4. Burlesque v. Irony

Cleo dances every night!

To all who are suffering, to all who are weary and heavy-laden, to every son of a bitch dying with eczema, halitosis, gangrene, dropsy, be it remembered, sealed and affixed that the side entrance is free. Come ye one and all! Come, ye sniveling Kallikaks! Come, ye snotnosed Pharisees! Come and have your guts renovated at less than the cost of ordinary ground burial. Come tonight! Jesus wants you. Come before it's too late--we close at 7:15 on the dot.
Cleo dances every night!
Cleo, darling of the gods, dances every night. [....]
And now, ladies and gentlemen, the curtain is rising on the cleanest, fastest show ever produced in the Western Hemisphere.
Henry Miller, "Burlesk" from Black Spring

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Black Spring: Burlesk

In Black Spring's "Burlesk," Miller emphasizes burlesque's capacity to level, to collapse and gather together on one stage before one audience, the heights and depths of the social order and of human experience. To his "cleanest, fastest show ever produced in the Western Hemisphere," Miller issues a uniform invitation to high "Pharisees" and lowly "Kallikaks" (the pseudonymous New Jersey family whose "hereditary" poverty, criminality, and "feeblemindedness" were grist for Henry Goddard's sociological eugenics).[4] To all equally, he promises a "renovation" of the "guts" through laughter, a resurrection without death and without ascension. The novelist's star attraction is Clio, the goddess and muse of history, reduced from Olympian heights to "Cleo," the stripper, an embodiment of Tropic of Cancer's "cosmos--on the flat": "On the meridian of time there is no injustice; there is only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and beauty"--"it is the world dying, shedding the skin of time."[5] On burlesque's meridian of time, speed is of the essence: the comedic master of ceremonies leaps from contradiction to contradiction in a rapid succession of acts, with quick wit making light of everything and everyone, including himself, lest the "cleanest, fastest show" founder in a static opposition of purity and filth.

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Meet the Mythical World with Cunning and High Spirits

The "cleanest, fastest show" promises for Miller and his urban audience something of what storytelling promised for Walter Benjamin's "storyteller" and his community of listeners: not an escape from reality, but a magical escape into a community of survivors. "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee"--there will be someone to listen.[8] According to Benjamin, the moral of every storytelling is that "The wisest thing [...] is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and high spirits."[9] This is the "wisdom" with which burlesque meets the ideological forces of the urban world. And it is with this wisdom that Miller's burlesque turns to meet the forces of the aesthetic world, confident in its cunning, vaunting its ability to strike on the run:

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The Rogue, the Clown and the Fool

Burlesque caricatures that which it critiques: it unmasks through mimicry. To this extent the burlesque comedian is the post-industrial descendent of the pre-industrial folk figures M. M. Bakhtin called up out of Rabelais to dispute the Formalists' valuation of the "poetic" novel:

The rogue, the clown and the fool, [...] their existence is a reflection of some other's mode of being--and even then, not a direct reflection. They are life's maskers; their being coincides with their role, and outside this role they simply do not exist.
They grant the right not to understand, the right to confuse, to tease, to hyperbolize life; the right to parody others while talking, the right not to be taken literally, not "to be oneself"; the right to live a life in the chronotrope of the entr'acte, the chronotrope of theatrical space, the right to act life as a comedy and to treat others as actors, the right to rip off masks, the right to rage at others with a primeval (almost cultic) rage--and finally, the right to betray to the public a personal life, down to its most private and prurient little secrets.[17]

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D. H. Lawrence: Studies in Classic American Literature

Miller's literary burlesque of the modes of subjectivity structured by Romantic vision and Modernist irony plays upon his readers' familiarity with the signs and attendant interpretive conventions of Romantic and Modernist texts. The very facility--strangely capable and facile--with which he deploys the languages of these aesthetics raises, only to frustrate, the expectation that on some higher level of reflective resolution his autobiographical narratives will reveal a knowledgeable self, drawing the familiar lessons of experience in a fallen world. But Miller's narrative voice, no matter what language it speaks, never rises above nor sinks below the "cosmos--on the flat" to which his rapid-fire clichés of the sublime and the grotesque drag the expectant reader, insinuating that the aesthetics of subjectivity are no more insightful than his own self-mocking renditions:

