Living artistically with ‘Tropic of Cancer’

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“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am.”

In 1930, American Henry Miller moved unaccompanied from New York City to Paris, freshly separated from the second of what would be five wives and countless lovers throughout his life. At 39 years old, with nothing going for him, he wrote in a letter upon his arrival, “I start tomorrow on the Paris book. First person, uncensored, formless — fuck everything!”

With this spirit of defiance, Miller began work on the book that would become his first published work and his infamously banned masterpiece, “Tropic of Cancer.” First published in Paris in 1934, the book was too obscene to get printed in the United States for another 27 years, yet it was idolized by 20th-century literary giants such as George Orwell, Samuel Beckett and Norman Mailer as “one of the 10 or 20 great novels of our century.”

Though technically a novel, “Tropic of Cancer” blurs the lines between fiction and memoir, the protagonist being the author himself, the events of the book being largely inspired by and written in amid Miller’s bohemian years in Paris. The book declares its aim of radical imperfectionism in its first pages: “I have made a silent compact with myself not to change a line of what I write. I am not interested in perfecting my thoughts, nor my actions.”

Not an entirely true claim — French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin was Miller’s lover at the time as well as a devoted believer in his extraordinary talent, and she helped him edit the book and get it published, all while supporting him financially. Nonetheless, Miller’s lifestyle and his book alike are whole-hearted demonstrations of what it means to truly live artistically and, in turn, create art full of life.

Miller vividly describes the esoteric characters he encounters as a jobless writer in Paris and frequently mooches dinners off of them. His portrayals teem with life and continually revise themselves, just as our lived impressions of people often do. Three paragraphs into a mystifying description of one such individual, Moldorf, Miller admits, “I am trying ineffectually to approach Molforf. It is like trying to approach God, for Moldorf is God — he has never been anything else. I am merely putting down words.” Miller begins again, only to trail off once more: “No, this is not the way to go about it!”

Though these cheeky moments of writerly self-awareness are likely to tantalize fans of post-modernist novels, Miller’s genius cuts far beneath the surface of mere stylistic quirks. Writhing beneath his engrossing prose is a radical critique of modern American life, a devastating demonstration of how the principles we are taught in this country frequently run directly counter to a life of joy. 

Miller confronts, for example, the value of ambition, a core tenet of the American dream. He does so most vividly in an episode where he stumbles into his ideal job — as a proofreader for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. The straightforward, menial labor this job involves gives Miller a surprising and intoxicating feeling of invincibility. He is thrilled by the fact that all stories of disaster and calamity pass under his watchful eye, and that no matter their scale, his job is always the same: “The world can blow up — I’ll be here just the same to put in a comma or a semicolon.” Miller experiences bliss in anonymity and routine precisely because he doesn’t have the great ambitions we are encouraged to cultivate.

Miller’s joy illuminates so much that is wrong with what we are told about the path to happiness and success in America.

“How could I have foreseen, in America, with all those firecrackers they put up your ass to give you pep and courage, that the ideal position for a man of my temperament was to look for orthographic mistakes?” he writes. “Over there you think of nothing but becoming President of the United States some day.”

He contrasts the American ideal that everyone is special and everyone can work their way to the top with what he considers to be the European reality — that everyone is not special and that achieving any success or fame at all comes by accident. This reality, he believes, allows the Europeans he knows to savor the simple pleasures of life in a way that bustling Americans cannot: “They know how to enjoy an apéritif and they don’t worry if the houses are unpainted.”

In following Miller throughout the book, we come to understand that his aim at imperfection is not born out of laziness but out of a dire necessity to enable unhindered artistic expression. Miller describes the plight of his friend Van Norden in the face of self-imposed perfectionism. Van Norden tries to write a unique book, and his struggles are relatable to anyone who has ever attempted original writing in the humanities. As Miller describes, “The book must be absolutely original, absolutely perfect. That is why, among other things, it is impossible for him to get started on it. As soon as he gets an idea he begins to question it. … And so, instead of tackling his book, he reads one author after another in order to make absolutely certain that he is not going to tread on their private property.”

Miller highlights how writers impose impossible standards of absolute originality and perfection onto their work, which bogs them down in the writing process, and which causes them to become so concerned with abstract ideas that their work loses its connection to life. In the introduction to the 1961 American edition of “Tropic of Cancer,” titled “The Greatest Living Author,” poet Karl Shapiro puts his finger on Miller’s counter-aim in his book: “to give literature back to life.”

