5. Anecdote v. Image
The cancer of time is eating us away
Tropic of Cancer opens upon the question of technique: times being what they are, upon what mode of comprehension may a literature, a life, a world be built? As throughout Miller's work, this critical issue is posed parodically and explored through anecdote. The first lines of Tropic of Cancer announce the narrator's residence, not simply in down-and-out, expatriate Paris at large, but pointedly in the Unreal City of The Waste Land. Where Eliot wrote, "He who is living is now dead / We who were living are now dying / With a little patience," Miller pursues,
I am living in the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
As yet an anonymous voice, this guest in the house of Modernism is unruly and self-aggrandizing, the kind of guest who takes the lay of the land upon moving in, ingratiating himself by adopting his host's language and playing up to his prejudices. Miller plays "the young man carbuncular" to his host's "Tiresias," for Boris (Michael Fraenkel) presides over the Villa Borghese as a "weather prophet." It is Boris who has dutifully attended "What the Thunder Said," and accordingly set his "lands in order" with an aesthetic punctiliousness his guest finds humorously bourgeois amid so much talk of the apocalypse of western civilization:
The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.
With authority borrowed directly from the "dry sterile thunder" of The Waste Land, the weather prophet's prognostic "summary of his views" sets the scene for Miller's polemic, establishing the Modernist atmospherics Tropic of Cancer will accept and reproduce, alongside the aesthetic program it will resist.
In mocking Boris' determined despondency, the critical question is put: in the face of "more calamities, more death, more despair," need one continue to make a hero of "Timelessness," doggedly shoring the fragmentary remains of timeless values against an inevitable temporal ruin. "I am living," but "we are dead." Dropping the "we" of cohabitation, Miller quickly delivers his answer: "No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty ... what you will." Rather than assemble broken images, anachronisms, and other intimations of a lost atemporal unity, Miller embraces "the cancer of time" within which he recognizes the narrative that is Tropic of Cancer. Eating away all that man has built and desired (including "Time," chronologized, conceptualized, and capitalized), "the cancer of time" leaves only itself intact: "The world around me is dissolving, leaving here and there spots of time." Needless to say, Miller's "spots of time" are a far cry from those of Wordsworth, from whose Prelude Miller steals the phrase: these are not "spots of time [...] whence [...] our minds are nourished and invisibly repaired," although Miller will find in them his own "renovating virtue." Anecdote, in its disjoint brevity, is this cancerous, destructive structure--both the corrosive principle and residue of "the cancer of time." If the decline of the West induces Boris' Eliotic despair, "the effect upon me," Miller remarks, "is exhilarating. Instead of being discouraged, or depressed, I enjoy it." He leaps to the discovery of a modern writing that makes time/space for itself:
When into the womb of time everything is again withdrawn chaos will be restored and chaos is the score upon which reality is written.
Tropic of Cancer--"Your anecdotal life!"--asserts itself as a rewriting of the real amid the debris of The Waste Land; anecdotal narrative emerges from the opening scenes of Tropic of Cancer as the only literary practice commensurate with the prevailing conditions of twentieth-century existence.