Narrative Detours

Introduction: I want to make a detour

I want to make a detour of those lofty arid mountain ranges where one dies of thirst and cold, that "extra-temporal" history, that absolute of time and space where there exists neither man, beast, nor vegetation, where one goes crazy with loneliness, with language that is mere words, where everything is unhooked, ungeared, out of joint with the times. I want a world of men and women, of trees that do not talk (because there is too much talk in the world as it is!), of rivers that carry you to places, not rivers that are legends, but rivers that put you in touch with other men and women, with architecture, religion, plants, animals--rivers have boats on them and in which men drown, drown not in myth and legend and books and dust of the past, but in time and space and history.
Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

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Introduction: The Revolution of the Word

Answers to these questions might be sought at any point in the history of the reception of Miller's expatriate narratives, a history which includes his subsequent novels and essays. Forty-eight years old when he returned to America after nearly a decade in Paris, Miller outlived most of his fellow expatriates, continuing to write for another four decades until his death in 1979. These later additions to Miller's oeuvre inevitably reshaped the meaning of his Paris narratives, which, like Miller himself, led a varied public life after the onset of the Second World War ended "The Revolution of the Word." The American publication of Miller's "banned books" under the banner of "freedom of expression" in the early 1960s, and Kate Millet's feminist indictment in Sexual Politics (1969) of the "sexual liberation" this "freedom" was supposed to herald, initiated major shifts in the terms under which Miller's "value" has been debated. But Miller's ambiguous position in American letters antedates and survives these developments. Already in 1938, Edmund Wilson's review of Tropic of Cancer for The New Republic uncannily anticipates the polarized outline, if not the precise terms, of all subsequent debate over Miller's work: "Today the conventional critics are evidently too shocked by it to be able to bring themselves to deal with it--though their neglect of it cannot wholly have been determined by the reflex reactions of squeamishness. [....] As for the Left-Wingers, they have ignored The Tropic of Cancer on the ground that it is merely a product of the decadent expatriate culture and can be of no interest to the socially minded and forward-looking present."[6]

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Introduction: Ulysses, Order, and Myth

It is paradoxically Miller's attention in formulating his narrative strategy to the politics of modern aesthetic debate--his prescient engagement with that coalition of writers, critics, and theorists who would successfully reshape twentieth-century aesthetics in their own image--that has left him an inexplicable, harsh voice on the margins of "the modern tradition." Miller's radically digressive, free-flowing prose style advances a post-realist/post-naturalist "narrative method" that closely pursues and disputes, almost point for point, the then emerging "mythic" consensus. Resembling Leopold Bloom's wandering excursions through the streets of Dublin, Miller's narrative method suggests, but in whole and in part refuses, the symbolic, mythic, and perspectival integration that has become fundamental to our sense of what "truly" Modern texts are "about." As a consequence of Miller's own efforts, any attempt to pursue a "close reading" of his Paris narratives as if they were New Critical texts is an experience in frustration: Miller seems either a writer who knows what he ought to do but can't do it, or a writer who doesn't know what he's doing but occasionally does it--"it" being some recognizable, interpretable, and hence valuable variation of what Ulysses, the paradigmatic novel of New Critical modernism, does so thoroughly when "read closely."

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Introduction: The Genealogy of the Modernist Canon

This essay proceeds as a "local study" in the history of the modern novel, using the instance of Henry Miller's Paris narratives and their ambiguous place in our received tradition to test the grounds of a literary history attentive to the formation of literary values, tracing their genesis and legacy in dissent as well as assent. How can we, as literary historians, recover from the "texts" we examine a sense of the past that is something more than a linear genealogy of "great, influential works" around which lies a disordered library of "lesser works," "curiosities," and "failures" into which we periodically venture to "invent" new "usable pasts," new genealogies of "great works"? My local study of a most controversial novelist, who for so long and for so many highly charged reasons has been held at arm's length from the Modernist canon, is intended to suggest the outlines of an answer. If attention to the aesthetic discourse within which coalitions of writers and critics vie for the authority to promulgate "the tradition" discloses a heretofore unsuspected density and coherence to Miller's narrative and aesthetic polemics, such an approach is likely to do the same for other apparent "detours," past and present, from the literary genealogy New Critical modernism traces back to Homer. At stake is not simply Miller's "place" within a divisive twentieth-century literature, but our understanding of other alternatives to New Critical modernism, less controversial, whose polemical engagement in "serious" novelistic discourse yet remains concealed beneath the literary and critical consensus first forged in the 1920s and 1930s.

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Introduction: I want to make a detour - Notes

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