Essay by Brian Tanguay
I first read Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller thirty years ago. I kept coming across references to Miller in the books I was reading at the time and decided to see for myself what he was all about. It was the beginning of a deep dive into Miller’s oeuvre that occupied and influenced me for several years. Many of his books still rest on my shelves, though until recently, when I opened Tropic of Cancer at random and discovered a sentence I’d underlined in pencil, I haven’t felt any desire to read Miller again.
Here’s that underlined sentence: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
What I admired and enjoyed about Miller’s writing, what drew me thirty years ago to read nearly everything he wrote, and to make two visits to the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, was the exuberance and vitality of his prose, the raw energy he created on the page. After re-reading Tropic of Cancer with a fresh eye that assessment holds true. While the casual racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism is still jarring, I understand that Miller’s attitudes were hardly uncommon in his day. The sex in Cancer that caused such notoriety still strikes me as comical rather than titillating, and while it was the “obscenity” aspect that caused Cancer to be banned in every English-speaking country when it was published in 1934, sex isn’t the essence of the book.
No, the essence of Cancer is Miller’s philosophical outlook, his determination to live on his own terms, by his wits, with no thoughts about the future or regrets about the past. Nor would he be a slave to doctrines and dogma and causes. Miller rejected, in particular, prevailing American norms and material definitions of success and comfort; there would be no pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, no climbing the slippery ladder of success, and no chasing after security. Miller lusted after life, experiences, people, not wealth, fame or power.
Writing in his journal on March 20, 1960, the renowned public intellectual Alfred Kazin noted that Miller had real innocence of eye: “He enters with genuine gusto into that dead Paris world of piss and brothels and rotten cheese. He has true good will, and this is why it is impossible in reading him not to like him…”
Miller happily drags readers into the muck and mire, the seamy underside of Paris, the foul alleys, decrepit cafes and fleabag hotels. The terrible carnage and psychological toll of World War I is only a decade or so in the rearview mirror. Europe is still trying to find its footing, and it doesn’t help that the world is also caught in the undertow of the Great Depression. No wonder Miller observed that it was, “A world without hope, but no despair.”
Though often unsure of where his next meal was coming from, or whether he’d sleep in a bed or outside on a bench, Miller remains optimistic, sure that something, or someone, will turn up to lend a hand, some money or an invitation to dinner. Instead of struggling against the current, he surrenders to it and goes with the flow. “The great incestuous wish,” writes Miller, “is to flow on, one with time, to merge the great image of the beyond with the here and now.”
It was this free and unencumbered spirit, this full-bore imagination, that captivated and struck a chord in me all those years ago. As an artist Miller never fails to recognize the absurd in life, but simultaneously retains an unshakeable belief in transcendence. Miller’s not in the least interested in eradicating the absurd or screaming in protest about the injustice of the world, he accepts everything as it is, deformities and all. He emerges from the gutter smelling to high heaven, but with a broad smile on his face.