Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 13 | Summary



Macha has left to stay with a castrated sculptor because Fillmore's apartment is too cold, so the two men are alone again. Henry Miller and Fillmore spend their evenings talking about literature and comparing Paris with New York, and they both agree about America, "there is nothing more to be said." Henry thinks Walt Whitman, a 19th-century American poet "of the Body and Soul," has already "immortalized" the spirit of America. Compared to Whitman's America, Europe is "full of dead bones ... plundered treasures. Europe has never had ... a free, healthy spirit." Henry walks around at night in the damp Paris winter, which he refers to as a "psychological cold," a cold he can't get out of his bones. The windows and doors, closed and bolted against the winter chill, make Paris seem like a prison. People on the streets hover around lights to draw a little warmth; beggars crowd the church steps and entryways, bedding down for the night. Henry feels sorry for the homeless, and walking by them creates "thoughts produced by walking in the rain after two thousand years of Christianity," meaning Henry feels guilty.

Fillmore has become obsessed lately with the idea of there being gold buried below Paris, but Henry's thoughts linger on "what a discrepancy there is between ideas and living." He concludes, "Ideas have to be wedded to action." He quotes a long passage from a book Nietzsche called "the best German book there is." The quote in the book forecasts a time when "God will have no more joy in [humans], but will break up everything for a renewed creation." Later Henry wanders the streets, his head spinning, fueled by alcohol and the book he's been reading. Henry agrees with the book, there's no joy or meaningful action left in the world; "not one man has been born light enough, gay enough, to leave the earth!" Henry says the "eagles of the future" should "stay on the earth ... the heavens have been explored and they are empty."

Henry and Fillmore come home with two prostitutes. When Henry stares into the genitals of the prostitute he is about to have sex with, he flows into a surrealistic rant about her genitalia, comparing it to a dreamlike vision of an apocalyptic world, "reduced to zero and no trace of remainder." He envisions people committing ineffective acts that make them look like they care about the world; while, in truth, they say and do nothing that matters. Henry tries to reenergize himself by having sex with the prostitute, but continues to see the world—in his mind—"tottering and crumbling." Henry thinks of the work of Dostoyevsky, a Russian writer he deeply admires, who creates "art whose roots lie in massacre." According to Henry, civilization exists to "crush out the miracle of personality"; if everyone could be honest enough to express what they truly think and feel, the world would explode, never to be put back together again. He uses this idea to express how words "are always stronger than the lying, crushing weight of the world."

Henry's thoughts meander to Mona, a strong memory of her calling him "a great human being," at some point in Henry's past. Henry realizes Mona emptied him out, "put beneath [his] feet a great pit of howling emptiness," but he "was a man with a body and soul." He did have "a heart that was not protected by a steel vault." He ponders how Mona "turned to night ... her maggot words gnawing into the mattress," and he was "left behind in the Garden of Eden."

The next day Henry awakes "with curses of joy on [his] lips." The words now pouring from his soul bring him light, and he remembers experiencing ecstasy and creativity. He wakes up vowing that whatever he does, he wants it to produce joy. He reconsiders his view of what makes writing worthwhile. The good writers "sow strife and ferment, so that by emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life." Henry talks about the earth as a fecund female body, with all its fruit, and vegetation, but the world humans have created in it, is a gray prison. Nevertheless, he sees a new world is possible. He realizes he belongs to the earth, but he is "inhuman" because he doesn't let human creations rule him. He wants to be like "the fanatic who ransacks libraries in order to find the Word." He wants to produce work that liberates people, allows them to experience ecstasy and joy, regardless if the world falls apart. Artists, who are "the inhuman ones," live "side by side with the human race," turning "this soggy dough into bread and the bread into wine and the wine into song." Like the poet Milton, Henry resolves to flow, to flow on the rivers of the kind Shakespeare and Dante flowed on, and keep flowing; rise up against despair and love everything that flows.


