3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon

Paris is simply an artificial stage

In Tropic of Cancer Miller deploys a series of shifting figures in which Paris appears first, as "the cradle of artificial births," then, as "an artificial stage":

"It is not accident that propels people like us to Paris. Paris is simply an artificial stage, a revolving stage that permits the spectator to glimpse all phases of the conflict."[59]

This effort to become the spectator who, seeing all, sees better than all the rest, plainly alludes to Miller's agonistic reading of Emerson, but the rhetoric of artificiality in which it is couched bespeaks Miller's larger strategic intention: to subsume Modernism under Romanticism. The "natural" Romantic reborn in the "artificial cradle" of Modernism is still bound to "vision." Miller's definitive rejection of the visionary tradition may be read in an extended dream sequence which begins with a jibe at Emerson's transparent eyeball: "I close my eyes every night on an artificial eye.... Standing in the courtyard with a glass eye; only half the world is intelligible." The dream concludes by elaborating the consequences of the figure of Paris as a revolving, artificial stage from which one might glimpse all phases of the conflict:

The people who live here are dead; they make chairs which other people sit on in their dreams. In the middle of the street is a wheel and in the hub of the wheel a gallows is fixed. People already dead are trying frantically to mount the gallows, but the wheel is turning too fast....[60]

Already dead, reborn too late to modernism, a second death and dissolution awaits at the end of the visionary quest. The futility of the entire figural sequence, from frustrated fetus to would-be visionary to modernist death, is recapitulated prior to the final episode of Tropic of Cancer:

The door of the womb always on the latch. Dread and longing. Deep in the blood the pull of paradise. The beyond. Always the beyond. It must have all started with the navel. They cut the umbilical cord, give you a slap on the ass, and presto! you're out in the world, adrift, a ship without a rudder. You look at the stars and then you look at your navel. You grow eyes everywhere--in the armpits, between the lips, in the roots of your hair, on the soles of your feet. What is distant becomes near, what is near becomes distant. Inner-outer, a constant flux, a shedding of skins, a turning inside out. You drift around like that for years and years, until you find yourself in the dead center, and there you slowly rot, slowly crumble to pieces, get dispersed again. Only your name remains.[61]

This is Miller's most explicit rejection of synoptic vision, of a purely visionary rebirth. The proliferation of eyes is futile, giving rise neither to determinate self nor to determinate other. The visionary quest culminates in dispersal, a dispersal that only narrative can negotiate.

Having diagnosed Modernism as infected by the disease of Romanticism, Tropic of Cancer essays a remedy--to dispense with the very problem of self by collapsing the antithesis between man and machine:

My last problem--breakfast--is gone. I have simplified everything. If there are any new problems I can carry them in my rucksack, along with my dirty wash. I am throwing away all my sous. What need have I for money? I am a writing machine. The last screw has been added. The thing flows. Between me and the machine there is no estrangement. I am the machine. . . .[62]

Repeatedly, Miller's narrative invokes this Romantic antithesis and contends it is overcome without explaining how this has been accomplished. The narrative flow is itself the answer. When "the thing flows," there is no place to stop and contemplate the apparent paradoxes through which it has passed. Such antinomies dissolve in the artifice of narrative itself.

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