5. Anecdote v. Image
We walk split into myriad fragments
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
No sign. Gone. What matter?
He walked back along Dorset street, reading gravely. [....]
Nothing doing. Still an idea behind it. [....]
James Joyce, Ulysses
Henceforward we walk split into myriad fragments [...]; we walk against a united world, asserting our dividedness. All things, as we walk, splitting with us into a myriad iridescent fragments. The great fragmentation of maturity. The great change.
Henry Miller, Black Spring
Mythical thought [...] builds ideological castles out of the debris of what was once a social discourse.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind
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The cancer of time is eating us away
Tropic of Cancer opens upon the question of technique: times being what they are, upon what mode of comprehension may a literature, a life, a world be built? As throughout Miller's work, this critical issue is posed parodically and explored through anecdote. The first lines of Tropic of Cancer announce the narrator's residence, not simply in down-and-out, expatriate Paris at large, but pointedly in the Unreal City of The Waste Land. Where Eliot wrote, "He who is living is now dead / We who were living are now dying / With a little patience," Miller pursues,
I am living in the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
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T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land
In place of the syncretism of Eliot and Joyce's bricolage, Miller's "spots of time" speak with an insistently transitive logic, their sense always awaiting qualification, if not completion, further along his rambles through a "cosmos--on the flat." But joined in debate, Miller's aesthetic dissent transpires within a broad consensus visible in the literary practice of his contemporaries. What Stuart Gilbert said in defense of Ulysses may also be said in defense of The Waste Land: both texts notoriously require "a little patience" before their fragments can be "assimilated in the reader's mind for him to arrive at a complete understanding." The Modernist penchant for requiring of the reader a suspension of understanding is equally fundamental to Miller's technique. His novels also ask that the reader wait, not for the "what happens" of an unfolding plot, but, like Ulysses, for "what it all means." The difference between Miller's transitive bricolage and the patient deferral of understanding demanded by Eliot's poem and Joyce's novel is manifest in the distinctive modes of rereading their works demand for their aesthetic discourses to be read "critically." Thus, where the inescapable linearity of language, plot, and the book form might be said to require a "narrative dimension" of every literary work, the aesthetic rivalry between Tropic of Cancer, on the one hand, and The Waste Land and Ulysses, on the other, is promulgated through the different ways in which textual organization can render that initial experience of reading first page to last something we retrospectively call "naive." The order Miller imposes upon his anecdotes in "sandwiching" fragments from his own and other's work into narrative is sequential rather than hierarchical, metonymic rather than synecdochic.
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Crazy Cock, Germaine, Mademoiselle Claude
Miller's use of anecdote to construct and defend a twentieth-century reality reduced to "spots of time" is followed easiest through one of the fragments cannibalized from his earlier work and "sandwiched" into the third, untitled "chapter" (pages 34 to 43) of Tropic of Cancer: the story of Germaine. Apart from the manner of its inclusion within Tropic of Cancer, this story is unremarkable. Germaine is a stock figure, the familiar "whore with the heart of gold" who knows her business and sticks to it. The narrator's encounter with her is equally predictable, cut from the same misogynous cloth: he falls in love, safely, for of course no man can truly love a whore. The cliched nature of this tale is borne out by its textual history. Germaine was imported to Tropic of Cancer from a generic "tourist" piece, "Mademoiselle Claude," one of several sketches of stereotypical Parisian figures Miller penned during his first year as an expatriate. Executed immediately after what turned out to be the last draft of the soon abandoned "Crazy Cock," "Mademoiselle Claude" proved marketable. First published in Samuel Putnam's New Review (1931), it was quickly anthologized in Peter Neagroe's Americans Abroad (1932). But in the interval between the writing of "Mademoiselle Claude" and its appearance in print, Miller seized upon the narrative strategy of Tropic of Cancer, repudiating his previous efforts. Thus it was that upon hearing from Putnam that Covici of Covici-Friede had liked "Mademoiselle Claude" and would like to see "Crazy Cock" and similar pieces, Miller responded, "I think he's crazy."
