6. Diatribe v. Epiphany
Cataclysmic in design
Paris, New York, the world-city Miller inhabits, and upon whose inescapable reality he insists, is a product of advanced industrial capitalism--neither an unplanned accident nor the product of one central plan. Miller does not state as much directly, but it is in recognition of this that his narrative leaps immediately from the sunset overview to the quotidian level of urban survival, where the contingent decisions are made that cumulatively produce the cataclysmic design of the world city:
The railroad yards below me, the tracks black, webby, not ordered by engineer but cataclysmic in design, like those gaunt fissures in the polar ice which the camera registers in degrees of black.
Food is one of the things I enjoy tremendously. And in this beautiful Villa Borghese there is scarcely ever any evidence of food. It is positively appalling at times.
The gap in Miller's narrative, across which he leaps from lyricism to anecdote, registers what the camera eye cannot. On either side of the elision there is a version of "absence": the "absence" of an ordered urban design which makes the city appear profoundly metaphysical, mysterious, sublime, poetic; and the "absence" of food which is physiological, economic and explicable. Here, the "emptiness" of the urban landscape is reduced from cosmic cataclysm to an aggregative ramification of many empty stomachs inhabiting beautiful buildings. Again, the opening lines of Tropic of Cancer:
I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.
The despair of Miller's Waste Land is not the consequence of some metaphysical void but the consequence of a determinate, positive, scarcity. The poverty of the city is not an empty end, a terminal condition, a zero state of collapse and disintegration, but the beginning of human and intellectual relations in Tropic of Cancer.
The precipitant image of the railroad yard stands in Tropic of Cancer for this urban-industrial reality barely imaginable eighty years before when Herman Melville invoked the railroad as a figure of diabolism:
Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents' bed, unerringly I rush! Naught's an obstacle, naught's an angle to the iron way!
For Melville's generation, living through in America what Karl Marx called the "heroic phase of capitalism," the railroad represented a single-minded, purposeful domination of Nature, dividing the varied countryside, the mountains and the prairies, into linear, geometric parcels of commercial real estate. Melville was among those who sought to demonstrate that the heights and depths of the natural sublime, dominated by man's logarithmic cunning, could return to dominate. Ahab's "unerring rush," his "narrow-flowing monomania," is but a superficially redirected variant of the unfathomable depths of the natural sublime he claims to ignore:
Ahab's full lunacy subsided not, but deepeningly contracted; like the unabated Hudson, when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably through the Highland gorge. But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab's broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark[....]
"Naught," nothing, zero, the cipher, the white whale, is ironically the "obstacle" and the "mad mark" of Ahab's "unerring rush." Though a captain of industry, Ahab is still a Romantic visionary. His symbolism is more abstract, indeed more "modern," in that his eye registers the sublime landscape in what Miller called the camera's "degrees of black." Among Melville's "furious tropes" for Ahab's "unerring rush," "living instrument" stands in partial anticipation of Miller's furious trope for his own errant rush, "the thing flows." The reversal of the ratio between flux and structure-- Melville's "living/instrument" becoming Miller's "thing/flows"--is more than a simple inversion. The reversal represents a ninety degree shift from the axis of vision, whether directed toward the depths or toward the absent "mad mark," to what Miller called the "meridian of time." Where Ahab pursues an industrial, abstract counter-sublime, Miller pursues a contra-sublime and, as does Ishmael, "escapes to tell the tale" because he, too, floats upon surfaces.