8. The Last Book

Converting words into silence: acts rather than action

Trapped by his own thoroughly novelistic rhetoric, Miller could imagine only two solutions, two "clean exits" through which writing's "welter of crisscrossed tracks" might "give way to being."[54] The first and ultimately unsatisfactory solution, "silence," he explored in the October 1938 letter to Michael Fraenkel:

I said recently to some one that I intended to stop writing at the height of my power--not as a whimsical or defiant gesture, but as proof of the realization that art is only a means of revelation. I feel already, at times, that I have no further need to write another line; I need perhaps to go on writing until I am absolutely sure of it. But the idea is there, latent, and I am sure that it is based on a truth. And if I kept the silence it would not be to revert to a lesser manifestation of life, such as the world of action offers. I would put the significance which art reveals into living. I would close one door to open another. It would be converting words into silence: acts rather than action.[55]

Understood as a renunciation of the rhetoric of the novel, this statement describes Miller's ensuing years. He continued to write, while maintaining a "silence" with respect to the aesthetic debates that had animated his Paris efforts. In 1938, however, Miller entertained the idea that, having "no further need to write another line," he would not only abandon his challenge to the hegemony of New Critical modernism, but cease writing altogether. No one who knew Miller as did Fraenkel, his Hamlet correspondent, could take seriously the idea that someone so prolix could stop writing. And Miller carefully hedged his own proposal, years later confessing that any idea he ever had of doing other than "die sitting at the typewriter" was a "fling," which "now and then I allow myself the luxury of thinking."[56] The "silence" proposed to Fraenkel was a gesture, but in the course of his gesture Miller explores two types of "silence": absolute, passive silence and the silence of an act. In first hedging and ultimately rejecting absolute silence, Miller also rejected "giving way" to the concept of "being" it might prove.[57] Absolute silence is the proof of Whitman's "robust soul," of Being in its self-sufficient plenitude, of an omniscient God resting on the seventh day.[58] To find another exit Miller had to reconceive the ontological self in terms compatible with writing: a task distinct from the novelist's effort to conceive a "writing" compatible with the representation of the historical ego. Before he could exit from the art of the novel, Miller had to "put into" the concept of Being the endless, restless, active movement of his narrative aesthetics. The letter to Fraenkel begins this preliminary interpretive task of putting "the significance which art reveals into living"--a task the letter to Nin completes. In the course of his gesture, Miller refigures "silence," the proof and sign of the "being" into which words will be converted, as a matter of "acts rather that action"--"acts" knowing as little of the subject and object of "action" as the faceless writing of "strong hands" for which Miller's first called in Tropic of Cancer.[59]

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