Black Spring by Henry Miller

blackspringWarning: This review is long, has an excessive amount of quotes, and does not reach much of a conclusion. If you have a short attention span, this may not be for you. However, if you appreciate Henry Miller, one of the finest writers America has produced in the last century, I encourage you to read on.

When his name comes up, most readers associate Miller with sex, scandals, pornography. This is mostly due to the press attention given to his two books, The Tropic of Cancer, and The Tropic of Capricorn. There is, however, much more to Miller than these two books. Miller’s life work can be broken to three separate categories: Sex, Surrealism, and Philosophy. The works that make up these three categories did not come in a chronological order, even though his later works are much more philosophical. The shift from sex to philosophy is very noticeable in his Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, where Nexus makes a grand departure from the world of sex and into philosophical realms. Nevertheless, when I say sex, I do not mean obscenity. Miller’s writing is dotted with sex, but not sex for sex’s value alone; it is sex that is a part of the story, not the other way around.

Unlike his other books, Black Spring   (Grove Press, 243 pages) stands alone, covering a period of Miller’s life not often discussed in his other works – his early years. It is also, undoubtedly, his most surreal work. By surreal I mean that not only it touches on the principles of surrealism, but that it is a work riddled with surreal imagery. In Black Spring, this imagery is Miller’s greatest asset.

The Fourteenth Ward is the opening chapter of Black Spring, an opening chapter into the intimate life of Henry Miller. This is the chapter where he talks about his childhood, his friends, the people and the streets he grew up with. It is a painful place, yet a safe haven. The following is a fine example from this chapter:

“And then one day, as if suddenly the flesh came undone and the blood beneath the flesh had coalesced with the air, suddenly the whole world roars again and the very skeleton of the body melts like wax. Such a day it may be when you first encounter Dostoevski. You remember the smell of the tablecloth on which the book rests; you look at the clock and it is only five minutes from eternity; you count the objects on the mantelpiece because the sound of numbers is a totally new sound in your mouth, because everything new and old, or touched and forgotten, is a fire and mesmerism. Now every door of the cage is open and whichever way you walk is a straight line toward infinity, a straight, mad line over which the breakers roar and the great rocs of marble and indigo swoop to lower their fevered eggs. Out of the waves beating phosphorescent step proud and prancing the enameled horses that marched with Alexander, their tight-proud bellies glowing with calcium, their nostrils dipped in laudanum. Now it is all snow and lice, with the great band of Orion slung around the ocean’s crotch.”

Third or Fourth Day of Spring, the second chapter in Black Spring, fluctuates between his childhood home and his current place in Clichy.

“The third room was an alcove where I contracted the measles, chicken pox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, et cetera: all the lovely diseases of childhood which make time stretch out in everlasting bliss and agony, especially when Providence has provided a window over the bed with bars and ogres to claw at them and sweat as thick as carbuncles, rapid as a river and sprouting, sprouting as if it were always spring and tropics, with thick tenderloin steaks for hands and feet heavier than led or light as snow, feet and hands separated by oceans of time or incalculable latitudes of light, the little knob of the brain hidden away like a grain of sand and the toenails rotting blissfully under the ruins of Athens.”

Where this chapter opens with the description of his home, it shifts to his obsession with the way humanity destroys itself, the never-ending list of wrongs he sees.

“I am thinking of that age to come when God is born again, when men will fight and kill for God as now and for a long time to come men are going to fight for food.”

One could argue that Miller was a pessimist. I disagree. Miller, for the most part, enjoyed life to its fullest. Perhaps he foresaw what was in store around the corner, perhaps he foresaw the destruction WWII brought upon Europe, which I will touch upon later in this review.

“I am dazzled by the glorious collapse of the world.”

A Saturday Afternoon, the third chapter, is a wonderful praise to France. Spending the day on his bicycle, Miller joyfully explores everything French, and sings his amorous hymns to the French people, his newly-found countrymen. He finds joy in the simple pleasure of pissing in an open urinal (and he recounts quite a few of them), or visiting a toilet with a book.

“No harm, I say, can ever be done a great book by taking it with you to the toilet. Only the little books suffer thereby. Only the little books make ass wipers.”

It is a chapter about French countryside, toilets, and great literature. Not an easy combination to pull off, but he did. Enough said.

