III. Narrative Detours: The Rhetoric of the Real

The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn

In the first of two chapters, I intend to explore the rhetorical significance of Miller's representational work by contrasting Tropic of Capricorn's "New York" with the "New York" of another novel set during the 1920s: The Great Gatsby. Despite the apparent incongruity of style and substance, Miller and Fitzgerald draw upon common ideological sources to pose the problem of "modernity." The manner by which they construct from similar ideological understandings very different "New Yorks" will serve as an illustration of the extent to which the differences among novelistic representations of "reality" may be ascribed to the divergent formal aesthetics whose "historicity" these representations are marshalled to vindicate. Tropic of Capricorn's and The Great Gatsby's divergent representations of commodity and sexual desire contribute to the production of two distinct American Waste Lands which authorize, in turn, discrete and competing modernist projects. Equally, attention to their distinctive narrative and symbolist renderings of a common scene discovers deliberative, polemical intent in many an ideological preoccupation that might otherwise pass for a naive expression of personal prejudice or prevailing social opinion.

As I will argue, Fitzgerald's "symbolist" technique projects a visionary world organized by the promise of personal fulfillment. By contrast, Miller's "narrative" technique projects a bric-a-brac world organized by repeated promises of personal freedom. But neither The Great Gatsby nor Tropic of Capricorn is an aesthetic monolith, impressing a single structure upon the multifarious objects, individuals, and events called to the reader's attention. These novels recognize a range of alternative constructions of the Real. By discounting Gatsby's dream and all it means to Nick, one can elicit a narrative "Great Gatsby" resembling Tropic of Capricorn. Similarly, by discounting the flux of Miller's narrative digressions and focusing upon his symbolism, one can elicit a "Tropic of Capricorn" resembling The Great Gatsby.[22] These alternatives present in each novel are not "flaws," "fractures," or "contradictions," the analysis of which might give us access to a reality beyond representation, beyond aesthetics, beyond ideology: they are the very substance of the disputatious discourse of the novel in the novel.

The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn encompass alternative aestheticizations of "reality" so that they might dispute them. Working the same ideological resources, implicitly recognizing each other's possibility, The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn are rhetorically structured to leverage the weight of reality into their distinct aesthetic ambits. "To record" a "face of the world" which "is altered with each moment we breathe," Miller suggests that "one must give a double illusion--one of arrestation and one of flow."[23] To come "face to face," another time in history, with something "commensurate to his capacity for wonder," to hold "his breath in the presence of this continent," Fitzgerald creates his own double illusion: as "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past," we realize, nevertheless, a "transitory enchanted moment" of "aesthetic contemplation."[24] The discourse of the novel in the novel does not depend for its persuasive force on a dogmatic, totalizing objectification of a conceptual or aesthetic ideal: "Desiring-machines only work when they break down, and by continually breaking down."[25] A novel's discourse unfolds in a drama of point and counter-point: what is persuasive is not the assertion but the recovery of an aesthetic ideal from a wide-ranging ideological reality that potentially refutes it. A shared sense of the "historical" conditions to which a modern novel of New York life must answer brings Fitzgerald and Miller into conflict, even in the absence of mutual knowledge of each other's work. Participating in the critical debates of their time and place, the meta-fiction of the historical genre necessarily engages them in conflict.[26]

In the last chapter, I take up another use to which Miller put Tropic of Capricorn's representations of the Real upon his return to America, when the coming of the Second World War ended "The Revolution of the Word" and, as I will argue, Miller's participation in the discourse of the novel. Throughout this essay, I have maintained that literary history must concern itself, not with what texts mean, but with what they have meant; that is, the object of literary history is not so much the text as it is the shifting literary and critical discourse within which texts are interpreted, indeed, constituted, for polemical purposes. Thus to "read" Tropic of Cancer as an alternative modernism it was necessary to displace interpretive techniques naturalized by the success of New Critical modernism, interpretive techniques which have rendered Miller's critical discourse illegible as they have devalued his anti-symbolist narrative. That effort serves equally to clear the ground for a "reading" of Tropic of Capricorn. But the cluster of interpretive conventions obscuring the novelistic discourse of Tropic of Capricorn, and by extension that of Tropic of Cancer with which it forms "one system," is not simply the product of New Critical modernism but of Miller's later career. The illegibility of novelistic discourse in Tropic of Capricorn owes as much to Miller's power as a reader of his own text as it does to the interpretive authority of his adversaries. To place Tropic of Capricorn in the literary history of the twentieth century it is necessary to recognize the two texts it is, which is to say, the two discourses in which it has participated in the course of its interpretive history: the discourse of the "historical genre" and that very American discourse of "self-liberation."

Tropic of Capricorn, the last book of Miller's expatriate career, might equally be considered the first book of Miller's American career: either Tropic of Capricorn (1939) completes the aesthetic polemic of Tropic of Cancer (1934), or it begins tale of "self-liberation" elaborated in The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy of Sexus (1949), Plexus (1953), and Nexus (1960). Miller's later accounts of his literary career efface Tropic of Capricorn's connections with the aesthetic polemic begun in Tropic of Cancer and attempt to make Capricorn part of a Rosy Crucifixion "quartet." This reinterpretation significantly shaped Miller's popular and critical reception upon his return to America. To recover the "early" Tropic of Capricorn upon which Miller worked for seven of his nine years in Paris it is necessary to revisit the genesis of the "later" Tropic of Capricorn, a scene of conscious deliberation on Miller's part. In the act of reinterpretation Miller illuminates the discursive preoccupations distinguishing the two texts of Tropic of Capricorn: one organized by the discourse of the novel and the other by the discourse of self-liberation.

The last part of this "local study" of the history of the modern novel is thus divided into two chapters. The first, "Desire in the Waste Land," treats the "American history" Tropic of Capricorn represents that we might be persuaded of the "historical" necessity of Miller's modernism. The second, "The Last Book," retraces Miller's steps as he closed the door upon his participation in the aesthetic debates of the discourse of the novel and, effacing his Paris years, found his way back to the America and American ideologies of his youth, if not a sadder and a wiser man, then a "merry" and more famous one.

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