II. Narrative Detours: Strategy and Device

Frank Kermode: Puzzles and Epiphanies

One of the simpler aspects of this technique--a device which for all its apparent artificiality, exactly resembles Nature's method--is the presentation of fragments of a theme or allusion in different parts of the work; these fragments have to be assimilated in the reader's mind for him to arrive at complete understanding.
Stuart Gilbert, James Joyce's 'Ulysses'
And now I'm going to tell you about the technical aspect of these books, this book whose genesis I am about to relate....
Only the amorphous side of his nature now possesses validity. By submerging the visible I he dives below the threshold of his schizophrenic habit patterns. He swims joyously, ad lib., in the amniotic fluid, one with his amoebic self.
But what, you ask, is the significance of the bird in his left hand?
Henry Miller, "Burlesk," Black Spring
Everybody agrees that Miller can write; his is a curious gift, incapable of any rest, dependent on continuous movement.
Life, and therefore Miller, deny "form" and mesure. So the critic labels him a minor figure and stands by for perfectly predictable insults.
Frank Kermode, Puzzles and Epiphanies

Frank Kermode's rather testy condemnation of Miller is perhaps the most "curious" contribution to the long debate over the novelist's literary merit.[1] For in deprecating Miller's symbolism, mythology, and "perfectly orthodox" obscenity, Kermode becomes one of the few critics to take seriously Miller's obvious narrative ability, warily discerning in his narrative as narrative a challenge to the formal principles that have made Joycean epiphany the epitome of Modern aesthetics, and Ulysses the paradigmatic Modern novel.[2] Attacking one "Miller," he inadvertently reveals another. In the main Kermode avoids the "puzzle" of Miller's narrative "gift," instead making short work of many a supposedly masterful passage Miller's critical partisans had quoted, and would continue to quote, in support of their claims for Miller as a great modern "seer" (Edward B. Mitchell) or the leader of a "new romantic tradition" (William A. Gordon).[3] To deflate such claims Kermode invokes the substantiated achievement of James Joyce, rebuking fellow critics who have lost their balance to Miller's frenetic prose: Miller's "vision" is blurry, his "alienation and rebellion" commonplace--"Even at his finest and most individual Miller [only] reminds us of finer artists, artists who do not despise mesure."[4] But beneath Kermode's confident handling of the "sage" and his disciples something troubles him, and it is not a fear of "perfectly predictable insults." After trouncing every argument advanced on Miller's behalf, he strangely remarks, "I do not suggest that this survey of the conventional elements in Miller has any very direct bearing upon his quality as a writer."[5]

What disturbs Kermode's own critical equilibrium is a suspicion that it might not be sufficient to dismiss Miller on the "conventional" grounds naively staked out by Miller's partisans. In the very act of defending the timeless "penetrating power of literary tradition" against "nihilistic gestures," Kermode backs into the literary history within which Miller's "muddle" makes sense, within which Miller's "curious gift" for narrative has the polemical force and coherence of a "technique."[6] Better than any of his adversaries, Kermode knows the history of Joycean exegesis: he understands that by his two concessions--"Miller can write" and "Life, and therefore Miller, deny 'form' and mesure"--he has inverted the logic whereby Stuart Gilbert first defended Joyce's formal method as "exactly" resembling "Nature's method." His own sense of modern "Life" and "Nature's method" in a thoroughly urban world evidently more attuned to Miller's than Joyce's, Kermode finds himself uneasily defending Joyce's "mesure" on "artificial" grounds--form for form's sake--and conceding to Miller the rhetorical tradition of the Novel which legitimates formal innovation as necessary to the "historical genre's" representation and embodiment of life's realities. If Kermode concludes his analysis of Miller's merits, not upon a note of dispassionate critical reason, but with the irascible defiance of a beleaguered last stand, it is because he has stumbled upon that which eluded Miller's "anti-literary" disciples. No symbolist, no visionary, no mythic sage, a critic interested in advancing no cause but his own, Miller is, first and foremost, a formidable modern narrative novelist, competing with Joyce not upon "conventional" grounds, but upon the grounds on which the conventions of the Novel are formed.

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