The eagles who flapped their mighty pinions for a while came crashing heavily to earth. They made us dizzy with the flap and whir of their wings. Stay on the earth, you eagles of the future! The heavens have been explored and they are empty. And what lies under the earth is empty, too, filled with bones and shadows. Stay on the earth and swim another few hundred thousand years![23]

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I'm a man, not a louse

What does it mean, Miller's aesthetic sermon asks, "to be a man" in a world of hunger:

But I don't ask to go back to America, to be put in double harness again, to work the treadmill. No, I prefer to be a poor man of Europe. God knows, I am poor enough; it only remains to be a man.[29]

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A world without hope, but no despair

The entire episode is exemplary burlesque humor. It begins with the most sublime of man's aspirations, to locate his very being in thought, and twists the logic of that aspiration into a perverse affirmation of man's animal nature: man is but a particularly grotesque variety of tapeworm, a louse among lice, a monkey among monkeys. The final punch line cuts through the entire structure of the sublime and the grotesque. After all, we have been aware from the start of Tropic of Cancer that its narrator is a "louse," not in the visionary sense of Miller's delusional refrain, "I see," "I see," but in the colloquial sense in which he is a well-intentioned but none too reliable human being intent upon his own survival. In this Miller is no different than Serge, who with no ill-feeling "almost weeps with joy" at the prospect that poverty might induce Miller to teach English for Quaker Oats and a hallway mattress. This parity of mutual exploitation and deception sustains Miller's warm feeling for Serge even as he makes his storyteller's "magical escape":

In the morning I wait for Serge to load the truck. I ask him to take me in to Paris. I haven't the heart to tell him I'm leaving. I leave the knapsack behind, with a few things that were left me. When we get to the Place Péreire I jump out. No particular reason for getting off there. No particular reason for anything. I'm free--that's the main thing....[40]

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I. A. Richards: The Principles of Literary Criticism

In Richards' usage, as in the discourse of New Critical modernism generally, irony is disassociated from a rhetorical tradition of hyperbole, ridicule and rebuttal to become a trope of ambiguity, indeterminacy, and knowing, tragic indecision.[46] Richards invokes Swift, but Richards' irony is thoroughly contemplative, at most opening the text and its represented reality into a realm of ambiguity where perfect reflection mirrors reflection, thereby adopting half, but only half, of Swift's famous statement on satire:

Satyr is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover every body's Face but their Own; which is the chief Reason for that kind of Reception it meets in the World, and that so very few are offended with it.[47]

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Tragedy: Equilibrium of Ironical Contemplation

In an effort to naturalize his ironic "machine" Richards roams as far afield as Miller's wildest speculations. Intent upon translating irony from a trope of Satire to a trope of Tragedy, he leaves Swift for Coleridge, whose "magical" definition of the imagination he recasts in the English public school language of a psychologist named, of all things, Dr. Head:

[...] Dr. Head has recently suggested the term vigilance, a useful addition to our symbolic machinery. In a high state of vigilance the nervous system reacts to stimuli with highly adapted, discriminating, and ordered responses[....]
The metaphor of balance or poise will bear consideration. [....] Tragedy is perhaps the most general, all-accepting, all-ordering experience known. It can take anything into its organisation, modifying it so that it finds a place. It is invulnerable; there is nothing which does not present to the tragic attitude when fully developed a fitting aspect and only a fitting aspect.
This balanced poise, stable through its power of inclusion, not through the force of its exclusions, is not peculiar to Tragedy. It is a general characteristic of all the most valuable experiences of the arts.[53]

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Burlesque Sarcasm and Satire

