II. Narrative Detours: Strategy and Device

Literature: Language as a System of Social Evaluations

What is necessary in Miller's case is illustrative of the general proposition that a historical inquiry which takes the relation between novelistic practice and critical discourse as its object must subsume even the "nature" of tropes under historical analysis. If literary history is not to reconstruct its own privileged genealogies of the novel, but recover the shifting grounds on which writers, critics, and theorists have disputed the language, composition and meaning of the true genealogy of the "historical genre," the literary historical project must ground itself in a rhetoric rather than a linguistics. However "decentered" or "diachronic," semantic analysis is deadly to the very project of literary history. A fundamentally categorizing, taxonomic approach to the elements of language, like the taxonomic approaches to genre discussed in the first chapter, inevitably produces an "anxiety of meaning" and a "hermeneutics of suspicion" which seem to engulf the very possibility of historical inquiry in insoluble epistemological dilemmas.[10] The task of literary history, however, is of a different order than that of philosophical linguistics. We need insist upon the foregrounding of temporally specific usages and counter-usages. Literary history, as it extends to encompass the elements of literary language, concerns itself with what words have meant in specific instances--when, where, and to whom--not with what words can mean (or cannot mean, as some would have it) in all the instances in which they appear or might ever appear. As M. M. Bakhtin argued,

Why are two particular words next to each other? Linguistics only explains how this is possible. The real reason cannot be explained within the limitations of linguistic possibilities. Social evaluation is needed to turn a grammatical possibility into a concrete fact of speech reality.
The material of [literature] is language, language as a system of social evaluations, not as the aggregate of linguistic possibilities.[11]

Philosophical linguistics and its critical complements, the concepts of "textuality" and "intertextuality," do usefully explain the possibility of multiple, totalizing readings, revealing the essential "groundlessness" upon which literature can have a history--a history within which the authority of the past is incessantly and persuasively "reread" to legitimate the present. For were the "meaning" of a text finally determinable, no claim to embody or to break with tradition might be sufficiently compelling "to make history." It is this made history that philosophical linguistics cannot explain--why a given reading, of all possible readings, dominated when, where, for whom, and over what equally specific alternative readings.

In each of the succeeding sections on burlesque, anecdote, and diatribe I will draw upon the range of Miller's expatriate narratives and essays to demonstrate the manner in which these narrative "devices," in literary practice and in critical argument, dispute the polemical practices and principles of Miller's contemporaries. Miller's general "authorial" hostility to "criticism" is manifest, but what has been overlooked in the general devaluation of his narratives is the extent of his engagement with his chosen adversaries. In order to examine this engagement in textual detail, I focus upon a limited group of critical writers, important to Miller's rivalry with Joyce and to our received understanding of the Modern tradition which holds Miller at its margins: T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, Stuart Gilbert, and Edmund Wilson.[12] The three sections are united by an exposition of Tropic of Cancer's close but agonistic relation to Joyce's Ulysses. I wish to answer a variant of Bakhtin's question: Why are these two particular novels next to each other? Here, as throughout my analysis of Miller's relation to the founding works of New Critical modernism, the virtual infinity of "intertextual" relations between Tropic of Cancer and Ulysses, which stem from the possible combinations and permutations of each text's "plurality" of meaning, is not at issue. The question turns upon the manner in which "texts" are turned into "novels"--the manner in which the potential "plurality" of texts and the virtual infinity of "intertextual" relations are delimited, given distinctive weight and shape, within the history of literary discourse. But in this respect the proper question would seem to be: Why are these two particular novels not next to each other? Even Miller's most avid critical partisans have not made much of Tropic of Cancer's relation to Ulysses. Either they have attempted to legitimate Miller through varieties of New Critical analysis, or, rejecting New Critical techniques, they have rejected the relevance of any and all critical activity. In this, Miller's disciples follow Miller who, upon his return to America, chose to project himself as a "sage" speaking first "the wisdom of the heart," and later, as in the notorious Playboy interviews, what might be called without much exaggeration "the wisdom of the penis."

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