“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.” (318)
Tropic of Cancer is one of those lit-cannon classics that I always had on my to-read list but never thought I’d get around to. Now that I’ve actually read it I can’t hardly express what a pleasing surprise this book was! I vaguely recall hearing that this was a sexy book, filled with risque obscenities and that it was a sentinel work for its time (it was written in the 30’s and published in France in 1934 and banned in the US until 1961). Even by today’s standards the label of obscene is putting it lightly. Tropic of Cancer is overtly explicit from the opening pages with reference to semen, whorehouse trollops, and the discomforts of the diseases that follow a lascivious lifestyle. It is a grimy, raw, and honest book cataloging Miller’s semi-autobiographical experiences as an ex-pat enjoying the pleasures of Paris in the 30’s. What shocked me about this book wasn’t the explicit obscenity and alcohol infused erotica, what shocked me was how alarmingly good and honest this work of Art is and how well it stands up to time. Woven throughout the blunt descriptions of the decadence of Miller’s exploits, Tropic of Cancer is a philosophical book that prompts thought and reflection. It is through these reflections that Miller shines amidst the sordid grime. Any book capable of creating beauty from the obscene through reflective awareness is a good book by my standards.
Miller was quite original in his writing style and I sense that he had a great influence on beat and post-modern writing. Miller is Bukowski with friends, Kerouac staying in one place (and lacking spiritual ideation), and Whitman writing prose. Tropic of Cancer isn’t really a narrative with a forward progression plot. It reads more like a collection of loosely woven short stories involving the same cast of strung-out artists, artist wannabees, and just plain old sleazy, low-life people. There are memorable moments where the obscene transcends the ridiculous such as Miller’s clairvoyant realization “inspired by the absolute hopelessness of everything…. even the blind could see that there is nothing more, nothing less, than two enormous lumps of shit” (97). There are moments when Miller is strung out with hunger and moments when he is drunk off of his overindulgence in sex. Through it all he is reflective and realistic and it is through his expression of the grisly transcendent moments that Miller transforms nihilism into celebration.
George Orwell wrote an excellent, though lengthy, essay praising this book and I’d encourage anyone reading Miller to read Orwell’s essay because it puts into context how important Miller was to the literary scene of the 30’s. Orwell very thoroughly elaborates on the literary trends in the 20’s and 30’s, and he explains how the first world war inspired many great and original works of the 20’s whereas the depression and political influences created a lot of crappy literature in the 30’s. According to Orwell, Miller broke the trend of crappy 30’s literature by ignoring politics and writing with an utterly true and human voice while his contemporaries faulted by writing with a falsely temporal idealistic vision. Orwell claims that Miller speaks for every man, and I’d have to say that I disagree with him on that point. It can’t be ignored that Miller’s perspective is that of a stranger in a strange land, a man with no roots and therefore no inhibitions. His voice is not a universal voice, but is it is a voice that speaks from the human condition. Sure, it is a voice that will offend many readers because Miller offers no respect to women, looks down upon the working man, and belittles religion, but Miller’s voice is a real voice. He does not pretend to be something he is not and the characters in his novel are entirely believable in their actions, words, and misdeeds.