Tropic of Cancer Summary and Analysis
by Henry Miller
Section IV: “Which is what I try to din into Carl and Van Norden every night” to “let it slowly infiltrate your veins.”
While Carl and Van Norden continue to complain incessantly, railing against their lives and the world, Miller remains satisfied, and tries to bring them to his side – to a “world without hope, but no despair.” He feels as if he’s been “converted to a new religion.” He gets occasional telegrams from Mona, saying she’s coming to Paris soon – but she doesn’t come. At times, Miller thinks about her “hungrily.” He writes: “Now and then, despite my grim satisfaction, I get to thinking about another way of life, get to wondering if it would make a difference having a young, restless creature by my side.” The problem is he can’t remember what it felt like to have Mona around: “Everything that belongs to the past seems to have fallen into the sea.”
Miller notes that he and his expatriate friends are full of ideas for how to make the world a better place, but they have no “vehicle" to "hitch” those ideas to. Miller, Carl, and Van Norden often hang out in the back room of Monsieur Paul’s, a bistro in the neighborhood. That area of the bistro is reserved for newspapermen, who are constantly on the lookout for the prostitutes and pimps who form the rest of Monsieur Paul’s regular clientele. Miller describes one such newspaperman: “a tall, blonde fellow who delivers the Havas messages by bicycle.” He’s always late, always sweating, and has an immaculate “wench” whom he smacks with kisses every night. Another couple who arrive around the same time – a “timid little rabbit” and a woman he calls Lucienne – make a habit of behaving “just like two married people” – bickering, washing their linen in public together, and concluding their fights with “billing and cooing, just like a pair of turtle doves.”
“I have never seen a place like Paris for varieties of sexual provender,” Miller writes. One day he is propositioned by a pregnant woman. In Paris, he notes, a “missing tooth or a nose eaten away or a fallen womb […] seems to be regarded as an added spice, a stimulant for the jaded appetites of the male.” Then Miller receives a letter from Boris, whom he hasn’t seen for months. It’s a strange letter, without any greeting, address, or date, written on a torn sheet of ruled paper. It is full of cryptic statements like: “What happened between us – at any rate, as far as I go – is that you touched me, touched my life, that is, at the one point where I am still alive: my death.” Boris has been living by himself for the past six months. He refers in the letter to a dinner at the Cronstadts’. “The reason I wanted you to commit suicide that evening,” he writes, “when Moldorf became God, was that I was very close to you then […] And I was afraid, terribly afraid, that some day you’d go back on me, die on my hands. And I would be left high and dry with my idea of you simply, and nothing to sustain it. I should never forgive you for that.” Miller reflects that to Boris, he was always an “idea”, never something physical or biological. Boris loved to nourish him with ideas, never food. “You must be life for me to the very end,” Boris writes. “That is the only way in which I can sustain my idea of you.”
Tania has returned from a trip to Russia. Sylvester has remained behind, trying to get a job, having given up on literature. Tania wants Miller to go to the Crimea with her, to start a new life there. Miller wants to know if he can proofread there. “All this hocus-pocus about Russia disturbed me a little,” Miller writes. Tania is bubbling over with excitement at the idea, but Miller secretly wishes he were left alone. Carl, for his part, advises Miller and Tania to get married immediately, and wants to come along for the ride. He is joyful at the prospect of “a glorious new life […] on the other side of Europe.” And yet Miller can tell that Carl, deep down, does not truly want to leave Paris.
It’s now summer. Miller meets Tania almost every day around five o’clock for drinks. She takes him to jazz clubs he’s never been to before, and accuses him of treating her badly right before she left for Russia. She seems to want to “behave like an angel” now, free from Sylvester’s strain. She wants him to quit his job so she can make love to him day and night. Miller describes these afternoons with Tania as enjoyable enough, but the thought of Mona still rears its head. As difficult as it to admit it, he misses her. He remembers thinking only of her for seven years, and reflects that these days, “in the very midst of things, sometimes when I feel that I am absolutely free of it all, suddenly, in rounding a corner perhaps, there will bob up a little square, a few trees and a bench, a deserted spot where we stood and had it out, where we drove each other crazy with bitter, jealous scenes.” He remembers missing her so terribly in the past, yearning for her with every breath, and now those old feelings he thought were long gone seem to creep back in.
He recalls that Mona used to love to read Strindberg, and would tell Miller he was just as masochistic as the great playwright. Miller goes to the Pension Orfila where Strindberg used to live, then heads to the library and reflects “on the meaning of that inferno which Strindberg had so mercilessly depicted.” Why did the playwright, with his dark vision of life, come to Paris? The answers seem to come in a torrent. “It was no mystery to me any longer,” Miller writes, “why he and others (Dante, Rabelais, Van Gogh, etc., etc.) had made their pilgrimage to Paris. I understood then why it is that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love.” Miller now belongs in their company.
On the Fourth of July, Miller is fired from his proofreading job. The newspaper needs to cut down and save money so as to allow the head honchos on the other side of the Atlantic to keep their palatial abodes on the Riviera. “Nothing to do but to get down into the street again, walk, hang around, sit on benches, kill time,” Miller writes. Carl and Van Norden asks Miller what will happen now if his wife comes to visit.
