– Henry Miller, ‘Tropic of Cancer’
Parents, teachers and social scientists tend to worry about how kids and teens today are often first introduced to sex by watching internet porn, and then secretly teach themselves about sex by watching more of the rather tasteless or at least questionable internet porn easily available. No one’s sure exactly how porn affects young minds and early attitudes about sex. Many assume the rough imagery and attitudes in porn might scar young kids or leave them with a misshapen sense of sexuality. Ask yourself, did porn scar you? Personally, I don’t know if it’s good or bad for sex education. By the time I saw porn, I’d already learned everything I wanted to know about sex from Henry Miller. And I turned out all right. Mostly.
I was eight when I started reading his erotic novels. Not because I was some early devotee to ex-pat American literature. I read Henry Miller because that’s what was on the back of the toilet. My father kept a rotating bathroom library of his novels. The Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy: Sexus, Nexus, and Plexus. He had The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Miller’s essays on an American road trip after his return stateside from his time living in Paris in poverty. Of course, he had the novels, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn.
That’s how I learned what those were. I was terribly curious about that particular string of words. Tropic of Cancer. It sounded like an oxymoron before I knew what an oxymoron was. Tropics were good and cancer was bad. But together? I was only eight but I knew those three words somehow had magic when arranged in that order.
So I looked them up and learned they’re the northern and southern boundaries of the tropical zone of the planet, invisible divides wrapping around the Earth at 23.5° north and south of the equator. Of course, it was the first book of his I read. Tropic of Cancer.
Since I was eight, I mostly thumbed through the book on the toilet, and my curiosity usually faded as soon as I left the bathroom and returned to my comic books and classic Judy Blume novels with equally cool titles like Superfudge and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
Then, due to circumstances, I returned to Henry Miller. This time to teach me about the fullness of life. I was ten. My parents divorced and in an attempt to understand my father, I read all the Henry Miller novels I could find at the library, since he’d taken his books with him. In my father’s shadow, Henry Miller was there to make sense of the world.
When asked why he titled his first book, Tropic of Cancer, Miller said, “It was because to me cancer symbolizes the disease of civilization, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start completely over from scratch.” Just the sort of attitude a 10-year-old should read to help them understand the world. …Right?
After elementary school each day my sister and I went to the library, she’d do her homework, hang out with friends, and annoy old people. Meanwhile, I’d be in an aisle, on the floor, reading Tropic of Cancer for the second time. Whenever adults spotted 10-year-old me reading Henry Miller, a mix of reactions would wash over their faces. Mostly they looked like they felt they should snatch the book from me. I learned to hide the covers.
If you know his writing you already know why any well-meaning adult believes it’s a terrible idea for a 10-year-old to read his erotic literature. If you don’t know Henry Miller, I’ll put it this way — cunt is one of his favorite words. He refers to his cock or some horrible disease on just about every other page. Tropic of Cancer is chock-full of graphic sex scenes that lack any of the beauty or warmth one would include when introducing the idea of sex to a curious child. Having Henry Miller teach your kids the-birds-and-the-bees would be like asking Charles Bukowski to babysit, tell bedtime stories and maybe teach them to drink.
Instead of studying the various positions and actions and strange behaviors of sex from watching internet porn, imagine you had a cranky, foul-mouthed libertine preaching about the ripe smell of a whore’s cunt. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret Henry Miller teaching me the-birds-and-the-bees. I don’t think his version was terrible. It was a bit colorful. A bit jaded. It focused on sex as an exchange of money, power, humiliation, exhilaration and joy, which made it seem adult and still something well out of the reach of my lusty 10-year-old hands. He didn’t make me want to start fucking.
I can’t imagine it’s that much different from learning about sex from internet porn. And with porn, if you’re not attracted to the performers, the sex quickly can become almost technical, one short step above watching chimpanzees fuck at the zoo.
When Henry Miller described fucking a French whore in the back of a cab, or the size of a Scottish girl’s cunt, after a few pages I read the words the same as if he’d said prostitute and vagina. I knew they were bad words and would shock adults if I said them but they lost their raw shock for me really quickly, even as a 10-year-old. I mostly cared about how the women responded. And how he responded to them.
More than teaching me profanity, which he did, and more than teaching me to savor the lusty immediacy of an afternoon fuck, which he also did, Henry Miller taught me at a very young age to see everything as lecherous, cancerous, ridiculous, adulterous, vomitous, lugubrious, lousy, and broke; and if that was the way of the world, if adults were the way he described them, I needed to learn how to do what he did in his books, I needed to make sure I never fell out of the habit of finding some beauty in those surprising moments you don’t expect.
The sunlight between buildings on an afternoon walk, the sound of your bike tires rolling in a rhythm over cobblestones, the tickle of a breeze through the hair above your ears on an almost-windy morning, at a stoplight in traffic you sniff a hint of your lover’s scent still lingering on your skin, or the smell of sex in a bedroom as you munch breakfast together in bed. I learned how little moments of beauty and grace make all the rest of the shit worthwhile. And obviously, I learned how cuss words offer catharsis. It was a good start for a 10-year-old.
In my early twenties, I discovered Henry Miller was wrong. The boy from Brooklyn, the one whose books were banned in America for 30 years for being obscene, he was a man from different times. I found we disagreed about women, and relationships, and about how to treat people. If you followed the advice of Henry Miller on how to treat a woman, or really anyone, you’d likely die alone. And I found the world isn’t a cesspool or a gutter or even a whorehouse. It’s much bigger and weirder than that. The world is a space-traveling rock with a beautiful murderous garden all over it. So you know, good luck.
The debt I owe Henry Miller is for teaching me how to appreciate the little moments of life. And for teaching me how to find actual beauty in all the sewers of the world. And for graphically showing me how sex is best when it’s a hearty, soulful laugh, a sweaty-faced naked gospel song sung loudly just because you’re alive. With those few lessons he introduced me to all I ever needed to know about sex… and how to live well.