Tropic of Cancer (1934)

Matthew Moore on “The Neutral Exile in the Tropic of Cancer

Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is a fictionalized account of the author’s first few years in Paris during the early 1930s.  However, the names of Miller’s actual friends, lovers, and associates are replaced with pseudonyms and events are usually exaggerated.  Miller begs and borrows from anyone who will put up with him and sleeps with numerous women, all the while formulating just what it means to him to be a writer, an artist in a foreign country.  Many of the conclusions Miller reaches about art come in the midst of dizzyingly surreal paragraphs that abound with macabre imagery, establishing Miller’s own modern, abstract and incredibly surreal style.  Many of these sections frame one of the book’s most often touched upon points, how Miller deals directly with his setting, with Paris itself.  Many experts have written about Miller’s deep connection to Paris, and how his immersion into the city itself provided both the inspiration for and the morbid tone of his works set there, particularly for his first published book, Tropic of Cancer.  Miller makes it abundantly clear throughout Tropic of Cancer  that it is this absolute destitution and loneliness that he is so often subjected to in Paris that shapes his approach to writing.  Yet, ultimately to Miller the very essence of the artist depends on their detachment from place, their total exile from any nationality, thus allowing the artist in question to instead form a powerful bond with all humanity.

Miller sees Paris as totally freeing because there you are not immediately looked down upon for not being successful (as opposed to in America).  Miller praises Paris, writing, “When spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise… A man does not need to be rich, nor even a citizen, to feel this way about Paris…” (ToC 78). Almost immediately thereafter Miller condemns his own native city, saying, “New York makes even a rich man feel his unimportance” (ToC 78).  In Paris, there is no expectation that every individual must be great; in fact, it is a rarity in Miller’s view when someone is actually of note.  In Paris, even during the depression, you can simply exist without being subjected to the judging eye of society.  Miller later solidifies this opinion saying, “Here [in Paris] every man is potentially a zero.  If you become something or somebody it is an accident, a miracle… but it’s just because the chances are all against you, just because there is so little hope, that life is sweet over here” (ToC 147).  Life is sweet because you can work without pressure to succeed.  You are free to fail in Paris.  There is no guarantee that anyone will help you if you do fail, but no one will judge you for failing either.  The artist can afford to struggle without feeling constant shame and disapproval.

But even though Miller sees Paris as the ultimate place of freedom for art, he does not believe that artists should identify the city, or any other city as their home.  Miller chooses to be an exile from all nations, an exile living in what is to him the freest city on earth.  He says, “I’m not an American any more, nor a New Yorker, and even less a European, or a Parisian.  I haven’t any allegiance, any responsibilities, any hatreds, any worries, any prejudices, any passion.  I’m neither for nor against.  I’m neutral” (ToC 149).  Miller goes a step further than Malcolm Cowley’s or Gertrude Stein’s definitions of American expatriatism, wherein the American artist sees their homeland from a new perspective and then identifies with it.  Miller encounters his American origins, draws from them as well as from his new residence, and tries to leave them both in the background.  He is more than an American and in his own words perhaps more than simply human.  In one of the novel’s most surreal moments, amidst images of “grinning, leering, skulking skulls” and “serpents issuing from the rotted tongue…of ecstasy” Miller, in a moment of clarity, seems to perceive the true place of the artist in this modern world.  Miller says, “Once I thought that to be human was the highest aim a man could have, but I see now that it was meant to destroy me.  To-day I am proud to say that I am inhuman, that I belong not to men and governments, that I have nothing to do with creeds and principles.  I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity – I belong to the earth!” (ToC 233)  Henry Miller sees himself as totally and completely separate from the associations that make a man human.  He ceases to be a normal man, and sees himself instead as an artist, and in his mind, artists must be lonely, isolated and come from nowhere at all.  The sentiment, along with the imagery of this section, identifies Miller as the literary equivalent to surreal, modern painters like Salvador Dali.  Miller establishes himself, and the modern artist, as a true expatriate, an exile from anywhere and everywhere, even from the freedom of Paris.

Works Cited

DeSalvo, Louise. “Introduction” to Tropic of Cancer. New York: New American Library, 1995,  vii-xvii.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. “The Secret Paris of Henry Miller.” Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. New York: New American Library, 1995 [1934].


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