II. Narrative Detours: Strategy and Device

Kermode on Miller: Continuous Movement

Kermode's analysis is correct: Miller's narrative, "incapable of any rest, dependent on continuous movement," does "deny 'form' and mesure"--if by "'form' and mesure" one understands no more than Kermode is willing to admit. As we saw in the second chapter, Miller's radically digressive prose is peculiarly resistant to "New Critical" modes of analysis that discover meaning and value --the "real text"--in symbolic, perspectival, and "mythic" structures; yet Miller's modernism no more relies upon nineteenth-century "plotting" to sustain interest and a sense of reality than does the modernism of many of his contemporaries, including Joyce. Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn appear the "formless" product of an inexplicable "curious gift" only so long as one insists that "form" be measured by the critical standard that maintains Joyce's "mesure" as the unsurpassable limit of Modern literary achievement and Ulysses as the sole legitimate heir to the genealogy of the Novel. To suspend such a demand is not to leave the modern novel and its critical debates but to reenter a literary history within which novelists and critics join in discourse--vying, collaborating, denouncing, and persuading--to establish one among many possible aesthetic standards as the "new" hegemonic form of the "historical genre." Kermode's insistent need to label Miller a "minor figure" and his difficulty in doing so are consequences, not of Miller's distance from Joyce and Modern criticism, but of his antithetical proximity.[7] Miller's narrative technique was forged with a full view of the literary and critical polemics that successfully sought to establish the hegemony of New Critical modernism. The (dis)organization of Miller's narrative is a "technique"--a calculated effort to "depose [New Critical] intellect, to frighten away mesure"--and an argument for an equally "formed," equally "modern," alternative to New Critical modernism.[8]

The "continuous movement" of Miller's narrative is sustained by three devices: burlesque, anecdotes of observation and recollection, and periodic modulations into frenetic diatribes upon "God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty . . . what you will."[9] Miller's narrative devices are not innocent--the "curious gift" of a "natural writer." While burlesque, anecdote, and diatribe are interwoven to sustain the forward movement of attention that mimetic fiction sustains with plot and sub-plot, it is of equal importance that these devices work to disrupt and displace the semantic integrity canonical modernism seeks and finds in irony, symbolism, and epiphany. These are Miller's detour. Specifically, burlesque sarcasm counters tragic irony; serried anecdotes flatten the symbolic heights and depths canonical modernism "shores against [its] ruin"; and diatribe substitutes a frenzied, open-ended excursus through ideology for the serene exhilaration of epiphany. By identifying the specific writerly and interpretive conventions against which Miller's narrative devices are polemically deployed, it becomes possible to discern the level of technique on which Miller's narrative practice joins the debate of twentieth-century novelistic discourse. Here we discover, in addition to the 1960s best-seller, a Tropic of Cancer of the 1930s that does not "work," a narrative that does not "move," outside the literary and critical debates of the early twentieth century.

It is as polemic responses to valued techniques of a historically specific coalition of writers and critics that Miller's burlesque, anecdote, and diatribe may be described as "devices"; otherwise the term "device," suggesting a universal mechanism of language, is as misleading as the notion of natural modes of human expression. To trace the discursive, essentially rhetorical, use of tropes, "devices," and textual structures, we need avoid both biographical naturalization and universalizing reification of the elements of language and literature. For example, Miller's sense of burlesque may have been informed by his familiarity with Yiddish theater and vaudeville, but his use of burlesque, in furtherance of his narrative modernism, is called forth, shaped, and constrained by his rejection of irony. This rejection is not a rejection of a fact of language--a fundamental "trope"--as if Chaucer's irony, Fielding's irony, Swift's irony, Hawthorne's irony, and James' irony were cut of whole Aristotelian cloth, but a rejection of "irony" as deployed and understood by an emerging New Critical modernism. It is similarly the case with Miller's use of anecdote and diatribe. The biographical precedent for each of Miller's narrative devices may be illuminating: it is, after all, Miller's intent to advance a novel form adequate to his past, his America, his twentieth century. Miller's usages may be compared with those of any author, modern or ancient: in his readings of such writers as Augustine, Rabelais, Swift, and Dostoevski, Miller does project a "usable past" to rival the lineage Joyce projects in Ulysses. But the rhetorical effect, the force, the "meaning" of Miller's narrative devices is historical in a more circumscribed sense--to be discovered, not in the life or in the library of the Western literary tradition, but in the early twentieth-century struggle to shape modernist aesthetics, and through it our sense of our "personal" as well as "traditional" past.

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