Still Scandalous: ‘Tropic of Cancer’ 50 Years Later

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of the US publication of Henry Miller’s semi-autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer . He lays out his objective on the very first page: “This 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 . . . what you will.” The novel was banned in the US for 27 years, although you could snag a copy in Paris from 1934 onward. The ban was eventually overturned because, like fellow banned books Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the court ruled the novel was literature, not pornography. The result was that the Brooklyn-raised Miller was nearly 70 years old when his first novel was finally published in his home country.

Why was the book banned in the first place, and why was the ban ultimately overturned? Read 10 of the novel’s most scandalous (and for the most part, incredibly NSFW) passages after the jump.

Anais Nin observed that Miller “has an eagerness to catch everything without make-up, without embellishment, women before they comb their hair, writers before they don artificial smiles with their artificial bow ties.” Along these lines, the first graphic passage in Tropic of Cancer is not titillating – it’s grimy and crude. Ultimately the boasting becomes too ridiculous to be pornography. Additionally, he’s not describing action, he’s describing thought and desire, much like the nameless starving writer protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s 1890 Norwegian novel Hunger , a major influence.

Miller with Anais Nin in 1974

“O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt. I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something, does he? He feels the remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider, I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your naval. I am fucking you, Tania, so that you’ll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris’ chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces. . . . ”

In a jarring passage, far more aggressive than Parisian scenes described by fellow expatriates like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Miller recalls a chaotic night in 1920s Paris at a club with his friend Borowski and his wife Mona. This is as close as Miller gets to an actual sex scene in the novel. But he is no erotic star, as the scene he describes is of his own sexual failure. The focus for Miller seems not to be his attempt at adultery, but his desire to demolish all semblance of the expected order. Throughout, he somehow keeps things light, crafting phrases such as “Mona with her disapproving eye.”

18 Villa Seurat in 2006, where Miller wrote most of Tropic of Cancer

“In the lavatory I stand before the bowl with a tremendous erection; it seems light and heavy at the same time, like a piece of lead with wings on it. And while I’m standing there like that two cunts sail in – Americans. I greet them cordially, prick in hand. They give me a wink and pass on. In the vestibule, as I’m buttoning my fly, I notice one of them waiting for her friend to come out of the can. The music is still playing and maybe Mona’ll be coming to fetch me, or Borowski with his gold-knobbed cane, but I’m in her arms now and she has hold of me and I don’t care who comes or what happens. We wriggle into the cabinet and there I stand her up, slap up against the wall, and I try to get it into her but it won’t work and so we sit down on the seat and try it that way but it won’t work either. No matter how we try it it won’t work. And all the while she’s got hold of my prick, she’s clutching it like a lifesaver, but it’s no use, we’re too hot, too eager. The music is still playing and so we waltz out of the cabinet into the vestibule again and as we’re dancing there in the shithouse I come all over her beautiful gown and she’s sore as hell about it. I stumble back to the table and there’s Borowski with his ruddy face and Mona with her disapproving eye. And Borowski says ‘Let’s all go to Brussels tomorrows,’ and we agree, and when we get back to the hotel I vomit all over the place, in the bed, in the washbowl, over the suits and gowns and the galoshes and canes and the notebooks I never touched and the manuscripts cold and dead. ”

Watching a prostitute as she stands naked before him, Miller is mostly interested in her relationship to her body, wondering how she could sell it daily. He doesn’t allow her to be idealized, choosing to describe her unappealing appearance – and celebrate it.

Miller on the set of the 1969 film adaptation of Tropic of Cancer in Paris, where he served as a consultant.

“As she stood up to dry herself, still talking to me pleasantly, suddenly she dropped the towel and, advancing toward me leisurely, she commenced rubbing her pussy affectionately, stroking it with her two hands, caressing it, patting it, patting it. There was something about her eloquence at that moment and the way she thrust that rosebush under my nose which remains unforgettable; she spoke of it as if it were some extraneous object which she had acquired at great cost, an object whose value had increased with time and which now she prized above everything in the world. Her words imbued it with a peculiar fragrance; it was no longer just her private organ, but a treasure, a magic, potent treasure, a God-given thing – and none the less so because she traded it day in and day out for a few pieces of silver. As she flung herself on the bed, with legs spread wide apart, she cupped it with her hands and stroked it some more, murmuring all the while in that hoarse, cracked voice of hers that it was good, beautiful, a treasure, a little treasure. And it was good, that little pussy of hers! That Sunday afternoon, with its poisonous breath of spring in the air, everything clicked again. As we stepped out of the hotel I looked her over again in the harsh light of day and I saw clearly what a whore she was – the gold teeth, the geranium in her hat, the rundown heels, etc., etc. Even the fact that she had wormed a dinner out of me and cigarettes and taxi hadn’t the least disturbing effect upon me. I encouraged it, in fact. I liked her so well that after dinner we went back to the hotel again and took another shot at it. ‘For love,’ this time. And again that big, bushy thing of hers worked its bloom and magic. It began to have an independent existence – for me too. There was Germaine and there was that rosebush of hers. I liked them separately and I liked them together.”

