Book review: Tropic of Cancer
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Not recommended.
In his 1960 introduction to Tropic of Cancer, Karl Shapiro said, “I call Henry Miller the greatest living author because I think he is,” “. . . as a spiritual example he stands among the great men of our age,” and “. . . he [Orwell] predicts that Miller will set the pace and attitude for the novelist of the future. This has not happened yet, but I agree that it must.” Shapiro does not support any of these points in his essay, and nothing about Tropic of Cancer supports them, either.
Tropic of Cancer consists of 318 pages recounting Miller’s experience as an American expatriate in Paris and expounding his personal philosophy, often in ways that are rambling and painfully nonsensical. Miller’s stories about his friends are tedious, pointless, and catty; like Miller, they seem to have been talentless hacks whose belief in their own artistic abilities makes them artists and writers, as though believing is being. Miller writes, “A year ago, six months ago, I thought I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am” — which is the type of arrogant pretentiousness he mocks in virtually all of his acquaintances.
When they are not creating, or talking about philosophy or creating, Miller and his circle seem to spend nearly every moment picking up women (and disease). They rarely use a neutral term such as “woman” when there are so many obscene, demeaning words with which to objectify the gender. The women that Miller and friends find are invariably portrayed as stupid, drunken, irrational, loose, sly, deceptive, and good primarily for one function, which Miller turns into a squalid, cold, joyless act. In spite of all the vice and the “living,” no one seems to be having fun, and some characters, notably Fillmore, find themselves nearly trapped into the bourgeoisie life.
Miller expresses contempt for the machine, the industrial age, and money — although he schemes to keep 2,800 francs from Fillmore’s mistress and revels in having so much in his pocket. Often hungry, Miller obsesses about food and relies on his friends to support him. When he describes his Indian friend Kepi as “. . . a scrounger, a sort of human tick who fastens himself to the hide of even the poorest compatriot,” he could be talking about himself as he bitterly complains about those of his friends who are stingy with money, accommodations, food, and wine.
Miller’s logic about the working world is facile; he writes, “If you want bread, you’ve got to get in harness, get in lockstep.” On the surface, this is true, but it never seems to occur to him that, if you want bread, someone must cultivate, raise, and harvest the wheat and produce the other components; someone must transform these components into bread; and someone must deliver it to the shops and cafes. In other words, if most people weren’t in “lock step,” Miller could choose to starve or set himself to produce bread, joining the world in harness. He makes his choice clear, then whines about it. He may despise those who support him, whether they are friends or workers, but that is perhaps because he, a misanthrope who finds fault with everyone but himself, needs the very people he denigrates (including “the grocer, the baker, the shoemaker, the butcher, etc. — all imbecilic-looking clodhoppers”), a reliance which he resents. He hates the machine and the machine mind, but offers no alternatives.
Seemingly incapable of sincere feeling, Miller finds human emotion amusing. When a friend says, “A boy can break your heart . . . He’s so damned beautiful! And so cruel!” Miller writes, “We had to laugh at this. It sounded preposterous. But Collins was in earnest.” When an acquaintance to whom he owes money dies, he writes, “At any rate, he was killed in an automobile accident shortly after my arrival, a circumstance which left me twenty-three francs to the good.”
Shapiro claims that Miller is a poet, but his attempts at poetic and philosophic ramblings often make little if any sense. Speaking of buildings and statues, Miller says, ” . . . they must be saturated with my anguish,” the kind of bad metaphor in which he frequently indulges. He describes artists such as himself as the “inhuman ones.” “I am inhuman! I say it with a mad, hallucinated grin, and I will keep on saying it though it rain crocodiles. Behind my words are all those grinning, leering, skulking skulls, some dead and grinning a long time, some grinning as if they had lockjaw, some grinning with the grimace of a grin, the foretaste and aftermath of what is always going on.” Whenever these attempts at poetic philosophy appeared, rambling on for pages, I found myself yearning for a return to his insipid stories about prostitutes, disease, friends, and hunger.
Tropic of Cancer is perhaps the worst book I have ever read (and I did promise myself that I would read Tropic of Capricorn). Shapiro says, “There are not many of these emancipated beings left in our world, these clowns and clairvoyants, celebrants of the soul and of the flesh and of the still-remaining promise of America.” If Miller, with his whining, his criticism, his holier-than-everyone attitude, his “art,” his two-dimensional view of people, and his obsession with excrement, is the “greatest” of these souls, may I never meet the least.
24 May 2006
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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