Miller remembers, as a child, playing piano for the grown-ups’ amusement. He never got anywhere, in part because for him the music “was always mixed up with sex.” His first piano teacher’s name is Lola Niessen, a woman in her late twenties. She is hairy and no great beauty, but Miller, fifteen at the time, fantasizes about her and bribes her little brother to let him get a peek of her in the bathroom. At one lesson, he deliberately leaves his fly open for her to see. When she points at it embarrassed, he grabs her hand and thrusts it to his crotch. She springs back and calls him a “silly boy,” and he expects her to be “severe” with him at the subsequent lessons. She is anything but. She begins to pay more attention to her appearance around him, wears makeup for the lesson. He begins to follow her at night. One night they meet by a railroad track and have sex. Young Miller’s virginity is a thing of the past.
From then on, Miller gets an erection whenever he plays Czerny on the piano, as it reminds him of Lola lying on the grass. “Playing the piano was just one long vicarious fuck for me,” he writes. Brimming with sexual hunger, he has to wait another two years before getting another such opportunity, when he visits a brothel with his friend Simmons. The experience leaves him with a bad taste in his mouth; he finds it cold and “mechanical” and contracts gonorrhea.
A year later, he is giving piano lessons to a girl whose mother is a “slut, a tramp and a trollop if ever there was one.” The mother comes onto him, and he winds up sleeping with her but is almost caught by her African-American beau. He runs away, but the daughter who he was teaching comes after him. She is only sixteen years old. He has sex with her, knocks her up, pays for a back-alley abortion, then beats it to the Adirondacks, where he has sex with another piano student. “Every time I touched the piano I seemed to shake a cunt loose,” he concludes. He uses his piano-playing to attract women, and describes himself as at times “so chock-full of energy…I wanted to jump out of my skin.”
One summer he goes swimming in the Catskills with two girls, Francie and her friend Agnes. During one swim, a storm descends upon the trio, and Henry begins cursing the heavens. Agnes, an Irish Catholic, runs away from him horrified. Miller catches up with her, and manages to have sex with her while consoling her and apologizing for his sacriligious statements. Francie, on the other hand, has no morals and is “born to fuck.” Sometimes on crowded subways she nestles up close to Miller, takes his hand and puts it on her genitalia, her dress hiding the act from the other passengers. She even once tries to persuade her brother to have sex with her.
Returning to the subject of piano lessons, Miller writes of Trix Moranda and her sister, Mrs. Costello. Trix is MacGregor’s girlfriend at the time, but tries to pretend to her sister that she and MacGregor don’t have sex. Mrs. Costello, for her part, pretends to everyone that she can’t have sex with anybody, that she is “built too small.” Meanwhile, as Miller knows, MacGregor is secretly sleeping with both of them. Mrs. Costello takes lessons from Miller, but the piano playing is often sidelined by discussions of sex. Miller tries to get Mrs. Costello to admit she can have intercourse, and one day she even allows him to feel inside her vagina to prove she is not “built right.” Miller protests, and the argument finally gives way to Miller fingering Mrs. Costello, and then to his having sex with her. “It seems strange to me that the music always passed off into sex,” he writes.
He describes nights on the town with MacGregor, who is “cunt-crazy” by his own admission and berates Miller for being too much of a monogamist. Every night out the two friends pick up a different girl (or girls). Miller likes MacGregor for his failures, his faults, his idiosyncrasies, but the friends often argue. MacGregor asserts that he and Miller should fraternize more with others; he accuses Miller of thinking himself superior, and calls that kind of thinking wrongheaded, since one never knows when one will need a friend. He is delighted whenever Miller asks him for money, because it gives him the occasion to “deliver a little sermon on friendship.” MacGregor labels Miller a one-way friend, worse than a bum: “Where are you when I’m in a jam?” he demands. “You can’t be found.” All Miller does is laugh and wait for the money.
At this point in the narrative, Miller is married and with a child. He keeps telling MacGregor he will run away, but doesn’t. “I knew very well I’d have to make a break some day,” he writes. “I knew very well I was pissing my time away. But I knew also there was nothing I could do about it – yet.” He is living a kind of fake-bourgeois existence, in “a respectable brownhouse in the dead center of the most respectable neighborhood in Brooklyn.” “Respectable” and “dead” are associated through this sentence, and Miller does not mince words about his condition. The only concrete thing he seems able to latch onto is his father’s writing desk, an unwieldy “Neanderthal object” that he has stuck in his parlor. When he sits down to write, however, he faces a new host of problems: it is not that he can’t think of what to write, but that he can’t think of what not to write. “The bloody machine wouldn’t stop,” he explains. “I was not only in the middle of the current but the current was running through me and I had no control over it whatsoever.” Through all this thinking and writing and dreaming, he is still unable to find himself: “even my dreams were not authentic, not bona fide Henry Miller dreams.”
The moment of self-realization comes one day in a theater. Miller has gone to see a matinee vaudeville show. He is waiting to head to the balcony to claim his seat when the lights begin to dim. As the curtain rises, he contemplates how mankind has always been “mysteriously stilled” by the prelude to a spectacle. Suddenly, he realizes that the curtain is a symbol, that the curtain rises not just before man but within him; that if man were awake he would mount the stage himself. The thought comes to him in a moment of absolute clarity, and with that the “machine” stops and he finds himself “standing in [his] own presence bathed in a luminous reality.”