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The Faubourg St. Germain
With the reiteration of Germaine's difference, all semblance of sincerity and verisimilitude abruptly gives way to a jumbled rush of every mismatched convention of the "man loves prostitute" genre. Miller confesses to have written about Germaine before, concealing her identity under the name Claude. Yet, he hurriedly adds, there really was a Claude, another prostitute he thought he loved. Now it appears that it was she, this other one, who "was not the same." Still he likes Germaine better after all for being the same, a whore among whores. But then again, in yet another about face, he confesses that truthfully he "could no more think of loving Germaine than [...] loving a spider[....]" After more twists, turns, and contradictory qualifications the story of Germaine/Claude concludes in a shrill repetition of the hollow paradox that runs through every fantasy of its type: "She was a whore all the way through--and that was her virtue!" Promised a significant event, a revealing moment, the reader has been handed a flat, vicious genre gone mad, turning inward upon its own limited resources.
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A Man Cut in Slices!
Miller's further ambles bring further qualifications in his critique of the visionary tradition as he glances upon the aesthetic programs of his living rivals, or rather his living-dead rivals. As rain begins to fall the scene is transformed into one of contrast between Miller's flowing, street-level narrative and the obsessive quest for visionary transcendence surviving, moribund but unrepentant, into the present. The man in the street spies another group of gargoyles, still elevated over the City of Art:
Notre-Dame rises tomblike from the water. The gargoyles lean far out over the lace facade. They hang there like an ideé fixe in the mind of a monomaniac.
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Narrative Method vs. Mythic Method
As Miller makes his final approach to the story of Germaine his narrative polemic turns upon Modern novelists' efforts to reshape the techniques of the visionary tradition so that symbolism might capture the temporal extension of Man's being. The presiding "gargoyles" are Proust and Joyce--primarily Joyce, for here Miller's theme is not simply the private, psychological past of memory, but the public, historical past of books. Mythic method, the paralleling of heroic past and urban present, is at issue as Miller stops after a detour past the Cine Combat offering Metropolis to quote from a history of "Paris during the days of Charles the Silly!" He continues, looking for reminders of this past in the present:
At the Rue des Lions I looked for the stones of the old menagerie where he [Charles] once fed his pets. His only diversion, poor dolt, aside from those card games with his "low born companion," Odette de Champdivers.
It was a Sunday afternoon, much like this, when I first met Germaine. I was strolling along the Boulevard Beaumarchais, rich by a hundred francs or so which my wife had frantically cabled from America.
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Spots of Time in a Cosmos-on the Flat
Tropic of Cancer is "bad" New Critical modernism, and quite deliberately so. Miller's narrative proves resistant to New Critical appropriation, but not because his narrative art was, at its inception, uncannily "post-modern"; nor in explanation of his narrative's systematic disruption of the tropes of vision upon which Modernism was built need we argue that beyond intention language itself is "always already," in this sense, "post-modern." Rather, Miller's narrative proves resistant precisely because it was forged with the emergence of the "classical" from the "wild romantic" Ulysses well in view. Where a "mythic" reading would insinuate a thorough-going metaphoric exchange between Miller and Germaine and Charles and Odette, Miller plays along, knowing full well the implications of such a continuous parallel between past and present. His bald, associative transition between Paris in the days of Charles the Silly and the story of Germaine is of the type present throughout canonical modernism: such abrupt narrative turns serve to guide "close reading" to the "really interesting parts" from which a "text" may be assembled. But lines like "It was a Sunday afternoon, much like this when I first met Germaine" are also those New Critical exegesis, having found its place, systematically relegates to the merely novelistic background--a manifestation of the regrettable generic necessity of stringing together some sort of narrative as a vehicle for symbolic structure. In Tropic of Cancer, however, the casual, incidental quality of this narrative tag, "Sunday," governs the surrounding text and constitutes Miller's polemic.
