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Henry Miller's heroic journey in the American romantic tradition

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Title:
Henry Miller's heroic journey in the American romantic tradition an incomplete circle
Creator:
Hegarty, Patrick W
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
vii, 112 leaves : ; 29 cm

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Subjects / Keywords:
Tropic of Cancer (Miller, Henry) ( fast )
Genre:
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 110-112).
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, English.
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by Patrick W. Hegarty.

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Source Institution:
University of Colorado Denver
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Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
31508847 ( OCLC )
ocm31508847
Classification:
LD1190.L54 1994m .H54 ( lcc )

Full Text
/

1
HENRY MILLER'S HEROIC JOURNEY IN THE AMERICAN ROMANTIC
TRADITION: AN INCOMPLETE CIRCLE
by
Patrick W. Hegarty
B.A., University of Texas El Paso, 1991
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
^ English
1994


This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Patrick W. Hegarty
has been approved for the
Department of
English
by


Hegarty, Patrick W. (M.A English)
Henry Millers Heroic Journey in the American Romantic Tradition: An
Incomplete Circle
Thesis Directed by Professor Rex Bums
ABSTRACT
Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer details the heroic journey of the
hero/narrator. The hero first criticizes, then separates, from society.
The hero then journeys to the desert to face his personal fears and
demons in order to create a personal value system and become
reconciled to the self and the cosmos of which it is a part. After the
sojourn in the desert, the hero surrenders to the cyclical flow of
creation and becomes eternally alive in the moment. The final stage of
the heroic journey involves the understanding of the unity of all
creation, and a return to society where the hero relates his
understanding to, and accepts, all of humanity. The hero in Tropic of
Cancer does not return to share the boon of his journey with the rest of
humanity; he is selfishly alone in his rebirth; he does not complete the
circle.
On the heroic journey Miller treats several themes that earlier
American Romantics treated: the glorification of the state of innocence
in childhood, the relationship between the American society and the
individual, the importance of the subjective experience of the
individual, the belief that truth can be found in the breast of each, and,
111


finally, the understanding that Nature can be both a reflection of the
individual and the embodiment of truth. Through a close reading of
primary texts from Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Miller, it is shown
that Miller and his oeuvre represent logical developments in American
Romanticism.
Although Miller belongs in the American Romantic tradition, it is
shown that, because of the dehumanizing, debilitating technological
society Miller lives in, he fails to recognize the inter-relatedness of
creation as well as Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman did. In his attempt to
escape from the people and society that have enslaved him, Miller
alienates himself from, and consequently can not accommodate, the
Other of his imagination in his vision. Miller attempts to make the
heroic journey, but he can not yet accept men or women into his new
cosmology. Miller does not complete the circular heroic journey.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidate's thesis.
I recommend its publication.
Signed
IV


To my mother and my brother, whose deaths sent me on my journey
towards life more abundant and sight more acute.
Thank You.
v


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION.........................................1
2. LOSTINNOCENCE . . . . . . .5
Restoring Life to Literature . . . .6
The Expectant Author . . . . .9
"The Enormous Womb" . . . . .12
3. CRITICISM AND SEPARATION . . . . .17
Emerson and America . . . . .18
Thoreau and America . . . . .20
Miller and America . . . . .25
The Cancer Is Spreading . . . . .31
4. THE CAMEL IN THE DESERT.............................39
The Camel and the Lion .... .40
The Journey Begins .... .43
The Kingdom of God Is Within You . . .45
5. FACING THE DEMONS...................................52
The First Demon: Death . . . . .52
The Second Demon: Living Separately . . .54
Miller, Millett and Misogyny . . . .55
6. TOOLS FOR THE TRANSFORMATION . . . .67
The First Tool: Passion . . . . .67
The Second Tool: Ideas and Living . . .74
VI


The Third Tool: Hopelessness . . . .76
7. THE STABILITY IN PERPETUAL MOVEMENT . . .82
Miller and Emerson's Flowing Nature . . .83
Take Me to the River . . . . .84
The Wheel Rolls On . . . . .91
8. MILLER AND THE AMERICAN ROMANTIC TRADITION .99
Miller Admires the Romantic Tradition . . .99
Reverence, Compassion and Unselfishness . .103
The Incomplete Circle . . . . .106
WORKS CITED......................................................110
vii


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION: A SPIT IN THE FACE
The rebel, I firmly believe, is closer to God than the saint.
-Henry Miller, The Books in Mv life.
Henry Miller boldly and defiantly tells the reader at the
beginning of Tropic of Cancer that this book is like none they have
seen. This is a spit in the face of bourgeois society and the dead
literature it worships. We as individuals are walking dead rotting away
in our safe, comfortable lives. We have means of transportation but we
have lost our sense of destination and voyage. We have houses but we do
not feel at home with ourselves. There is a vacant stare hovering
around our eyes which no prescription can remedy. Our society, its
hypocrisy and stagnancy, have driven us to the ground; we are meek,
helpless, timid souls who have lost our way.
Miller is struggling against this diseased society; his shocking
language, subject matter and lifestyle serve to illustrate that there is
still the possibility of an exuberant, colorful life filled with primary
experience. His aim is not to relate a story for the sake of storytelling,
entertainment, or moral edification; he is trying to pass the flame so
that others can feel the emotions of fundamental experience. Ordinary
books have contributed to the lassitude of the masses, so Miller writes an
extraordinary book intended to set the world aflame:
1


This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a
prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the
pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty...what you will. I
am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I
will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse...
(2)
Tropic of Cancer is definitely off key but that does not lessen its
startling effect; it still has the power to outrage and excite now as it did
when it was published in 1934.
Miller asserts, ...literature has fallen from me. There are no
more books to be written... (1); but in fact literature has not fallen
from him. Many have argued that Tropic of Cancer is a stream of
consciousness novel that has no plot or coherent progression, that it is
pornographic tripe intended to excite adolescents. In reality, this book
articulates the classic heroic struggle of the individual who must escape
from his or her past, go to the desert and delve into the self to exorcise
the demons, create a personal moral code, and realize that the final
lesson that must be learned is the one that Whitman learned so well:
acceptance. The hero must define the self separately to recognize and
accept the connected unity in the cosmos.
Miller's journey mirrors the one Joseph Campbell spoke of in The
Hero With a Thousand Faces. Miller separates from society, is initiated
into the mysteries of the cosmos, and attempts to return to society with a
transformed vision. In Tropic of Cancer we witness Miller's attempt to
create himself anew because, as Campbell says, "...the old concepts,
ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a
threshold is at hand" (51). This journey involves a transfiguration, or a
2


"...rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts
to a dying and a birth" (51). After the heroic journey has completed its
cycle, Miller understands that he must accept the cycle of life, death,
and rebirth in order to thereby transcend change to the permanent or
the eternal. Miller realizes that he, and we, must adjust our perceptual
lens to incorporate all the disease, deprivation, inequity and ineptitude
into a larger vision which sees the stability in perpetual flux, motion
and change. At the conclusion of the book Miller is on the brink of
recognizing what all creative individuals do: there are no tomorrows,
only an eternal string of todays; there is no death, only change; the
cycles omnipresent in Nature operate in our lives as well; we must
acknowledge these cycles, integrate and thus transcend them, to the
eternal realm where we find constancy in perpetual change. The hero,
Miller, surrenders to the flow of the cycle and celebrates the beautiful
now. Miller simultaneously articulates and personifies the necessity to
be perpetually reborn to the moment.
While on this journey Miller treats several themes prevalent in
earlier American Romantic works: Emersons Nature, Self-Reliance
and The American Scholar; Thoreaus Walden and Resistance to Civil
Government; and Whitmans leaves of Grass. The themes found in
Miller that earlier American Romantics have considered include: the
glorification of the state of innocence in childhood, the relationship
between the American society and the individual, the importance of the
subjective experience of the individual, the belief that truth can be

3


found in the breast of each, and, finally, the understanding that Nature
can be both a reflection of the individual and the embodiment of truth.
The ultimate truth or realization that these earlier American
Romantics have recognized is that variety is an illusion; there is a
connectedness in creation which Emerson described as the Oversoul and
Whitman characterized as part of himself; the Other is the alienated part
of the self which the earlier American Romantics were able to re-
identify with. If the hero's journey is complete and successful, the
initiate's ego will be destroyed and he or she will understand that,
because we are all related, empathy, reverence and compassion are the
qualities that allow one to become eternally alive in the moment.
Because Miller is unable to incorporate women or men into his
acceptance, his heroic journey is incomplete. His ego, defiantly pitched
against society and people in an attempt to break free, prevents him
from completely recognizing the All or the One. Miller makes the
heroic journey in the American Romantic tradition, but (partly due to
the urban, technological society in which he lived) at the conclusion of
Tropic of Cancer he has not yet recognized the inter-relatedness of
creation as well as Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman did; Miller does not
complete the circle.
4


CHAPTER 2
LOST INNOCENCE: FROM BIRTH TO DISILLUSIONMENT
The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and
the heart of the child.
Emerson, "Nature."
When Thoreau says in Walden. I have always been regretting
that I was not as wise as the day I was born (1545), he conveys the
Romantic notion that as we grow older we lose some sacred wisdom
bestowed upon us before birth. Romantics have often characterized
childhood as being an idyllic or purer stage of being because the child's
perceptions have not been clouded by self-consciousness. The child
lives for the moment, enjoying each day for what it offers, without
concern for tomorrow and its consequences. The child is closer to the
source of all life and is therefore nearer to living as we should. The ego
has not been developed to such a degree that the flux of life is no longer
recognizable. Miller exalts childhood also but is obsessed with the
condition in the womb in particular. At the beginning of Tropic of
Cancer Miller sits ...thinking about man before his birth (11).
Throughout Tropic of Cancer there are constant allusions to the womb,
birth, death and the associations accompanying these phenomena; the
pain and pleasure, dread and anticipation, discomfort and ecstasy,
attendant to the birth process figure constantly in Miller's work. Tropic
of Cancer is, among other things, the story of the birth of a book, the
birth of an artist, the birth of an emancipated individual and of a man
5


who insists on following the beat of a different drummer; Miller
attempts to regain that childlike wisdom by becoming reborn to the
fundamental realities of the cosmos.
Restoring life to Literature
To understand how Tropic of Cancer represents the birth of the
writer and historical individual named Henry Miller, it is first
necessary to establish the relationship between Miller the man and the
hero named Henry Miller.
Miller's first attempt at serious writing was the story of twelve
messengers that worked for him at the telegraph company in New York.
He considered it an inverse Horatio Alger story. The book, Clipped
Wings, was written in the third person and represented Millers attempt
at impartiality, objectivity and uninvolvement; the experiment was a
terrible fiasco. He realized that what was in his heart was not
transcribed to the page. There was a rigidity which Miller despised; it
seemed contrived and mundane.
His next project, Tropic of Cancer, was a conscious attempt to
enliven literature; as he says of his autobiographical style in his study
of Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins: ...I have endeavored to restore
life to literature (5). The way in which he achieves that goal is similar
to other Romantic writers: he writes in the first person and does not
create characters in the way that standard literature creates them.
Miller understands what Thoreau understood in Walden: We commonly
6


do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is
speaking (1494). The people that live in his book are people that he
met in his life. This style reveals an honesty and immediacy that breaks
down the barriers between the reader and the writer. We are being told
a story by a living, breathing man who details his life the best way he
can. In The Cosmological Eve Miller says of Tropic of Cancer that it
represents a turning point in his career because he decided to write
about what he knew and had seen with his own eyes; he considers any
subject matter outside of personal experience to be literature; he is not
interested in literature, he is interested in life (161). Thoreau would
praise Miller because Tropic of Cancer exemplifies the essence of what
Thoreau deems worthy: ...I, on my side, require of every writer, first
or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely
what he has heard of other men's lives... (1494). The hero in the novel
is not a creation in the mind of the writer, he is the writer imagining
himself.
Miller writes in this subjective, informal manner because he is
attempting to create an autobiographical document relating the truth of
the world as he knows it; thus the appearance of Emerson's words
opposite the title page:
These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or
autobiographiescaptivating books, if only a man knew how to
choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really
his experience, and how to record truth truly, (ii)
Miller records the struggle to create himself anew in a decaying world;
7


his is a very personal journey told in a very personal style. Tropic of
Cancer as literature might be no better than second or third rate, but as
a token of life and the exuberance still possible therein, it is first rate.
We should not judge Miller by the faults of his prose but rather whether
or not he learns the lessons of living, how much he is a reminder of
life; as Whitman says in Leaves of Grass: I am less the reminder of
property and qualities, and more the reminder of life... (49). Miller
considers himself and his work to be reminders of life. This is
important to understand because Miller sees himself in the tradition of
creative individuals in American Romanticism who were on the side of
passionate living and who spoke of themselves freely and honestly. He
notes an affinity with Whitman in The Cosmological Eve when he says:
I learned not to be ashamed of myself, to talk freely about myself, to
advertise myself...The greatest man America ever produced (Whitman)
was not ashamed to peddle his own book from door to door (161). Miller
peddles his story on every page of the book; the honesty with which he
relates his tale helps the reader determine if in fact Millers heroic
journey is successful. Whitman says in the "Preface to Leaves of Grass:
All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor (19); we can
forgive the weakness of Millers sometime uneven prose and judge him
by his honesty and forthrightness. Tropic of Cancer is the
advertisement of a man who realizes the importance of sincerely
portraying the perpetual struggle to be bom to the moment. In the
tradition of Thoreau in Walden, and Whitman in leaves of Grass, the
8


boundary which separates Miller the man from Miller the protagonist
in Tropic of Cancer is barely perceptible. It remains to be seen whether
or not Miller can accept the unity of the cosmos that these earlier
American Romantics recognized.
The Expectant Author
The many uses of birth imagery in Tropic of Cancer convey
Millers belief that we are continually being reborn spiritually as
individuals; his books are intended to illustrate these births in their
myriad forms. The first use of the womb/birth imagery in Tropic of
Cancer occurs when Miller plays the part of the expectant author who
will give birth to the book we are reading. This book is extraordinary in
many ways, one being that the contents of the book detail the authors
life while he is writing said book. So when Miller portrays himself as
the expectant author, we are holding Tropic of Cancer, a symbol of his
rebirth, in our hands. We are told that the book has begun to grow
inside of him (26); something is germinating inside of Miller while he
roams the streets (28); Paris will be the instrument that helps Miller
give birth to the book; Paris allows him to be an artist and ...is simply
an obstetrical instrument that tears the living embryo from the womb
and puts it in the incubator. Paris is the cradle of artificial births (29).
Paris is the vehicle Miller rides through the painful, struggling steps of
birth, the result of which is his first baby: Tronic of Cancer.
It is important to note that Miller sees his birth as an artificial
9



