7. Desire in the Waste Land

The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge

To have money in the pocket in the midst of white, neutral energy, to walk meaningless and unfecundated through the bright glitter of the calcimined streets, to think aloud in full solitude on the edge of madness, to be of a city, a great city, to be of the last moment of time in the greatest city in the world and feel no part of it, is to become oneself a city, a world of dead stone, of waste light, of unintelligible motion, of imponderables and incalculables, of the secret perfection of all that is minus.
Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn
I must get all those characters to New York[....]
F. Scott Fitzgerald to Max Perkins

The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939), separated by fourteen years, a world-wide depression, and the transit from the aftermath of one world war to the onset of another, seek to occupy the same imaginative time and space.[1] In the summer of 1922, as Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby motor across the Queensboro Bridge toward Manhattan, "Henry Miller," the personnel director of the "Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America," and his switchboard operator Hymie leave work and board the trolley across the Brooklyn Bridge for Greenpoint. Although the characters of The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn are differentiated by circumstances of class and ethnicity, pointing to the divisions of the city, they are not moving in real time and space, on real bridges, on real modes of transportation. As the two pair of imaginary travelers approach the center of the bridge, the fictive "New Yorks" of Fitzgerald and Miller collide, head to head in the same vision of the city:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.
A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds, and by two more cheerful carriages for friends. [....]
"Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge," I thought; " anything at all. . . ."
Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.[2]
But going over the bridge, the sun setting, the skyscrapers gleaming like phosphorescent cadavers, the remembrance of the past set in. . . [....] Maybe, being high up between the two shores, suspended above the traffic, above life and death, on each side the high tombs, tombs blazing with dying sunlight, the river flowing heedlessly, flowing on like time itself, maybe each time I passed up there, something was tugging away at me, urging me to take it in, to announce myself; anyway each time I passed on high I was truly alone and whenever that happened the book commenced to write itself, screaming the things which I never breathed, the thoughts I never uttered, the conversations I never held, the hopes, the dreams, the delusions I never admitted.[3]

Despite the figural variety of The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn, this brief common vision of New York City appears, promising each novelist that his novel may "happen, without any particular wonder," that it may "commence to write itself," arising from and capturing the reality of twentieth-century urban America. "Anything can happen now": the art of The Great Gatsby, or "maybe" the art of Tropic of Capricorn, or neither. Through a rhetoric of the Real, here manifested in two carefully crafted "New Yorks," each novelist works to see this promise realized in his novel and no other.

It is, however, not accidental that each novelist has chosen the city scene for a "modern" novel. The year 1922 marked the publication of Ulysses and The Waste Land, the appearance of Joyce's "Dublin" and Eliot's "London." Viewed from the Queensboro and Brooklyn Bridges, the beguilements of New York represent the promise of America transmuted by the "Unreal City" of twentieth-century "megalopolitanism." Fitzgerald and Miller share an understanding of the threat posed by the emergent "world-city" to an American ideology of personal fulfillment and freedom--a vision deriving both aesthetically and philosophically from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. I need not elaborate here upon Fitzgerald's appropriation of Eliot's "Waste Land," which has made The Great Gatsby a paradigmatic--indeed, pedagogic--novel of New Critical modernism; and I have previously examined Tropic of Cancer's opening parody of "What the Thunder Said."[4] It was Spengler who provided Fitzgerald and Miller with a "historical," and hence more readily "novelistic," sense of the modern condition poeticized in The Waste Land. Fitzgerald read The Decline of the West in France in 1924, "the same summer I was writing 'The Great Gatsby' and I don't think I ever quite recovered from him."[5] Miller read Spengler's philosophy of history in 1927 on the Lower East Side, and Spengler, along with Goethe and Nietzsche, later served as his intellectual pedigree for purposes of introduction to Michael Fraenkel.[6]

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