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Eliot's initial invocation of the "Unreal City" proceeds in two phases. The first presents the urban landscape as one of meaningless surface flow in order that the second might offer, where poetic anecdote might suffice, a dialectic of visionary death and ascension. The "Unreal City" is first declaimed following Madame Sosostris' warning, "Fear death by water":
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought that death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
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Intellectual trees - Like T. S. Eliot's verse.
Miller accepts The Waste Land, the structure in disintegration, the "heap of broken images" of the modern urban world. The climate of the time is indisputable. But in contesting the "lock step" of the "Unreal City," in making a hero of time rather than Timelessness, his narrative reveals the insistently distanced perception upon which Modernism depends to imagine--to image--the city's flowing life as dead structure. Where Eliot sees an "Unreal City" in which "each man fixed his eyes before his feet," Miller, afoot with his own vision, discovers a twisting "hive of activity."
High noon and here I am standing on an empty belly at the confluence of all these crooked lanes that reek with the odor of food. Opposite me is the Hotel de Louisiane. A grim old hostelry known to the bad boys of the Rue de Buci in the good old days. Hotels and food, and I'm walking about like a leper with crabs gnawing at my entrails. On Sunday mornings there's a fever in the streets. Nothing like it anywhere, except perhaps on the East Side, or down Chatham Square. The Rue de l'Echaude is seething. The streets twist and turn, at every angle a hive of activity. Long queues of people with vegetables under their arms, turning here and there with crisp, sparkling appetites. Nothing but food, food, food. Makes one delirious.
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Ulysses: Bloom's moist tender gland
The common discourse within which Eliot and Miller sought to advance rival modernisms--albeit one poetic, the other novelistic--is fully in evidence throughout Ulysses, but is perhaps best exemplified in a passage from early on, from the breakfast excursion which serves as an overture to Bloom's very anecdotal walk through the city of Dublin. As in Miller's Germaine "chapter," the associative sequence proceeds from food to women, from hunger to misogynous desire. In this regard, an examination of the breakfast excursion will prove illustrative of not only the techniques which divide Miller and Joyce's modernist practice, but the manner in which their "formal" dispute extends beyond "aesthetics" into the realm of ideological reproduction. "NARRATIVE IS NOT MERE ANECDOTE, BUT THE PROJECTION OF A METAMORPHOSIS OF REALITY," proclaimed the authors of "The Revolution of the Word," ratifying what they understood to be Joyce's greatest accomplishment. The metamorphosed realities projected by Miller's anecdotal narrative and by the synecdochic structures of the paradigmatic novels of New Critical modernism have much in common with each other and with the reality they purport to change. Their variations upon a culture of consumption and patriarchal misogyny will be treated at length in a later chapter. Here my concern is with the "Order, and Myth," the hermeneutic code, inscribed within Bloom's anecdotal excursion, which marks Ulysses as the novel against which Tropic of Cancer most directly pits itself. The realities these works represent, the ideologies they reproduce, appear under this aspect as incidents of the hubris Joyce and Miller share as rival novelists. Both are inspired by the conviction that the novel's form can embody the force of history as it makes and unmakes the reality of our time.
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Ulysses: the grey sunken cunt of the world
By the end of this narrative reading there is, indeed, "nothing doing." The "doing" of the chronicled purchase has been left behind, displaced by a search for the "idea behind it." But what is still an uncertain, meandering search on the level of Bloom's stream of thought is already a pyramiding of trope upon trope, association upon association, for Joyce and his readers. Joyce 'shores' the images of reading and money which first float through the ordinary activity of the butcher's shop, solidifying their interrelation as Bloom's thoughts turn increasing to earthen structures: "sandy tracts," trees for "shade, fuel and construction," "immense melonfields," "a dunam of land." Money ceases to be a medium of exchange and becomes a figure of transformative investment, a writing in the "book of the union" and on the desert of the "Promised Land." Bloom's stream of thought is channeled into "artificial irrigation."
