History: The novel was subsequently banned in the United States until a 1961 Justice Department ruling declared that its contents were not obscene. It was also banned in Turkey. It is a sequel to Miller's 1934 work, theTropic of Cancer.
Plot: The novel is set in 1920s New York, where the narrator 'Henry V. Miller' works in the personnel division of the 'Cosmodemonic' telegraph company. Although the narrator's experiences closely parallel Miller's own time in New York working for the Western Union Telegraph Company, and though he shares the author's name, the novel is considered a work of fiction.
The book is a story of spiritual awakening. Much of the story surrounds his New York years of struggle with wife June Miller, and the process of finding his voice as a writer.
Review: Miller's two tropics – Cancer and Capricorn- are essentially manuals for the creative life. They present Miller's transformation from lay-schmuck working in the belly of the beast that is the American economy - jobs such as his position with the Western Union Telegraph company, which he refers to as the "Cosmococcic / Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company" - to his evolution as en expatriate writer living in Paris. The books are really designed to be read together to magnify the metamorphosis, the rite of passage. While Cancer chronicles the latter portion of Miller's experience abroad, the prequel, Capricorn, written five years later in 1939, is the more developed and more seminal of the two and elucidates with much greater detail the affects of his epiphany.
Most artists will immediately recognize the struggle Miller endures. Married to the "wrong" woman and with a young child in tow - a relationship which he finds stifling to his creative development - Miller faces tenable employment situations to support this life. Those jobs he does find do little to allow him to prosper; rather he finds himself as a cog on a wheel of Hell. His transformation from the morass of what society deems sound and true is painful. Anyone who has ever made such sacrifices to pursue the unspoken dreams to create from what grows inside of them will sympathize with Miller's dilemma. To pursue a life of an artist is frightening enough: to do it behind the rancorous veil of the American dream is horrifying. Miller recognizes the banal existence of modern America with its machines, its backward corporate policies, its worship of the unthinking and mechanical and he also knows he must break from its fetters.
Part of Miller's disenchantment with America is organic to his being just as much as it is experiential. As a child, Miller feels a unique disassociation with his peers and even his family. This self-possessed knowledge of his unique intelligence leaves Miller with a feeling of disorientation. As an adolescent, he sees his drunken father convert to piety when wooed by the charisma of a local minister. Miller, Sr. then falls from grace when the minister is called to another location and as a result of this perceived abandonment, cycles back to his earlier state of crapulousness. The event seems to have intimated to Miller the importance of being self-reliant upon a constant wellspring of inspiration so that disappointment in other people does not interrupt the flow of creativity.
Miller describes the evolution of the artist as riding "on the ovarian trolley." In fact, those very words are what preface Capricorn. For Miller there are really two births the artist experiences before his final descent into a world riddled with isolation, hunger and anticipation. Of course, there is the physical birth but this is more a symbolic representation than Miller's actual recognition of his square-peg, round-hole emotional relationship with the world at large: this is the first stage of birth. The second stage comes years later out of the "Land of F@ck" as Miller coins it, the place where the "spermatozoon reigns supreme". These phrases, as they would first seem (and were seen for many years that the book was banned from U.S. publication), are not some sordid and gratuitous account of Miller's perceptions of the world or his conquests. Rather, he uses the extended metaphors and kennings to give the reader an understanding to the visceral almost primordial conditions from whence the artist arises. For Miller, spiritual ascension is a process biologic as well as intellectual.
"Once this fact is grasped there can be no more despair. At the very bottom of the ladder, chez the spermatozoa, there is the same condition of bliss at the top, chez God. God is the summation of all the spermatozoa come to full consciousness. Between the bottom and the top there is no stop, no halfway station" .
There is an almost funereal quality about Miller's cognizance here: this idea of exploring one's complete "Annihilation" before metaphysical resurrection. Miller understands the need for an eradication of the former self before the rebirth of the artist as he moves from the "terra firma" to the "terra vague." Along with this laying waste of the individual comes the erasure of connections to the self: friends, family, lovers - all abandoned to pursue the freedom to express unhindered utterance*. To this point, Miller's use of "Tropic of" in the titles of Cancer and Capricorn now begins to make more sense as he asserts himself to be on the boundary between this land of the physical and the spiritual; the place where men aspire to be God for a period of time just before the flash-point of creative impulse.
Tropic of Capricorn should be standard reading for anyone in the arts, for any artist who has ever felt the pang of isolation, who truly believes in the necessity of sacrifice, a higher calling and commitment to one's creative endeavors. Miller's importance to world literature is vastly underrated and in many cases. Writers are simply too intimidated to face the truth in what he espouses. Miller operates as an Overman and as such, it is right that he should pose a certain condition of tremulousness in his readership: he has forged his own society, he has forged his own being into something closer to what history had intended for him since his first phone call into the horn of the fallopian. This is discomfiting for most and is intended to show how the application of introspection for an artist can lead to becoming an acolyte of unconventional philosophy: how a writer emerges as "e pluribus unum." Henry Miller's doctrine is reserved for the initiate, the mad few who choose separation from the masses as a means for creative growth. Miller's epitaph should simply be, "My name? Why just call me God - God the embryo."
Opening Line: “Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.”
Closing Line: “Tomorrow. Tomorrow.”
Quotes: "History may deny it, since I have played no part in the history of my people, but even if everything I say is wrong, is prejudiced, spiteful, malevolent, even if I am a liar and a poisoner, it is nevertheless the truth and it will have to be swallowed."