapes by the cunt hairs thanks to “Henry,” who sees right through this cunty illusion and ships him off to bloody England. The cunt is a trapdoor through which we may fall thanks to syphilis and gonorrhea, and every Métro station warns of this by plastering the walls with the sign of Cancer, the crab: its claws outstretched like two chancre-ridden grasping cunt lips. Yet, this only raises the stakes because if you brave the dangers the rewards seem that much sweeter, and thus we have that mighty blast of sperm-ridden ecstasy that heralds the coming of a new literature in Cancer’s opening pages, when Miller pays homage to the emotionally unfettered joys of ejaculatory male sex by proclaiming he will ream out every wrinkle in Tanya’s twat, set her ovaries ablaze, and yank “toads, bats, lizards” from her butt hole.
This, more than anything, is what gets people steamed about Miller. Too much cunt. And without the reverence, without the wrappings with which we’re supposed to deliver it. In his own words, looking back: “Tropic of Cancer wasn’t very much about love!”
* * *
In one of those strange twists of personal fate, in the moments after I completed this tribute to a man and a book I love, I learned of the passing away of Barney Rosset, who was also one of the great men of our time and one whom I deeply admired. In the words of Miller-biographer Frederick Turner: “Even in 1961, the year of its American publication, [Tropic of Cancer] still looked amazingly avant-garde, enough so that its appearance through Barney Rosset’s Grove Press was a cultural sensation felt far beyond the realm of arts and letters. It was in truth one of the first major shots fired in what were to become the cultural wars of that remarkable decade.”
If Barney hadn’t made the decision to balls up and publish Cancer, and if he hadn’t doggedly persisted in convincing Miller of the need to do so—cutting through every one of the author’s fears and hesitations about finally publishing the book in a potentially hostile Cold-War America—our lives would have been substantially different.* Not only because of Tropic of Cancer but also because many of the gems that followed it, such as Naked Lunch, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and the works of the Marquis de Sade, would have remained hidden away from our collective consciousness for who knows how long. After Cancer anything seemed possible, and the publishing world was indeed forever altered.
“Everything is possible”—the battle cry of the 1960s counterculture—may have seen its truest expression in the list of titles that Barney courageously brought forth. Many of those in my generation, who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, grew up studying these works as if they were Holy Scripture. We fashioned our style after them, expanded our vocabulary through them, molded our ideas upon them. Even more important than having long hair or wearing blue jeans, if you encountered a stranger with one of these titles tucked under his arm it was something akin to the ancient Gnostics, under the Roman Empire, who recognized each other by drawing the sign of the fish on the arid desert sand. Conversations commenced, relationships formed or dissolved, friendships expanded or deflated based upon how you reacted to characters such as Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch, Vanessa in Tropic of Capricorn, or Harry in Requiem for a Dream. Behind it all was the éminence grise of Barney Rosset, polluting our minds with such wonderful “filth and smut” and turning us all into “angelheaded hipsters.”
In Tropic of Cancer, in one of his hyperbolic invectives against the air-conditioned nightmare, Miller writes: “America is the very incarnation of doom. She will drag the whole world down to the bottomless pit.” So true. And truer now, perhaps, than ever. Yet, as the ultimate counterpoint to such unredeeming malefic forces, we have the likes of Barney Rosset, who lives on in so many ways but especially as an example of how one real man—“who would turn the world upside down”—makes a difference.
* “In writing it . . . I had almost no hope of its ever being accepted by a publisher. It was something I had to do in order to preserve my own integrity. It was a case of do or die. Certainly the last thing I ever dreamed of was that it would one day be published in my own country.” Henry Miller, letter to Stanley Fleishman from December 26, 1962, as quoted by Edward de Grazia, Girls Lean Back Everywhere. The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius, New York: Random House, 1992, p. 367.
* I once asked Barney if he felt that Miller had appreciated the enormous personal sacrifice that Rosset underwent: selling his beachfront properties, worth millions of dollars, to finance the trials of Tropic of Cancer. With a straight face and a tone of utmost sincerity he replied, “Oh, yes. He was very nice to us. He even gave me some of his watercolors”!
Rob Couteau is the author of the novel Doctor Pluss, the anthology Collected Couteau, the memoir Letters from Paris, and the poetry collection The Sleeping Mermaid. In 1985 he won the North American Essay Award, a competition open to North American writers and sponsored by the American Humanist Association. His work as a critic, interviewer, and social commentator is featured in books such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, by Thomas Fahy, Conversations with Ray Bradbury, ed. Steven Aggelis, and David Cohen’s Forgotten Millions, a book about the homeless mentally ill. His writing has appeared in over thirty-five literary publications.