birth. Other Romantics recognized the ease with which Nature
progresses; everythingbirth, death, night and daycomes in due time.
Ease and repose exude from Whitmans poetry especially: I loafe and
invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease...observing a spear of summer
grass (27). Things happen naturally, smoothly and easily in Whitman
and Thoreau. The births in Tropic of Cancer are forced, contrived,
difficult and artificial. Society has crippled the reproductive capacity
of the citizenry and if a spiritual rebirth takes place it is a painful
process: The embryo is pushing through the neck of the womb, and
theres not even a gob of spit to ease the passage. A dry, strangulating
birth (266). Modem technological society has drained the liquid that
made birth in Whitmans world so easy. Miller's society alienates the
individual to a far greater degree than Whitman's mostly agrarian
world. Urban society has progressed to a point where the individual is
prevented from recognizing the unity of all creation. Miller fights so
ferociously trying to separate himself from modem society, that he can
not return to embrace human relationships at the conclusion of the
book. Because of this Miller remains alienated at the end of the novel;
his birth is premature and thus incomplete. While Miller needs the
obstetrical tool of Paris to assist in his birth, Whitman has an easier time
expressing birth:
All truth waits in all things,
They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it,
They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon... (56)
So while Miller makes the heroic struggle to create himself and his
10


vision anew, he will do it in spite of the demoniacal distractions and
dehumanizing effects of modem society. His birth is artificial and
incomplete, but valid nonetheless.
Tropic of Cancer is primarily the story of Miller's rebirth to an
immediate and fundamental relationship to the cosmos and his true self.
like earlier Romantics, Miller idealizes his youth and the dread and
wonder we felt while growing up before we looked in a mirror and saw
a separate being. There comes a time when we pass out of the
continuous flux of never-ending creation and we get caught in the
time/space continuum; we become conscious of the self. According to
Miller, the womb and childhood represent the time when this was not
the case. For Miller the womb is an ideal state where we are
comfortable, at home, with no desire for anything or anywhere else.
We have become one with the flow of life; there is no ego to cloud our
vision. From the womb to childhood we carry this sense of wholeness;
we are at one with ourselves and our environment. Miller yearns for
this uterine condition and its comfort; he constantly aches for the
innocence we all had before we were poisoned with personality and the
toxicity of civilization. He can not determine the exact moment that this
change takes place but he recognizes that the alteration is very
significant. Addressing this question in Black Spring. Miller writes:
The great change. In youth we were whole and the terror and
pain of the world penetrated us through and through. There was
no sharp separation between joy and sorrow: they fused into one,
as our waking life fuses with dream and sleep. We rose one being
in the morning and at night we went down into an ocean,
drowned out completely, clutching the stars and the fever of the
11


day.
And then comes a time when suddenly all seems to be
reversed. We live in the mind, in ideas, in fragments. We no
longer drink in the wild outer music of the streetswe remember
only. Like a monomaniac we relive the drama of youth. (9)
Millers work and life are an effort to recapture this wholeness and
unity that he experienced as a child; however, he realizes that we can
not regress to childhood or our mother's womb, we must make the world
around us our womb so that we accept this life of contingency and our
place in it. Miller accepts the disparate facets of society and the human
condition (crime, disease, poverty, hunger, and death) into his
transformed vision, but he does not include the Other of his
imagination, people; in Miller's mind, the world/womb gives birth to
only one.
The Enormous Womb: Trying to Find Home
Miller speaks directly and explicitly to the question of the
world/womb in The Wisdom of the Heart, a collection of anecdotes,
stories and essays. He begins with a rudimentary discussion of what the
womb is, namely, ...the place where anything is engendered or
brought to life (94). Instead of the mother's womb, where we are
unified, Miller moves his attention to the state of the individual in
today's world, where we are fragmented. To become unified and at home
in this world, we have to journey to the desert to overcome our fears,
face our personal demons, and reconcile death and the illusion of
opposites into a larger consciousness where acceptance rules; when our
12


illusions are destroyed we become liberated and are capable of living in
the moment, accepting all the facets of the world we inhabit. This
heroic journey to a new consciousness is detailed in Tronic of Cancer.
One of the reasons for society's fragmentation is due in large part
to most people's failure to recognize the world as a womb (94). We tend
to idealize the uterine and postmortem conditions as idyllic, while
shunning the paradise of now. The people that have become unified are
those who:
...have accepted the world as a womb, and not a tomb. For they
Seem neither to regret what has passed nor to fear what is to
come. They live in an intense state of awareness and yet are
apparently without fear. (95)
The enlightened ones who live in the moment, neither fearing or even
acknowledging the unknown future, nor regretting that which has
passed, can experience the bliss others imagine the fetus feels in the
mother's womb. When we do not live in the present we become
paralyzed by the imagined terrors of, above all, death. The unknown
makes us cowards; we do not apprehend the lesson that the world/womb
can teach us: there is no such thing as death, only change. All is
eternal becoming, all is womb, all is creation. As Whitman says: All is
a procession, / The universe is a procession with measured and
beautiful motion (122). When we understand that death is part of this
procession, we conquer our fear of it; we do not have to burden
ourselves with dread for tomorrow, we can live intensely today. Miller
knows that the hero is the one who recognizes the world/womb; the
13


hero understands the possibilities of this world and:
...is on the side of life. The world for him is a place where things
are engendered, brought to life. life reveals itself to him as art,
not an ordeal...The hero is a man who says to himselfthis is
where things happen, not somewhere else. He acts as if he were
at home in this world. (96)
The lesson is that we can all be heroes; we are all embryonic Gods
waiting for the awareness and expansion of consciousness necessary to
blossom into our glorious new selves. When we recognize the
world/womb and overcome our fear by understanding that creation
never stops, the possibilities bombard us. We no longer have to fear
death or damnation, we can live passionately assured of the fact that
...we are part of an endless process where our only concern is to
become what we are as best we can (101). The most important, the only
thing for us to do every day is to work to embrace all the world with all
its facets into an ever-expanding consciousness where we accept
unremittingly:
...the important thing is to get born, bom into the world-as-is,
not some imaginary, wished for world, not some better, brighter
world, but this, the only world, the world of NOW. (100)
This is an everyday battle for all those trying to attain this
enlightenment; the path is as narrow as the edge of a razor. We must
conquer our fear of death in order to pass the gargoyles guarding the
gates of Paradise. Every day it is a struggle to stop struggling against
the sorrow, inequity and insanity of the world. We need to accept the
NOW and not hope for a better tomorrow, at another time. When our
understanding expands past dualities and we destroy our illusions, this
14


awakening occurs:
The consciousness expands to embrace the apparently conflicting
opposites. To be supremely aware, which means accepting life
for what it is, eliminates the terrors of life and kills false hopes. I
should say rather, kills hope, for seen from a beyond hope
appears as an evil rather than a good. (98)
When the individual overcomes the fear of death, loses hope for a
fundamental change in the human condition, and recognizes the
world/womb where all is becoming, then he or she can live exuberantly
and passionately in the eternal today, without attachment to the ego or
the fruits of actions. This attitude is one that earlier American
Romantics characterized as seeing the world of the adult with the eyes
of the child.
Miller's desire is to arrive at a consciousness where he
recognizes, as Emerson teaches in Nature, that (as some imagine in
the womb and childhood) there is in this life the possibility to see a
unity that meets us everywhere: Each particle is a microcosm, and
faithfully renders the likeness of the world (1360). The cosmos is not
fragmented, the perceiving self is fragmented; when we become unified
our vision will become unified. This attempt at regaining paradise
involves a progression to a new consciousness, not a regression toward
childhood; it is an attempt to see the larger world of the adult with the
perceptual lens of a child. Emerson describes this goal as retaining
...the spirit of infancy...into the era of manhood (1347). Picasso
described it thus: Every child is an artist. The problem is how to
remain an artist once he grows up. Instead of reverting back to the
15


mother's womb, the hero progresses to see the universe as the womb.
We all must take the fragments of our shattered selves and build a larger
vision. This process involves the integration of all our thoughts,
experiences, and emotions into a vision that becomes so large that the
ego is transfused into the One. There are moments of epiphany where
we are nothing, yet we see all (1347). We will see how Miller
experiences several of these moments where ...all mean egotism
vanishes and he becomes a "transparent eyeball" (1347).
Miller is trying to arrive at this point where the cosmos flows
through him, but there are several things holding him back: the society
that has contributed to his fragmentation, his fears of death and living
separately, and the illusions that he has lived under. like all heroes,
Miller must separate from society, journey to the desert, face his fears,
shatter his illusions, and define his true self to be bom to the moment.
Tropic of Cancer details the stages of that long, arduous journey. This
book is the story of Miller's attempt to regain the childlike innocence in
a diseased, corrupt, and often vicious world; in Miller's mind this
diseased world is personified in his homeland: America. Like Emerson
and Thoreau before him, Miller criticizes his society before he separates
himself from it.
16


CHAPTER 3
CRITICISM AND SEPARATION: AMERICA IN THE ROMANTIC
TRADITION
Nothing will avail to offset this virus which is poisoning the whole
world. America is the very incarnation of doom. She will drag the
whole world down to the bottomless pit.
-Miller. Tronic of Cancer.
In Tropic of Cancer Miller blames Western Civilization in general
and America especially, for his loss of innocence. Miller believes that
we have become spoiled; we no longer understand or even see the
fundamental realities which can teach us how to become as a child in
this world. We have wandered far from thie hub of the wheel where the
eternity of perpetual youth (that Hindu Philosophers have often spoken
of), reigns; we need to find our way back. The steps taken to arrive at
this very nexus oflife have been taught for centuries in the exemplary
lives of Jesus, Buddha, Thoreau, Whitman and others. Miller
understands that he must cut the ties which bind him to this world
where other values are espoused and trumpeted. He must reconcile
himself to his country, himself, his past, and the world in which he
lives. In order to do this Miller must, like other American Romantics,
separate from the society that has destroyed his innocence, reevaluate
all that has been taught him, and realize that through introspection he
must create a meaningful world of his own. like Emerson and Thoreau
before him, Miller feels it is necessary to criticize his society before he
17


can finally accept it. However, unlike the earlier American Romantics,
Miller never fully accepts America; he confrontationally pits his ego
against America, the materialism it represents, and the people who live
there. Because of this defiance in the service of the ego, Miller can not
complete the heroic journey; Miller travels so far to become reconciled
to his self that he will not let go of the self to recognize the unity of
creation. The picture of America in the American Romantic tradition
has been transformed through time and technological advancement;
the hero now has further to journey.
Emerson and America
Emerson does not rail against America in particular, a la Miller;
rather, he criticizes society which is a nebulous term referring to the
individuals, organizations and bureaucracies comprising our social
strata. With Emerson it is as if society is maliciously trying to
preoccupy the individual so that he or she can not listen to the voice
within which is the Truth within all of us. Emerson gives voice to the
notion that solitude or separateness is necessary if we are to listen to
our true selves. The din of society prevents us from following the voice
which is the eternal within.
In his call to individual perseverance Emerson tells us in Self-
Reliance that, there ...are the voices which we hear in solitude, but
they grow faint and inaudible as we enter the world (1388). In our
technological society we no longer have the ability to separate
18


ourselves from the cacophony constantly bombarding our ears, to listen
to the eternal song in our breast. Because of this, Society everywhere
is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members
(1388). Because of the tumult of society, the individual can not see, hear
or learn from the greatest teacher of all, Nature; society has destroyed
our ability to recognize the Oversoul which includes us all.
A society that truly had the best interests of its people in mind
would stay out of the way of those that are the true leaders: the creative
souls who want to listen to, what Hesise called in Siddhartha. the song of
the bird of eternity. The creative individual has become attuned to the
cosmic rhythm and understands the eternal song. Society should
acknowledge this heroic individuals importance and heed his wisdom.
In "A Defence of Poetry" Shelley imagined a place where the poets were
...the unacknowledged legislators of the world (335). However, the
heroic individual need not write poetry to be a poet; if you live in the
moment, listening to the Truth within, as Whitman says in the Preface
to I .eaves of Grass, ...your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the
richest fluency not only in words but in the silent lines of its lips and
face and...in every motion and joint of your body (11). When the
individuals who comprise society develop sufficiently there will no
longer be a need for government; every human being will be a
kingdom. When the individuals who comprise society reform
themselves, society will be reformed.
There is a common thread that runs through Thoreau's,
19


Emerson's and Miller's works with respect to the American society: it
has hindered their progression toward a deeper unity through the
living of a creative life by explicitly or implicitly denying them the
opportunity to follow their bliss, or hear the Truth within them. The
situation is worse for Miller because with every increase in area and
influence, America and modem technological society, hinder the
ability of the individual to pursue the voice within. We profess
independence, yet disparage independent action. America praises the
almighty dollar and looks upon poverty as a moral failing. As Emerson
says in Self-Reliance, we measure the esteem of each other by what
each has instead of what we each are (1401). But the creative individual
realizes that he or she must escape from this materialistic mentality to
look inward for the answers. As Thoreau and Miller believe, the
journey must be undertaken by each of us individually; the preacher
can not tell you what is in your soul; Emerson counsels, We must go
alone (1395). Away from the crowd the individual must reconcile his
or her vision of the self to reality. This separation need not be a literal,
physical escape but the ...isolation must...be...spiritual, that is, must be
elevation (1395). Because of this the Romantics needed to find solitude
within, or separation from, society.
IhQreay-and -America
Thoreau went to Walden to live deliberately and to determine the
best life for himself; his was a literal, physical escape. Like most
20


creative individuals he would not accept what had always been told him
without practical, demonstrative evidence confirmed by his own
experience. He separated himself from a society which told him that he
should live within certain parameters, under designated laws.
Something told him that he should eschew this society which was under
the dominion of the ghosts of thinkers of the past because, as he says in
Walden. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted
without proof (1497). America had become a place where society was
insulated from the fundamental realities in the cosmos; society trusted
what was told them in books. In Tropic of Cancer Miller voices a similar
distrust of the thinkers of the past: Theres something obscene in this
love of the past which ends in breadlines and dugouts...Every man with
a bellyful of the classics is an enemy to the human race (274-275). The
people that comprise this society value the words of the Bible without
truly understanding that the wisdom expressed therein is hard to come
by. To truly believe in a tenet of a moral code or system of values one
must learn the same lesson in his or her own life. There are no ready
made value systems that can be presented to a person that will have any
real meaning, except maybe as decorative verbiage to be espoused on
Sunday and mocked on Monday. A moral code must be burned into the
soul with experience.
Thoreau understood the importance of primary experience and
knew that he must make a symbolic and literal break from the society
that professed to know the best way for him to live. He went to Walden
21