Flat broke, Miller devises a scheme to request a free meal once a week from a different friend for each night of the week, thus obtaining a free dinner every night. Of course, if everybody tried this, it wouldn’t work. Miller isn’t trying to create a model for society – he’s trying to find a way to live as an uncompromised artist without becoming entangled in the trappings of the so-called American Dream. Because he didn’t publish his first novel until the age of 42, Miller spent the first half of his life in obscurity before finally beginning to achieve his artistic goals. He somehow was able to maintain enough confidence to push through the many indignities he suffered as a destitute wannabe author, achieving many literary victories in the second half of his life, earning praise from such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, John Dos Passos and George Orwell (who called Miller’s prose “astonishing”), and becoming an icon for the Beat Generation.

Miller in Paris in 1933, photographed by Brassai.

“And then it occurred to me, like a flash, that no one would refuse a man a meal if only he had the courage to demand it. I went immediately to a café and wrote a dozen letters. ‘Would you let me have dinner with you once a week? Tell me what day is most convenient for you.’ It worked like a charm. I was not only fed… I was feasted. Every night I went home drunk. They couldn’t do enough for me, these generous once-a-week souls. What happened to me between times was none of their affair. Now and then the thoughtful ones presented me with cigarettes, or a little pin money. They were all obviously relieved when they realized that they would see me only once a week. And they were still more relieved when I said – ‘it won’t be necessary any more.’ They never asked why. They congratulated me, and that was all. Often the reason was I had found a better host; I could afford to scratch off the ones who were a pain in the ass. But that thought never occurred to them. Finally, I had a steady, solid program – a fixed schedule. On Tuesdays I knew it would be this kind of a meal and on Fridays that kind. Cronstadt, I knew, would have champagne for me and homemade apple pie. And Carl would invite me out, take me to a different restaurant each time, order rare wines, invite me to the theater afterward or take me to the Cirque Medrano. They were curious about one another, my hosts. Would ask me which place I liked best, who was the best cook, etc. I think I liked Cronstadt’s joint best of all, perhaps because he chalked the meal up on the wall each time. Not that it eased my conscience to see what I owed him, because I had no intention of paying him back nor had he any illusions about being requited. No, it was the odd numbers which intrigued me. He used to figure it out to the last centime. If I was to pay in full I would have had to break a sou. His wife was a marvelous cook and she didn’t give a fuck about those centimes Cronstadt added up.”

Contemplating the possibility of a pimp’s innate desire for normalcy despite his profession, Miller finds humanity in this dark crevice of society.

Left, first edition of Tropic of Cancer (Paris, 1934), with a note on the dust jacket: “Not to be imported into Great Britain or USA.” Right, first US edition (1961).

“You don’t think that a pimp is inhuman, I hope? A pimp has his private grief and misery too, don’t you forget. Perhaps he would like nothing better than to stand on the corner every night with a pair of white dogs and watch them piddle. Perhaps he would like it if, when he opened the door, he would see her there reading the Paris-Soir, her eyes already a little heavy with sleep. Perhaps it isn’t so wonderful, when he bends over his Lucienne, to taste another man’s breath. Better maybe to have only three francs in your pocket and a pair of white dogs that piddle on the corner than to taste those bruised lips. Bet you, when she squeezes him tight, when she begs for that little package of love which only he knows how to deliver, bet you he fights like a thousand devils to pump it up, to wipe out that regiment that has marched between her legs.”

The following passage is an example of Miller’s scorn for and casual dismissal of organized religion. He spits out a one-word insult at a man of cloth and that’s that.

Miller bike riding with his children Val and Tony, Big Sur, CA, 1958.

“In the street I had often passed a priest with a little prayer book in his hands laboriously memorizing his lines. Idiot, I would say to myself, and let it go at that. In the street one meets with all forms of dementia and the priest is by no means the most striking. Two thousand years of it has deadened us to the idiocy of it.”