The Angel is my Watermark, the fourth chapter in Black Spring. This is a stand-alone piece, which chronicles Miller’s attempt at a watercolor painting. Those of you not familiar with Miller may not know this about him, but he was a prolific, and pretty good, watercolor artist. I believe it originally started as a way to make money, but later it was done purely out of joy. In later years, when Miller settled in Big Sur, he used to wrap books in his watercolors and sent the books to his fans and supporters. Since then, some of his watercolors sold for insane amounts of money, and later there was a limited run of hand-signed serigraphs. Being a sucker for Miller, I own one of them – Really, the Blues. The nice thing about the serigraphs, aside from being limited edition and hand signed, is that each one of them is unique in color composition.

Back to the story at hand. After waking up and feeling like creating something, Miller is ‘attacked’ by a muse. He calls it dictation, a process where words and sentences come to him so fast he has a hard time keeping up and writing it down. This lasts for many hours during which he attempts to take a break, goes out, and eats something. But the dictation continues, he writes on the tablecloth, goes home, and it still continues. By the time it is over with, he is tired and worn out. Then, seeing a pamphlet with paintings by inmates in an insane-asylum, he realizes that this whole time he really wanted to create a painting.

“I’m very eager to start in. Just the same, I’m at loss for ideas. The dictation has ceased. I have a half mind to copy one of these illustrations. But then I’m a little ashamed of myself—to copy the work of a lunatic is the worst form of plagiarism.”

And so he begins, with a horse of all things. Not having any picture of a horse, he draws from memory. Here, he shows his playful nature:

“To put meat on the hoof is a delicate task, extremely delicate. And to make the legs join the body naturally, not as if they were stuck on with glue. My horse already has five legs: the easiest thing to do is to transform one of them into a phallus erectus. No sooner said than done. And how he is standing just like a terra cotta figure of the sixth century B.C. The tail isn’t in yet, but I’ve left an opening just above the asshole.”

and in the next paragraph:

“During the leg experiments the stomach has become dilapidated. I patch it as best I can—until it looks like a hammock. Let it go at that. If it doesn’t look like a horse when I’m through I can always turn it into a hammock.”

and one paragraph later:

“At this point, I admit frankly, I am completely disgusted with my prowess. I have a mind to erase and begin all over again. But I detest the eraser. I would rather convert the horse into a dynamo or a grand piano than erase my work completely.”

The more he works at it, the worse it becomes. Here he says:

“However, when I get into a predicament of this sort I know that I can extricate myself later when it comes time to apply the color. The drawing is simply the excuse for color. The color is the toccata: drawing belongs to the realm of idea.”

He continues with the drawing, making it more and more elaborate, throwing things in there that have no place in the original idea. A bridge, a man, trees, houses, a mountain…

“What’s a mountain? It’s a pile of dirt which never wears away, at least, not in historical time. A mountain’s too easy. I want a volcano I want a reason for my horse to be snorting and prancing. Logic, logic! “Le fou montre un souci constant de logique!” (Les Frances aussi.) Well, I’m not a fou, especially a French fou I can take a few liberties, particularly with the work of an imbecile.”

Thus he starts on the volcano.

“When I’m all through, I have a shirt on my hands. A shirt, precisely!”…”One thing, however, stands out unmistakably, clear and clean, and that is the bridge. It’s strange, but if you can draw an arch the rest of the bridge follows naturally. Only an engineer can ruin a bridge.”

This last line is rather important. It is subtle, but it points to a larger issue Miller seemed to have, and that is the issue with progress, advancement, especially the modern way of things changing fast while destroying old habits, familiar places, picturesque views. This is why I think he loved France and Greece so much, but disliked America. The old world held onto the old, the familiar. The new world kept building and rebuilding. No attachment.

Here he inserts an angel above his horse. “It’s a sad angel with a fallen stomach, and the wings are supported by umbrella ribs.”

Inspiration for this is explained here:

“Have you ever sat at a railway station and watched people killing time? Do they not sit a little like crestfallen angels—with their broken arches and their fallen stomachs? Those eternal few minutes in which they are condemned to be alone with themselves—does it not put umbrella ribs in their wings?