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The Angel is My Watermark
In "The Angel is My Watermark" in Black Spring, Miller produces his own version of narrative in quest of symbolic meaning. Parodying both surrealist painting and mythic method, he describes an attempt to invest his own painting with psychological "depth" and "extra-temporal history." Like Bloom through the streets of Dublin, Miller wanders through the world of canvas and brush a bit uncertain as to what, if anything, it all means, but letting no detail pass unremarked. Potentially mythic meanings accumulate; fragmentary images, chanced upon, are "shored" up. But the process, from narrative beginning to contemplative end, is a comedy of errors, rationalizations, and strained interpretations:
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Gertrude Stein: Three Lives
Tropic of Cancer argues a paradigm shift from the vertical axis of vision to the horizontal "meridian of time." In doing so it not only calls into question the "Modernism" of synecdochic symbolism and mythic method, but also the "post-modernism" of our "discovery" that the subjectivity New Critical modernism sought to create is "always already" empty. The crucial difference between Miller's polemic against New Critical subjectivity and what we have too quickly called post-modernism is that he levels, rather than hollows out, Stephen Dedalus's project, "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." Miller forges a chain of anecdotes appropriate to a "cosmos-on the flat" rather than raising structures of conscience/consciousness in a void. His "sandwiched" anecdotes, in this respect, ally his narrative modernism with that of Gertrude Stein's Three Lives and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, wherein "stream of consciousness" is rendered with repeated phrases and narrative fragments, rather than with the potentially synecdochic image fragments taken up by New Criticism and made characteristic of Ulysses and canonical modernism in general. The alternative modernism Miller and Stein pursue through their autobiographical writings, through their anecdotal lives, cuts against the grain of New Critical modernism which, for all its radicalness, is still preoccupied with the paradoxes of heightened sensitivity in a fallen world. Bearing out a legacy of the Realist and Naturalist critique of Romanticism, Stein and Miller each in their own way find "reduced" modes of consciousness entirely adequate to the modern world's complexity, and even to aesthetic experience. In Miller's version, self-awareness is a realization of the flatness of modern experience: "It's like a chain which I've forged out my own misery." The "I," the subjectivity of Tropic of Cancer's narration, resides only in movement along such chains.
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The Crack: an Arabian zero
Miller's second derivation of anecdotal narrative from the zeroed self makes clear his dissent from the tradition that draws upon Poe. His zero is an "Arabian zero" rather than a Hellenic zero, algebraic rather than arithmetic:
When I look down into that crack I see an equation sign, the world at balance, a world reduced to zero and no trace of remainder. Not the zero on which Van Norden turned his flashlight, not the empty crack of the prematurely disillusioned man, but an Arabian zero rather, the sign from which spring endless mathematical worlds, the fulcrum which balances the stars and the light dreams and the machines lighter than air and the lightweight limbs and the explosives that produced them.
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Ulysses is like vomit spilled by a delicate child
Miller's most effective counter to the hierarchical tropes that conventionally coalesce around the subject/object dichotomy lies in his rendition of the live city, not as ambiguously male and female, but as the thing that flows which is neither Nature nor dead abstraction. Miller's critique of the city as seen by canonical modernism resonates with his rejection of the "pure ideology" of "Woman is, man becomes" to the extent that his urban narrative denies the ascension whence man turns to envision the city into which he must return with the language of disgust, aversion, and will to power that ideologically is also the stock and trade of patriarchal misogyny. Miller's city is neither "Nature" nor an evil "Second Nature." It must be traveled, not poeticized as the object of a visionary subject. Miller's most directed critique is addressed to the paradigmatic works of New Critical modernism, to the vision of the city in The Waste Land and Ulysses.
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Anecdote v. Image - Notes
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