6. Diatribe v. Epiphany
A crepuscular melange of all the cities of Europe and Central America
Short of following the detours of Miller's writing through extended quotation, it is difficult to describe Miller's flowing, narrative modulations from anecdote to diatribe. My analytic tools, when all is said and done, are by and large still New Critical: a sense of their history can only qualify their universal application. It is as if one set out to describe a roller coaster ride with photographs and engineering blueprints. One may survey the site from different angles. One may plot the course, up, down, slow and fast. But the varying experience of anticipation, uncertainty, release, terror, giddy elation, and nausea eludes capture by camera or structural design. Miller suggests as much when, in the first hint of what is to come in Tropic of Cancer, he invokes the Coney Island roller coaster of his youth as apiece with the "crepuscular melange of all the cities of Europe and Central America":
Twilight hour. Indian blue, water of glass, trees glistening and liquescent. The rails fall away into the canal at Juarès. The long caterpillar with lacquered sides dips like a roller coaster. It is not Paris. It is not Coney Island. It is a crepuscular melange of all the cities of Europe and Central America. The railroad yards below me, the tracks black, webby, not ordered by the engineer but cataclysmic in design, like those gaunt fissures in the polar ice which the camera registers in degrees of black.
This is a visionary moment, an epiphany, but a transitory one occurring on the threshold of a renewed fall into narrative. A lull between two narrative rushes, the vision is precipitant, sharing the vertigo of Hart Crane's bedlamite upon the Brooklyn Bridge parapet, "Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning." But where Crane's poem, published shortly after Miller's arrival in Paris (Black Sun Press, 1930), seeks an image to "lend a myth to God," Miller's novel is intent upon releasing the "motion ever unspent" in The Bridge's stride. Crane's bedlamite "falls from the speechless caravan" into the depths so that the image of the Brooklyn Bridge might rise along the vertical axis of vision; Miller will fall from the panoramic heights to follow and lend speech to the roller coaster dip of urban activity "on the flat," below. Miller finds that the hovering camera eye registers only absence and presence, not the reality of the "webby" surface tracks. It is the representational failure of this threshold vision that provides the impetus for Miller's subsequent narrative. Already, things are beginning to pass beyond visual resolution, to dissolve and flow. Trees are "liquescent" and "rails fall away into the canal." This liquescence is not the quality of a peculiar type of vision--a blurry Millerian poetics--but a product of changing history, whose flux Miller's narrative will attempt to pursue.
The tension between image and flow in Miller's twilight urban world suggests an understanding of the creation of the city which is at odds with the visions of turn of century and early modern urban planners. In the "twilight of the expatriates"--to borrow Edmund Wilson's phrase for the historical moment of Tropic of Cancer--it becomes apparent that urban man and his industry have etched a design upon the face of the earth, a design advancing beyond ordered intention and consequently beyond ordered perceptual recapture. Miller's cities, Paris and New York, are preeminent examples, text-book cases, of early urban planning. But one cannot speak of the modern metropolis and urban planning in the same breath without saying "urban plannings." The face of every world-city is a melange of what we might call "past futures," a palimpsest of anticipations, plans partially enacted only to be superseded by grander plans come to partial fulfillment. Freud's fascination with the archaeology of Rome as model for psychoanalytic investigation was hardly an eccentricity. The face of the city is indecipherable, not because it lacks structure--it has many structures--but because it has a history. Urban reality is the cumulative, historical product of many intentions, many "visions," many decisions, each enacted with thought only of the moment and the immediate future. Not a projection of some integral urban-industrial plan, beyond God, Nature, and Man, the visual reality of the metropolis cannot be composed as a landscape, a scenic background against which metropolitan life may be contemplated, without denying its history. That is, the city cannot be composed as a landscape without rendering metaphysical, the contingent physical realities of urban life.