Black Spring

Black Spring Summary and Analysis of “Third or Fourth Day of Spring” to “The Angel is the Watermark!”


Third or Fourth Day of Spring

Miller passed the most important years of his life in a house that had three rooms. In one, his grandfather died. In another, his wife gave birth to twins. In the third, he got all the diseases of childhood.

In that third room came the spinster Miss Sonowska, who had a smelly vagina and schizophrenia.

Miller recalls sitting in the Bronx in 1927 listening to a man reading the diary of a drug addict and laughing uproariously.

The great sun of syphilis is setting, Miller rues. Only catastrophes are on the horizon. Soon people will start fighting for God again and then fight for food.

He considers himself a history of the time—of all time—not just a book or a document or a record.

Right now he is happy and has no needs. He has no past or future and simply is.

To him, America is a curse upon the world and that is why he has gone to France. He has had a premonition of the end and this is why he has begun this book.

Every evening he takes the trash down to the courtyard and can see Sacre Coeur on the hill of Montmartre. He does not think of Christ but something bigger than Christ—himself. He is a man of God and the devil and is not eternal or absolute.

One day he is sitting in the sun and feels that it does not matter if the world is good or bad or right or wrong; it just is, and he is what he is.

When he walks around at twilight, he is of the multitude and simply a mere speck. He is alone in space and sings and commands the earth.

One must see the past as dead and the future as unrealizable, Miller counsels. The past never ceases, the future never comes, the present never ends.

Rabelais counseled laughter, but how is that possible with all the misery, the quack medicines?

Perhaps he is not “taut” enough. If he were more unintelligible people might understand him. After all, “the difference between understanding and non-understanding is as fine as a hair” (27).

Miller concedes that there are many periods of his life that are gone forever. They were wasted in talk and dream and reminiscing. Wherever he was, he was leading multiple lives and his story drowned in the story of others. He knows he is “a man of the old world” (29) like the Huns and Tatars and Vikings. He is Chancre, the crab that moves sideways. He is “volatile, quixotic, unreliable, independent, and evanescent. Also quarrelsome” (29).

As for writing, he now knows that it is not what people think. For example, saying “Valparaiso” means something different to each and every person who hears the name of that place.

He walks past the cattle trains and feels sick. His thoughts are clear but full of fear. There seems to be a madman inside of him hacking away. He must get out of America—go to Mexico, where everything is beautiful and wonderful and it is always summer and there are no whores or gardenias or dead cats or sweating.

A Saturday Afternoon

Now in Paris, Miller marvels how much he feels at home and how strange it is that he was born in America. He details his perambulations and thoughts and the people he meets. There is Van Norden, who never gets beyond the opening of the book he is working on. The sun is hot in the afternoon and it is a pleasure to read Vergil and to be here. This moment has “not defined itself in ticks or beats, this eternal moment which destroys all values, degrees, differences” (39). There is a thin veil between madness and sanity, Miller notes.

His experiences are full of contradictions. He is on a deserted street crowded with people. He is eating the best food that is the worst he ever tasted.

He rides his bike slowly along the cobblestone road so he can feel every bump and jar on his spine. He crosses over the river and feels like he has crossed over every river. He knows that he is part of the universe and “this that passes beneath me and this that floats above me and all that surges through me, I and this, I and that joined in one continuous movement, this Seine and every Seine that is spanned by a bridge is the miracle of a man crossing it on a bicycle” (41).

Now Miller is biking back to St. Cloud and feels the light of the sun on him and in him. He has the whole day to spend as he pleases and pauses to use a urinal. A woman leans out to watch him. He waxes poetic on how the French seem to know where to put a urinal. He is a man who has to piss often and walking around New York can sometimes be torture.

He now turns to Robinson Crusoe, wondering how un-Anglo-Saxon and pre-Christian the novel seems to be. This book came at the end of the Faustian culture and figures like Napoleon and Goethe and Beethoven loomed. Now in the 18th century, there can be no more happiness, no desert isles. Every man is “his own civilized desert” and is shipwrecked on the “island of self” (45). These men cannot be happy: Rimbaud had cancer, Gauguin syphilis, Lawrence the plague.

