Academic journal article Style

Burlesque Dreams: American Amusement, Autobiography, and Henry Miller

Academic journal article Style

Burlesque Dreams: American Amusement, Autobiography, and Henry Miller

Article excerpt

We wait that writhing pool, her pearls collapsed,
--All but her belly buried in the floor;
And the lewd trounce of a final muted beat!
We flee her spasm through a fleshless door. [...]
Yet, to the empty trapeze of your flesh,
O Magdalene, each comes back to die alone.
Then you, the burlesque of our lust--and faith,
Lug us back lifeward--bone by infant bone.

        --Hart Crane, "National Winter Garden," The Bridge (1930)

[...] as a trip to Coney Island on a Sunday afternoon will show you, there are a great many people in New York who are crazy to ride on roller coasters.

Most of them have given up going to the theatre because they don't feel they get their money's worth. So far, "advanced," "serious," "highbrow" plays have been aimed at the intellectual audience [...] Processional is aimed at the people who like roller coasters. Perhaps in its whole run only ten people who genuinely desire motion will go to see it. Those ten people will be the nucleus of the audience of a theatre that will have nothing to fear from the competition of the radio or the movies.

--John Dos Passos (1925)


Together, my two epigraphs evoke a still relatively unappreciated yet decisive reliance within avant-garde American literature between the two world wars on American public amusements. For Crane, feelings of shame notwithstanding, burlesque--by this time generally considered one of the more vulgar forms of entertainment in this country--appears to possess a potentially redemptive dimension. Though the embarrassed spectator is compelled to take flight while observing the female performer's crude display of corporeal ecstasy, sexual and spiritual desire drive him to return to this fascinating scene. The religious allusion invests this "degraded" cultural practice, organized around the exposed woman's body, with a redemptive capacity that may reach beyond the individual and achieve a collective function (for "us"). Drawn toward the disturbing sphere of the grotesque body, the "belly," the audience is both shattered and reconstituted, for the negative experience of death (and apparently physical fragmentation) be comes the prerequisite for a positive resurrection, a physical rebirth. The indispensable outcome of the subjectively contradictory (repulsive and attractive) performance is to "Lug us back lifeward--bone by infant bone."

For Dos Passos, the value of mass amusement is more directly related to aesthetic matters. What is most significant about John Howard Lawson's unorthodox dramatic experiment is that the thrills it generates parallel those produced by such mechanized forms of recreation as a Coney Island roller coaster. (2) The excitement induced by such rides is an admirable model for the artist, in this instance a playwright, especially if he is going to compete successfully with the newer technical media. Assuming they wish to stage genuinely unsettling and somatically stimulating performances, those interested in theatrical experimentation, and presumably in other literary endeavors, are advised to draw their compositional inspiration from, in Miriam Hansen's words, "'low,' sensational, attractionist genres" ("Mass Production" 72). (3)

We might say that Crane's poem and Dos Passos's critical comment help remind us of the fact that certain popular recreational sites and cultural practices that had emerged around the turn of the century served later "to energize the aesthetic economy" of modernist writers. Inspiring formal innovation and evoking desirable social functions, burlesque and Coney Island offered a touchstone within mass culture for American avant-garde artists. (4) Here, I would like to take this reminder as a way to articulate the significance of Henry Miller's Depression-era autobiographical enterprise. Explicitly marking his debt to American entertainment, registering these as a source of aesthetic inspiration and as the locus of psychic and physical regeneration, Miller's ambition was to establish past amusements as the viable basis of acts of literary dissidence. …

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