From that moment on, he is able to write. No one understands his writing, but in his mind he is “describing the New World – unfortunately a little too soon because it had not yet been discovered and nobody could be persuaded that it existed.” He is ahead of his time, the “unique Dadaist in America.” His writing stems from his own difference as a human being, and it reflects that separation: “I had to write English, naturally, because it was the only language I spoke, but between my language and the telegraphic code employed by my bosom friends there was a world of difference.”
Though the traditional “New World” – that is, America – was founded on destruction, Miller sees words as inherently life-giving. He writes of the ruthless extermination of the Native Americans, argues that Americans’ “hands are steeped in blood and crime,” but still he struggles to convey, for example, “the wisdom and energy…the life abundant and eternal possessed by a ragged beggar sitting under a tree.” The desk upon which he writes is like a womb, while the words he writes give birth to new life. Activity, on the other hand, is death, whereas “a word spoken with the whole being can give life.” Miller elevates language and writing to spiritual heights.
After returning to his memories and describing parties he used to attend in which instruments would be wheeled out, musical duets would be played, beer would flow, Miller uses the example of two musically gifted friends of his who would attend these get-togethers – Ed Bauries and George Neumiller – to argue that there can be great talent in unexpected places, and that America often ignores or abuses it. “Nobody knows, judging from public spectacles,” he writes, “what talent is disposable in the great American continent.”
In this section, Miller uses music as a springboard for grand, semi-religious musings. Beginning with describing piano lessons he takes and gives, he transitions to early attempts at writing, and then to that moment in the theater where, in an instance of Thoreau-like self-realization, he finally finds himself. What is significant is that the seeds for that moment are there from the beginning. When Miller speaks of the “New World” that animates his writing, he is echoing his earlier descriptions of his music-playing as a child, when he first becomes gripped with the feeling that there is something bigger just beyond his reach. While he despises much of what he is required to play – Czerny, Mozart – he feels he is bursting over with ill-defined ideas, a vague sense of something on the brink which he is as yet incapable of fully expressing. He fails to become the musician he could be because all the compositions he creates in his head are “written for an age to come, an age with less instruments and stronger antennae, stronger eardrums too.” In fact, these compositions are sounds of “the new world” – perhaps just the noise of life and nature around him, but reverberating now with newfound intensity. Miller describes being overwhelmed by “the sound of torrential rivers taking their course, the sound of stars grinding and chafing, of fountains clotted with blazing gems.” He concludes that music is still governed by anachronistic rules, that it is “an antidote for the nameless,” but that it is not yet “music”; in other words, what music could be. Beethoven came close to discovering music’s true potential, and Miller suggests that one needs to suffer – and suffer in a “different” way – before one can reach that level. One needs better eardrums, yes, but eardrums of the metaphorical variety. Young Miller feels he has caught a glimpse of this great beyond, this impossible “music,” but it is only a glimpse.
Then comes the desk, then the rise of the curtains in the theater, and then Miller’s ripening as a writer. If Tropic of Capricorn can be read as Miller’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, this section of the book is akin to Daedalus’s unfurling of his wings. It is the culmination of that which has preceded it, in that Miller finally seems to discover a writing that is his and his alone. He writes of “a literature which does not reach the voracious mass,” and presents his own form of literary criticism: literature must be for the author, must make a personal statement, and every page of writing “must explode.” He argues that language can be beautiful unto itself; he allies himself with people he admits he did not know of when he began writing: Blaise Cendrars, Louis Aragon, Andre Breton, the Dadaists. And permeating through it all, this jumble of excited reflections on the power of language, is a sense of the new not as destructive (like America) but constructive, full of hope and life. If in earlier parts of the book Miller has seemed almost Celine-like in his pessimism, here he rebounds with a feeling of inexhaustible optimism. Here he is truly, and profoundly, life-affirming.
Life, to Miller, is about finding oneself. His links to the Transcendentalists are apparent, but the joy he seems to take in spitting upon the codes of his day echoes that of the Dadaists and Surrealists. Individualism can only be fully actualized through a kind of rebellion – though we are speaking more of spiritual rebellion than physical. For example, Miller finds the world around him objectionable not on moral grounds but because it refuses to “laugh.” Laughter, he argues, brings one closer to God, and that is what Miller is trying to do: “My whole aim in life is to get near to God, that is, to get nearer to myself.” This sentence is itself something of a joke, since depending on the reading one can surmise that Miller is equating himself with God. On the other hand, Miller is deeply serious about his war against “seriousness.” Laughter, for him, might be interpreted to mean any breaking of taboos, any disregard for society’s moralistic strictures. Laughing means rejecting barometers of “good taste,” it means greater freedom. This, in turn, leads to a closer relationship to God. Miller thereby redefines spirituality as a conscious breaking (not following) of rules.
It is a fitting way to conclude this section of the novel, since much of it – recounting Miller’s piano-related sexual exploits – is admittedly hilarious. Miller paints himself as a kind of latter-day Joseph Andrews, tottering from one pitched encounter to another, half by his own doing and half by the scheming of the females he meets. Passages like the one in which Miller describes fingering Mrs. Costello are the reason the book was banned for thirty years in America: they are lewd, obscene, and laced with comedy. While in earlier accounts Miller speaks of sex in spiritual or grandly philosophic terms, here he often goes for laughs – which, of course, is part of the point.