2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism

New Critical Symbolism

New Critical Symbolism

The analysis of symbolism, assimilated to the novel by way of poetics, has been the forte of New Criticism since its inception. The use of symbolism, rather than plot, to structure the text is the proverbial hallmark of high modernism. As I have said, it was no coincidence that Moby-Dick was rediscovered in the 1920s. Van Wyck Brooks's "usable past" was a symbolic past. The very language with which Brooks first raises the idea of a "usable past," invokes the symbolism of the final chapter of Moby-Dick where Ishmael floats upon Queequeg's coffin:

The present is a void, and the American writer floats in that void because the past that survives in the common mind of the present is a past without living value. But is this the only possible past? If we need another past so badly, is it inconceivable that we might discover one, that we might even invent one?[66]

Symbolism rapidly became the hegemonic measure of depth and subtlety for criticism, literary production, and a reconstructed canon.[67]

In contrast, Miller's symbolism, when it appears, is either partial and inconsistent, or bald:

Boris is rubbing his hands again. Mr. Wren is still stuttering and spluttering. I have a bottle between my legs and I'm shoving the corkscrew in. Mrs. Wren has her mouth parted expectantly. The wine is splashing between my legs, the sun is splashing through the bay window, and inside my veins there is a bubble and splash of a thousand crazy things that commence to gush out of me now pell-mell. I'm telling them everything that comes to mind, everything that was bottled up inside me and which Mrs. Wren's loose laugh has somehow released. With that bottle between my legs and the sun splashing through the window I experience once again the splendor of those miserable days when I first arrived in Paris, a bewildered, poverty-stricken individual who haunted the streets like a ghost at a banquet.[68]

In other hands, the pouring of wine might serve to infuse the entire scene--the relationship between the characters, the interiority of the narrator, the city of Paris, and the act of writing--with a diffused, perhaps haunting sexuality. The passage would have a "depth." It would have a "meaning". Here it is a gag. The passage reads like a scenario for a Marx Brothers movie. The characters, Boris, Mr. Wren, Mrs. Wren, and even the narrator, are caricatures. And the "bottle" beating the reader over the head declares, "I am a symbol, I am a symbol, I am a symbol," until it, too, becomes a caricature, a caricature of novelistic technique. Instead of the formal precision of satiric irony, Miller deploys the hyperbole of burlesque. The episode is comic on its face. But, surreptitiously, it is also aggressive. Miller's weightless symbolism mocks the earnest "Freudian" symbolism of such works as The Sun Also Rises. To mistake Miller's symbolism for profundity, or, what amounts to the same thing, to dismiss it as clumsy, failed symbolist technique is to become the butt of a joke. In this case, the butt of the joke is also a stock character from vaudeville: the intellectual snob, the cultured reader. Neither the violence nor the mode of Miller's attack on symbolism is uncharacteristic of aesthetic debate of the early twentieth century. The same technique of burlesque parody and interpretive double-binds had been employed against the aesthetics of the previous generation by almost every aspiring "modernism."[69] Arriving late on the scene, Miller turned these techniques upon the emerging forms of modernist consensus.

So long as symbolic coherence remains the measure of value, Miller's texts are "bad." Such "stuff of an evident and extreme badness is exhilarating" (I. A. Richards), but it is the aesthetic Other that canonical criticism cannot recognize without sacrificing some of its claim to hegemony:

But if our own organization is broken down, forced to a cruder, a more wasteful level, we are depressed and temporarily incapacitated, not only locally but generally. It is when what we are offered, and inveigled into accepting, is only slightly inferior to our own developed capacity, so that it is no easy matter to see what is wrong, that the effect is greatest.[70]

Miller developed his aesthetic challenge to the emerging modernist consensus by parodying the writerly techniques that allowed readers to discover symbolic meaning, unity, depth, the "equilibrium of opposed impulses".[71] In his narrative, symbolism, that which normally provides the experience of structured textual depth, is exposed as pure surface technique. Miller's deliberate abuse of symbolism repels all attempts to construe the "bottle" passage as anything more than a transition to another passage, which in turn refuses to be anything more than a transition to yet another. The result is an interminable narrative, a string of anecdotes driving the New Critical reader in futile search of symbolic meaning from one end of the book to the other. Miller creates for the twentieth-century reader in search of symbolic meaning something of the experience Laurence Sterne created for the eighteenth-century reader in search of rounded "conceits" and quick paced, linear autobiography. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. and Tropic of Cancer, for their respective literary worlds, work at confounding the consensual codes of the literary gentleman.

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