On March 4, 1930, Miller arrived in Paris for an extended stay. He did not know how long he would remain, nor did he have many contacts or belongings. He took a room on Rue Bonapart at the Hotel Saint-Germain and began his life as a flâneur, exploring the streets of Paris on a daily basis and setting down his thoughts and observations in the lengthy letters he wrote each day to his good friend Emil Schnellock. Miller had originally intended these letters to be collected and published as "a highly personal guide-book to Paris" (Ferguson 169). Although this guide-book was never written, Miller's efforts were hardly wasted. Much of the work that went into these letters was adapted for Tropic of Cancer. Flânerie suited the writer well. A passionate opponent of regular employment, Miller chose to live by his wits whilst abroad and was commonly mistaken for a student, "wandering about the streets in the daytime, often carrying a book like Arthur B. Maurice's The Paris of the Novelists under his forearm, stopping to take notes" (Ferguson 169). He usually spent money as quickly as it came to him and often found himself strolling about Paris hungry. Although he was far from the well-dressed, bourgeois stroller of the nineteenth-century of whom Benjamin spoke, Miller did, in his own way, exhibit many traits of Benjamin’s flâneur. These characteristics are prominent in his two quasi-autobiographical novels, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, in which he demonstrates that to "move and thus to live as an artist is . . . above all to wander the quartiers of Paris" (Pizer 135). The flâneuristic state-of-mind which frames Miller’s organically sprawling novels can best be described in his own words:
In that sort of half-reverie which permits one to participate in an event and yet remain quite aloof, the little detail which was lacking began obscurely but insistently to coagulate, to assume a freakish, crystalline form, like the frost which gathers on the windowpane. And like those frost patterns which seem so bizarre, so utterly free and fantastic in design, but which are nevertheless determined by the most rigid laws, so this sensation which commenced to take form inside me seemed also to be giving obedience to ineluctable laws. My whole being was responding to the dictates of an ambiance which it had never before experienced; that which I could call myself seemed to be contracting, condensing, shrinking from the stale, customary boundaries of the flesh whose perimeter knew only the modulations of the nerve ends. (Cancer 95)
This "half-reverie," this trance-like dream state to which Miller refers is the perspective of the flâneur. Unlike Whitman, who grows to a god-like stature in order to contain all of those multitudes which flânerie is prone to reveal, Miller "shrinks" down to a single cell, like a microscopic organism, probing the multitudes within. In remaining "aloof," he is able both to participate in and observe the scene before him. Although he is oftentimes among the masses, Miller in the above fashion detaches himself from the scene--defamiliarizing himself with the language of the streets--and of the body--so as to read each day with fresh eyes. This perspective marks his flânerie as a product of the twentieth century. Unlike Whitman’s valorization of the street scenes and ability to relate to each passerby, Miller has the mournful modernist perspective, tinged by alienation, a lack of trust, and a fear of contagion. One could call him the diseased flâneur, a flâneur with a good dose of syphilis, a rotting limb, or a mild cancer. Simultaneously void of both hope and despair, he sees the world through the veil of a good fever with just enough delirium to give his perceptions a surrealistic quality.
Like Poe whose story "The Man of the Crowd" pulls upon the phantasmagoria of the streets as a way of extending the perimeters of the protagonist's mind, Miller uses descriptions of "external" scenes (of course, as these scenes are all filtered through the voice of one protagonist, they lack the outside point of reference necessary in order to succeeds in imposing the psychological interiors of his narrator upon the city of Paris in a way that evokes a similar psychological state in the reader. Both writers find their necessary metaphors imbedded in the text of the streets. The difference between the two writers is the degree to which the imposed mentality is accepted by society. Poe’s narrator is under the influence of a fever so his hypersensitivity can be explained as a sort of temporary madness. Miller too is under the influence of a fever as he wanders through the streets of Paris and New York; only his fever is a form of modernist angst, a popular ailment of the twentieth century. Miller is also much less systematic in his approach to the streets than Poe. He is no detective, following a suspect or using logic to guide his way: Miller just flows. One could say Poe’s narrator uses the man of the crowd as a kind of literary kayak that takes him through the current of the streets; Miller, on the other hand, just jumps in, buck-naked, allowing the flow of the crowd, the turns of the street, or the natural cravings of his flesh to dictate his next move.
