Blesok no. 61-62, July-October, 2008
The Manifesto of Montage and Non-Conformist
(“Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller)
One of the most significant novels in the world, “Tropic of Cancer” (Paris, 1934) by Henry Miller does not stop inspiring literary debates and discussions, even now, 74 years after its first issue. In his first book (the other two written prior to it, “Moloch or, This Gentile World” and “Crazy Cock” were published posthumously) Miller experiments with the literary expression: an experiment that will leave deep traces in the civilization heritage of the contemporary novel in the 20th century. Using the montage as a basic literary tool, in his “Tropic of Cancer” Miller creates a collage of poetry in prose, lively and fierce dialogues, crazy and seemingly unstoppable monologues, landscapes that always depict something more than the landscape itself (spiritual restlessness, corporal yearnings, wild drunkenness…), a gallery of fluid characters that are here with a single goal: the author uses them to severely criticize the society, art, the world. To complete the picture, Miller spices it all with surrealistic passages that can be used as a case study for any stream of consciousness essay. This montage procedure is transported in the literature of the late 20th century: postmodernism has it as one of its supreme guidelines even today.
However, the influence of “Tropic of Cancer” (and Miller’s work in general) becomes visible quite some time before postmodernism; without inhibitions, Miller creates a literary expression that is in itself a rebellion and breaking of conventions. Miller’s literary expression is a social act, opposing the conformism, hypocrisy, search for a new liberated man. That is why his influence is first seen in the way in which the American Beat generation experiences the world and its place in it: the rebellion that Miller starts in the thirties of the last century is transponded in various shapes and forms in the literature of the most part of the 20th century.
The novel itself tells a story of the kind that we are already used to today: the loneliness of the human being in the city, the fight for survival and self realization. Miller makes his story easily and smoothly: as if he does not really care to tell the story, but to reveal more about himself and the world by telling it. That is why his characters are fluid: this novel could do without any of them, but the narrator needs them because he finds new and unresearched paths in thought and awareness in their actions and interactions. Paris itself is a character in “Tropic of Cancer”: eternally present, at times attractive and kind, at times dark and cold and rough. Miller’s Paris is not only the city of lights: the author gets down to its darkest and most repulsive corners – it seems that he feels most at home there, most inspired, for his misery blends with the general misery around him. Here Paris is not only a city of artists and those who wish to be ones: this is the Paris of pimps, prostitutes, banished princesses, bankrupt magnates, poor journalists who dream of becoming writers, bohemians who give and take as much as they can, scared and impudent immigrants, political asylum seekers and all other kinds of refugees. Paris is the center of the world in which the glow and misery, love and lies bloom side by side; the corporal and the spiritual do not annihilate each other, but constantly add up to each other and challenge each other, as of on a crazy swing. Miller is not a fan of idealizations and glorifications: he is ready to decompose the matters to the tiniest bits inside them, so suck the marrow of knowledge from there. Since knowledge is never bright and never brings optimism, his writing is bleak and cruel. However, Miller does not enter the traps of misanthropy (although, according to the things he experienced he has every right to it), he rather has the strength to laugh the troubles in their face, with a sharp and at times bitter, but always honest and spontaneous humor. He laughs the decay of the civilization as we know it: not because he enjoys the destruction (although at times he really rejoices the rotting), but because his credo is a belief in a new world that can only be created from the beginning, on new foundations and with new moral values. Therefore, the resistance to the prohibitions and court cases against “Tropic of Cancer” and its author in the then more conservative America is understandable. Miller’s novel is a piece of dynamite in the heart of the system, a bar that breaks the elements of the machinery that is only interested in its own progress and well being. Unlike Chaplin three years before (“Modern Times”, 1936), Miller does not allow that his life course is determined by the elements of the system: he would rather die trying to change something instead of agreeing to such a thing. “Tropic of Cancer” is a manifesto of this conviction, rejection of all values and norms since the values and norms do not equally apply to everybody. This novel is a story of the festering of the ethics of the modern man, and at the same time a search for new esthetics, a text charged with meanings that are laid in layers under the rich thesaurus of the author. In this novel, Miller writes his poetry boosting with metaphors that are sources of inspiration not only for the mentioned literary generations, but also for some of those that are yet to come.
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska