8. The Last Book

Walt Whitman: Song of Myself

Miller's post-Munich search for a clean exit from the detour of writing is constrained by the very novel, Tropic of Capricorn, from which he hoped to exit. With Whitman, Miller might regret once having "dared to open my mouth to sing at all," but there the parallel between poet and novelist ceases. Whitman, in "Song of Myself," reserved a space within his all-encompassing self for just such a self-critical contingency:

Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic.[43]

If one leaps ahead to 1957, it is possible to hear Miller echoing Whitman:

[...] I find that, no matter how violently disagreeable a reader's reaction may be to the written work, when we meet face to face he usually ends by accepting me whole-heartedly.[44]

But in Tropic of Cancer a faceless novelist had declared, "I am a writing machine. The last screw has been added. The thing flows. Between me and the machine there is no estrangement. I am the machine. . . ."[45] That writing machine left no space for a revisionary Miller. Tropic of Cancer celebrates the emergence of a writerly self, a literary voice, which, at age forty-three, no longer has to prove itself in anything or as anything but writing. Tropic of Capricorn, in rendering the history of the narrative "voice" of Tropic of Cancer, writes "writing" everywhere "being" might have been written, in effect, closing the door Whitman left open.

Miller invokes Whitman's tripartite division of the self in the letter to Nin, but in doing so he must come to terms with the manner in which, pursuing the discourse of the novel, he had rendered his situation far more dire than Whitman's.[46] Tropic of Capricorn's narrative encodes each of Miller's various youthful efforts to "adapt myself to myself" as a blind groping toward "this which I am doing now." Transforming every past spiritual failure into a sign of future writing, Miller makes the middle term of "valvéd voice"/"creative powers as a writer" leap forth from the incommensurability of bodily life and consciousness: narrative is "the spasmodic gambit of the chicken whose head has just been lopped off."[47] Tracking the signs of future writing, Miller describes at length the kind of "error [that] seeps in" during even a naive quest for an exit into Life. Every door leads only to writing:

Only two items on the bill of fare: the self and the not-self. And an eternity in which to work it out. [....] In the night the amorphous matter of the self assumes the most fugitive forms; error seeps in through the portholes and the wanderer is unlatched from his door. This door which the body wears, if opened out onto the world, leads to annihilation. It is the door in every fable out of which the magician steps; nobody has ever read of him returning home through the selfsame door.[48]

Opened outward, away from the writer's past, this door leads to Tropic of Cancer:

One walks the streets knowing that he is mad, possessed, because it is only too obvious that these cold, indifferent faces are the visages of one's keepers. Here all boundaries fade away and the world reveals itself for the mad slaughterhouse that it is. The treadmill stretches away to infinitude, the hatches are closed down tight, logic runs rampant, with bloody cleaver flashing. The air is chill and stagnant, the language apocalyptic. Not an exit sign anywhere; no issue save death. A blind alley at the end of which is a scaffold.[49]

With Tropic of Capricorn's representation of his past, Miller hopefully opens the door inward, but the vista mirrors that of Tropic of Cancer:

If opened inward there are infinite doors, all resembling trapdoors: no horizons are visible, no airlines, no rivers, no maps, no tickets. Each couche is a halt for the night only, be it five minutes or ten thousand years. The doors have no handles and they never wear out. Most important to note--there is no end in sight. All these halts for the night, so to speak, are like abortive explorations of a myth. One can feel his way about, take bearings, observe passing phenomena; one can even feel at home. But there is no taking root. Just at the moment when one begins to feel "established" the whole terrain founders, the soil underfoot is afloat, the constellations are shaken loose from their moorings, the whole known universe, including the imperishable self, starts moving silently, ominously, shudderingly serene and unconcerned, toward an unknown, unseen destination.[50]

The inward door of Tropic of Capricorn opens into the belly of the whale where one sits, oblivious to the life of the deep, "recording the changing temperature, mapping and charting the inner dynamism."[51] Miller notes one difference in Tropic of Capricorn, that "there is no end in sight," but offers no assurance that the "unseen destination" toward which the "whole known universe" "ominously" moves is Life and not Death. Thus he concludes in Tropic of Capricorn as he had in Tropic of Cancer: "Through endless night the earth whirls toward a creation unknown...."[52] The only thing to be said with "dead certainty" is that the private life represented in Tropic of Capricorn "moves" toward the publication of Tropic of Cancer, and the narrative technique of Tropic of Cancer "whirls" toward Tropic of Capricorn. It is as a world of writing, an endless narrative creation from which there can be no exit, that the "heating and cooling system is one system, and Cancer is separated from Capricorn only by an imaginary line."[53]

« Previous | Main | Next »