3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon
The Pure Flux and Rotation of Events
Reviewing his Paris narratives in The World of Sex, Miller explained the autobiographical mode he settled upon:
The man telling the story is no longer the one who experienced the events recorded. Distortion and deformation are unavoidable in the re-living of one's life. The inner purpose of such disfigurement, of course, is to seize the true reality of things and events. Thus, for no apparent reason, I revert now and then to a period not only anterior but unrelated to the one in hand. The puzzled reader may well wonder if these switch-backs are not the work of caprice. Who can say? To my mind, they have the same raison d'être as all invention. Devices, certainly, but to analyze them gets one nowhere. A sudden switch, a long parenthetical detour, a crazy monologue, an excursus, a remembrance cropping out like a cliff in fog--their very instantaneity kills all speculation.
The "speculation" narrative detour attempts to "kill" is that which would psychoanalyze either the "one who experienced the events recorded" or "the man telling the story." The experiences and motives of Miller the character are not fully present in the text, because it is not a "self" that is represented but a caricature of "self." The narrative's digressions occur for "no apparent reason," but are not for that reason manifestations of unreason, of an authorial psyche. They are "devices, certainly," mere devices--inventions of a writer rather than motives of a "self." Rather than a manifestation of "the return of the repressed," or a consequence of language's inadequacy to mimesis, these "unavoidable" disfigurements are the effect of a narrative strategy of detouring "switch-backs," the purpose of which, "of course, is to seize the true reality of things and events." "Of course," Miller speaks as a novelist, making claims about reality and the validity of his novels' representations of reality. Miller, the modern novelist, asserts that his narrative alternative to New Critical modernism is "disfigured" because only a "disfigured" form is adequate to the historical moment the modern novel must represent. There are no integral or psychoanalytic "selves," past or present, to be discovered, because none exist. There are only caricatures, which are "true." Anaïs Nin's introduction to the first edition participates with Miller in this "rhetoric of the real":
The book is sustained on its own axis by the pure flux and rotation of events. Just as there is no central point, so also there is no question of heroism or of struggle since there is no question of will, but only of obedience to flow.
The gross caricatures are perhaps more vital, "more true to life," than the full portraits of the conventional novel for the reason that the individual today has no centrality and produces not the slightest illusion of wholeness.
Narrative "obedience to the flow" of life, to the novelistic task of representing contemporary history, argue Miller and Nin, require that he reject self-discovery, the central preoccupation of the autobiographical novel.
What we trace here, in Tropic of Cancer, is Miller's polemic against New Critical modernism. In tracing it, we observe the manner in which Miller participates in the novel's critical discourse, justifying his narrative as both a rendering of the new and a part of the new. Miller had learned to out-talk Michael Fraenkel and his other modernist mentors, so he set about out-narrating the emergent forms of hegemonic modernism. To this end, Miller used his familiarity with American Romanticism to understand the emerging modernist consensus. In fact, the tropological residue of American Romanticism in Tropic of Cancer becomes coherent only when read as part of Miller's formal rivalry with his 1930's contemporaries. It is as proxy for Modernist aesthetics that Emersonian vision is subjected to the "fluid imbalance" of Miller's narrative. His treatment of Emerson is typical of the uses to which he put his critical reading in all his Paris narratives. What he first read in search of visionary transcendence of the Modernist impasse appears as the raw material through which his narrative threads, disrupting paradigms where encountered. In Miller's practice, narrative supplied not only an alternative to New Critical modernism, but an alternative to any critical vision Miller himself might have offered. He acknowledges that his thought, his narrative, is parasitic upon existent structures and superstructures. He simply resolves, pragmatically, not to leave his host--Emerson, New Critical modernism. His "ecstasy" is not transcendent, not the product of mad inspiration. He tracks down to their Romantic roots the proliferation of multiple perspectives and fragmentary images so characteristic of canonical modernism, and for that matter of subsequent "post-modern" attempts to get beyond Modernism. The object is to expose the emerging Modernist consensus as Romanticism in another guise: "a constant flux, a shedding of skins" but still Emerson in the woods, who spoke of casting "off his years, as the snake his slough." Vision, even vision multiplied, "as if the inner eye, in its thirst for greater reality, had converted the pores of the flesh into hungry seeing mouths," is a trope of limitation throughout Tropic of Cancer. Tied to the nineteenth century, visionary experience and its symbolism neither can render the twentieth century nor become a part of it. The novel, Miller insists, must turn elsewhere. It must begin to "see," if "see" it must, through the "soles of [its] feet." The problems and paradoxes of Romantic and Modernist consciousness are not "solved" by Miller's narrative, but rather "dissolved" by it. They are bypassed, displaced, carried along in a rucksack. "Man" or "machine"--what does it matter so long as "the thing flows"?