Like Thoreau, Miller allows these natural urges, be it hunger or sex that drives him, to take him out of the day-to-day activity of point-A-to-point-B walking and into the relatively spiritual practice of flânerie or "sauntering" (Cancer 42)--embarking on a quest for the Holy Land within himself. In Tropic of Capricorn, Miller proclaims that "there is only one great adventure and that is inward toward the self, and for that, time nor space nor even deeds matter" (12). Each day that Miller sets out into the streets, he is in search of something within himself. Like Thoreau, Miller places a religious value upon the walks he takes. They are pilgrimages to Miller, just as those sprightly jaunts through the wilderness are to Thoreau, and yet they are unlike the pilgrimages that are taken by religious enthusiasts to a pre-determined location like Mecca or the Holy Land. Each journey is an end in itself--inward toward the self and different for its choice of metaphors. Thoreau is drawn toward the setting sun as his great metaphor--the ever-retreating horizon. To Thoreau, the walk is a celebration of America’s expansiveness and possibilities. Miller, on the other hand, is drawn to the slums, confined by the "prison" of the city in which he lives. He strives not to commend or celebrate, but to remain without hope or despair. Although Thoreau calls himself a "true patriot" while Miller deserts his country and all it has come to represent, there is one thing, besides the natural tendency to walk, that both writers have in common, despite their deeply varying points of view: both writers appreciate the fecundity of the swamps, and the regenerative possibilities of that which is dead and rotting. In his pursuit of that which is slimy with residual human filth and waste or fecund and erupting with body fluids, Miller finds a twentieth-century equivalent to Thoreau’s celebrated swamps in the urban setting of Paris’ slums: "On a damp winter’s night it is not necessary to look at the map to discover the latitude of Paris. It is a northern city, an outpost erected over a swamp filled in with skulls and bones" (Cancer 241). These swamps, these moist fecund streets, filled with "men, women, lice, all huddled together and protected by the newspapers against spittle and the vermin that walks without legs" (Cancer 241), are the strongholds of the cancerous growths that beg the title Tropic of Cancer. They also provide the fertile setting from which Miller pulls his metaphors and hieroglyphic language. When Thoreau speaks of good earth, it is earth that gives rise to nature. When Miller speaks for fecundity, he speaks of that which feeds this cancer.
As previously mentioned, Miller has also been compared to Walt Whitman, by himself and critics alike; however, some critics believe the comparison was not so much merited as it was forced by Miller himself. Levin referred to Tropic of Cancer as “Leaves of Grass gone to seed” (Brown 292) and others have remarked that the novel was “Miller’s discordant ‘Song of Myself,’ artless in the same sense as Whitman’s masterpiece, composed now in a minor key in response to a darker stage of American history and individual realism” (Brown 292). Miller often noted his own connection to the famed poet. In fact, when Miller departed for Paris, the only book he bothered to bring with him was a “worn” copy of Leaves of Grass (Brown 284). To Miller, Whitman is the symbolic representation of all that was ever great about America and all that has been lost in the twentieth-century shuffle. Note the degree of reverence Miller demonstrates for Whitman in the following passage from Tropic of Cancer:
Fillmore had a map of New York City which he had tacked on the wall; we used to spend whole evenings discussing the relative virtues of Paris and New York. And inevitably there always crept into our discussions the figure of Whitman, that one lone figure which America has produced in the course of her brief life. In Whitman the whole American scene comes to life, her past and her future, her birth and her death. Whatever there is of value in America Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said. The future belongs to the machine, to the robots. (239)
If Miller is not commending Whitman directly, he is flattering him through imitation. He sets himself up from the beginning of his literary career as Whitmanesque, referring to Tropic of Cancer as his own song of himself: "To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing" (2). Miller is much like Whitman in his role as a flâneur. Both writers walked a great deal and spent a good portion of their lives in New York. A focus on sex has also figured in crucially with the literary lives of both writers: "Sex as physical energy, social truth, and spiritual force pervades Tropic of Cancer and affords a basis for the frequent comparison--encouraged by Miller himself--between the work and some of Whitman's greatest poems" (Pizer 132). Both writers use a listing, cataloguing style that attempts to include that which has been previously neglected in literaturethe blue-collar workers, the prostitutes, the day-to-day things. In this way Miller seems to carry on where Whitman leaves off, but in a diseased, pathological way. Miller is not "healthy" as Whitman is. Neither is his world a new and exciting America of which to be proud and patriotic. Miller’s world is diseased, his city strangled by the girdles of industrialism. Whitman's America is just on the verge of industrialism, when progress is still a novelty. The difference between the two writers lies in their attitudes: although Miller is considered by many (including himself) to be "incurably optimistic" (Cancer 49)), his portrayals of his surroundings are marred by a diseased psyche. Like Whitman, Miller may claim to "have one foot in the nineteenth century" (Cancer 49), but still at times he reeks of Modernism’s existential angst. Yet this angst, this sense of being at odds with the world, of being alienated and without hope, does not prevent him from feeling the sort of communion with the world that Whitman claims to have. According to Miller, he too "contains multitudes":