Pond because:
The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my
soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing, it is very likely to be
my good behavior....You may say the wisest thing you can old
man...I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all
that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like
stranded vessels. (1498)
Thoreau wanted to escape from the old men in his world. Whether his
journey took him to the same destination as some of those in the past is
irrelevant; the point is that we all must make our own journeys to bum
the lessons of our lives in the smithies of our own souls. like the
creative individuals in the past (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Blake), he
wanted to create a value system and not, like Blake said, be enslaved by
another man's. These artists have all known they need to break from
this society which is governed by the past and create; creation in this
sense not simply meaning that the individual creates works of art, but
rather that the individual lives life creatively.
Thoreaus relationship to America is an interesting one because
he strongly criticizes America but understands that America allows his
criticism and the relative freedom to live his philosophy. For Thoreau,
the government is a result of all our weaknesses as individuals. Most
individuals are not fully realized and thus are pawns in the game of the
state; in Resistance to Civil Government Thoreau asserts that The
mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines,
with their bodies (1480). In their weakness people concede power to a
government instead of grasping the power that is rightfully theirs. We
fear bodily harm so pay for police and a standing army; we can not
22


teach so we pay others to teach for us. The specialization in society is a
reflection of the fragmentation of the individuals who comprise it; the
American government is a reflection of all of our inadequacies and
deficiencies.
To combat this situation Thoreau makes a call to arms for the
individuals in society to make the journey to self-actualization; like
Emerson, Thoreau calls for the reformation of the individual. He says,
I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward (1480).
Most have forgotten the strength of the individual; they have allowed
society to usurp their right to live a realized life. In Walden Thoreau
tells us that in America, The mass of men lead lives of quiet
desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation
(1496). It is easier to submit your body to a war you do not believe in
than it is to conscientiously voice your objections. In America the
emphasis is on ease and comfort; the heroic journey is difficult and
painful; few have the courage to make it.
The true individual, like Thoreau, must defiantly assert his or her
will in the face of the government that stands in the way of the heroic
journey. After all, the individuals who comprise a nation, not the
governmental structure, are responsible for its accomplishments.
America can be dangerous to individual development because, if
permitted, it will use the citizen like a tool to further its selfish ends.
Every individual must realize:
...this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but
by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep
23


the country free. It does not settle the west. It does not educate.
The character inherent in the American people has done all that
has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if
the government had not sometimes got in its way. (1479)
Every time the citizen relinquishes a responsibility to the state, so
many times does he abdicate a right. The heroic journey demands that
the individual assume responsibility for his or her actions; the hero
resolutely believes in the power of the individual over the concerns of
the government. If we all lived as deliberately as Thoreau, the
government would be superfluous, and ...when men are prepared for
it, that will be the kind of government which they will have (1478-
1479). If the individual has the courage and resolve to undertake the
journey, government becomes an obstacle to rise above, not a reflection
of deficiencies in the soul.
America and its worship of youth, technology and comfort, tries
to seduce its citizenry into a life insulated from the primary phenomena
of the cosmos. Thoreau refuses to let society distract him from his
course: I will have not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its
smoke and steam and hissing (1557). Unlike most Americans, Thoreau
escaped from the insular American society which sought to separate
him from the fundamental, sometimes unpleasant, realities of birth,
death, conflict and displeasure, to find his own meaning; he made the
heroic journey. Ironically, Thoreau escaped from America within the
wilderness of America. He found the solitude necessary to forge his own
moral code; he took the steps to create a primary relationship with the
cosmos. Millers separation took him outside the borders of his
24


homeland, but he too sought to escape from the tyranny of its expansive
influence. From the middle of the Nineteenth Century (when Thoreau
lived) until the early to middle of the Twentieth Century (when Miller
lived), America's influence and "smoke and steam and hissing" had
become so expansive and prevalent, that Miller found it near impossible
to completely separate himself from society to make the heroic journey
to self-actualization. Miller's personal and social circumstances made
his separation from society more difficult than Thoreaus. Miller
understood this and resented society, and the living people who
composed it, for exerting and exercising so much power over him; the
times in which he lived prevented Miller from completing the heroic
journey.
Miller and America: Escape the Nightmare
While Emerson urged the American scholar to escape from a
European past, Miller feels he must escape from his American past.
Miller understood that he must escape from America and the tyrannical
influence he felt it wielded over him, if he had any chance to lead a
creative life. From Thoreau's time to Millers, Americas influence and
area increased tremendously. Because of this, it was more difficult for
Miller than it was for Thoreau to separate from his homeland. Miller
vehemently criticizes America in an attempt to throw off its yoke so that
he can be born to the moment.
From Tropic. flf£an.cer through The Air-Conditioned Nightmare to
25


The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, Miller's abuse of America is heated*
passionate and well documented. In The Wisdom of the Heart Miller
praises War Dance by analyst E. Graham Howe. Ironically, it is not
Miller's own critique of America but an endorsement of Howe's which
epitomizes his own view.
Thoreau and Miller wanted to get away from the society in which
they were reared in order to come into contact with the realities
mentioned above. The situation has deteriorated remarkably since
Thoreaus time. Miller believes that America as a whole tries to clutter
our minds with noise, confusion, lights, pictures and distractions so that
it is virtually impossible to see reality at all. All our pastimes (sports,
gambling, drinking, etc.) are geared toward escapism. While the
creative individual escapes from the din of the crowd, the mass escapes
IQ the din to avoid, above all, the reminder of the most fundamental
reality of our existence: death. Miller concurs completely with Howe's
assessment of America:
Our amusements are catered for by mechanised methods, for we
cannot amuse ourselves. Those who cannot play football
themselves enthusiastically shout and boo the gallant but well
paid efforts of others in ardent partisanship. Those who can
neither run nor take a risk, back horses. Those who cannot
tolerate silence have sound brought to their ears without effort,
or go to picture palaces to enjoy the vicarious advantages of a
synthetic cinema version of the culture of our age.
(37-38)
The problem with America for Miller and Howe (like Thoreau before
them) is that the emphasis is on comfort, ease, and materialism.
Americans take the easy way; they try to pass the time in the most
26


innocuous manner, they wish to be left alone without any discomfort.
Miller's most comprehensive attack on America is found in The
Air-Conditioned Nightmare where he describes his experiences while
traveling across country. The purpose of this visit, which follows his
escape to Paris years before, is to reconcile himself to his homeland: I
felt a need to effect a reconciliation with my native land. I didn't want to
run away from it (America), as I had originally. I wanted to embrace
it(10). The intention of this trip is important because we will see that
the entire oeuvre of Miller's work is based on reconciliation: to himself,
his past, women, the earth, his homeland, and to the ceaseless ebb and
flow of creation. In fact though, Miller does not reconcile himself to
America; he simply corroborates his initial impressions of America
while noticing rare individuals who have risen above the din to be true
human beings.
Miller's critique of America is succinctly indicated in the title of
this book. For Miller, America is a nightmare because it is insulated
from all the elements which let a person know they are alive: pain,
hunger, passion, anger, disgust, joy, ecstasy and jubilation. These
primary emotions are anaesthetized by the gadgets, noise, news,
analysts and television nonsense. One can not develop when the lessons
of growth, expansion, life and death are nowhere in our culture; we are
insulated from Nature and the realities it exemplifies and relates. We
cling desperately to material wealth in a futile attempt to ignore the
sometimes unpleasant realities of existence:
27


Our world is a world of things. It is made up of comforts and
luxuries, or else the desire for them. What we dread most, in
facing the impending debacle, is that we shall be obliged to give
up our...gadgets, all the little comforts which have made us so
uncomfortable...We are not peaceful souls; we are smug, timid,
queasy and quaky. (17)
Romantics have always distrusted technology and the accompanying
dehumanizing effect on the individual. Thoreau says in Walden, Most
of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only
indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind
(1500). In Miller's modem world the "so called comforts of life" have so
overwhelmed the hero that it is nearly impossible to complete the
journey. The price of our comfort costs far more than the benefits it
endows. What good is a life of luxury when in fact we have no life?
When we choose to live isolated from the destructive forces of Nature,
we have no choice but to live separated from the creative forces in
Nature. As Karl Shapiro says in the introduction to Tropic of Cancer.
The Greatest Living Author, in America, The price for security has
become too great...The only thing for a non-enslaved man to do is to
move out to the edge... (xxii). Tropic of Cancer describes Miller's
attempt to do just that.
Another reason Miller believes that America is a nightmare is
the fact that there is a huge chasm between what we say we are and
believe, and how we in fact behave. This separation between thought
and action, or idea and practice, plays a large part in Millers personal
battle as well as in his struggle against the society in which he was
reared. America vainly attempts to disguise what it in fact is. That
28


inner voice is trying to tell us something that we can not hear for the
tumult. The worst part of America, in Miller's mind, is not that it tries
to insulate its citizenry from reality and its lessons; the hypocrisy of
America is the reason for Miller's wrath. Miller evaluates people,
institutions and countries by several criteria, one being: are they
honestly and passionately becoming or developing into what they are
or profess to be? When Miller asks this question of America, it fails
terribly.
Through its brief history America has promoted itself as the
moral beacon of the world. Americans are independent, freedom-
loving, hardworking individuals who believe that with talent and toil
any one can rise to the top and be exactly what they want to be; the
country and its inhabitants will seek their destiny and evolve into the
greatest this world has ever known. Thats the story we have been told
from childhood. Miller's experience does not bear this out; he is angry
because America and Americans will not admit to themselves what they
really are:
We (Americans) are accustomed to think of ourselves as an
emancipated people; we say that we are democratic, liberty-
loving, free of prejudices and hatred...Actually we are a vulgar,
pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues,
newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call
this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to
offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we
recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion
that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment.
The land of opportunity has become the land of senseless sweat
and struggle. (20)
This is an attack executed by a man who feels deluded by his country
29


and its hollow ideals. Again, it is the hypocrisy of America that bothers
Miller; America espouses one set of ideals yet embodies another. Miller
has to vent his anger, detail his complaints, then realize that all these
parts are integral to the subject being treated. There are innumerable
examples of Miller working to accept his world. In fact, one could argue
that his life's work is a bold attempt to expand his consciousness, where
each experience and phenomenon is integrated into a larger world view
where acceptance is the keynote (some glaring exceptions, his
treatment of women most obviously, will be noted). This process is
integral to understanding Miller's philosophy and his place in the
cosmos. Miller sees life and our place in it as perpetual becoming. We
must continually integrate what we experience in this life to increase
and expand our consciousness.
What Miller is really railing against is the unfulfilled
potentialities of most individuals; we do not follow the dictates of our
consciences; we relinquish responsibility to the state; we think one way
and behave another. Thoreau recognizes the importance of following
the dictates of the heart when he says in Resistance to Civil
Government, The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to
do at any time what I think right (1480). Our government implicitly
encourages its citizens to listlessly plod through their lives with their
heads down, their eyes sullied with the poison of the machine, and their
ears clogged with the monotonous clanging of our industrial world;
most do not obey the voice of the Truth within them. Miller wants to
30


shock them from their lethargy; his books are intended to be the water
splashed in our collective faces to wash the gum from our eyes.
Miller blames our collective culture for the fact that we avoid
conflict and discomfort, but he realizes that we have that culture
because the individuals who comprise that culture demand it. Like
Thoreau, Miller sees our society and culture as well-deserved. As Miller
says in The Cosmological Eve. The age we live in is the age that suits us;
it is we who make it, not God, not Capitalism, not this or that... (154). We
do not want to face the primary realities of this world. If we demanded to
experience the fundamental realities we would experience them. If we
had such a dramatic change of heart that we wanted to be close to
Nature and the cycles it personifies, we would. Our culture is built upon,
depends upon, the fact that we avoid, or are insulated from, the essential
lessons which Nature has to offer us. We must destroy this insulation by
purging our systems of the poisons of two thousand years of
civilization. In Tropic of Cancer we witness the process of Miller's
purgation as he expunges the poison of modem society by detailing its
ills and the characteristics of the drones it produces.
The Cancer Is Spreading: Who We Are and What We Have Created
Miller establishes his rather peculiar relationship to the reader
early in Tropic of Cancer. He will not cradle, cajole or caress the reader.
His intention is to shock the readers from their lethargy; he wants to
awaken us from our somnambulist's trance to make us realize that this is
31


the only life we have to live. We must take advantage of every
opportunity we have to experience all this world has to offer.
Throughout this work Miller describes the gray, dying society of which
he and we are a part. On the first page of the book Miller announces the
problem that we are still facing: We are all alone here and we are dead
(1). By detailing this disastrous state of affairs he hopes to spur us, as
individuals, to action. Anais Nin announces his intentions very well
when she explains the reason for Millers shocking and unique subject
matter in her introduction to the text:
If there is here revealed a capacity to shock, to startle the lifeless
ones from their profound slumber, let us congratulate ourselves;
for the tragedy of our world is...that nothing...is capable of
rousing it from its lethargy, (xxxiii)
Miller is screaming in our faces, trying to make us reexamine the very
foundations upon which our lives and society are built.
The aim of waking up the reader is a long-standing American
Romantic tradition. The Romantics envision society as a collection of
unfulfilled angels, embryonic Gods. If people were awakened from the
trance in which they walk, the world would bombard the senses,
primary phenomena would envelope them. Emerson asserts in The
American Scholar that, in their delusion, people believe power and
money to be the highest aim: Wake them, and they shall quit the false
good and leap to the true (1382). Emerson and Thoreau propose to
awaken these sleepwalkers; In Walden Thoreau writes, ...I do not
propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer
in the morning...if only to wake my neighbors up (1537). Thoreau
32


seeks to awaken society because To be awake is to be alive. I have
never met a man who was quite awake (1540). While awakening there
is still some sleep in the eyes, so Whitman intends to wash the delusion
from the peoples eyes:
Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of
every moment of yoUr life. (83)
By confronting the deluded with their delusions, all American
Romantics have striven to shake societys foundations, to make society
reevaluate its assumptions, and realize the importance of each moment
of life. In Miller's society the deluded have been lulled into a deeper
sleep by the hum of the technological machine, so Miller feels it
necessary to awaken them through a blistering, confrontational attack.
Discussing book titles and their relation to society as he knows it,
Miller writes: We're all dead, or dying, or about to die. We need good
titles (39). The title to this book is significant because it represents the
notion that Miller is on the brink of two geographical states of mind; his
consciousness crosses from a dying world to a world where all is
creation. The Tropics are geographical boundaries marking the line
that separates one climate zone from another. Miller believes that the
society we live in is filled with cancer, malignant disease, corrupt
values and meaningless, dour lives. He is on the cusp of a new world
where all is vibrant, resplendently alive, and resonantly harmonious.
Throughout Tronic of Cancer Miller teeters back and forth between
these two worlds and understands the difficulty of making the leap to
33


