Tropic of Cancer Summary and Analysis

Section II: “Easter came in like a frozen hare” to “I go forth to fatten myself.”

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Miller describes walking down the Champs-Elysees with “ideas pouring from [him] like sweat.” He is in good spirits, brimming with confidence and inspiration. His friend and fellow expatriate and writer Carl, on the other hand, complains without cease these days, declaring that he would like to kill himself one day, and wondering whether he should travel to Arizona the next. “I hate Paris!” Carl whines. He wonders why writers feel they have to write. “There are too many books already,” he argues.

Carl, though saying he hates food, seems to find in it his only enjoyment. He ushers Miller to the Dome, a famous Montparnasse restaurant and bar. Standing there is Marlowe, another friend and something of a drunkard. The three sit down for drinks. When the time to pay arrives, Marlowe, as he often does, suddenly pretends that he is going blind. Carl kicks him and yells: “Come out of it, you sap! You don’t have to do that with me!”

Marlowe works for a review, and mentions that he must head back to San Francisco. He suggests that Miller and Carl – who is now terrified of losing his current job, because of a piece of gossip Marlowe has just related to him – take over the review during his absence. Then Marlowe promptly collapses from the alcohol. After returning to Carl’s place with the unconscious Marlowe in tow, Carl suggests to Miller that they take up the offer and cram the review with their own crazed writing. “One good number and after that the magazine’ll be finished,” he chuckles. Miller laughs along. They take Marlowe to Carl’s bed, only to find a woman there, waiting for Carl. “I forgot all about her,” Carl says. Then Van Norden, another of the expatriate circle, knocks on the door. He has lost a plate of false teeth. In the morning, he and Marlowe go to look for the teeth.

We learn that Sylvester is a playwright. Miller has his last dinner at Sylvester’s home. Tania is withering under the strain of her relationship with him. She relates her difficulties to Miller. Sylvester talks constantly, even when he’s undressing; he seems to want to put a fence around Tania, and seems to sense the threat Miller represents. “When I think of Tania crawling into bed with this busted bladder I get enraged,” Miller writes. “To think that a poor, withered bastard with those cheap Broadway plays up his sleeve should be pissing on the woman I love.” To Miller, Sylvester seems to think Tania is a saint who must be preserved. “You don’t know how palatable is a polluted woman,” Miller writes, “how a change of semen can make a woman bloom!”

For the last few weeks Miller has been living “a communal life,” mainly with “some crazy Russians [particularly Eugene, a pianist, and Anatole], a drunken Dutchman, and a big Bulgarian woman named Olga.” Olga has just been released from the hospital, “where she had her tubes burned out.” Miller describes living with these people – the constant smell of rancid butter, the prolonged meals with music, going to the movies in the afternoon. Miller has also discovered Giovanni Papini, an Italian critic, essayist, poet, novelist, and journalist, and he proceeds to quote two whole pages of Papini’s writing.

Miller writes that he prefers being “a poor man of Europe” to returning to America. He meets another Russian named Serge, who lives in an artists’ colony in Suresnes. Before the Russian Revolution Serge was a captain in the Imperial Guard; he is a hulk of a man, and “drinks vodka like a fish.” The two meet when Serge, driving a truck, spots Miller on a street corner and asks him to help unload a few things. Upon learning Miller is an American and is broke, Serge “almost weeps with joy.” He puts Miller up in exchange for English lessons.

Miller bemusedly describes his dinners with Serge and his Armenian wife. Three dogs accompany the diners, lapping up the leftovers. The regular hors d’oeuvre is oatmeal. Miller is grateful to have a home and meals. Unfortunately, he can’t sleep. “The mattress is saturated with embalming fluid,” he writes, “a morgue for lice, bedbugs, cockroaches, tapeworms.” So he leaves. He may be without shelter as a result, but at least he is free.

In Paris, Miller worms some money out of an acquaintance named Peckover, then slips away into the night. When lying in a cheap hotel room one morning, he suddenly remembers Nanantatee – a Hindu man he knew in the States who lives in Paris, in a gorgeous suite. Nanantatee plays the Good Samaritan for Miller, handing him a pair of blankets, enlisting him to help with the daily household chores, and feeding him. He urges Miller to stay for as long as he wants, while frequently asking him if he’d like to go search for a room in the city – knowing full well that Miller is penniless. We learn that Nanantatee is a wealthy pearl merchant with rooms in Paris, a bungalow in Darjeeling, a villa in Bombay. Miller complains that he is at the man’s “beck and call continually” and soon feels stuck in the merchant’s home, unable to escape.

