2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism
Symbolism, Point of View, and Mythic Structure
In recent years, the value of the canon produced by the alliance of New Critical modernism has been openly challenged, now inside as well as outside the academy. Historical studies of the vast bodies of "unconsciousness" literature largely excluded from the canon and over which the canon defines itself--folklore, dimestore novels; black, ethnic, proletarian and women's literatures--have proliferated. Tracing the continuity of other traditions, these studies seek to highlight the implicit, and sometimes explicit, bourgeois, racist, and sexist nature of the canon's claim to universal value. However, the very success with which these competing traditions have been excluded from the canon renders it most difficult for students of these traditions to do much more than generally condemn white-male, middle class culture and gesture in explanation toward grand socio-economic structures. The precise aesthetic and interpretive mechanisms whereby the hegemony of the canon has been secured, its standards naturalized, often go largely unexplored and unexplained. This difficulty lies at the heart of the current "crisis of difference" experienced in these marginalized literatures. Without a thorough, historical understanding of the rise and continued power of canonical modernism, any attempt to "value" competing texts tends either to erase their difference through aesthetic assimilation, or to relegate their study to sociology, where they become documents of dubious empirical value.
In this context, Miller's Paris narratives are an opportune site for an investigation of the historical consequences of the early alliance between New Criticism and certain novelistic practices. Much can be gained by examining texts closer in ambition to canonical modernism, such as Miller's Paris narratives, to discover the mechanisms of hegemony. These mechanisms are revealed all the more starkly where they have been called upon to marginalize texts which historically and literarily might as well as not have become canonical. More immediately, Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn are unapproachable and unintelligible without such a historical understanding of the precise mechanisms of New Critical hegemony.
Miller aspired to canonical status. Though his project of "recording all that which is omitted in books" led him to draw upon materials more conventionally associated with proletarian literature and to appropriate the colloquial forms and therapeutic theology of popular fiction and philosophy, these inclusions were intended to challenge prevailing standards of "high art." Though Miller enjoyed playing the American innocent, an intellectual Huck Finn, the strategy behind his aesthetic challenge was culled from the works of Emerson, Whitman, Dostoevski, Nietzsche, Freud, Spengler, D. H. Lawrence, Otto Rank, Edmund Wilson, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. Miller had no intention of writing a "popular book". But, despite the continued recognition of the vitality of Miller's prose, and despite occasional critical consideration of his theoretical positions, his works have been treated as marginal. They have survived, not on the basis of broad critical recognition, but on the basis of mass and cult appeal, and the interest of other authors and an occasional critic.
Neither the explicit sexual content, nor the overt misogyny, of Miller's texts can account for the manner in which they have been held at arm's length from the canon. Joyce, Lawrence, and Faulkner have been embraced. The irregularities of Miller's otherwise praised prose style are fully within the range of Walt Whitman, Miller's acknowledged model. Rather, New Criticism has had difficulty dealing with his texts as wholes. The techniques canonical criticism has developed to discover meaning and attribute value to a text do not work well with Miller's Paris narratives. An examination of three areas of New Critical inquiry--symbolism, point of view, and mythic structure--in relation to Miller's narrative will reveal the difficulty of pursuing in non-canonical modernist texts those techniques and valuations derived, as Peter Brooks says, from "study of the lyric." In Miller's case, this general difficulty is exacerbated by Miller's programmatic effort to frustrate and overthrow the forms of meaning and structure New Critical analysis best detects. Modern criticism, to the extent to which it remains New Critical, and this extent is great indeed, responds to Miller's narrative as it responds to all texts and literatures whose organization is preeminently narrative: necessarily it values what it is equipped to observe and theorize, and it devalues what it is not equipped to observe and theorize.