the new world. He is sick of how Paris, a symbol of decadence in its
extreme, spreads out like a huge malignant growth devouring
everything in its path. Kingsley Widmer explains what Paris
represents in Miller's mind in his study, Henrv Miller:
The recurrent images of cancer, syphilis, plague, decay and
corruption make Paristhe most symbolic megalopolis of modem
culturean encompassing malignancy reflecting the
Spenglerian malaise of the Western world. (26)
Before Miller can be bom to the new world he must catalog the ills of
this sickened world in harrowing detail.
Seeing this sick world die slowly is not enough for Miller, he
wants to hurry the process ahead; his desire is to destroy the old world
so that a new one might be erected:
For a hundred years or more the world, our world, has been
dying. And not one man, in these last hundred years or so, has
been crazy enough to put a bomb up the asshole of creation and
set it off. The world is rotting away piecemeal...it needs to be
blown to smithereens. (162)
Miller invites all those who refuse to walk in the deadly sleep to help
him destroy the Old world So that a new one might arise. The vibrant
ones will construct a huge cathedral to consecrate the passing of this
dead age: ...everybody will assist who has lost his identity...We have
need for strong hands, for spirits who are willing to give up the ghost
and put on flesh (27). The destruction of identity or ego is integral to
the attainment of an enlightened life; when we forget about our pasts
and forget about the mistakes and inanities in our lives, we can be bom
to the moment. Millers old identity is destroyed in the desolate streets
of Paris. This society is comprised of walking specters who need to put
34


on flesh and experience the refulgent, sparkling realities of creation
that surround them. Tropic of Cancer is intended to show us that the
past can be destroyed; we can still do what Whitman urged us to do in
Leaves of Grass:
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand
...nor look through the eyes of the dead...
nor feed on the spectres in books... (28)
We no longer have to rely on the experience of others; we can gamer
our own meaningful experience today. Miller's work is the dynamite he
hopes will wake people up to this realization and set the world aflame;
the world is like a house of kindling waiting to be ignited; he wants to
provide the match because so many are like this dramatist he describes:
His hair is made of straw. His ideas are straw. His wife too is straw...The
whole house is made of straw (27). We are stale, dry and combustible;
or, as Miller describes another woman: ...the juice has been cut
off...her face...needs a little animation, a sudden spurt of juice to bring it
back into focus (35). Modem technological society has drained us of
the life-enhancing liquid necessary to recognize the wonder of the
cosmic flow within and around us; we have been alienated from the life
Force.
This degrading society which mass produces cars, clothes and
candlesticks is also producing drones who have lost their will: They
move about listlessly and apparently without much purpose (125). The
miracle of technology and the supposed progress it represents has
created a ...world of men and women whose last drop of juice has been
35


squeezed out by the machine (162). The cities, like Paris and New York,
are the embodiment of this nightmare and represent ...the putrid sinks
of the world, the charnel house to which the stinking wombs confide
their bloody packages of flesh and bone (182). There is no escape from
this hellish world: Not an exit sign anywhere; no issue save death
(182). We scramble with the frenzy of maddened ants, closing our ears
and eyes to the reality of death that awaits us without the slightest
regard for the stinkholes we have created where:
No matter where you go, no matter what you touch, there is
cancer and syphilis. It is written in the sky; it flames and dances,
like an evil portent. It has eaten into our souls and we are
nothing but a dead thing like the moon. (185)
The progress of civilization seems like devolution because it has
widened the chasm that separates us from our true selves. We can travel
to the moon but we can not cross the vast distance that separates us from
our true selves. The more distractions we allow, the more gadgets we
purchase, the more isolated we become in the steel cocoon of modem
society, the further we have to journey to become reconciled to our
selves and the All of which they are (a)part. The bevy of distractions in
modem society prevent Miller from completing the heroic journey to
total acceptance.
Still, somehow, there are those that awaken to this madness; they
see with different eyes and hear with different ears. Despite the
pandemonium we have created and the lessons we have become
insulated from, ...there are human sparks, and yet never a
conflagration...They move in freedom apparently, but they have
36


nowhere to go (245). Therein lies the answer: we simply have
nowhere else to go. There is only one issue that remains and that is
death. We have clogged the flowing waters of creation in a futile
attempt to delay or deny an integral part of that cyclical flow of
creation: death. We use facial cream, lift our faces, tuck our tummies,
dye our hair and forge birth certificates all in the effort to hustle time,
or trick death. The rationale goes something like this: if we do not age,
we will not die. Our entire society is in death denial; our youth-
worshipping society is in fact an attempt to market immortality in a
bottle. Immortality can not be bottled; immortality is here today and
everyday but to see it we must accept death into our vision so that we
can then transcend the cycle to that place where there is no time; the
Eden of perpetual youth is a state of mind wherein all is accepted and
integrated into such a magnanimous vision that all is encompassed. The
heroic journey involves the transformation of vision, with death as an
undeniable part. After the hero surrenders to the cycles in Nature, he
or she becomes the transparent eyeball; the hero becomes one at the
center of the wheel of the cycle of life, death and rebirth; the hero
surrenders to the flow of the eternal, youthful river. Most have risen
from the river of consciousness and become conscious of the individual
self, unable to destroy the ego and accept the flow of creation; most
cling to the ego in the misguided belief that it is important to stay afloat
in this river, enlightenment comes with association with, and
submersion in, this river of joy, creation and consciousness.
37


Ironically, to understand the illusory nature of personality we
must first plummet deeply into the individual psyche; the individual is
the gateway to the universal; in The American Scholar Emerson
speaks of the creative individual, the one who undertakes the journey;
he says that ...the deeper he dives into his privatest secretest
presentiment,-to his wonder he finds, this is the most acceptable, most
public, and universally true (1381). Our self is but the piece of the One,
the unity where there is no individuality. The answer lies within, but to
be able to hear the Truth within us we must endure a personal,
figurative death; through this personal death the excess, superficial self
is burnt away and the essential self remains, aware of the eternal of
which it is a part. As Miller says in The Cosmological Eve: ...for this
sort of vision a personal death is required...It is the story of death and
transfiguration (282). The old, superficial self must be killed so that
the new self can be born. like the mythological heroes of old, Miller
goes to the desert to undergo his personal death, to bum the unessential
away, so that he might live more vibrantly. All of us must make the
sojourn to the desert. The struggling birth will take place there.
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CHAPTER 4
THE CAMEL IN THE DESERT: MILLER IN PARIS
Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we
begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent
of our relations.
Thoreau, Walden.
In the Fourth Century AD a group of men turned their backs on
the values endorsed by their society and traveled to the desert. They
wanted to, as Thomas Merton says in The Wisdom of the Desert, attain
salvation and they realized that this was a personal journey that had to
be undertaken alone (3). The society in which they lived was incapable
of guiding them to their own personal Eden. The course that civilization
was taking was incompatible with this personal search for salvation and
they knew ...to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets
and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a
disaster (3). They carried the hypocrisy of society to the desert where
their solitude and introspection would allow them to throw off the yoke
and become reunited with their true selves. Their experiences forced
them inward to evaluate and determine for themselves what should be
valued and what should not. The meager existence these men and
women endured would not allow them to ...retain the slightest
identification with his (or her) superficial, transient...self (7). This
life was a life of sacrifice, destitution and hunger which ...enabled the
old superficial self to be purged away and permitted the gradual
39


emergence of the true, secret self... (8); these heroes lost the world so
that they could find themselves.
Miller's journey to Paris is the Twentieth Century equivalent to
this Fourth Century migration. Instead of the literal desert of the Sinai,
Miller goes to the figurative desert of Paris. He too lives a life of
destitution, sacrifice and hunger in order that he might be reconciled
with his true self. Miller's solitude amongst the millions in Paris was
created by his inability to communicate in the native tongue of the
land. He walked the streets in the desolate expanse of people with whom
he could not communicate; his solitude was found in the masses. This
type of solitude, according to Thoreau, is more acute than his own at
Walden: We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad
among men than when we stay in our chambers (1564). Jesus, these
monks, Thoreau, Miller, and all creative individuals, have made this
personal journey (literally or figuratively) to the desert to find the self;
it is a timeless journey that has been lived in mythological lore and
encouraged in literature.
The Camel and the Lion
The progressive journey that Miller undertakes in his life and
describes in Tropic of Cancer is the same described by Nietzsche in Thus
Spoke Zarathustra. The spirit, according to Nietzsche, is like the camel
that carries all the baggage that it has been burdened with into the
desert where self-discovery begins (26). Miller's vision, arteries, ears
40


and entire body have been clogged with the flotsam of this decadent
world. He carries this weight of the world on his back to Paris where, in
Tropic of Cancer, he disgorges it and starts anew. The hero is the camel
who heavily trods into the desert where he metamorphoses into the
defiant lion, destroying the values of this corrupt world so that he
might create his own. The second part of the journey involves the stem
defiance of the individual as he liberates himself from the load he
carried as a camel:
In the loneliest desert...the second metamorphosis occurs: here
the spirit becomes a lion who would conquer his freedom and be
master in his own desert. Here he seeks out his last master he
wants to fight him and his last god; for ultimate victory he wants
to fight with the great dragon. (26)
Miller attempts to be master in his desert of Paris. The journey must
begin with purgation or catharsis. This process is a very difficult one
wherein the individual must struggle to be rid of the past. Miller
believes that the literary geniuses of the past are guilty of poisoning us
with the toxins that accumulated in their systems. Miller himself
burdens us with his load when he describes the diseased society he
attempts to escape from. We see in Black Spring that Miller is cognizant
of the necessity and difficulty of escaping his literary, personal and
historical past; it is veiy difficult to change from the camel to the lion:
How can one laugh after all the misery they've poisoned us with,
the whey-faced, lantem-j awed, sad, suffering, solemn, serious,
seraphic spirits? I understand the treachery that inspired them.
I forgive them their genius. But it's hard to free oneself from all
the sorrow they've created. (27)
Miller, the creative individual, wants to be bom to the moment by
41


defining himself in the desert, but the voices of the past are calling to
him and beckoning him to return to the safety of the hypocritical
society he must escape. The violently aggressive, frantic manner in
which Tropic of Cancer reads is due in large part to the fact that Miller
knows that he must assert his individual will defiantly and
destructively. The creator must first be a destroyer. Miller's genius
tries not to poison us like the work of the seraphic spirits mentioned
above; he urges us to action; he describes his personal struggle, not so
that we will emulate his life, but so we will see that a passionate,
exuberant life is still attainable. Even in our smog-choked cities we can
find a desert; the belly of the whale might be a whorehouse in a
megalopolis.
Nietzsche describes the second part of the process as the
metamorphosis from a camel to a lion; Miller speaks less symbolically,
but similarly, in Black Spring;
But there comes a time in the life of an idle genius, when he has
to go to the window and vomit up the excess baggage...if for no
other reason than to build a little comprehensible world of your
own...And the more ballast you throw overboard the easier you
rise above the esteem of your neighbors. Until you find yourself
alone in the stratosphere. (29)
In Tropic of Cancer Miller throws up the excess baggage; he details the
diseased, decaying, despondent, demoralized world of the 1930's in order
to cleanse his sullied soul. He is the destructive lion tearing the values
of the old world apart to create that comprehensive world of his own.
Miller suggests that when we cling greedily to the baggage of this world
in a desperate attempt to save our skin, we become the camel, the beast
42


of burden; he has decided to transform himself into the destructive cat
that will destroy the beast and the burdensome load it carries. In Tropic
of Cancer Miller is the camel metamorphosing into the lion right before
our eyes:
I made up my mind that I would hold on to nothing, that I would
expect nothing, that henceforth I would live as an animal, a beast
of prey, a rover, a plunderer. (98)
The individual must viciously assail the hypocrisy and fragmentation
about him or her to erase the nonsense with which they have been
inundated. When the slate is clean the individual can go forth and,
through personal experience, determine the best way for him or her to
live. When the false self is exterminated the true self can be bom; this
metamorphosis brings Miller to the cusp of a spiritual rebirth which
will bring him one step closer to becoming at home in the world/womb:
I am only spiritually dead. Physically I am alive. Morally I am
free...The dawn is breaking on a new world, a jungle world in
which the lean spirits roam with sharp claws. If I am a hyena I
am a lean and hungry one: I go forth to fatten myself. (98-99)
Only when his system has been purified and the false self killed is it
possible to be bom to the moment, the time when he can hear and
surrender to the eternal song, whose notes ring everywhere, if only we
were capable of listening.
The Toumev Begins: Trust Thvself
The phrase No daring is fatal, which Miller heard from Rene
Crevel when he was a young man, stuck in his craw and influenced his
43


approach to life in many ways. Trying to escape from the shadow of
restrictiveness in America, Miller, a middle-aged man, made a daring
gesture and boarded a ship and headed for Europe with ten dollars in his
pocket. He cut the ties that were holding him fast; he wanted to be bom
again to the primary realities of the cosmos. However, before he could
see reality as such he had to purge his system of hundreds of years of
false ideals and broken promises. Miller had to reject all that had been
taught him; he had to resist the mores of those around him. In short, he
had to reevaluate everything he had been taught; he followed the
advice given by Whitman in the Preface to I .eaves of Grass:
...take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man
or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated
persons...reexamine all you have been told at school or church or
in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul... (11)
Practically, this entails a refusal to accept what society is selling. Miller
succinctly indicates his attitude toward the powers that be: Myself, I
don't believe it. I don't believe a fucking thing these bastards try to
shove down our throats (275). Miller has made a pact with himself to
listen to his inner voice; he has heeded Emersons advice in Self-
Reliance to trust himself above those bastards. This is a
tremendously important decision because the consequences are
dramatic. Miller wants to learn the lessons of this world for himself and
just as the beginning climber must start at the foot of the mountain
before he has a chance of scaling Olympus, the hero must hit bottom
before the ascension to sagacity can begin. Thoreau's milieu was the
woods, Miller's is the city; he has decided to trust Providence and make
44


the leap of faith into the heart of the beast: Paris.
Tropic of Cancer is Miller's attempt to describe and order his first
chaotic years in Paris. It is the story of how one man has cleansed his
system of heartbreak, ennui, despair and boredom to arrive at the brink
of the acceptance of his past, his future and the realization that the most
important thing to understand about this life is that there has always
been injustice, sorrow, and inequity in this world; we must accept this
fact and learn how to live in the sorrowful joy and joyful sorrow of the
eternal moment. The perception of the seer must undergo a
transformation. Miller must burn away the superfluous flak and poison
of society and go to the belly of the whale, into his own psyche, to find
the answers that enable him to order his life.
The Kingdom of God Is Within You: The Power of the Individual
in American Romanticism
When separated from the din which insulates the individual from
the fundamental realities, in the desert where the rebirth occurs, the
individual must look to the self to find the answers to ease the
struggling soul. The American Romantic tradition is one where the
individual, the common woman or man, reigns supreme. Miller
continues in that humanistic tradition.
American is full of the lore which praises the rugged
individualism and defiance of the American frontier spirit. In Chapter
3 we saw that the American Romantics believe that most men and
women simply do not fulfill the expectations of this legend; they,
45


contrarily, do. Emerson speaks of the power and nobility in the
creative, rebellious individual in The American Scholar:
For the ease and pleasure of treading the old road, accepting the
fashions, the education, the religion of society, he takes the cross
of making his own, and, of course, the self-accusation, the faint
heart, the frequent uncertainty and loss of time which are the
nettles and tangling vines in the way of self-relying and self
directed; and the virtual hostility in which he seems to stand to
society, and especially to educated society. For all this loss and
scorn, what offset? He is to find consolation in exercising the
highest functions of human nature. He is one who raises himself
from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and
illustrious thoughts. He is the worlds eye. He is the worlds
heart. (1380-1381)
Emerson encourages us all to avoid this old road and travel a new path.
The hero who is self-relying and inner-directed, is the gateway to the
universal truths of the cosmos. Romantics hold firm in the belief that,
as Emerson says in Self-Reliance, Nothing can bring you peace but
yourself (1402).
Whitmans entire oeuvre could be seen as the glorification of the
common individual. He writes in leaves of Grass: And nothing, not
God, is greater to one than ones self is... (84); the individual is honored
because all that can be known can be known through the self; every
one of us can be a hero: And there is no trade or employment but the
young man following it may become a hero... (85). Because the
individual is so glorious we need not bow before any priest, book or
altar; we are as sacred as they:
We consider the bibles and religions divine...I do not
say they are not divine,
I say they have all grown out of you and may grow out of
you still,
It is not they who give the life...it is you who give the
46


life;
Leaves are not shed from the trees or trees from the
earth than they are shed out of you. (93)
Institutions, buildings, churches, governments and technology all
might seem impressive, but Whitman and the other American
Romantics believe all these things pale in comparison to the man and
woman in the streets: ...a child bom of a woman and man I rate beyond
all rate (93). The miracle is us.
Because the American Romantics believe so completely in the
power of the individual to apprehend the universal, there is a boldness
and audacity that runs throughout their work. Whitman believed this
defiance to be the pride inherent in Americans; in A Backward Glance
Oer Traveld Roads he announces his, and the other Romantics',
rebellious attitude: Defiant pf ostensible literary and other
conventions, I avowedly chant 'the great pride in himself, and permit
it to be more or less a motif of nearly all my verse. I think this pride
indispensable to an American (667-668); With this in mind he
presumptuously begins Song Of Myself:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. (27)
The Romantics believe that the relating of all the details in one life of a
specific individual is the best avenue to transmit the universal. When
he wrote Tronic of Cancer Miller had the same feeling that Whitman had
when he wrote leaves of Grass: in A Backward Glance... Whitman
writes:
47


