In many of the sections of Black Spring, Miller, or his narrative alter ego, perambulates the physical streets of New York and Paris. He stands on bridges, joins crowds, steals into saloons and shows, and draws vivid pictures of the city-dwellers. His walks make him contemplate his own existence, and the fragmented nature of such walks is mirrored in his self. Though talking about a photographer, Susan Sontag's description is apt: “reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.’”
Miller grew up in New York and admired his Brooklyn childhood neighborhood, but he eventually fled to Paris. His exile was on account of feeling America's modernity too stifling, too fragmenting, and too bleak. He saw America as a “black curse upon the world” that was “spreading disaster” (24). America was a place where he felt limited in his freedom of expression and his ability to adventure and seek out something deeper. His depression and anxiety were acute and he did not believe there was anything in store for him anymore. In Paris, though, he has “such a sense of being at home that it seems incredible that I was born in America” (38). Here he has breathing room to contemplate his self and how to make up for that “minus” he always felt in himself.
Dreams vs. Reality
Miller deliberately fuses dream and reality in many sections to show what a fine membrane separates the two. He moves seamlessly from the anecdotal to the dreamlike, causing the reader to abandon any serious hopes of ascertaining exactly which is which. Miller's chronicling of his dreams and his work with psychoanalysis led him to understand that dreams reveal our unconscious to us, and that if we study them diligently, we may discover the things that impede our ability to achieve a unified self. Miller has to work through his anxieties, his family traumas, his sticky relationship with America, his despair over finding meaning for himself, etc., and dreams allow him to face his fears.
Modernity and Identity
In the modern world with its inundation of signs and spectacle, its incessant emphasis on the present, its blithe capacity to render mass death, and its disillusioning chaos and crassness, the unified and contented self is not easy to achieve. Miller saw childhood as an idyllic time of wholeness, but as an adult he is fragmented, his story seeping inexorably into other stories and his present, past, and future threatening to pull him apart. As William Solomon writes, it is as if Miller's wish is to avoid modern life as much as possible and “go back in time to the stages before the traumas of birth. Autobiography thus conceived appears as a regressive process of return to the womb, to a condition of biological dependency in which the organism is absolutely free of any social constraints.” Writing is how Miller comes to terms with and defines his identity; his art is the bulwark against the insane and inhumane world that he inhabits.
This theme is not as blatant as others, but Miller clearly alludes to the First World War and the imminent Second World War, showing how a corrupted and diseased society seemingly could not avoid killing millions of people due to its hubris and insanity. The sights of war permeate Miller's childhood, as with the battleships in the basin and returning soldier Rob Ramsay, who eventually killed himself because he could not readjust to civilian life. Later as an adult, Miller ruminates on how society considers it a mark of civilization that it can bring about mass death with the mere push of a button. He imagines the friends of his youth who will now be going off to fight in the Second World War and will have “their heads blown off or their guts bayoneted” (210).
Childhood vs. Adulthood
Childhood as Miller depicts it is one of peace, security, community, and unity of self. The Fourteenth Ward may be dirty and rundown, but as a boy it provides everything Miller needs. He and his childhood friends seem to experience a timeless existence in which there are few divisions between pleasure and pain and sorrow. As William Solomon writes, Miller was “securely ensconced in this informal world of festive excess,” safe in his “sheltered, self-enclosed environment.” When his family moved out of the neighborhood he viewed it as a forced exile and, combined with the changes brought about by puberty and young adulthood, he began to experience “emotional disarray” and a “progressive loss of psychic wholeness.” Miller writes that when he was a child “we were whole” but now there is a “splitting with us into a myriad iridescent fragments" due to this "great fragmentation of maturity” (10).
Memory and Nostalgia
Miller spends a considerable amount of time in Black Spring engaged in conjuring up memories of his youth and early adulthood in New York City. Though there are troublesome elements at this time—WWI, a slowing economy, social and racial tensions—Miller was happy for much of his early years. Even in the more tempestuous years when he disliked his parents, experienced the trauma of having to institutionalize his aunt, and wondered what his life all meant, he exhibited a fondness for the people and places and sensations of home. Memory is both sustaining and destructive; it can help us keep things alive but it can also remind us of what is no more and impede our ability to move forward. Nevertheless, memory is inextricable from adulthood: “We live in the mind, in ideas, in fragments. We no longer drink in the wild outer music of the streets—we remember only” (10). Miller has to learn to set memory aside when it does not serve his art or his selfhood.
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.