3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon

The age demands violence

Miller's antagonistic encounter with the writers to which Fraenkel guided him brought him to something of a historical understanding of modernism, which is only to say that Miller began to grasp the meta-fiction every novelist implicitly understands. "The Revolution of the Word" declared in transition 16/17 of 1929 had only just assumed hegemonic form with the publication of Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's 'Ulysses'.[27] But in Miller's new understanding, this newly emergent modernist consensus would also pass. History made it vulnerable:

Nobody, so far as I can see, is making use of those elements in the air which give direction and motivation to our lives. Only the killers seem to be extracting from life some satisfactory measure of what they are putting into it. The age demands violence, but we are getting only abortive explosions.[28]

In his literary, critical, and historical readings Miller sought the novel form that might set off a world historical explosion. In conjunction with Fraenkel, figured as Boris of Tropic of Cancer, Miller projected the form of "The Last Book":

Heretofore we had been digging in the dark, with nothing but instinct to guide us. Now we shall have a vessel in which to pour the vital fluid, a bomb which, when we throw it, will set off the world. [....] It is colossal in its pretentiousness. The thought of it almost shatters us.[29]

Within this fantasy, Miller sets the goal of his reading--a "vessel" must be found to replace/contain "instinct"; a novel form of Miller's own devising must replace/supersede Fraenkel's "New Instinctivism."

The fruit of Miller's reading is evident in Tropic of Cancer and The World of Lawrence--the "brochure" on Lawrence (and Proust and Joyce) which was written concurrently with Tropic of Cancer but remained unpublished in its entirety until 1980.[30] Here Miller advanced, if not a theory of the novel, at least a diagnosis of its formal permutations. Tropic of Cancer's canny description of the novel's "perfections," cited in the previous chapter, belongs to these diagnostic efforts:

Beside the perfection of Turgenev I put the perfection of Dostoevski. [....] Here, then, in one and the same medium, we have two kinds of perfection. But in Van Gogh's letters there is a perfection beyond either of these. It is the triumph of the individual over art.[31]

The searching reader is intent upon opening a space for his own writerly "triumph." The novel is not a progressive realization and development of some inner essence, an inherited task the aspiring novelist must take up. Rather, the variations in the novel's form map a field, a "medium," within which various possible "perfections" may be attained. The realization of some potential "perfections" requires a radical violation of the novel's current form, perhaps a return by way of Van Gogh's letters to the epistolary novel.[32]

In The World of Lawrence Miller reformulates this spatial model of the novel's possibilities along explicitly historical lines. He searches for clues to the historical moment and to his situation within it:

Life to Joyce, as one of his admirers says, is a mere tautology. Precisely. We have here the clue to the whole symbolism of defeat. And, whether he is interested in history or not, Joyce is the history of our time, of this age which is sliding into darkness.[33]

Miller here sees his task as set by history--not a linear, unalterable history but a history made by novelists whether they are conscious of that making or not. His conclusions are written into Tropic of Cancer:

To fathom the new reality it is first necessary to dismantle the drains, to lay open the gangrened ducts which compose the genito-urinary system that supplies the excreta of art. The odor of the day is permanganate and formaldehyde. [34]

A novelist might create an alternative to the emergent literary reality, an "explosion," provided he could expose the workings of that reality. He might discover and justify his own novelistic course within current literary practice by revealing that current practice to be something made and thus susceptible to being unmade and remade.

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