This was a feeling or ambition to articulate and faithfully express
in literaiy...form, and uncompromisingly, my own physical,
emotional, moral, intellectual, and aesthetic Personality, in the
midst of, and tallying, the momentous spirit mid facts of its
immediate days...and to exploit that Personality, identified with
place and date, in a far more candid and comprehensive sense
than any hitherto...book. (658)
So when Miller begins Tropic of Cancer with the three words, I am
living... (1), he aligns himself with those earlier American Romantics
who believed that matters dealing with specific individuals at specific
times were of the utmost importance; the emphasis is on the question of
the individual and his or her journey. However, the other American
Romantics came to recognize, after the completion of the journey, a
unity which encompassed all; the individual is a path to the universal.
Miller does not make this leap; he is egotistically isolated at the end of
his journey. Before the individual and the way he or she lives becomes
as a poem, the journey to readjust and retune the self must take place.
The hero must break through the insulation to learn the eternal
lessons. The final lesson is the connection and relation of all, which,
because of the alienating society in which he lived, Miller never
recognizes.
Miller does, however, recognize the cyclical nature of creation;
there is an eternal recurrence of things that never stops. All is process.
Life begets death, death begets life and conflict begets harmony. Death,
destruction and conflict are absolutely pivotal in the process of the
evolution of all things: nations, organizations and individuals. Before
nations or organizations can flower and develop, individuals must do so
48


first. The experiment of this country that Lincoln spoke of can not as
yet be conducted because, as Miller says in The Air-Conditioned
Nightmare. To conduct a great human experiment we must first of all
have men (20). Our political entities will continue to fail, Unless we
make the effort to realize the truths which are in us... (21). The truths
are in us; we can not ask others to tell us the truth, we must delve into
the self to understand what all creative people have known: The
kingdom of God is within you.
Miller is trying to pass the flame of passion to others and make
them realize that, To know peace man has to experience conflict. He
has to go through the heroic stage before he can act as a sage. He has to
be a victim of his passions before he can rise above them (21). The
hero is he or she who looks to the self to find the answers. The hero is
the one with the courage and unwavering faith to believe
conscientiously and fervently in the God within. Miller believes
Emerson when he tells us in The American Scholar that, Help must
come from the bosom alone...that if the single man plant himself
indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come
round to him (1385). Miller knows that to arrive at the gate of wisdom
one has to suffer many travails; the poison of the society of which we
are a part must be purged from the system; the trials of the desert, the
jungle, or the streets must be endured before the hero can clearly hear
the voice of the bird in the breast who sings so melodiously. The
comforting news is that, as Emerson avers, we need not seek outside the
49


self (1386). Tropic of Cancer is the story of one man who believes in
this credo and lives it in the streets of Paris.
Miller consciously understood the necessity of separating himself
from the society which had poisoned his vision: I'm free, that's the
main thing (72). He also understood, like other Romantics, that
because the answer lies within, the process of purgation through
destruction was a highly individualized ordeal; he had to make the
journey to the desert; h£ had to endure his own inferno replete with the
demons that haunted him alone: I have learned what every madman in
Paris discovers sooner or later; that there are no ready-made infernos
for the tormented (180). All heroes who want to make the journey to
the realization of the world/womb must suffer their own individual
torment. Whitman writes in Leaves of Grass: Not 1, not any one else
can travel that road for you, / You must travel it for yourself (82).
Miller, the artist/hero, is the one who travels that road literally and we,
the reader, make it symbolically while reading the text:
...it began to grow clear to me, the mystery of the pilgrimage, the
flight which the poet makes over the face of the earth and then,
as if he had been ordained to reenact a lost drama, the heroic
descent to the very bowels of the earth, the dark and fearsome
sojourn in the belly of the whale, the bloody struggle to liberate
himself; to emerge clean of the past, a bright, gory sun god cast
up on an alien shore. (181)
This is similar to the notion expressed by Whitman when he imagines
the poet/priest. The poet will replace the priest as the one who initiates
the laity into the eternal mysteries. In his Preface to leaves of Grass he
writes: A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man,
50


and every man shall be his own priest (25). Miller is a priest in this
new order and he makes his journey to the belly of the whale literally;
we learn vicariously that we must make our own journey to our
personally constructed inferno; while reading the text we receive the
boon he earned on the journey. Specifically, that boon is the
knowledge that we are part of an incomprehensible universe where the
only thing to do is passionately expand our consciousness through the
total awareness of our fears, our demons, and the voice of truth within
us; we must live without regard for tomorrow, without attachment to our
actions, without fear of death; we must listen to the voice inside and
become what we in fact are. When we go to the belly of the whale we
understand that death is an integral part of the process of creation;
when we acknowledge, /Not an exit sign anywhere; no issue save death.
A blind alley at the end of which is a scaffold (182), we are liberated in
our lives to live with the fury and intensity reminiscent of those poets
who have shown us the way.
While in the desert searching the self for the answers to ease the
conflict in his soul, Miller sees the most basic reality which society tries
to insulate us from: death. Miller has seen the scaffold at the end of this
life; it remains for him to accept his mortality into a larger cosmology.
Before he can be reborn to the moment, he must conquer the fear of
death and attachment to the ego that were created when he rose from
the river of timelessness and became conscious of the self.
51


CHAPTER 5
FACING THE DEMONS
We observe that man's only real enemy is fear, and that all imaginative
acts (all heroism) are inspired by the desire and the unflinching
resolve to conquer fear-in whatever form it manifests itself.
-Miller, The Books in Mv Life.
The First Demon: We are all dead, or dying, or about to die.
Because of the aforementioned distractions with which society
overwhelms us, most can ignore the reminder of the scaffold and
become entangled in the trivialities of everyday life. However,
somewhere in the recesses of our hearts and minds there is the
realization that we are afraid; we know the act of denial is in fact an act
of cowardice. This fear of death, which makes cowards of us all,
occupies a significant place in Millers sensibility.
When we refuse to openly acknowledge our fear of death we
become part of that mass of humanity who lead lives of quiet
desperation; as Miller says of our fear of death in The Cosmological Eve:
...one can refuse to acknowledge it, fight a million trivial battles every
day of his life, and achieve that state of hash which the majority of men
serve up to themselves in lieu of solid nourishment (176). Miller has
chosen the other alternative where he will take his fear, ...isolate it,
and against it counterpart a grand symphony of life (176). The fear
that paralyzes most people prevents them from living life in the
52


moment. They live one step ahead of the present, planning for
tomorrow. The problem is that tomorrow comes but theyre thinking
about the next day; they are always out of synch, unable to experience
the miracle of the present.
The creative, passionate person recognizes that this zombie-like
existence that most live is much worse than death could ever be; in The
Wisdom of the Heart Miller addresses the question of choosing between
these two modes of existence: Real death is not a source of terror for
the ordinary, intelligent, sensitive being. It is a living death which is
the great nightmare (97). Those that wander in the nether world
between passionate living and true death are those who refuse to
recognize the natural, cyclical, flowing current operating in the
cosmos: Living death means the interruption of the current of life, the
forestalling of a natural death process (97). Miller, contrarily, has
decided to live passionately in the face of his impending death.
Whitman is another Romantic who conducted a grand symphony of life
in the face of his death; he understood that death is but a part of the
grand cycle of creation.
When we have the time, leisure and desire to study the nature of
creation, we come to understand that death is not something to be
feared; it is a step in the progression of Nature. Everywhere we look in
Nature the signs tell us that death is not an ending, but part of an
eternal beginning. Whitman saw this in leaves of Grass when he said:
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, / And if ever there
53


was it led forward life... (32). There is no death, only change;
everything leads toward life. Instead of denying and fearing death, we
need to adjust our perception of it. Dying is not something to run from;
it should be embraced because it is but another part of the endless
procession of creation:
All goes onward and outward...and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
luckier. (32)
In Tropic of Cancer Miller tries to understand the true nature of death
and the lesson of acceptance that Whitman teaches. It is a struggling,
difficult acceptance of his mortality which is represented in Tronic of
Cancer. Miller chronicles his thoughts and emotions while he is
undergoing this spiritual birth where he becomes as a child in the
world/womb, experiencing and celebrating the beautiful, eternal
moment; he is engaged in a struggle not to struggle; for Miller, and all
those who make the heroic journey, accepting death is a significant
step toward transforming the personal vision and becoming at home in
the world/womb.
The Second Demon: Alone, with a tremendous empty longing...
As mentioned earlier, Tropic of Cancer is filled with allusions to
the birthing process. Miller has catalogued his complaints against
those who do not recognize the fundamental realities in this world; the
cyclical quality of birth, death, and regeneration seen in Nature, being
the most basic. After railing against society vehemently Miller must
54


separate himself so that he can face death himself; through the
assimilation of death Miller is in fact bom in Tropic of Cancer. This is a
perpetual process where he must be continually reborn to the moment.
In The Henrv Miller Reader there is an excerpt (taken from The World
of Sex) where Miller recognizes his obsession with this process of birth
and understands its relation to the book:
Tropic of Cancer is a sort of human document, written in blood,
recording the struggle in the womb of death. The strong sexual
odor is, if anything, the aroma of birth, disagreeable, repulsive
even, when disassociated from its significance. (356-357)
This birth is a dry, difficult one because the diseased world in which we
live is cut off from the juice that lubricates the cyclical flow. Miller
pictures this process as continually progressing towards becoming one
with the world/womb; when we are not progressing we are stagnating
or trying to regress to the mother's womb. For the hero regression is
synonymous with the living death of the masses; he must overcome the
fear of the unknown and face the abyss where uncertainty lies. Miller
has avoided the abyss of uncertainty, created by separate living, by
engaging in numerous sexual encounters with women throughout his
disillusionment; therefore, in Miller's mind, the questions of women,
death, and continually being alive in the moment, are inextricable.
Miller. Millett and Misogvnv: Woman as Demon?
Miller's entire collection of work is, almost without exception,
sexist in the extreme; there are countless descriptions of degrading and
55


dehumanizing sexual subjugations in Miller's work fSexus the most
egregiously violent). Miller is fascinated with the women's vagina and
he spends myriad time and energy exploring, detailing, and, often,
trying to describe away the female form. Through his violent prose
Miller futilely attempts to assert control over the Other, woman, in the
cosmos. It is a blind endeavor by a man who feels out of control in
human relationships. Miller's inability to see women or men as part of
the same All as himself, illustrates his failure to recognize the unity of
all creation.
Critics have often cited Miller's attitude towards women as reason
for disregarding and dismissing him as an author; they have dismissed
Miller because they did not agree with his sexual politics. In this age of
politically correct inoffensiveness, Miller is appallingly offensive.
Granted, it is disturbing and uncomfortable to read some of Miller's
more graphic descriptions of the sexual act; he often describes a woman
as cunt, whore, or piece of tail. The critic must decide whether or
not there is anything of value in these degrading depictions of women.
The value of these chauvinist depictions lies in their honesty.
Miller offers the critic a unique opportunity to see into his mind
as a writer because he sees no separation between the narrator in his
autobiographical novels and himself. Miller has told the entire truth
about the world in which he lived and his honesty can help us
understand sexism and its causes. As Kate Millett says in the section on
Miller in Sexual Politics: Miller is a compendium of sexual neuroses,
56


and his value lies...in having had the honesty to express and dramatize
them (295). Because of this we can try to decipher, trace and explain
Miller's attitude toward women and how it relates to his entire
sensibility. More pointedly, we will see the connection between the
woman/womb, and his fear of living separate from that womb, which
leads to the attempt to dominate women; because, for Miller, women are,
among other things, the embodiment of the cyclical nature of life,
death, and rebirth.
When Miller dominates women he is in fact trying to assert his
individual will against the flux of the cosmos, that which is
uncontrollable. Until Miller surrenders to the eternally recurring
cycles (life, death, rebirth) operating in nature, he can not accept
woman as person and the world/earth as womb. Miller's feeble attempt
to regress to the mother's womb, created by his fear of living separate
and becoming one in the world/womb, is acted out in the sexual act;
until he overcomes the fear of living separate, he will not be able to
accept world as womb. For Miller women are first a place to hide from
himself and the natural processes of Nature; ironically, they are also
the embodiment of those same processes; lastly, they are a vehicle to
know those processes in a more meaningful way; through his
relationship with women Miller finally understands that he can not
hide from the reality of the flow toward death and dissolution.
The primary female figure in Tropic of Cancer is Mona, a veiled
characterization of his second wife, June Mansfield. Mona (Mara in
57


