5. Anecdote v. Image

The Faubourg St. Germain

With the reiteration of Germaine's difference, all semblance of sincerity and verisimilitude abruptly gives way to a jumbled rush of every mismatched convention of the "man loves prostitute" genre. Miller confesses to have written about Germaine before, concealing her identity under the name Claude. Yet, he hurriedly adds, there really was a Claude, another prostitute he thought he loved. Now it appears that it was she, this other one, who "was not the same." Still he likes Germaine better after all for being the same, a whore among whores. But then again, in yet another about face, he confesses that truthfully he "could no more think of loving Germaine than [...] loving a spider[....]"[27] After more twists, turns, and contradictory qualifications the story of Germaine/Claude concludes in a shrill repetition of the hollow paradox that runs through every fantasy of its type: "She was a whore all the way through--and that was her virtue!"[28] Promised a significant event, a revealing moment, the reader has been handed a flat, vicious genre gone mad, turning inward upon its own limited resources.

Retraced in light of this outcome, Tropic of Cancer's third "chapter," leading so manifestly toward nothing, reveals itself to have been organized from the start by a literary sleight of hand which serves to conceal and naturalize Miller's aesthetic discourse. Everything of significance, including the critical context for Miller's concluding barrage of cliches, is put forth during the detour demarcated by the opening "Sunday!" and "It was a Sunday afternoon, much like this, when I first met Germaine." The reader who follows Miller's misleading signposts in search of a significant event, a central theme, or an epiphantic moment begins to read "critically" after "the literary" has already transpired. The story of Germaine is unremarkable. But the four pages of rambling "talk" preceding Germaine's appearance contain a tight chain of literary and critical allusions intended to situate Miller's project in relation to those of his predecessors and contemporaries. It is during this initial detour that the chapter's narrative, rather than its story, begins. Wandering the streets of Paris in search of food, Miller happens to pass a "few dismounted gargoyles," taken from their high vista and placed in the "little garden adjoining the Eglise St. Germain."[29]

The site with which Germaine is associated by name is historic. Among Miller's immediate predecessors, Guillaume Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry, and Marcel Proust had established themselves in the Faubourg Saint Germain. And it is here, as the narrative drifts toward the story of Germaine/Claude in surface eddies of thought and observation, that Miller discovers the "cosmos--on the flat":

At the Galerie Zak across the way some imbecile has made a picture of the cosmos--on the flat. A painter's cosmos! Full of odds and ends, bric-a-brac. In the lower left-hand corner, however, there's an anchor--and a dinner bell. Salute! Salute! O Cosmos! [30]

In previous commentary on this passage I have noted its role in Miller's assault upon the transcendent vision of American Romanticism. Anchoring Tropic of Cancer in Leaves of Grass, Miller nevertheless insists that this literary anchor is merely another piece of bric-a-brac upon an asphalt surface. There are no longer depths of Self or Nature to plumb where there is only the "dinner bell" drawing man incrementally forward through time: "The only thing that stands between me and the future is a meal, another meal."[31] Whereas Miller willingly celebrates the Whitman who declared himself to be "afoot with my vision," he mocks the aspirations of the oceanic Whitman, favoring the cataloger of democracy en masse over the transcendental poet of the soul.[32]

The Galerie Zak passage has, however, broader reach. In Miller's twentieth-century urban Waste Land, not just Whitman's but any vision, any picture, any poetic image of the cosmos must appear a joke, woefully inadequate to the "bric-a-brac" reality of streets only narrative can traverse. Outstripped by the passage of time, removed from their high, privileged vista, the dismounted gargoyles of the visionary tradition appear comically grotesque "on the flat": "Monsters that jut forward with a terrifying plunge," though resting on the ground, are on a par with "other monsters--old people, idiots, cripples, epileptics. Snoozing there quietly, waiting for the dinner bell to ring."[33] If the scene has a Bloomian air, it is not accidental. Miller shared with Joyce this relish for what time has made grotesque--not the Joyce of Eliot's "'Ulysses,' Order, and Myth," but the Joyce who set Leopold Bloom out upon his own hungering urban narrative. If when push came to shove Miller was prepared to caricature Joyce as another of these monsters time had made grotesque, it did not prevent him from invoking Ulysses in "The Universe of Death" to dispose of their common rivals: "The things men discussed in the artificial world of the Faubourg St. Germain no longer bear resemblance to that which passes for conversation in the streets and pubs and brothels of Dublin."[34] In Tropic of Cancer, Miller's own garrulous passage through the Faubourg St. Germain constitutes a critique, a "dismounting," of a visionary tradition understood to encompass all who have attempted to compact the heights and depths of human experience, past and present, into a single moment of illumination. The epiphantic Joyce is ultimately classed with the transcendental Whitman.

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