I have just finished rereading Henry Miller’s first published book, Tropic of Cancer. About 50 years ago, the first time I read the Tropic of Cancer I skipped around, looking for the “good parts.” Actually, there are very few “good parts” and those that exist are very tame in comparison with today’s literature.
|Henry Miller, 1933|
Henry Miller, like Jack Kerouac, writes about what he sees, what he hears, and what he experiences. He writes about the
where he lived for 10 years—years during which the Great Depression began. For
much of that time he had no income, only what he earned from small writing assignments. For much of
that time, he depended on friends to survive. Paris
in which Miller lives is not a beautiful
place. There is wretchedness and poverty with which he became well acquainted.
He does not attack this wretchedness, but reports it and accepts it. Only on
occasion—such as the last passage I quote in this blog post—does Henry Miller
play off severe poverty with the cold-heartedness of the bourgeoisie. Paris
So, without further words, I should like to share just a few of the remarkable insights I discovered during my second reading of Tropic of Cancer:
It is now my second full year in
. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. I have no money, no resources. I am the happiest man alive. Paris
Up to that time nothing very terrible at all of me, though I had already lost all my worldly possessions and had known what it was like to walk the streets in hunger and in fear of the police.
One can live without friends, as one can live without love, or even without money, that supposed sine qua non. One can live in
—I discovered that!—on just grief and anguish. A bitter nourishment—perhaps the best there is for certain people. At any rate, I had not come to the end of my rope. I was only flirting with disaster. I had time and sentiment enough to spare to peep into other people’s lives, to dally with the dead stuff of romance which, however morbid it may be, when it is wrapped between the covers of a book, seems deliciously remote and anonymous. Paris
My world of human beings perished; I was utterly alone in the world and for friends I had the streets, and the street spoke to me in that sad, bitter language compounded of human misery, yearning, regret, failure, wasted effort.
An eternal city,
! More eternal than Paris Rome, more splendid than . The varying navel of the world to which, like a blind and faltering idiot, one crawled back on hands and needs. And like a cork that has drifted to the dead center of the ocean, one floats here in this scum and the wrack of the seas, listless, hopeless, heedless even to a passing Nineveh . The cradles of civilization are the putrid sinks of the world, the charnel house in which the stinking wombs can find their bloody packages of flesh and bone. Columbus
The streets were my refuge. And no man can understand the glamour of the streets until he is obliged to take refuge in them, until he has become a straw that is tossed here and there by every specter that blows.
… these filthy beggars lying in the rain, what purpose do they serve? What good can they do us? They make us bleed for five minutes, that’s all. Oh, well, these are night thoughts produced by walking in the rain after two thousand years of Christianity. At least now the birds are well provided for, and the cats and dogs…. At the bottom of every frozen heart there is a drop or two of love—just enough to feed the birds.
|Henry Miller. c 1958|