6. Diatribe v. Epiphany

Ahab's monomania

Miller's "veridic moments" are distributed throughout Tropic of Cancer. These moments tremble on the surface of the down-to-earth anecdotal prose, always threatening to race off with the narrative, such that one cannot neatly categorize sections of Tropic of Cancer--these parts anecdotal, those stretches diatribe. Without plot, this uncertainty as to when and where Miller will "let go" or come to a halt provides a facsimile of suspense. Nevertheless, one might roughly chart Miller's changes of pace. His modulations into extended stretches of frenzied narrative tend to occur toward the end of the unnumbered and unnamed "chapters" of Tropic of Cancer. To venture as much is not to suggest that these "veridic moments" are distributed structurally, as are, say, the "platform scenes" in The Scarlet Letter. Rather, Miller's verbal accelerations are allocated "economically," as if the narrator were intent upon striking some ratio of anecdote to diatribe. But, always forgetting himself, this juggling narrator runs on too long and needs to compensate; compensation turns into over-compensation and the process repeats. Along the way, any sense of the intended ratio is lost, thus producing Miller's "fluid imbalance." The duration of Miller's tirades bear no proportional relation to the length of their containing "chapters."[16]

Useful generalizations about Miller's modulations from anecdotal observation and recollection to frenzied diatribe on western social and literary ideology are few: Miller's rants occur on the historical site of the twentieth-century urban-industrial landscape and the tropological site of the dialectics of presence and absence; within the narrative, the rants obey an economic rather than structural imperative; interruption, disjunction, lapse and compensation are the rule. Beyond these few generalizations, one is forced to read. I will quote in part one extended modulation from the penultimate "chapter" of Tropic of Cancer. The passage directly and unambiguously traverses the same ground and employs the same figures as Miller's precipitate vision of the "crepuscular melange of all the cities of Europe and Central America." My selection is admittedly of convenience. Other rants do so less directly, more ambiguously--one might say at a greater allegorical distance, did not the concept of "allegory" introduce notions of "one to one" decoding incompatible with Miller's contingent discourse. The following passage depends upon Miller's preceding adventures teaching English in Dijon and wandering the streets during Christmas vacation. With a shift from anecdote, Miller approaches the artistic solitude which constitutes the traditional scene of literary self-creation. Just inside the door he will hear the quiet and roar of Ahab's "monomania," to which D. H. Lawrence had called attention in Studies in Classic American Literature; he will hear a "silence so intense that it sounds like Niagara Falls":

For just for a moment I linger at the carriageway. The shroud, the pall, the unspeakable, clutching emptiness of it all. Then I walk quickly along the gravel path near the wall, past the arches and columns, the iron staircases, from one quadrangle to the other. Everything is locked tight. Locked for the winter. I find the arcade leading to the dormitory. A sickish light spills down over the stairs from the grimy, frosted windows. Everywhere the paint is peeling off. The stones are hollowed out, the banister creaks; a damp sweat oozes from the flagging and forms a pale, fuzzy aura pierced by the feeble red light at the head of the stairs. I mount the last flight, the turret, in a sweat and terror. In pitch darkness I grope my way through the deserted corridor, every room empty, locked, moldering away. My hand slides along the wall seeking the keyhole. A panic comes over me as I grasp the doorknob. Always a hand at my collar ready to yank me back. Once inside the room I bolt the door. It's a miracle which I perform every night, the miracle of getting inside without being strangled, without being struck down by an ax. I can hear the rats scurrying through the corridor, gnawing away over my head between the thick rafters. The light glares like burning sulfur and there is the sweet, sickish stench of a room which is never ventilated. In the corner stands the coal box, just as I left it. The fire is out. A silence so intense that it sounds like Niagara Falls in my ears.

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