Jack’s Naughty Bits: Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

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Jack's Naughty Bits

It happened last night: I’m in a bar with our CEO Rufus and a guy sitting next to us starts up a literary conversation. Speaking to Rufus, he said, “the problem, you see, is that you’ve clearly read too much Henry James — you sound just like him. Where you could say what you mean in five words, instead you use whole paragraphs.” We were both a little taken aback; he was right to an extent, though in my opinion, that’s what’s called oratory. Why say in five words anything that merits a paragraph? Are we really in that much of a hurry?


It turned out he really liked Henry James; it was Dickens who elicited his real rancor (“he was paid by the word, you know, a dime, no, maybe a penny a word, so he’d find the most difficult way possible to say something to make a little extra money”). Okay, I was tempted to forgive him; I’m no great Dickens fan myself and I love taking unsubstantiated generalizing potshots too. But then he started in on Henry Miller. “I just started reading this man, this Henry Miller, and I have to say I hate him. It’s like he’s just playing with words; nothing makes any sense; all he does is mumble. It’s all mumbling. He’s demented. I mean, a lot of people read his book, but that doesn’t mean it’s good, I mean a lot of people read Stephen King and Anne Rice too, right? So clearly that doesn’t mean it’s a good book.”


I don’t think it was the second martini that incited my discomfort. His final comparison was to say that Joyce was a writer and Miller was not. And, of course, he had a point, a point that Miller himself was all too aware of — and preempted. He was no polished gem; that was his message, in a way. At the outset of Tropic of Cancer Miller wrote, “There are no more books to be written, thank God. This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character . . . this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art.” He knew what he was up to, and, as Rufus pointed out, there are a lot of people who share Miller’s form of dementia. Point won, point lost. He didn’t seem to be listening. So Rufus and I went back to our conversation where it had left off — I think something about the mating processes of house and garden aphids.


The funny thing was, on leaving the bar, he gave us the book. He was that serious. It made me think of being in the Paris Metro one time and listening to a French guy verbally berating the sandwich he was holding. At the top of his lungs, he enumerated its shortcomings, lambasted its inadequate meat holdings and rued its tourist-geared overpricing. This went on for a few minutes until finally, as the punctuating act of his soliloquy, he hurled it unbitten on the tracks. That was his level of disdain. Giving me the book, the man in the bar was equally indignant, though I, happy to have another copy, went home and read much of it again.


Miller is no Joyce. That’s okay. We have a Joyce, and, when Miller was writing his Parisian Tropic, we had already had a Joyce. But we hadn’t had a Miller. And we needed him. Perhaps it’s because I too lived as a louse in France; perhaps it’s because I think the world needs more exuberance; perhaps it’s because in the midst of his mumble he manages to hit some high notes of sublimity, but I love Miller and will defend him all my days. If he’s not a writer, it’s not for want of genius, it’s because he thought that the act of writing was nowhere near as important as the act of living.

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From Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

In that Paris of ’28 only one night stands out in my memory — the night before sailing for America. A rare night, with Borowski slightly pickled and disgusted with me because I’m dancing with every slut in the place. But we’re leaving in the morning! That’s what I tell every cunt I grab hold of — leaving in the morning! That’s what I’m telling the blonde with agate-colored eyes. And while I’m telling her she takes my hand and squeezes it between her legs. 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 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 in to 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 tomorrow” and we all 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.

© Henry Miller