Miller rewinds to an earlier point in his life. He is stuck in one of those meaningless jobs he specialized in as a young man: selling the Encyclopedia Britannica door to door. He’s a failure at it. The first door he happens upon looks “so forbidding” he doesn’t even knock. The same thing happens for the next few doors. Finally he summons the courage to knock on one, but is terrified by the sight of the man who opens it. The next several doors reveal more “monsters." Miller happens at last upon “a poor simp who really wanted to improve himself,” and this breaks Miller’s heart. He tries to persuade the man not to buy the encyclopedia. He concludes that people should not feel the need to earn a living; it is precisely the concept of an “automatic process” to which so many working people seem to belong that repels Miller.
Miller goes traveling, winds his way through the South, and “drowns” himself in the Gulf of Mexico: “I had to go and drown myself in the Gulf of Mexico in order to have an excuse for continuing this pseudo-civilized existence.” His friends and acquaintances seem annoyed by how much he enjoys himself. He gets married “overnight” just to show to them that he doesn’t “give a fuck one way or the other.” His friends approve of the marriage, as it fits their idea of a normal, civilized life. They assume that he will get “serious” as a result, but quite the opposite happens. He remains exactly the same, doesn’t get a job, buys rather than sells, and generally enjoys himself.
Eventually, the editor of a catalogue for a mail order house offers Henry a job as assistant editor, but he gets caught using work hours to do his own personal writing – specifically, an essay on the Antichrist - and is fired. The editor is kind about it, but Henry can tell he has let this man down – a man who must have pitied him or seen something in him and earnestly tried to help him. Miller realizes this is merely part of a trend: he is letting everybody down. That said, though comrades find him lazy and shiftless, he finds he still can entertain them with his arcane knowledge, storytelling, and myriad exploits; in other words, at least he’s no dud. Indeed, this is why he keeps getting offered jobs, despite his absolutely abysmal work record.
Miller writes of how people can be misunderstood because their solutions are simple and their thoughts cut through to the marrow too readily. For example, “Herr Nagel was the unacknowledged saint which every artist is [by extension, Miller] – the man who is ridiculed because his solutions, which are truly profound, seem too simple for the world.” From Nagel he transitions to his sister, “a mental dwarf” with a boyish hulk of a body, similarly misunderstood in Miller’s mind. She was retarded and was, as Miller puts it, “the essence of goodness.” She would frequently give things away, not knowing otherwise: “Often in my presence,” Miller writes with indignation, “she was whipped like a dog for having performed some beautiful act of grace in her absent-mindedness, as they called it. Nothing was worse, I learned as a child, than to do a good deed without reason.”
As a child, Henry imagines taking on his sister’s pains, her beatings. He tries to compensate for her blankness of mind by vicariously undergoing her tribulations. In his mind, he acts out the vengeance he imagines she deserves. It seems he is perhaps offering forth the case of his sister as a potential psychological cause for his cynicism vis-à-vis society, his refusal to fit in: “Because she doesn’t grow at all I grow like a mushroom…because she demands nothing of anyone I demand everything; because she inspires ridicule I inspire fear and respect; because she is humiliated and tortured I wreak vengeance upon everyone, friend and foe alike; because she is helpless I make myself all-powerful.”
He finally realizes that this kind of behavior, aligning himself with the joys and pains of another and carrying the burden of another’s identity, strips him of his own: “I was a brother to every man and at the same time a traitor to myself.” He concludes by invoking the title of his book (and that of Tropic of Cancer) and reasserting the power of thought. Thinking something makes it so; thought and action are therefore one and the same, and everything is therefore connected: “Thought and action are one, because swimming you are in it and of it, and it is everything you desire it to be, no more, no less. Every stroke counts for eternity. The heating and cooling system is one system, and Cancer is separated from Capricorn only by an imaginary line.” Again he invokes the circularity of life and the word, and argues that you have to pierce through the circle, travel a plane, to reach full consciousness.
In the novel’s “Coda” Miller reflects on the book itself. “Will this book be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God?” he asks himself. He writes that “the idea of an ‘end’ is intolerable” but that truth lies in “this knowledge of an end which is ruthless and remorseless.” Ending is difficult, he seems to argue, but it must be done. After writing of a nameless woman he loves (is it his wife? the “plunder-bird” lady?), he contemplates a new life stretching before him, a life bound to this woman but simultaneously free of any constrictions. “I shall neither serve nor be served,” Miller writes. “I shall seek the end in myself.”
