I love bad boys/girls. Not just flawed, but “are you freaking kidding me?” flawed. No amount of therapy can unravel that tangled web of crazy. Therefore, my infatuation with film and literature’s anti/tragic hero should come as no surprise. Lock me in a room with Michael Corleone, Hester Pryne, Edna Pointellier, Hamlet, Eve Batiste, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., William Munny and Ellison’s “I Am”, and I’d be in heaven. Okay, maybe hell, but, even so, throw away the goddamn key. Not only are these protagonists fun and defiant, but they have staying power. You can’t shake them if you try. Then there are those characters who you want to shake the hell out of, quite literally. For me, that would be every male character in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Oh, and Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, but I’ll save that for a later post.
Published in Paris in 1934, but banned in the US due to its pornographic content, Tropic of Cancer is ranked high on many “best book” lists. While it is indeed graphic, and somewhat tasteless, today’s audience would simply shrug it off as over-the-top. Miller’s ability to turn a phrase is definitely worth putting aside any misgivings one might have. Every time I wanted to throw my Kindle across the room, he’d string together words in a way that stayed my hand. Skill and craft, I’ll give him that. Misogyny? Let’s just say this would make for an interesting read in a Women’s Literature course.
And while it’s all very nice to know that a woman has a mind, literature coming from the cold corpse of a whore is the last thing to be served in bed. Germaine had the right idea: she was ignorant and lusty, she put her heart and soul into her work. She was a whore all the way through – and that was her virtue.
And then there’s:
You can forgive a young cunt anything. A young cunt doesn’t have to have any brains. They’re better without brains. But an old cunt, even if she’s brilliant, even if she’s the most charming woman in the world, nothing makes any difference. A young cunt is an investment; an old cunt is a dead loss.
Set in Paris – of course, it is; why else would I read it – Tropic of Cancer is a fictional biography exploring a writer’s struggle to… I don’t know… screw as many women as possible, maybe. To be fair, he’s also hungry and homeless most of the time. While there is a lot for me to hate – and hate is a strong word – there’s also a lot to admire. I can’t believe I just admitted that. Be it as it may, Tropic of Cancer would be a good study in terms of structure. Many critics and reviewers believe Miller strategically avoids structure; I would argue the avoidance of structure is a structure within itself. To thumb one’s nose at convention, you would have to study and understand that convention. Satire makes good use of this argument.
In fact, in order for me to stomach the book, I had to read it as a satirical examination of a writer’s journey. Nope, the irony in looking at it this way is not wasted on me. Damn you, Irony. Miller populates this world – his world – with writers. Writers who have traveled to Paris in search of that thing which buries itself so deep inside the creative soul. Bullshit. And, by the end of the book, Miller calls bullshit as well.
You can’t become a European overnight. There’s something in your blood that makes you different. It’s the climate-and everything. We see things with different eyes. We can’t make ourselves over, however much we admire the French.
The interesting thing about the last part there, I didn’t see too much admiring, unless admiring meant screwing, and then, well, he admired the fuck out of the French – literally. It took me a while to realize that the women of the book symbolized France – Paris, to be exact. The writers themselves represented this nostalgic and tragically-flawed infatuation many American artists and intellectuals have with Paris. As Miller puts it, once the writer snaps out of this dream-like state, he sees that Paris isn’t “just a circus, but an arena, just like everywhere else“. This sums up my relationship with Paris – of course, not as pornographic or misogynistic.
If I were to really push this assertion, then it would make the following line so much easier to stomach – and it ain’t easy at all.
You don’t know how palatable is a polluted woman, how a change of semen can make a woman bloom!
Miller, the narrator, believes that Paris has become polluted with what one might consider leeches or, in this case, spermatozoa. To travel to a city in order to drain from it intellectual and creative inspiration is pretty lecherous. Those who flocked to Paris came empty handed and with no exit strategy. At least, not until they became the geniuses they set out to be. In fact, pushing the argument even further, one might assert that the writers, artists and intellectuals symbolize the women in Tropic of Cancer.
