3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon
Otto Rank: Art and Artist.
The historical polemic driving Miller's transitive symbolism was inspired in significant part by discussions with Otto Rank, who had migrated to Paris in the 1920s, after publication of his The Trauma of Birth precipitated a break with Freud. In March 1933 Miller first met with Rank to discuss the draft of Tropic of Cancer and Rank's recent book, Art and Artist. By that time Miller was thoroughly versed in Nietzsche, Spengler, Freud, and Jung. He found common ground with Rank immediately, and left the first meeting convinced that in Tropic of Cancer he was on the right track. Rank had written of the artist's struggle--and through the artist, culture's struggle--against previous "aesthetic ideologies and the people who represent them" as a process of "separation that is so hard, not only because it involves persons and ideas one reveres, but because the victory is always, at bottom and in some form, won over a part of one's own ego." Miller believed this was the key to making Tropic of Cancer the novel of the historical moment: "Read into this all you want of ego, make the necessary subtractions--it remains a fact that I conquered, and not the least important fact that I consider the conquest a victory over myself, my Romantic self, if you will."
Miller's peculiar use of "genito-urinary" language to convey the dilemmas of artistic creation and cultural transformation was part of the common ground he found with the author of The Trauma of Birth. The peculiarity of Tropic of Cancer and Art and Artist is that Miller and Rank both use images of birth and rebirth to repudiate Romanticism and the persistent Romantic elements of Modernism: they deploy sexual language to repudiate sexual symbolism. At stake for Rank was the possibility of liberating aesthetic and cultural analysis from the realm of neurosis into which Freud had cast it. Miller, in parallel fashion, sought an escape from sexual obsession into writing. At stake was the possibility of liberating language from desire--from the desires it might still portray. Leaving a brothel, the narrator of Tropic of Cancer writes:
Walking toward Montparnasse I decided to let myself drift with the tide, to make not the least resistance to fate, no matter in what form it presented itself. Nothing that had happened to me thus far had been sufficient to destroy me; nothing had been destroyed except my illusions. [....] It seemed to me that the great calamity had already manifested itself, that I could be no more truly alone than at this very moment. I made up my mind that I would hold on to nothing, that I would expect nothing[....]
Wandering narrative displaces desire. In Miller's burlesque rendering, the achieved state is akin to being "big with" book: "I am pregnant. I waddle awkwardly, my big stomach pressed against the weight of the world." The moment of unnatural fecundity is specifically anti-sexual, issuing in a polemic against the poet's muse and, latently, visionary or transcendental tropes of authorship:
Tania is in a hostile mood--I can feel it. She resents me being filled with anything but herself. She knows by the very caliber of my excitement that her value is reduced to zero. [....] She knows there is something germinating inside me which will destroy her.
At every turn, Tropic of Cancer's critical discourse returns to the problem of modern writing with caricature and obscene hyperboles of birth and death. As Miller remembered in The World of Sex,
In that first year or two, in Paris, I was literally annihilated. There was nothing left of the writer I had hoped to be, only the writer I had to be. (In finding my way I found my voice.) The Tropic of Cancer is a blood-soaked testament revealing the ravages of my struggle in the womb of death. The strong odor of sex which it purveys is really the aroma of birth; it is disagreeable or repulsive only to those who fail to recognize its significance.
The "womb of death" serves as a figure for Miller's aborted birth as a modernist, something to be overcome and repudiated. Tropic of Cancer narrates a series of false starts, aborted births, from which the narrative itself--Miller's "voice"--represents the way out, an escape from sex, from death, from Emersonian transcendentalism, from Dreiserian realism, from transition's Modernism. As Miller tells the story of his first encounters with Modernist aesthetics, he had scraped together just enough money to expatriate to Paris, "the cradle of artificial births," the "obstetrical instrument that tears the living embryo from the womb and puts it in the incubator," only to find the birth of modernism long past. By 1930, Paris appeared less a center of literary inspiration than a tourist's mecca for aspiring artists. Indeed, in 1926, Hemingway, whose writings greatly contributed to this state of affairs, observed, "It was crowded with Americans and we had to stand up and wait for a place. Some one had put it in the American Women's Club list as a quaint restaurant on the Paris quais as yet untouched by Americans."
Nevertheless, The Sun Also Rises held out the possibility that Paris could still be "done right," if only one knew how. Miller responded to this call only to find himself one of a vast horde of would-be geniuses: "The drains are clogged with strangled embryos." This same genito-urinary imagery appears in the epigraph to "Megalopolitan Maniac" (the last sketch of Black Spring), once again employed to describe Miller's circumstances prior to the narrative discoveries that produced Tropic of Cancer:
Imagine having nothing on your hands but your destiny. You sit on the doorstep of your mother's womb and you kill time--or time kills you. You sit there chanting the doxology of things beyond your grasp. Outside. Forever outside.
With this self-portrait of the artist as a frustrated fetus, Miller locates the aesthetic origins of his furious Paris narratives. Not to be underestimated is a megalomaniacal ambition, "forever outside," stymied by the thought that modernism should receive its imprimatur without the assistance of Henry V. Miller, great American novelist, or, as he had once taken to signing his letters, "Herr Dostoevski, Jr."