Whitman among the corpses

Posted on December 29, 2007


By Darran Anderson

“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, Beauty – what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing.”

As a statement of intent, it’s a thunderous pronouncement. Except it isn’t true. Sure Henry Miller sets out to disregard God, Man, Destiny, all of those grand themes and concentrate instead for once on life with a reassuringly small I. But in doing so Miller, maybe against his own wishes, creates a testament to all that is grand, the microcosm that embodies the macrocosm. For this is not just a book, it’s a great orchestra of sounds, nocturnes, impressionist city-sketches, expressionist cacophonies, surging anthems, all the laments, dirges, curses and serenades that make up the song of existence.

Essentially it is just a rambling ranting account of a lost generation deadbeat bumming around the more frayed quarters of Paris. Which is like saying Picasso is just a bunch of triangles or Van Gogh splodges of paint or Mozart just notes on a page. Critical analogies do little to capture the gutter-memoir drift of the book, a map of low-life Paname, punctuated by passages of white light white heat prose that burn into your memory. It’s sustained throughout by the must factor, the romanticist compulsion to burn and drink and sing, in the face of poverty and ruin, it says despite all of this, life is a profoundly beautiful miraculous thing, it screams life, to hell with politics, to hell with art, this is life and what a life it can be despite everything. For all its status as a catalogue of struggle, there are few books more joyous. It’s the circumstances of Job but also the sweet rapture of the Song of Solomon.

The attractions within Tropic of Cancer are manifold. There’s a remarkable cast, as peculiar as only life can truly produce, companions like Carl and Boris who’re “possessed – glow inwardly with a white flame – mad and tone deaf-sufferers.” Borowski with his canes. Moldorf the “clown, juggler, contortionist, priest, lecher, mountebank.” The “caustic Irishman” and voyeur painter Mark Swift. With an attractive drollness, Miller sketches these characters, fucking, cadging, idling, fighting, and others that briefly cross his path, “a man standing on the other side of the street – a foetus watching me. A foetus with a cigar in its mouth” or when, in the iron grip of hunger, “[I] pretended that I eaten already, but I could have torn the chicken from the baby’s hands.”

In another sense, Tropic of Cancer is a love song to Paris. Miller’s experience is so tied up with the setting that the two are symbiotic, psychogeography you could call it. There is only one place on the planet where it could have been written, “I understood then why it is that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love. I understood why it is that here, at the very hub of the wheel, one can embrace the most fantastic, the most impossible theories, without finding them in the least strange.”

His explorations of the arrondissements make for some supreme passages in the book, whether meandering – “Wandering along the Seine at night, wandering and wandering, and going mad with the beauty of it – the women sleeping in doorways, sleeping in the rain – old hags full of St Vitus’ dance; pushcarts stacked up like wine barrels in the side streets, the smell of berries in the market place and the old church surrounded with vegetables and blue arc lights” – or succinct “Twilight hour. Indian blue, water of glass, trees glistening and liquescent. The rails fall away into the canal at Jaures.” With every change in his fortunes, the very streets of the capital metamorphisise. In the afterglow of lost love, he retraces steps they once took together, immortalising the ground his lover walked upon, her step “would remain there forever, even after the cathedrals had been demolished and the whole Latin civilisation wiped out forever and ever.”

Beauty and truth are not polar opposites in Miller’s mind, rather they need each other to exist authentically, dishonesty being the enemy of both. In defence of beauty, real beauty, he employs a piercing honesty, cutting through the artifice of false feeling, saying what needs to be said, the blunt but inescapable truths. It’s a controlled burn to clear space for what really matters. A bonfire of the vanities.

On the absurdities of Catholicism, he is scathing: “In the street, one meets with all forms of dementia and the priest is by no means the most striking. Two thousand years – has deadened us to the idiocy of it.” Similarly the work ethic of Protestantism offers him nothing but a grateful servitude.

The problem with work, in Miller’s opinion, is that “you can be brilliant sometimes, when you’re drunk, but brilliance is out of place in the proofreading department. Dates, fractions, semicolons- these are the things that count. And these are the things that are most difficult to track down when your mind is all ablaze.” Managers are particularly singled out, not so much as loathsome but as pitiful creatures: “It gave him pleasure to wean me away from my dreams and fill me full of dates and historical events. It was his way of taking revenge, I suppose.”

At the heart of Miller’s opposition to the working world lies a bohemian desire for freedom and self-determination but also a demand for honesty. He freely admits he’s a fool, “a hopeless lecher” and then goes on to ridicule those who haven’t accepted that they are yet, the high and mighty, the professional elite with their delusions of grandeur and cowardice, the reputed success stories, “zeros in every sense of the word, ciphers who form the nucleus of a respectable and lamentable citizenry – neither gay nor miserable. The indifferent ones whom Dante consigned to the vestibule of Hell. The upper-crusters.”

His demolition of his “superiors,” and their precious institution of work, is as funny as it is astute, an evening glance at “people are straggling back to their rooms with that weary, dejected air which comes from earning a living honestly – they might just as well be lunatics.” Nowhere is this attitude better expressed than in the tragic fate of Peckover and his false teeth, a sort of pathos-fuelled magic realist-tinged office fable tucked away in the book. Somewhere along this train of thought, Miller stumbles over a kind of enlightenment, pondering the difference between US and Europe, “Over there you think of nothing but becoming President of the United States some day” whilst “here every man is potentially a zero.” The unexpected thing is this is a beneficial state of affairs, “It’s just because the chances are all against you, just because there is so little hope, that life is sweet over here – day by day. No yesterdays and no tomorrows – a world without hope, but no despair.”