Now, as for the racism, I ain’t got nothing for you. Product of his environment? Sign of the times? Excuses, excuses, excuses. As an English major in college, often I was called upon by my professors to compartmentalize the racist, the misogynist, the writer and the writing. And, often, I failed – quite literally.
I’m grinding my balls off on that job, and it doesn’t even give me a clean shirt. They’ve got us over here like a bunch of niggers. Ah, well, shit!
When he uses the word Negress a couple of times, I was afraid I’d grind my teeth into oblivion. As a black woman reading Tropic of Cancer, it was a challenge. I had to step away from the reading, for days at a time. Could I separate all the things I hated about the book from the actual craft? I’m still struggling. But I’m a writer who values craft and process, and Tropic of Cancer had both. This book is not just about writers, but the art form itself.
Every man with a bellyful of the classics is an enemy to the human race.
At the heart of this book is the use and play of language – both literally and figuratively. What makes a word, or a string of words, unacceptable? Isn’t it the job of a writer to use the tools of his craft in the most effective and efficient manner? While my stomach churned repeatedly during the reading of Tropic of Cancer, I kept asking why had Miller chosen to make use of such vile, visceral, misogynistic, racist words? And make no bones about it, it was a choice.
This is not a book. This is a 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.
Is Tropic of Cancer an examination of a writer’s life? A white male writer, maybe. Even that is oversimplifying the broader text. Most of the writers depicted in the story are a compilation of real people put forth as caricatures. There is the romanticism of writers correlating with that of Paris. Just like the untrusty narrator, many, if not all, of the characters are not to be taken at their word and we know, with Miller, words are crucial.
It is not enough to simply admire the eloquence of language Miller anchors the book on, for he knows, far too often, the so-called “mastery” of language is used to determine a book’s place in the literary canon. The irony, oh, the irony. While Miller fuses both eloquent and elevated language, he also embeds, more deeply, a rejected language. There is this question of artistic morality being raised.
If I am inhuman it is because my world has slopped over its human bounds, because to be human seems like a poor, sorry, miserable affair, limited by the senses, restricted by moralities and codes, defined by platitudes and isms.
And as for the artists:
Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones, the race of artists who, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread and the bread into wine and the wine into song… I see this other race of individuals ransacking the universe, turning everything upside down, their feet always moving in the blood and tears, their hands always empty, always clutching and grasping for the beyond, for the god out of reach: slaying everything within reach in order to quiet the monster that gnaws at their vitals.
This was a much closer examination of the book than I originally planned, however, when studying craft, one must dig below the surface, examining the tiniest flecks of foundation. I cannot ignore the misogyny and racist rhetoric put forth to frame the allegorical and satirical nature of the story. It is exasperating, to say the least.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with language. I struggle with syntax and meaning. Words often misbehave on the tip of my tongue. It takes me days and days to read pages, and just as long to write them. Grammar is my monster under the bed. But, like with all my fears, I run those suckers down, though a few get up and continue to give chase.
Like Miller, I look to challenge the establishment. How dare me, right? The language and the cadences I grew up hearing and speaking seldom, if ever, made it to any “must-read” book list. They were never part of a respected and lauded canon. I write to put the voices I want to see out in the world. Diversity is not only about race, gender or culture. Language is varied even in its homogeneous form.
Tropic of Cancer will not make my own personal “must-read” list. I will not celebrate the genius of Henry Miller. I will not co-sign on his use of the other, with regards to both women and blacks. I will glean his use of craft, his structuring of “the story” and his willingness to spit in the eye of convention.
I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences… I love the words of hysterics and sentences that flow on like dysentery and mirror all the sick images of the soul… everything that has time in it and becoming, that brings us back to the beginning where there is never end… A fatuous, suicidal wish that is constipated by words and paralyzed by thought.