4. Burlesque v. Irony
Burlesque Sarcasm and Satire
The burlesque sarcasm of Miller's "fluid imbalance" attempts to "head off," so to speak, the recovery of "stable equilibrium" that Modernist irony seeks. Unlike Richards' "Tragic" reformulation of Swiftean irony, Miller's still sarcastic satire does not take the measure of that which it opposes. Burlesque asserts that measure, proportion, and the discrimination of the complementary opposite are all out of proportion in the lightning paced bric-a-brac world of contingency represented on the vaudeville stage or by the comic writer. Sarcasm and burlesque do not negate: they nullify. They refuse to measure and, in turn, refuse to be measured. In Miller's narrative, New Critical aesthetics meet the aesthetics of the Lower East Side. The difference could not be put better than by I. A. Richards: "It is the difference between a systematized complex response or ordered sequence of responses, and a welter of responses." Except, burlesque is no less "complex" than Richards' irony. The complexity of burlesque's "welter of responses" is of an order that Richards' criticism cannot discern and does not seek to discern. Miller's novelization of the techniques of burlesque theater suggests that this other order is narrative--an "ordered sequence of responses" which cannot be construed as a "complement" to the New Critical novel, nor assimilated to what Richards means by a "systematic complex response." When Miller describes his own abortive visionary quest, he equates its failure with the cult of balance Richards celebrates in Dr. Head:
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.
Renouncing Richards' search for "a solid unshakable foothold" from which "our command of life, our insight into it and our discrimination of its possibilities, is enhanced," Miller affirms the reality of a modern world in which it is impossible to stand firm on two feet, let alone balance contemplatively on one--claiming his narrative order of "fluid imbalance" as a "response" more than adequate to the life it represents.
Miller's burlesque is not limited to the importation of antics, scenes and caricatures from vaudeville. The humor of burlesque theater is as verbal as it is physical, and in Miller's novels "voice" always predominates over action and description. He employs burlesque language to upset not only global claims made for the balanced precision of irony, but what Frank Kermode, speaking in the name of Joycean epiphany, would later call "mesure." It is the epiphantic Joyce that Miller engages in the opening chapter of Tropic of Cancer where he caricatures Moldorf as a modern artist/God in a narrative movement resembling a military maneuver: attack, retreat, counterattack. The initial confrontation is hesitant, distant, descriptive, reverential--and a failure:
I am trying ineffectually to approach Moldorf. It is like trying to approach God, for Moldorf is God--he has never been anything else. I am merely putting down words. . . . [...] No, this is not the way to go about it!
Sensing a formidable adversary, a need to regroup his own critical forces, Miller pauses to reassess his own literary efforts, before returning for a second engagement:
I have been looking over my manuscripts, pages scrawled with revisions. Pages of literature. This frightens me a little. It is so much like Moldorf.
Miller's critique of the emerging modernist aesthetics begins in self-critique. In this initial confrontation and retreat from Moldorf Miller inscribes the history of his first year in Paris within Tropic of Cancer. As discussed in the previous chapter, the values of Modernism were his. After another digressive regrouping turning upon the futility of a weltanschauung in a world of lions, Miller again advances on Moldorf. This time the attack is burlesque, direct, interactive, and impatient--the solution has been found. Miller's return engagement serves as an occasion for a manifesto on the use of words, one contrasting the flow of his words with the well-framed, structured, encyclopedic words of the Modernist weltanschauung. I have quoted this passage previously:
What had all this to do with you, Moldorf? The word in your mouth is anarchy. Say it, Moldorf, I am waiting for it. Nobody knows, when we shake hands, the rivers that pour through our sweat. Whilst you are framing your words, your lips half parted, the saliva gurgling in your cheeks, I have jumped halfway across Asia. Were I to take your cane, mediocre as it is, and poke a little hole in your side, I could collect enough material to fill the British Museum. We stand on five minutes and devour centuries. You are the sieve through which my anarchy strains, resolves itself into words. Behind the word is chaos. Each word a strip, a bar, but there are not and never will be enough bars to make the mesh.
In this second approach, Miller no longer uses words to name or describe God. It is enough to circumvent him, to take up the cane--a standard prop of the burlesque stage--and open up a little hole in God's side to let flow what lies behind the form. It is sufficient to let the narrative's words take shape in the spaces left open by Moldorf's comic-Herculean effort to frame the centuries of the world within a conceptual grid.