I first stumbled across the name of Henry Miller, the libertine, while reading a book about Thomas Merton, the monk. Some comparison was made between the two writers, and since I was already an admirer of Merton, I became curious about Miller. This occurred while I was in the Navy, serving on the USS Blue Ridge, which had an excellent library. The first book of Miller’s that I found was actually “Tropic of Capricorn”. Opening it at random, I read some passages that sounded like the sort of bragging I heard from promiscuous sailors ad nauseam. So my interest waned and I returned the book to its shelf.
A few years later, after the Navy, I decided to read “Tropic of Cancer”—considered to be Miller’s most important book. It was published in France in 1934 but was banned from the U.S. until 1961. However, as we all know, these “scarlet letters” of the modern variety tend to prompt cheers instead of jeers and Miller was no exception to the rule.
His book is not a novel in the ordinary sense, but more of a fragmented autobiography/literary rant. It is set in Paris (where Miller had exiled himself from the United States) and its primary focus is on the author’s bawdy adventures, with philosophical and artistic reflections woven throughout. His writing powers were such that he could rattle on, poetically and indefinitely, about anything at all. Sometimes he would overreach and lapse into dazzling gibberish: e. g., ‘I am the gorilla who feels his wings growing, a giddy gorilla in the center of a satin-like emptiness…’ and so on. One minute he sounds like another Attila the Hun, aching for conquest and violence; the next he fancies himself a new and improved Jesus.
One of the more striking episodes concerns a visit to a Catholic church. Miller is thunderstruck by what he sees and hears: the bowed heads, the murmured prayers, the dim candlelight, the priest in black, the altar boys. Apparently he has never experienced the like before. And while he plays well the role of an innocent savage, his disdain and incomprehension smacks of empty swagger. Throughout the book he is like an inverted Pharisee: a man who puts his badness on display in order to receive applause from others. Sadly, the applause was not and is not in short supply.
Certainly one can legitimately call Henry Miller an original talent, but he was not an absolute original (no one is). Before his “Tropic of Cancer” there was Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and Celine’s “Journey to the End of the Night”. Both of these earlier novels are comparable to Miller’s—and both are better. Hemingway had a profound sense of biblical vanity. Whether sexual bliss is attained or thwarted, by the end of “The Sun Also Rises” we are left with nothing but the spiritual barrenness of Ecclesiastes (“vanity of vanities, all is vanity”). And yet this is no atheistic vision. God is present in Hemingway’s book, an available hope that is nonetheless missed by his novel’s chief protagonists. Celine’s novel bears an even stronger resemblance to Miller’s, but its overall effect is more satisfying. If nothing else, “Journey to the End of the Night” is much funnier. Miller’s book could have been just as funny, but he was too preoccupied with playing the Nietzschean overman and hyper-critical messiah.
Finally, a note of caution to unwary readers: “Tropic of Cancer” teems with obscenities and is more misogynistic than “sexy” (a word some have used to describe it). Granted, it might be less shocking today than it was during the pre-internet era; but its notorious reputation was not unwarranted.