The last several books I’ve read have had a common theme. Burning the Books, by Richard Ovenden. Hate Crimes in Cyberspace by Danielle Citron. Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci. Knowledge is under threat today as it has always been. The latest round of censorship spurned on by desperate and fragile right wing culture warriors focuses on race and gender identity. I’ve written before about how this is cause for concern and should be a motivation for organizing, but it is nothing yet to panic over. We have been here before. We know this fight and we know how it ends.
Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was one of the books at the center of one of these fights. First published in France in 1934, the book remained banned in the United States until 1964, when the Supreme Court decided that the book did not meet the threshold for obscenity. As scary as the world is now, it’s important to remember how much stricted our censorship laws were. Free speech as we understand it is a relatively young concept. A child born on the day Tropic of Cancer became legal in the United States would have not yet been a legal adult on the day I was born. The Miller Test was established in 1973. We’ve come a long way since then, but stricter government control over speech than what we’re experiencing now remains firmly inside the boundaries of living memory.
It’s funny, though, the way that the porcelain culture warriors today forget their own history. We’re talking about banning I am Jazz but Tropic of Cancer is far off their radar. It would be funny to see them try, given that there’s a Supreme Court ruling specifically about the book. A few books ago, I read Brideshead Revisited and was amused to learn that an Alabama politician tried banning that book as recently as 2005. He failed. Today’s charlatans will also fail, sooner or later.
Tropic of Cancer was, of course, a major part of my queer awakening. The book’s language is both shocking and shockingly beautiful; Miller weaves the most vibrant depictions of his life in Paris in between copious instances of calling women “cunts.” I remember vividly how nearly 20 years ago I read Miller’s description of a bisexual Russian émigrée and how it moved me to realize, yes, I’m gay, too, but gay in a different way that what one might expect:
From this Macha calmly switches to an affair she had with a Lesbian. [ed. I support the capitalization from here forward] “It was very funny, my dear, how she picked me up one night. I was at the “Fétiche” and I was drunk as usual. She took me from one place to the other and she made love to me under the table all night until I couldn’t stand it any more. Then she took me to her apartment and for two hundred francs I let her suck me off. She wanted me to live with her but I didn’t want to have her suck me off every night… it makes you too weak. Besides, I can tell you that I don’t care so much for Lesbians as I used to.”
One can see how Miller’s unambiguous descriptions of sex and sexuality frightened the prudes in power then. They would frighten them today, too.
Tropic of Cancer played a significant role in the development of erotica, particularly women’s erotica, as a literary form. Anaïs Nin was a close friend of the Millers; my copy of the book has its foreword written by her. Her praise for Miller’s novel debut is ebullient. It’s ironic: the language and the misogyny of the novel would strike me as deeply anti-feminist today. You can’t get away with referring to women as “cunts” in the modern scene. Yet it’s essential to the reading of the book, much like the book, in its quasi-autobiographical form, is essential to understanding the wave of American literature coming out of pre-war Paris. The book paints a scene of a reckless bonvivant rambling in deliberate poverty through the French capital, meeting people, taking them to bed, using them for a meal or a stipend, and rambling off to the next drunken adventure. It was Beat before the Beats; Trainspotting owes the novel its roots. The magic of the book resides in its depth. While one can get lost in the vulgarity and eroticism, lying underneath is a deep social commentary about interwar Europe, about the adolescence of America, and the curse of artistic legacy. Hugo wrote Paris, Miller wrote Paris: they were the same Paris in the end.
To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.
Tropic of Cancer