7. Desire in the Waste Land
The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge
To have money in the pocket in the midst of white, neutral energy, to walk meaningless and unfecundated through the bright glitter of the calcimined streets, to think aloud in full solitude on the edge of madness, to be of a city, a great city, to be of the last moment of time in the greatest city in the world and feel no part of it, is to become oneself a city, a world of dead stone, of waste light, of unintelligible motion, of imponderables and incalculables, of the secret perfection of all that is minus.
Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn
I must get all those characters to New York[....]
F. Scott Fitzgerald to Max Perkins
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Oswald Spengler: The Decline of the West
In brief, Spengler's theory of the natural "morphology of forms" envisions the history of every "people" as an inevitable process of growth and decay. Living "Cultures" become dead "Civilizations," and this "macrocosmic" devolution proceeds apace on a "microcosmic" level: organic ideals are transmuted into inorganic laws, race-feeling into abstract intellect, symbolic depth into mathematical extension, and use values into commodity values. Not only did The Decline of the West provide an encyclopedic source of allusion for both The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn, it afforded Fitzgerald and Miller an intellectual ground from which to assess the transformation of American life from promise into a meaningless statistical nightmare. Of the "late world-city" Fitzgerald and Miller saw in New York's "teeming multitudes," Spengler wrote:
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Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America
In Tropic of Capricorn Miller shares Nick's fear of being, in truth, a statistical everyman. Like Nick, the personnel director of the "Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America" is a listener, an urban sharer of the "plagiaristic," "secret griefs of wild, unknown men," their "banal tragedies of poverty and distress, of love and death, of yearning and disillusionment":
They streamed in from all over the world, from every stratum of society, speaking a thousand different tongues, worshiping different gods, obeying different laws and customs. The tale of the poorest among them was a huge tome, and yet if each and every one were written out at length it might all be compressed to the size of the Ten Commandments, it might all be recorded on the back of a postage stamp, like the Lord's Prayer. [....] Walking amidst the craziest architecture ever invented, wondering why and to what end, if every day from these wretched hovels or magnificent palaces there had to stream forth an army of men itching to unravel their tale of misery.
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A nightmare producing the greatest misery of the greatest number
A culture of consumption is fundamental to the "reality" of both The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn. In the aftermath of "The Great War" Nick pursues the bond business, but he does so on the side, as a "personal affair," when not "absorbed" in the public spectacle of Gatsby's extravagance. Miller reaches the culture of consumption by a different route: "It is customary to blame everything on the war. I say the war had nothing to do with me, with my life." Tropic of Capricorn is one of the few expatriate novels in which the central character looks for, finds, and engages in the daily routine of a job. Breaking rank, Miller opens his novel of the 1920s by substituting the world of work for the world of war. But while Miller expends seventy pages narrating, with frequent martial metaphors, life in and about the "Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company," his world of work, like the modernist world of war, is simply a private nightmarish prelude to the public world that gives birth to literature:
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Daisy, her actual and astounding presence
The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn are complicit in the culture of consumption from which they draw forms of commodity desire as tropes for their own aesthetic structures, but this complicity requires careful delineation. Clearly, it does not preclude a great deal of moral and social criticism of the "empty" pursuit of material happiness. Both novels may be read as detailed, sophisticated, and damning critiques of the destructive tendencies of American capitalism and consumer culture. Indeed, such a critique is necessary to the art of these novels. Illuminating the limitations of the culture of consumption supports a particular claim for the novel as art--as that which can transmute and redeem desires stimulated but unsatisfied by the twentieth-century Waste Land. Fitzgerald's and Miller's distinctively novelistic complicity in commodification is exposed at precisely that moment when the purchased object is shown to betray the commodity's promise, for it is then that the purely tropological form of the commodity--its "pointing beyond"--sheds its materiality, becoming a free, aestheticized structure applicable to any desire, specifically the novelist's desire to write "something really NEW in form, idea, and structure--the model for the age." Realizing an aesthetic polemic in commodity-form, Fitzgerald and Miller each contend that his aesthetics represents the only "really" desirable modern novel: in this sense their art transpires wholly within the culture of consumption they criticize.
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Life drifting by the show window
Miller identifies a form of commodity desire radically distinct from Fitzgerald's symbolizing desire as constitutive of America's culture of consumption. In Tropic of Capricorn commodity desire is structured by chaotic excess rather than absence, by superfluity rather than loss, by the promise of any and every thing rather than the one that is all. Fitzgerald's commodity trope is synecdoche, whereas Miller's is metonymy:
From Times Square to Fiftieth Street all that St. Thomas Aquinas forgot to include in his magnum opus is here included, which is to say, among other things, hamburger sandwiches, collar buttons, poodle dogs, slot machines, gray bowlers, typewriter ribbons, orange sticks, free toilets, sanitary napkins, mint jujubes, billiard balls, chopped onions, crinkled doilies, manholes, chewing gum, sidecars and sourballs, cellophane, cord tires, magnetos, horse liniment, cough drops, feenamint, and that feline opacity of the hysterically endowed eunuch who marches up to the soda fountain with a sawed-off shotgun between his legs.
