5. Anecdote v. Image
Gertrude Stein: Three Lives
Tropic of Cancer argues a paradigm shift from the vertical axis of vision to the horizontal "meridian of time." In doing so it not only calls into question the "Modernism" of synecdochic symbolism and mythic method, but also the "post-modernism" of our "discovery" that the subjectivity New Critical modernism sought to create is "always already" empty. The crucial difference between Miller's polemic against New Critical subjectivity and what we have too quickly called post-modernism is that he levels, rather than hollows out, Stephen Dedalus's project, "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." Miller forges a chain of anecdotes appropriate to a "cosmos-on the flat" rather than raising structures of conscience/consciousness in a void. His "sandwiched" anecdotes, in this respect, ally his narrative modernism with that of Gertrude Stein's Three Lives and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, wherein "stream of consciousness" is rendered with repeated phrases and narrative fragments, rather than with the potentially synecdochic image fragments taken up by New Criticism and made characteristic of Ulysses and canonical modernism in general. The alternative modernism Miller and Stein pursue through their autobiographical writings, through their anecdotal lives, cuts against the grain of New Critical modernism which, for all its radicalness, is still preoccupied with the paradoxes of heightened sensitivity in a fallen world. Bearing out a legacy of the Realist and Naturalist critique of Romanticism, Stein and Miller each in their own way find "reduced" modes of consciousness entirely adequate to the modern world's complexity, and even to aesthetic experience. In Miller's version, self-awareness is a realization of the flatness of modern experience: "It's like a chain which I've forged out my own misery." The "I," the subjectivity of Tropic of Cancer's narration, resides only in movement along such chains.
In two passages Miller's leveling, equating narrative is directly derived from his repeated figure for the self: the "zero." This derivation, which links Miller's aesthetics to both Romantic and New Critical modernist explorations of the paradoxes of subjectivity, is also a qualification, the supposedly derivative narrative shifting the meaning of "zero" and situating Miller's descent in a line of dissent. Narrative movement is the most significant aspect of the passage in which the transfiguration of "I" to "0" first occurs:
I am one who was lost in the crowd, whom the fizzing lights made dizzy, a zero who saw everything about him reduced to mockery. Passed me men and women ignited with sulphur, porters in calcium livery opening the jaws of hell, fame walking on crutches, dwindled by the skyscrapers, chewed to a frazzle by the spiked mouth of the machines. I walked between the tall buildings toward the cool of the river and I saw lights shoot up between the ribs of the skeletons like rockets. If I was truly a great human being, as she said, then what was the meaning of this slavering idiocy about me?
The "I," the "one," moves, "lost in the crowd," to become the "zero." This is the revolution in consciousness experienced by the narrator of Poe's "The Man of the Crowd" as that story's narrative "I" traces a "O" through the city. In Miller's rendition there is no revolution. While the pyrotechnics of the narrator's vision scan up and down, taking in heights and depths, light and chaos, the burlesque clown's "Satan" and "buttered angel," the onward drift is resolutely even keeled. Miller carefully differentiates between what is seen and what is "passed [...] between" on the walk "toward" the flow of the river. Miller is intent upon escaping, through narrative, from the cycle of elated illusion and "premature disillusionment" that rests upon visions of height and depth, fullness and emptiness, presence and absence. In Miller's "The Man of the Crowd," the transformation from "one" to "zero" disposes of the notion of "great human being" as it reduces to mockery the inspiring terrors of the urban sublime. Unlike Poe's narrator, the narrator of Tropic of Cancer cannot be shocked by the discovery that he, too, is of the crowd. He was never anything else: his is not a descent into the mob. Confronted with the fact that he is not a "great human being," Tropic of Cancer's narrator discovers not absence, but his past--the life in the street that had always been his.