The burlesque sarcasm of Miller's "fluid imbalance" attempts to "head off," so to speak, the recovery of "stable equilibrium" that Modernist irony seeks. Unlike Richards' "Tragic" reformulation of Swiftean irony, Miller's still sarcastic satire does not take the measure of that which it opposes. Burlesque asserts that measure, proportion, and the discrimination of the complementary opposite are all out of proportion in the lightning paced bric-a-brac world of contingency represented on the vaudeville stage or by the comic writer. Sarcasm and burlesque do not negate: they nullify. They refuse to measure and, in turn, refuse to be measured. In Miller's narrative, New Critical aesthetics meet the aesthetics of the Lower East Side. The difference could not be put better than by I. A. Richards: "It is the difference between a systematized complex response or ordered sequence of responses, and a welter of responses."[57] Except, burlesque is no less "complex" than Richards' irony. The complexity of burlesque's "welter of responses" is of an order that Richards' criticism cannot discern and does not seek to discern. Miller's novelization of the techniques of burlesque theater suggests that this other order is narrative--an "ordered sequence of responses" which cannot be construed as a "complement" to the New Critical novel, nor assimilated to what Richards means by a "systematic complex response." When Miller describes his own abortive visionary quest, he equates its failure with the cult of balance Richards celebrates in Dr. Head:

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Swimming in an Ideological Ether

Miller's words are formed oppositionally, but he pointedly explains that any such opposition is transitive, not permanent. Though Miller's words resolve in opposition to structured concepts, they do not become, by virtue of opposing structured concepts, a potentially "complementary" structure. The mesh is Moldorf's and Miller's use of the metaphor of the mesh cannot be construed as a negative image of a structuralist theory of language as chess game of binary oppositions. Miller carefully adds that the mesh is not only pierced at every point, but incomplete: "there will never be enough bars to make the mesh." More importantly, the forward movement of Miller's narrative prevents the articulation of any alternative, totalizing structure: "The telephone interrupts this thought which I should never have been able to complete."[64] Passing through the sieve, narrative flow is resolved momentarily into words, into things, into the episodes of Miller's novels, but "The thing flows."[65] It flows on to again become solution. Insofar as Miller's words arise in a temporal series of oppositions that cannot be assembled into a coherent, synchronic set of oppositions, the transitory meaningfulness of his words points only to the flow into which they return. As the vaudeville gag is interjected before the straightman can finish his sentence, Miller's narrative, his jump "halfway across Asia," transpires in the lull of a discourse on modernism, supplying all that will not fit its formal aesthetic mesh: "There is only one thing which interests me vitally now, and that is the recording of all that which is omitted in books."[66] Miller exploits the openness of burlesque to sustain and forestall completion of "The Revolution of the Word," protesting, "Revolutions are nipped in the bud, or else succeed too quickly."[67]

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They will make Joyce palatable, understandable

This passage from "The Universe of Death" recapitulates the Moldorf/God burlesque of Tropic of Cancer, where Miller pokes holes in Moldorf's weltanschauung. Miller recognized Joyce's comic genius, and sought to read all of Ulysses as an intellectual burlesque after his own heart. In effect, Miller--the vaudeville comedian, the clown, the "learned desperado," the "mad baboon"--projects himself into the text of Ulysses to assist in the dynamiting of the accumulated structures of the world's literature. Miller was ready to embrace and identify with Joyce to the extent to which he could read in Ulysses a full artistic embodiment and then repudiation of the "disease of our time."

But as an active member of the international expatriate community of Paris, Miller was perspicacious enough to know that there were developing other ways to read Ulysses:

Already, almost coincidentally with their appearance, we have, as a result of Ulysses and Work in Progress, nothing but dry analyses, archaeological burrowings, geological surveys, laboratory tests of the Word. The commentators, to be sure, have only begun to chew on Joyce. The Germans will finish him! They will make Joyce palatable, understandable, clear as Shakespeare, better than Joyce, better than Shakespeare. Wait! The mystagogues are coming![73]

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Get off the gold standard of literature

Miller's admiration for Joyce was as great as was his antagonism. Like so many contemporary and subsequent writers, Miller took Ulysses as the challenge to the modern novelist. But his response--unlike, for example, Thomas Pynchon, whose rivalry with Joyce is readily apparent--was in a different key, a burlesque key. Miller challenged the very "Order and Myth" of Ulysses:

Up to the present, my idea in collaborating with myself has been to get off the gold standard of literature.
We are reverting to alchemy, to that fake Alexandrian wisdom which produced our inflated symbols. Real wisdom is being stored away in the subcellars by the misers of learning. [....] All the gold that is being tucked away in the pockets of the earth will have to be re-mined; all this symbolism will have to be dragged out again from the bowels of man. But first the instruments must be perfected.[78]

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Burlesque v. Irony - Notes

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