2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism
Henry Miller's Paris Narratives
It is because New Criticism has had to efface narrative in order to reread and rewrite literary history as its own that narrative analysis provides the opportunity to historicize New Critical modernism without "correcting" it. For, even with respect to narrative, New Criticism is not in error. To repeat, its hegemonic function was never to understand narrative, but to subdue it. The vision of New Critical modernism has proved a potent force in British-American literary history, not in least measure by its ability to refigure that literary history in its own image and concerns. Arising as a distinctly twentieth-century movement, New Critical modernism colonized the past as its own prehistory, rereading and rewriting the "classics" of prior aesthetic regimes into an almost seamless "usable past" such that any attempt to step outside New Criticism appear not only a step outside serious literature but a step outside history itself. Joyce's Ulysses and, crucially, the early accounts of its meaning and method, together form the paradigm of modernism's colonization of the literary past. As I have said, Stuart Gilbert's collaboration with Joyce upon James Joyce's 'Ulysses' marks a historic moment in which a text and a exegetical method meet such that thereafter Modernism and its place in literary history become almost unthinkable except on New Critical grounds. From that paradigmatic moment it becomes possible to repeat of Modernism what Van Wyck Brooks said of American letters prior to 1918: "it seems to me significant that our professors continue to pour out a stream of historical works repeating the same points of view to such an astonishing degree that they have placed a sort of Talmudic seal upon the [...] tradition." The irony within which Van Wyck Brooks is caught arises because, while he apprehends the interrelation of criticism and writing, he understands it as a purely local phenomena--a deplorable development at a particular moment in American literary history. Van Wyck Brooks' historical vision, disciplined by his purpose, remained evaluative. He sought to change literary history; the point, however, is to understand it.
As a means of freeing ourselves of the circuit of analysis and aesthetic value prescribed by the hegemony of New Critical modernism, it has been useful to imagine Miller's Paris narratives an instance of some general power of narrative, per se, which has heretofore and evermore eluded symbolic, perspectival and chronographic analysis. Throughout his Paris period, Miller, too, figured his break with his past life, with his prior conception of the writer's task and the proper form of the novel, as a "blind leap," a "spasmodic gambit," an "achievement tantamount to jumping out of one's own skin." In Tropic of Cancer, he goes so far as to intimate that his strict adherence to the surface flow of narrative is a triumph over art itself:
I have made a silent compact with myself not to change a line of what I write. I am not interested in perfecting my thoughts, nor my actions. Beside the perfection of Turgenev I put the perfection of Dostoevski. [ ] Here, then, in one and the same medium, we have two kinds of perfection. But in Van Gogh's letters there is a perfection beyond either of these. It is the triumph of the individual over art.
It does not matter that Miller's "silent compact" is a compact broken almost in its very announcement, that Tropic of Cancer was one of Miller's most redrafted works. The compact is a play upon the "spontaneity" of American Romanticism, particularly that of Miller's model, Walt Whitman. Whitman's "spontaneity" is itself a figure not to be taken literally. These American tropes of freedom are without content. Their sole purpose is to denaturalize prevailing social, cultural and aesthetic arrangements with "Landscapes projected masculine, full-sized and golden" (alongside which prior arrangements appear mere arrangements, indeed).
Whether one, like Poe, writes an immoral tale whose only immorality is that the critic has not yet been born to develop its moral, or like Twain, speaks of lighting out for the territory, or like Miller, seeks "the recording of all that is omitted in books," in each case the effort is to project an imaginative space--a perennial "outside"--whence it is possible to perceive the limits of an extant "inside," and in the perception to accomplish a transvaluation of all that has been excluded and devalued. To this extent has my analysis tracked Miller's. We may better reevaluate narrative strategies if we imagine narrative as New Critical modernism's ghostly other than if we begin by accepting the New Critical devaluation of narrative as its primitive anterior.