Today I am aware of my lineage. I have no need to consult my horoscope or my genealogical chart. What is written in the stars, or in my blood, I know nothing of. I know that I spring from the mythological founders of the race. The man who raises the holy bottle to his lips, the criminal who kneels in the marketplace, the innocent one who discovers that all corpses stink, the madman who dances with lightning in his hands, the friar who lifts his skirts to pee over the world, the fanatic who ransacks libraries in order to find the Word--all these are fused in me, all these make my confusion, my ecstasy. (Cancer 256)
Also like Whitman, Miller allows his prose to grow organically, not like grass, but like a cancer. With his hopelessness, he renders a diseased and poisoned world, a completely organic, shriveling and impotent world, choking on the last of its days before the machine takes over for good. Miller celebrates what is left of life in a world that is dying away--the organic, the immoral, and the vile. He hails these last dying bits of humanity, as base and disgusting as they may be, because they are human and perhaps a prelude to enlightenment. He loves everything that flows and gives rise to life, and he deplores that which has been synthetically refined, sterilized, sanitized, and inoculated by modern progress. He laments those aspects of the world that are purified and cured by technology even though, through his own filthy narrative, Miller succeeds somehow in vaccinating his readers against the filth that pollutes the world. His novels are like little cancers--not the terminal kind, but the kind that brings the reader close enough to his own mortality that it changes his views forever. In a sense, he cleanses with filth, filling his novel "with death and disease, starvation and filth, passionless sex and strangled embryos as he tries to cleanse readers' spirits by having them experience the suffering and shock he endured that cleansed his soul and reconnected him with life" (Jones 414). Miller speaks on the matter in Conversations with Henry Miller:
Perhaps one reason why I have stressed so much the immoral, the wicked, the ugly, the cruel in my work is because I wanted others to know how valuable those are, how equally if not more important than the good things. . . . I was getting the poison out of my system. Curiously enough, this poison had a tonic effect for others. It was as if I had given them some kind of immunity. (Miller Conversations with Henry Miller190)
This vaccine gains its power through the everyday images that flânerie provides. The tonic is hidden in the secret language of the streets.
What is most important about walking in Miller’s writing is that the act itself supplies the author with concrete objects, upon which he is able to fasten his abstract ideas. Since the two Tropic novels are far from plot oriented, it is necessary for him to connect with the reader by way of the senses; otherwise, his ranting, philosophical, abstract and self-referential musings would become tiresome. His work is filled with many things--many substantial, concrete things that people never speak of at great length. Upon these images, scents, textures, tastes, and sounds, he hangs his ideas as on a hook. Miller himself mentions the necessity of these objects to his style of writing; however, the object on its own is not enough. The objects must be experienced in the realm of action:
Still I can’t get it out of my mind what a discrepancy there is between ideas and living. A permanent dislocation, though we try to cover the two with a bright awning. And it won’t go. Ideas have to be wedded to action; if there is no sex, no vitality in them, there is no action. Ideas cannot exist alone in the vacuum of the mind. Ideas are related to living. (Cancer 242)
This is where flânerie comes into play. It is not enough to simply give the reader a city filled with things (although many writers have forged this sort of literary torture under the guise of Realism). Action is key. The reader must be able to participate in the narrator’s experience of the scene, to discover the objects himself. Flânerie provides an understood, ongoing action that does not disrupt the interior monologue of the speaker. This device is celebrated by Miller, as he admits early on in Tropic of Capricorn: "The greatest delight . . . is to walk the streets alone" (60). Flânerie also serves Miller as a way of recording. Miller’s mission as an artist is to record what previous books leave out: "There is only one thing which interests me vitally now, and that is the recording of all that which is omitted in books" (Cancer 11). Walking also exposes Miller to his subject matter--the vice that cleanses. Prostitutes do not go knocking on people’s doors; one must thrust oneself into the streets if one is to encounter these sorts of shady characters. Through flânerie, Miller places himself in the line of action. Things happen to him because he is in the mix.
