6. Diatribe v. Epiphany

The Humor of Rabelais and Joyce

Miller criticizes Joyce for hesitation, for remaining on the "carapace" paralyzed by horror. He accuses Joyce of structuring his text about the image of the "grey sunken cunt of the world," rather than "Molly Bloom lying on a dirty mattress for eternity." In "The Universe of Death," he contrasts the "technical facility" of Joyce's humor and obscenity with that of Rabelais and, implicitly, that of his own narratives:

Is Joyce this man who can imitate any style--even the text-book and the encyclopedia? This form of humor, in which Rabelais also indulged, is the specific remedy which the intellectual employs to defeat the moral man: it is the dissolvent with which he destroys a whole world of meaning. [....] But observe the difference between the humor of Rabelais, with whom the author of Ulysses is so frequently and unjustly compared, and Joyce. [....] Rabelais' humor was still healthy; it had a stomachic quality, it was inspired by the Holy Bottle. Whereas with our contemporaries it is all in the head, above the eyes--a vicious, envious, mean, malign, humorless mirth. To-day they are laughing out of desperation, out of despair. Humor? Hardly. A reflexive muscular twitch, rather--more gruesome than mirth-provoking. A sort of Onanistic laughter... In those marvelous passages where Joyce marries his rich excretory images to his sad mirth there is a poignant, wistful undercurrent which smells of reverence and idolatry. Reminiscent, too reminiscent, of those devout medieval louts who kneeled before the Pope to be anointed with dung.[35]

Miller argues for an acceptance of the bric-a-brac world in which man's highest as well as his lowest activities and thoughts transpire on the same level, in changing contingent contact, rather than under a hierarchy of being and consciousness wherein "dung" may be taken as an ironic sign of divinity. In Miller's "cosmos--on the flat," "the monstrous thing is not that men have created roses out of this dung heap, but that, for some reason or other, they should want roses."[36]

It is the twenty-somethingth of October. I no longer keep track of the date. Would you say--my dream of the 14th November last? There are intervals, but they are between dreams, and there is no consciousness of them left. The world around me is dissolving, leaving here and there spots of time. The world is a cancer eating itself away.... I am thinking that when the great silence descends upon all and everywhere music will at last triumph. When into the womb of time everything is again withdrawn chaos will be restored and chaos is the score upon which reality is written. You, Tania, are my chaos. It is why I sing. It is not even I, it is the world dying, shedding the skin of time. I am alive, kicking in your womb, a reality to write upon.[37]

On the second page of Tropic of Cancer, Miller sets at nought all determinate relation between date and event, dream and reality, cancer and host, silence and sound, inside and outside, container and contained. This inaugural passage concerns Time: twentieth-century time and the time of Miller's narrative. Its purpose, however, is not to figure Time, but to strip Time of all the accumulated conceptual and figural structures which have led to its philosophic capitalization: Time emerges from this passage as time, the medium, the "meridian" of Miller's narrative and a word--"time"--to which Miller may attach a host of irreconcilable images and anecdotes. Indeed, it is this process of attachment that strips Time of its philosophic resolution and capitalization. The successive figures of time and their secondary permutations resist structuration. Time is origin and end, order and chaos, but imaginable as neither. Time is the womb into which the dying world is withdrawn, but it is also the chaos/score/skin left outside after everything is withdrawn into time's womb. To resolve these figures into a single coherent image, we must imagine time as a container containing its own outside, or alternately a container with no inside. A figure with such qualities may be described, but not imaged.[38] Making neither syllogistic nor integral symbolic sense, Miller's figures cannot be distributed upon a conceptual or visual space within which Time's meaning may be fixed. The very "world"--archetypal figure for all that may be understood as or as part of an encompassing, macrocosmic, spatial totality--is itself "dissolving," not disappearing or fragmenting under the influence of some external force. The world as totality remains a totality, but this totality--we might say, man's very drive to totalize his world--is encompassing, swallowing, itself: "The world is a cancer eating itself away."

« Previous | Main | Next »