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The first time I’d heard of Henry Miller was while watching Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, as he tempted the teenage daughter into reading The Rosy Crucifixion: Sexus, Plexus and Nexus. I assumed by the books’ titles that Miller was probably a sexually explicit author. Well, I was right. What I didn’t realize was when these books were written, and how revolutionary that made him.
Tropic of Cancer in fact - one of Miller’s first books - was published in 1934, and due to its graphic content was banned in the United States until its publication there in 1961. This historical piece of fiction actually led to a trial in 1964, looking into findings of obscenity, whereby the ruling of this trial paved the way for other authors and their adherence to changing censorship laws in the United States. This in and of itself makes Tropic of Cancer an important read. Enjoying what is read however, is entirely up to the reader.
Tropic of Cancer is a memoir and sometimes fictional account of Henry Miller’s vagabond years as a starving artist, in search of himself and his artistic freedom, in Paris during the 1930’s. The story follows the lives of Miller and his crass, whoring and boozing ex-pat, artist friends as they try to live life to the fullest on the streets of this ever exciting and romantic (and I use this term loosely) old city. In a sentence, it appears to be a coming of age story for and of the immature man. When we’re not following the wild lives of these childish men and their sleazy antics, we are left to wallow in Miller’s incessant and self-indulgent ramblings.
It may very well be that there aren’t enough brain cells in my head to comprehend what is said to be Henry Miller’s genius, but I found his stream-of-conscious musings to be everything from ridiculously outlandish, to a complete and utter bore. However, once in a while, I will admit, I found him to make sense and say something profound. I appreciated his rants about the stifling and constricting life of America and its fast-paced, rat race, where art is dead and money reigns supreme. He relays his observations that in America there is immense pressure to be something, while in Paris you can just be, and if you end up as something, it was because you got lucky. I think it is important that people take away his message about living life for you and what makes you happy, as opposed to living your life in the brown box that society in America wants to put you in, where happiness is often an illusion. That being said, nearing the end of the book he also comes to terms with his delusions of grandeur which kept him and his friends seeking happiness at the bottom of a bottle, or by staring into the gaping hole of a Parisian prostitute. (This really takes place in the book, with a flashlight, if I remember correctly.) Hence it is through his meanderings that we observe his slow, yet eventual growth as an artist and a man.
Throughout Tropic of Cancer Miller is always ravenously hungry and is looking to be satiated, be it with food, creativity, excitement, sex or companionship. Although he may have depended on his empty pocket to keep him artistically focused, it was simply detestable how he would mooch off of others, even steal from a lowly prostitute, all puffed up and possible based on his beastly sense of entitlement. As soon as someone he was staying with (for free, I might add) would ask or expect something from Miller, he would feel trapped and need to move on immediately.
I’ve heard multiple readers refer to Miller as highly misogynistic, since every woman in Tropic of Cancer is a “whore” or a needy “c@#%” (a nasty four letter word that most women find highly offensive), who is trying to rope a man into marriage. Except of course for the one woman that Miller seems to love - in whatever capacity he is able – Mona. It would appear that the love is unrequited, and maybe that is the reason he puts down women as much as he does; he has been deeply hurt.
In my opinion, Miller is an equal opportunity hater. Most of the people in the world he presents us are deplorable, not just the women. And although he doesn’t run around calling every man he sees a “dickwad” (or whatever the male equivalent to “c@#%” would be), he doesn’t really have to. Their actions speak louder than any label. At any rate, living in a world of cheap sex, where the women are using him as much as he uses them, and where infidelity is the running standard with both men and women, I can kind of see why his views are as such.
Throughout most of the book it would seem Miller’s main point would be that the past is gone and the future may never come. All we have is the present, so enjoy it. Even if it has to be with a case of gonorrhea, while sleeping on a park bench, under a newspaper! Tropic of Cancer will give you food for thought regarding the comparison between old-world, artistic Paris and the new and artistically-benign America. You might scowl or laugh as he bluntly wrestles with the various themes of sex, poverty, writing and friendship, but either way, you will be affected.
Below catch a quick, captivating glimpse into the 1970’s adaptation starring Rip Torn as Henry Miller.