3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon
Tropic of Cancer's Genito-Urinary System
At the conclusion of Tropic of Cancer, Miller offers an oblique apology for his method. For a brief moment he figures the whole human self within a Romantic landscape:
In the wonderful peace that fell over me it seemed as if I had climbed to the top of a high mountain; for a little while I would be able to look around me, to take in the meaning of the landscape.
Human beings make strange fauna and flora. From a distance they appear negligible; up close they are apt to appear ugly and malicious. More than anything they need to be surrounded by sufficient space--space even more than time.
But this Romantic perspective, this "landscape" with its "sufficient space," is precisely what the temporal organization of Miller's narrative denies, as Miller well knows. Tropic of Cancer concludes by modulating from apologetics to prologue:
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.
The "fixed course" is Miller's resolve to adhere to his narrative break from Romanticism, its vision of the panoramic cosmos and the whole self. Narrative and caricature suit Miller's purpose in the "changing climate" of the times.
Hand in hand with Tropic of Cancer's totemic system, Miller's "genito-urinary system" renders in hyperbolic relief his historical diagnosis of the ills of the Modern novel and his narrative cure. In direct contrast to his later efforts, Miller deployed an obscene sexual symbolism in the 1930s as a figure of the problem, not as the solution it would become when he assumed his "liberationist" stance upon returning to America in the 1940s. Tropic of Cancer's symbolism is not final and summational: a caricature of epiphantic symbolism, it is "transitive" and "fluxional" within Miller's narrative. The most outrageous use Miller makes of sexual obscenity hinges upon its commonplace, mechanical quality: both sexual obsession and a preoccupation with sexual symbolism are part of the "disease" that is modern man, so much a part that they define his dreams and literature. Van Norden, Miller's "diseased" alter-ego, is the representative modern literary man:
"[...] I've got to wash the dirt out of my belly." When he says this I have the impression that the whole world is wrapped up there inside his belly, and that it's rotting there.
As he's putting on his things he falls back again into a semi-comatose state. He stands there with one arm in his coat sleeve and his hat on assways and he begins to dream aloud--about the Riviera, about the sun, about lazing one's life away. "All I ask of life," he says, "is a bunch of books, a bunch of dreams, and a bunch of cunt."
Van Norden is persuaded only of the reality of sex, more specifically, of the reality of sexual symbolism: "It's the 'images' as he says, which Carl left in his mind, that get him. The images are real, even if the whole story is false." In this instance, Van Norden's "literary" obsession, in which Miller thoroughly implicates himself, concludes with a now indifferent Miller noticing the similarity between Van Norden "grinding away" over a prostitute and "one of those crazy machines which throw the newspaper out, millions and billions and trillions of them with their meaningless headlines." The moment of sexual union is figured as mindless and mechanical copulation, a conflation which abruptly implicates the discourse of modernity itself.