Beyond the blunt and cartoony depictions of sex, the novel contains a general damn-it-all attitude, visible in the following paragraph, an over-the-top rant by Van Norden.

An 18-year-old Miller in Brooklyn.

“He takes a squint at the weather and heaves a deep sigh. If it’s rainy he says: ‘God damn this fucking climate, it makes one morbid.’ And if the sun is shining brightly he says: ‘God damn that fucking sun, it makes you blind!’ As he starts to shave he suddenly remembers that there is no clean towel. ‘God damn this fucking hotel, they’re too stingy to give you a clean towel every day!’ No matter what he does or where he goes things are out of joint. Either it’s the fucking country or the fucking job, or else it’s some fucking cunt who’s put him on the blink.”

What elevates a passage like the one below to literary heights? Perhaps it’s the existential dilemma bubbling underneath. Sex is being used as a prop to illustrate that when it comes down to it, perhaps even moments assumed to be sacred are actually of no significance. Van Norden is simultaneously flustered and turned on by the prostitute’s manner. And again, this is not actual sex – it’s someone’s description of sex. It touches upon a man’s awareness of his own general frustration, confusion and curiosity regarding the opposite sex.

In 1962 with Norman Mailer, who wrote that Miller ‘at his best wrote a prose grander than Faulkner’s, and wilder – the good reader is revolved in a farrago of light with words heavy as velvet, brilliant as gems, eruptions of thought cover the page.’

“A funny bitch. She lay on the edge of the bed and pulled her dress up. Ever try it that way? Not bad. She didn’t hurry me either. She just lay back and played with her hat while I slugged away at her. And when I come she says sort of bored liked – ‘Are you through?’ Like it didn’t make any difference at all. Of course, it doesn’t make any difference, I know that goddamn well… but the cold-blooded way she had… I sort of liked it… it was fascinating, you know? When she goes to wipe herself she begins to sing. Going out of the hotel she was still singing. Didn’t even say Au revoir! Walks off swinging her hat and humming to herself like. That’s a whore for you! A good lay though. I think I liked her better than my virgin. There’s something depraved about screwing a woman who doesn’t give a fuck about it. It heats your blood…” And then, after a moment’s meditation – ‘Can you imagine what she’d be like if she had any feelings?'”

Here, one character (Van Norden) relates to Miller a story told to him by another character (Carl), emphasizing his astonishment not at the tale’s pornographic content, but at its verbiage. When isolated, it’s tough to find a specific point to a chauvinistic passage such as this one. However, it gains meaning as part of the whole – it should be noted that the woman in question is rich, whereas Miller is penniless, so he may simply be having fun fooling with the upper class.

Miller’s typewriter on display at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur.

“What I’m getting at is that moment when, he says, he got down on his knees and with those two skinny fingers of his he spread her cunt open. You remember that? He says she was sitting there with her legs dangling over the arms of the chair and suddenly, he says, he got an inspiration. This was after he had given her a couple of lays already… after he had made that little spiel about Matisse. He gets down on his knees – get this! – and with his two fingers… just the tips of them, mind you… he opens the little petals… squish-squish… just like that. A sticky little sound… almost inaudible. Squish-squish! Jesus, I’ve been hearing it all night long!”

Miller’s second wife, June Miller (known primarily as Mona in his novels), inspired his greatest work: The Rosy Crucifixion. Comprised of Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus, the trilogy focuses on the seven year period in his life when he fell madly in love with June while struggling to become a writer (“For seven years I went about, day and night, with only one thing on my mind – her”). Their volatile union ended right around the time Tropic of Cancer was first published. While she only makes a few appearances in the novel, she was an enormous influence and inspiration on his life and work. Below, he acknowledges the heartache caused by his separation from his wife.

June Miller at the age of 31.

“I couldn’t allow myself to think about her very long; if I had I would have jumped off the bridge. It’s strange. I had become reconciled to this life without her, and yet if I thought about her only for a minute it was enough to pierce the bone and marrow of my contentment and shove me back again into the agonizing gutter of my wretched past. [. . .] How many thousand times, in walking through the streets at night, have I wondered if the day would ever come again when she would be at my side: all those yearning looks I bestowed on the buildings and statues, I had looked at them so hungrily, so desperately, that by now my thoughts must have become a part of the very buildings and statues, they must be saturated with my anguish.”