OPENING MY COPY of Tropic of Cancer to a random page, I am confronted with passages like these:
“You’re cancer and delirium,” she said over the phone the other day. She’s got it now, the cancer and delirium, and soon you’ll have to pick the scabs. Her veins are bursting, I tell you, and your talk is all sawdust. No matter how much you piss away you’ll never plug up the holes.
He’s put a fence around her as if she were a dirty, stinking bone of a saint. If he only had the courage to say “Take her!” perhaps a miracle would occur. Just that. Take her!
All through the meal this patter continues. It feels exactly as if he had taken out that circumcised dick of his and was peeing on us.
There are also, of course, the “cunts” and “pricks,” along with the lice and the rotten teeth. Speaking of lice, Miller wrote: “People are like lice—they get under your skin and bury themselves there. You scratch and scratch until the blood comes out, but you can’t get permanently deloused.” Jews gave him special conniptions: “almost all Montparnasse is Jewish, or half-Jewish, which is worse.”
Was this the dirtiest of all the dirty books? Well, there is this in Tropic of Cancer: “His ears were dirty, his eyes were dirty, his ass was dirty.” For the most part, in a world that has entered its second half-century with birth control pills (though the Republican Party is doing what it can to roll back the wheel) and offers 24/7 free porn, Tropic of Cancer is about as sexy as excrement.
To a twenty-first century eye, it reads more like an annals of abjection, a chronicle of execration—execration of life in down-and-out Paris, and execration, most of all, of the body, most of all the bodies of women. It’s ugly, it’s raw, and that’s its point. It wants to pulverize readers who seek relief from what Henry Miller’s great good friend, lover, voluntary Parisian and partisan Anaïs Nin, in her 1934 preface, found to be “a world grown paralyzed with introspection and constipated by delicate mental meals.” Miller is percussively “vitalizing,” to use Nin’s word. He beats on you like a nightstick.
In “Inside the Whale,” his great essay about Tropic of Cancer, Orwell wrote that “many ordinary people, perhaps an actual majority, do speak and behave in just the way that is recorded here. The callous coarseness with which the characters in Tropic of Cancer talk is very rare in fiction, but it is extremely common in real life.” Perhaps Orwell is right—I don’t know. What is flagrantly, flayingly true is that Miller thinks this is so, and that he agrees with Nin that his project is to express an “ecstatic, devouring hunger—for more life.” Frederick Turner agrees, although (or because) he gazes with unmixed tenderness at the derisive, scabrous Miller, the Miller whose devastated, devastating view of life excuses him from all the cruelties that he gives as much as he gets.
Turner’s gambit is to re-Americanize Miller—to frame him as one in a long line of garrulous renegades busting out of literary boxes uttering war whoops. Turner sees him as a quintessential confectioner of the “American Grotesque,” a descendent of “the Yankee pitchman-bunco artist, a tale spinner who used his gift of gab to hoodwink his listeners” and then too, one of the braggart “boatmen on the mighty rivers of the continental interior,” and then again one of the legendary “deer slayers, buffalo hunters, backwoodsmen, Indian killers, and outlaws of the hinterlands and urban slums.” His wilderness is urban. But his predecessor worthies generally did not despise the wilderness. Miller was, on the contrary, both a great hater and a great luxuriator. Miller’s Wild West was in Brooklyn, but when he returned to a United States he saw as an “air-conditioned nightmare,” he spent more than half his life in parts of California where the wilderness seemed more comfortable.
Turner gives us an informative sketch for a bildungsromanabout how Miller re-made himself as a writer, transforming himself from poetaster to master brute. But Turner is after grander literary game and devotes some one-fourth of his pages to serenading the American literary, or sub-literary, tradition of “cranks, crooks, tall-talkers, hucksters, adventurers, outlaws, and utopian dreamers.” He dwells on Mark Twain in particular as the paleface who civilized the inner redskin. But Miller, Turner thinks, is even better than that: he is probably an “aboriginal” (italics mine) himself. Oddly enough, Turner doesn’t recur to Philip Rahv’s famous essay “Paleface and Redskin,” which counterposes the barbaric yawps of Walt Whitman to the mannerly indecisions of Henry James. But Turner is more interested in a dithyramb to Miller than his not-so-fine points. He keeps up Miller’s connection to Whitman (he packed Leaves of Grass on his voyage to the Old World) while failing to take note of a passage like this from Tropic of Cancer, where Miller gives voice to that “blind, white rage [that] licks my guts” when he thinks of what has become of “this Manhattan that Whitman sang of”:
The white prisons, the sidewalks swarming with maggots, the breadlines, the opium joints that are built like palaces, the kikes that are there, the lepers, the thugs, and above all, the ennui, the monotony of faces, streets, legs, houses, skyscrapers, meals, posters, jobs, crimes, loves. A whole city erected over a hollow pit of nothingness. Meaningless. Absolutely meaningless.
Here Miller sounded more than a bit like fastidious old Henry James holding his nose on a return home for a sniffy sour-grapes visit.
Jeanette Winterson rightly noted in the New York Times Book Review that Turner largely evades the two piercing take-downs of Miller as a not-so-appealing brutalist: Orwell’s of 1940 and Kate Millett’s of 1970. Orwell finds Miller a man who seized the luxury of amusing himself while the world went to hell; Millett, in Sexual Politics, sees him as a grandee of marauding sexual privilege. Both cast cold eyes on Miller’s renegade status. Turner will have none of it. He is wholly, unproblematically at ease with the Miller who could write:
Human beings make a strange fauna and flora. From a distance they appear negligible; close up they are apt to appear ugly and malicious. More than anything they need to be surrounded with sufficient space—space even more than time.
That from Tropic of Cancer’s penultimate paragraph. The ultimate is the one that elicited a famous reply from George Orwell. First, Miller:
The sun is setting. I feel this river [the Seine] flowing through me—its past, its ancient soil, the changing climate. The hills gently girdle it about: its course is fixed.
To say “I accept” in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putsches, purges, slogans, Bedaux belts [I had to look it up too—evidently these were assembly-line conveyors, good for speed-ups], gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press censorship, secret prisons, aspirins [sic], Hollywood films, and political murders.
Orwell proceeded to pay Miller a backhanded compliment, saying that he
believes in the impending ruin of Western Civilization much more firmly than the majority of “revolutionary” writers; only he does not feel called upon to do anything about it. He is fiddling while Rome is burning, and, unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face towards the flames.
Yet Orwell also thought Miller “the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past.” Then Orwell hastened to add:
Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance; and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.
Turner is welcome to revel in this stripped-down Miller of his. But he would have written a more compelling book if he had faced him in full, as Orwell did, rather than flattening him into a triumphant cartoon.
Todd Gitlin’s latest book is Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, available now as an e-book from It Books/HarperCollins, and then on Labor Day as a material object.