“It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. 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. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.
This then? 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, Time, Love, Beauty…what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance on your dirty corpse…”
So begins Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
It’s a long, plot-less lyrical memoir of the artist’s bohemian days in 1930’s Paris. It was banned for 30 years in the States for its gratuitous descriptions of sex and revelry – full of legendary episodes that rock stars and artsy bachelors have been trying to match ever since.
And yet he has the ability to connect each debauchery with some cultural touchstone, some core capability or default in humanity. And he does it all in his boisterous, rollicking, relentless, full-bore prose. This is interesting stuff, important stuff, cultural journalism from “down in it” forty years before Hunter S Thompson.
His key thesis lies along these lines: by explicating the vile existence we humans eek out on this earth, we gain better insight into our own frailty. The delights of the flesh are often putrid and diseased and dirty, and yet if that’s the closest we can approach Eden, why not embrace that decrepit hedonism?
One of his shining episodes in the account of an unkempt, rowdy and foul-mouthed whore. Instead of raining down insults, he celebrates her, finding a sort of perverse joy in her Raison d’être.
If sex is his one motif – a carnal, bodily act that stands in for all of human life, Paris is his other.
His lyrical prose sings of a love-hate relationship with the eternal city. He finds beauty in its paradoxical nature, its long history, its slums and filth, the millions pressed under its architecture, the millions more drowned in the Seine.
He also can’t stop thinking of the place he left behind – New York City – and he compares it (acting as a stand in for America) with Paris (the epitome of Europe). New York is mechanical, hellish, built by engineers in contrast to Paris and its artists and lovers. Miller finds the orderly and functional a sort of burden, an early version of “Damn The Man” – antithetical to the individual who is striking out for new grounds, fresh artistic lands, the virgin peaks of creative imagination.
At first glance it might seem that Miller is just being crude for the sake of being crude. A predecessor to Johnny Rotten and all the other rock star stories of excess. But Miller uses his crude language lyrically, the same words repeated into a marching cadence that matches the youthful bravado of young, passion-drunk bohemians. It’s only after he’s run out of money, practically starved through a winter in the city of Dijon that the same language takes on a sullen aura.
Then he gets homesick, remembers the night he left Manhattan in the snow. That there is particularly fitting imagery for me, as I’m packing to leave New York.
The censors were damn wrong – this is a brilliant book, and it will be brilliant as long as there are young dreamers who flock to the city with a desire to explore … and create something new.