Notes on Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer Episode 11

Sometimes you have some money in your pocket and you feel content and secure. And sometimes you spend that money and fill your belly up with what you desire, and then “you feel empty, disgusted with yourself.”

Henry Miller returns to Paris with some money in his pocket. Just having money makes him feel “elated”. It’s the feeling of security, and the possibilities it opens up. Possibilities of comfort: a little food, a good bed for a while.

He’s already spent more than he ought to have spent on a good meal. It makes him “miserable” to hoard the money away, against his “nature”, and so he rebels, spends twice as much as his budget allows.

But he feels “wretched” now, he’s doing neither one thing nor the other. He’s neither craftily saving his money up nor carelessly recklessly enjoying himself.

And then he meets a woman: “kind sir . . . dear sir . . . my good man . . .” She wants money. He doesn’t want to help her but he can’t leave her either. She doesn’t want to be left alone. He can’t “break away” for some reason. Stood there in the pouring rain. And eventually he gives her fifty francs and is glad of it. A side of Miller is winning the side that wants to squander all and open himself up to the cosmos . . .

We’re given all sorts of reasons for Miller’s behaviour on this night, but none of them make sense. He “supposes” he felt this way and that, he reasons that doesn’t everybody feel the urge to roam the streets sometimes on nights like these. He’s acting on impulse, something is controlling him, he’s part of a machine – and more precisely we can assume he had a drink or two with his expensive meal and he’s letting the drink carry him along . . . And eventually he arrives at a bar where women are dancing – “women with bare backs and ropes of pearls” – he orders a bottle of champagne. He talks to a woman who starts to cry and has a sick mother and again he wants to escape but can’t, something stops him:

“The thing to do when you’re trapped is to breeze – at once. If you don’t, you’re lost. What retained me, oddly enough, was the thought of paying for a hat check a second time. One always lets himself in for it because of a trifle.”

In the toilet he’s counting his money again, stashing some away, keeping some ready to spend. He keeps fifty francs free and some loose change. He’s allowed to spend this. And he tells the woman this is all he can give her. But she protests and soon he’s agreeing to give more . . .

They’re at her home, and he’s undressed and worrying about the money in the pocket of his trousers laying there on the bed. He wants to keep it close by. He’s already given one hundred francs to the woman. And in bed with her it’s over faster than he’d hoped. And his money spent, the promise of contentment and security it brought is gone.

She goes downstairs and a still drunk Henry Miller starts to feel “restless” and moves about the room. He reads a love letter on her table, he inspects the bottles in the bathroom. She’s been gone a while now and he starts to feel alarmed, some idea that not all is as it seems. She’s told him she’s gone downstairs to look after her sick mother but something feels wrong and “out of a sense of self-preservation, I suppose” – Miller is never entirely sure why he does anything – he dresses again. And then he remembers the one hundred francs he gave the woman. He knows where she put it. He could take it, and he does. Again we’re given no explanation, no justification for this act. Only a sense that one side of Henry Miller has won, the side that wants the money in his pocket and to hell with the rest.

And back in the streets he starts to rationalise his actions. The story she had told about her mother probably wasn’t true. The house was too strange somehow, something was up. This wasn’t an ordinary situation . . . And to hell with the woman and her sick mother anyway. Miller isn’t asking for forgiveness. He’s describing his actions, and we can see for ourselves that this is a man without seriousness, drunk, without direction, worried about the money in his pocket and his next drink and lost, so lost . . . Henry Miller, drunken man-animal, stumbles to the next bar, the deed done, the tale told, and no apologies.

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