Nanantatee’s friend Kepi provides an opportunity to get out. Kepi is a “scrounger, a sort of human tick”; to make money, he takes visitors from India out on the town, shoos them to the brothel, and shows them a good time. He “knows the shortest way to any place you want to go,” Miller writes. One night, he asks Miller to take one of his clients to a nearby brothel. The client was “one of Gandhi’s men” and is now in Paris with little money to spend. Miller obliges and takes the young man to “Miss Hamilton’s joint.” There the Indian grows consternated at the sight of all the women surrounding him. He insists that Miller pick a girl as well. Miller consents, and soon he and the Indian find themselves with two prostitutes in the back room. The Indian wants to make a switch, so they make a switch. This is something of a faux pas.

Upstairs, after a bout, the Indian asks Miller where he should go to use the toilet. Miller, not thinking it’s something serious and perhaps wanting to have a little fun, advises the Indian to do what he needs to do in the bidet. Then a commotion erupts through the hallway. The madame of the establishment comes out screaming. The Indian has defecated in the bidet, thinking it was a toilet and would flush.

The matter soon blows over, and the madame accepts that the Indian simply made a mistake. He and Miller spend a good deal of time together over the next few days. The Indian does not believe in Gandhi’s program, and looks to America as a model. Miller notes in his writing that “India’s enemy is not England, but America.” After parting company with the Indian for the last time (and extracting a few francs from him), Miller decides to “make not the least resistance to fate,” and to just go with the tide. He stops hoping, and decides to just live in the present.

Analysis:

Miller, thinking of his friend Carl’s complaints about Paris and books, responds with a passage that comes as close as any to clearly spelling out his philosophy in Tropic of Cancer: “I’ve lived out my melancholy youth. I don’t give a fuck any more what’s behind me, or what’s ahead of me. I’m healthy. Incurably healthy. No sorrows, no regrets. No past, no future. The present is enough for me. Day by day. Today! Le bel aujourd’hui!” He closes this section by writing: “I have found God, but he is insufficient. I am only spiritually dead. Physically I am alive. Morally I am free. The world which I have departed is a menagerie. The dawn is breaking on a new world, a jungle world in which the lean spirits roam with sharp claws. If I am a hyena I am a lean and hungry one: I go forth to fatten myself.”

The present is all. Stripping himself of hope is what allows Miller to taste freedom. Paris suits him because he is able to drift, as he does – day-to-day, apartment-to-apartment, hotel-to-hotel. Capricorn is deeply concerned with what is behind, with the ways in which the past might bleed into the present, and with the ways in which the new wipes away the old. Cancer is, in a sense, a freer work, less bound by the constraints of time and memory, closer to New Journalism, the kind of “spontaneous writing” Kerouac would espouse, and any number of such literary movements that would burst on the scenes decades later. Miller is writing what he sees in front of his own eyes. Life is art. Onward Miller marches into the “new world,” a “jungle” in which certain maxims apply: sleep, wake, live, eat or be eaten. Reducing life to its essential components is another method to achieve freedom, in Miller’s view.

Solitude is also crucial, at least at times. Giovanni Papini writes that he needs “to be alone.” Miller, commenting on Papini’s words, argues that “Papini misses something by a hair’s breadth when he talks of the need to be alone.” He continues: “It is not difficult to be alone if you are poor and a failure. An artist is always alone – if he is an artist. No, what the artist needs is loneliness.” Thus, being lonely trumps being alone. True art is born out of the emotion that the state of solitude produces; the state alone is not enough. “The artist, I call myself,” Miller writes. Does this mean he is an artist, or simply that he thinks of himself as one? Perhaps we’re talking about the same thing.

Miller writes of walking along the Seine, of something rushing up inside him “at the sight of this dark, swift-moving current” – a “great exultation” that lifts him up, “affirming the deep wish that is in [him] never to leave this land.” Miller thinks comparatively of New York and calls it “meaningless,” a “whole city erected over a hollow pit of nothingness.” Paris, through his language, seems a vast expanse dotted with sights, a pathway winding past age-old churches and withered trees; New York, by contrast, is crowded in, a prison bounded by skyscrapers, a lock-step grid.

In the thirties, Miller happened to find himself immersed in a Parisian literary circle largely comprised of American expatriates. Tellingly, not much of Tropic of Cancer is devoted to the physical acts of writing or art-making, though there are allusions here and there. Miller focuses instead on the physical facts of existence – the hunger that leads him to scrounge up whatever meals he can, the fatigue that propels him to find a bed in some cheap dive on the other side of town, the erection that lunges him into bed with a Left Bank prostitute. Still, the city itself inspires in him a kind of reverie; much of the book reads like a fevered travelogue, especially when compared to Capricorn, which exhibits much less place-naming and setting-describing. “And God knows,” Miller writes, “when spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise.”