Tropic 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.
“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.
Tropic 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.
Miller 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.
It 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.
“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.”
Miller 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 Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Tropic of Capricorn is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.