[Published 2005 by Harper Perennial. First Published 1934.]
‘The super structure is a lie and the foundation is a huge quaking fear. If at intervals of centuries there does appear a man with a desperate, hungry look in his eye, a man who would turn the world upside down in order to create a new race, the love that he brings to the world is turned to bile and he becomes a scourge. If now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that wound and scar, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defences left are his words and his words are always stronger than all the racks and wheels which the cowardly invent to crush out the miracle of a personality. If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what is really his experience, what is truly his truth, I think then the world would go to smash, that it would be blown to smithereens and no god, no accident, no will could ever again assemble the pieces, the atoms, the indestructible elements that have gone to make up the world.’
(Page 249 – 250)
If there is a passage in ‘Tropic of Cancer’ that is representative of the whole book, I think this may be the closest to it.
It is a reader’s act of rebellion to order a book knowing that it has been banned in countries around the world for decades. Indeed, my own trusty bookstore had never put a copy on their shelves. In the context in which it was published, I can understand why it was so harshly criticised and why so many efforts were made to muffle this voice from the world. What I don’t understand, however, is why, in the twenty-first century, when “mommy porn” is so popular and sex is to be found in every medium so freely and openly, it would continue to be so controversial – so much so as to receive very negative reviews and to be labelled as ‘vile’.
On completing the book, I have reached two possible reasons. The first is that those who disliked the book did not read it to the end. The other is that the reading of the book was done on a superficial level.
The introduction to the Miller in Paris in the early parts of the book comes in almost hallucinatory bursts and rants – unapologetically declaring this book to be no work of art in an ugly world. One gets the sense of an ending right at the beginning. He contextualises this very quickly by making himself out to be something of a masochist in a place stripped of all the attractions that make it so popular for artists. It is a dark place – somewhere he suffers with hunger, poverty, and homelessness in aid of a lifestyle sated with debauchery. This is all so he can write (and perhaps better understand himself) in a place that should (and occasionally does) offer inspiration and, even then, he admits that many of his ideas remain unwritten. Paris is dispelled as a place of dreams.
His encounters with the numerous whores in the book (often through his bohemian acquaintances) are sometimes graphic but, for the most part, show a man who gets to know the ones he likes and their individual characters, whilst collectively treating them with derision. Individually, he explores their emotions, their tempers, their drives; rejecting any semblance of virtue and delicacy.
What results is Miller’s love-hate relationship with a city and its inhabitants in a modernist, surreal book that removes any traditional notion of ‘the writer’ and his work, giving the reader a realistic portrayal of the world. This view smashes the facade that makes people feel comfortable and reveals the obscenity and vulgarity of the world in a way that was revolutionary in the ‘30s. Paris takes on a character of its own, bordering on a monster at times – one that woos and enchants you, yet consumes you as if with disease. It is as if he is constantly searching for reality in life’s lowest realms – a self-inflicted journey and one in which Miller feels almost immune.
He aligns women with Paris; as symbolic of Paris. Experiences with women are supposed to be utopian and sex is an act of balance and of violence that is, at the same time, beautiful and artistic. This view, however, is a question of perspective. This woman could be a whore, a different reality that shows something that is not sacred and is not exclusive. As unsettling as ‘Tropic of Cancer’ is even for the modern reader, these are passages that are driven by anger and confusion rather than lust.
Put in the context of literature, ‘Tropic of Cancer’ is the Dadaism of the book world. He is calling the hidden underbelly of reality art in a way that readers at the time must have suffered as abrasive. Miller flits between scenes making the book almost fractured, yet it merges into a single, heaving beast as the pages go on, and that beast is Paris. But, in addition to being Paris as a whole, it is also Paris after Mona, his wife. The city in ‘Tropic of Cancer’ is like a parallel world – one far removed from the esteemed destination loved by others. His almost (at times) depraved rants and cursing he knew would be so controversial as not to be considered literature by the critics of the time. My challenge is that people read it as more than an act of rebellion; for more than the superficial sex scenes like the dog-eared library book that gets teenage, pubescent pulses racing. Read beyond the sex and it becomes a painting that takes many hours of viewing to understand and become clear.
This book has many hidden depths – it was a challenging read, but one that I believe I will endeavour to make a few times in my life. It is a work of genius done no justice here but, more than that, it is a work of freedom.