3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon

Oscar Wilde: The Portrait of Dorian Gray

This shift was not without precedent. In challenging Emerson, Miller made use of his recent explorations of literary history. His paraphrase of Emerson follows Oscar Wilde, who, in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, had Lord Henry explain the task of the "modern" to young Dorian:

"I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream--I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget the maladies of medievalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal--to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be."[69]

The cadence of Miller's phrasing echoes Wilde's, except that where Wilde breaks stride to academicize his position with an awkward invocation of fin de siécle Hellenic revivalism, Miller continues, turning another Emersonian phrase--"no god, no accident, no will"--into a kind of Dada manifesto. Elsewhere Miller further clarifies his position. With narrative flow, there will be no return: "Through endless night the earth whirls toward a creation unknown. . . ."[70] The sufficiency of narrative's daring translation is measured, not by visionary self-knowledge, not by more vigorous recoveries, but by the havoc narrative's ever-onward passage wreaks upon residual aesthetic and cultural superstructures.

Emerson, as I have noted, supplies precedent for Miller's narrative method as he had for Whitman's turn to the "Open Road":

But the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze. The poet did not stop at the color, or the form, but read their meaning; neither may he rest in this meaning, but he makes the same objects exponents of his new thought. Here is the difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false. For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.[71]

If Miller's caricature of Emerson no where acknowledges this "vehicular and transitive" dimension of his poetics, the portrait is "fair" in one respect: not content to let man endlessly "skate upon surfaces," Emerson invariably circumscribed his own outward voyages with a return to first principles, to vision, self, soul, the "axis of vision," to the God of Genesis who formed the earth out of the waters:

The soul is. Under all this running sea of circumstance, whose waters ebb and flow with perfect balance, lies the aboriginal abyss of real Being. Essence, or God, is not a relation, or a part, but the whole. Being is the vast affirmative, excluding negation, self-balanced, and swallowing up all relations, parts, and times within itself.[72]

Miller and Miller's Whitman break with Emerson at this point. For Miller, there is "no god, no will, no accident" that can recover the "axis of vision," the balance of a world akilter. Miller recognizes the appeal of Emerson's formulation of the "original abyss of real Being"--that oscillation of presence and absence wherein Being seems to swallow up time within itself. But against these figural tactics Miller affirms a more fundamental temporal dimension, a history that cannot be "swallowed up" by a Being that hides in the dialectic of "ideas" and "shadow":

On the meridian of time ["a meridian which had no axis"] there is no injustice; there is only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and drama. [....] For some reason or other man looks for the miracle, and to accomplish it he will wade through blood. He will debauch himself with ideas, he will reduce himself to a shadow if for only one second of his life he can close his eyes to the hideousness of reality. [....] And all the while a meter is running inside and there is no hand that can reach in there and shut it off.[73]

In Tropic of Cancer, Emerson's "axis of vision" is the axis along which "he can close his eyes to the hideousness of reality."

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