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The Great Gatsby: Owl-Eyes
To supplement the persuasion of the commodity tropes appearing throughout The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn, each novel contains a more elaborate commodity analogue of its structure which, mediating between the novel's represented reality and its formal aesthetics, advances the novelist's claim to have written the "true" novel of modern life. The Great Gatsby is tied to its commodity analogue through symbolism--through the "eye" series that begins with the "eyesore" of Nick's West Egg cottage and culminates in with "fresh, green breast of the new world" that "flowered once for Dutch sailor's eyes." In between there is, of course, the endlessly remarked upon oculist T.J. Eckleburg, who codifies The Great Gatsby's vision of The Waste Land and is responsible, more than any other aspect of the text, for its New Critical canonization. But for our purposes the more striking analogue for the novel's aesthetic relation to the world of consumer culture is Gatsby's bookcase, as examined by "Owl-Eyes," the "patron of Gatsby's library" who ultimately provides Gatsby's epitaph--"The poor son-of-a-bitch."
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In the chaos of Bloomingdale's there is an order
Tropic of Capricorn's mediating structural analogue is less compact than that of The Great Gatsby, distributed across the "one system" that is Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. It is not symbolism but a journey that, in each of Miller's narratives, leads to the presentation of this analogue. In Tropic of Cancer, Miller and Fraenkel give "final imprimatur" to the literary fantasy of "The Last Book" on their way to the Post Office. Again, as in The Great Gatsby, self-deprecatory humor couches an earnest polemic:
It is colossal in its pretentiousness. The thought of it almost shatters us. [....]
It will be enormous, the Book. There will be oceans of space in which to move about, to perambulate, to sing, to dance, to climb, to bathe, to leap somersaults, to whine, to rape, to murder. A cathedral, a veritable cathedral, in the building of which everybody will assist who has lost his identity. There will be masses for the dead, prayers, confessions, hymns, a moaning and a chattering, a sort of murderous insouciance; there will be rose windows and gargoyles and acolytes and pallbearers. You can bring your horses in and gallop through the aisles. You can butt your head against the walls--they won't give. You can pray in any language you choose, or you can curl up outside and go to sleep. It will last a thousand years, at least, this cathedral, and there will be no replica, for the builders will be dead and the formula too. We will have postcards made and organize tours. We will build a town around it and set up a free commune. We have no need for genius--genius is dead. We have need for strong hands, for spirits who are will to give up the ghost and put on flesh. . . .
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In Bloomingdale's I fall apart completely
It is to Bloomingdale's that Miller traces the "origin" of the "Arabian zero" that becomes the "writing machine" of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn:
There is a condition of misery which is irremediable--because its origin is lost in obscurity. Bloomingdale's, for example, can bring about this condition. [....] In Bloomingdale's I fall apart completely: I dribble onto the floor, a helpless mess of guts and bones and cartilage. [....] The smell of linoleum, for some strange reason, will always make me fall apart and collapse on the floor. It is the smell of all the unnatural things which were glued together in me, which were assembled, so to say, by negative consent.
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Hurrying toward gayety and sharing their intimate excitement
In constructing the fictive worlds of The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn, neither Fitzgerald nor Miller leaves the discourse of patriarchy. Just as their characters cross paths in the same the high vision of New York from the Queensboro and Brooklyn Bridges, they meet and cross again on the street level of male sexual fantasy. At these junctures one can read from The Great Gatsby to Tropic of Capricorn as if from one "New York" novel, its parts differentiated only by the peculiarities of narrative voice:
I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others--poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner--young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.
I sit on the stoop for an hour or so, mooning. [....] The best thing for you to do now, Henry, is to go and get yourself a frosted chocolate [...] and forget about the destiny of man because you might still find yourself a nice lay and a good lay will clean your ballbearings out and leave a good taste in your mouth whereas this only brings on dyspepsia, dandruff, halitosis, encephalitis. [....] Instead of the frosted chocolate I keep walking and soon I'm exactly where I intended to be all the time, which is in front of the ticket window of the Roseland. [....] Enter very calmly, Henry, and keep your eyes peeled! [....] slowly redescending the stairs and sizing up the taxi girls all diaphanously gowned, powdered, perfumed, looking fresh and alert but probably bored as hell and leg weary. Into each and every one of them, as I shuffle about, I throw an imaginary fuck.
