2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism

A Welter of Crisscrossed Tracks

Miller's meandering anecdotal narrative is resistant to this type of reading. While theoretically possible, it is in practice most difficult to discover the missing elements that might lend completed "roundness" to Miller's narratives. The narrative leaps and jumps assume so many points of view, not from chapter to chapter but in rapid succession from paragraph to paragraph, from sentence to sentence, and even from clause to clause that its is most difficult to find the level of formal synthesis on which the text constitutes its own coherent point of view upon the world. Critics who have attempted to psychoanalyze Miller's texts have been driven from Freud to Jung, but with the inevitable consequence that the discovered "form" takes on the appearance of what Henry James called a "mystic impulse."[81] Faced with such difficulties, one must either dismiss Miller's narratives as bad modernism, or begin to recognize the ways in which his texts' resistance to New Critical analysis is the consequence of a studied effort. This is the dilemma that the weightless symbolism of the "bottle" passage deliberately poses. Here, it becomes necessary ask the question whether the very concept of "text" is not so "overdetermined" with New Critical meaning that it cannot embrace the phenomena of narrative without converting narrative into a manifestation of point of view.

In some respects Miller's narrative practice might be said to follow from digressive plotting of James and Conrad, but more significant is the fact that, within his freely digressive narratives, Miller insinuates an alternative critical discourse that challenges the New Critical imperative to synthesizes narrative fragments as components of an integral, psychoanalytic authorial, narrative, or readerly point of view.[82] This refusal is all the more pointed in that it occurs in autobiography, which Lukács identified as the heart of the novel's claim to be a kind of history.[83] In the "Coda" to Tropic of Capricorn, Miller surveys his autobiographical project and sums up his understanding of the techniques and consequences of his anecdotal narrative:

For years now I have been trying to tell this story; each time I have started out I have chosen a different route. I am like an explorer who, wishing to circumnavigate the globe, deems it unnecessary to carry even a compass. Moreover, from dreaming over it so long, the story itself has come to resemble a vast, fortified city, and I who dream it over and over, am outside the city, a wanderer, arriving before one gate after another too exhausted to enter. And as with the wanderer, this city in which my story is situated eludes me perpetually. Always in sight it nevertheless remains unattainable, a sort of ghostly citadel floating in the clouds. From the soaring, crenelated battlements flocks of hugh white geese swoop down in steady wedge-shaped formation. With the tips of their blue-white wings they brush the dreams that dazzle my vision. My feet move confusedly; no sooner do I gain a foothold than I am lost again. I wander aimlessly, trying to gain a solid unshakable foothold whence I can command a view of my life, but behind me there lies only a welter of crisscrossed tracks, a groping, confused, encircling, the spasmodic gambit of the chicken whose head has just been lopped off.[84]

In a radical assertion of narrative freedom, Miller figures the wandering line of autobiographical narrative as a reflex action of the body in the moment of death, unguided by conscious concept or unconscious desire: "the spasmodic gambit" of a decapitated chicken. From eruption to expiration, this narrative "about autobiography" passes through a series of figures that progressively alienate it from any grounding in factual life or synthetic structure. The passage begins with an image of the globe which might serve as a model for the formal "roundness" Miller's autobiographical text lacks, were it not the case that Miller pushes this possibility of formal completion to the limits of an absolute demand: the formal completion of his narrative would require the interpolation of literally everything absent from stories Miller tells. Pressed to the limits of an absolute, the demand becomes absurd. Miller's narrative pushes onward in the aftermath of this impossible dream. The global self traversed by narrative becomes a city about which narrative wanders in search of a point of view, a point of access. With this shift, narrative loses its ground--the possibility of finding completion as part of a self-contained text/life--as it is removed from the surface of the self to an indeterminate space outside the self. The symbolic investment of the city as the true story is then withdrawn. The city, which a sentence before "resembled" the story, becomes the mere container of the story whose true form is concealed within. Next, the image of the city changes shape, becoming a citadel floating in the clouds, a free figure which remains in sight, but whose contours are doubly removed from the shape of Miller's story. Once abstracted from all relation to the true story that is the narrator's quest, the citadel figure spawns a surreal formation of geese. With this, Miller's narrative about autobiography has freed itself of its subject: autobiography. The narrator stands nowhere in relation to his story, for that story, the global self upon which he once stood, has progressively drifted away into a space that cannot be defined. The narrative, however, continues. It moves, as it has always moved, in a medium of its own, conjuring figures of life only to facilitate its own onward rush. It refuses the discipline of structural organization, whether those structures be symbols of its own transitory creation or be they figures for an external authorial point of view. Miller's narrative claims narrative itself as its life, its past, its ground.

« Previous | Main | Next »