Narrative Detours

Introduction: Ulysses, Order, and Myth

It is paradoxically Miller's attention in formulating his narrative strategy to the politics of modern aesthetic debate--his prescient engagement with that coalition of writers, critics, and theorists who would successfully reshape twentieth-century aesthetics in their own image--that has left him an inexplicable, harsh voice on the margins of "the modern tradition." Miller's radically digressive, free-flowing prose style advances a post-realist/post-naturalist "narrative method" that closely pursues and disputes, almost point for point, the then emerging "mythic" consensus. Resembling Leopold Bloom's wandering excursions through the streets of Dublin, Miller's narrative method suggests, but in whole and in part refuses, the symbolic, mythic, and perspectival integration that has become fundamental to our sense of what "truly" Modern texts are "about." As a consequence of Miller's own efforts, any attempt to pursue a "close reading" of his Paris narratives as if they were New Critical texts is an experience in frustration: Miller seems either a writer who knows what he ought to do but can't do it, or a writer who doesn't know what he's doing but occasionally does it--"it" being some recognizable, interpretable, and hence valuable variation of what Ulysses, the paradigmatic novel of New Critical modernism, does so thoroughly when "read closely."

If Miller's more explicit diatribes against Joyce receive some notice, the extent to which his narratives embody a thoroughgoing critique remains largely unexplored--the very idea that a writer as "undisciplined" as Miller might mount anything approaching a "serious" challenge to Ulysses seems preposterous. But we view Ulysses through a long history of adulatory exegesis, forgetting that Eliot's influential unveiling of the "Order, and Myth" of Ulysses served an occasional, polemical purpose: to fend off Richard Aldington's charge that Joyce's was a "great undisciplined talent" and his work "an invitation to chaos, and an expression of feelings which are perverse, partial, and a distortion of reality."[11] When Miller wrote, "Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood," it was still a resonant call to battle and not yet hollow vanity.[12] The hegemony of New Critical modernism--the naturalization of interpretive techniques that give us ready access to the coherence, structure, and intention of canonical texts--has replaced Joyce's modernist "experiment," first among equals, with the one and only, insurmountable Modernist "monument." To recover the structure, coherence, and intention of Miller's narrative "experiment" it is necessary to effect an imaginative return to Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, to the vociferous debate over the shape of the "New Novel," and to the polemical "detour" that first took Miller to the margins of twentieth-century literature.

Read as one of many expatriate efforts to wrest control of the modern novel's future, Miller's Paris narratives, and especially Tropic of Cancer, reveal a dense weave of "tactical" allusions, engaging not "myth and legend and books and dust of the past" according to Eliotic prescription, but the contemporary positions, literary and critical, of Miller's Modernist rivals. Through such allusions Tropic of Cancer's declaration of intention--"I want to make a detour[....]" (epigraph to this introduction)--specifies the aesthetics around which its narrative seeks a path. As the phrasing of this manifesto suggests, Miller's response to the emerging Modernist consensus involves no broadside denigration of Joyce's achievement in Ulysses and "Work in Progress," but rather a canny challenge to these works as interpreted by Louis Gillet in transition ("'extra-temporal history'"), by Edmund Wilson in Axel's Castle (where the talking tree and stone, and river puns of Anna Livia Plurabelle were cited to evaluate "Work in Progress"), and by T. S. Eliot in "'Ulysses,' Order, and Myth." The argument uniting these allusions draws upon the "meta-fiction" novelists and their critical partisans have always invoked to legitimate their formal innovations over and against all others: the novel is "the historical genre," distinguished by its protean ability to embody and represent the historical forces that constitute a changing world. Miller turns the rhetoric of the novel's historicity to his own ends, insinuating that the "mystagogues" who read and value in Joyce's novels an "'extra-temporal history,' that absolute of time and space [...] and mere words," are but revealing and canonizing Ulysses and "Work in Progress" as dead ends in the genealogy of the novel: the "true" modern novel must follow Tropic of Cancer's narrative "detour" to return to the proper path of "the historical genre" through "time and space and history." The generic discourse of Miller's dissent points to the vitality of an aesthetic debate broader than any linear, genealogical approach to the novel's history, however "revisionary," can discern--a debate within which New Critical modernism, Miller's narrative modernism, and many other contending "modernisms" were first forged and only subsequently obscured.

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