4. Burlesque v. Irony

Cleo dances every night!

To all who are suffering, to all who are weary and heavy-laden, to every son of a bitch dying with eczema, halitosis, gangrene, dropsy, be it remembered, sealed and affixed that the side entrance is free. Come ye one and all! Come, ye sniveling Kallikaks! Come, ye snotnosed Pharisees! Come and have your guts renovated at less than the cost of ordinary ground burial. Come tonight! Jesus wants you. Come before it's too late--we close at 7:15 on the dot.
Cleo dances every night!
Cleo, darling of the gods, dances every night. [....]
And now, ladies and gentlemen, the curtain is rising on the cleanest, fastest show ever produced in the Western Hemisphere.
Henry Miller, "Burlesk" from Black Spring

Miller's manifest reliance upon the conventions, caricatures, and vicious humor of the burlesque stage is the source of much of his popular appeal and, equally, the ambivalence with which his expatriate narratives are regarded as modernist works of art.[1] Representative in this respect is Kingsley Widmer's assessment of Miller the "Apocalyptic Comedian" at the height of his American revival. Miller's "significant contribution is in extreme comedy," Widmer writes. "For much of twentieth-century experience, Miller may well belong to the more relevant comic mode."[2] But Widmer is evidently uncertain about the literary significance of comic relevance. Miller's translation of "low brow" hyperbole to the "serious" art of the historical genre presents such difficulties for a criticism steeped in the "modern tradition" of psychic depth, ironic precision, and metaphoric textual structure that Widmer, unable to deny Miller's representative burlesque, turns to the venerable rhetoric of American cultural inferiority. "[A]ll the auto-biographical rumination and burlesque that belong with this American-as-romantic-artist," he concludes, "are part of the pathetic immaturity of American literature."[3] Does the problem of the burlesque novel lie with Miller or with America, in the nineteenth or twentieth century? Widmer recognizes Miller's persuasive power--the novelist's ability to cast his literary technique as the formal embodiment of the historical reality he represents--but, like Frank Kermode, Widmer reaches a point beyond which a critic wedded to the "universal" aesthetics of New Critical modernism cannot go, without acknowledging that his "universe" of value is but a bright circle of mutually illuminating literary and critical practices. Within the disputatious discourse of the modern novel such an admission of the rhetorical status of one's aesthetic and historic "truth" is intolerable, for partisans of the New Critical novel as for Miller. The literary history of this discourse requires, however, an effort to read Miller's burlesque as something more than merely "comic," merely "relevant," merely "American." Miller's burlesque was a polemical response to a polemic, an attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities of the founding works, literary and critical, of New Critical modernism, and in the process wrest novelistic authority to represent "modern reality."

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