Miller turns to pseudonymous writing to make money here and there. He writes pamphlets for a newly opened brothel, writes a thesis for a psychologist. Then, for some extra change, he gives his consent to be photographed in the nude for what he is assured will be “a strictly private collection.” He winds up spending a good amount of time with the photographer, who knows Paris inside and out, and through him he meets and befriends a sculptor and painter named Kruger, who is ecstatic to find that Miller will sit and “listen to his ‘esoteric’ ideas.” Miller gains his confidence and worms his way into his heart. He begins frequenting another studio, that of an Irish painter named Mark Swift who shows off nude paintings of his mistress. He also cultivates a friendship with a young man in the diplomatic service named Fillmore. Kruger, Swift, Fillmore, and Miller become something of a tight-knit group.
This section traces a character arc more clearly than most other parts of the novel. Miller begins by feeling cut off from the past, free to live eternally in the present, and ends by sensing that he may have spoken too soon. Mona is the problem: she is, we imagine, perhaps the only woman whom Miller has ever truly loved.
The memories rein down on him mercilessly. Compare the proclamation “Everything that is of the past seems to have fallen into the sea” to the confession that follows several pages later: “I had become so reconciled to this life without [Mona], and yet if I thought about her only for a minute it was enough to pierce the bone and marrow of my contentment and shove me back again into the agonizing gutter of my wretched past.” Even Miller’s prose reflects this change of temperament, switching from present tense to past tense. Miller performs shifts in temporal registers throughout Tropic of Cancer, but here the shift is clearly grounded in an emotion: Miller finds himself missing Mona more and more, and is increasingly unable to live entirely in the here and now.
Miller thinks of Mona “not as of a person in a definite aura of time and space, but separately, detached, as though she had blown up into a great cloudlike form that blotted out the past.” Therein lies the paradox. Mona becomes an abstraction, thus atemporal – and yet with that abstraction come specific memories, linked to specific times. Thus even as she blots out the past, she opens up certain parts of that past in disheartening clarity. As Miller wanders through Paris, each passing sight stirs up a different recollection – a fight here, a talk about Strindberg there. Love and love lost prevent him from fully realizing his goal of purposeless, hopeless, past-less and future-less living.
The complacent satisfaction engendered by the proofreading job chips away, bit by bit. It’s no match for the feeling, which is slowly building steam, of an opportunity for true love squandered. The need for human connection therefore remains, try as Miller may to deny or eradicate it. He can never be “free of it all.” Ironically, it is Matisse – a painter famed for pushing the medium further from faithful representation and closer to abstraction –
who draws Miller back “to the proper precincts of the human world.” Walking through a Matisse collection, Miller remarks that “in every poem by Matisse there is the history of a particle of human flesh which refused the consummation of death.” Matisse puts life over death, perhaps in turn trumping Miller’s sense of separation and disconnectedness – as
does Boris’s strange and unexpected letter, in which the old friend mentions feeling so close to Miller and being afraid Miller would simply “die on [him].”
Miller’s vivid description of looking at a Matisse painting is particularly heartfelt. “Standing on the threshold of that world which Matisse has created,” he writes, “I re-experienced the power of that revelation which had permitted Proust to so deform the picture of life that only those who, like himself, are sensible to the alchemy of sound and sense, are capable of transforming the negative reality of life into the substantial and significant outlines of art.” He continues, in typical Miller fashion, to link artistic inspiration or genius to the physical, to what is in the gut: “Only those who can admit the light into their gizzards can translate what is there in the heart.” We are reminded of the heart as not just an abstract concept or metaphor but an organ, pumping and contracting. The ineffable, the spiritual, lies within the corporeal; meaning is not separate from the physical world, but an organic – breathing, pumping, sweating, bleeding – part of it.
Thus, connection to humanity is crucial. The prostitutes Miller sleeps with transform into a metaphor for Paris. “Paris hadn’t been good to him,” Miller writes of Carl, “any more than it had to me, or to anybody for that matter, but when you’ve suffered and endured things here it’s then that Paris takes hold of you, grabs you by the balls, you might say, like some lovesick bitch who’d rather die than let you get out of her hands.” It’s a way for Miller to sneak in, between the lines, his famous proclamation – that Paris is herself a “whore,” clawing onto you just like the past you can never quite escape.
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- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Section I: To “She was a whore all the way through – and that was her virtue!”
- Summary and Analysis of Section II: “Easter came in like a frozen hare” to “I go forth to fatten myself.”
- Summary and Analysis of Section III: “At one-thirty I called on Van Norden” to “Il ne faut jamais desesperer.”
- Summary and Analysis of Section IV: “Which is what I try to din into Carl and Van Norden every night” to “let it slowly infiltrate your veins.”
- Summary and Analysis of Section V: “A few weeks later, upon receipt of a pressing invitation from Collins” to “So you see why once in a while I must let myself be sucked by a Lesbian…”
- Summary and Analysis of Section VI: “When the cold weather set in the princess disappeared” to “the green marsh water alive with croaking frogs.”
- Summary and Analysis of Section VII: From “The fog and snow, the cold latitude, the heavy learning”
- Paris in the Thirties
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