Tropic of Capricorn ends by reaffirming the novel’s principle thesis – namely, that the self is all. Even the end of the book must be defined through the prism of Miller’s self or ego. Though not the last line of the book, “I shall seek the end in myself” is in many ways its conclusion. This is a profoundly internal book, springing from the wells of Miller’s consciousness, invoking childhood memories, sexual fantasies, day-by-day accounts, and a larger argument concerning the life well-lived. As I have argued before, this is not a prescriptive book, its digressions into philosophy notwithstanding. It is instead more in line with Wittgenstein’s brand of subjectivity-based philosophy, in that everything must stem from and end with the self.
“Nothing can be more real than what you suppose it to be,” Miller writes. It is as if he has taken Descartes’ maxim “I think therefore I am,” and inverted it to mean: “I think therefore the world is.” Yes, this may be absurdly grandiloquent posturing – and there is a degree of self-parody that runs through Miller’s writing that should not be ignored – but on a deeper level Miller is reflecting on his own powers and limitations as a writer. He is able to conjure up a world of his own creation, a world in which reality is born solely from his thoughts; the “real” is, in a sense, his prose, his words, his language. There’s the rub: reality is contained within four hundred sheets of paper; it resides between the ink drops on a page. Anything beyond Miller’s thoughts does not exist, and therefore the break to full consciousness which he invokes at the novel’s close is a futile one: one always returns to one’s own mind.
It’s an infinite loop Miller has constructed, but he never gives up on the promise of transcendence. He strives and strives, but paradoxically finds that transcendence through moments of acceptance: when the theater curtain rises and he sees in that a metaphor; when he finds himself locked in heated sexual encounter; when he “drowns” himself in the Gulf of Mexico; or, at the end of the book, when he writes that one can “live like a happy rock in the middle of the ocean,” still in the midst of turbulence. The fixed point is a motif that crops up regularly – in the character of Roy Hamilton, that would-be mystic, in Grover Watrous, so alive and so empty. Miller seems torn between a need to move, to change, to grow, and a desire to stay still while the world around him turns. It is, for him, the quintessential paradox of the modern age: a constant moving forward and onward while the core of man, unchanging, grows dimmer and dimmer.
What Miller rejects most of all is the “automatic process” created by society, whereby a man must work to live and live to work. Men, in his mind, “pretend” they must earn a living. Ironically, during most of Capricorn Miller is in fact employed; Tropic of Cancer recounts a different period of his life, when he wandered through Paris without so much as a penny to his name, living on the backs of friends, mooching, stealing and saving to get by, with the occasional editing job here and there. In both books, however, the contempt for nine-to-five employment is loud and clear.
Miller idealizes the life lived without bounds, ungoverned by society’s moralistic conventions. This goes almost without saying. Beyond just railing against society, however, Miller also exhibits a profound humanism in his writing. He struggles to persuade a man not to buy the Encyclopedia he is selling, even though it his job to sell the book. Why? Because the man strikes him as a “poor simp who really wanted to improve himself.” Admittedly, “simp” is a condescending and even hostile word; but if one looks past the caustic tone of Miller’s writing, it isn’t hard to find the empathy within. He longs to make meaningful human connections. His fondest memories are of childhood conversations; sex, when meaningful, is a way of forging a link with another human being, and writing is a way of doing the same with the world in general. Thus, while he may advocate a certain kind of isolation, Miller is more concerned with reaching out than with pulling away. His writing reverberates with emotion; the poor “simp” makes him want to break down and weep in shame. Time and again, Miller locates the spiritual in the mundane, the Godly in the earthly, truth and beauty in human flesh. Like Rabelais, he is a poet of the physical, and his strongest message is not to separate oneself completely from humanity and the world, but to build a connection that exceeds the gridlock of society. He wants his reader to live and to feel. It may sound overly simple when described in that manner, but that’s part of the point. After all, the true artist is “the man who is ridiculed because his solutions, which are truly profound, seem too simple for the world.”