The plague! Miller realizes that the plague is now modern progress: “colonization, trade, free Bibles, war, disease, artificial limbs, factories, slaves, insanity, neuroses” (46) and many, many more. There are no desert isles, no Paradise.

Returning to Robinson Crusoe, Miller states that its appeal is tied to the moment that he discovered it, and he can never think of it in a vacuum.

His thoughts now go to his childhood. Recess was an ebullient time. the bathroom was where he encountered the best books: Boccaccio, Rabelais, Apuleius. Reading those works in that place with that smell will always stay with him.

Those works are crude and honest, and that is the world he wants. He wants depictions of vaginas as “crude slits” and dung as dung. The King James Bible is perfect for this because it was “created by a race of bone-crushers” and “revives rape, murder, incest, revives epilepsy, sadism, megalomania, revives demons, angels, dragons, leviathans, revives magic, exorcism, contagion, incantation, revives fratricide, regicide, patricide, suicide” (50) etc. Similarly, when he reads Rabelais or Apuleius he delights in their “salty tang” (51) and odors and their real eunuchs and real boredom and real cruelty.

There is one urinal near the Palace that faces the Institute of Music. Now they are cold and deserted and tomblike, but once there was music, popes, sunlight, and life. There are frescoes inside that tell the story of a “large, Catholic life” (53). Miller’s mind goes to scenes of a church father writing a Papal bull, animals roasting on a spit in the kitchen, and wenches. Disease swept through though, and took everyone from rich men to peasants. The inside of the walls could not contain the outside and even the Pope was not immune. The frescoes keep this alive, though the Pope’s words are now dead.

The Angel is My Watermark!

Miller states that he created a masterpiece and is going to explain the process for it, as he will probably never be able to do it again.

Going back a few days, he visited the Renoir exhibition then the Louvre and then the Rue de Rivoli. When he woke up the next day, he took out his notebook because he knew he had to do something. He wrote of his aunt Tante Melia for a bit, then felt a rush of inspiration and recorded what he felt was being dictated to him. He took a break to go out to eat but it was as if someone else was taking in the food. He passed the rest of the day at his typewriter and by midnight felt exhilarated and done with the dictation. He ate a new meal and felt pleased that it was himself eating this time.

Then, however, he decided he really wanted to paint a picture. In the insane asylums they paint all day, he mused, so he looked at a book of illustrations done by inmates. Eager to start, he wondered if he ought to copy one of the inmates’ work, but then decided copying the work of a lunatic is the worst sort of plagiarism.

Where to begin? He decided to draw a horse and struggled with the length of limbs and such. He needed to get him into action and to prance, but now it could be a kangaroo. He could not do the stomach or the skull, and decried his progress.

He closed his eyes and then opened them to begin again. He started with the mane and decided it needed color. The stomach was sill odd, as were the two eyes. He rubbed one eye out and put in stripes. He seemed flattened now, and his mind went to how hard it was to draw the one thing humans had been drawing for millennia.

He looked at a landscape done by one of the lunatics. This would be the setting for the horse. He then drew a hat and a melon and a head for the hat. The horse’s legs seemed to be five now, so one became a phallus.

The man’s lower body perplexed Miller so he made him looking over a parapet and tickling the horse’s ribs.

To shorten his labor, he made many diagonal lines for bridge flooring. Then came the trees and the mountains, but his clouds looked terrible. The mountain became too easy so he preferred a volcano. The volcano abutted the bridge and houses and had cracks because it was active.

He looked at his work and realized it seemed like a shirt, but the bridge was clear enough. At the bottom of the piece he made a cemetery and drew an angel. He mused, “Have you ever sat in a railway station and watched people killing time? do they not sit a little like crest-fallen angels?” (67)

The drawing was done and now it was time for the coloring. It was hard to start but he added impasto. Doing this made him want to try adding a gondola. Thinking of the gondola led him to a memory of how he was hanging out with his friend Joe back in America and started to do watercolors in the winter of 1927-28.

The gondola was to be the best part of the work, Miller thought, but as he cleaned up the walls he added flames and it seemed to be a disastrous conflagration. The horse was now a fire-breathing dragon and Miller blotted him out (he still remained in his mind though).