All angels in religious art are false. If you want to see angels you must go to the Grand Central Depot, or to the Gare St. Lazare. Especially the Gare St.Lazare—Salle des Pas Perdus.”

The piece eventually evolves into something entirely different from Miller’s original intention. And so does the story. It is no longer about painting, about horses, or about anything that might be on the canvas (and there were many, many things taking appearance only to be transformed or covered entirely). It is now about Miller, about humanity, about angels.

“My whole life seems to be wrapped up in that dirty handkerchief, the Bowery, which I walked through day after day, year in and year out—a dose of smallpox whose scars never disappear. If I had a name then it was Cimex Lectularius. If I had a home it was a slide trombone. If I had a passion, it was to wash myself clean.”

After ruining the painting, he decides to wash it in a sink, scrub it, and lay it on his desk. Here the story takes a completely different turn and Miller shines in his surreal monologue for three pages. In the end, this is as much about the painting as it is about Miller himself. It is a story of imbalance, of internal struggle; and as such it is beautiful.

The Tailor Shop is the fifth chapter, and here we are offered a glimpse into his early adult years.

At first, Miller sets the scene: His father’s tailor shop, grumpy customers, half-wit brother, and his mother who does not have a clue. He spends a quite a bit of time on his father’s customers, often using them not only for background, but also to express his disagreement with advancement.
I really liked this simple description: “Of the three brothers I liked Albert the best. He had arrived at that ripe age when the bones become as brittle as glass. His spine had the natural curvature of old age, as though he were preparing to fold up and return to the womb.”

He was writing Black Spring in France, and his disdain with America was already apparent: “Yes, all the silk-lined duffers I knew well—we had the best families in America on our roster. And what a pus and filth when they opened their dirty traps!”

His sentiment about the changes in society, his surroundings, and the world in general are pretty clear here:

“As the old ‘uns died off they were replaced by young blood. Young blood! That was the war cry all along the Avenue, wherever there were silk-lined suits for sale. A fine bloody crew they were, the young bloods. Gamblers, racetrack touts, stockbrokers, ham actors, prize fighters, etc. Rich one day, poor the next. No honor, no loyalty, no sense of responsibility. A fine bunch of gangrened syphilics they were, most of ’em. Came back from Paris or Monte Carlo with dirty postcards and a string of big blue rocks in their groin. Some of them with balls as big as a lamb’s fry.”

Miller is clearly showing affection for the less fortunate, as he has done in most of his books. While he thrashes the rich and powerful, he embraces the everyday men.

“The men my father loved were weak and lovable. They went out, each and every one of them, like brilliant stars before the sun. They went out quietly and catastrophically. No shred of them remained—nothing but the memory of their blaze and glory. They flow inside me now like a vast river choked with falling stars. They form the black flowing river which keeps the axis of my world in constant revolution. Out of this black, endless, ever-expanding girdle of nigh springs the continuous morning which is wasted in creation. Each morning the river overflows its banks, leaving the sleeves and buttonholes and all the rinds of a dead universe strewn along the beach where I stand contemplating the ocean of the morning of creation.”

And his surreal imagery pours forth as the story goes on, once again changing the course from its beginning to the larger issues Miller sees with the world:

“It’s staggeringly beautiful at this hour when every one seems to be going his own private way. Love and murder, they’re still a few hours apart. Love and murder, I feel it coming with the dusk: new babies coming out of the womb, soft, pink flesh to get tangled up in barbed wire and scream all night long and rot like dead bone a thousand miles from nowhere. Crazy virgins with ice-cold jazz in their veins egging men on to erect new buildings and men with dog collars around their necks wading through the muck up to the eyes so that the czar of electricity will rule the waves. What’s in the seed scares the living piss out of me: a brand new world is coming out of the egg and no matter how fast I write the old world doesn’t die fast enough. I hear the new machine guns and the millions of bones splintered at once; I see dogs running mad and pigeons dropping with letters tied to their ankles.”

In France, Miller found his peace. He found understanding, and a society that he could embrace. His tormented view of self in America has finally cleared, and he truly enjoyed life. His writing here is much more calm, much more picturesque. In France he found pleasure in observing its people, their habits, their ways. Whereas here he saw himself as an individual, in America he saw himself as part of a machine, a machine he had no desire to be a part of.

“Swimming in the crowd, a digit with the rest. Tailored and re-tailored. The lights are twinkling—on and off, on and off. Sometimes it’s a rubber tire, sometimes it’s a piece of chewing gum. The tragedy of it is that nobody sees the look of desperation on my face. Thousands and thousands of us, and we are passing one another without a look of recognition. The lights jigging like electric needles. The atoms going crazy with light and heat. A conflagration going on behind the glass and nothing burns away. Men breaking their backs, men bursting their brains, to invent a machine which a child will manipulate. If I could only find the hypothetical child who’s to run this machine I’d put a hammer in its hands and say: Smash it! Smash it!”

Jabberwhorl Cronstadt the sixth chapter is a rather eccentric, imagery-rich piece with very surreal settings. Since most of the story itself is comprised of a dialogue, it is impossible to quote a single paragraph without taking it out of context. This piece, nevertheless, is thought-provoking in its own way. Jabberwhorl is an eccentric artist, or perhaps he only serves as a metaphor for one of Miller’s alter egos. In the end, he is laid to rest, which could also mean Miller’s own departure from one period of his life into another.

Into the Night Life, the seventh chapter, continues Miller’s surreal monologue. This one mostly deals with the state of affairs in our ‘modern’ world, and offers an unlikely criticism of civilization. The dream-like chapter opens with:

“Over the foot of the bed is the shadow of the cross. There are chains binding me to the bed. The chains are clanking loudly, the anchor is being lowered. Suddenly, I feel a hand on my shoulder. Some one is shaking me vigorously. I look up and it is an old hag in a dirty wrapper. She goes to the dresser and opening a drawer she puts a revolver away.”

And continues with a disturbing imagery full of symbolism. Here Miller sees himself tortured in various rooms, fighting of the demons that punish him, while defining his desire to be a new man, a man leaving his past behind. In this chapter there is a plenty of disillusion with America and its ways.

“In the heat of the late afternoon, the city rises up like a huge polar bear shaking off its rhododendrons. The forms waver, the gas chokes the girders, the smoke and the dust wave like amulets. Out of the welter of buildings there pours a jellywash of hot bodies glued together with pants and skirts. The tide washes up in front of the curved tracks and splits like glass combs. Under the wet headlines are the diaphanous legs of the amoebas scrambling on to the running boards, the fine, sturdy tennis legs wrapped in cellophane, their white veins showing through the golden calves and muscles of ivory. The city is panting with a five o’clock sweat.”

“The countryside is desolate. No warmth, no snugness, no closeness, no density, no opacity, no numerator, no denominator. It’s like the evening newspaper read to a deaf mute standing on a hat rack with a palmetto leaf in his hand.”

Only once does he venture abroad in this story, this time onto a German train.

“Surely nothing is better than to take a train at night when all the inhabitants are asleep and to drain from their open mouths the rich succulent morsels of their unspoken tongue. When every one sleeps, the mind is crowded with events; the mind travels in a swarm, like summer flies that are sucked along by the train.”

When his thoughts return to America, he again recreates the scenes from his youth:

“Everything is sordid, shoddy, thin as pasteboard. A Coney Island of the mind. The amusement shacks are running full blast, the shelves full of chinaware and dolls stuffed with straw and alarm clocks and spittoons. Every shop has three balls over it and every game is a ball game. The Jews are walking around in mackintoshes, the Japs are smiling, the air is full of chopped onions and sizzling hamburgers. Jabber, Jabber, and over it all in a muffled roar comes the steady hiss and boom of the breakers, a long uninterrupted adenoidal wheeze that spreads a clammy catarrh over the dirty shebang. Behind the pasteboard streetfront the breakers are ploughing up the night with luminous argent teeth; the clams are lying on their backs squirting ozone from their anal orifices. In the oceanic night Steeplechase looks like a wintry beard. Everything is sliding and crumbling, everything glitters, totters, teeters, titters.”

From then on, the text itself transforms into a long metaphor criticizing modern society which lacks compassion.

“Passing through the lobby of the hotel I see a crowd gathered around the bar. I walk in and suddenly I hear a child howling with pain. The child is standing on a table in the midst of the crowd. It’s a girl and she has a slit in the side of her head, just at the temple. The blood is bubbling from her temple. It just bubbles—it doesn’t run down the side of her face. Every time the slit in her temple opens I see something stirring inside. It looks like a chick in there. I watch closely. This time, I catch a good glimpse of it. It’s a cuckoo! People are laughing. Meanwhile the child is howling with pain.”

Yet it is much more. It goes on and on for pages, touching upon past injustices, future mistakes. He uses the image of a cemetery converted to a garden, which feeds the entire neighborhood, as a symbol for abandoning the past and moving on. His ideology crashes with his awareness as he cruises from East to West and beyond. And this is where Miller really shines, in his mad imagery laced with obscure words. It is as much about language as about a story.

Walking Up and Down in China, the eighth chapter addresses a period in between two Millers. The Miller of France, and the Miller of America.

“In Paris, out of Paris, leaving Paris or coming back to Paris, it’s always Paris and Paris is France and France is China. All that which is incomprehensible to me runs like a great wall over the hills and valleys through which I wander. Within this great wall I can live my Chinese life in peace and security.

I’m not a traveler, not an adventurer. This happen to me in my search for a way out. Up till now I had been working away in a blind tunnel, burrowing in the bowels of the earth for light and water. I could not believe, being a man of the American continent, that there was a place on earth where a man could be himself. By force of circumstance I became a Chinaman—a Chinaman in my own country! I took to the opium of dream in order to face the hideousness of a life in which I had no part. As quietly and naturally as a twig falling into the Mississippi I dropped out of the stream of American life. Everything that happened to me I remember, but I have no desire to recover the past, neither have I any longings or regrets. I am like a man who awakes from a long sleep to find that he is dreaming. A pre-natal condition—the born man living unborn, the unborn man dying born.”

While some may interpret his writing as America-hating, I do not believe it is so. Miller is simply disillusioned with the American hunger for everything new. He despises the facade, the strive for perfection. As promised, I will touch upon the surrealist in Miller. Not only his writing has its own phantasmagoric quality, long before André Breton suggested that: “The purest surrealist act is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly.” Miller wrote the following passage which, in essence, states the same while rebelling against the aforementioned lust for perfection:

“Men and women promenading on the sidewalks: curious beasts, half-human, half-celluloid. Walking up and down the Avenue half-crazed, their teeth polished, they eyes glazed. The women clothed in beautiful garbs, each one equipped with a cold storage smile. The men smiled too now and then, as if they were walking in their coffins to meet the Heavenly Redeemer. Smiling through life with that demented, glazed look in the eyes, the flags unfurled, and sex flowing sweetly through the sewers. I had a gat with me and when we got to Forty-second Street I opened fire. Nobody paid any attention. I mowed them down right and left, but the crowd got no thinner. The living walked over the dead, smiling all the while to advertise their beautiful white teeth. It’s this cruel smile that sticks in my memory.”

In contrast, while in France, Miller finds the imperfect faces beautiful:

“…standing face to face with the homely women of Europe. There’s a worn beauty about their faces, as if like the earth itself they had participated in all the cataclysms of nature. The history of their race is engraved on their faces; their skin is like a parchment on which is recorded the whole struggle of civilization. The migrations, the hatreds and persecutions, the wars of Europe—all have left their impress. They are not smiling; their faces are composed and what is written on them is composed in terms of race, character, history.”

This contrast is not as much about America and Europe, about disdain and understanding, but more about the quality of life. It’s almost a Zen-like question of life choices.

As the story progresses, Miller continues the theme of being a foreigner in his own country, of not having anything in common with his fellow countrymen yet not having anything in common with his new countrymen. He is a torn soul, a soul in a limbo between two cultures and two continents. One which he abandoned, and one which he has not yet accepted fully.

“Of a night when there is no longer a name for things I walk to the dead end of the street and, like a man who has come to the end of his tether, I jump the precipice which divides the living from the dead. As I plunge beyond the cemetery wall, where the last urinal is gurgling, the whole of my childhood comes to a lump in my throat and chokes me. Wherever I have made my bed I have fought like a maniac to drive out the past. But at the last moment it is the past which rises up triumphantly, the past in which one drowns.”

He is equally struggling with the political climate of Europe. Without saying so, he clearly hears the war drums drumming. After all, this is 1934-1935, and Europe is in-between two of the bloodiest wars in the history of mankind. He is not obsessed with the world’s end, yet his writing is often laced with scenes of destruction. I find it rather disturbing that ten years before the bombing of Nagasaki he wrote the following:

“This is the Spring that Jesus sang, the sponge to his lips, the frogs dancing. In every womb the pounding of iron hoofs, in every grave the roar of hollow shells. A vault of obscene anguish saturated with angel-worms hanging from the fallen womb of a sky. In this last body of the whale the whole world has become a running sore. When next the trumpet blows it will be like pushing a button: as the first man falls he will push over the next, and the next the next, and so on down the line, round the world, from New York to Nagasaki, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. And when man falls he will push over the cow and the cow will push over the horse and the horse the lamb, and all will go down, one before the other, one after the other, like a row of tin soldiers blown down by the wind. The world will go out like a Roman candle. Not even a blade of grass will grow again. A lethal dose from which no awakening. Peace and night, with no moan or whisper stirring. A soft, brooding darkness, an inaudible flapping of wings.”

Burlesk, the ninth chapter is another surreal exploration into his youth, this time a mix between a night out on town, and a few dirty things that he witnessed with his friends. I’m not sure how much of the latter is true, but there is some stuff that makes you wonder (like his friend Stanley who is hired to carry a stillborn to the cemetery grounds throwing the body overboard from a ferry, or to the sewers if there is no ferry). He also touches upon his affection for Tante Melia (a crazy aunt who ended up in an insane asylum in The Tailor Shop chapter).

“I’m speaking of things that brought me relief in the beginning.” He says about the aforementioned. “You are at the beginning of the world, in a garden which is boxed off. The sky is banked like sand dunes and there is not just one firmament but millions of them; the crust of every planet is carved into an eye, a very human eye that neither blinks nor winks. You are about to write a beautiful book and in it you are going to record everything that has given you pain or joy. This book, when written, will be called A Prolegomenon to the Unconscious.”

“The great artist is he who conquers the romantic in himself” is a line completely out of context within a sub-story about a men whose wife cheated on him and who got his payback in a rather disturbing way. Nevertheless, it’s a line worth pondering, especially knowing that Miller, himself, was a helpless romantic.

Megalopolitan Maniac, the tenth and final chapter of Black Spring closes the book with a bang.

“In the early evening, when the death rattles the spine, the crowd moves compact, elbow to elbow, each member of the great herd driven by loneliness; breast to breast toward the wall of self, frustrate, isolate, sardine upon sardine, all seeking the universal can opener. In the early evening, when the crowd is sprinkled with electricity, the whole city gets up on its hind legs and crashes the gates. In the stampede the abstract man falls apart, gray with self, spinning in the gutter of his deep loneliness.”

This chapter is a fine assault on civilization and its God. I say its God because Miller appears fairly religious in his other writing. Here, however, he takes jabs at the publicly affirmed God.

“Never more God than it the godless crowd.”

Advancement and mechanization of society has always been a sore in his eye, and this chapter is no different. He sees the future as inhuman, full of machinery and devoid of human contact. He sees changes that are to come, changes which will make the world a worse place to live in, a world without affection. He preaches love instead, a love greater than anything a man can create.

And although I have quoted more than I should have already, I cannot resist quoting the final paragraph:

“Tomorrow you may bring about the destruction of your world. Tomorrow you may sing in Paradise above the smoking ruins of your world-cities. But tonight I would like to think of one man, a lone individual, a man without name or country, a man whom I respect because he has absolutely nothing in common with you—MYSELF. Tonight I shall meditate upon that which I am.”

Overall, this is an impressive and haunting collection. Surely, Miller is very egoistic, but it is from his ego that his genius sprouts. Miller is difficult to interpret, even difficult to understand. At times he is like a lunatic armed with a dictionary; at times he is like a prophet of doom; yet through it all shines his insatiable appetite for life. Reading this book time and time again makes me think. It also makes me realize how much influence his writing has had on me as an author. Is Henry Miller relevant in the twenty-first century? Absolutely! His work is timeless.

–Henry Martin, author of Mad Days of Me: Escaping Barcelona, 2012

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