Walking also provides digressive unity to Miller’s seemingly shapeless, organically growing novels. In this way, his fragmented structure is linked by his comparatively linear digressions. The walk narrative serves him faithfully as a way out of literary difficulty. If his interior monologue loses its shape and disperses into oblivion, he is able to turn the reader’s head toward the interesting café scene, or the worn-down high heels of a prostitute. Like many writers of this era, Miller's narrative suffers a kind of fragmentation, resulting from the chaotic modern world through which he moves--continuously--throughout the narratives. Flânerie allows his narrative to be distracted, as a person is in thought, yet the intrusion of action from time to time prevents the reader from becoming completely absorbed by Miller's reverie, as can be the case in stream-of-consciousness writing. Similarly, if the streets are uneventful and empty, Miller will meticulously recount a story from his past that somehow "relates." In this way, his reverie serves as the safety net for a reader who is stumbling across his fragmented plot. Throughout all of his novels, Miller shamelessly digresses. He even considers such verbosity to be a sign of genius: "'Show me a man who over-elaborates and I will show you a great man!' What is called their 'over-elaboration' is my meat: it is the sign of a struggle, it is struggle itself with all the fibers clinging to it, the very aura and ambiance of the discordant spirit" (Cancer 253). When Miller is not over-elaborating, or having sex with a prostitute, or scamming a gullible friend out of a few dollars, or whining about the "rancid" butter or the bedbugs in his borrowed beds, the reader is rewarded with colorful, dream-like descriptions of the streets, speckled with detailed portraits of those whom he encounters and Miller’s delightfully imaginative consciousness.
Also like Whitman, the crowd is an important entity in Miller’s work. It represents "the current of life" (Capricorn 54) of which Miller so desperately wants to feel a part. It is the physical manifestation of "the flow" of which he is so fond. The concept of flowing is fundamental to the structure of the two Tropic novels. In a sense, his art is merely an acting out of his love of the flowing nature of the universe. As Pizer argues, "To grasp life as an artist is to speak for the principle of flow in life, of freedom, rebelliousness in theme and form, including above all the sexual as the supreme image of a rebellious fluidity" (128). Miller exhibits these rebellions in a flowing narrative that addresses the subject of the flow directly:
I too love everything that flows: rivers,sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences. I love amniotic fluid when it spills out of the bag. . . . I love the urine that pours out scalding and the clap that runs endlessly . . . even the menstrual flow that carries away the seed unfecund . . . I love everything that flows, everything that has time in it and becoming, that brings us back to the beginning where there is never end: the violence, the prophets, the obscenity that is ecstasy, the wisdom of the fanatic, the priest with his rubber litany, the foul words of the whore, the spittle that floats away in the gutter, 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. (Cancer 257-258)
Like the foul liquids that flow into Miller's sentences, Miller's own words, in their lengthy, flowing way, cleanse themselves as well by transforming that which was once considered filthy and unworthy of mention into art and prose poetry. This flow, the constant incorporation of new images, new objects, and new characters, cleanses his novel by preventing stagnation. Whenever his thoughts begin to stagnate or his reverie begins to grow tiresome, whenever he finds himself in need of stimulus, Miller dives into the crowd as a self-replenishing source of inspiration: "Plunging into the crowd again I wrestled with the question of 'truth'" (Capricorn 333); "Nothing better between five and seven than to be pushed around in that throng, to follow a leg or a beautiful bust, to move along with the tide and everything whirling in your brain" (Cancer 16). The euphoria of flânerie--of merging with the world--of flowing within the body of humanity like a sperm, is central to Miller’s novels. In a cityscape where there is no ocean, the crowd fulfills the void. In Paris, Miller speaks of the human tide at Montparnasse:
In the blue of an electric dawn the peanut shells look wan and crumpled; along the beach at Montparnasse the water lilies bend and break. When the tide is on the ebb and only a few syphilitic mermaids are left stranded in the muck, the Dome looks like a shooting gallery that’s been struck by a cyclone. Everything is slowly dribbling back to the sewer. (Cancer 161)
Miller, keeping within the confines of Benjamin’s definition of the flâneur, willingly merges with the crowd, becoming a part of what he observes: although he walks within the herd, he is not of it. He preserves his ability to become a "Persona non grata . . . to swim like a sewer rat or be drowned" (Capricorn 56), and rejoices in the ever-present option of flowing with the tide, of "nullifying" himself, of becoming--if only temporarily"indistinguishable from the herd" (Capricorn 56):
Broadway lit up just as crazy as ever and the crowd thick as molasses. Just fling yourself into it like an ant and let yourself get pushed along. Everybody doing it, some for a good reason and some for no reason at all. All this push and movement representing action, success, get ahead.... Every time I hit that runway toward dinner hour a fever of expectancy seized me.... The absolute impersonality of it brings you to a pitch of warm human delirium which makes you run forward like a blind nag and wag your delirious ears. Every one is so utterly, confoundedly not himself that you become automatically the personification of the whole human race.... You are all the men who ever lived up to Moses, and beyond that you are a woman buying a hat, or a bird cage, or just a mouse trap. (Capricorn 97-98)
This tide of humanity provides Miller with the omniscient perspective necessary for him to approach his subject with as much authority as he usually assumes; it is the source of his omniscience. Hidden in every crevice of every passerby’s hand, in the scents that waft toward his nostrils, in the secret languages of clothing, in every stinking piece of garbage or gnawing louse, there are the hieroglyphs that fuel Miller’s narrative, a language to be both read and rendered by the author. At one point in Tropic of Capricorn, Miller proclaims, "Now people are books to me. I read them from cover to cover and toss them aside. I devour them, one after the other. And the more I read, the more insatiable I become" (60-61). Yet his reading is hardly superficial.
