Miller and his friend are walking through the ghetto. Memories come upon him, especially a sign that says “Don’t Spit on the Floor.”
In the memory, they see a shop window with a cross on it and go inside. Sister Powell is on the organ and looks clean and godly. A man on the platform sings loudly; he appears a substitute for the preacher because he is a blacksmith.
The blacksmith calls for testimonies and more hymns, but first they are going down to look at Sister Blanchard’s dead son. Everyone troops downstairs. He is lying on the ice and his toes are sprouting.
Miller is now in a taxi heading toward the National Winter Garden. Black snow, signs, poor people in fur coats, Turkish baths, suffering people—all fill the streets.
Now the curtain is rising on the cleanest and fastest burlesque show in the Western Hemisphere. Everything is psychedelic and unhinged. The curtain rises. You can look down or you can look up. The calmness of Scheveningen works like an anesthetic.
Cleo, the darling of the Jews, is dancing. She will leave in the morning for some other place.
It is a fine day and one can smell clams from the bay. You are in the Great White Way and walk along. America seems the greatest country in the world and America will do anything for you if you ask for it like a man.
Miller goes back over the Brooklyn Bridge and sits opposite the house where he was born. He wanted to be a musician when he was younger. He remembers when he was older going to a symphony and pressing up against a woman and getting an erection, but nothing happened. These things connect for him somewhere—“connects with the grotesque and the void with the heartbreaking loneliness, the snow, the lack of color, the absence of music” (225).
Miller also remembers the Woodruffs. Bill Woodruff was frustrated that his wife never wanted sex, only money. He did not seek another woman out but started offering his wife money for sex. He then learned that she was sleeping with other men so he pretended to ignore it for a while and then punished her harshly.
Miller suggests he is saying things that used to bring him relief. Now everyone writes their own book of the things that brought pleasure and pain. This book can bring relief and one carries it around inside; this is the origin of the Koran, the Bible, other sacred books.
Miller jumps back to the dead son in the basement. He wonders if someone else could just testify before they look again.
The city is loveliest when she is in her death racket, defying nature. The crowd moves closely, part of a lonely herd. God is in the herd and burns like a star; “Never more God than in the godless crowd” (228).
The empire of man is bright and gory. One man has amputated legs and sings “The Song of Love” and is alone with his loneliness and a lonely dog.
In the beautiful winter of life the sun rots and everyone marches meditatively through the streets. They are gay and crowded. There is music, notaries, erections, megaphones, factories—what a magnificent day!
The view from heaven of an earth without men is wondrous. The earth creates and destroys in her womb, and man comes from God, not the earth.
Tomorrow all the cities of the world will fall and its people dead by steel and poison, but today there are still the love lyrics of God.
This is the city and its music. “The Song of Love” plays. This song lets us build tall buildings and battleships and span rivers and kill millions by pushing a button.
Miller studies everyone individually and in the swarm, and comprehends they stink and they stink like God. He wants to sit on the mountaintop and wait another ten thousand years while people struggle toward the light. Tonight he wants to meditate and he wants peace. He wants to think of himself and what he is.
Burlesk is another swirling and confusing sensory experience for the reader. It ostensibly starts out with a walk in a poor neighborhood, then turns into a visit to a homely religious service. Miller ruminates on poverty, America, and his childhood as he weaves in images of the hymns and calls-to-Jesus with the burlesque show that promises to be “the cleanest and the fastest” in the city. A detour into a particularly brutal example of violence towards women—the Woodruffs—seems unnecessary, but Miller quickly leaves that and returns to his contemplation of life itself.
“Burlesk” stylistically and thematically alludes to the burlesque show, one of the many forms of mass entertainment in the 1910s and 1920s. Critic William Solomon looks at how Miller writes in a way that evokes this type of entertainment, explaining that “plot becomes superfluous as the desire to overwhelm the spectator takes precedence” and “the writer was to be a showman, a master of the explosive spectacle.” Just like the variety shows, Miller strings together unrelated and discontinuous anecdotes, utilizes multiple genres and styles, and attempts to discombobulate the reader with excess and spectacle. Solomon’s main argument is this (though long, it deserves to be quoted at length):
Rather than tell a story, Miller’s priorities here are for the most part nonnarrative, his aim to astonish and surprise with a dizzying array of disparate diversions. He evinces little interest in sustaining the illusion of a self-contained fictional world that solicits spectator identification; instead, he seeks to keep his reader off-balance, disoriented, while also attempting to include him in the show through self-conscious address, taunting, or mocking. Perhaps most important, adopting the variety show’s emphasis on exhibition, on confrontational self-display, Miller exposes in what he intends as both a thrilling and intimidating manner what is customarily deemed inappropriate material for public consumption. In other words, what good taste would require be disclosed only in private, Miller puts on stage in his literary performance. Hoping simultaneously to amuse and offend, Miller believes that such a tactic is genuinely therapeutic on individual and collective levels.
In the last and shortest section of Black Spring, Miller does not quite endeavor to pull everything together—how orthodox and predictable that would be!—but he does offer closing thoughts on the running themes of the work.
Firstly, Miller writes this section from the point of view that he utilizes most often in Black Spring —that of the flaneur, the man walking the streets and observing humanity around him. He evokes a city that has killed nature with her “electricity, her frigidaires, her soundproof walls” (237). Its denizens form a “great herd driven by loneliness” (237) and even “the dog is lonely too” (239). James Decker writes that Miller “notes that the inventions of modernity fail to connect with spiritual realm and plunge man humanity into despair.” All modernity can do is “unwittingly [churn] out spiritual and figurative cripples, fragmented souls.”
Miller proclaims that this is a time of apocalypse and death, as seen in this image: “So beautiful the winter of life, with the sun rotting away and the angels lying heavenward with firecrackers up their ass!” (239). His vision is of the earth “bereft of man” (240), tomorrow as the time when “every world city will fall” (240). This happens despite the fact that man has done so many glorious, civilized things, possessing “the strength to build the tallest buildings, the launch the biggest battleships, to span the widest rivers…[and] the courage to kill millions of men at once by just pressing a button” (241-242). War is on the horizon again and Miller is, frankly, disgusted: “I study you individually and in the swarm—and how you stink, all of you! You stink like God and his all-merciful love and wisdom. God the maneater! God the shark swimming with his parasites!” (242). The only thing for Miller to do, then, is to focus solely on himself: “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” (242-243). Miller is a veritable Robinson Crusoe as depicted in “A Saturday Afternoon”—a lone man on a deserted island, committed to himself and his happiness free from the rest of the diseased world.