4. Burlesque v. Irony

D. H. Lawrence: Studies in Classic American Literature

Miller's literary burlesque of the modes of subjectivity structured by Romantic vision and Modernist irony plays upon his readers' familiarity with the signs and attendant interpretive conventions of Romantic and Modernist texts. The very facility--strangely capable and facile--with which he deploys the languages of these aesthetics raises, only to frustrate, the expectation that on some higher level of reflective resolution his autobiographical narratives will reveal a knowledgeable self, drawing the familiar lessons of experience in a fallen world. But Miller's narrative voice, no matter what language it speaks, never rises above nor sinks below the "cosmos--on the flat" to which his rapid-fire clichés of the sublime and the grotesque drag the expectant reader, insinuating that the aesthetics of subjectivity are no more insightful than his own self-mocking renditions:

The eagles who flapped their mighty pinions for a while came crashing heavily to earth. They made us dizzy with the flap and whir of their wings. Stay on the earth, you eagles of the future! The heavens have been explored and they are empty. And what lies under the earth is empty, too, filled with bones and shadows. Stay on the earth and swim another few hundred thousand years![23]

Tropic of Cancer's anecdotal wanderings avoid installing an inverted, negative sublime, an exploration of the depths of the grotesque. Instead, Miller advances a contra-sublime of surface bound narrative.

Miller devotes one of Tropic of Cancer's untitled, unnumbered "chapters" to a burlesque "sermon" on aesthetics, the disjunction between the chapter's rambling narrative of an American bum's adventures in Paris and the surreptitiously introduced sermon form posing the same choice between the temporal and "extra-temporal" that he would pose openly, two years later, in the cacophony of burlesque and revivalist language of Black Spring's "Burlesk." The "sermon" takes its Text from Emerson:

"Life," said Emerson, "consists in what a man is thinking all day." If that be so, then my life is nothing but a big intestine. I not only think about food all day, but I dream about it at night.[24]

The Text and its burlesque Corollary are expounded through a series of illustrative anecdotes on the sublimely grotesque consequences of Emersonian vision in a "cosmos--on the flat," concluding with a frighteningly physiological attempt to become Emerson's "transparent eyeball" while listening to a concert:

My mind is curiously alert; it's as though my skull had a thousand mirrors inside it. My nerves are taut, vibrant! The notes are like glass balls dancing on a million jets of water. I've never been to a concert before on such an empty belly. Nothing escapes me, not even the tiniest pin falling. It's as though I had no clothes on and every pore of my body was a window and all the windows open and the light flooding my gizzards. I can feel the light curving under the vault of my ribs and my ribs hang there over a hollow nave trembling with reverberations. How long this lasts I have no idea; I have lost all sense of time and place.[25]

As this delusion fades with the "noise of feet shuffling and seats slamming," Miller's "sermon" pauses before turning from Illustration to Application. The lesson of an untenable Romantic subjectivity is applied to his contemporaries' efforts to "know" the extremes of human experience through a more complexly structured consciousness. Through caricature, T. S. Eliot's "Tiresias" and D. H. Lawrence are found wanting:

By the time we get to the Debussy number the atmosphere is completely poisoned. I find myself wondering what it feels like, during intercourse, to be a woman--whether the pleasure is keener, etc. Try to imagine something penetrating my groin, but have only a vague sensation of pain. I try to focus, but the music is too slippery. I can think of nothing but a vase slowly turning and the figures dropping off into space. Finally there is only light turning, and how does light turn, I ask myself. The man next to me is sleeping soundly.
I thought when the drums started it would keep up forever. I expected to see people fall out of the boxes or throw their hats away. There was something heroic about it and he could have driven us stark mad, Ravel, if he had wanted to. But that's not Ravel. Suddenly it all died down. It was as if he remembered, in the midst of his antics, that he had on a cutaway suit. He arrested himself. [....] Ravel sacrificed something for form, for a vegetable that people must digest before going to bed.[26]

Miller's critique of Lawrence, comme the Ravel of Boléro, is elaborated by reference to Studies in Classic American Literature, where Lawrence criticized another "drum beater" for his "grand sérieux," observing of Melville, "It is the same old thing as in all Americans. They keep their old-fashioned ideal frock-coat on, and old-fashioned silk hat, while they do the most impossible things."[27] Miller was as forgiving of Lawrence's formality as Lawrence was of Melville's. In his "pamphlet" on Lawrence, he wrote, "To a new equilibrium? On what fulcrum? [....] Lawrence saw that the fulcrum itself had been smashed. He felt the tide carrying him along. [....] But as an individual he protested."[28] Tropic of Cancer's burlesque asserts that neither Eliot's hopelessly abstract "knowledge" nor Lawrence's "grand sérieux" about body and soul are adequate guides to representing life in a "cosmos-on the flat."

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