Black Spring

Black Spring Summary and Analysis of “Into the Night Life” and ”Walking Up and Down in China”


Into the Night Life

Disclaimer: This section is largely stream-of-consciousness, unconnected, and difficult to follow. There is enough of a sense of disparate dreamlike scenes that they will be taken individually, and are presented chronologically as they appear in the section.

Miller is chained to a bed. An old hag is in the room and she sprays him with an atomizer. She opens drawers mechanically, and slings a watch around her neck. In the next room are relatives. Miller gets out of bed and enters in his nightshirt with a parasol. He dances and they do not react. The hag comes in naked and knocks over an umbrella stand. Cobras issue out with screaming hisses. Miller tries to attack the hag. Their bodies “come undone” (153).


Miller is lying in bed and has a hole in his side that terrifies him. He feels like he is being watched, and sees a man. The man asks him questions and jabs another hole in his side. Outside the window, Miller can see the Montreal Bridge. He remembers crossing the border and telling the officials he is a traitor to the human race.


At the Brooklyn Bridge, Miller waits for the trolley. Bodies are jellied together in the heat. The city pants, the bridge sways; it is warm and sultry. Miller takes a seat in the trolley and sees a man he knows with a newspaper.


The country is desolate and mute. It was only a short ride on the trolley but now Miller is in the desert. In the middle of the desert is a bathhouse and Miller sees a woman he used to know. Her proportions are strikingly off and she stands like a statue. Miller gropes her and holds her. There is a pair of rusty scissors on a table. The clock runs down nervously.


Miller waits for the train in the desert. All his cares have dropped away. In his luxurious seat on the German line he reads a book. The German language is ubiquitous, penetrating.


Miller does not notice the train stopping but now he is at the seashore. Everything is “sordid, shoddy, thin as pasteboard” (159). Miller remembers better times, but now everything is fake, a lie. He walks along the oceanfront and watches the “human clams.” They fall asleep, and the stars go out. It is neither night nor day and Miller walks along the wreck of the world without hurting his feet. Land and sea seem one, and he hears/sees/smells nothing.


Thinking of Plymouth now, Miller ruminates on its slimy earth and the river’s yawning mouth. All those who drowned seemed to have made England. Old memories invade him and the streets open up like a map.

At his house he finds his father shaving, or, rather, stopping the razor. He is deaf now and Miller pities him.

It is a cold night and Miller takes a whore home. She is ignorant and delights in anything he tells her. He dreams of the women he has known over the years.


Miller is walking through a lobby of a hotel when he hears and sees a child howling in pain. There is blood bubbling from her temple and a cuckoo can be espied inside. A surgeon prepares to operate. Miller realizes it is his child and his wife is there.

The surgeon operates on the screaming child. Finally all the sawdust is gone and the child happily hops away. Miller is horrified and grabs an instrument and gouges the surgeon over and over again while his wife whispers “Fiend.” He goes off to look for a mallet.


A man standing by a piano is reading from a large iron book, chanting like a rabbi reading prayers. It grows more monotonous and Miller realizes he has grown blind. He feels like drowning as his past bubbles up. Finally he can see the man again, who now paces back and forth mechanically as if a laboratory animal.

Miller notes that the book is the Day Book of the great plague written by a Jewish monk and contains numerous poems to rid of the demons under the skin.


Miller idly watches a wolf being hunted and killed by knights. He then walks through the town, where he sees sooty chimneys, cripples, and coffins being brought into the factory yard. He is scared and sweating but his feet are rooted. Skeletons are packed into each box; it is the Morgue, he realizes.


Miller walks home at night, and though everything seems the same, it is winter now. He feels secure in this wooded park and knows he could stay there forever. He sees a phantom couple arm in arm. They walk into a stream, and the stream quickens into flames.

Miller is on a street moving through a scrum of warm bodies.


Miller is walking a street of his youth, reflecting on how he was driven out and found it a place of sorrows. He now has no joy or pain because “they” took his guts out. A strange woman asks if he knows what they’ve done with the cemetery. He walks to it and sees that now everyone lives off its rich land.

There seem to be no white people there, only people of all shades of black and brown and olive. There are Indian tomahawks and wigwams, and Jews in crows’ nests.

Miller has a vision of being scalped and disemboweled, but inside he is full of gems.


Winter snow is melting and the bells are tolling. Leaves flower and the morning light comes in creases.


The menagerie breaks free as the song melts. The night is bloody and wild; the world is wide awake with a low fire burning. There is equilibrium amid the void.

Walking Up and Down in China

Miller proclaims that France—Paris—is China, and he is living out his life there behind the great wall. He is a Chinaman now, taking opium to face his own hideous life. He does not want to recover his past, but he has no longings or regrets.

Here in China, he feels born and reborn, wandering the city. These are walks of life and death and he talks to his own countless egos.

Leaving a café, he senses that his own body is rushing to join him. There is music in the café that augments his loneliness. Whores leap out from the darkness of the streets. Each night he runs the gauntlet; each night he is scalped and tomahawked.

He is fascinated by the house that he is staying in because it is being torn down. The more it is exposed, the more he loves it. He does not remember any of his American houses’ insides.

There are men and women everywhere on the street. They appear half-beast, half-human. He imagines mowing them down with a Gatling gun but the crowd does not thin.

