Tropic of Capricorn
“I will not do this. I will do some other thing! Very good. But can you do nothing at all? Can you stop thinking about doing anything? Can you stop dead, and without thinking, radiate the truth which you know?”
This book is a strange combination of elements – stream-of-consciousness, dada, spiritual text, and coming-of-age tale. Like Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it tells an at least partially autobiographical tale of the artist from youth to young-adulthood for the purpose of figuring out how the artist became the way he is, and how he reached his particular understanding of his role. There’s also a similar lack of delineation between one section and the next (one wants paragraphs, chapters, section headings – and is continually denied such comforts). Unlike Portrait, however, Tropic zips between ages and stages, so that the reader has to pay close attention to where Henry is at every moment. No matter how much things change, however, the obsessions of the protagonist remain the same: sex, writing, suffering, and truth.
It’s easy to get distracted by the portrayal of sex in this novel. It’s not surprising that the book was banned for “obscenity” in the States, and had to be published in France. The large middle section, the womb of the book, if you will, is consumed with images of Miller having sex with everyone from hookers to his wife. I was reminded of Norman Mailer’s alleged misogyny in An American Dream in these sections, and there is at least one episode where the author appears to describe raping a woman as a wonderful experience (for him). Still, I think that the sex is a distraction for us, almost like a trick – an arrow pointing in the wrong direction - though it may have been a path to renewal for the author. What is more interesting is the spiritual aspect of Miller’s ruminations.
What the author is interested in here is figuring out what is essential and what is true – not merely what happened, or what we, in an everyday sort of way consider to be “true,” but so much more. He claims to want to get to the “thing in itself,” a la Kant. Not “how does one become successful?” but “What is worthwhile?” One thing he claims again and again to absolutely not be worthwhile is the backbone of America, and capitalist culture in general – i.e. “making a living.” Though he holds a few jobs throughout the course of the book, for him making money is worse than beside the point because it gets in the way of the real work of life.
This disconnect between working and actually living life is the central problem, a problem which is perhaps greater for the artist than for any other worker. Miller seems to oscillate between the belief that the artist is the only toiler with any hope of stepping outside the “automated process,” and the concern that even the artist is missing the point – that even expression gets in the way of the true goal, which is silent acceptance. Probably the best example this is Miller’s friend, Grover, who as a young adult suddenly becomes a born-again Christian and hence the most “alive” person Miller has ever met. The difference is not religion, but rather that “if once, like other people, [Grover] had thought it was necessary to get somewhere now he knew that somewhere was anywhere and therefore right here and so why move?” Why indeed? Perhaps we feel we have to because, as Miller seems to realize in Tropic of Capricorn, we are all caught in the wheel of suffering (samsara in Buddhism). In Tropic of Capricorn Miller seems to reach some profound realizations on his own path to enlightenment (/artisthood?). The beauty of the book is that, if one can get past the distraction of the “obscenity,” observing another’s journey can help others along the path, too.