To bring literature back in touch with reality, Miller wrote frankly about a subject that dominates life but that was frequently suppressed in American literature of the century prior — sex! Where many authors felt compelled to gloss over details due to religious sensibilities and censorship laws, Miller unabashedly lingers, making sexual encounters a central part of his narrative, just as they are a central part of his experience as an embodied human being. Karl Shapiro noted in the introduction, “Every serious reader of erotica has remarked about Miller that he is probably the only author in history who writes about such things with complete ease and naturalness” — Miller is not writing about sex because it is attention-grabbing or profitable, but because of its centrality to the human experience. Nor was Miller’s writing about sex filtered through any dogmatic religious attitudes acquired in his upbringing, as was the case for many of his contemporaries. Shapiro notes of other notoriously banned novels of the time, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses,” “Lawrence never quite rid himself of his puritanical salaciousness, nor Joyce; both had too much religion in their veins.” Whole worlds of imagery and metaphoric possibility opened up to Miller because he writes free of any religious framework, with no heed for any distinction between the bodily and the philosophical, or between the erotic and sublime.

“Tropic of Cancer” was first published in 1934 by Parisian Obelisk Press, but due to its obscenity, it was not published in the U.S. until 1961 by Grove Press. Bookstores selling this edition immediately faced lawsuits in 21 different states, many of which condemned the book as obscene. In 1964, however, the state obscenity charges were overruled by the Supreme Court, whose decision cited the ruling of Jacobellis vs. Ohio, another obscenity trial of Louis Malle’s 1958 film “Les Amants” settled on the same day. That case produced the famous “I know it when I see it” remark from Justice Potter Stewart, marking a huge milestone in U.S. obscenity law, after which all obscene material was essentially protected by the First Amendement except “hard-core pornography.”

The extreme sexualization of women in “Tropic of Cancer” has understandably subjected the book to many feminist critiques. Almost all of the many female characters in this book are indeed either prostitutes or somebody’s lover, yet Miller renders all his characters, regardless of their gender, as deeply sexual, vulnerable and ultimately human. Thus, the overt sexuality in the book struck me as neither excessive nor gratuitous, but rather necessary for creating raw, compelling character sketches. One of Miller’s greatest virtues in this book is that he is genuinely interested in all the people he describes and committed to portraying them in honest ways. The prostitutes, as much as the high-society men, are depicted as whole, rich people, and Miller sometimes even suggests that the prostitutes are the ones living their most authentic, most empowered lives: “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.”

Miller offers us several of the most uplifting pieces of advice for writing and for living that I have ever encountered in a book. First, that struggling with expression is more beautiful and more human than expression which is neatly packaged: “Show me a man who over-elaborates and I will show you a great man! What is called their ‘over-elaboration’ is a sign of struggle, it is struggle itself with all the fibers clinging to it, the very aura and ambience of the discordant spirit. … I run with joy with the imperfect ones, their confusion nourishes me, their stuttering is like divine music on my ears.”

Many readers expect that authors know something, that they are trying to convey certain ideas and themes to us that we can interpret and apply to our lives. Miller suggests that we should instead be looking to those writers who don’t present the world as something to be clearly understood and distilled into an idea, but who know how to flounder, to make sentences that go on too long, that trail off, that begin again, because these are the writers who are truly in touch with the world in all its multifaceted, kaleidoscopic nature. This kind of writer is modeling for us not how to abstract away from and idealize life, but how to actually live in it.

By extension, Miller assures us that the arduous endeavor of self-expression is always a worthwhile and necessary one: “I believe that today more than ever a book should be sought after even if it has only one great page in it: we must search for fragments, splinters, toenails, anything that has ore in it, anything that is capable of resuscitating the body and the soul.”

This philosophy is perhaps the most anxiety-relieving outlook on the literary endeavor that we could possibly hold. If you are ever questioning whether it is worth it to write something, to think through something, “Tropic of Cancer” will remind you that the answer is always a resounding yes, and that it is okay if your writing sucks, if you need to write 200 terrible pages to find the one page that really interests you and that really says something that is alive.

Miller is a powerful author to turn to in our periods of hopelessness, for he can breed joy where others find only nihilism. He sees “a world without hope but no despair.” In Miller’s world, it is a gift merely to live in a mind that possesses a faculty for expression, namely language, and a given experience, which time and again are proven to be the only necessary and sufficient ingredients of sublime creation. Miller’s self-involved writing allows us to look upon our lives with renewed interest, for in his prose, we can see ourselves traversing every beat of existence, high and low, universal and particular, human and superhuman, in every day, in every moment. If everything is contained in everything else, then what can ever be taken away from us, if we know how to truly look closely? 

Contact Carly Taylor carly505 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Carly Taylor '22 is the Reads Desk Editor for Arts & Life. A Kentucky native, she studies comparative literature and creative writing. On campus, you can find her organizing concerts and practicing martial arts.