7. Desire in the Waste Land
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:
It's all one and the same [war and work], a bloody fucking mess, a farce, a fiasco from start to finish. I know it as I was in it, because I woke up. And when I woke up I walked out on it.
I have walked the streets in many countries of the world but nowhere have I felt so degraded and humiliated as in America. [....] The whole continent is a nightmare producing the greatest misery of the greatest number. I was one, a single entity in the midst of the greatest jamboree of wealth and happiness (statistical wealth, statistical happiness) but I never met a man who was truly wealthy or truly happy.
Everything I endured was in the nature of a preparation for that moment when, putting on my hat one evening, I walked out of the office, out of my hitherto private life, and sought the woman who was to liberate me from a living death.
The public world that issues from the nightmare of war and work in The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn is densely populated by material and sexual "goods." These realms of the material and the sexual share a common telos--they serve to lure the desiring subject toward the dream of art. Both novelists suggest that desire may be considered in ascending levels of abstraction: commodity desire, sexual desire, and the desire for aesthetic "contemplation" and creation. However, where Fitzgerald finds forms of desire most persuasive when symbolically structured, Miller finds forms of desire most persuasive when arrayed in metonymic series: each favors the form of desire that "historicizes" the interpretive techniques necessary to read--that is, "value"--his novel.
In representing consumer culture--their first order, public "reality"--Fitzgerald and Miller employ commodities as tropes for their aesthetics. There is nothing unusual in the figurative use of commodities. Objects of trade, commodities are produced for purposes other than use: commodities, like tropes, point beyond themselves to some other "good" or "value." It would be difficult to find a novelist who failed to take advantage of this "natural" figurative potential of the commodity. What is distinctively "modernist" about Fitzgerald and Miller's use of commodity tropes is their central preoccupation with the commodity form: the extent to which they, in pursuit of conceptual integration of their work, colonize particular forms of commodification to the denigration of others. What draws their interest is less the figurative potential of the commodified object (e.g., Gatsby's car as a figure for freedom of movement), than commodification as a process of articulating vague human longings. Commodities are desire organized, structures that outlast the purchase toward which they are immediately directed, thereby articulating generalized needs no purchase can fully satisfy. Fitzgerald and Miller each "work up" different forms of commodification: the symbolic "goods" of advertising copy predominate in The Great Gatsby, and serried "goods" of streetside and department store displays proliferate in Tropic of Capricorn. In over-representing distinct forms of commodification, Fitzgerald and Miller dispute the social organization of desire in an American reality both believe constituted in major part by the culture of consumption. Elaborating their chosen commodity form to deny the persuasive power of others, each projects a plausible "reality" capable of illumination by a single coherent aesthetic.