On a Thursday, he looks at the homely European women in the Metro. Their faces wear the impress of their persecutions and hatreds and wars. Europe is a place of titanic efforts to alter the continent and it wears its sorrow and heroic actions and changes.

Here in China, Miller has left behind his old language but does not yet speak the new.

Espying Paris on the Seine, he admires it wholeheartedly. He feels like he is in communication with the whole earth; he is “in the womb of time and nothing will jolt me out of my stillness” (192). Yet, the world is full of pain and terror and madness right now, and there can be no escape from it unless every single organism wills it together.

Miller recalls his childhood in New York, but also lives in the present moment. He takes his “grand obsessional walk” (195) in Paris and feels complete. It is a hushed, motionless day. Then life arises in dance halls and cabarets and everything seems alive. He is in the belly of the Sphinx. The only thing that matters is the body. It is “the fundament, the imperishable” (196).

Night falls and Sacre Coeur stands out in its decaying loveliness.

Spring is coming; a soft rain falls. He sees a woman angrily hit a man with a closed umbrella.

He remembers walking along that street and there was a man lying on the ground as if dead, and it disturbed him that no one was stopping to see if he was dead or alive. People only surrounded him when a dog started nosing his crotch, and Miller was perturbed. Another day he saw the man again and he was absolutely dead this time. It seemed like a dream because there were no sounds and no one else around. He wondered if he was dreaming or insane.

Miller’s body has known so many places, many strange and unrelated to who he is. He lists dozens and dozens of places, places where something fatal happened to him—he left a dead body of himself there on the sidewalk.

One day he is standing near a station and he hears a mechanical voice. Suddenly the whole American scene bursts on him—people he knew, people from stories and history, corporations, characters from literature, entertainers, politicians, and more. Everything American is coming in a rush and he wonders if Frenchmen suspect he carries this dictionary inside him. He sighs that all cities that he has walked through have ravaged him.

He remembers the Fourteenth Word and a boy named Eddie Carney, an idol of his. He remembers the warships and the streets and the crazy men to fear and the types of people who lived there. In that place things were done openly and honestly.

Yet there is another war coming, and the boys of the street are all going to have their heads blown off and their guts bayoneted. Not even one will be spared.


Into the Night Life

The title of this section derives, appropriately, from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams: “into the night life seems to be exiled from what once ruled during the day.” The episodes are from Miller’s own dream notebooks, which are heavily influenced by Surrealism and the work he was doing in psychoanalysis at the suggestion of his lover and patroness Anais Nin. “Into the Night Life” is done in what is essentially écriture automatique, or “automatic writing.” Each episode either segues hazily into the next or abruptly jerks the reader from one creepy recess of Miller’s mind to another without any warning.

Every single episode is fantastical and irrational, and many of the episodes are flat-out grotesque and uncanny (also appropriate, given Freud’s famous essay on the latter subject), which fits in which what critic Herbert J. Muller identifies as the writer’s “revolt against intellect.” In Muller’s conception Miller is a “primitive,” a man whose “love of grotesquerie had been intensified by his defiant, rebellious attitudes.” He was “committed to the fundamental negations: the principle of scorning all principles, the logic of being illogical, the value of turning all accepted values inside out.”

Many of the bizarre dreams Miller lays out are more like nightmares. His narrative voice is shaky, traumatized, fearful, confused. He is prone to violence when he is not anesthetized. The images he creates are barren and terrifying, akin to those of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland”: “the countryside is desolate” (156); there are “only headlines written in chalk which the rain washes away” (156); “the clock is running down with nervous wiry sweat” (157); “everything is sordid, shoddy, thin as pasteboard. A Coney Island of the mind” (159); “the clams are falling asleep, the stars are dying out” (160); “there is no finitude of sky, no division of land and sea” (161). Miller adopts an atavistic perspective, with his mind “[searching] vainly for some remembrance which is older than any remembrance, for the myth engraved on a tablet of stone which lies buried under a mountain” (162). Unfortunately, he is unmoored from time and space, from the past and the future, and he will have to flail wildly to find any foundation upon which to perch himself.

Walking Up and Down in China

Like many of the other sections in Black Spring, this one consists of Miller-as-flaneur, perambulating Paris and obsessively cogitating. He calls Paris “China” in order to evoke a sense of the exotic, the unfamiliar, the “Other”; this is obviously problematic to contemporary readers, but not surprising giving Miller’s evinced Anglo-Saxon worldview.

Away from America Miller can indulge in a spiritual awakening. His impressionistic musings, as Decker writes, “provide a textual glimpse of this ecstatic state of mind, within the dizzying rhetorical devices of spiral form, the reverie, the catalog, the fantasy.” Here in “China” he can be “born and reborn over and over” (185). He can learn to slough off the past. “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” (185). This sentiment is notably different from that of the man who wrote of obsessively returning to his past in “The Fourteenth Ward.”

“China” isn’t perfect, of course. Even as Miller finds himself “in communication with the whole earth,” in “the womb of time” (192). He acknowledges that “the whole world, known and unknown, is out of kilter, screaming in pain and madness” (193). One of the great themes of the work is Miller trying to find himself in this messy, gaping maw of a world, and figuring out how much of himself he wants to give up to it.