some works) is the inspiration for much of Miller's oeuvre; in Tropic of
Cancer Miller is trying to reconcile himself to the fact that his marriage
to her is ending. She lives mostly in the United States, he in Paris. He
can not yet accept the demise of their marriage and this book is, in
Miller's mind, an attempt to destroy her and the sex she represents.
While talking of the book and its relation to Mona he says: She knows
there is something germinating inside me which will destroy her (28).
She has made his life a living hell and he will avenge his heartbreak by
destroying her with words and violently abusing other women in his
life in a crusade of misplaced revenge. Millett is correct when she
traces Miller's attitude towards women to events that transpired between
Miller and Mona in New York before he left for Europe. Mona imposed
her lesbian lover on Miller in a strange menage a trois where, more
often than not, Miller was left out in the cold. As Millett muses, it indeed
...would be interesting to speculate on how much of Miller's arrogance
toward 'cunt...is the product of this one lacerating experience (304).
Miller is bitter and this causes him to see sexual relationships in
terms of warfare. In our warrior society men are taught to be the
aggressor, the soldier, the conqueror. Miller, like many men of his
generation, adopts this attitude toward women. When he and Van
Norden hire a prostitute they do it out of habit and boredom; they have
no passion for the act but they have paid the woman and ...something
has to be done about it. It's like a state of war...one surrenders to the
situation, one goes on butchering..." (142). Within the text of Tropic of
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Cancer Miller starts to examine the martial aspect of relationships to
understand his own attitude. When Mona leaves Miller to return to
America, in Miller's mind, she has declared war. Without her he must
face the fact that we are all alone in this world; he must live separate
from woman to become man. This proposition frightens him terribly:
When I realize that she is gone, perhaps gone forever, a great
void opens up and I feel that I am falling, falling into deep, black
space. And this is worse than tears, deeper than regret or pain or
sorrow; it is the abyss into which Satan was plunged. There is no
climbing back, no ray of light, no sound of human voice or
human touch of hand. (178)
He is falling into an abyss when she leaves, but the womans womb is
that very same abyss for Miller. Every time he violates a woman
abusively, Miller is attempting to control the abyss, the unknown, the
flux of the cosmos; controlling women is Millers futile method of
feeling in control of the Other of his imagination. Men in our society
are conditioned to live in opposition to the ebb and flow of creation.
Men are warriors taught to dominate nature, have dominion over the
sky and the animals, and control everything, including the natural
cycles. In this belligerent role men see women, the embodiment of the
natural cycles, as land to be conquered, reigned over, plundered and
dominated. Miller, a product of this society, seeks to dominate women.
Besides dominating women in an attempt to assert authority over
the ceaseless ebb and flow, Miller has used women to hide from himself
and the cycles which women embody. When he faces the abyss he
realizes that he must build a bulwark against it; he must construct a
system of thought which will enable him to accept the abyss into his
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cosmology. He understands how women in his life have always been a
tool he has used to avoid the fact that he is a separate individual who
must understand the necessity of separate wholeness; women became a
way for Miller to hide from himself: That's all I want of themto
forget myself (129). Only through his individual unity is he able to
progress to comfort in the world/womb. The admirable thing about
Miller is that he examines his fears and his life long battle with women
to determine their nature. This fear of living separate from women is a
primal one for Miller; it is the fear of honest self-evaluation and
analysis which the diseased world in which we live encourages us to
avoid:
Alone, with a tremendous empty longing and dread. The whole
room for my thoughts. Nothing but myself and what I think,
what I fear...The thought of such absolute privacy is enough to
drive me mad. It's like a clean birth. Everything cut away.
Separate, naked, alone. Bliss and agony simultaneously. (286)
After raging against Mona, the woman who has discarded him and
compelled him to live separately, Miller understands that his anger
towards her and all women is the displaced angst of a man who dreads
the thought of being bom to the world/womb. Miller announces to us
the fact that women have always been a tool for him to avoid this
rebirth to the world. He can not treat them as individual, sentient
beings because to do so would leave him ...out in the world, adrift, a
ship without a rudder (287). In the frenzied sea of the
incomprehensible cosmos, Miller is like a drowning man who
desperately clings to, and consequently drowns, women. Tropic of
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Cancer is an attempt by Miller to build a rudder that will enable him to
navigate himself through the bevy of Deserts, seas, lakes, oceans
(286), that threaten to drown him. The idea that we can avoid the abyss
by entwining ourselves with another (woman for Miller) is ludicrous,
and Miller begins to understand how fruitless his attempts at avoiding
the abyss have been:
Going back in a flash over the women I've known, it's like a
chain I've forged out of my own misery. Each one bound to the
other. A fear of living separate, of staying bom. The door of the
womb always on the latch. Dread and longing. Deep in the blood
the pull of paradise. The beyond. Always the beyond. (287)
Miller is being pulled in different directions: back to the safety of the
woman/womb and forward to the beyond, where he becomes one in the
world/womb. His fear of living separate must be overcome; the pull of
the beyond, or perpetual becoming in the world womb, must be stronger
than his fear of living separate.
Woman is only symbol or tool for Miller, never another being
with personality or thought. Above it was noted how he associates
women with his fear of living separate and the comfort we experienced
in the mother's womb. His attitude toward woman changes when he
begins to see the earth as woman and not as the diseased center of his
aimless life. No matter how defiled the earth becomes there is always
the pulsating rhythm of creation. We can build skyscrapers and pave
roads but we can not stop the creation of new life, the growth of a blade
of grass, or the evolution of the caterpillar to the butterfly. In his
urban world, divorced from Nature and the cycles it personifies, Miller
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is compelled to learn these things in the one place that signifies
creation for him: the vagina of the woman. The whore is passionless
yet between her legs Miller is ...face to face with the Absolute... (246-
247). The Absolute that Miller describes is ...an equation sign, the world
at balance... (247), where all is justified. The stagnant, malignant,
unjust world in which we live, is justified; he does not fight the
insanity, he incorporates it into a larger vision which enables him to
see with different eyes. The earth is not seen as a rotting entity
awaiting the dynamite to blow it to smithereens, it is now a breathing,
alive organism that has given birth to this new individual The earth is:
...a great sprawling female with velvet torso that swells and
heaves with ocean billows; she squirms beneath a diadem of sweat
and anguish. Naked and sexed she rolls among the clouds in the
violent light of the stars. All of her, from her generous breasts to
her gleaming thighs, blazes with furious ardor. (250)
Miller's conception of the earth as an alive, breathing, pulsating entity
is a radical transformation from the beginning of the novel where:
The world is a cancer eating itself away... (2). The world is not
diseased and dying, it is heaving and squirming; in Millers new vision
creation never stops.
This change of vision represents Miller's idea of a man standing
between two figurative worlds: one of destruction and one of creation,
with the Tropic of Cancer separating them. It is a state of mind where
the opposing dualities are reconciled into one vision; Miller is walking a
tightrope where these worlds are on either side of him. He
characterizes this dramatic situation as being caught between a world of
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the dead and a world of the living: Let the dead eat the dead. Let us
living ones dance about the rim of the crater, a last expiring dance. But
a dance!(257). Miller learns to dance with this new vision that
encompasses both the living and the dead, life and death, creation and
destruction. The key to this transformation of Millers vision is women.
The female anatomy symbolizes creation and birth for Miller; no matter
how passionless, indifferent and desolate a woman, man, and this world,
may seem to us, underneath the surface:
...beneath the hard carapace of indifference there is concealed
the ugly gash, the wound that never heals...and a man who is
intent on creation always dives beneath, to the open wound...He
hitches his dynamo to the tenderest parts; if only blood and pus
gush forth, it is something. (250-251)
Miller's path to discover the fact that creation never stops is to expose
the one place in this diseased, stagnant world where he can still
understand creation: the vagina of the woman. Although he seems to
understand the importance of the creative capabilities of woman and
earth, he still refers to the vagina as a wound, symbolizing some lack
or deficiency. In Tropic of Cancer Miller does not arrive at a complete
acceptance of woman or earth, but he undergoes a change in attitude
toward both. In Miller's later works he becomes more and more at home
in this world and closer to accepting the world-as-is; however, his
conception of women never progresses to a point where he accepts
them as individuals. His consciousness has expanded to incorporate
death and the cycle of which it is a component, but he does not accept
women or men as part of the unity.
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Miller's vision has been transformed but at what price? Even
though his conception of woman has changed, the fact remains that
woman is NEVER a subject, she is only an object or a symbol. As Millett
notes, Millers first treatment of women is as ...thing, commodity,
matter. There is no personality to recognize or encounter... (297).
Women allow Miller, in some instances, to hide from the fundamental
realities and the fact that he must live separately. However, at other
times the woman is used, again as a tool, to gain insight into those
mysteries. In either case they are never people. As Millett correctly
asserts, Miller elevates the function of women to an idea, the life
Force (302). Decaying society insulates us from the true embodiment of
the Life Force, Nature; in the midst of the decay there is still this force
between the legs capable of creation. He likens women to outlets where
men can plug into to feel the surge of creation running through them:
...the whole damned current of life flowing through you... (44).
Through the sexual conquest (for Miller it is always conquest), Miller is
taken out of himself and bom to the flowing creation that is The Life
Force. The sexual act allows Miller to destroy the ego and surrender, or
plug into, the life Force. The pursuit of the female is the pursuit to
know the eternal; it is not the attempt to know woman as a person
capable of thought, emotion and selfhood. Although Miller uses women
in different ways, he never seems to understand or rise above this
maltreatment of women; they are symbol, object, foe or sexual device.
Miller often speaks of liberation but he is chained to his prejudice
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against women and never seems to break free. On his personal journey
to define and liberate the self, Miller is subjugating, instead of
incorporating, the Other, woman, of his imagination. While Miller
denigrates women openly, he does not accept men into his vision either.
This neglect of women and men prohibits Miller from completing the
heroic journey; he can not commune with the Other in the cosmos
because he is isolated in his vision.
Miller realizes that he must try to make this world his womb and
live separately from women, who heretofore have been his hiding place
from the fundamental realities. We have traced Miller's development
where he faces his fear of living separate from women, and uses women
to understand that he must live separate in order to progress to see the
world as womb. He has seen the world as woman which is the key to the
transformation of his vision. So the two demons which have haunted
Miller (and are coincidentally inextricable), the fear of death, and the
fear of living separate, have been faced and dealt with in some
profitable manner. Miller details his struggles with these demons
because he believes the role of the artist is ...to make of the chaos about
him an order which is his own, to sow strife and ferment so that by the
emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life... (253).
The lesson Miller conveys is that we too can restore ourselves to life; we
can all be born to this world if we have certain characteristics of
personality or behave in a certain manner. The artist teaches us by
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example that the first prerequisite needed to make the journey to the
transformation of vision is passion.
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CHAPTER 6
TOOLS FOR THE TRANSFORMATION
Every man has his own destiny: the only imperative is to follow it, to
accept it, no matter where it lead him.
-Miller, The Wisdom of the Heart.
The First Tool: We haven't anv passion either of us.
Everyone must create his or her own values but the ingredient
that makes it possible is passion. We walk in our gray world never truly
understanding who we are; the powerful personalities in history, art,
politics, etc., have all made their impact in large part due to the
dynamism with which they lived this life; they avidly were becoming
what they felt themselves to be as individuals, for better or for worse.
Only when we passionately pursue our personal destiny, bliss or duty do
we lend ourselves to the unity of the All. The quality of passionate,
aware existence, is integral to any understanding of Miller; creative
individuals must follow their own nature with passion and commitment.
Problematically, this passionate pursuit of personal destiny gives some
justification for those whose destiny is destruction (Hitler, e.g.). Unlike
Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, Miller fails to understand that after
passionately becoming your true self, the individual must recognize a
unity within creation which causes he or she to unselfishly give of the
self in service and relation to the Other. Because Miller does not make
this realization, his journey is incomplete.
Miller relates a scene in Tropic of Cancer where Van Norden and
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a prostitute exhibit the lack of passion that is exemplary of most people's
drone-like existence:
Precisely! We haven't any passion either of us. And as for her,
one might as well expect her to produce a diamond necklace as to
show a spark of passion. As long as that spark of passion is
missing there is no human significance in the performance. The
machine is better to watch. And these two are like a machine
which has slipped its cogs. It needs the touch of the human hand
to set it right. It needs a mechanic...nothing will create that
spark of passion if there isn't the intervention of a human hand.
(143-145)
Without passion we are no better than the machines created by the
civilization that has in fact led to our demise. Miller admires Germaine,
another prostitute who he believes exuberantly celebrates who she is in
life; she ...had the right idea...she put her heart and soul into her work.
She was a whore all the way through and that was her virtue (47).
Millett cites this episode in her article on Miller but she fails to
recognize the importance of the scene. Germaine is not praised because
she was ...the perfection of feminine existence...the function of
absolute cunt (301); Miller exalts her because she passionately lived
her life. She was what she was to the utmost. Miller implores us to be
what we are to the fullest, without concern for eternal salvation; he
believes that when individuals follow the dictates of their own soul they
will gain entrance to the palace.
American Romantics have often discussed the importance of the
becoming of our true selves, of fulfilling our duty in life. Emerson
followed the song of the bird in his breast because, as he writes in "Self-
Reliance, No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature (1388). To
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deny the voice within is to commit partial suicide everyday. In
Resistance to Civil Government Thoreau refuses to deny his true
nature; he will passionately follow the dictates of his soul because, If a
plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man (1488).
We need not live up to the expectations of our parents, teachers, priests,
rabbis or neighbors, because each of us can achieve grandeur in any
chosen walk of life; in Walden Thoreau encourages us ...to find out and
pursue his own way, and not his fathers or his mothers or his
neighbors instead (1530). Only through your own gate can you gain
entrance to the palace of enlightenment. Do as Thoreau does in Walden
and, Read your own fate, see what is before you, and walk on into
futurity (1551). No matter how fervently you pursue someone elses
goals, you will not arrive at acceptance, or peace in the world/womb.
The idea that we must follow the instructions given us by our
body, soul and psyche is one that has found expression in Eastern
Philosophy as well as the American Romantic tradition. The
relationship between Eastern Philosophy and American Romanticism is
a strong one. Thoreau admired the Bhagavad Gita and said: How much
more admirable the Bhagvat-Geeta than all the ruins of the East!" (1523).
There is a simplicity and acceptance of the cycles in Eastern thought
not common to our Western way of thinking. Duty and the pursuit of
your place within the unified whole are notions widely treated in
Hindu thought.
In his Introduction to Knut Hamsun"s Hunger. Robert Bly asserts
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that the creative individual (like Hamsun and Miller), understands that
...the essence of right life is thiswhen you are hungry, eat; when you
are tired, sleep (xv). This is not the flippant attitude of someone simply
