7. Desire in the Waste Land
The discourse of patriarchy: necessarily varied, protean
The discourse of patriarchy, though unified in its devaluation of women and women's experience, is necessarily a varied, protean thing. Were it merely a reflection of inequitable distributions of economic and social power and prestige, the discourse would be without consequence: each increase, however incremental, in women's access to institutions traditionally reserved to men would produce a corresponding reduction of its presence and force. Further, were its powers of persuasion dependent upon an internally consistent, rational structure of doctrine and deduction, the discourse of patriarchy would have fallen under the weight of its own contradictions centuries ago, or been demolished by the various "totalizing" criticisms that have exposed its obvious flaws as a philosophical "world view." The vitality of the discourse of patriarchy, like that of any other discourse, depends upon its variety. Its power is rhetorical: it is a logic of convenience responding to different challenges, different situations, in different ways without abandoning its purpose. It is only because one articulation of male sexual desire managed to desexualize and idealize women as embodying a stifling cultural motherhood that Miller's casual and sequential sexual "depredations" could ever have been passed off as the "sexual liberation" of men and women. Misogyny as a "system" is little but "ill-will": misogyny as a rhetorical practice is power diversely deployed.
In passing from the fundamental misogyny Fitzgerald and Miller share to the distinctive shape of male sexual desire and correspondingly differential representation of women in The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn, I wish to pursue the same double agenda as in the preceding discussion of commodity desire, looking to the disputatious discourse of the novel to explicate the discrete "New Yorks" produced by authors who begin with similar ideological premises, and to the multiple, totalized "realities" so generated to suggest a powerful way in which--beyond mere repetition, "reflection," or aesthetic elevation--the historical genre contributes to the persuasiveness of the ideological discourses upon which it draws. In an effort to advance rival modern aesthetics, symbolist and narrative, Fitzgerald and Miller each engage a rhetoric of the Real: this is the reality of our time; here is my art, both in it and of it. A selective aestheticization of elements and strands of patriarchal discourse supports their respective claims, configuring sexual desire and the representation of its objects to "realize" the formal polemics of their novels. This is the sense in which the more misogynous turns of patriarchal discourse do not appear in The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn in addition to Fitzgerald and Miller's aesthetics, as if there were on the one hand their attitudes toward women, and on the other their artistic achievements. Rather, through an elaboration of competing, and to some extent mutually exclusive, aestheticizations of women, The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn turn misogyny to divergent aesthetic ends, by their very difference vitalizing the discourse of patriarchy. The novels reinforce the subordination of women to men by "realizing" an ideological field within which the meaning of "modernity" and the relative merits of Fitzgerald and Miller's "modernisms" may be endlessly debated, without addressing the status of women. For behind the foreground of their violent aesthetic difference, that status is made to appear a "natural" constant.
The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn are novels preoccupied with the culture of consumption in its purest forms; neither favors the market oriented tropes of exchange specific to traditional, mercantile, or early capitalist cultures. This preoccupation is even more evident in their representations of sexual desire than commodity desire. The forms of desire which make women valuable objects in The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn preclude the metaphoric exchange of women among men typical of market-based novels of consumer culture, wherein "successful" marriage is the denouement of a general circulation of commodities and women. The women and commodities of The Great Gatsby are symbolic "goods," or "no good," thereby validating the structured aesthetic integrity of Fitzgerald's modern American Waste Land. In Tropic of Capricorn, women, like commodities, are on display or they are forcibly displayed; in either case they figure an American cultural excess that echoes the endless, metonymic "depredations" of Miller's narrative aesthetics. Both novels go to great lengths to denigrate sexual desire founded on exchange value, polemically representing it in such clear contradiction with their privileged forms of sexual desire as to constitute an "unreality" against which the characters of the novels valiantly struggle.