Tropic of Cancer

by Henry Miller

Like a cross between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Ironweed, and a bit of The Ginger Man thrown in there, Tropic of Cancer is a tour-de-misogyny, at times stream-of-consciousness, that leaves one feeling dirty...both literally and figuratively. The plot concerns the plight of the impoverished, frequently homeless, perpetually freezing, starving, VD-riddled, bedbug-bitten Henry Miller himself in grotesque, disease-infested, mite-overrun, red-light, sewage-laden, Depression-era Paris. Still interested in reading it?

Written in 1934, and originally only published at the time in France (via a loophole that allowed racy works to see publication there so long as they were written in English), Tropic of Cancer was not legally available in the United States until the 1960s. Although I am one of the first people to admit that I am frightened and angered when something as organic as "contemporary community standards" are mandated by governmental authority, I have to say, if I am honest, that I CAN see what all the fuss is about with this book. Lots of books are written that contain graphic depictions of sex. Many appear on this list. Many get labeled obscene. But I think the three-decade battle over the publication of Henry Miller's work may have a lot more to do with wanting to suppress its mean spiritedness.

The word "woman" here is remarkable for the mere few times Classic Bitch can recall seeing it on the page in this book. This is not to say there is a shortage of female characters in Tropic of Cancer, there isn't, but to let you know that they are exclusively referred to as "whores," "bitches," or—most frequently—by the C-word. And not just their private parts: an entire thinking, feeling human being is referred to by this word. And not just prostitutes (for whom you might be able to make the case for metonymy), but women who are not presented in a sexual context too. Henry Miller—AS the author Henry Miller HIMSELF, remember!—wants you to know what he believes all women to be. And that is: Every single woman on the planet is just a cunt; nothing more, nothing less.

I am not a proponent of suppressing "obscenity," (even less a proponent of trying to define it and underscore it with a proverbial bright line; no way). But I am a proponent of mitigating sexual violence and abuse. So if the latter was a facet of crusaders' motivations for fighting this book's publication in America for as long as they did, can you blame them so much? It really would take the likes of a little William Kunstler in all of us—and that particular homunculus isn't IN all of us—to defend the rights of what is indefensible here. And that's asking a lot. Now that you know how I FEEL about it, perhaps in the end I am left ultimately acceding to the Voltarian sentiment: I disapprove of what you say, but I must defend your right to say it. And perhaps that's what the Supreme Court was thinking when they outlawed the censorship of Tropic of Cancer once and for all in 1964.

Here are six sexual passages from the book. To prove I'm not just some feminazi on a rant: Exactly half of these passages I LOVE...and the other half I hate. Three are nuanced, provocative, and beautifully written. And the other three are hateful, abusive, and downright treacherous. I think you'll quickly come to see that the battle over the labeling of the writing of Henry Miller as "obscene" or not really was the wrong battle.

• "You don't know how palatable is a polluted woman, how a change of semen can make a woman bloom!"
• "[Sex is] like a state of war; the moment the condition is precipitated nobody thinks about anything but peace, about getting it over with."
• "To come upon a woman offering herself outside a urinal, where there are advertised cigarette papers, rum, acrobats, horse-races, where the heavy foliage of the trees breaks the heavy mass of walls and roofs, is an experience that begins where the boundaries of the known world leave off."
• "Suddenly I see a dark, hairy crack in front of me set in a bright, polished billiard ball; the legs are holding me like a pair of scissors. A glance at that dark, unstitched wound and a deep fissure in my brain opens up."
• "When I look down into this fucked-out cunt of a whore I feel the whole world beneath me, a world tottering and crumbling, a world used up and polished like a leper's skull."
• "It was his night off and there was a cunt in the bed as usual. 'Don't mind her,' he says, 'she's asleep. If you need a lay you can take her on. She's not bad.' He pulls the covers back to show me what she looks like."

The upside of allowing a book that contains the latter three passages to ever see the light of day is that, as readers become curious as to who would promulgate such gender-biased vituperation, it sheds great light on its author. Henry Miller was a boy who was himself a victim of sexual molestation by a man. And Henry Miller grew into a misogynistic sociopathological philanderer married five times who ultimately died in the arms of his housekeeper. Any questions?