In the common consciousness, Tropic of Cancer is known for it’s suppression (due to its graphic sexual content) and, many years later, the court case that would not only free it for publication but would act as a fission moment in the Sexual Revolution of the Sixties. The book thus suffered the curse of becoming a touchstone of sexual politics, an icon more cited than read. I doubt Miller intended it to represent or achieve anything in a libertarian sense. The book was simply a sincere depiction of life and as such ran up against the regulated deceit that is censorship, that denial of life as it is in favour of some dictated way life should be. Miller simply wrote about his life without lying. That was his crime to the censors (and a crime it most certainly was, reputedly granting the publisher of the Medusa edition a ten year sentence in jail). To those today who accuse him of anti-Semitism and sexism, beneath the dubious veil of political correctness, it remains his crime still.

Much commented upon is the socio-political impact of the book and its more explicit moments. In fact there is very little sex in it bar a few memorable passages (excuse the pun). Yet what there is, is notable for that all-too-rare of literary skills: the ability to write about sex without hubris. His accounts avoid all the slip-ups of botched erotica by being alternately arousing, tender, imaginative and not least strange, portraying Germaine and her “treasure, a magic, potent treasure, a God-given thing – and none the less so because she traded it day in and day out for a few pieces of silver.”

Less commented upon are his feelings of absurdity towards sex, again hilarious, again honest, “There’s just a crack there between the legs and you get all steamed up about it – when you look at it that way, sort of detached like, you get funny notions in your head.” Such forthright writing would ensure the book was banned for decades the world over, copies being seized by customs officials and the police. In South Africa government officials, presiding over the system of Apartheid, saw fit to ban it right up until the eighties. From time to time, you’ll read of some Bible Belt library or high school banning it or some cleric denouncing it. The madness continues. It isn’t even really Miller they’re fighting but a form of reality they cannot stomach. To them the truth itself is obscene.

Sceptical of the closed thought of faith and dogma, Miller has a definite strain of the anarchist in him. He continually wishes to write a book with “pages that explode,” with words that are “stronger than the lying, crushing weight of the world,” a work that would blow the earth to smithereens.

“This morning the whole world ought to be changed, for bad or good, but changed, radically changed,” he urged. He once told the photographer Brassai that he chose “cancer” in the title because it “symbolises the disease of civilisation, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start completely over from scratch.” Cataclysms, action, drama, catastrophe, anything but apathy and boredom. The urge to destroy is a creative passion.

As it happened, the end of the world, for millions, was around the corner. It would spawn from the mind of an Austrian postcard painter rather than a poetic Parisian exile. Just as place is crucial to Miller’s work, so is time. Culture, continually in opposition to politics, was blooming from the cabarets of Weimar to Montparnasse, in what would be one last brief renaissance. The characters that inhabit Miller’s headspace reflect the zeitgeist from Picasso‘s minotaurs to Molly Bloom writhing on her bed. At times he writes perceptively on Van Gogh‘s letters, Schumann, Matisse. As ever though Miller is iconoclastic, not for its own sake but in support of the suppressed voices of the outcasts, attacking “all the scarecrows whom the cabinet ministers mention with moist lips whenever an immortal is added to the waxworks. (No bust of Villon, no bust of Rabelais, no bust of Rimbaud).”

Yet with its weight of culture, blood feuds and terrible schisms, Old Europe was about to spill into the abyss. Whilst never making explicit reference, his “night thoughts” with their echoes of Nietzsche and Spengler acknowledge what was to come. “By his flashes, illuminating for us the depth and immensity of the darkness” he writes of Dostoyevsky‘s novels but it may as well be about him. Something would come from the deep dark forests of the Ardennes. France would fall. The trains of Drancy would crank into motion. You sense it here, unmistakably so, not in what is said but what is left out. Why mention that “for the Jew, the world is a cage filled with wild beasts”? Why was France’s gold being hidden away “in watertight compartments deep below the surface of the earth”? Miller managed to escape. He was one of the few.

“Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy” was Miller’s aspiring Nietzschean urge. Connect with the feelings of awe, of wonderment, vitality. Beatitude they’d call it later, that heavenly, worldly appreciation of the moment, the miracle of life, be it in drink, comradeship, sex or simple nature. Seek out the “world of natural fury, of passion, action, drama, dreams, madness, a world that produces ecstasy and not dry farts.”

“I don’t give a fuck any more what’s behind me, or what’s ahead of me,” he said extolling the virtues of living wholly in the present. Elsewhere, in Tropic of Capricorn, Miller condensed his philosophy into one timeless line, “The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.”

It was this awareness, with its intrinsic demands of truth and beauty, that placed him beyond the frauds of politics, beyond isms, consensus or any duplicitous outside force. In his essential essay on the book Inside The Whale, George Orwell recognised Miller’s importance in a world where people are taught to think against their own desires, instincts and conscience, alluding to him as Whitman among the corpses.” An occupant of reality, whether that is the cold night mirror or the orgasm or the drunken noticing of the stars, Miller is simply a man who expresses life as it really is, a writer who thinks for himself and has sovereignty over his own soul. A street prophet for man rather than god. And we need those now more than ever.


Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika. His writing features in The Flash fiction anthology [Social Disease] and in the Poetry Salzburg Review [Austria], the Listening To Water anthology [Foothills Publishing, NY State], BLATT magazine [Prague] and a load of websites. He has completed a collection of verse called Tesla’s Ghost, and is working on a short story collection entitled Junk and a novel entitled The Immortals.

Posted in: Essays