5. Anecdote v. Image
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.
In explanation, Miller immediately chances upon a bookstore window within which he observes a modern instance of the "ideé fixe" of redeeming vision:
Bookstore with some of Raoul Dufy's drawings in the window. Drawings of charwomen with rosebushes between their legs. A treatise on the philosophy of Joan Miró. The philosophy, mind you!
It is the earnest use of symbolism and symbolic interpretation to unify the work--the viewed and the viewing subject--that Miller finds trivial and complacent in Modern art in general and in Surrealism in particular. Accused of being a Surrealist by one of Tropic of Cancer's many Modernist manqués, he responds in Dadaesque parody, fracturing the artist who would compose him into an assemblage of irreconcilable nonsense:
He will say, as he flicks his cigar ash: "Really, you write quite well. Let's see, you're a surrealist, aren't you?" Dry, brittle voice, teeth full of dandruff, solo for solar plexus, g for gaga.
If Miller's hostility toward symbolic art and symbolic interpretation finds expression in his continued loyalty to Dada, which by the 1930s was dead and buried in Surrealism, his contempt stems from a familiarity with the source of the Surrealists' most cogent imagery. A reader of Freud's later revisionary works as well as his early efforts toward a science of the mind, Miller was more thoroughly versed in psychoanalysis than perhaps any of his American or English contemporaries. He did indeed employ "psychoanalytic" symbolism throughout his Paris narratives, but disruptively, to preclude the reductive varieties of "Freudian" and otherwise essentialist interpretation that aspire to insight into one true self beneath a manifold surface of secondary "civilized" desires. "What really counts is to strip the soul naked," Miró declared in 1936, laying out the psychological premises of his symbolic art: "To me it seems vital [...] to give the spectator an immediate blow between the eyes before a second thought can interpose. In this way poetry pictorially expressed speaks its own language[....]" For such views, Miró--whose very name means "he observed, looked or gazed upon"--is called up for abuse in Tropic of Cancer.
From Miró, Miller jumps to the next item in the bookstore window. Rather than any fundamental psychological divide in the subject, such as might be breached by an "immediate blow between the eyes," or spanned by a more ironic symbolism than Miró's, it is divisive social life under the "cancer of time" that precludes symbolic vision as a mode of twentieth-century comprehension:
In the same window: A Man Cut in Slices! Chapter one: the man in the eyes of his family. Chapter two: the same in the eyes of his mistress. Chapter three:--No chapter three. Have to come back tomorrow for chapters three and four. Every day the window trimmer turns a fresh page.
Modern Man exists cut in slices by the eyes of those who know him. But crucially, this knowledge is not merely plural; or as Miller puts it to the artist who accuses him of Surrealism, "Fuck your two ways of looking at things. Fuck your pluralistic universe[....]" Miller insists upon the temporal dimension of this social slicing: for himself, for others, for readers, for writers, man is dispersed in time, knowable in his reality only day by day, page by page. The visionary project, in any guise, founders--becomes a knowledge of dead things--upon the impossibility of taking in at once that which lives and represents itself only in time. Thus when Miller, later in Tropic of Cancer, comes to praise the vision of another modern painter, Matisse, he does so by characterizing it as a vision in extremis, a vision refusing the death that is image by passing over into history, voyage, time:
In every poem by Matisse there is the history of a particle of human flesh which refused the consummation of death. The whole run of flesh, from hair to nails, expresses the miracle of breathing, as if the inner eye, in its thirst for greater reality, had converted the pores of the flesh into hungry seeing mouths. By whatever vision one passes there is the odor and sound of voyage. [....] He stands at the helm peering with steady blue eyes into the portfolio of time.
Vision holds no place in Miller's Waste Land: to continue, to satisfy its hunger, vision must lose itself in transit.