3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon

Mister Nonentity

Miller's autobiographical writing makes it easy to misread Tropic of Cancer--to read it under the aesthetics of American Romanticism or New Critical modernism. Miller appears self-absorbed in familiar ways: his narrative is most offensively first person. But his voice eludes easy identification. Nowhere does the self long contemplate itself. To paraphrase Miller's "victory over myself, my Romantic self" letter to Nin, one can "read all you want of ego" into Tropic of Cancer. But, the narrative "makes the necessary subtractions." The narrator is a "zero" among zeros:

I'm lying there on the iron bed thinking what a zero I have become, what a cipher, what a nullity, when bango! out pops the word: NONENTITY! That's what we called him in New York--Nonentity. Mister Nonentity.[63]

Nananatee mispronounces the narrator's name: "Endree." Van Norden calls the narrator simply "Joe," and the favor is returned:

I call him Joe because he calls me Joe. When Carl is with us he is Joe too. Everybody is Joe because it's easier that way. It's also a pleasant reminder not to take yourself too seriously.[64]

Only once does "Henry Miller" appear--but, from a distance, as a question over the telephone: "Hello! Are you Henry Miller?"[65] Miller's answer was inscribed front and back on his manuscript. On his title page he wrote, "'Tropic of Cancer' by Anonymous," and signed the book, "Henry Miller, Pseudonym."[66]

Put to a narrator who refuses to identify himself, the telephone question--"Hello! Are you Henry Miller?"--interrogates Tropic of Cancer's opening epigraph from Emerson. What kind of a being is it that exists only as a voice?

These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies--captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly.[67]

If Emerson's call for methodological innovation inspires Miller, it does so negatively. Digressive narrative--even if that narrative be "autobiographical"--does not answer to the Emersonian project of seeing all so that one might then record one's own self, one's own "truth truly." Within Tropic of Cancer, Miller paraphrases the opening epigraph. The effort of the paraphrase is not to recapture the authority of the opening epigraph, but to bypass it. Miller's paraphrase deliberately evades Emerson's meaning by subordinating tropes of thought, knowledge and truth to tropes of will, consequence, and power:

If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what is really his experience, what is truly his truth, I think then the world would go smash, that it would be blown to smithereens and no god, no accident, no will could ever again assemble the pieces, the atoms, the indestructible elements that have gone to make up the world.[68]

Here, Emerson's judicious retrospection is abandoned and with it the problematic of self-representation. Substituting translation for a truthful "record" of the self, Miller asserts the efficacy of narrative adventurism. Writing becomes a willful act rather than a conscious reflection.

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