5. Anecdote v. Image
T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land
In place of the syncretism of Eliot and Joyce's bricolage, Miller's "spots of time" speak with an insistently transitive logic, their sense always awaiting qualification, if not completion, further along his rambles through a "cosmos--on the flat." But joined in debate, Miller's aesthetic dissent transpires within a broad consensus visible in the literary practice of his contemporaries. What Stuart Gilbert said in defense of Ulysses may also be said in defense of The Waste Land: both texts notoriously require "a little patience" before their fragments can be "assimilated in the reader's mind for him to arrive at a complete understanding." The Modernist penchant for requiring of the reader a suspension of understanding is equally fundamental to Miller's technique. His novels also ask that the reader wait, not for the "what happens" of an unfolding plot, but, like Ulysses, for "what it all means." The difference between Miller's transitive bricolage and the patient deferral of understanding demanded by Eliot's poem and Joyce's novel is manifest in the distinctive modes of rereading their works demand for their aesthetic discourses to be read "critically." Thus, where the inescapable linearity of language, plot, and the book form might be said to require a "narrative dimension" of every literary work, the aesthetic rivalry between Tropic of Cancer, on the one hand, and The Waste Land and Ulysses, on the other, is promulgated through the different ways in which textual organization can render that initial experience of reading first page to last something we retrospectively call "naive." The order Miller imposes upon his anecdotes in "sandwiching" fragments from his own and other's work into narrative is sequential rather than hierarchical, metonymic rather than synecdochic.
Through footnote and map, Eliot and Joyce insist upon a critical rereading that abstracts from the sequence of presentation to construct a text, a new literary object, imagined such that the relations of its disparate parts are visible from a unified, privileged point of view. Eliot speaks to this synecdochic structuring most directly:
Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a 'character,' is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. [....] What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.
What is this "substance of the poem" but a summary real text beyond the presented text's sequence of voices and anecdotes, a "substance" after which Eliot sends his readers inquiring? Similarly, Edmund Wilson discerned in Joyce's critical map an admonition that the true spectacle of Ulysses required readers to adopt the stance of the mapmaker. Shifting metaphors to explain how Joyce was "symphonic rather than narrative," Wilson wrote, "His force, instead of following a line, expands itself in every dimension (including that of Time) about a single point." What are Joyce's maps but Jesuitical disciplinary guides to the spiritual point at which the reader might turn and contemplate, as did the Creator, the whole of creation anew? Such already-New Critical modes of rereading render Miller's critical discourse invisible or incoherent precisely to the extent that his narrative provides no privileged point of view, either within or without the text, from which its metonymic anecdotal parts may be restructured synecdochically. The "I" of Tropic of Cancer is oppressively present, but it never "sees [...] the substance" of Tropic of Cancer as a whole. Changing register as it moves from incident to incident, the anonymous voice of Tropic of Cancer speaks now the language of the street and now the language of art, taking the reader on a tour of the length and breadth of Miller's Waste Land, without constituting itself beyond the immediate contingency of its serried remarks.
As anecdote succeeds anecdote, Tropic of Cancer's narrative reiterates its opening characterization of Modernist understanding as a kind of afterlife, a post-mortum awaited in vain: "The[ir] hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death." In finally running out without ending, the novel refuses the prophetic epistemology shared by The Waste Land and Ulysses: comprehension may require suspension, deferral, indeed "a little patience," but not because life--like a "naive" first reading--delivers a chaotic, "rapid flux of images" that can be understood only from the atemporal outside or aftermath of singular, static, distant reflection. The narrative organization of Tropic of Cancer argues instead for the mode of comprehension it solicits: comprehension requires ever more narrative. To reread Miller's transitive bricolage critically, to understand its aesthetic discourse, it is necessary to retrace the path of one's "naive" reading, discerning the surreptitiously introduced subjects of his predicates. The reader must relive rather than review the text.