Saturday, January 23, 2010

Henry Miller's The Tropic of Cancer

The Tropic of Cancer
by Henry Miller

(10: 02/50)

"This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Love, Beauty... what you will."

The entry below will openly analyse Henry Miller's The Tropic of Cancer, and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.
In a moment of confidence, I decided that I would read Henry Miller's The Tropic of Cancer. I was approximately six pages in when I thought to myself , "What in God's name have I gotten myself into?" I still don't quite know the answer to that.

Cancer is a work of striking, enigmatic prose that Miller makes all the more challenging by stringing them together over numerous pages, occasionally leap-frogging from topic to topic, leaving one with only the vaguest sense of how they arrived at a particular place. Those who call Miller's autobiographical novel of his life in Paris a surrealist effort are spot on.

Miller's mind is a cynical, venomous place, dripping toxin out of it's every orifice. He exists as a wild dog; taking every handout and baring no love for anyone. He serves to epitomize his own ideas about humanity. We are disgusting, hateful creatures that infect one another with our own ugliness. We are a race incapable of solitude, but at our worst when with others. It is no coincidence that sex, the physical union of two human beings, in Miller's novel, is an act shared with whores, and leaves one diseased, or itching.

Perhaps what I found most astounding about Miller's work is his rejection of modernist ideas. Published in 1934 (in Paris), The Tropic of Cancer was released when, though on the precipice of decline, modernist ideas were still held true. The manifestos and ideas populated in the late 19th and early 20th century had yet seen their ugly realities; Hitler was yet to march across Europe, the Soviet Union was not yet Stalin's. Perhaps their immediate demise was in the Parisian air, but that a work of such an early date wholly rejects humanities ability to build utopia, and sneers at the hollowness of such ideas is stunning. Though not a political novel, the sheer level of pessimism expressed by Miller on such topics makes his position clear. Huxley's Brave New World (which I have not read) is the only novel that comes to mind that predates Miller's pessimistic thinking. Orwell's work seems absolutely retardataire by comparison.

Of course Miller's book is stylistically post-modern. I don't doubt that Cancer expanded upon what a novel could be, and given Miller's supposed intent with the novel, proposed in its first chapter, I'd say it unequivocally is, and for this it is equally remarkable, but it leaves less to comment on.

Miller rejects the notion of collective interest, and paints a picture of a selfish, ugly humanity that is in each of us. Early in his novel, he mentions that everyone has the nickname "Joe," to help take themselves less seriously. We are all Joes; judgmental, neurotic, egotistical, and incapable of genuine empathy. It's right that we should take ourselves less seriously. We're all pathetic.

The Tropic of Cancer is a stunning, rewarding experience, despite all its off-putting qualities. To my great surprise, I'm itching like mad (nudge-nudge) to read The Tropic of Capricorn.

Next Up: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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