SexTropic of Capricorn is replete with references to the “super-cunt,” and a frequently lobbied term is “the Land of Fuck.” Miller does not treat sex as purely physical, the way Rabelais or Chaucer might, eliciting comedy from bawdy situations or titillating his readers for sensual kicks. He takes sex seriously, for it opens up avenues of perception and consciousness that other activities do not. Granted, Miller is no Kama Sutra mystic, and his writing is always laced with a heavy dose of self-parody, but he does seem to view sex as one of the few truly meaningful physical activities still open to humans, a way of forging connections with the material world. Since spirituality is, for him, to be found in the physical, the act of sex is a way of reaching toward that spirituality – toward the truth that Miller so actively seeks.
The Self“I shall seek the end in myself,” Miller writes. The self – finding it, defining it, coming to terms with it – is the ultimate objective. “Know thyself” is something of a maxim for Miller. He references various pseudonyms – Gottlieb Leberecht Muller, Samson Lackawanna – and we know that in reality he penned many of his earlier works under the names Cecil Barr or Basil Carr. All this jumbling of names is a way of suggesting the difficulty of defining oneself in the modern world. Throughout the whole of Tropic of Capricorn, Miller strives to fashion his own identity, drifting from job to job, diving into torrid affairs, before he seems to discover himself, at least to a degree, via writing and the creative act. Through it all, the book’s narrative perspective remains highly internal, highly subjective, and deeply grounded in the “I.” At one point, Miller even suggests an equation between “I” and “eye”; his eye constructs the world, since “thought” and “action” are one. I think, therefore the world exists.
The WriterTropic of Capricorn can be read as Miller’s answer to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If it is to be described in narrative terms, it tells the following story: Miller, lost in his twenties, tries writing a book, fails, pulls himself back up, reads voraciously (particularly Dostoevsky), keeps writing, finds he is unable to control what is coming out of his pen, has an epiphany of sorts, and finally emerges as close to a fully-formed writer. Miller suggests that one must be crushed in order to rise back up as an artist, that true art springs from the death/rebirth dynamic. Genius lies in resurrection.
AmericaMiller argues that America has a unique way of dealing with its past. Here, as opposed to in Europe, the new not only replaces the old; it obliterates it. Miller writes of all “vestiges” of his old Brooklyn neighborhood being wiped away, and contends that a European, despite that continent’s war-torn history, cannot understand that kind of effacement. In other words, American change is different from change anywhere else. By positing this separation, Miller suggests that there is a uniquely American identity, one founded in a constant expunging of the past – just as the Native Americans were ruthlessly decimated. Every American, whether figuratively or not, has blood on his/her hands.
ChildhoodIt is no surprise to find that Henry Miller greatly admired Marcel Proust. Passages of Tropic of Capricorn conjure the world of childhood with as much vividness as can be found in In Search of Lost Time, and as with Proust, food is significant. The “sour rye” that Miller describes serves as a metaphor for the losses that accompany adulthood: loss of innocence, but also a greater loss of meaning, in that the rye tastes better and means more when it is “unearned.” Paychecks, employment, the “automatic process” of adult life, ruin the clear-headed philosopher that is a child. Recalling Wordsworth, Miller argues that we are more lucid as children and in many ways wiser, and that adulthood muffles the wonders of our early years. Caustic throughout so much of Capricorn, Miller is surprisingly tender when describing his childhood, and evokes summer idylls, first loves, and excited conversations with loving detail.
Employment“The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company” is a justifiably famous Henry Miller invention. It goes without saying that Miller’s label – probably referring to the Western Union Telegraph Company of North America – casts the company as a huge and hugely populated (“cosmo”) and demonic organization. He describes the place as though it were Purgatory, with lost souls pouring in and out, or even Hell, with desperate workers slaving away for breadcrumbs. It is a place rampant with anti-Semitism – as when Hymie is called “that little kike” by the general manager – and racism – as when Valeska is fired because of her skin color. It is also a symbol, for Miller, of America’s ruthless turnover, its destruction of the past in the name of “progress.” After describing his experience as an employment manager in the company and his various other jobs – Encyclopedia Britannica salesman, mail order catalogue editor – Miller proclaims: “I want to prevent as many men as possible from pretending that they have to do this or that because they must earn a living. It is not true. One can starve to death – it is much better.”
Death/RebirthMiller describes “drowning” himself in the Gulf of Mexico, and writes of suicide and starvation, of “giving up the ghost.” Rather than advocating killing oneself, however, Miller is arguing for a kind of spiritual rebirth. In order for that to happen, one must first “die” on some level. When Miller writes his first book, he experiences one such possible “death,” and he must rise back up and rebuild himself piece by piece in order to become a true writer. The cycle of death and rebirth is crucial to artistic creation, and the end is simply a new beginning – as Miller suggests by concluding Tropic of Capricorn with the following words: “Tomorrow, tomorrow…”
Tropic of Capricorn Essays and Related Content
- Tropic of Capricorn: Major Themes
- Tropic of Capricorn: Questions
- Tropic of Capricorn: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Henry Miller: Biography
- Tropic of Capricorn Summary
- About Tropic of Capricorn
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Section I: From beginning to “I walked out by the same door that I had walked in – without as much as a by-your-leave, sir!”
- Summary and Analysis of Section II: “Things take place instantaneously” to “The frozen glass of the window cutting like a jackknife, clean and no remainder.”
- Summary and Analysis of Section III: “Life drifting by the show window” to “It gave me the feeling of the stupidity of the blood tie and of the love which is not spiritually imbued.”
- Summary and Analysis of Section IV: “I look back rapidly and I see myself again in California” to “I was not even a personal hard on.”
- Summary and Analysis of Section V: “It was about this time, adopting the pseudonym Samson Lackawanna, that I began my depradations” to “This is the only world you can inhabit, this tomb of the snake where darkness reigns.”
- Summary and Analysis of Section VI: “And suddenly for no reason at all, when I think of her returning to her nest, I remember Sunday mornings in the little old house near the cemetery” to “It makes you terribly quiet inside, makes you aware that the
- Summary and Analysis of Section VII: From “The stabbing horror of life is not contained in calamities and disasters” to end.
- Tropic of Capricorn as Autobiography
- Related Links on Tropic of Capricorn
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
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