5. Anecdote v. Image
The Crack: an Arabian zero
Miller's second derivation of anecdotal narrative from the zeroed self makes clear his dissent from the tradition that draws upon Poe. His zero is an "Arabian zero" rather than a Hellenic zero, algebraic rather than arithmetic:
When I look down into that crack I see an equation sign, the world at balance, a world reduced to zero and no trace of remainder. Not the zero on which Van Norden turned his flashlight, not the empty crack of the prematurely disillusioned man, but an Arabian zero rather, the sign from which spring endless mathematical worlds, the fulcrum which balances the stars and the light dreams and the machines lighter than air and the lightweight limbs and the explosives that produced them.
The "zero," the "crack," is an "equation sign" that unleashes narrative rather than bringing figuration to an abrupt halt before an emptiness vision cannot fathom. It is this "Arabian zero" that allows Miller to equate, with relative indifference, the city with male and female sex organs as his narrative chances to demand. Miller's zero moves along streets which are "a big chancrous cock laid open longitudinally" and "Molly Bloom lying on a dirty mattress for eternity. [....] that crack laughing at me too." The city as traversed constitutes a reality that cannot be imaged. If the city is to be gendered it must be both masculine and feminine. But, it cannot be gendered, even ambiguously, and so Miller's sexual imagery is comprised of figures of decay. Not simply is the city decaying, but the very process of figuration as well: Miller's figuration is a figuration in decay before the onward movement of narrative. The city as traversed is the "unstitched wound" wherein the accumulated figural and conceptual structures of western culture are broken open:
A glance at the dark, unstitched wound and a deep fissure in my brain opens up: all the images and memories that had been laboriously or absent-mindedly assorted, labeled, documented, filed, sealed and stamped break forth pell-mell like ants pouring out of a crack in the sidewalk[....]
The city dictates the potpourri of associative comparisons: "I ought to be rich enough to have a secretary to whom I could dictate as I walk[....]" The city dictates a disorientation of all coherent oppositions, including Miller's sexual imagery. In Tropic of Cancer, the city dictates narrative.
If Miller's wandering, equating narrative does not succeed in leveling the figural hierarchy that is all but explicit in the violent sexual images he invokes, this is, nevertheless, the effort required by his polemic. The representation of the live, ambiguously sexed and unsexed city forms a central part of his attempt to unhinge the closely aligned series of oppositions that permeate western literature, New Critical modernism offering no exception: subject/object, male/female, culture/nature, light/chaos, height/depth, presence/absence, One/Zero, etc. Miller's agenda is laid out in a letter to Anaïs Nin, written after his first talk with Otto Rank:
Remember all I have been trying to say about the masculine aspect of the civilizing process, that all culture is built upon an evasion (that's how I was putting it to myself, perhaps not so neatly as Rank) of that sex problem--that dilemma really. For when you consider woman, in her role of generator, of begetter, when you consider how analogous she appears, to man's mind, to the role of Nature, Nature which spawns ceaselessly and carelessly and destroys at the same time, how natural, inevitable it is that this artificial, this abstract, this thoroughly mental image of life which his Culture is should be opposed to the female view, the female principle. Woman is, man becomes--I think that was one of Spengler's phrases. The becoming! That is pure ideology, an invention, an illusion that nourishes man. [....] Man is the crime against nature--or that is, his representation of Life is such a crime. It is something he can only adhere to by a violation.
Miller does not escape this "dilemma," but much of the patent offensiveness of his narrative is the result of his studied effort to literalize and hence ridicule the implicit structure of western (male) imagination--the "pure ideology, an invention, an illusion that nourishes man." Van Norden turning his light on the woman he has purchased is a profoundly disturbing rendition of the subject/object relation between the Romantic poet and Nature, between the classical poet and his muse. Miller concludes, "And therefore, Q.E.D. and reply to all the optimists and pessimists, to all the jugglers of thought and the archangels of logic, the right way to look through the telescope is from Life." This is a novelist's rhetoric. If Tropic of Cancer does not manage to look from whatever might be called Life, its insistent narrative does go a long way toward disposing of the "telescope," in the process starkly revealing the forms of consciousness that are predicated upon distanced, visionary observation.