When you first start reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, it is easy to reach the verdict it was written during a series of lengthy drinking bouts.
Could man be drunk for ever
With liquor, love, or fights,
Lief should I rouse at morning
And lief lie down at nights.
That was written by A.E. Housman, concluding sadly that it was impossible: “men at whiles are sober and think by fits and starts.” But Henry Miller at first seems to have mastered this impossibility, and to differ from ordinary men as a perpetual drunkard from an abstainer.
Much of Miller’s writing reads something like an endless gush of reminiscence about people who are never introduced to the reader and are sometimes hardly credible. Some of them appear and are drawn in vivid detail, then vanish forever.Others fly into the story and out again, like a bat through a garage. Neither Tropic of Cancer or Tropic of Capricorn is a novel in any ordinary sense: that is, a story with a coherent plot developed in time and a cast of characters interacting on one another. It is more sections or blasts of non stop monologue.
Basically, this monologue is like a gabbling of a drunkard at the bar, or one you’re stuck with on an airplane. With a few important exceptions. One is that the style is marvelous. The other is that the subject matter rises far higher than that of the average monologist and sinks much deeper. Much of it consists of rhapsodic prose poems on Life, and Art, and Individuality, and the horrors of the Modern World, and so forth. Dealing with the shock of modern existence. Much of it is conversation pretty guttural together with vivid narratives of mean and degrading actions. It is often very funny, at least to men, albeit the tone is misogyny of the modern variety. Taken as a whole it makes you detest and despise Henry Miller to some extent. There is an effort to pity him, but you simply cannot. Not at first; perhaps not ever.
Tropic of Cancer first page:
I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.
Conventionally speaking, this makes for little coherence. How can
y Miller be living with a single companion at the Villa Borghese? It is a beautiful place, of course, but it is the property of the Republic of Italy, it is full of superb paintings and lamentable tourists. Except in real life, the Villa Borghese was Miller’s comic disguise name for a real place in Paris called the Villa Seurat; but who would know that and how can two men be dead, if one is verminous?
Body vermin always leave a corpse. All right, it is a hyperbole: they are lonely and clean, therefore dead, like well-washed cadavers. Then how, in all this cleanliness, does one of them acquire lice? And, curiouser and curiouser, why does the other have to shave the pediculous man’s armpits? Is Boris paralyzed, so that he cannot shave his own armpits?
The operations presents few technical difficulties. Or does Henry like telling us in the opening paragraphs of his book that he was so degraded, living on another man’s charity, that he was compelled as part of his duties as a dependent to shave the armpits of his host? It would be like the clients whom Juvenal describes as holding the chamber pot in the dining room while their rich patron relieved himself: a peaceful though unappetizing symbiosis. But why does he stop there? Perhaps he is squeamish?
No, as we read on in Tropic of Cancer, we realize that Henry is not squeamish. He may not be logical, but he is immune from the etiolating vice of fastidiousness. Perhaps on this first page he wishes to leave something to the reader’s imagination. Later, he makes no such concessions.
… Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.
It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom.
I always wondered if Henry Miller had read the Frankfurt school and if it had influenced his thinking:
The Frankfurt School accepted Marx’s notion of reification, of desire being frozen and fixed in place as a commodity object-as-fetish. Commodities are estranged from human origins in order for desires to be projected onto and into them so that the objects can become reified. America was the setting for the reification of desire through mass media. In the land of freedom and democracy, “The Culture Industry” undermined freedom of choice and expression. “Reason” becomes an “instrument” aligned to technology. The system of the Culture Industry was created in more liberal and industrialized nations. The culture industry creates a mass consciousness that is manipulated and distorted. Popular entertainment is standardized but pretends to individualization but produce Herman Marcuse’s “one dimensional society”. The techniques of the Culture Industry include the distribution and mechanical reproduction, which are external to the object. Therefore, all mass culture is identical and impresses its same stamp on everything.
“Instrumental Reason” was a pernicious effect of rationality. The term alone speaks of its danger: “instrumental” is subjective aligned to “reason”, presumed to be neutral. The Enlightenment had produced opposites that reduced everything to abstract equivalents of everything else in the service of the system of the exchange principle. All that is different or “non-identical” is forced into the mold to produce identity. For Adorno this mode of thinking would be countered by asserting his own difference, his own Jewishness—Difference instead of Identity. Instrumental Reason could be used to dominate nature through scientific control.
Progress and technological advances led, not to the empowerment of the people, but to their enslavement under despots. Modernism was exposed as a myth and social progress is shown as having fallen from grace. Technological apparatus allows for more efficient categorization that strengthens the collective order. Certain social groups succeed in administering and dominate other social groups through the appropriation of the means of rationalization. The masses are bought off with commodities. The masses are silenced by the entertainment industry that claims to inform but only instructs and stultifies opposition while pretending to allow “freedom of expression”. The result is totalitarianism or totalizing thinking. Everyone and everything must be the same, think the same, do the same: identity must be identical and the system resists the Other, which must be purged to protect the purity of the system. Hence the danger of the dialectic is that it privileges the One over the Other and seeks to annihilate the Other by negating it.Read More:http://www.arthistoryunstuffed.com/tag/max-horkheimer/