“Write about that! About what’s inside of you…the great vertiginous vertebration… the zoospores and the leucocytes… the wamroths and the holenlindens… every one’s a poem.”
Well, how else would someone named Jabberwhorl talk, right? Mr. Constadt was perhaps based on a real person, but the first two syllables of his first name reach back into the world of Lewis Carroll. The fact that the words which immediately follow reference a jellyfish also makes this strange outburst an allusion to James Joyce and serves to further give away Miller’s game. If Black Spring can be said to be about any one particular thing, it is the magic of language. Miller does not employ any one specific style for too long; each section transforms into something different than what came before and from what will follow.
There are huge blocks of my life which are gone forever. Huge blocks gone, scattered, wasted in talk, action, reminiscence, dream. There was never any time when I was living one life, the life of a husband, a lover, a friend. Wherever I was, whatever I was engaged in, I was leading multiple lives.
This quote mirrors the structure of the book. It is like looking at a life that has been shattered into multiple parts, each reflecting part of some of the others, but the idea of putting all the pieces back together again in a coherent way would be a task. Miller looks at his own life, the lives of his family and friends, as well as the life of the artist and the exile.
Types were already clearly distinguishable: the buffoons, the earth men, the paranoiacs, the volatiles, the mystagogues, the drudges, the nuts, the drunkards, the liars, the hypocrites, the harlots, the sadists, the cringers, the misers, the fanatics, the Urnings, the criminals, the saints, the princes.
This quote is representative of a recurring obsession of the author: lists. One section contains an uninterrupted list of around a hundred city names. No context or insight; just a catalog of names. Later on the reader confronts two full pages of seemingly random names from history, ranging from Annie Oakley to Cab Callaway to Chuck Connors. The bulk of that list is comprised of names of people who may have been famous at the time, but have since been lost to history. One popular interpretation is that these lists are Miller's homage to Walt Whitman, a poet also given to compendia.
And now the whole street, free as a bird, is twittering inside me and I see again the boys who are later to have their heads blown off or their guts bayoneted...
Miller writes of the time between the two world wars, and how people are more and more aware that the next conflagration is right on the horizon. Part of his despair in contemplating the modern world is its propensity for senseless, impersonal mass murder, and he knows that the young, working-class men of his neighborhood will be sent to fight on the battlefields of Europe and will most likely die an inglorious, grotesque death. How can society claim to be civilized and advanced if this is what it does to its own? Miller has no answers and retreats into himself to assuage these feelings of disillusionment and confusion.
You start out with the sublime and you end up in an alley jerking away for dear life.
Miller sees the move into adulthood as well as its concomitant engagement with the pressures and traumas of modern life as resulting in the psyche realizing that it can no longer comprehend the sublime but must instead content itself with baseness, ennui, despair, and ambivalence. To probe Miller's image and word choice in more detail, whereas intercourse would result in the man spreading his seed and creating new life—the sublime—here he is jerking off in the alley, negating any possibility of the sublime and making an intimate, transcendental act (orgasm) into a public, quotidian one.
I am Chancre, the crab, which moves sideways and backwards and forwards at will.
In this quote Miller evokes the crab and its sideways and erratic movement in the same way as critical theorists Gilles and Deleuze discuss the rhizomatic aspect of postmodern culture—there is no beginning and end, no teleology, no hierarchy, and many, many multiplicities. This can symbolize the way Miller experiences his time in New York and Paris, wandering through the streets, absorbing and cogitating. Throughout history, the crab's movement has been associated with discontinuous paths, with spontaneity and unconventionality. The crab's armor suggests a form of protection, which Miller may be trying to suggest that he is trying to form when dealing with the external world. Crabs also shed their shell, symbolizing death and rebirth.
Each jolt sends a fresh message to the signal tower. I have marked all the spots in passing: to retrace my thoughts I have only to retrace my journey, re-feel these bumps.
Miller, ever the flaneur, rides his bike across the bridges in Paris to see the city at the same time as he tries to see himself. He is not content with an easy glide, however; he wants to feel the cobblestones, to cement this memory in not just his brain but his body. He wants a physical sensation connected to the mental one so it will be easier to conjure. Earlier in Black Spring, he lamented how he spends much of his time just remembering rather than experiencing, so here he is trying a new strategy to cement the experience within him.
For what is it enables the classics to live at all, if indeed they be living on and not dying as we and all about us are dying?
Miller discusses the type of literature that he believes endures, and the types that are moribund. He thinks that some classics—Rabelais, Apuleius, the King James Bible, Swift—live on because they are the salt of the earth. They do not smack of artifice or civilization but of realness. They are coarse and crass and raw; they do not sugarcoat or obfuscate. They are the only examples of literature that can attempt to speak to men of the modern age, for they remind us to live, and live zestfully, even as the warning that we are all dying rings loudly in our heads.
I think that Mele was born a half-witted angel. I think Mele was a saint.
Miller has a soft spot for his poor aunt who has endured so much and who now has to be committed against her will. He says here that he thinks there is a fine line between madness and saintliness, and provides examples of Mele's sweetness and perspicacity even as he details the things that she has done to lead her family to institutionalize her. Mele seems to be too pure for this world, too fragile amidst its tense, violent, and destabilizing nature. She is effectively a stand-in for many people afflicted by modernity—people who feel themselves slipping, who have not found themselves a place and a meaning for their lives. Insanity, Miller suggests, may just be a condition of modernity.
The countryside is desolate. No warmth, no snugness, no closeness, no density, no opacity, no numerator, no denominator.
Miller was a singular voice, but he did have a good deal in common thematically with one of the era's most famous poets—T.S. Eliot. Miller's nightmarish visions in “Into the Night Life” are similar to “The Wasteland” and “The Hollow Men.” The beginning to the former poem is thus: “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain” and a passage later on evokes Miller's fascination with crowds and bridges and despair: “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.” In the latter poem, Eliot writes of the “hollow men” of the modern, war-ravaged era: “We whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass / or rats' feet over broken glass / In our dry cellar.” The images of desolation are clearly similar as well, which is not surprising given the fact that both men were looking out at the world with a deeply skeptical, disillusioned perspective.
Black Spring Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Black Spring is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.