Henry runs into an old friend named Ulric, who has just returned from Europe after several years abroad. What begins as a chance encounter morphs into an important moment for Henry, because Ulric’s descriptions of Europe – of Capri and Pompeii and Paris – glow with fervor and transport our hero to those faraway locales. “My friend Ulric was the first fellow I had ever met who I could truly say had traveled,” Miller writes, and Ulric’s account of his voyage seems to plant the seed that will later blossom when he finally travels to Paris – the notion of traveling without spending, of living from day to day, dependent on the kindness of friends and strangers alike, surging ahead with no road-map, no plan. (Those travels form the meat of Tropic of Cancer.)
Miller begins meeting frequently with Ulric, soaking in his stories, thirsting for further details, fascinated by “the other world.” He writes: “Even now, years and years since, even now, when I know Paris like a book, his picture of Paris is still before my eyes, still vivid, still real.” Miller is amazed by the spell a person’s mere account of his experience can weave. He sees himself in Ulric – they are both but “Brooklyn boys” – and admires his friend’s ability to “describe so lovingly and faithfully what he has seen and felt.” He concludes that those meetings with Ulric are “responsible, more than anything else, for [his] being here today.”
Miller’s development as a writer continues. He reads D. H. Lawrence, that pioneer of explicit literature, voraciously. He is beset by wild ups and downs in mood – “long stretches of gloom and melancholy followed by extravagant bursts of gaiety, of trancelike inspiration.” He feels he is never exactly himself, but instead swings from one extreme to another: he is either “anonymous or the person called Henry Miller raised to the nth degree.” By the latter he means that everything becomes amplified: he finds himself capable of spewing out a whole book in one sitting, of projecting himself into the world with full intensity.
As he searches through the world – or, specifically, New York – for what most intrigues him, he finds himself drawn to the old and uninterested in what his contemporaries are writing or saying. The literature and media of the time hold little appeal for him; what fascinates him are stray details, a body part, a staircase, a lost button in the gutter. He searches for the “object,” the “thing,” that indefinable aspect of existence that seems to reside more in such details than in the larger themes or bodies of work. Already set apart by this compunction, Miller finds that his talkative nature, his elaborate way of speaking, further separates him from society, even marks him as “an outlaw.” People are easily annoyed or riled by his demeanor and his speech. But difference, he argues, is the key, for that which is different is that which is forever. If Miller’s self is ineradicable, as he has earlier implied, it is because it is different, unique, separate: “What is me is ineradicable, because it is different.” America, however, squelches difference: “the moment you have a ‘different’ thought you cease to be an American.”
One day at work, someone from the vice president’s office pulls Miller aside and tells him he is “horrified” that Miller has hired “a colored person” as his secretary. The woman’s name is Valeska, and she is of mixed race. The president of the company steps in and tells Valeska that she has been promoted – to Havana. In other words, the company tries to brush her away as quietly as possible, sugarcoating their actions. She is furious, and at dinner that night, with Miller, Hymie, and Steve Romero (another friend of Miller’s), she bemoans her situation. Miller leaps to her defense, claiming if she does wind up being fired, he will quit. She is taken aback by his comment, and breaks down into tears. Thus is forged their connection; he slips her a love letter later, they go out dancing, their flirtation builds, and shortly thereafter Miller invites her to his house – where his wife is preparing to have an abortion. It is decided that Valeska will stay and take care of the Millers’ young daughter while the wife is undergoing the abortion. That day, Miller and Valeska wind up playing dominoes with the child. Once the child has fallen asleep, Miller and Valeska have sex on the dinner table. The wife returns as Miller is buttoning up his fly. She is unaware, “white as flour” from her procedure. Miller and Valeska put her to bed and clean up the dominoes and tabletop. From then on, Miller explains, the mention or sight of dominoes brings memories of Valeska and that night surging back – a night when, Miller notes, his “faith in human beings” vanished.