As Miller reads and analyzes those who people his crowds, he forges a language of his own, a lexicon of organic images that aid him in his struggle against the lifeless and the sterile, the true cancer that invades Miller’s cities. These organic images are overlaid with exaggeration and dream-like distortions that give his narrative a surrealist feel. At times, he seems to be dreaming while awake, providing the reader with that "universal language of dreams that speaks to us in the present tense" (Martin 50). Aware of his own store of vocabularies, Miller refers to these different types of languages in Tropic of Capricorn, and divides them into two categories:
On one side of the ledger are the books man has written, containing such a hodgepodge of wisdom and nonsense, of truth and falsehood, that if one lived to be as old as Methuselah one couldn’t disentangle the mess; on the other side of the ledger things like toenails, hair, teeth, blood, ovaries, if you will, all incalculable and all written in another kind of ink, in another script, an incomprehensible, Indecipherable script. (52)
The latter of the two is the source from which Miller’s novels draw their strength. That which is alive, flowing, fertile, and growing is what matters to Miller. For example, the Seine is a great symbol in Tropic of Cancer for Miller's "belief in change and multiplicity as the dynamic core of life" (Pizer 138), as it flows like an artery through the heart of Paris. Miller strove to be, as Whitman was, a poet of the body. Consistently throughout his text, references are made to the body--to scabs, semen, intestines, ovaries, urine, feces, and pus. To Miller, even the foulest organic stench is a thousand times more fragrant than the odorless insult of progress because it signifies life, or at least the remnants of life:
The smell of a dead horse, which is almost unbearable, is still a thousand times better than the smell of burning chemicals. And the sight of a dead horse with a bullet hole in the temple, his head lying in a pool of blood and his asshole bursting with the last spasmic evacuation, is still a better sight than that group of men in blue aprons coming out of the arched doorway of the tin factory with a hand truck loaded with bales of fresh-made tin. (Capricorn 132)
When he is not mourning the organic or bashing the inorganic, Miller is consistently drawing his metaphors from the world of nature. He is like a nineteenth-century Romantic trapped for all eternity in a city. No longer does Thoreau’s expanse of untamed country sprawl before him, nor does Whitman’s 'healthy' Manhattan filled with the sinewy biceps of blacksmiths and fishmongers beckon to him from Broadway. In an attempt to preserve that which is natural, Miller superimposes organic qualities over inorganic objects; he descends to organic metaphors, twisting the lifeless metal casing of the Parisian metro into "a long caterpillar with lacquered sides" (Cancer 4); the railroad tracks become "black, webby, not ordered by the engineer but cataclysmic in design, like those gaunt fissures in the polar ice which the camera registers in degrees of black" (Cancer 4); and people, the one organic species that denies the organic within itself, are compared to "snails leaving their shells" (Cancer 21); New York swells "like a grand chancre on a worn-out cock" (Capricorn 20). Even the few natural metaphors that remain, like the moon and stars and trees, are brought down a level to the scale of the human body. When he gazes at the moon, he does not see a heavenly body, cold and aloof, but a dark red scab "swimming in a sea of frozen fat" (Clichy 135). His metaphors are powerful and alarming because the vocabulary of the body is both timeless and universal. There is a tinge of repugnance in every organic metaphor because it pulls at the mortal part of being human, the part that promises death, decay, and dispersal--a loss of individuality--that part which most people do not like to think about. Yet this language of the body also keeps the metaphors current: no matter how many centuries stretch between Miller and his audience, a scab will always provoke a strong visual image in his readers.
