III. Narrative Detours: The Rhetoric of the Real

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood. I like to dwell on this period when things were taking shape because the order, if it were understood, must have been dazzling.
As to what happened...
Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn[1]

The prose of Tropic of Cancer is more explosive, the caricatures of Black Spring and Max and the White Phagocytes are more sympathetic, but Tropic of Capricorn, the last and perhaps the ugliest of Miller's expatriate narratives, is Miller's most ambitious "auto-novel."[1] Completed on the eve of the Munich Crisis of September 1938 and published the following spring, only months before Miller left Paris, Tropic of Capricorn is the story Miller came to Paris to tell, transfigured by the aesthetics he discovered: "In that first year or two, in Paris, I was literally annihilated. There was nothing left of the writer I had hoped to be, only the writer I had to be. (In finding my way I found my voice.)"[2] The narrative of Tropic of Capricorn wanders through Miller's past, through an American landscape stretching out across the Brooklyn Bridge, south to the Gulf of Mexico and west to the Pacific. As it "re-collects" the events of the past, Tropic of Capricorn's narrative lends its own peculiar "order" to the memory of life's confusion, claiming no less than to explain how things happen:

Things take place instantaneously, but there's a long process to be gone through first. What you get when something happens is only the explosion, and the second before that the spark. But everything happens according to law--and with the full consent and collaboration of the whole cosmos.[3]

The specific explosion Miller seeks to explain is Tropic of Cancer, "The Last Book," the "bomb" he threw upon his arrival in Paris to put an end to the "abortive explosions" of Modernism, to deliver the "coup de grace" to a world "rotting away, dying piecemeal"--"Not with a bang but a whimper."[4] Tropic of Cancer's "spontaneous" narrative told of its own writing, but its powers of self-explanation were limited by a temporal frame which embraced no more than the "explosion" and the "spark": it probed its writer's past no further than the New York dock from which he set sail and the expatriate community he joined upon arrival in Paris. In writing the nostalgic Brooklyn sketches of Black Spring, "The Fourteenth Ward" and "The Tailor Shop," Miller tentatively reached further into the past to explain the present, but he reserved for Tropic of Capricorn his full account of the "long process" behind the stylistic "explosion" of Tropic of Cancer. The narrative of Tropic of Capricorn traverses the voices of Miller's past, seeking, beyond the modernist influences of his first years in Paris, another origin for the "voice" of Tropic of Cancer.

Under the narrowest construction, Miller's explanation is autobiographical: "Before I could get up and explode the bomb had to be properly prepared, properly primed."[5] A retroactive "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," Tropic of Capricorn supplements Tropic of Cancer's claim to be "The Last Book," the newest novel, by providing a "history" of Miller's past that everywhere discovers signs of future authorship.[6] But through its cumulative representations of the past, the narrative of Tropic of Capricorn reaches beyond the particulars of Miller's biography to project an America, a New World, a newer and alternative Waste Land, from which the stylistic explosion of Tropic of Cancer's narrative--rather than Eliot's "impersonal discipline" or the "Myth and Order" of Ulysses--might proceed as an inevitable, paradigmatic, world-historic event:

The whole country is lawless, violent, explosive, demoniacal. [....] The continent is full of buried violence, of the bones of antediluvian monsters and of lost races of man, of mysteries which are wrapped in doom. The atmosphere is at times so electrical that the soul is summoned out of its body and runs amok. Like the rain everything comes in bucketsful--or not at all. The whole continent is a huge volcano whose crater is temporarily concealed by a moving panorama which is partly dream, partly fear, partly despair. [....] Outwardly it seems to be a beautiful honeycomb, with all the drones crawling over each other in a frenzy of work; inwardly it's a slaughterhouse, each man killing off his neighbor and sucking the juice from his bones. Superficially it looks like a bold, masculine world; actually it's a whorehouse run by women, with the native sons acting as pimps and the bloody foreigners selling their flesh. Nobody knows what it is to sit on his ass and be content. That happens only in the films where everything is faked, even the fires of hell. The whole continent is sound asleep and in that sleep a grand nightmare is taking place.
Nobody could have slept more soundly than I in the midst of this nightmare.[7]

This past is "usable." One day, an ocean away, Miller wakes up; he, too, runs amok. But Tropic of Capricorn does more than point to the latent authority of a young Henry Miller--it is more deliberately historical than biographical in its scope of representation. It completes Tropic of Cancer's polemic against the modernism of Eliot's and Gilbert's Ulysses by naturalizing it, by fashioning a twentieth-century American reality--a place, a people, a language--that demands the narrative organization, caricatures, and "voice" of Miller's modernist aesthetics as the only formal method capable of embodying the modern moment. In this respect the representational work of Tropic of Capricorn must be considered a polemic in its own right: its texture of facticity argues the historical necessity of Miller's formal innovations, advancing Miller's claim upon the legacy of the Novel. Tropic of Capricorn's representations of America function as a rhetoric of the Real within the disputatious discourse of the historical genre.

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