Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Classic #12

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

This book was first published in 1934 in Paris. Because of the filthy words and alleged pornographic nature, it had to be smuggled into the US until Grove Press in 1961 published it in paperback. The cover was very unassuming and discreet, quite a far cry from the usual lascivious covers of paperbacks of the time. The shy cover did not stop about 50 prosecutors across the US from bringing criminal cases against wholesalers and retailers for hawking the book.

The free association narrative chronicles the adventures of an American expatriate in Paris just after the worldwide economic slump. The shocking contents still curl the hair, to be honest. The dirty words impress, even though we’ve all seen swearing-fests like Full Metal Jacket and Death to Smoochy and heard teenagers at the mall. The frank sex scenes strike me as not so much erotic as desperate and meaningless. The whole mental atmosphere is bedbug-ridden, debauched, and rootless. The women-hating stance of the narrator is hard to take and must have been objectionable even when it was written.

I think the redeeming social value of the novel is its embrace of life. It praises hedonism and quietism in straight-forward prose, with no fine writing, which I think Miller couldn’t have given a damn about. Eat, drink, get as much you-know as you can. What’s going to happen to the world is going to happen whether or not we as individuals do anything about it. Miller doubts human beings, being such half-witted predators and prey, have the kind of cosmic importance that the religious and ancient philosophers teach. Respect people – please. Be fair – who says? Be brave – sure, if it doesn’t get your butt shot off. Be wise – and see what it gets you. He doesn’t want to harm anybody, but he’s not going to worry about what he can’t control as capitalism blows itself up. Miller flips a middle finger to the fall of Western Civilization. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Miller feels fine.

I liked the free-wheeling prose in easy words. I like the attitude of owning nothing and not worrying about it. It's very funny in places. This, on a conversation with a mystic:
He chewed my head off about the "threadsoul," the "causal body," "ablation," the Upanishads, Plotinus, Krishnamurti, "the karmic vestiture of the soul," "the Nirvanic consciousness," all that flapdoodle which blows out of the east like a breath from the plague . . . he had worn himself out, like a coat whose nap is worn off.
Flapdoodle, indeed. Just throw me an antique Americanism and I'm easy to please. I’m going to keep this for re-reading. Recommend it? I think most people who read this book won't like it. But I don't care.

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