Miller’s use of universal metaphors is not his only method of sustaining the sense of the present tense that is so important to the flâneur narrative. Like many flâneur narratives, place is more than just a backdrop for Miller's novels. Place actually replaces time as the unifying aspect of his fragmented narratives. According to Pizer, and common to expatriate narratives such as Tropic of Cancer, "what in effect replaces the awareness of time as the matrix of the work, is a sense of place--of Paris as a world of variety, richness, and freedom of experience beyond anything Miller has previously encountered" (125). The flow of the crowd, the Seine, the flow of days that meld together, the flow of Miller’s thoughts passing from his head to the scene and then back into his head and finally onto the page, are all essential to his creative process, and yet this flow which one would assume to be a very temporal thing, leaves Miller's novels timeless: they tend to "fill a space rather than [tell] a story. The space is Paris, and he is its perceiving consciousness" (Pizer 125). Walking is key too, because it is such an integral part of experiencing a place. With each step, the flâneur occupies a new place. Walking keeps the stimulus flowing, keeps the mind in the present, prevents stagnation, and most of all, prevents Miller from writing things down when he should be taking things in. This physical limitation forces Miller to remain sharp and focused within the present tense during his walks without sliding carelessly into a state of reflection--as one would do staring out the window of a train; thus, Miller forges his narrative mantra: "Don’t sit down . . . keep moving" (Capricorn 105).
Miller himself was very aware of the importance of the present tense to his performance as a writer, as well as to his own personal happiness: "I’ve lived out my melancholy youth, I don’t give a fuck anymore what’s behind me, or what’s ahead of me. I’m healthy. Incurably healthy. No sorrows, no regrets. No past, no future. The present is enough for me. Day by day. Today--Le bel aujourd’hui!" (Cancer 50). Yet, according to Miller, to achieve this moment-to-moment sort of life-in-the-present, one must first denounce the past. In Tropic of Capricorn, which happens to be a very retrospective novel set primarily in Miller’s distant past, Miller confesses that perhaps it was not America itself that held him back as a writer, but his attachment to his past in America that caused his problems:
Certainly in my own case I can say that not until I left America did I emerge above the surface. Perhaps America had nothing to do with it, but the fact remains that I did not open my eyes wide and full and clear until I struck Paris. And perhaps that was only because I had renounced America, renounced my past. (Capricorn 49)
Miller speaks of a moment in Tropic of Capricorn, in which he is at a dance hall. Allowing himself to supersede his usual, through-the-eyeball perspective, he becomes aware that he and all of the other dancers in the room are "of one flesh, separated like stars" (121). At this point, at which he recognizes his relationship to the rest of the world, he finds himself becoming possessed by a sense of greatness: "I feel absurdly and humbly great, not as megalomaniac, but as human spore, as the dead sponge of life swollen to saturation" (121). At this point, Miller--in the simplest terms--loses contact with his own personal identity, a mental feat capable of freeing his eyes from their previous, imprisoned state in the skull:
The eye, accustomed to concentration on points in space, now concentrates on points in time; the eye sees forward and backward at will. The eye which was the I of the self no longer exists; this selfless eye neither reveals nor illuminates. It travels along the line of the horizon, a ceaseless, uninformed voyager. Trying to retain the lost body I grew in logic like the city, a point digit in the anatomy of perfection. I grew beyond my own death, spiritually bright and hard. I was divided into endless yesterdays, endless tomorrows, resting only on the cusp of the event, a wall with many windows, but the house gone. I must shatter the walls and windows, the last shell of the lost body, if I am to rejoin the present. (121-122)
Once he is capable of rejoining the present, he has graduated in scope to the literary flâneur--the perspective that transforms him from a mediocre writer into one of the twentieth century’s acclaimed literary minds. Whether he walks through New York or Paris, sits in cafés and watches the crowd pass by him, or conducts a series of interviews for Western Union, he has now attained the perception necessary to be that removed and aloof reader of the scene. One could say that it was that moment on the dance floor that began his career as a writer, for before Miller adopted the "eye" of which the "I" was such an integral part, his third-person narratives were, arguably, silly and shallow.