Years of desolation follow. Every time Miller walks across the Brooklyn Bridge he feels he is on the precipice of a great void; the bridge seems only to separate, not to connect. He spends many nights just wandering the streets of New York, often with O’Rourke, the company detective, listening to his rambling tales of murder, arson, and theft. Confronted with what feels like the great emptiness of the colossal city – “this null and void, this zero whiteness,” this grid of streets that “smell of empty bellies and full bellies and bellies half full” – Miller finds, if not solace, at least physical satisfaction in small things. He learns to “enjoy” a sandwich, a pork tenderloin, a collar button, a “cornice or a coping.”
The job continues, hiring and firing, day in and day out, for nearly five years. Miller describes his sense of disconnect as follows: “I was like a man sitting in a lighthouse: below me the wild waves, the rocks, the reefs, the debris of shipwrecked fleets. I could give the danger signal but I was powerless to avert catastrophe.” He yearns for a cataclysm that will “plunge the lighthouse into the sea”; he yearns for escape, but is unwilling to escape by his own volition.
Miller then tells of another abortive affair, mentioning that Valeska wound up committing suicide. One night at the office a poor nineteen-year-old Jewish girl named Pauline Janowski comes looking for a job. Miller doesn’t have the heart to turn her down, so her takes her home with him, hoping to put her up for the night. His wife will have none of that, so when the girl begins to weep by his side, Miller escapes with her to the beach, and there makes love to her. Afterwards, he asks her what she plans to do. She says she has no idea. He drops her by a gas station with some change in her pocket, and curses his wife on his way home for being such a “mean bitch.”
Later, he hears of an old flame coming to town, a girl named Monica who is escorting her mother’s corpse in a coffin. Finding the very notion of the girl carrying her dead mother through Grand Central laughable, Miller avoids her at all costs, and plays sick from work. Then his colleague Kronski asks him to meet a girl he is interested in – an Egyptian. Miller is taken with the Egyptian, and one day happens upon her in her apartment. While she is half-asleep, he has sex with her. In the midst of the bout, Kronski comes knocking on the door. Miller, suppressing laughter, doesn’t respond. Nor does the Egyptian girl. Kronski stands outside the door for quite some time, before finally leaving a note and walking away. He had been trying to let the Egyptian girl know that his wife is sick and in the hospital.
Soon thereafter, Kronski’s wife dies. He takes a walk with Miller, and confides to him his sorrow. It is not so much his wife’s death as the memories it conjures that cause pain; the first girl Kronski ever loved died in a similar manner. For some reason, standing in front of the Egyptian girl’s door brought back the memory of that dead girl, of standing by her grave day after day after day, and Kronski explains to Miller that he wanted to strangle him at that moment, knowing he was hiding there behind the door. “I don’t know why I felt that way but it seemed to me that you had opened up a tomb, that you were violating the dead body of the girl I loved,” he says. Later, Kronski tells Miller that he has great potential and is at risk of ruining it: “...if you just had a little more confidence in yourself you could be the biggest man in the world today.”
Little fazed by Kronski’s words, Miller continues the old lifestyle, drifting from one one-night-stand to another, sharing stories of exploits over beer with his old friend MacGregor, who loves to plunge into “reminiscences of cunt.” They go to the Roseland Ballroom together to meet a “nymphomaniac” MacGregor knows named Paula. Between his frequent bouts of sex, MacGregor is a neurotic, worrying constantly about his health and whether or not he has contracted a venereal disease.
Allusions to Christ abound in this section of the book. Kronski tells Henry Miller he could become “another Jesus Christ,” and time and again Miller writes of resurrection, of dying in order to live. Whereas he referred earlier to the would-be artist perishing before re-emerging as a true artist, here he seems to be speaking in broader terms: “One thing is certain,” he writes, “that when you die and are resurrected you belong to the earth and whatever is of the earth is yours inalienably.” This passage sounds a lot like Thoreau, or any of the Transcendentalists. What is at stake is not just the ability to create art, to write a great novel, but to live, in every meaning of that word. Miller is unclear, however, about just what proper living is; he complains more than he prescribes. In many ways, Tropic of Capricorn is a book about how not to live, as Miller sees it.