Spoiler alert: Tropic of Cancer ends abruptly, leaving the reader with the question, will Henry remain in Paris or go back to America. Chapter 13 contains the answer. Henry lets go of Paris, his despair, any notions of nihilism he has considered, and Mona, all in one breathtaking rant, where he finally embraces joy, life, and his death to come, and realizes, for himself, his true calling, his true artistic mission, has divine connections. Henry pits transcendentalism (Whitman) against nihilism (Goethe's long quote in the passage and the reference to Nietzsche), and allows himself some of the basics of Christianity he left behind long ago. Henry makes it known he believes words, in the sense of the Word in biblical terms, have power, and emptiness, such as nihilistic philosophy, is dead. Nihilism, typically associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, claims God is dead, life has no meaning, and nothing can be known or communicated. "Let the dead eat the dead," Henry rants in this chapter. Henry, by no means, embraces Christianity, but he does seem to prefer Whitman's transcendentalism, which looks at nature as being infused with divine spirit.

Suddenly, poverty has lost its romance for Henry. In this chapter Henry delivers a stream-of-consciousness monologue about the depressing, destitute lives of the people he sees as he walks around Paris at night in the cold. This new, subjective view of Paris reveals how little people care for the sufferings of others. Seeing people battened down inside their "blocks and blocks of jagged tenements," against the "psychological cold" gets into his mind, as well as his bones, because it chills him to see humans existing without connection, offering no comfort or empathy to each other. They might as well be corpses. "The world is pooped out," he says, and it is impossible to have any respect for its moral codes, whether "ideals" or "taboos," because civilization itself is an "obscene horror." "The creaking machine of humanity," he blames for the death of civilization. Modernity, and its corresponding nihilistic thinking, has brought isolation and despair to humanity. Henry wants to transcend this isolation and bring back joy and human connection to existence.

Up to this point in the novel, Henry has expressed dismay and sometimes utter disgust at the literature that has come before him. He wants to "get off the gold standard of literature," which he believes censors the full range of people's thoughts and feelings. He seeks writing that doesn't involve "putting on rubber gloves" to "coolly and intellectually handle" the messiness of life, and he objects to the way literature presents myths and legends, rather than dealing with reality. Henry believes there are only a few writers, like the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, who break through the gloom. Such artists somehow construct art and light out of the rubble and gore, the "massacre" that passes for civilization. Many of the characters in Dostoyevsky's works faced poverty, along with moral and spiritual crises, which the author handles with compassion and humanity. Dostoyevsky is admirable to Henry because he "went the whole gamut, from the abyss to the stars." This is certainly a quality Henry himself emulates, with his references to lice, urine, and prostitutes mixing freely with those of high art. Henry loves Walt Whitman for similar reasons, calling him the "Poet of the Body and the Soul," whose embrace of all aspects of life in his poetry echoes Henry's desire to incorporate all aspects of existence, even the most disgusting, into his work.

Henry laments the current emotional worth of modern literature, but he doesn't think it is a totally lost cause. Henry believes books should still be sought out to mine for "anything that has ore in it, anything capable of resuscitating the body and soul," even if it's only a single page. But the purpose of writing, according to Henry, is to "sow discord and ferment, so that by the emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life." He wants art that connects people and reinvents reality. He imagines the flow of words as "rivers that carry you places ... rivers that put you in touch with other men and women, architecture, religion, plants, animals." Those rivers then become oceans, from which a new world rises. Henry's quotation from Milton, who wrote "I love everything that flows," extends to all aspects of creation, making him think of the river of words he wants to write, a flow that brings joy and lifts people up out of the prisons they have created, or have had imposed upon them. Henry's wanderings around Paris, his desire to record the uninterrupted flow of his own thoughts, and even his sex and drinking, embody this idea.

This stream-of-consciousness extravaganza springs from a moment when Henry looks at a prostitute's vagina, a moment some would consider obscene, or even disgusting. This representation of the female body first encompasses the abyss of existence, as well as all of the grotesque images Henry has retained of "the music of ideas mired in cold fat." The prostitute he has just had sex with represents the destruction of the world, as her body brings him "face to face with the Absolute." But, the earth is also a female body. Rather than the women of Picasso, whom Henry says have spiders crawling on their breasts, the earth has become a Matisse-like female body, a lush, fertile place that brings joy to be celebrated. Humanity is heading for a crash, and the poverty, disease, and corruption in which Henry has been immersed also infects the people around him. He uses horrific and scary words to describe the prostitute, but exuberance when he begins to speak of the earth and everything that flows, and fertility to describe the female body; he uses joy in the face of experiencing destruction, thus transforming not only his writing, but his vision of life.

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