2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism
Nothing is diminished by being historicized
But, just as narrative is not a primitive, unchanged literary archetype, there is no "pure" narrativity hovering in the void outside New Critical structure and symbolism. To project Tropic of Cancer into some alternative modernist realm of pure narrative, untouched by the categories of New Criticism and awaiting only its own critical theory to develop its full aesthetic force, is akin to taking Whitman's spontaneity literally. It is akin to "creating a usable past," after Van Wyck Brooks. It is akin to reading the text with Roland Barthes as that which "before History [...] achieves [...] the transparence of language relations." Such projections are utopian, as useful rhetorically as are all utopias, but as limited, analytically and historically, as are all utopias. What "counts" as narrative is historically contingent. It is impossible to describe the resistive "other" element of Miller's narrative without a recognition of his close engagement with New Critical modernism--the only "Modernism" British-American literature has had. Any analysis of Tropic of Cancer immediately discovers not a paucity but a plethora of symbolism. Analysis discovers not an absence of perspective but an exponential increase, "as if the inner eye, in its thirst for a greater reality, had converted the pores of the flesh into hungry seeing mouths," and not an indifference to temporal structures but a meticulous proliferation of incompatible "spots of time.["] Miller did not fashion his narrative in a vacuum. Like Tristan Tzara's Dada poetry, it was not really pulled randomly out of a hat. Rather than ignore the emerging modernist consensus, Miller carefully tracked it in order to insinuate his narrative alternative into its lapses: "We are going to put it down--the evolution of this world which has died but which has not been buried."
To continue to group Miller's Paris narratives with narratives that have drawn their power from sources "outside" the vision vitalizing New Critical modernism--oral storytelling, ethnic experience and proletarian literature--would be historically misleading. Miller, self-educated, Brooklyn boy that he styled himself, may have begun by following a despairing mentor's advice--"Write as you talk, I told him. Write as you live. Write as you feel and think. Just sit down before the machine and let go...." Miller may have drawn heavily upon the experiences and traditions of his German-American childhood. He may have written, "What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say literature." But this does not alter the fact that he drew upon these "outside" sources and issued such proclamations to serve elite, canonical ambitions. Notwithstanding his efforts, New Critical modernism persisted, undiminished and his Paris works remained marginal until the 1960s when critical and popular appreciation exploded for entirely different reasons. Observing as much does not place the eccentricity of Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn outside the history that is the direct struggle for the meaning and form of novel.
Rather, in Miller's deliberate representation of ethnic and urban reality and in his subordination of the novel's form to narrative, we may discern traces of not only Miller's ambition but of the larger twentieth-century struggle to define the central tenets of the novel. The "marginal" world Miller represents and the form in which he represents it also entertains the meta-fiction of the novel. Tropic of Cancer claims to represent and embody the force of history. To recognize that Miller's Paris narratives enter this claim in common with every other ambitious novel, we need not grant Miller's claim. Adjudicating rival claims to the mandate of history has long been the implicit project of "literary historians." To proceed in like fashion, substituting yet another "true" genealogy of the novel within which Miller might figure prominently--on his own terms--would be to return to Van Wyck Brook's "usable past." Miller, projected forever outside New Critical modernism, would become Brooks' "American writer [who] floats in that void because the past that survives in the mind of the present is a past without living value." It is in an effort to avoid this that I have attempted to historicize New Critical modernism as the real and indisputably powerful aesthetic force Miller attempted to counter. New Critical modernism is not diminished by being historicized--historical significance is the only significance any individual or collection of authors or critics can ever hope to hold. New Critical modernism is and remains our past. Miller is not some other past, some "other modernism," we need. His narratives are simply a part of the contentious literary history we have.