Tropic of Cancer

Tropic of Cancer Summary and Analysis of Section VI: “When the cold weather set in the princess disappeared” to “the green marsh water alive with croaking frogs.”

Macha finds a “castrated” sculptor and leaves Fillmore to stay with him. A few days later she tries to come back, but Fillmore won’t hear of it. She decides it’s just as well, and tells him: “If you had only been a fairy I would have stayed with you…”

With Macha gone, Miller and Fillmore find themselves spending their evenings talking about America, looking at a map of New York, comparing and contrasting Paris and the Big Apple, and discussing Walt Whitman, “that one lone figure America has produced in the course of her brief life.” The two men cavort with prostitutes night after night, but still Miller’s thoughts drift to Mona. He imagines seeing her picture on the wall, and remembers how she used to say to him “you’re a great human being.” He feels the sense of emptiness returning, a sense of being lost in a mad and chaotic world. “If I was truly a great human being, as she said to me,” he writes, “then what was the meaning of this slavering idiocy about me?” He waxes rhapsodic about his passionate affair with her, and the sorrow that ate away at their love. “She was light as a corpse that floats in the Dead Sea,” he writes. “Her fingers bled with anguish and the blood turned to drool.”

Miller describes waking up now “with curses of joy on [his] lips, with gibberish on [his] tongue.” He repeats to himself: “Fay ce que voudras!...fay ce que voudras!” Translated, this means “Do what you want.” The words seem a kind of answer to Miller’s malaise: “Do anything, but let it produce joy.” The joy is what is crucial. One can - and should - do anything so long as it yields ecstasy.

The holidays come. Miller and Fillmore drink champagne “morning, noon and night.” Miller is offered a position as exchange professor of English in Dijon. The night before he leaves, he and Fillmore walk about a snow-laden Paris “taking a last look.” They stumble upon a church, where a mass is about to begin. Fillmore suggests they attend for “the fun of it.” Miller is uneasy about the proposition, but soon is so “astounded” by the sight inside the church that he forgets about everything else. There is “a huge, dismal tomb” surrounded by mourners, the air is cold, the light is dim, and a “weird, unearthly noise” can be heard. “That this sort of thing existed I knew,” Miller writes, “but then one also knows that there are slaughterhouses and morgues and dissecting rooms. One instinctively avoids such places.” Miller struggles to fathom the ritual he sees, and marvels at the fact that all over the Christian world this same ritual takes place. “Fascinating and stupefying at the same time,” he concludes.

After much inconspicuous shuffling about and peering, Miller and Fillmore are kicked out of the church by a priest. Miller recalls a similar incident that occurred in Florida some years ago, when he took his friend Joe to synagogue during service. After the service, Miller asked the rabbi for a handout, frightening him to no end. Finding out that Miller was no Jew only added to the outrage, and the rabbi sent him and Joe off to the Salvation Army. The next day, Miller and Joe headed to a church, where Joe did the talking. There too the priest kicked them out, spitting on their request for some food and a place to stay. A moment later, they saw the priest drive away in a limousine.

Miller reminisces in this manner during the train ride to Dijon. When he arrives at the lycee (high school) he is promptly given instructions, told the names of his students, and shown his room – a decidedly austere affair.

In Dijon, Miller finds himself with much free time on his hands and little money to spend. The English lessons he teaches take up only two or three hours a day. Dijon is “a dirty hole,” its cafes “huge, dreary halls where the somnolent merchants [gather] to play cards and listen to the music.” The food served in the refectory is “fit for a chain gang.” Miller spends most of his time on an empty stomach. The professors will not fraternize with him, and after just a week, Miller writes, “it seemed as if I had been here all my life.” He continues: “It was like a bloody, fucking nightmare that you can’t throw off.”


Early in this section Miller proclaims: “Whatever there is of value in America Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said.” Henry Miller is sometimes compared to Walt Whitman for his prose-poetry style, his rhapsodies on the subject of America and American-ness, the defiant persona he projects, and the anti-authoritarianism and sexual freedom he espouses. One might surmise from the following lines that Miller fancies himself the next Whitman: “Europe is saturated with art and her soil is full of dead bones and her museums are bursting with plundered treasures, but what Europe has never had is a free, healthy spirit, what you might call a MAN.” Miller goes on to argue that Goethe came close, but that even he was a “stuffed shirt” when compared to Whitman – too proper, too composed, too serene, too calm. “Goethe is an end of something,” Miller declares, “Whitman is a beginning.”

It is telling that Miller describes the differences between Whitman and Goethe more along the lines of personality than in terms of the content of their writing. The problem with Goethe, ultimately, is that he was “a respectable citizen.” Here one can sense Miller injecting himself into the mix, as if to rhetorically swing the analogy his way. He is no “respectable citizen”: he drinks and sleeps around, disturbs the piece, and corners priests and rabbis and asks them for handouts. Miller is thus defending, though not explicitly, his way of being. He suggests, through the contrast presented by Goethe, that Whitman – the greater poet in his mind – wreaked havoc on society and was disrespectful to the hilt, and that therein lay his greatness. Great is not so much about style, content, or theme as it is about the personality that emanates through the words. Miller argues for persona-based writing, in which the author stamps his or her own self into each sentence he or she writes.

“Still I can’t get it out of my mind what a discrepancy there is between ideas and living,” Miller remarks later. He reiterates the notion of idea versus object, the old Magritte paradox – “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – by separating the physical act of living from the abstract world of ideas. There should not be such a discrepancy, Miller seems to argue. By extension, there should not be much difference between how a writer writes and how he or she lives. Miller advocates the union of life and art, of the object and its representation, and therein lies the hope for spirituality. The world around him may be teeming with “idiots”, but the path he sets for himself and for his writing (one and the same) can steer him toward clarity, toward enlightenment.

Of course, Miller never goes so far as to prescribe a certain way of living or articulate a specific doctrine. He does, however, elucidate his writing process in bits and pieces, so that at times Tropic of Cancer emerges as a “Discourse on Method.” Miller describes his idea for a new kind of literature, a literature that is removed from “the gold standard” and based on the “omphalos” – Greek for “navel” and a reference to the center or core of the world. “My idea briefly has been to present a resurrection of emotions,” he writes, “to depict the conduct of a human being in the stratosphere of ideas, that is, in the grip of delirium.”

Whitman too wanted to describe mankind at its emotional limits. He invested his poetry with passion and, at times, anguish. Like a Delacroix painting, a Beethoven symphony, or a Borzage film, a Whitman verse bursts with emotion – and the same too can be said for Miller. Here Miller explains that he would like to ally literature more closely to emotion and steer it away from “an abstract idea nailed to a cross.” Hence perhaps the level of detail he employs to describe his sexual encounters. Emotion and the way it can manifest physically are of paramount importance.

In one particularly memorable passage, Miller describes looking into a woman’s vagina and seeing “an equation sign, the world at balance, a world reduced to zero and no trace of remainder” – an echo of the omphalos. “Not the zero on which Van Norden turned his flashlight,” Miller continues, “not the empty crack of the prematurely disillusioned man, but an Arabian zero rather, the sign from which spring endless mathematical worlds, the fulcrum which balances the stars and the light dreams and the machines lighter than air and the lightweight limbs and the explosives that produced them.” From a sexual organ, examined up-close, springs a torrent of feeling and metaphor. It’s a classic Henry Miller moment.