6. Diatribe v. Epiphany
To overthrow existing values
Miller awakens to discover a temporal narrative realm beyond the poetic figuration of the self, the city and the literary past in terms of presence and absence, fullness and emptiness. He asserts that no longer is it necessary to create the symbolic fullness of a "great human being" to counterpoise the "zero" of the modern waste land. The "zero," the emptiness, which once posed an insoluble dilemma, is resolved into an "equation sign" which not only levels and joins all elements of man's urban reality but joins Miller's narrative to the literary past. Tropic of Cancer--"the crab, syphilis"--claims to take up the "words left behind" by novelists of the past. Miller's narrative completes the sentence of "words left unfinished." As his awakening rant continues, Miller recasts the literary idols of his past into a genealogy with respect to which his own struggles are a recapitulation and a fulfillment:
When I think of their deformities, of the monstrous styles they chose, of the flatulence and tediousness of their works, of all the chaos and confusion they wallowed in, of the obstacles they heaped up about them, I feel an exaltation. They were all mired in their own dung. All men who over-elaborated. [....] What is called their "over-elaboration" is my meat: it is the sign of struggle, it is struggle itself with all the fibers clinging to it, the very aura and ambience of the discordant spirit. And when you show me a man who expresses himself perfectly I will not say that he is not great, but I will say that I am unattracted . . . I miss the cloying qualities. When I reflect that the task which the artist implicitly sets himself is to overthrow existing values, to make of the chaos about him an order which is his own, to sow strife and ferment so that [in] the emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life, then it is that I run with joy to the great and imperfect ones, their confusion nourishes me, their stuttering is like divine music to my ears.
The "deformities" of Miller's idols are the form of Tropic of Cancer. This is Miller's invocation of the meta-fiction of the novel. As a challenger to the emerging forms of modernism, Miller cannot help but quite openly admit that there are other forms of greatness--those who express themselves "perfectly." But, he returns that this is not nourishing, not true lineage of the novel which must "overthrow existing values." Again, Tropic of Capricorn offers a more confident reworking of the critical discourse of Tropic of Cancer:
And then came the little louse, as I was saying, a real louse which had gotten buried in my winter underwear. I got him out and I put him tenderly on the tip of a black key. Then I began to do a little gigue around him with my right hand; the noise had probably deafened him. He was hypnotized, it seemed, by my nimble pyrotechnic. This trancelike immobility finally got on my nerves. I decided to introduce a chromatic scale, coming down on him full force with my third finger. I caught him fair and square, but with such force that he was glued to my finger tip. That put the St. Vitus Dance in me. From then on the scherzo commenced. It was a potpourri of forgotten melodies spiced with aloes and the juice of porcupines, played sometimes in three keys at once and pivoting always like a waltzing mouse around the immaculate conception.
Instead of a Joycean symphony of past perfections, a "cantata for all time," Miller asserts the "divine music" of a narrative "cacophony" which takes up the "deformities" of the "great imperfect ones."
Tropic of Cancer, read in this light, is a competing alternative to New Critical modernism, invoking in its own image a genealogical meta-fiction of the novel. It ceases to appear the story of the seamy, random adventures of an anti-intellectual, expatriate Huck Finn. Rather, Miller's narrative, like Twain's tale, is quite knowledgeable in its feigned ignorance about its own strengths and weaknesses and those of its competition. Tropic of Cancer in particular and Miller's other Paris narratives in amplification and elaboration advance a critical discourse that analyzes Miller's historical situation and formulates a narrative resistance to the emerging modernist consensus:
Today I am aware of my lineage. I have no need to consult my horoscope or my genealogical chart. What is written in the stars, or in my blood, I know nothing of. I know that I spring from the mythological founders of the race. The man who raises the holy bottle to his lips, the criminal who kneels in the marketplace, the innocent one who discovers that all corpses stink, the madman who dances with lightning in his hands, the friar who lifts his skirts to pee over the world, the fanatic who ransacks libraries in order to find the Word--all these are fused in me, all these make my confusion, my ecstasy.
On its wobbly axle the wheel rolls steadily downhill; there are no brakes, no ball bearings, no balloon tires. The wheel is falling apart, but the revolution is intact....
The sun is setting. I feel this river flowing through me--its past; its ancient soil, the changing climate. The hills gently girdle it about: its course is fixed.