4. Burlesque v. Irony
A world without hope, but no despair
The entire episode is exemplary burlesque humor. It begins with the most sublime of man's aspirations, to locate his very being in thought, and twists the logic of that aspiration into a perverse affirmation of man's animal nature: man is but a particularly grotesque variety of tapeworm, a louse among lice, a monkey among monkeys. The final punch line cuts through the entire structure of the sublime and the grotesque. After all, we have been aware from the start of Tropic of Cancer that its narrator is a "louse," not in the visionary sense of Miller's delusional refrain, "I see," "I see," but in the colloquial sense in which he is a well-intentioned but none too reliable human being intent upon his own survival. In this Miller is no different than Serge, who with no ill-feeling "almost weeps with joy" at the prospect that poverty might induce Miller to teach English for Quaker Oats and a hallway mattress. This parity of mutual exploitation and deception sustains Miller's warm feeling for Serge even as he makes his storyteller's "magical escape":
In the morning I wait for Serge to load the truck. I ask him to take me in to Paris. I haven't the heart to tell him I'm leaving. I leave the knapsack behind, with a few things that were left me. When we get to the Place Péreire I jump out. No particular reason for getting off there. No particular reason for anything. I'm free--that's the main thing....
Through burlesque, Miller escapes neither Serge nor a "lousy" life. At the end of the day there will only be another Serge. Miller and his life will continue to be "lousy." Unlike revivalist theater and Romanticism, burlesque offers no promise of resurrection or transcendence. The escape is from delusion and its sequel, despair, as Miller remarks later in Tropic of Cancer:
Which is what I try to din into Carl and Van Norden every night. A world without hope, but no despair. It's as though I had been converted to a new religion, as though I were making an annual novena every night to Our Lady of Solace.
Tropic of Cancer's burlesque narrative mocks the sublime while it raises the grotesque to the level of the commonplace, human reality Miller affirms: "That's how one gets acquainted in Paris--genito-urinary friendships." Within such a world, language cannot be divided into high and low discourse. The story of Serge proposes what might be called Miller's burlesque theory of language: Language and Art, like thought, self, consciousness, being, and friendship, are parasitic upon a biological, social, and economic reality they cannot transcend. All speech, all art, is contextual, that is, irredeemably commonplace.
Miller's narrative strategy counters theories of meaning and aesthetic value derived from Coleridge's definition of imagination, specifically as "modernized" by the critical discourse that served The Waste Land and Ulysses. It is against the values of "stable equilibrium" there propounded that Miller turns the "fluid imbalance" of his narrative. Eliot, Joyce, and Stuart Gilbert all speak for the value of "aesthetic stasis" in the modern novel, as in modern poetry. But the "fluid imbalance" of Miller's burlesque most directly and starkly opposes I. A. Richards' advocacy of "ironic contemplation" in The Principles of Literary Criticism (1925), where Richards' sought to shape irony into a "balanced response" to life as well as literature:
Everybody knows the feeling of freedom, of relief, of increased competence and sanity, that follows any reading in which more than usual order and coherence has been given to our responses. We seem to feel that our command of life, our insight into it and our discrimination of its possibilities, is enhanced, even for situations having little or nothing to do with the subject of the reading.
Whatever the formal dispute between them, it is Richards' zeal in expounding the practical benefits of ironic contemplation that calls forth Miller's most violent energies. The Principles of Literary Criticism lends a more secular meaning to Coleridge's extravagant claim that beauty excites "an immediate and absolute complacency."