Again at eight o'clock, when the dark lanes of the Forties were five deep with throbbing taxicabs bound for the theater district, I felt a sinking in my heart. Forms leaned together in the taxis as they waited, and voices sang, and there was laughter from unheard jokes, and lighted cigarettes outlined unintelligible gestures inside. Imagining that I, too, was hurrying toward gayety and sharing their intimate excitement, I wished them well.
Supposing she said--twenty bucks! and you could say Sure! Supposing you could say--Listen, I've got a car downstairs. . .let's run down to Atlantic City for a few days. Henry, there ain't no car and there ain't no twenty bucks. Don't sit down. . .keep moving.
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The discourse of patriarchy: necessarily varied, protean
The discourse of patriarchy, though unified in its devaluation of women and women's experience, is necessarily a varied, protean thing. Were it merely a reflection of inequitable distributions of economic and social power and prestige, the discourse would be without consequence: each increase, however incremental, in women's access to institutions traditionally reserved to men would produce a corresponding reduction of its presence and force. Further, were its powers of persuasion dependent upon an internally consistent, rational structure of doctrine and deduction, the discourse of patriarchy would have fallen under the weight of its own contradictions centuries ago, or been demolished by the various "totalizing" criticisms that have exposed its obvious flaws as a philosophical "world view." The vitality of the discourse of patriarchy, like that of any other discourse, depends upon its variety. Its power is rhetorical: it is a logic of convenience responding to different challenges, different situations, in different ways without abandoning its purpose. It is only because one articulation of male sexual desire managed to desexualize and idealize women as embodying a stifling cultural motherhood that Miller's casual and sequential sexual "depredations" could ever have been passed off as the "sexual liberation" of men and women. Misogyny as a "system" is little but "ill-will": misogyny as a rhetorical practice is power diversely deployed.
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A generalized exchange of women
The Great Gatsby contemplates the possibility of a generalized exchange of women (and commodities) which would create metaphoric bonds among its men stronger than the anonymous bonds of secret-sharing Nick encounters in the faces of New York. The novel's "plot" is the threatened realization of such an economy of exchange: Gatsby gets Tom's Daisy, Tom gets George's Myrtle, and George gets Gatsby's car--Tom's mock offer to substitute Gatsby's car for his own rounds the circle. However, such an exchange of women, desirable because they are metaphors for male friendship, is impossible in the world of The Great Gatsby where the symbolic good of sex cannot be shared: to share the promise of absolute fulfillment is to lose it and lose oneself. Gatsby's dream to "suck on the pap of life" is an exclusive dream. It must be "climbed alone":
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Enjoying nothing, desiring nothing but this power
In Miller's world the exchange of women among men produces no perceived value--not because women ought not be treated as objects, nor because, as in The Great Gatsby, they are too symbolically valuable to be shared, but because they are too many for any bonding debt to accrue among the men. In market terms, women are worthless. They exist in Tropic of Capricorn, as Curley's "digging" suggests, in the abundance of a ready natural resource. The abundance, however, is urban rather than natural: all women are on display, as are the commodities on Miller's Broadway. Curley "industriously" enforces Miller's sexual aesthetic on a recalcitrant object:
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Mara: She's America on foot, winged and sexed
Suddenly I feel her coming. I turn my head. Yes, there she is coming full on, the sails spread, the eyes glowing. For the first time I see now what a carriage she has. She comes forward like a bird, a human bird wrapped in a soft fur. The engine is going full steam: I want to shout, to give a blast that will make the whole world cock its ears. What a walk! It's not a walk, it's a glide. Tall, stately, full-bodied, self-possessed, she cuts the smoke and jazz and red-light glow like the queen mother of all the slippery Babylonian whores. On the corner of Broadway just opposite the comfort station, this is happening. Broadway--it's her realm. This is Broadway, this is New York, this is America. She's America on foot, winged and sexed.
For the first time in my life the whole continent hits me full force, hits me between the eyes. This is America, buffaloes or no buffaloes, America the emory wheel of hope and disillusionment. Whatever made America made her, bone, blood, muscle, eyeball, gait, rhythm, poise, confidence, brass and hollow gut. She's almost on top of me, the full face gleaming like calcium. The big soft fur is slipping from her shoulder. She doesn't notice it. She doesn't seem to care if her clothes should drop off. She doesn't give a fuck about anything. It's America moving like a streak of lightning toward the glass warehouse of red-blooded hysteria. Amurrica, fur or no fur, shoes or no shoes. Amurrica C.O.D. And scram, you bastards, before we plug you! It's got me in the guts, I'm quaking. Something's coming to me and there's no dodging it. She's coming head on, through the plate glass window. If she would only stop a second, if she would only let me be for just one moment. But no, not a single moment does she grant me. Swift, ruthless, imperious, like Fate itself she is on me, a sword cutting me through and through. . . .