searching for fleeting, transitory thrills, in a Dionysian orgy of the
senses; it is the Eastern notion that we must fulfill our lot in life to the
best of our abilities. We must obey the dictates of the body and the soul,
they inform us of our duty. As Krishna counsels Arjuna in The
Bhagavad Gita. Better to do ones own duty imperfectly than to do
another mans well (149). The Hindus speak of dharma, their sacred
duty. In her notes to The Bhagavad Gita. Barbara Stoler Miller tells us
that dharma is the idea ...that if each unit...in the...universe performs
its function correctly, the whole (the individual, the society, the
cosmos) will be harmonious (165). If we all passionately celebrated the
becoming of our true selves, we would lend ourselves to the unified
whole. Each of us has a role to play in the drama, no part more
important than the other. The whore can become the hero as well as
the saint. And in the end, as Bly notes, ...obedience to the unconscious,
even at the cost of physical suffering, is the right thing; it is the road of
genius and of learning (xxii). Miller believes fervently in William
Blake's axiom: If the fool would persist in his folly he would become
wise. He says in The Wisdom of the Heart: "Paradise is everywhere and
every road, if one continues along it far enough, leads to it" (22). If we
do not believe in the voice within and follow it with commitment and
passion, we are lost.
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Related to the concept of duty is the notion that while performing
our duty we must not become unduly attached to the fruits of our
actions. When we perform acts in the hope for wealth, power or
prestige, we are attached to the consequences of our actions; we act in
the hope for personal aggrandizement; we are attached to the ego.
However, if we are to gain entrance to eternity, that which is beyond
the cycle of life, death and rebirth, we must destroy the ego; we must
recognize the unity not the variety. To arrive at this state of being it is
necessary to look upon ones duty and actions with an indifferent eye;
fervently perform the duty without regard for the consequence or the
result; Krishna says, "Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action;
avoid...attachment to inaction (36). The focus is on passionate action,
not the product or the accumulation of objects. In The Bhagavad Gita it
is described thus:
An agent called pure
has no attachment or individualism,
is resolute and energetic,
unchanged in failure and success. (146)
Millers journey to become as a child in this world, to recognize the
unity and connectedness of creation, and to accept the infinite cycle,
must adopt the above as one of its doctrines. Miller understands that the
attachment to the self and the fruits of its actions will prevent him from
surrendering to the flow of the cosmos.
Enigmatically, while passionately pursuing his destiny, Miller
remains indifferent; he tries to be an individualist without an ego. In
The Wisdom of the Heart Miller speaks of his passionate, personal
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indifference: "I live completely for myself, without the least bit of
egotism or selfishness. I am living out my share of life and thus
abetting the scheme of things" (21). Miller believes that even though
he lives completely for himself, he is not egocentric. The self is
consumed in the self and the individual is liberated to live without
concern for personal aggrandizement or glory; thus, for Miller, "This
condition of sublime indifference is a logical development of the
egocentric life" (22). Miller energetically and resolutely becomes who
he feels himself to be, not out of a desire to glorify himself, but because
the "...real problem is... discovering one's destiny, of making a life in
accord with the deep-centered rhythm of the cosmos" (22). In Tropic of
Cancer Miller adopts this indifferent stance, but we will see how he is
not unselfishly pursuing his destiny. He selfishly excludes human
relationships in an effort to avoid emotional harm. The difficult part of
the heroic journey is to be able to throw yourself passionately into the
emotional fray without becoming unduly attached to your actions.
Miller is not attached to his actions, but he has no emotional investment
in the struggle.
In Tropic of Cancer Miller jokes about the fact that he ...had a
number of Hindu friends... (78) in America. However, he seems to have
learned something from their culture: how to act without becoming
attached to the fruits of his actions. He himself says that he is ...a man
without a caste, an untouchable... (79). The proofreaders job he holds
illustrates this point perfectly. He reads about the calamities and
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disasters in the world but is wholly unaffected by them because, ...hes
in the world but not of it (147). In the cosmic vision, an earthquake
and a flood are relatively unimportant distractions; in the end creation
goes On. Act, but do not implicate yourself with the results. Miller
seems to be saying that action is play, play is creation and creation is
divine. Surrender yourself honestly and completely to the process and
do not be overly concerned with the consequences. Passionate action
following your nature assures unity within the self, acceptance, and
rebirth in the world/womb.
These views of Miller's raise some interesting ethical questions
that must be addressed. If individuals passionately become what they
feel themselves to be without regard for the consequences, a monster
like Hitler is justified to do they same. How is evil accounted for in
Miller's sensibility? Miller seems to believe that Hitler was a creation of
the inadequacies of the people in this world. They followed a monster
because they were unfulfilled in their own fives. If each of us made the
heroic journey to define the self in the desert and followed our duty,
Hitler would have been a bigoted freak in a Munich bar, not the
murderer of six million. Hitler, himself, passionately pursued a destiny
but it was in the name of his ego; he was not indifferent to his action or
its consequences. He was not in tune with what Miller called the "deep-
centered rhythm of the cosmos." He worked against this rhythm which
calls for every person (Jew, Gentile, Black, White, Muslim, Hindu) to be
allowed to pursue his or her destiny passionately. A Jew's role is not to
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be the scapegoat for the downtrodden; a Jew's role is to pursue his or
her duty passionately, contributing to the "scheme of things." Hitler's
desire for personal glory negates any chance of his passionate pursuit
of his true self bringing him enlightenment. However, Miller does not
adequately address the social ramifications of this belief in passionate
becoming because the Other of the cosmos does not concern him; he is
an alienated and incomplete hero.
The Second Tool: ...the absence between ideas and living causes
us no anguish
Related to the idea that we must play our part in the drama as well
as possible is the relationship between ideas and living, or thought and
action. Earlier, Miller criticized America because it does not wed its
action with its rhetoric. Miller wants a society and individuals whose
behavior matches their espoused philosophy because, as he asserts in
The Cosmological Eve. "What is disastrous is the divorce between mind
and action. The ultimate can only be expressed in conduct" (183); the
greatest heroes (Christ, Mohammed, Buddha) all lived the lives they
espoused; their actions matched their words: "What distinguishes the
majority of men from the few is their inability to act according to their
beliefs" (155). If we are to reconcile our vision to the world/womb, we
must reconcile our thought and behavior. Again Miller's relationship
with Eastern thought is evident.
Hindus believe in following their dharma (duty), iso that their
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atman (self) can be united with Brahman (infinite spirit). This religion
does not take one hour every Sunday; it is a philosophy believed in and
adhered to everyday, in every waking hour. The Hindus wed what they
believe with how they act. Miller recognizes a huge chasm in our
Western culture between what we believe in our hearts and minds and
how we actually conduct our lives. When we deny ourselves and betray
our true nature we destroy the noble part of that which we are. This is
what Miller considers Americas hypocrisy; America, like many of the
individuals who comprise it, proclaiihs one set of ideals and embodies
another. As individuals and as a culture Miller believes we must wed
our thoughts and ideals with our deeds and actions.
In the Cosmological Eve Miller addresses the relationship
between what we think, what we can become, what we do, and what we
in fact are: Every day that we fail to live out the maximum of our
potentialities we kill the Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Christ which is in
us (154). In Tropic of Cancer Miller recognizes that he too is guilty of
separating word from deed and killing the best within him: And what
is more strange is that the absence between ideas and living causes us
no anguish, no discomfort (153). We have accustomed ourselves to
disregarding acting on our impulses and wishes for so long that we feel
no uneasiness at betraying our noblest, most genuine thoughts. What
point thinking if thoughts have no connection to life? We
intellectually masturbate not realizing that Ideas have to be wedded to
action; if there is no sex, no vitality in them, there is no action (242).
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To connect thought and action in our lives is a difficult, but necessary,
task if we hope to reconcile our vision to the world as womb. Thoreau
lived a life of simplicity while championing it; Miller lives a passionate
life while championing it. Heroes must live as they believe.
The Third Tool: A world without hope, but no despair.
Before any of us as individuals can be bom to the world and the
moment anew, we must shatter our illusions. Hope has often been
perceived as a boon to mankind, but Miller does not believe this to be
the case. Miller believes that we, as a society, are poisoned by the hope
of a better tomorrow. We mistake technological advancement as
progression, not realizing that all the advancements have not brought
us one step closer to knowing ourselves and accepting our situation in
the universe. We blindly go to jobs for which we have no passion; we
stupidly waste our time with the trivialities of this banal world in the
misguided belief that at some time in the future things will be different.
We talk about heaven and paradise not realizing that if we can not
experience happiness, bliss or joy on this earth, we will never
experience it in the afterlife. Still we hope for a better world after
death, or next year, or the year after. We postpone all our desires
believing that there will be a time somewhere down the road to pursue
them. We hope for the good life without actually doing anything in our
lives to make it reality. This hope for tomorrow reveals a lack in
ourselves today. Hope must be destroyed if the hero hopes to see the
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world as womb.
Miller says in The Cosmological Eve: Hope is a bad thing. It
means that you are not what you want to be. It means that part of you is
dead...It means that you entertain illusions (4). The illusion that we
entertain is that things will be better in our lives and the world
tomorrow; if we join Greenpeace we can stop environmental abuses next
year; if we join Amnesty International we can stop torture in the world
by the end of the century; if we enlist in the army we can retard the
spread of terrorism. All these are illusions created by hope for a
different world. We scrape, claw and bite our way through our daily
lives, and each other, believing that our struggles will result in justice;
instead, we should realize that there has always been injustice, sorrow,
hunger, deprivation and inequity in the world. The key to this life is to
accept these facts and try to become bom to the moment where we rise
above these petty distinctions to know the flow of life that is around us.
We must understand that, as Miller says in The Cosmological Eve.
...nothing is to be expected from God, or society, or friends, or
benevolent tyrants., .or saints, or saviours...when each man realizes
that he must work with his own hands to save himself' (155), then there
is the chance to be bom to the moment and accept the world as womb. A
hilarious episode in Tropic of Cancer describes the event in Miller's life
when he loses hope and can be bom to the world/womb.
A disciple of Gandhi visits Paris and Miller finds himself guiding
him to a whorehouse to experience the world that he knows so well. The
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Indian is inexperienced and in his naivete he defecates in the bidet to
the horror of the madam and her prostitutes. Of all the things in the
book, this episode leads to Miller's epiphany where he accepts this world
as completely justified; he becomes at home in the womb of the world.
Instead of heatedly disparaging the diseased world with its feces,
disease, lice etc., Miller begins to accept all that is about him in a way
that is both liberating and insightful:
In this sort of hair-trigger eternity I felt that everything was
justified, supremely justified; I felt the wars inside me that had
left behind this pulp and wrack...On the meridian of time there is
no injustice: there is only the poetry of motion creating the
illusion of truth and drama. For some reason or other man looks
for the miracle, and to accomplish it he will wade through
blood...Everything is endureddisgrace, humiliation, poverty,
war, crime, ennui-in the belief that overnight something will
occur, a miracle which will render life tolerable. (96)
The illusion of time and hope for a better tomorrow are shattered by the
realization that perhaps the miracle that is waiting at the end of the
struggle is only two enormous lumps of shit (97). The understanding
that we should not hope for a better world tomorrow liberates Miller:
Somehow the realization that nothing was to be hoped for had a
salutary effect upon me...all my life I had been looking forward
to something happening, some extrinsic event that would alter
my life, and now suddenly, inspired by the absolute hopelessness
of everything, I felt relieved, felt as though a great burden had
been lifted from my shoulders. (97)
Miller understands the importance of the battle he has waged to destroy
the illusions that most of society lives under. His birth to a new
understanding was difficult, but the necessary journey of the hero
demands pain and struggle. Miller had to face his fears and
passionately destroy his illusions to be bom to the moment. When the
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illusion of justice has been shattered, everything becomes justified. No
god, government or organization will rectify the injustice in the world;
a change must take place within the individual because no external
event will right all the wrongs. A burden is lifted because Miller no
longer feels it necessary to personally account for the disease,
degradation and despair in the world, which he catalogued so minutely
earlier in the book. When there is nothing to be hoped for Miller must
become at peace in the world. This hope was like a dam holding Millers
angst, vitriol, despair and sorrow. When this dam is destroyed it
becomes evident to Miller that this world is not gray and stagnant;
without hope he understands that in the world/womb all is flow and
creation.
After this loss of hope Miller becomes the evangelical leader of a
new creed; he describes his new relationship to the world and
understands that he lives in A world without hope, but no despair. It's
as though I had been converted to a new religion...I'm up a blind alley,
and it's cosy and comfortable (151). The scaffold at the end of the alley
does not frighten him anymore; death is but a part of the grand
symphony that never stops playing. He understands what Krishna tells
us: Death is certain for anyone bom, and birth is certain for the dead;
since the cycle is inevitable, you have no cause to grieve! (33). Miller's
struggle not to struggle against the cosmos is nearing its fruition.
Instead of grieving and struggling in the face of impending death,
Miller wants to dance and sing in the eternity of each moment. The one
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word that allows Miller to become bom in the moment to the
world/womb is the word that Whitman sang in almost all his work:
acceptance. Whitman was able to positively accept; Miller's
hopelessness is his way of accepting. When we do not hope for
rudimentary changes in the human condition we implicitly accept the
world-as-is. For Miller, hopelessness is synonymous with acceptance.
The result of not having hope is exhilarating. Instead of
postponing life until tomorrow when the mortgage is paid off or the
kids are out of the house, the individual realizes that there is never a
tomorrow; there is only a string of todays filled with wonder and
mystery. Miller tells us in The Cosmological Eve: "You live tomorrow
and yesterday; I live only today. Therefore, I live eternally. I am
timeless" (167). There is no guarantee that you will prosper or survive
tomorrow, so live today! Do not live in harness with the one you do not
love; do not go to the job that you despise to pay for the things you have
no use for; do not hope for a better tomorrow, create a more meaningful
today! Do not fear death, separation or anything under the sun, because
the signs everywhere tell the same story: creation never stops, all is
perpetual becoming. Surrender to these laws of the cosmos and become
what you can be exuberantly and passionately today! The withering
flower does not die, it lies down to give nourishment for the buds of next
spring. There is no death, only the transformation of form. Surrender
to the cycle and you too can become eternal. When we live expressly in
the moment without recognition of anything other than what is about
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us, we are eternal; we lose self-consciousness and are dissolved into the
flow of the river. The most mundane thing can destroy our egos and
allow us to be bom to the flow: the smile of a child, the sun on a
mountain top, the hush of a calm sea, or the reassuring caress of a
summer breeze. In these moments there is no ego, no death, no
separation; there is only unending, sparkling creation everywhere we
look.
At the conclusion of Tropic of Cancer Miller partially
understands the flow of creation; his vision, unlike Emerson, Thoreau
and Whitman, sees a unity that encompasses only the artist, not all of
humanity. However, like Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, Miller finds
the limited answers to his yearnings in the timeless sage of Nature and
its representative, the river.
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CHAPTER 7

