* Prices may differ from that shown
Tropic of Capricorn (1938) by Henry Miller
A controversial book, crude, explicit, at times sadistic, but in parts thoughtful, insightful and elevating. It has been suggested that Miller is a completely divisive writer, you love him or abhor him. Miller himself doubted this; he knew that some, if the minority, would fall into that middle bracket. I am one of them. I find myself somewhere in the middle, caught between the bad: misogyny, impenetrable abstractions and the good: attentiveness to humanity, hopefulnes, honesty and vision.
Tropic of Capricorn is a sequel to Tropic of Cancer. Both books were banned on obscenity grounds for a long time in the US. In Capricorn, Miller describes a meandering, embittered, independent life of a battle-hardened man, based on his own early life. The tone is defiant - Miller rages against the capitalist exploitation that he sees around him. In between, he gleefully describes his carousing and debauchery. It is as if hedonism is Miller's escape from the cruelty of the system.
Miller could be described as an American Orwell. Not in writing style or content but in the toughness of personality and fearless defiance of the majority. Whilst Tropic of Capricorn is a fictional autobiography, we do see in it Miller as an elusive character, accused by his associates of being "heartless", yet, in his defiant refusal to fall in line in within society's cannibalism, a doggedly sympathetic man. Such is his detachedness and self-belief, Miller is as easily capable of brutality as he is of self-sacrifice. His writing is misogynistic and racist, whilst at other times remarkably tolerant. The root of this personality, he reveals is a fortress-like inner self developed as a boy raised, with his mentally retarded sister, by a violent mother. He does not feel shame and thus, he refuses to follow any crowd, only his conscience - where society allows - and, more usually, his personal faults.
Miller describes in his torrent of feverish words his growth into a reckless young man, enraged by the injustices that he witnesses and shamelessly, even gleefully, debauched. Though not of middle-class birth like Orwell, he has the personality and intelligence to achieve easily, connecting freely with people and, in this way, he experiences the sufferings of society like few can. His self-belief draws people and gains him confidences and responsibility but as Orwell found working for the British Empire, the system was blood-stained and corrupt.
His response to the cannibalism of society is one of rage. As a result, defiance and bitterness are the dominant tones of the Tropic of Capricorn. He even targets the reader in his crudely detailed descriptions of his debauchery. The book was banned for obscenity in the US until 1961. If there is anyone that Miller goes lightly on, it is himself. Even after all that had happened and he had learnt, the crimes he commits, his self-belief will not allow self-condemnation. There is humility in the book but like Orwell, Miller was a man who believed in himself to the end.
However, Miller is said to have expressed regret for some of the extremeness of his obscenity which many have criticised as misogynistic. The accusation stands and the Tropic of Capricorn is an inferior book because of this failing. Clearly, Miller sought to shock the reader and the society on his/her shoulder but the extent of his descriptions comes across as gratuitous. There is no objective for the shock, no meaning to the violent roar. Some have justified him as a liberator but misogyny and addiction can only be bars.
It is a shame that Miller let himself down in this way. The sheer force of the gratuitous obscenity detracts from the intervening writing which is lucid and subversive. In these parts, Miller offers new dimensions to language and therefore reality. This is the true liberating effect of his writing - the ability to metaphorise extensively, to connect and turn and spin a gleaming web which opens new doors and casts light on meaning. It is true that this spinning of the web sometimes entangles the reader - and, even, seemingly, himself. In these cases, the accusations of verbosity are, perhaps, justified, for they suffocate the purpose of his words.
In many ways, the book is a rant by a supremely learned and pained man. Though coruscating in its insights and painfully sincere, it lacks the reflectiveness of some other great social critiques in literature - such as Dostoevesky's 'Notes from the Underground'. There is also, a lack of purpose to Miller, a lack of belief in anything except himself, which leaves the reader's ears ringing, as it were, without resolution. He does not offer us nihilism, for he insists that we say "Yes" to life but why this is so we are never explained. The reader is left, thus, to conclude that Miller is only talking of himself and we must find our own way. This is fine but given Miller's life of excess, ruin and hope, of rebellion and art, of philosophy and the street, given his rare mental strength, it could be hoped that he would offer a little more.