I’ve been filling in one of the many holes in my education by reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. This is the first time I’ve actually read one of his books, and I find him pretty much as advertised: egotistical, chauvinistic, and sex-obsessed, but there’s no doubt the man can write.
What did surprise me was to find that Miller, whom I’d always thought of as a swashbuckling type, was actually a proofreader for a while. Here are some of my favorite passages from that part of the book:
I must say, right at the start, that I haven’t a thing to complain about. It’s like being in a lunatic asylum, with permission to masturbate for the rest of your life. The world is brought right under my nose and all that is required of me is to punctuate the calamities.
They have a wonderful therapeutic effect on me, these catastrophes which I proofread. Imagine a state of perfect immunity, a charmed existence, a life of absolute security in the midst of poison bacilli. Nothing touches me, neither earthquakes nor riots nor famine nor collisions nor wars nor revolutions. I am inoculated against every disease, every calamity, every sorrow and misery. It’s the culmination of a life of fortitude. Seated at my little niche all the poisons which the world gives off each day pass through my hands. Not even a fingernail gets stained. I am absolutely immune. I am even better off than a laboratory attendant, because there are no bad odors here, just the smell of lead burning. The world can blow up—I’ll be here just the same to put in a comma or semicolon. I may even touch a little overtime, for with an event like that there’s bound to be a final extra. When the world blows up and the final edition has gone to press the proofreaders will quietly gather up all commas, semicolons, hyphens, asterisks, brackets, parentheses, periods, exclamation marks etc. and put them in a little box over the editorial chair. Comme ca tout est réglé….
None of my companions seem to understand why I appear so contented. They grumble all the time, they have ambitions, they want to show their pride and spleen. A good proofreader has no ambitions, no pride, no spleen. A good proofreader is a little like God Almighty, he’s in the world but not of it. He’s for Sundays only. Sunday is his night off. On Sundays he steps down from his pedestal and shows his ass to the faithful. Once a week he listens in on all the private grief and misery of the world; it’s enough to last him the rest of the week. The rest of the week he remains in the frozen winter marshes, an impeccable absolute, with only a vaccination mark to distinguish him from the immense world.
I had to travel precisely all around the world to find just such a comfortable, agreeable niche as this. It seems incredible almost. How could I have foreseen, in America, with all those firecrackers they put up your ass to give you pep and courage, that the ideal position for a man of my temperament was to look for orthographic mistakes? Over there you think of nothing but becoming President of the United States some day. Potentially every man is Presidential timber. Here it’s different. Here every man is potentially a zero. If you become something or somebody it is an accident, a miracle. The chances are a thousand to one that you’ll have your legs shot off or your eyes blown out. Unless the miracle happens and you find yourself a general or rear admiral.
But it’s just because the chances are all against you, just because there is so little hope, that life is sweet over here. Day by day. No yesterdays and no tomorrows. The barometer never changes, the flag is always at half-mast. You wear a piece of black crepe on your arm, you have a little ribbon in your buttonhole, and, if you are lucky enough to afford it, you buy yourself a pair of artificial lightweight limbs, aluminum preferably. Which does not prevent you from enjoying an apértif or looking at the animals in the zoo or flirting with the vultures who sail up and down the boulevards always on the alert for fresh carrion. Time passes. If you’re a stranger and your papers are in order you can expose yourself to infection without fear of being contaminated. It is better, if possible, to have a proofreader’s job.