THE STABILITY IN PERPETUAL MOVEMENT: SURRENDER TO THE
FLOW
Standing on the bare ground,--my head bathed by the blithe air, and
uplifted into infinite space,all mean egotism vanishes. I become a
transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the
Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
Emerson, "Nature."
For me it is all gravy, one continuous, marvellous stream of time without
beginning or end...I make no reservations and no compromises. I
accept. I amthat is all.
I am on the threshold, as it were, of my kingdom and the imminence of
it stills me.
-Miller, The Cosmological Eve.
At the beginning of Tropic of Cancer Miller announces
rebelliously that everything from literature has fallen from him (1).
His goal is to create something heretofore unseen in literature using
none of the archetypes or symbols that have been perennially utilized
in literature. Apart from the shocking language and explicit sexual
detail however, Miller's book falls into the Romantic tradition that finds
its answers in the timeless sage of Nature; providing the backdrop for
the destruction of his ego, Nature and its representative, the Seine,
allows Miller to be a part of the flow of creation and become centered at
the hub of the wheel of the expanding cosmos. Miller lets the "currents
of the Universal Being" circulate through him; he becomes still at the
threshold of the kingdom.
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Miller and Emersons Flowing Nature
The relationship between Nature and the individual in Emersons
"Nature" is interesting because, for Emerson, Nature is a malleable, fluid
entity; it is not solid or absolute. Nature is but a reflection of the
perceiver; he says, Nature always wears the colors of the spirit (1348).
In other words if the perceiving individual self is fragmented or
incomplete, Nature will seem fragmented and incomplete. For the
person who is unified, whole, and centered, unity will be everywhere.
When we are complete beings we lend ourselves to the harmony
of the unified whole of the cosmos. We have seen that Miller has
passionately tried to unify his fragmented self in an attempt to become
part of the world/womb; he tries to carry the spirit of infancy into
manhood. If he is successful on his journey, Nature will reflect the
wholeness in his soul because, as Emerson says, Particular natural
facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts, and Nature is the
symbol of spirit (1353). If he is one with the flow of the cosmos,
centered and accepting, he will see eternal becoming, unity, and flow
wherever he looks. The problem Miller faces is that the rigidity, steel,
concrete and girders of the city make it difficult to recognize flow and
creation. However, no matter where the individual is, Nature forms
itself to our perceptual lens; even in the city, if we have transformed
our vision, Nature will transform itself in that vision:
Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it. The
immobility or bruteness of nature, is the absence of spirit; to
pure spirit, it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient. Every spirit
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builds itself a house; and beyond its house, a world; and beyond its
world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For
you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we
see. (1372)
To see Nature as fluid and flowing, an infusion of spirit must take place.
The spirit can flow when the heroic journey is completed; after the
separation from America, after facing his fears, after shattering his
illusions, Miller is finally oh the cusp of the transformation of vision
that will enable him to see the flow in Nature and the cosmos. Even in
the heart of Paris, one of the most powerful symbols of technological
society, Miller is able to commune with the natural life Force, and
surrender to the cycles that will consume his ego. The Seine answers
the call of his enlivened soul.
Take Me to the River
It is apparent that before Miller can learn the lessons that the
river can teach, a transformation must take place within him; he is able
to understand the flow of the cosmos at the conclusion of his journey
because, after his illusions have been destroyed, he begins to see the
importance of flow everywhere. Hopelessness lays opens the drains and
cleanses the poison from Miller's soul and, while in Dijon teaching
school, helps him to recognize the importance of flow.
Miller's experience in Dijon is nightmarish. The weather and the
people are equally cold. He is unpaid and must live in extremely
difficult conditions. This episode represents a microcosm of how Miller
characterized his world for most of the book: somber, cold, boring,
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despairing and constipated. It is a world where, Everything frozen
tight as scum...The seasons are come to a stagnant stop (281). The
people are in a state of constipation from bad wine and all the pipes are
frozen (282). The human waste accumulates and no one moves a hand to
drain the feces; there is no flow of water or life and the people move
listlessly like ghosts in a dream, unable to speak a meaningful word or
gamer a meaningful experience. This lack of flow nauseates Miller and
he wants to explode the pipes to set the flow free. He understands that
in order to surrender to the new vision where all is motion and
becoming, the flow must be released: To fathom the new reality it is
first necessaiy to dismantle the drains, to lay open the gangrened
ducts (165). His journey has taught him that the drains that must be
released can only be released by him. Through the conquest of his
fears and the destruction of his illusions the drains have been
unclogged. When his hope was destroyed the floodgates in his psyche
were unleashed; this allows Miller to see the flow that was all around
him.
After the transformation of his vision Miller sees that life is
continuous flow, perpetual journey. He sees with different eyes because
he has undergone a figurative death and spiritual rebirth. The value of
the flow is exalted because all is flow; it is the flow toward dissolution
and birth both. The flow carries us toward our death and our rebirth; it
represents the cyclical nature of existence as well as the cyclical nature
of the heroic journey:
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...I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen,
blood, bile, words, sentences. I love the amniotic fluid when it
spills out of the bag...Move everything that flows, even the
menstrual flow that carries away the seed unfecund. I love
scripts that flow...I love everything that flows, everything that
has time in it and becoming, that brings us back to the beginning
where there is no end...the milk of the breast and the bitter
honey that pours from the womb, all that is fluid, melting,
dissolute and dissolvent, all the pus and dirt that in flowing is
purified, that loses its sense of origin, that makes the great
Circuit toward death and dissolution. (257-258)
Death, insanity, injustice, disease, bile, lice and urine are all part of the
flow. Miller now understands that to recognize the flow everything
must be accepted, including that which we deem unpleasant. When we
face our fears and demons we can integrate the unpleasantries into a
larger vision and transcend them; we dissolve into the cosmic flow. We
are all flowing toward dissolution so we should exuberantly embrace all
we see, feel, hear and do.
It is natural that Miller would feel a kinship with the river after
the ordeal he has endured and the appreciation of flow he has acquired.
The cacophony of noise and distractions that constantly flicker before
our eyes make it difficult to see the flow, but once recognized the
impression is indelible. The river mirrors a ...great circuit which
flows through subterranean vaults of the flesh (254); it reflects the
cosmic flow of which we are a part. Miller becomes part of the flow, but
does not include others in the unity found there. He does not realize
that the river erases the boundaries that separate us from each other.
Miller acts as if only he and other selected individuals are part of this
flow, when in reality all creation is. It is a flow that allows Miller
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isolation from the pain of relationship with others; it is a hollow
victory.
Although a limited victory, Miller nonetheless has widened his
consciousness and transformed his vision to a limited acceptance. At
the end of Tropic of Cancer he no longer struggles violently against the
world and his place in it; he has endured the excruciatingly painful
process of rebirth; he has suffered hunger, poverty, homelessness and
traveled through the arid desert to arrive at the river's edge. The
disease of society that he explicitly described was only the physical
manifestation of the stagnancy and struggle in his mind and soul.
When he is ready to understand that the desert and the river are states
of mind and not physical realities, the river is eveiywhere; he rises
above petty considerations and recognizes the magnificent splendor of
the cosmos, the unity of which we are one part:
After everything had quietly sifted through my head a great
peace came over me... Christ, before my eyes there shimmered
such a golden peace that only a neurotic could dream of turning
his head away. So quietly flows the Seine that one hardly notices
its presence. It is always there, quiet and unobtrusive, like a
great artery running through the human body. In the
wonderful peace that fell over me it seemed as if I had climbed to
the top of a high mountain; for a little while I would be able to
look around me, to take in the meaning of the landscape...The sun
is setting. I feel this river flowing through meits past, its
ancient soil, the changing climate. The hills gently girdle it
about: its course is fixed. (318)
The river, instead of woman, personifies the life Force now; he plugs
into the cosmic flow by surrendering to the river, not by abusing
women. When Miller faces his fears and hunts his demons, he begins to
notice the flow that is like a life-producing artery; we must all
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recognize the cosmic river of consciousness if we are to be bom to the
eternal moment. Miller has arrived at a state of consciousness where all
is accepted and justified. In Black Spring he describes this moment: I
am in communication with the whole earth. Here I am in the womb of
time and nothing will jolt me from my stillness (13). The Seine
symbolizes this river of consciousness that we have risen from to
become distinct personalities with egos that will not let go. The first
step necessary to reunite with this river is the recognition that it is
there. When we see the river we understand that it is visible only in
those moments when we forget the self, fear neither death nor living
separately, and have no thought for tomorrow. In other words, The
present is enough for me. Day by day. Today! Le bel aujourd'hui! (50).
The eternity expressed in a single, vibrant moment is what matters, not
the question of what happens after we die or what the best stock option
is. As Miller says in Black Spring, there is an ...eternal moment which
destroys all values, degrees, differences. This gushing upward and
outward from a hidden source. A gush and a babble, a speaking to all
men at once, everywhere, and in all languages (40). It is a moment
that expands and is heard forever (40). When we accept all into our
vision we are surrendering to this babble and accepting the course
upon which it is fixed. Miller surrenders to the river and in doing so he
becomes one with the unity expressed therein. In Black Spring this
connection to the river is deepened: I and this that passes beneath me
and this that floats above me and all that surges through me, I and this,
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I and that joined up in one continuous movement (41). In the river
there is no ego, the self dissolves into the unity.
The meaning of the river and the accompanying associations it
can evoke are beautifully described in Herman Hesse's Siddhartha.
where he details what the river signifies. All the insignificant voices
are interwoven into the flow of unity and:
All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.
When Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this song of
a thousand voices: when he did not listen to the sorrow or
laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular
voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the
unity: then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one
word: Om-perfection. (135-136)
The river allows Miller and Siddhartha to absorb the myriad voices and
recognize the all-encompassing unity of which they are a part. This
unity, this perfection consists of ALL the elements that compose this
life: disease, bile, urine, contradictions, apparent opposites, death,
separation, etc. Miller has taken all the disparate elements of his
diseased world and after struggling to understand the reason for their
existence, after disparaging about loss, death and love, he incorporates
the seemingly incompatible into a unified vision and, like Siddhartha,
...his Self had merged into unity (136). The expansion of
consciousness results in a final dissolution into the All from which we
come and will return; it signifies the spiritual, cyclical journey of the
rebirth of the individual. As Hesse says in Stetroenwolf:
All births mean separation from the All, the confinement within
the limitation, the separation from God, the pangs of being bom
ever anew. The return into the All, the dissolution of painful
individuation, the reunion with God means the expansion of the
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soul until it is able once more to embrace the All. (64)
Miller is momentarily able to embrace the All because he has
surrendered to the river by accepting his diseased world. Again,
though, this acceptance does not include people or human
relationships. Still, at this moment of epiphany there is no
individuation, no self, no personality, no ego, no separation; like the
drop of water in the river, Miller becomes part of the continues flow of
the All, God or the Universal Being. This epiphany is fleeting because
Miller is isolated in his knowledge, unable to accommodate people in his
vision.
Miller likens the river of the All, pure consciousness, or God, to a
river of joy that always flows if we could only see it; surrender,
hopelessness and acceptance all beget joy. When talking of Auguste, a
clown in his book The Smile at the Foot of the ladder. Miller writes:
Joy is like a river: it flows ceaselessly...this is the message which
the clown is trying to convey to us, that we should participate
through ceaseless flow and movement, that we should not stop to
reflect, compare, analyze, possess, but flow on endlessly, like
music. This is the gift of surrender, and the clown makes it
symbolically. It is for us to make it real. (6)
The flow creation, the current of the cosmos, joy, the Universal Being
- of the river is perpetual; all is perpetual becoming, movement,
fluidity. Surrender to the river and the individual will recognize the
splendid stability in perpetual movement. In this river we understand
the constancy in unending change which the natural river, the Seine,
represents.
Another symbol Miller uses in Tropic of Cancer which is helpful
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in understanding the constancy in change, the inaction in action, and
the stability in perpetual motion, is the wheel.
The Wheel Rolls On
While the river is nature's symbol of motion or perpetual
becoming, the wheel is its technological counterpart. like the river,
the wheel represents motion that from afar looks stable and constant.
At the hub of the wheel there is stillness, but even the slightest
movement outward finds the return to the world of contingency and its
accompanying despair. The stillness at the hub of the wheel is the
constancy in perpetual change. The wheel also symbolizes the circular
journey of our hero. Miller despaired about his loss of innocence,
hoping to arrive at a state of mind where he saw the world of the adult
through the eyes of the child. When he travels full circle and accepts
unconditionally, like a child, he has traveled the circle. The final step
is to integrate the cyclical nature of things into the psyche, then a
transcendence takes place; the individual becomes centered and eternal;
Miller is at the hub of wheel where the eternity of perpetual youth
reigns. Because at the hub of the wheel ...one can embrace the most
fantastic, the most impossible theories (181), Miller can accept all that
composes the cosmos; he understands the significance of the image of
the wheel to illustrate his conception of the immortality involved in the
surrender to the cycle.
Boethius spoke of the Wheel of Fortune in his Consolation of
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Philosophy. This conception has the individual tied to a wheel,
experiencing, alternately, success or failure. The idea is that we must
not become attached to our worldly successes or failures because they
are fleeting and transitory; we are completely at the whim of Fortuna.
The wheel in Eastern thought tells us similarly that we should not
become attached to our action here on earth, but it also signifies a much
different idea. Namely, that creation is continually rolling: life, death,
rebirth, life, death, rebirth, etc. Everything is progressing in a
circular manner. When we ignore the cyclical nature of things we
become unduly attached to one aspect of the cycle, usually life. Death
approaches and we choose to ignore it, or we are surprised by it,
because all our lives we have been attached to our egos and the
accompanying fruits of our actions. Those that have confronted and
conquered their fear of death can appreciate and integrate the cycle
into their cosmology. They have learned to look at all aspects of the
cycle with equanimity. Only through expanding consciousness can we
transcend this cycle to the stillness of the recognition of never-ending
creation; the wheel never stops. When individuals arrives at this state
of consciousness they have been removed from the cycle; they are in a
constant state of being in the eternity of each moment; they are
immortal; they have stepped outside the world of contingency and
arrived at bliss; they are the "transparent eyeball."
Miller has experienced the transformation that will allow him to
journey to this state of consciousness; in Black Spring he understands
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that he has ...wandered back...to the hub where all is change and
transformation, a white lamb continually shedding its skin (260). The
individual constantly journeys to the destination, but the arrival is hard
fought and the trip is perpetual; there are fleeting moments where we
arrive at the destination but we must constantly work to stay there; the
destination is the hub of the wheel where we recognize the stability in
the never-ending cycle of change at work in the cosmos. This allows us
to be alive in the moment where the vibrancy and colorful
resplendence of creation bombards Our senses, dissolving the self into
the unity of the One.
Miller's kinship with the river signifies a state of being where
he has arrived at the hub of the wheel. In this state there is no concern
for tomorrow, there is no ego to cloud the vision, there is only the
wonder of creation around him. Instead of the dark, ominously
foreboding, world described at the beginning of the book, there is a
world with dancing colors, harmonious melodies and bright flow. At the
hub there is only vibrant, refulgent color. The true individual can see
these colors because the ego has been destroyed, the demons of the soul
have been exorcised, and he or she is alive in the moment, celebrating
the wonder of the world. When we are bom to the world/womb we are
at the hub of the wheel, capable of experiencing the primary sparkling
creation. In Tropic of Cancer Miller admires another who expresses the
nature of this state of being in another medium, Henri Matisse; his
paintings witness an artist who has arrived at the hub of the wheel.
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