Notes on Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer Episode 1: “Behind the Word is Chaos”

Quotations are from Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (Harper, 2005)

Henry Miller is uncomfortable in Boris’s clean, orderly house.
Even though the house is spotless, Boris manages to get lice.
The cleanliness of the house can’t protect these men from misfortune: Boris predicts “more calamities, more death, more despair.”

Paris has turned Miller into an artist. The difference between the man Miller was and the artist he is now is that he is no longer a student of literature. He no longer thinks about literature. “Everything that was literature has fallen from me.”
He’s writing, but he’s not writing a book. This Tropic of Cancer that he’s writing “is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty . . .” In other words: a slur against all the great themes of literature.
Literature is fine for building up all these great notions (“. . . God, Man, Destiny . . .”), but what use can it be when the world is falling apart, and everything is turning to chaos? “Chaos is the score upon which all reality is written.” Miller needs to bring down literature to find a new form of expression, one that can sing the song of chaos.

The song of chaos: what does it sound like? Miller lets his thoughts run away with him. He starts to doze and he thinks about “the whale with his six-foot penis” . . . possible titles for books (“Lovely Lesbians”) . . . “what a pain in the ass the Borowski’s are” . . .
A world falling apart: what does it sound like? Like the incoherent thoughts of a man falling asleep. Individual thoughts isolated, falling into nothingness, telling no particular story.

In Boris’s big clean house there’s no trace of food. Boris goes out to eat while Miller goes hungry. Miller can forgive Boris for this. In fact Miller admires him: Boris is “possessed” and glows “inwardly with a white flame.” He is “mad and tone deaf” and he is one of the “sufferers”. This makes him an artist.
Not all writers are artists. Moldorf is one example. He’s “word drunk”. He keeps a lot of words in his brain that he can bring out on occasion. “He is a portable trunk filled with innumerable drawers . . .”
Miller types in front of the mirror. He likes to see himself writing. He’s a writer, there’s no mistake about that.
But this image of Miller satisfied in front of the mirror is soon swept along: nothing is stable in this world. Miller doesn’t write for wealth or fame but to build a little raft for himself he can hang onto as the chaos sweeps him along. The reflected image of himself as a writer. An identity: Miller the writer.

Boris’s goatee makes Miller think of nights with Tania. At night it’s dark and you’re in the middle of it all, with whoever you happen to be with. Miller wants Tania but he has Boris. And outside “gaunt trees” with “black boughs”, the “fleecy clouds” swept aside by the night sky. “No one to whom I can communicate even a fraction of my feelings . . .”
When he looks inward he can see the mirror image of himself writing. Miller the artist. But all about him are “cracked” reflections of himself. “No one to whom I can communicate . . .” He can only observe, and in these cracked mirrors try to get a glimpse of himself. He’s trying to work out what it means to be an artist, in these images cracked by failure and despair . . .

Looking over his work, Miller finds that he’s written literature after all. “This frightens me a little,” he says. He doesn’t want to be like Moldorf. He wants to break apart what he’s written and create something new. “Behind the word is chaos.” He wants to break the word apart and find the chaos. “I sit on the bed in a daze, thinking about man before his birth . . .”
How can you break apart the word? “I have made a silent compact with myself not to change a word of what I write . . . It is the triumph of the individual over art . . . There is only one thing that interests me now, and that is the recording of all that which is omitted in books.” You break apart the word by letting thoughts flow, writing all those things you aren’t supposed to write, and not striving for perfection. Essential to literature is a process of revision, through which reality and real thoughts are covered over with artifice, superficial literary tricks creating a distance between the reader and the writer’s vision.
Here’s a vision: of Paris as he saw it when he first arrived. “A weird sort of contentment in those days . . . The golden period.” This was Paris when it appeared to Miller as pleasant confusion, a dream, rather than the cracked nightmare it has now become. Paris before Miller gave up literature. Before he discovered he had to break apart the word.

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2 Responses to Notes on Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer Episode 1: “Behind the Word is Chaos”

  1. Therese says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. It’ll be in my to-read list which is getting longer and longer. Thanks for sharing. 🙂


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