7. Desire in the Waste Land

Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America

In Tropic of Capricorn Miller shares Nick's fear of being, in truth, a statistical everyman. Like Nick, the personnel director of the "Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America" is a listener, an urban sharer of the "plagiaristic," "secret griefs of wild, unknown men," their "banal tragedies of poverty and distress, of love and death, of yearning and disillusionment"[14]:

They streamed in from all over the world, from every stratum of society, speaking a thousand different tongues, worshiping different gods, obeying different laws and customs. The tale of the poorest among them was a huge tome, and yet if each and every one were written out at length it might all be compressed to the size of the Ten Commandments, it might all be recorded on the back of a postage stamp, like the Lord's Prayer. [....] Walking amidst the craziest architecture ever invented, wondering why and to what end, if every day from these wretched hovels or magnificent palaces there had to stream forth an army of men itching to unravel their tale of misery.[15]

As Spengler's "late world-city," New York draws men with nothing in common to tell the same individual tales, "on over the bridge into the glass shed, everybody glued together, worms, ants, crawling out of a dead tree and their thoughts crawling out the same way. . . ."[16] The promise of the City is made "en masse" to each solitary figure, inducing common desires and common despair but, in this commonalty, "no peace, no refuge, no intimacy."[17] The promise of the City, "like love over the radio," induces a "statistical itch":

[At] seven in the evening when everybody's rushing for a table there's a sort of electrical crackle in the air and your hair stands on end like antennae and if you're receptive you not only get every flash and flicker but you get the statistical itch, the quid pro quo of the interactive, interstitial, ectoplasmatic quantum of bodies jostling in space like the stars which compose the Milky Way, only this is the Gay White Way, the top of the world with no roof above and not even a crack or a hole under your feet to fall through and say it's a lie. [....] Every one is so utterly, confoundedly not himself that you become automatically the personification of the whole human race, shaking hands with a thousand human hands, cackling with a thousand different human tongues, cursing, applauding, whistling, crooning, soliloquizing, orating, gesticulating, urinating, fecundating, wheedling, cajoling, whimpering, bartering, pimping, caterwauling, and so on and so forth.[18]

With Fitzgerald, Miller draws upon The Decline of the West to pose the problem of modernity: how might a measure of personal fulfillment and freedom be wrested from an urban world of "planless happening without goal or cadenced march in time, wherein occurrences are many, but in the last analysis, devoid of significance."[19] Both Tropic of Capricorn's "story of my misfortunes" and The Great Gatsby's tale of the "abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men" unfold in a "late-world city" where human aspiration appears little more than a "statistical itch." It is against this shared threat that the narrators of The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn each search for a desire, a "force strong enough to whirl me out of this mad stone forest" that is the American landscape, urbanized "at the end of the evolution" of western culture.[20] Not surprisingly, the responsive strategies these narrators devise are aesthetic: the modernism of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the modernism of Henry Miller. They offer their respective fictions as true satisfactions, situating the desire for art proximate to the two "human" aspirations they view as most powerfully constitutive of the twentieth-century Waste Land: commodity desire and sexual desire.

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