3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach
Miller's diagnosis of the condition of the modern novel is invisible without an understanding of the two means by which Miller "naturalizes" the critical discourse of Tropic of Cancer within the "unnatural" urban world the novel represents: caricature and obscenity. I pause to consider these means at some length, before taking up the consequences of Miller's diagnosis for his fiction. In caricaturing "great writers" and their thought, Miller might be said to treat them on a "first name basis," familiarizing them much as "Walt" might have. But Miller's caricatures are representations, rather than personalizations. He takes "idolization" literally, representing literary figures for the aesthetic "totems" they were within the expatriate circles of Paris. When, for example, Miller formulates his opposition to Fraenkel's Modernist aesthetics in a burlesque of "Boris" and "Carl," he attacks by caricaturing their Romantic idol Goethe:
[We] used to spend whole evenings discussing the relative virtues of Paris and New York. And inevitably there always crept into our discussions the figure of Whitman, that one lone figure which America has produced in the course of her brief life. [....] It seems strange almost to mention his name over here. There is no equivalent in the languages of Europe for the spirit which he immortalized. Europe is saturated with art and her soil is full of dead bones and her museums are bursting with plundered treasures, but what Europe has never had is a free healthy spirit, what you might call a MAN. Goethe was the nearest approach, but Goethe was a stuffed shirt, by comparison. Goethe was a respectable citizen, a pedant, a bore, a universal spirit, but stamped with the German trade-mark, with the double eagle. The serenity of Goethe, the calm, Olympian attitude, is nothing more than the drowsy stupor of a German bourgeois deity. Goethe is the end of something, Whitman is a beginning.
This caricature of Goethe can be read within the totemic discourse of Tropic of Cancer once traced to a passage in Beyond Good and Evil where Nietzsche--a writer for whom Miller enormous respect--qualifies his own respect for Goethe. Where Nietzsche speaks of the untranslatable "bold and merry tempo," the "daring nuances of free, free spirited thought," of the "buffoon and satyr," Miller inserts his totemic celebration of Whitman. Here and elsewhere, Miller's assault upon straw-man Goethe bespeaks his more circumspect and pervasive battle with Emerson (Miller's Emerson, not Nietzsche's). Cumulatively, Tropic of Cancer's totemic system advances a polemic against the "calm Olympian attitude" Miller deplored equally in Emerson, in Goethe, and in his Modernist contemporaries.
Tropic of Cancer offers no comparative assessment of Emerson and Whitman. Instead, these writers appear in caricature, forming the supporting base of the totemic system through which Miller, venting likes and dislikes, encodes his novel's critical discourse. Tropic of Cancer begins with an epigraph from Emerson, with Emersonian tropes of vision, but its narrative strategy follows Walt Whitman's turn to the open road: "I am afoot with my vision,"
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.
Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself,
It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically,
Walt you contain enough, why don't you let it out then?
This distinction between vision and voice, between Emerson's "vigorous self-recoveries" and Whitman's "Open Road," between the oscillating subject and object of Emerson's double consciousness and the "multitudes" of Whitman's cataloguing journey, is everywhere encoded in Tropic of Cancer, signaling Miller's repudiation of the symbolic coherence of New Critical modernism in favor of his own narrative flow.
Miller's return to Whitman was not a recovery of a fuller, world-encompassing desire. His totemic "Whitman" does not catalogue the world out of desire but out of necessity. The world is a catalogue:
From my little perch at Sunset Place I had a bird's eye view of the whole American society. It was like a page out of the telephone book. Alphabetically, numerically, statistically, it made sense. But when you looked at it up close, when you examined the pages separately, or the parts separately, when you examined one lone individual and what constituted him, examined the air he breathed, the life he led, the chances he risked, you saw something so foul and degrading, so low, so miserable, so utterly hopeless and senseless, that it was worse than looking into a volcano.
The escape from the view and despair of "Sunset Place" entailed a recovery of meaning and sense through the contingent, circumstantial ways of knowing that had governed Miller's past. In this respect Tropic of Cancer does not so much narrate Miller's life as his reappropriation of urban storytelling as an alternative to the symbolist strategies of Romantic transcendence and Modernist epiphany. Tropic of Cancer, directly, and Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn, indirectly, tell the story of this recovery, and in the detours of the telling seek to undermine the privileged knowledge claimed by Romantic vision and synoptic Modernist symbolism. In Miller's formulation, the streets of New York, the streets of Paris, popular literature, and elite literature are all knowable in the same narrative fashion.