5. Anecdote v. Image
Spots of Time in a Cosmos-on the Flat
Tropic of Cancer is "bad" New Critical modernism, and quite deliberately so. Miller's narrative proves resistant to New Critical appropriation, but not because his narrative art was, at its inception, uncannily "post-modern"; nor in explanation of his narrative's systematic disruption of the tropes of vision upon which Modernism was built need we argue that beyond intention language itself is "always already," in this sense, "post-modern." Rather, Miller's narrative proves resistant precisely because it was forged with the emergence of the "classical" from the "wild romantic" Ulysses well in view. Where a "mythic" reading would insinuate a thorough-going metaphoric exchange between Miller and Germaine and Charles and Odette, Miller plays along, knowing full well the implications of such a continuous parallel between past and present. His bald, associative transition between Paris in the days of Charles the Silly and the story of Germaine is of the type present throughout canonical modernism: such abrupt narrative turns serve to guide "close reading" to the "really interesting parts" from which a "text" may be assembled. But lines like "It was a Sunday afternoon, much like this when I first met Germaine" are also those New Critical exegesis, having found its place, systematically relegates to the merely novelistic background--a manifestation of the regrettable generic necessity of stringing together some sort of narrative as a vehicle for symbolic structure. In Tropic of Cancer, however, the casual, incidental quality of this narrative tag, "Sunday," governs the surrounding text and constitutes Miller's polemic.
The associative path linking the opening exclamation, "Sunday!" to the recollected Sunday with Germaine does not stop with the story, but proceeds through to the next "chapter," which also begins with a "Sunday!": "Easter came in like a frozen hare[....]" Anecdotal narrative spans and breaks the bounds of the typographically isolated section, turning the "chapter" into something more appropriately called "a chain of Sundays" than the "story of Germaine." From the moment he passes the dismounted gargoyles of the Eglese St. Germain, the question for Miller the narrator, and for the reader attentive to his polemics, is how should the modern novel include--represent--the fragmentary existence he and his contemporaries were unveiling. Miller's answer lies in the circuitous route he takes to the textual site where Modernism would demand a shoring of archaic and contemporary images, a paralleling of past and present in epiphantic revelation. Reduced by the onward flowing narrative to "spots of time," Sunday, the Eglise St. Germain, the "cosmos-on the flat," the bookshop window, and the memories of Germaine and Claude become just additional anecdotes of a narrative passage through a twentieth-century Waste Land. These chained anecdotes, this detour, constitute Miller's answer in the double sense in which his "spots of time" carry the critical discourse which defends the alternative Waste Land they compose. As invisible to New Critical reading as the order of his "chaotic" narrative, his aesthetic polemics transpire anecdotally, each "point" not a compact conceptual unit, but a contingent qualification of the preceding "point"--all as dispersed in narrative time as the story of Germaine.
Where Tropic of Cancer, The Waste Land, and Ulysses, read in their idealized strengths, have the least in common they are joined by the discourse of modernism. In the abstract one might imagine the modes of rereading demanded by Miller's anecdotal narratives and by the image-laden texts of canonical modernism to co-exist in near mathematical asymmetry, respectively discovering and valuing the incommensurate qualities the editors of transition called "horizontal" and "vertical." One might imagine such an array of oppositional terms and values from which Miller, Eliot, and Joyce construct their polemical difference, but reading and rereading are not activities conducted in the abstract. The historical discourse by which Miller, Eliot, and Joyce are joined is shaped by the imperatives of debate rather than amicable divisions of hermeneutic territory: to turn to Eliot or Joyce, persuaded by Miller's narrative, is to sense in their works a self-satisfied pedantry, a pointless trick of the mind with no grasp of reality; to turn to Miller, persuaded by Eliot or Joyce's ironic structures, is to sense in his work a self-satisfied autodidacticism, a pointless rambling with no grasp of reality. There is no leisured posture from which to "appreciate" these opposing works as "Literature," for their history, which is our history, is one of deliberate, irreconcilable antagonism--a struggle to reshape our very capacity for appreciation, in the nuanced sense in which that word taps the surreptitious connection between "to know fully" and "to increase in value." The imaginative act that, for purposes of analysis, transports Miller's narratives from the fuzzy periphery of New Critical modernism's empire of valued knowledge to the polemical center of its past cannot rectify "The Canon" by making it more inclusive. Such an act of the analytic imagination can, however, discern what the canon has occluded: the rhetorical coherence of Miller's strand of modernism and its correlative, the polemical edge of such vastly over-read texts as The Waste Land and Ulysses. To the extent that Miller relied upon a repudiation of image, synecdoche, and the vertiginous knowledge of ironic epiphany to advance a literature privileging anecdote, flow, and the purely horizontal extension of a "cosmos-on the flat," Eliot and Joyce had relied upon the cluster of tropes valued by Miller--already available--to advance their literature. Here, Miller's mode of response provides a measure against which to delineate the strategy that is Eliot's "Unreal City" and Joyce's "Dublin."