Miller claimed to be an instinctive watercolorist which meant that everything happened according to God’s will. As his thoughts moved through his mind, he was smearing the trees and terraces with color. it reminded him of a painting called “Death on Bugs” that he saw at a cellar in the Bowery one strange day. It was full of painted bedbugs and they were grotesque and dirty and like smallpox.

He dipped his brush in all colors and then got a real inspiration—he took it to the sink, scrubbed it with a nailbrush, and let the colors run before he flattened it out. This was it, the combination of miracles and mistakes and erasures and certitude.

He concludes that he has never had a balance; he is always minus something. To have disorder one must destroy all order.

He looks at his masterpiece and sees an angel. The angel is there to lead one to heaven and it is a watermark, a “guarantee of your faultless vision” (76).


Third or Fourth Day of Spring

This section shows Miller continuing to meditate on his childhood. He writes of his house, family, childhood illnesses, and more. He is ready to leave America, however: “If I was unhappy in America, if I craved more room, more adventure, more freedom of expression, it was because I needed those things. I am grateful to America for having made me realize my needs. I served my sentence there. At present I have no needs. I am a man without a past and without a future. I am—that is all” (23). A few lines later he is a little sharper, calling America “a black curse upon the world” and a country that is “spreading disaster” (24); this is only the first time in the text that Miller will struggle with how he feels about his home country.

Miller advocates living joyously and vibrantly in light of the pending apocalypse of the modern world—a world that practically demands we live multiple lives, mutes our passions and negates our labors, and proves too confusing to comprehend. We should be like Rabelais, Miller writes, but admits: “Jesus but it’s hard to take his sane, gay wisdom after all the quack medicine we’ve poured down our throats” (27). Modern life will be pain and self-pity, and it is only through a creative act that Miller can see himself mitigating it.

A Saturday Afternoon

Now in Paris, Miller wonders how he ever could have come from America as he feels so at home here. He wanders near the Seine and fuses his experiences with dreams and disjointed ruminations.

The second part of the piece is a meditation on man and civilization. He thinks of Robinson Crusoe on his deserted island and how he not only managed to get along but to achieve a modicum of happiness. This was an “un-Anglo-Saxon” and “pre-Christian” (44) society and the book represented the “culmination of our marvelous Faustian culture” (45). Now people like Goethe, Rousseau, Napoleon, and Beethoven are their own deserted islands. “Every man his own civilized desert, the island of self on which he is shipwrecked: happiness, relative or absolute, is out of the question” (45). James Decker explains that “Miller links ‘civilization’ with a taming of humanity’s instinct for satisfaction and wholeness. Ideas designed to divorce individuals from themselves, to crave an endlessly deferred ‘perfection,’ leads to a catalog of misery…In its quest to seek happiness in ever more complex ideas, humanity fragments itself, squelches the god-like impulses that it unconsciously felt, and destroys the world it attempts to elevate.”

The Angel is My Watermark!

In this section, Miller paints a picture, but it is an extended metaphor for his own writing process. He utilizes the spiral form, a term he openly applied to his own writing. Decker explains this concept: “By filtering memories, dreams, and fantasies through an anecdotal matrix, Miller allows his narratives to blur categories of the past, present, and future, enabling him to depict a persona that stands both in and apart from the historical continuum. Such a framework lets Miller fuse real events and fabrications without sacrificing the ‘truthfulness’ of his representations…Because his narratives deny strict chronology, Miller may rearrange the incidents of his life in a pattern that seeks not photographic realism, but psychological realism.”

Miller presents his undertaking of the painting as something that occurred in “real” time and space, but, as Decker suggests, it rapidly breaks down and becomes surreal and nonsensical even as it tries to cheekily convince us that there will be a tangible painting at the end of it all. Miller paints in “The Angel is My Watermark!” according to instinct and he clearly writes according to instinct; he privileges color in its literal sense in the painting and color in its symbolic and metaphorical sense in his writing; and he destroys and erases and adds to the painting while he indicates in his writing that the self must also be broken down before it can be made whole again. Decker sums this up aptly, saying “the shedding of desire, transcendence requires a Spenglerian destruction of civilization and its discontents, demands that the conditions that spawned modernity’s fragmentation themselves explode.” This is what Miller will attempt to do while he is living in Paris, far away from New York.