Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller. Recommended.
Like Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn is part autobiography, part memoir, part polemic, part fiction, part fantasy, and part poetry, written in near stream of consciousness as Miller experiences one epiphany after another.
As with the prior book, Miller’s ramblings are the source and the result of his efforts to define himself as an artist. Other contemporary American writers, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald, seem fascinated by their significance as artists and by the future importance of their art. In the Tropic books, Miller makes his consciousness of himself as an artist the subject of his art. In some ways, reading the Tropic books is like watching someone obsessively paint his self-portrait over and over, all with the title, Self-Portrait of the Artist.
According to Miller, “Life becomes a spectacle and, if you happen to be an artist, you record the passing show . . . The surface of your being is constantly crumbling; within, however, you grow hard as a diamond.” He says he “was perhaps the first Dadaist in America, and I didn’t know it. Nobody understood what I was writing about or why I wrote that way. I was so lucid that they said I was daffy.” The focus is not on the art (what he is writing about) but on himself as the artist, with an anonymous readership (“nobody,” “they”) who doesn’t understand him. As if his own belief in himself as an artist were not enough to convince us, he quotes a series of friends who insist that he should become a writer.
While Miller lacks objectivity and security, he has moments of insight into the current human condition. “Now we are eating of the same bread, but without benefit of communion, without grace. We are eating to fill our bellies and our hearts are cold and empty. We are separate but not individual,” following an anecdote about sour rye, is a brilliantly simple description of a world he sees as cold and mechanical, when progress and war have robbed men of their humanity. “The smell of a dead horse . . . is still a thousand times better than the smell of burning chemicals . . . the sight of a dead horse with a bullet hole in the temple . . . is still a better sight than that of a group of men in blue aprons coming out of the arched doorway of the tin factory . . .” Honest death and decay, “after life,” are better than “death from the roots, isolating men, making them bitter and fearful and lonely, giving them fruitless energy . . .”
Superior to Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn still shows a lack of discipline, or a contempt for it. Separating the poetic gems are long, rambling passages that are sometimes pointless and sometimes nonsensical. He continues the use of incoherent metaphors such as, “Inwardly they are filled with worms. A tiny spark and they blow up.” Sometimes his attempts to play with words and prose are more childish than literary or artistic, for example, ” . . . deeper and deeper in sleep sleeping, the sleep of the deep in deepest sleep, at the nethermost depth full slept, the deepest and sleepest sleep of sleep’s sweet sleep,” and so on.
Tropic of Capricorn is uneven, ranging from the lively and the lovely to the self-conscious and tedious. It’s unfortunate that Miller expended so much effort trying to convince the reader (and himself) of his status as an evil monster and artist (perhaps with the idea that they are synonymous) and so little culling the irrelevant and refining the rest. Miller’s perspective and vision are interesting, even compelling, when not muddied by his fascination with himself and by his need to stand out.
13 October 2007
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf