For some time Miller adopts a pseudonym – Samson Lackawanna – and moonlights as a would-be criminal, popping up in Hong Kong and swindling the Chinese. At the hotels he rings “for women like you would ring for whiskey and soda.” He imagines himself sailing down a river, ready to do anything “gratis,” and he likens the mythical Land of Fuck – which he perhaps inhabits – to Dante’s Purgatory. He rails against Bloomingdale’s because of its unnatural ordering and grouping together of things that do not belong together. He imagines a great “implosion” of the modern world, like the great collapse Dante experienced in Hell; he remembers walking through the revolving doors of the Amarillo Dance Hall one night twelve or fourteen years ago and experiencing a “great event,” sensing that all he had previously been was in one fell stroke demolished. Just as he had once been born, he was at that moment “shunted back to some timeless vector where the process of growth is kept in abeyance” – back to fatality, back to stillness, onward to the “zero hour”…
At the height of such rhapsodic imagery, Miller returns to a semblance of narrative. The first night Miller sits down to read Dostoevsky is an event even more important than his first love. “It was the first deliberate, conscious act which had significance for me; it changed the whole face of the world” and was Miller’s “first glimpse into the soul of a man.” Miller’s ambition to write is quelched for a long time, so profoundly does this discovery alter him and render everything else – the “ordinary, waking, workaday world” – irrelevant to him.
Miller’s thoughts turn to Maxie, with whom he used to go swimming regularly. In the story that follows, Miller fancies Maxie’s sister, Rita, and is bored by Maxie himself and puts up with him only because Maxie lends him money. Whenever the subject of Rita comes up, Maxie will “frantically begin to talk about something else.” Finally, one day in Far Rockaway, when Maxie is showing Miller his scrotum, Miller blurts out: “Listen, Maxie, that’s all right about your nuts, they’re fine and dandy, and there’s nothing to worry about but where in hell is Rita all the time, why don’t you bring her along some time and let me take a good look at her quim.” Maxie has never heard the word quim before and is shocked; he laughs to Miller about it, but Miller can tell that deep down he is very troubled by the outburst. After the two have dressed and eaten, Miller parts ways with Maxie, deciding he’d like to be alone. He feels profoundly isolated, but likes the feeling, thinks of Dostoevsky, and starts laughing hysterically, “just crazy with delight in finding myself absolutely alone.” He takes the train back to New York, thinks of Rita on the way, then gets off, exits the station, and bumps into her on a street corner. As is his wont, he winds up having sex with her.
The writing glides back to earlier memories. Miller thinks of his old Brooklyn neighborhood which is now no more. One street, called Fillmore Place, was “the most enchanting street I have ever seen in all my life.” Then the Williamsburg Bridge opened up and there followed “the invasion of the Jews,” bringing about the “disintegration” of that world. Miller, channeling the anti-Semitic feelings of his neighborhood and family, compares the Jews to moths eating away at the fabric of the old neighborhood. Fillmore Place soon looks “like a dirty mouth with all the prominent teeth missing,” with Yiddish replacing English, garbage on the streets, baby carriages everywhere. The authorities change the name of North Second Street to Metropolitan Avenue. Miller’s family is one of the first to leave.
Miller transitions to another author and thinker who, like Dostoevsky, has a profound effect on him. The author in question is Henri Bergson, and of his book Creative Evolution Miller writes: “if this book had not fallen into my hands at the precise moment it did, perhaps I would have gone mad.” The book gives him the courage to go it alone, teaches him to appreciate loneliness. Interestingly, Miller argues that it is the book’s name, above all, that saves him: the word “creative” becomes his “talisman” and allows him to defy his friends, defy “the whole world.”
One day, with Creative Evolution under his arm, Miller boards a crowded subway at the Brooklyn Bridge. His legs graze against a girl sitting in front of him, not entirely by his own accord. She promptly complains to her friend that the man in front of her is molesting her. Miller pretends to hear nothing, but then feels “a sympathetic touch” from the girl’s friend, who tells her companion that “one can’t help these things, that it is really not the man’s fault but the fault of the company for packing us in like sheep.” When the train empties a bit, Miller sits down and talks to the girl. They get off the train together, walk for some distance, and then agree to meet again in front of the candy store.
Riding back to meet her, Miller starts to reminisce. He remembers leaving a girl he loved, Una, to go to California. He had meant to ask her to come with him, to marry him, but the words didn’t make it out his lips; he wound up departing without her and regretting it. He gets off the subway and breaks down in tears. It dawns on him: “you are alone in the world!” He staggers down the street, his mind racing back to the old Brooklyn neighborhood of his childhood. He feels as though he is in a dream. He has forgotten entirely about his rendezvous with the girl; he doesn’t even notice if he passes her or not. He wanders some more, but the serene beauty of the night calms him down. The stars seem to answer his worries, his despair, by suggesting the essential peacefulness and beauty of the world. Soon all the details of the city seem friendly: the garbage, a lamppost.
He remembers a girl he “loved better than all else.” She wears only black, save for the occasional patch of purple, wears no underwear, wears a “diabolical perfume.” She and Miller go to bed at dawn, rise at dusk, and make love constantly. In a way, the intense descriptions of their love-making help answer the unfulfilled promise of the girl on the subway. Like Miller, the woman has changed her name, abandoned her family and friends, and begun life anew. Miller, while making love to her, often remembers all the other women he has made love to in the past, and finds himself bubbling over with jealousy because he figures his partner is remembering the same kind of thing. Miller describes their affair as though they were symbiotically joined, or Siamese twins; he also resorts to animalistic imagery, comparing the woman to a bird: “When the great plunder-bird returns exhausted from her flight she will find me here in the midst of my nothingness, I, the imperishable schizerino, a blazing seed hidden in the heart of death.”
The two lovers claw out a world for themselves in the middle of darkness and emptiness. Miller, for one, seems to thrive on this kind of groping in the dark, for it brings him closer to a glimpse of truth, or beauty: “In the midst of pollution, in the very heart and gizzard of death, as it were, I sense the seed, the miraculous, infinitesimal lever which balances the world.” Again, through sex, he finds some kind of meaning.
This section of the book raises a number of issues. First, there is the question of anti-Semitism. Miller describes the Jewish “invasion” of his neighborhood as though a swarm of moths were descending on streets “of value, of dignity.” Soon these streets smell bad, houses deteriorate, stoops fall away. Miller writes in particular of kosher signs appearing, of lox and sour pickles proliferating, of Yiddish dominating – “this sputtering, choking, hissing tongue in which God and rotten vegetables sound alike and mean alike.” The sentiments these lines imply stand in contrast to the humanist portrayal of Pauline Janowski, the Jewish Balzac-lover, or even the perversely affectionate description of the sex-crazed Hymie, another Jewish character. When turning to his roots, however, when gazing back into his childhood, Miller seems gripped by a kind of virulent hatred and bigotry.
Due to passages of this nature, a controversy does exist surrounding Miller’s views, but I would argue that he is not so much conveying his own feelings as he is channeling those of his family and community – which, by many accounts, was traditionally anti-Semitic. He is commenting on a sense of invasion that was felt when the Williamsburg Bridge opened, a moment when a previously insular community was suddenly exposed to the larger world. The changes that resulted seemed brutal, and Miller writes of houses being razed, street-names changing, a road to the cemeteries becoming a traffic artery. What is really happening, however, is an opening-up: “The imaginary boundary of my world had changed,” Miller writes. The old walls and borders are dissolving; everything is bigger, wider, and newer.
Miller is writing not so much about ethnic “invasion” as about America itself, this constantly shape-shifting giant, shedding its old skin at a ruthless rate. This, then, is what it means to be quintessentially American: out with the old, in with the new. Note, in the following passage, how Miller reuses the term “moth,” with which he had described the incoming Jews, to mean here anything new:
A European can scarcely know what this feeling is like. Even when a town becomes modernized, in Europe, there are still vestiges of the old. In America, though there are vestiges, they are effaced, wiped out of the consciousness, trampled upon, obliterated, nullified by the new. The new is, from day to day, a moth which eats into the fabric of life, leaving nothing finally but a great hole…Even a war does not bring this kind of desolation and destruction.
Europe may have undergone the calamity of World War I, because of which entire cities were destroyed, landscapes scarred, and a generation demolished, but in America the changes are just as dramatic and even more brutal; they take place, however, not in swift blasts but “day to day,” the old gradually crumbling and giving way to the new bit by bit. Moths replace the bombs of war; a bridge opening is as catastrophic as a pitched battle. Again, Miller resorts to poeticized hyperbole, but he is effectively communicating a vision of America as defined by loss.
Indeed, America does what Miller does: it breaks with the past. Miller sheds his name and friends, finding solace and even excitement in solitude; America, likewise, ventures into the future almost blindly at times, heartlessly obliterating vestiges of the past without batting an eye. Miller’s trajectory is thus a uniquely American one. And, as with blind change, there is ultimately nothing that can be fully understood. This is precisely what separates Miller from his (former) friends: he accepts he cannot understand anything - life, the world, the meaning behind things – while they still strive to understand, and even claim they do: “My friends, on the other hand, entrenched themselves more solidly in the little ditch of understanding which they had dug for themselves. They died comfortably in their little bed of understanding, to become useful citizens of the world. I pitied them, and in short order I deserted them one by one, without the slightest regret.” Consider that once again Miller refers obliquely to war, and particularly to the trenches of the defining war of his generation, namely World War I.
Moving onward, always onward, while wavering in reminiscences of the vanishing past, Miller writes of reading Bergson’s book as though it were a rite of initiation, a sort of liminal passage, and he rephrases the earlier notion of dying in order to be reborn as an artist: “Everything which the brain has labored a lifetime to assimilate, categorize and synthesize has to be taken apart and reordered. Moving day for the soul!” He adopts another pseudonym, Gottlieb Leberecht Muller, which is a way of suggesting that he has lost his identity; the name is pulled from a character Miller sees in a movie, who seems to speak directly to him. “Often I forget which is the real me,” Miller writes. In a certain sense, however, Miller suggests that “Muller” is the real him, the essential him: “Then one day, without the slightest warning, I wake up and looking about me I understand absolutely nothing of what is going on about me, neither my own behavior nor that of my neighbors, nor do I understand why the governments are at war or at peace, whichever the case may be. At such moments I am born anew, born and baptized by my right name: Gottlieb Leberecht Muller!” Like America, Miller can best be defined by the fact that he is constantly redefining himself.