For example, Miller frequently implies that death is the way to go. It is not so much a means of escape as it is a means of returning to the world renewed and strengthened: “We could all die in bed tomorrow, without pain, without suffering – if we had the sense to take advantage of our remedies.” Is Miller advocating suicide? That might be the conclusion if one reads him literally; every one of his exultations should, however, be taken with a grain of salt. Hyperbole is the point for Miller; the world should be experienced at full intensity, life should be lived to the fullest, and prose should be written, to borrow Updike’s description of Nabokov’s style, “ecstatically.” Thus, things as grandiose as death or resurrection can in fact be found in small, everyday details, such as the sandwiches and architectural touches Miller learns to appreciate.
Moreover, Miller’s relationship to death is strikingly ambivalent. He returns to the phrase that opens his book – “giving up the ghost” – to refer to killing oneself, writing of it as a heady temptation, but then describes death itself in terms of the emptiness of life: “Death was more like what we went through in the park: two people walking side by side in the mist, rubbing against trees and bushes, and not a word in between them.” Verbal communication imbues the empty city with meaning; human connection is paramount. Without this, life is indistinguishable from death. And yet, death is not just “emptier than the name itself” but is also “right and peaceful, dignified, if you like.” Finally, Miller concludes that life and death are essentially flip sides of the same coin: “Whichever way the coin flips is right, so long as you hold no stakes.”
Interestingly, Miller is often touted as a profoundly life-affirming writer, a Whitmanesque celebrator of the human body and spirit. He is at times contrasted with Celine: where the French writer is pessimistic and morbid, Miller is optimistic and brimming with brio. Of course, neither of these characterizations is entirely correct. Celine tints even his darkest passages with glimmers of hope and a crazed love of humanity; Miller spares no venom in his denunciations of the complacent life, as embodied by his wife – the “mean bitch” who won’t allow the weeping, fragile Pauline to stay the night – or the racist Cosmodemonic Telegraph Community management. It’s the repetition of the American life that infuriates Miller, the mindless adherence to age-old strictures, the reductiveness of it all; normal life boils down to sleeping, working, and eating, an existence which in turn boils down to breathing, and “why the hell should one want to go on breathing forever?” Miller continues, “Anything that would have to be done interminably would be torture.” Miller sees life as a constraining cycle, and the key is to find anything to break out of it, even momentarily. When he describes his reactions to Ulric’s descriptions of Europe, however, he writes with such awe-inspired passion, with such glowing hope, that one senses he has just caught glimpse of an antidote to his malaise. “Most of the places he described for me I have still to see; some of them I shall perhaps never see,” he begins by conceding. “But they live inside me, warm and vivid, just as he created them in our rambles through the park.” It is as if Miller has discovered what great writing or speech can offer, the transportive capability of the right words.
Indeed, though Miller refers to wordless walks through a park when speaking of life’s emptiness, as in the earlier quote, this section is peppered with speech-filled rambles he undertakes, be they with Ulric, O’Rourke, Kronski, or especially Pauline, who seems like Ulric to move him in some ineffable way. While Miller makes habit of referring to his acquaintances dismissively, pointing out their most laughable qualities (such as MacGregor’s neuroses), he writes of Pauline simply and earnestly: “What attracted me to her was her passion for Balzac. All the way home she was talking to me about Lost Illusions.” That Miller keeps his language simple when describing Pauline seems to underline his affection for her. He does not use explicit or envelope-pushing imagery of the kind we see in the encounter with the Egyptian, or launch into a sustained philosophical digression; he stays on the surface, skipping through the beats of his night with Pauline and leaving us with an unexpectedly poignant image: Pauline standing in front of a gas station after midnight, thirty-five cents in her pocketbook, with vague plans to head to Cleveland “or some place.”