7. Desire in the Waste Land
In the chaos of Bloomingdale's there is an order
Tropic of Capricorn's mediating structural analogue is less compact than that of The Great Gatsby, distributed across the "one system" that is Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. It is not symbolism but a journey that, in each of Miller's narratives, leads to the presentation of this analogue. In Tropic of Cancer, Miller and Fraenkel give "final imprimatur" to the literary fantasy of "The Last Book" on their way to the Post Office. Again, as in The Great Gatsby, self-deprecatory humor couches an earnest polemic:
It is colossal in its pretentiousness. The thought of it almost shatters us. [....]
It will be enormous, the Book. There will be oceans of space in which to move about, to perambulate, to sing, to dance, to climb, to bathe, to leap somersaults, to whine, to rape, to murder. A cathedral, a veritable cathedral, in the building of which everybody will assist who has lost his identity. There will be masses for the dead, prayers, confessions, hymns, a moaning and a chattering, a sort of murderous insouciance; there will be rose windows and gargoyles and acolytes and pallbearers. You can bring your horses in and gallop through the aisles. You can butt your head against the walls--they won't give. You can pray in any language you choose, or you can curl up outside and go to sleep. It will last a thousand years, at least, this cathedral, and there will be no replica, for the builders will be dead and the formula too. We will have postcards made and organize tours. We will build a town around it and set up a free commune. We have no need for genius--genius is dead. We have need for strong hands, for spirits who are will to give up the ghost and put on flesh. . . .
As an analogue of his novel, Miller's "The Last Book" is figured as a cathedral--one, however, constituted by its enumerated activities rather than its architecture. It is a cathedral "on the flat," with "oceans of space in which to move about, to perambulate," but seemingly no height: it points to no creative God above, instead manifesting in itself the efforts of anonymous, hyperactive "strong hands." Though its walls "won't give," they are no walls at all: the violent activities that constitute the cathedral spill over beyond the covers of "The Last Book," into the surrounding landscape, creating as they go further spaces resembling the interior of the cathedral. The surrounding town and commune are also "free": they are not "replicas" of the cathedral because they are aesthetic extensions of a metonymic desire that promises to "gallop" until its has circled the globe with its "welter of criss-crossed tracks."
While the cathedral offers a historical analogue of the "Last Book" whose metonymic narrative aesthetics Miller presents as a new--the next--modernism, it is ultimately too classical a literary fantasy to "historicize" Miller's modern novels. Though Miller promises to "have postcards made and organize tours," the cathedral is an inadequate vehicle for his narrative ambitions, insufficiently of the moment, unlike the super-abundance of Broadway's commodities displayed in Tropic of Capricorn. But Tropic of Capricorn's narrative exploration of Miller's past supplements the deficiencies of Tropic of Cancer's novelistic discourse. There Miller presents a new and frightening commodity analogue of his narrative novels. Journeying down the river of time to become the anonymous "voice" of Tropic of Cancer, Miller discovers Bloomingdale's:
In the chaos of Bloomingdale's there is an order, but this order is absolutely crazy to me: it is the order which I would find on the head of a pin if I were to put it under the microscope. It is the order of an accidental series of accidents accidentally conceived. This order has, above all, an odor--and it is the odor of Bloomingdale's which strikes terror into my heart. [....] There is the smell, not of decomposition, but of misalliance. Man, the miserable alchemist, has welded together, in a million forms and shapes, substances and essences which have nothing in common. Because in his mind there is a tumor which is eating him away insatiably; he has left the little canoe which was taking him blissfully down the river in order to construct a bigger, safer boat in which there may be room for everyone. His labors take him so far afield that he has lost all remembrance of why he left the little canoe. The ark is so full of bric-à-brac that it has become a stationary building above a subway in which the smell of linoleum prevails and predominates. Gather together all the significance hidden away in the interstitial miscellany of Bloomingdale's and put it on the head of a pin and you will have left a universe in which the grand constellations move without the slightest danger of collision.
Bloomingdale's "accidental series of accidents accidentally conceived" constitutes the narrative space intended by the cathedral of Miller's "Last Book," but it does so in a more contemporary and indigenous American fashion. Like Gatsby's impressive library and T.J. Eckleburg's advertisement, the Bloomingdale's commodity analogue is a solicitation of desire appropriated directly out of the familiar world of consumer culture. The "bric-à-brac" commodities arrayed in Bloomingdale's, however, do not promise the fulfillment of desire but an endless freedom to desire. They speak not with a voice of symbolic unity, but a succession of individual voices. And it is here in Tropic of Capricorn that Miller recovers one of the voices from his literary past, from the chain of authors he admired and abandoned on his way to Tropic of Cancer, for it was Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie who first described this "appeal" of commodities:
Carrie passed along the busy aisles, much affected by the remarkable displays of trinkets, dress goods, stationery, and jewelry. Each separate counter was a show place of dazzling interest and attraction. She could not help feeling the claim of each trinket and valuable upon her personally, and yet she did not stop. There was nothing there which she could not have used--nothing which she did not long to own. The dainty slippers and stockings, the delicately frilled skirts and petticoats, the laces, ribbons, hair-combs, purses, all touched her with individual desire[....]
In Miller's usage, metonymic commodity desire inaugurates the "moving" experience of a shopping trip, a narrative of "Life drifting by the show window." Also arising from obscurity to the world of art, also indifferent to any but the next appeal of desire, "Henry Miller" is "Sister Carrie."