7. Desire in the Waste Land

Drowned in a deep mesh of words

In a double sense the novel may be said to be an ideological genre. In the first instance, the "realities" of Tropic of Capricorn and The Great Gatsby are constructed of parts of a portion of the "social heteroglossia" within which we perceive, understand and communicate--parts, because synecdochic and metonymic desire are but two of many tropes of desire available to the culture of consumption and the discourse of patriarchy; a portion, because consumer culture and patriarchy do not, by themselves, constitute our world. So delimited, and because so delimited, Miller and Fitzgerald's synthetic "realities" are thoroughly legible in terms of their constituent ideologies, lending those ideologies the appearance and status of knowledge. But the novel enhances the persuasive power of its constituent ideological strands by means other than reproducing them as credible. The "valued" experience of writing, reading and criticizing novels itself imposes certain imaginative constraints upon our ability to comprehend ideology's more dynamic powers of persuasion.

Every novel asserts itself to be a local instance of a grander social text. In this sense the novelist's effort to render its aesthetic reality, the reader's effort to assimilate that reality, and the critic's effort to adduce its conceptual coherence all suggest that understanding how the novel "works" is akin to understanding how the world "works." Whether we take this fictive "world" naively as the Real, or, with suspicion, as a "world" of ideological convenience, the insistent suggestion remains: in appreciating a novel, we are tempted to overvalue the knowledge thereby acquired. But the manner in which writer, reader, and critic make "total" sense of a work of fiction, though useful as a model for non-literary acts of ideological creation and reception, insinuates, I believe, a fundamentally misleading model of how ideology "works." The writerly, readerly, and critical acts which together sustain a work of fiction as coherent, suggest that ideological authority is most persuasive when it is "total" in the same manner as the idealized novel. In this model, ideology functions as a grander, more social kind of authorship, like the novel imposing a conceptual order upon an extended world of passive variety. This novelistic model of ideological authority is evident in the various ways in which we tend to dispute a novel's representations of the Real, revealing its "reality" to be merely "ideological." We confront the novel with realities excluded from its representation of the Real, demonstrating its "ideological" incompletion. We confront the novel with evidence of its internal contradictions, demonstrating the "ideological" incoherence of its truth. That is, we tend to confront the novel and its ideology as would another novelist, criticizing ideological discourse with ever more "totalizing" demonstrations of its inability to "totalize" its representations of reality. But the persuasive power of ideology is fundamentally rhetorical, discursive rather than analytical: it constitutes the world of understanding, but in an active variety which will not sit still for critical totalization.

Focusing on the novel's aesthetic discourse profitably shifts the grounds of inquiry. From this vantage it appears that the persuasive power of the discourse of the novel is only indirectly maintained by the thoroughness with which individual novelists "totalize" their novels, their individual aesthetic polemics. The exigencies of the discourse of the novel, shaping novelists' rival representations and formalizations of reality, supplies the common ground on which to dispute the nature of the modern moment and of the novel that truly embodies it. Novelistic rivalry elicits the production of discrete fictive "worlds," each possessing a measure of internal coherence, but together multiplying the discursive variety of the Real. The persuasive power of the "historical genre," and of any other ideological discourse, is sustained over time by its capacity to generate and absorb challenges without giving ground, transforming critics, by the very means in which they dispute the novel's ideology, into novelizers of reality in their own right. To criticize every novel in the name of an ideal representation of the Real, in the name of a true Historical totality, beyond mere fiction, is not to gain "critical distance" from the "historical genre" but to participate in its defining rhetoric. The discourse of the novel is sustained by precisely this regressive logic: repeated breakdown of the illusion that a work of fiction can represent and embody the historical moment elicits new attempts in kind to totalize what cannot be totalized and does not "work" by totalization. It is only by recognizing this phenomenon of "capture"--the manner in which dissension and dispute fracture and reproduce in discursive variety the ideological components of the novel--that we can engage the cultural life of the genre on new grounds.

Miller's challenge to the emergent Modernist consensus dramatizes this dynamic in process, providing an illustrative, and possibly even an illuminating, instance of the genre's persuasive power. The accident that placed Miller in Paris at the moment when publication of Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's 'Ulysses' codified and so closed the "Revolution of the Word" bore peculiar fruit. Challenging the emerging Modernist consensus drove Miller to methods that, exceeding his intention, intimate the manner in which the historical genre vitalizes the ideological resources it draws upon by multiplying rather than composing their discursive forms. In one of his more virulent constructions of the monster that is both Mara and America, Miller describes "her" as a power feared and envied:

There is no beginning nor end; it spurts out of her like a flame and consumes everything within reach. No knowing how or where she began. Suddenly she is in the midst of a long narrative, a fresh one, but it is always the same. Her talk is as formless as dream: there are no grooves, no walls, no exits, no stops. I have the feeling of being drowned in a deep mesh of words, of crawling painfully back to the top of the net, of looking into her eyes and trying to find there some reflection of the significance of her words--but I can find nothing, nothing except my own image wavering in a bottomless well. Though she speaks of nothing but herself I am unable to form the slightest image of her being. She leans forward, with elbows on the table, and her words inundate me; wave after wave rolling over me and yet nothing builds up inside me, nothing that I can seize with my mind. [118]

It is this "voice," of course, that Miller cultivates, his writing in intimate complicity with the cultural forces he aestheticizes. As an ideologist Miller intuits that ideology is not dogma, not discipline, not rigor, but a pleasure that is nevertheless confining. To seek the "historical genre's" ideological strength in the image of totality "wavering in the bottomless well" is to attempt to fathom the power of ideology where it does not exist. For that power is of the surface, articulated and renewed in the "midst of a long narrative, a fresh one, but always [...] the same."

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