III. Narrative Detours: The Rhetoric of the Real

A new Bible - The Last Book

"The heating and cooling system is one system, and Cancer is separated from Capricorn only by an imaginary line," Miller writes in Tropic of Capricorn.[8] It is his recognition of Tropic of Cancer's partiality. Embracing but one hemisphere, the figural complex of Tropic of Cancer is inadequate to Miller's more global ambition, to reshape the historical genre. In Tropic of Cancer, Miller joined Michael Fraenkel in issuing a call for another modernism, for an alternative to the then emerging constellation of literary practices, aesthetic ideals, and interpretive conventions I have labeled "New Critical modernism":

It was this morning, on our way to the Post Office, that we gave the book its final imprimatur. We have evolved a new cosmogony of literature, Boris and I. It is to be a new Bible--The Last Book. [....] We are going to put it down--the evolution of this world which has died but which has not been buried. We are swimming on the face of time and all else has drowned, is drowning, or will drown. [....] We have no need for genius--genius is dead. We have need for strong hands, for spirits who are willing to give up the ghost and put on flesh. . . .[9]

Throughout Tropic of Cancer Miller implicitly contends that the book itself answers this call: Tropic of Cancer is offered up as the fulfillment of the fantasy of power that is The Last Book. But Tropic of Cancer is on balance a parodic novel. Its claim to the legacy of the novel depends upon the prior authority Miller, no less than his adversaries, attributed to Joyce: "And, whether he is interested in history or not, Joyce is the history of our time, of this age which is sliding into darkness."[10] If Tropic of Cancer advanced Miller's argument that only a narrative "flow" such as his could fully participate in a history that had "liquidated" the "Past," leaving "only culture with a small c," a world within which to "put a face on things is no longer possible," it was nevertheless clear in retrospect that this history, this world, this "ideological ether" within which Tropic of Cancer's narrative swam, was the text of Ulysses.[11] The authority Miller grants himself in Tropic of Cancer rests not so much upon an independent representation of history as upon the power of Tropic of Cancer's flowing narrative to dissolve the symbolic, "archaeological" structures of the "classic" Ulysses.

In Tropic of Capricorn Miller rejects this residual dependency, providing the history Tropic of Cancer lacks. Tropic of Capricorn aspires to render the "history of our time" on Miller's own narrative grounds, and thus retroactively to replace Ulysses in the genealogy of Tropic of Cancer.[12] To this end, Tropic of Capricorn opens with an echo of Tropic of Cancer's initial call for "spirits who are willing to give up the ghost and put on flesh":

Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos. From the beginning it was never anything but chaos: it was a fluid which enveloped me, which I breathed in through the gills. In the substrata, where the moon shone steady and opaque, it was smooth and fecundating; above it was a jangle and a discord. In everything I quickly saw the opposite, the contradiction, and between the real and the unreal the irony, the paradox. I was my own worst enemy.[13]

Answering the call from beyond the grave, Tropic of Capricorn confirms Tropic of Cancer's success as "The Last Book".[14] The ghost of Modernism, of irony and paradox, is shed. Tropic of Capricorn begins in the realm of "dead certainty," promptly asserting a knowledge of Tropic of Cancer's origins and an ability to trace the "The Last Book" "from the beginning" through a history of error and concealment:

I realized that I had never the least interest in living, but only in this which I am doing now, something which is parallel to life, of it at the same time, and beyond it. What is true interests me scarcely at all, nor even what is real; only that interests me which I imagine to be, that which I had stifled every day in order to live. [....] From childhood on I can see myself on the track of this specter, enjoying nothing, desiring nothing but this power, this ability. Everything else is a lie--everything I ever did or said which did not bear upon this. And that is pretty much the greater part of my life.[15]

"But everything happens according to law[....]"[16] Tropic of Capricorn's narrative history is the "law" of Tropic of Cancer's narrative aesthetics--its causal explanation and its legitimation. The events of Tropic of Capricorn's narrative "cacophony" are selected and orchestrated not to re-enact the "real" history, the "greater part," of Miller's life in America, but to enact the meta-fiction of the historical genre, to "imagine" the "track of this specter, [...] this power, this ability." Things take their place in the ordered confusion of the world of Tropic of Capricorn because by so "happening" they justify the narrative modernism of Tropic of Cancer as a lawful historical event.

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