7. Desire in the Waste Land

Life drifting by the show window

Miller identifies a form of commodity desire radically distinct from Fitzgerald's symbolizing desire as constitutive of America's culture of consumption. In Tropic of Capricorn commodity desire is structured by chaotic excess rather than absence, by superfluity rather than loss, by the promise of any and every thing rather than the one that is all. Fitzgerald's commodity trope is synecdoche, whereas Miller's is metonymy:

From Times Square to Fiftieth Street all that St. Thomas Aquinas forgot to include in his magnum opus is here included, which is to say, among other things, hamburger sandwiches, collar buttons, poodle dogs, slot machines, gray bowlers, typewriter ribbons, orange sticks, free toilets, sanitary napkins, mint jujubes, billiard balls, chopped onions, crinkled doilies, manholes, chewing gum, sidecars and sourballs, cellophane, cord tires, magnetos, horse liniment, cough drops, feenamint, and that feline opacity of the hysterically endowed eunuch who marches up to the soda fountain with a sawed-off shotgun between his legs.[35]

Unlike Gatsby's desires, which Thomas Aquinas' anagogic method might have comprehended even without a knowledge of the American continent, the desires of Miller's Broadway are all contemporary and of the moment. Miller identifies as most powerful those commodity desires created by a market that stimulates and satisfies an inexhaustible appetite for the Latest, the Fashionable: new products and trade names dominate Miller's Broadway inventory. Fitzgerald finds desires "real" when they are "commensurate to man's capacity for wonder." Miller finds the appeal of New York's show windows "real" precisely because their contents are beyond imagination: no work of the imagination, however "wonderful," could encompass as parts of a symbolic whole the proliferation of commodities displayed in the heart of New York City. Unrelated and unnecessary, superabundant and superficial, they compose the "vacuity" Miller calls "discordant fullness."[36]

The "discordant fullness" of Broadway, though meaningless in total, is instructive. The form of endless commodity desire it stimulates teaches Miller his narrative aesthetics:

In this null and void, in this zero whiteness, I learned to enjoy a sandwich, or a collar button. I could study a cornice or a coping with the greatest curiosity while pretending to listen to a tale of human woe. I can remember the dates on certain buildings and the names of the architects who designed them. I can remember the temperature and the velocity of the wind, standing at a certain corner; the tale that accompanied it is gone. I can remember that I was even then remembering something else, and I can tell you what it was that I was then remembering[....][37]

The associative sequence--remembering a time and a place when one was remembering another time and place--is the form in which Miller delivers his disjunctive tale of his New York past. Forgotten are the tales of statistical woe that Miller, with Fitzgerald, finds threatening to the uniqueness of his art. Miller learns because the metonymy of commodity desire operative on Broadway amid the proliferation of "goods" is already implicitly narrative: it is only in transit, in succession, that can one consume what is there to consume. Life on Broadway is not contemplative desire, symbolic longing for what one cannot see. Metonymic desire keeps "life drifting by the show window" of visible abundance:

Life drifting by the show window . . . I too as much a part of life as the lobster, the fourteen-carat ring, the horse liniment, but very difficult to establish the fact, the fact being that life is merchandise with a bill of lading attached, what I choose to eat being more important than I the eater, each one eating the other and consequently eating, the verb, ruler of the roost. In the act of eating the host is violated and justice defeated temporarily. The plate and what's on it, through the predatory power of the intestinal apparatus, commands attention and unifies the spirit, first hypnotizing it, then slowly swallowing it, then masticating it, then absorbing it. The spiritual part of the being passes off like a scum, leaves absolutely no evidence or trace of its passage, vanishes, vanishes even more completely than a point in space after a mathematical discourse.[38]

The metonymic commodity points only to the next commodity in a movement that constitutes no being, no ultimate satisfaction, but simply a verb, an action, a "passage" consuming both subject and object.[39] Miller's "writing machine," which begins to work when the self is reduced to an "Arabian zero," is historicized here as an aestheticized version of the way commodity desire works. Miller's novelistic ambition to possess the world, to represent and embody the force of history, is fantastically enabled through an identification with the world of goods:

Life is drifting by the show window. I lie there like a floodlit ham waiting for the ax to fall. As a matter of fact, there is nothing to fear, because everything is cut neatly into fine little slices and wrapped in cellophane. [....] I have the sure feeling that I will be the last man on earth. I will emerge from the show window when it is all over and walk calmly amidst the ruins. I will have the whole earth to myself.[40]

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