2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism

We have no need for genius--genius is dead.

Neither Eliot's mythic method nor its subsequent modifications in light of Russian formalism can come to grips with Miller's narrative. By "narrative," I mean the surface sequence of the text, composed not just of events and anecdotes, but of transitory symbols, caricatures, authorial asides, theoretical essays, literary allusions, real and surreal landscapes, confessions, invectives, in short, the endless cultural and literary bric-a-brac the reader must traverse to follow Miller from one end of his texts to the other. With Eliot, Miller saw in the twentieth century a "Waste Land":

For us the Past has already been liquidated, the ruins crumbled into dust. There is left only culture with a small c, the biologic traces of which reveal themselves in the prevailing mores. To carry on the artist must act as God at the dawn of creation. He must confront himself, to realize the God in him. To put a face on things is no longer possible. That reality which you call the dayface of the world is a cultural stew made up of ideological components which once made up a cosmos. This cosmos has been shattered to bits. Nothing can rear itself organically any longer. We are in the realm of pure idea at last, where everyone lives forever. As the day fades the putty face crumbles, vanishes, leaving a free field for the "gaseous invertebrates" swimming in an ideological ether. [91]

"Man is a god in ruins"--Miller's conception of the artist/God draws upon the same American Romantic tradition as Eliot's.[92] But for Miller, there is no longer "time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet."[93] He refuses to project a divine point of view; denies an immanent coherence. He denies, in short, the possibility of redemption from Eliot's "Waste Land."

Rather than accept a spectator artist/God, Miller sought to elaborate a competing conception of the task of the novel in the modern world:

We have no need for genius--genius is dead. We have need for strong hands, for spirits who are willing to give up the ghost and put on flesh.
At the extreme limits of his spiritual being man finds himself again naked as a savage. When he finds God, as it were, he has been picked clean: he is a skeleton. One must burrow into life again in order to put on flesh. The word must become flesh; the soul thirsts.[ ][....][ ]The world which I have departed is a menagerie. The dawn is breaking on a new world, a jungle world in which the lean spirits roam with sharp claws. If I am a hyena I am a lean and hungry one: I go forth to fatten myself.[ ][94]

Here in Tropic of Cancer, Miller's predatory narrator is well on the way to becoming the headless chicken of Tropic of Capricorn--the paths of the eater appearing in retrospect the paths of the eaten. Tropic of Cancer's voice roams with no ground to stand on: it is naked, skeletal, lean, empty, hungry; it desires, but has no means of organizing that desire, except as insatiable movement. In a dire, thoroughly urban echo of Walt Whitman, Miller's narrator is no more than his narrative, a narrative that wanders the streets of twentieth century industrial culture, cataloguing, embracing, leveling, and equalizing every thought and everything:

In the little garden adjoining the Eglise St. Germain are a few dismounted gargoyles. Monsters that jut forward with a terrifying plunge. On the benches other monsters--old people, idiots, cripples, epileptics. Snoozing there quietly, waiting for the dinner bell to ring. At the Galarie Zak across the way some imbecile has made a picture of the cosmos--on the flat. A painter's cosmos! Full of odds and ends, bric-a-brac. In the lower left-hand corner, however, there's an anchor--and a dinner bell. Salute! Salute! O Cosmos![95]

The form of Miller's novel joins it to this "cosmos--on the flat." Just as the picture of the cosmos is but another piece of bric-a-brac, the surface of Miller's text is but an extension of a purely superficial reality. Both are a "cultural stew made up of ideological components which once made up a cosmos," which once had organic, symbolic depth.[96] Eschewing symbolism and distanced reflection, Miller's narrative swims upon this surface, cut loose from the sequence of autobiographical events and the telescopic hierarchy of the transcendental self. Its literary anchor, Walt Whitman, also lies upon the surface. Implicit in Miller's narrative practice is an assertion about the form the novel must take if it is to be a part of contemporary history. Miller's variant of the meta-fiction of the novel puts him at odds with the modernist aesthetic furthered by New Criticism. His narrative method cannot be cognized by modes of criticism that search for symbolic structures of "aesthetic stasis" and omniscient epiphany. His narrative exploration of the chaotic, digressive life of urban man cannot be valued by a criticism that finds value in the completed, self-contained construction of a "text." His narrative cannot be analyzed by a criticism that treats digressive narrative as a recombinant form of primitive chronology. Miller's narrative "swims" along a historically specific, bric-a-brac surface. It relies upon modes of urban storytelling that cannot claim ties to the earth or to the plumbed mythic depths of racial or individual unconsciousness.

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