4. Burlesque v. Irony
Meet the Mythical World with Cunning and High Spirits
The "cleanest, fastest show" promises for Miller and his urban audience something of what storytelling promised for Walter Benjamin's "storyteller" and his community of listeners: not an escape from reality, but a magical escape into a community of survivors. "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee"--there will be someone to listen. According to Benjamin, the moral of every storytelling is that "The wisest thing [...] is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and high spirits." This is the "wisdom" with which burlesque meets the ideological forces of the urban world. And it is with this wisdom that Miller's burlesque turns to meet the forces of the aesthetic world, confident in its cunning, vaunting its ability to strike on the run:
What had all this to do with you, Moldorf? The word in your mouth is anarchy. Say it, Moldorf, I am waiting for it. Nobody knows, when we shake hands, the rivers that pour through our sweat. Whilst you are framing your words, your lips half parted, the saliva gurgling in your cheeks, I have jumped halfway across Asia. Were I to take your cane, mediocre as it is, and poke a little hole in your side, I could collect enough material to fill the British Museum. We stand on five minutes and devour centuries. You are the sieve through which my anarchy strains, resolves itself into words. Behind the word is chaos. Each word a strip, a bar, but there are not and never will be enough bars to make the mesh.
Using words to frame the accumulated wisdom of the centuries, Moldorf is a caricature of the Joyce celebrated by T. S. Eliot in "'Ulysses,' Myth, and Order." "Mythic method" is but one target of Miller's roving burlesque, but one crucial to an understanding of the linguistic polemic embedded in Miller's "narrative method." Influenced by Spengler's The Decline of the West, Miller's critique of non-narrative aesthetic structures includes within its sweep Romanticism as well as the Modernist consensus emerging from the interpretation of Ulysses and "Work in Progress"--this Modernism being, in Miller's understanding, but a post-Romanticism, vainly trying to recapture through constructive effort what Romanticism sought through a vision of Nature. A novelist whose theories serve his art, Miller's critique inevitably ranges widely and often wildly, but where he finds his mark it is to argue that the same historical conditions of the "late world-city" which "outdate" the visionary transcendence of Emerson also render irrelevant the sadder, ironic knowledge that produces and is produced by the structural unity of the Modernist "work of art":
To put a face on things is no longer possible. That reality which you call the dayface of the world is a cultural stew made up of ideological components which once made up a cosmos. This cosmos has been shattered to bits. Nothing can rear itself organically any longer. We are in the realm of pure idea at last, where everyone lives forever. As the day fades the putty face crumbles, vanishes, leaving a free field for the "gaseous invertebrates" swimming in an ideological ether.
J. Alfred Prufrock's effort to "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet" appears in "putty face" parody, pathetically inadequate to meet the forces of modernity. Belated efforts to create a "revival" of subjectivity, especially an ironic subjectivity predicated upon a self-knowing sense of the project's futility, are a prime target for Miller's burlesque.
Despite Kingsley Widmer's denunciation of "all that auto-biographical rumination and burlesque that belong with this American-as-romantic-artist," burlesque is well suited to Miller's attack upon visionary and ironic subjectivity. Indeed it is the mask of the burlesque comedian that enables Miller to play the role of the "American-as-romantic artist," confidently giving voice to the worst clichés about Americans abroad:
When I say "health" I mean optimism, to be truthful. Incurably optimistic! Still have one foot in the nineteenth century. I'm a bit retarded, like most Americans.
Remarkably, Widmer cites this passage as evidence that Miller's burlesque is ultimately "Romantic" in purpose, seeking to "emphasize, at any cost, the subjectivity of the narrating author." But to miss the humor in this "confession" is to misunderstand burlesque, and necessarily its contribution to Miller's anti-Romantic narrative aesthetics: the price burlesque exacts for empowering the voice of the "narrating author" is his subjectivity, his self-integrity. "This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character," Miller writes of his "autobiography." And it is precisely in "Burlesk" that Miller proclaims, "THE GREAT ARTIST IS HE WHO CONQUERS THE ROMANTIC IN HIMSELF"--Miller who accused Joyce of being "A Romantic who [only] wished to embrace life realistically." Widmer's reading overlooks the hostility to bourgeois subjectivity voiced by the folk tradition upon which burlesque draws, as well as Miller's own efforts to deploy burlesque, in conjunction with anecdotal storytelling and diatribe, to disrupt any interpretation of his narrative as the subjective expression of a modern Romantic.