It is in Tropic of Cancer that Miller begins to employ the flâneur as a literary device, allowing his psyche to seep though his eyes onto the Parisian street scene. Miller interprets the flowing details in a way that allows his own interior landscape--an organic dream-world of sexual appetites and relics of a classical education--to mold and alter his descriptions of the outer landscape. It is not until Miller reaches this point that the descriptions offer up anything interesting. At last, the reader is learning, not only about Paris, an amazing city with a valuable store of historical and mythological references, but about Miller as well, an American expatriate writer from New York, who stayed in Paris after everyone else went home. This imposition of personal opinions on the novel’s landscape marks what is most-often referred to as surrealism in Miller’s novels. For instance, there is the scene in Tropic of Cancer, in which Miller refers to the day his beloved Mona made him promise that he would never leave her, just days before she packs her things and leaves him herself; some time has passed at this point, and as he continues on a nighttime walk, he finds himself standing in the same place that the couple had had the discussion. He thinks to himself, "My world of human beings had perished. I was utterly alone in the world and for friends I had the streets, and the streets spoke to me in that sad, bitter language compounded of human misery, yearning, regret, failure, wasted effort" (Cancer 184). In this comment, "Miller is expressing a version of the romantic aesthetic of a Wordsworth or an Emerson, in which the writer's feeling relationship with the outer world--nature for them, the streets for Miller--provides access in symbolic form to essential truths about both oneself and experience" (Pizer 136). This sudden significance of place--or a lack of 'placelessness'--stops the flow of his flânerie and sends Miller reeling into the past and all of the emotional turmoil therein. He is no longer reading the scene before him, but remembering, and in doing so, he is decoding his own personal set of hieroglyphics, a symbolic system that has been tainted and molded by this one event:
It is that sort of cruelty which is embedded in the streets; it is that which stares out from the walls and terrifies us when suddenly we respond to a nameless fear, when suddenly our souls are invaded by a sickening panic. It is that which gives the lampposts their ghoulish twists, which makes them beckon to us and lure us to their strangling grip; it is that which makes certain houses appear like the guardians of secret crimes and their blind windows like the empty sockets of eyes that have seen too much. (Cancer 185)
The end result is that the reader is given a picture of Paris, colored by Miller's pain. The suffering that he endures manifests itself in the "ghoulish" lampposts and their "strangling grip" or the windows that look like "eyes that have seen too much."
Such monstrous images of Miller’s psyche find their way into many other scenes; whenever he is feeling critical Paris is portrayed in a negative light: "In the little garden adjoining the Eglise St. Germain are a few dismounted gargoyles. Monsters that jut forward with a terrifying plunge. . . . Notre Dame rises tomblike from the water. The gargoyles lean far out over the lace façade. They hang there like an idée fixé in the mind of a monomaniac" (Cancer 38). At times, the imposed images are manifestations of boredom--ennui--of which Miller often complains:
It is getting toward dinnertime and people are straggling back to their rooms with that weary, dejected air which comes from earning a living honestly. Most of the windows are wide open: the dingy rooms have the appearance of so many yawning mouths. The occupants of the rooms are yawning too, or else scratching themselves. They move about listlessly and apparently without much purpose; they might just as well be lunatics. (Cancer 125)
This scene with its yawning cityscape and purposeless inhabitants reflects Miller’s own sense of worthlessness and ennui. When Miller is blue, even springtime in Paris is a miserable time of year: "There was a touch of spring in the air, a poisonous, malefic spring that seemed to burst from the manholes" (Cancer 42). At other times, when Miller is depressed and feeling like a worthless and unproductive member of society, the streets that at one time inspired him or enlightened him, are described as such:
The street is like a bad breath; the next street is the same, and the next and the next. . . . I have no desire to work and no desire to become a useful member of society. I sit there staring at the house across the way. It seems not only ugly and senseless, like all the other houses on the street, but from staring at it so intently, it has suddenly become absurd. (Capricorn 102-103)
When Miller is feeling dead inside, all of the cities' inhabitants instantly become devoid of all life, "like gangrened cadavers" (Cancer 241-242). Women dressed for the dance floor have "ropes of pearls choking them--or so it looked" (Cancer 212). This sort of super-imposition of Miller’s psyche is evident throughout the body of his work. Paris has been compared to everything from a "whore" (Cancer 209) to a "stage" (Cancer 29) to a "prehistoric fish" (Cancer 17) to "a piece of music for the pianoforte" (Capricorn 48). It all depends on his mood, and how "incurably optimistic" he feels at the moment. If it is a woman he is thinking about, Paris may begin to resemble the female anatomy: "Even as the world falls apart the Paris that belongs to Matisse shudders with bright, gasping orgasms, the air itself is steady with a stagnant sperm, the trees tangled like hair" (Cancer 166). If it is his manhood he is thinking about, Paris becomes this: "On a Sunday afternoon, when the shutters are down and the proletariat possesses the street in a kind of dumb torpor, there are certain thoroughfares which remind one of nothing less than a big chancrous cock laid open longitudinally" (Cancer 40). There are days when New York is nothing but a collection of "tombs blazing with dying sunlight" (Capricorn 50-51); "a cesspool of the spirit in which everything is sucked down and drained away to everlasting shit" (Capricorn 12); or "a page out of a telephone book" (Capricorn 20). And yet there is still, in Miller's mind, that New York that Whitman spoke of, the American ideal: "a sort of picture post card which you look at in a weak moment . . . a big patriotic open space with cows and sheep and tenderhearted men ready to bugger everything in sight, man, woman or beast. It doesn’t exist, America. It’s a name you give to an abstract idea" (Cancer 208).
