4. Burlesque v. Irony
I'm a man, not a louse
What does it mean, Miller's aesthetic sermon asks, "to be a man" in a world of hunger:
But I don't ask to go back to America, to be put in double harness again, to work the treadmill. No, I prefer to be a poor man of Europe. God knows, I am poor enough; it only remains to be a man.
Miller's "answer," his alternative to Romantic and Modernist subjectivity, is manifest in the narrative which, even channeled through the mock sermon form, asserts its own "fluid imbalance." The extended burlesque episode with which Miller begins passes off into a rambling series of anecdotal observations, these in turn giving way to a dreamscape of low key diatribe: "Art consists in going the full length." In retrospect, the "chapter," which began as a sermon upon Emersonian vision, resembles an antinomian genealogy. Miller traces the path of his dissenting descent from Emerson through Eliot and Lawrence, and, dropping a "Joycean" limerick--"When along the Guadalquivir there were a thousand mosques ashimmer"--he installs himself as the culmination of this literary lineage as the "chapter" concludes in a stream of thematic fragments from earlier sections of Tropic of Cancer: "The gargoyles . . . the man with the Jaworski nonsense . . . the river lights . . . the . . ." From Emerson, Miller's "detour" derives the narrative flow of "fellaheen" life in the streets of Spengler's "late world-city": "a planless happening without goal or cadenced march in time, wherein occurrences are many, but, in the last analysis, devoid of significance."
Where in Nature Emerson hoped one could "build therefore one's own world," expecting "a correspondent revolution in things [to] attend the influx of the spirit," Tropic of Cancer undertakes through burlesque to demonstrate the urban impossibility of Emerson's vision. Miller begins at the Folies-Bergére, where he meets a Russian emigre delivering insecticide, modern means to dispose of Emerson's "disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests."
Seeing me standing there with my hands in my pockets the driver, who was Serge, asks me if I would give him a hand unloading the iron barrels. When he learns that I am an American and that I'm broke he almost weeps with joy. He has been looking high and low for an English teacher, it seems.
In return for English lessons Serge offers food and shelter, an arrangement which promises to make Miller "self-supporting," thus resolving his major social problem: his regular hosts are beginning to regard him as something of a parasite. Miller accepts. But Serge's most pressing linguistic need, as it turns out, is the English vocabulary for a taxonomy of intestinal parasites:
"Little dog he has worms ... he is too young yet." He bends down to examine some white worms lying on the carpet between the dog's paws. Tries to explain about the worms in English, but his vocabulary is lacking. Finally he consults the dictionary. "Ah," he says, looking at me exultantly, "tapeworms!" My response is evidently not very intelligent. Serge is confused. He gets down on his hands and knees to examine them better. He picks one up and lays it on the table beside the fruit. "Huh, him not very beeg," he grunts. "Next lesson you learn me worms, no? You are gude teacher. I make progress with you...."
What follows is a symbolist nightmare, the grotesque consequence of believing, in a world where transcendence is impossible, that a man is what he thinks all day:
Lying on the mattress in the hallway the odor of the germicide stifles me. A pungent, acrid odor that seems to invade every pore of my body. The food begins to repeat on me--the Quaker Oats, the mushrooms, the bacon, the fried apples. I see the little tapeworm lying beside the fruit and all the varieties of worms that Serge drew on the tablecloth to explain what was the matter with the dog. I see the empty pit of the Folies-Bergère and in every crevice there are cockroaches and lice and bedbugs; I see people scratching themselves frantically, scratching and scratching until the blood comes. I see the worms crawling over the scenery like an army of red ants, devouring everything in sight. I see the chorus girls throwing away their gauze tunics and running through the aisles naked; I see the spectators in the pit throwing off their clothes also and scratching each other like monkeys. [Emphasis added.]
Miller awakens from this "lousy" vision with a shout: "I can't stand it. I won't stand it! After all I'm a man, not a louse."