III. Narrative Detours: The Rhetoric of the Real

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood. I like to dwell on this period when things were taking shape because the order, if it were understood, must have been dazzling.
As to what happened...
Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn[1]

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A new Bible - The Last Book

"The heating and cooling system is one system, and Cancer is separated from Capricorn only by an imaginary line," Miller writes in Tropic of Capricorn.[8] It is his recognition of Tropic of Cancer's partiality. Embracing but one hemisphere, the figural complex of Tropic of Cancer is inadequate to Miller's more global ambition, to reshape the historical genre. In Tropic of Cancer, Miller joined Michael Fraenkel in issuing a call for another modernism, for an alternative to the then emerging constellation of literary practices, aesthetic ideals, and interpretive conventions I have labeled "New Critical modernism":

It was this morning, on our way to the Post Office, that we gave the book its final imprimatur. We have evolved a new cosmogony of literature, Boris and I. It is to be a new Bible--The Last Book. [....] We are going to put it down--the evolution of this world which has died but which has not been buried. We are swimming on the face of time and all else has drowned, is drowning, or will drown. [....] We have no need for genius--genius is dead. We have need for strong hands, for spirits who are willing to give up the ghost and put on flesh. . . .[9]

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Henry Miller's Narrative Modernism

The "one system" of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn is a rhetorical system, a global system of persuasion invoking both halves of the meta-fiction of the historical genre: the true novel is distinguished from all other genres and from all other novels by its formal embodiment of the historical forces of the moment and by its representation of the realities those forces produce. Together Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn complete Miller's reiteration of this meta-fiction: Tropic of Cancer announces the formal revolution of Miller's narrative modernism, and Tropic of Capricorn, through its representation of Miller's life in America prior to his encounter with modernist aesthetics, crafts a "history" of a twentieth-century Waste Land from which Miller's digressive narratives emerge the sole legitimate heir to the legacy of the novel, capable in their own right of fully representing and embodying the historical moment. It is to advance the polemic they share that the narratives of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn are differentiated, or as Miller puts it, separated "only by an imaginary line."

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The model for the age that Joyce and Stein are searching for

By "rhetoric of the Real" I refer to those elements of a novel's imaginary world which persuade readers that the novelist's formal innovations are not mere formalities, but necessitated by the larger, "true" historical reality the author seeks to reveal through fiction.[18] The "rhetoric of the Real," in other words, is intelligible as such only within the discourse of the novel, comprising those aspects of the representational work of the novel that serve its formal polemics:

The happiest thought I have is of my new novel--it is something really NEW in form, idea, and structure--the model for the age that Joyce and Stein are searching for, that Conrad didn't find.[19]

Fitzgerald's "happiest thought" three weeks after the publication of The Great Gatsby is the generic "happiest thought" of the novelist; equal in ambition, Miller might have written the same of Tropic of Capricorn. To realize this "happiest thought" the ambitious novelists must make a "modern world" in which their art, and their art alone, is possible.[20]

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The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn

In the first of two chapters, I intend to explore the rhetorical significance of Miller's representational work by contrasting Tropic of Capricorn's "New York" with the "New York" of another novel set during the 1920s: The Great Gatsby. Despite the apparent incongruity of style and substance, Miller and Fitzgerald draw upon common ideological sources to pose the problem of "modernity." The manner by which they construct from similar ideological understandings very different "New Yorks" will serve as an illustration of the extent to which the differences among novelistic representations of "reality" may be ascribed to the divergent formal aesthetics whose "historicity" these representations are marshalled to vindicate. Tropic of Capricorn's and The Great Gatsby's divergent representations of commodity and sexual desire contribute to the production of two distinct American Waste Lands which authorize, in turn, discrete and competing modernist projects. Equally, attention to their distinctive narrative and symbolist renderings of a common scene discovers deliberative, polemical intent in many an ideological preoccupation that might otherwise pass for a naive expression of personal prejudice or prevailing social opinion.

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Narrative Detours: The Rhetoric of the Real - Notes

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