And just as Miller gives a name like "America" to an abstract idea, so does he construct: "New York! The white prisons, the sidewalks swarming with maggots, the breadlines, the opium joints that are built like palaces, the kikes that are there, the lepers, the thugs, and above all, the ennui, the monotony of faces, streets, legs, houses, skyscrapers, emals, posters, jobs, crimes, loves. . . . A whole city erected over a hollow pit of nothingness. Meaningless. Absolutely meaningless" (Cancer 68). By way of his flâneur narrative technique, Miller strolls his readers through the New Yorks and Parises that exist in his mind, that differ from day to day, meal to meal, season to season. Miller becomes the sun in the sky of his own construction. Lighting the scenes as he sees fit, he either sheds warmth and optimism on the scenes he reveals, or he contracts into a pitiless glaring eye, hovering above the world like an angry god, ruthlessly exposing every flaw. Like Thoreau, Miller too held a reverence for the sun. In both Tropic novels, Miller closes with the image of the sun sinking into the horizon. Tropic of Cancer’s ending begs a determinism, which fuels Miller’s without-hope-and-without-despair approach to life: "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).
In all of this, the end result of Miller's flâneur narrative technique is a direct correspondence between the interior world of Miller's mind and the exterior world of the place about which he is writing. The urban landscapes are a reflection of Miller's own mental state. Gerald Kennedy's excellent article "Place, Self, and Writing" deals to a great extent with Miller's Tropic of Cancer as an example of an expatriate handling of place. In it, he contends that a study of Miller's Paris is really just a study of Miller, who "poses the problem of writing, inviting us to consider the dimensionality of place in the textual construction of a self" (497). In the novel, Miller discloses the close relationship between the "I" of the narrative and himself. Such a disclosure is a necessary part of autobiographical fiction "because the self cannot contemplate itself directly and must resort instead to Narcissus-like strategies of indirection" (Kennedy 497). In an expatriate narrative such as this one, this indirection manifests itself in a fabrication of events, while the details of place and character remain, for the most part, true to life. In this way, the narrator's surroundings behave like a mirror, "allowing the writer to represent identifying qualities through a putatively external scene" (Kennedy 497). Because the narrator's thoughts are resultant of the available metaphors that surround him, and our thoughts (for all intents and purposes) are who we are, "an individual is not distinct from his place; he is that place" (Kennedy 500); and he generally defines and knows himself in relation to the attachments formed with that place (Kennedy 500). Much like Benjamin's analysis of the flâneur, Kennedy, in quoting E. V. Walter, writes: "[p]eople and things in a place participate in one another's natures. Place is a location of mutual immanence, a unity of effective presences abiding together" (Kennedy 513). Writers who write while in exile experience an exaggeration of this effect: "Their passage from familiar, native grounds to an alien scene poses in the sharpest terms the difference between one place and another and produces the perspective of displacement" (Kennedy 513-514). Furthermore, expatriates do not tend to take their settings for granted as much as regional authors. Perhaps this is because their placement is not merely a matter of chance but the result of a decision of some sort. The result is "a heightened consciousness of the physical and social environment; in the perception of cultural differences--an inescapable function of everyday life in another country--one gains greater insight into both the foreign scene and the forsaken homeland" (Kennedy 515). The result, as seen in novels like Tropic of Cancer, is a narrative charged with "placeness," where the lines between interiors and exteriors are blurred by cultural and geographical illiteracy. The flâneur is at home in such a state of mind, experiencing his surroundings with both the fresh eyes of a child and the astute mind of the seasoned traveler.