4. Burlesque v. Irony
Swimming in an Ideological Ether
Miller's words are formed oppositionally, but he pointedly explains that any such opposition is transitive, not permanent. Though Miller's words resolve in opposition to structured concepts, they do not become, by virtue of opposing structured concepts, a potentially "complementary" structure. The mesh is Moldorf's and Miller's use of the metaphor of the mesh cannot be construed as a negative image of a structuralist theory of language as chess game of binary oppositions. Miller carefully adds that the mesh is not only pierced at every point, but incomplete: "there will never be enough bars to make the mesh." More importantly, the forward movement of Miller's narrative prevents the articulation of any alternative, totalizing structure: "The telephone interrupts this thought which I should never have been able to complete." Passing through the sieve, narrative flow is resolved momentarily into words, into things, into the episodes of Miller's novels, but "The thing flows." It flows on to again become solution. Insofar as Miller's words arise in a temporal series of oppositions that cannot be assembled into a coherent, synchronic set of oppositions, the transitory meaningfulness of his words points only to the flow into which they return. As the vaudeville gag is interjected before the straightman can finish his sentence, Miller's narrative, his jump "halfway across Asia," transpires in the lull of a discourse on modernism, supplying all that will not fit its formal aesthetic mesh: "There is only one thing which interests me vitally now, and that is the recording of all that which is omitted in books." Miller exploits the openness of burlesque to sustain and forestall completion of "The Revolution of the Word," protesting, "Revolutions are nipped in the bud, or else succeed too quickly."
Miller adopted the mask of the burlesque comedian in part to conquer the Romantic in himself, but equally to counter the Romantic affinities of his contemporaries, employing burlesque to level the "ironies" of the emerging modernist consensus, whose very structure betrayed a Romantic preoccupation with heights and depths. For Miller, the Romantic "Nature" of Emerson and the "Cosmos" of Whitman had been "shattered to bits" by history: "Nothing can rear itself organically any longer." Like Whitman, Miller sets out "on the road," but having donned the mask of the burlesque clown, Miller makes no pretense to a "Me myself" large enough to "absorb" the cosmos. In Tropic of Cancer he declares that time past, fondly mocking the poetic "Walt" of expansive, "democratic soul":
"I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out," said Walt. That was a time when you could still get a hat to fit your head. But time passes. To get a hat that fits now you have to walk to the electric chair. They give you a skull cap. A tight fit, what? But no matter! It fits.
But more urgently, it is Ulysses, Modernism's most noble effort to rear, once again, a structured cosmos, that must be "shattered to bits" to leave a "free field for the 'gaseous invertebrates' swimming in an ideological ether." Throughout Tropic of Cancer, Miller repeatedly brings burlesque to bear upon Joyce's "extra-temporal history." More than any other work, Romantic or Modern, Ulysses was the ideological art structure through which Miller's narrative flow resolved itself into words--that is, into words of rank polemical energy.
Miller's reading of Ulysses was strategic, aimed to situate his own work in relation to what he considered the great, but only the last great, work of modern literature. In June 1933, Miller wrote Nin, "After you read the last chapter read the next to the last (if I remember right)--the question and answer business. I like that immensely." What Miller liked was an opening he saw for his own burlesque narrative:
The chapter before the last, which is the work of a learned desperado, is like the dynamiting of a dam. The dam, in the unconscious symbology of Joyce, is the last barrier of tradition and culture which must give way if man is to come into his own. Each idiotic question is a hole drilled by a madman and charged with dynamite; each idiotic answer is the detonation of a devastating explosion. Joyce, the mad baboon, herein gives the works to the patient ant-like industry of man which has accumulated about him like an iron ring of dead learning.
When the last vestige has been blown up comes the flood. The final chapter is a free fantasia such as has never been seen before in all literature. It is a transcription of the deluge--except that there is no ark.