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A night scene by El Greco
Ultimately, Nick's effort to "make History" completely symbolic involves anesthetizing himself to some of the "Jazz Baby's" disturbingly modern agitation. Resembling Miller's Mara, Fitzgerald's Daisy is too much an event rather than a thing, a voice rather than a face, to be directly subsumed under an epiphantic vision of the "significant, elemental, and profound." But Fitzgerald's narrator is resourceful, finding a modern means to attain unity of vision and image in the midst of chaotic noise:
We were sitting at a table with a man of about my age and a rowdy little girl, who gave way upon the slightest provocation to uncontrollable laughter. I was enjoying myself now. I had taken two finger-bowls of champagne, and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound.
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Cleanth Brooks: Modern Poetry and the Tradition
In forming Daisy, who as an object of desire is the antithesis of the "natural woman," Fitzgerald sets himself the task of recovering a simulacrum of "the primary, the eternal, the maternal, the plant-like," from a Waste Land "that for almost a hundred years has simply not been static"--effecting this recovery, not through a "stubborn seeking for the static" ideal but "through [the] confusion and cynicism" of a dynamic symbolism. Although Fitzgerald is concerned with sexual rather than religious desire, his "theme," like T. S. Eliot's, is the "rehabilitation of a system of beliefs, known but now discredited":
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Roseland: No Improper Dancing Allowed
In contrast to Fitzgerald, whose aesthetics demand that he rescue an image of symbolic fulfillment--the face--from the transitory promise of Daisy's voice, Miller, in pursuit of the American dream of unfettered freedom, is directly fascinated by the generative power of the lying voice. In his descriptions of his "Jazz Baby" Miller unreservedly celebrates historical change as a kind of lie against nature. Miller's history replaces natural imagery with legal prohibition as a sexual stimulant; the body's sexual movements are mechanized in the inversion. What nature Miller encounters at the Roseland Dance Hall is nature in effacement:
At the rail of which fences off the floor I stand and watch them sailing around. This is no harmless recreation . . . this is serious business. At each end of the floor there is a sign reading "No Improper Dancing Allowed." Well and good. No harm in placing a sign at each end of the floor. In Pompeii they probably hung a phallus up. This is the American way. It means the same thing.
The dance of the magneto world, the spark that unsparks, the soft purr of the perfect mechanism, the velocity race on a turntable, the dollar at par and the forests dead and mutilated. [....] Laura the nympho brandishing her cunt, her sweet rose-petal lips toothed with ballbearing clutches, her ass balled and socketed. Inch by inch, millimeter by millimeter they shove the copulating corpse around. And then crash! Like pulling a switch the music suddenly stops and with the stoppage the dancers come apart, arms and legs intact[....]
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Tack your womb up on my wall
Where Fitzgerald must perform an act of "rehabilitation" to convert Daisy into something "significant, elemental, and profound," Miller need only appropriate as his own the vitality with which he imbues the monster he has made of Mara. Mara's ability to generate lies--"the little womb in the throat hooked up to the big womb in the pelvis" or, again, "life maturating in a black box, a negative tickled with acid and yielding a momentaneous simulacrum of nothingness"--is the female image of endless narrative creativity Miller elaborates from metonymic sexual desire:
And with it all, in the fixed, close intimacy of a night without end she was radiant, jubilant, an ultra-black jubilation streaming from her like a steady flow of sperm from the Mithraic Bull. She was double-barreled, like a shotgun, a female bull with an acetylene torch in her womb. In heat she focused on the grand cosmocrator, her eyes rolled back to the whites, her lips a-slaver. [....] Even the hole in the sky through which the lackluster star shone down was swallowed up in her fury.
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Drowned in a deep mesh of words
In a double sense the novel may be said to be an ideological genre. In the first instance, the "realities" of Tropic of Capricorn and The Great Gatsby are constructed of parts of a portion of the "social heteroglossia" within which we perceive, understand and communicate--parts, because synecdochic and metonymic desire are but two of many tropes of desire available to the culture of consumption and the discourse of patriarchy; a portion, because consumer culture and patriarchy do not, by themselves, constitute our world. So delimited, and because so delimited, Miller and Fitzgerald's synthetic "realities" are thoroughly legible in terms of their constituent ideologies, lending those ideologies the appearance and status of knowledge. But the novel enhances the persuasive power of its constituent ideological strands by means other than reproducing them as credible. The "valued" experience of writing, reading and criticizing novels itself imposes certain imaginative constraints upon our ability to comprehend ideology's more dynamic powers of persuasion.
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Desire in the Waste Land - Notes
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