7. Desire in the Waste Land
In Bloomingdale's I fall apart completely
It is to Bloomingdale's that Miller traces the "origin" of the "Arabian zero" that becomes the "writing machine" of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn:
There is a condition of misery which is irremediable--because its origin is lost in obscurity. Bloomingdale's, for example, can bring about this condition. [....] In Bloomingdale's I fall apart completely: I dribble onto the floor, a helpless mess of guts and bones and cartilage. [....] The smell of linoleum, for some strange reason, will always make me fall apart and collapse on the floor. It is the smell of all the unnatural things which were glued together in me, which were assembled, so to say, by negative consent.
In the presence of Bloomingdale's "discordant fullness," its "zero degree whiteness," the composite self "assembled, so to say, by negative consent" is dissolved, leaving the pinpoint "immutable ego" to begin a schizophrenic flight which starts off as disease but quickly turns into a celebration of freedom:
It is this microscopic chaos which brings on my morganatic ailments. In the street I began to stab horses at random, or I lift a skirt here and there looking for a letter box, or I put a postage stamp across a mouth, an eye, a vagina. Or I suddenly decide to climb a tall building, like a fly, and once having reached the roof I do fly with real wings and I fly and fly and fly, covering towns like Weehawken, Hoboken, Hackensack, Canarsie, Bergen Beach in the twinkling of an eye. Once you become a real schizerino flying is the easiest thing in the world; the trick is to fly with the etheric body, to leave behind in Bloomingdale's your sack of bones, guts, blood and cartilage; to fly only with your immutable self which, if you stop a moment to reflect, is always equipped with wings. Flying this way, in full daylight, has advantages over the ordinary night-flying which everybody indulges in. You can leave off from moment to moment, as quick and decisive as stepping on a brake; there is no difficulty in finding your other self, because the moment you leave off you are your other self, which is to say, the so-called whole self. Only, as the Bloomingdale experience goes to prove, this whole self, about which so much boasting has been done, falls apart very easily.
Miller thus abstracts commodity desire from the structure of Bloomingdale's, hoping to find a space for his own "flight" of writing as it spills over, beyond Bloomingdale's, to cover the urban American landscape. While he invokes Bloomingdale's as an analogue for his narrative aesthetics with an ambivalence akin to Fitzgerald's rendering of Gatsby's library--obliquely intimating that the freedom narrative promises may be as illusory as the freedom of a shopping trip--he does not finally question commodity desire as a form of human desire upon which to found the New Novel. If the modern Waste Land is to be understood at all, it will be known through narrative, a narrative that transpires on the site of Bloomingdale's, exceeding it in substance, but not in form. Through Miller's art, the freedom to desire is to be rescued from commerce, but not from commodification.
Fitzgerald's and Miller's representations of commodity desire differ primarily as tropes: the manner in which they point beyond themselves. Both are situated in the same ideological matrix: The Waste Land, "late world-city" of New York, a modern material world organized by the pursuit of illusion as it gives way to nothingness. But the novelists find the illusion achieved and organized differentially. The synecdochic commodities of Gatsby's house betoken an ultimate fulfillment of desire, whereas the metonymic commodities of Miller's Broadway promise an endless freedom to desire. Advancing rival aesthetics, Fitzgerald and Miller abstract and preserve the tropological structure of their favored commodity forms in the moment in which their promises prove empty. Two distinct novelizations of this "modern moment" produce competing articulations of commodity desire; multiplying its discursive forms, they enhance its ideological power. We are offered a choice which novel's "reality" we find persuasive, but neither choice exits the culture of consumption, which remains intact, naturalized amid all that differentiates Fitzgerald's and Miller's "New York."