Warning: This review is long, has excessive amount of quotes, and does not reach much of a conclusion. If you have a short attention span, this may not be for you. However, if you appreciate fine writing, I encourage you to read on.
For me, Henry Miller is the finest writer America has produced over the past century. When his name comes up, most readers associate Miller with sex, scandals, pornography. This is mostly due to the press attention given to his two books, The Tropic of Cancer, and The Tropic of Capricorn. There is, however, much more to Miller than these two books. Miller's life work can be broken to three separate categories: Sex, Surrealism, and Philosophy. The works that make up these three categories did not come in a chronological order, even though his latter works are much more philosophical. The shift from sex to philosophy is very noticeable in his Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, where Nexus makes a grand departure from the world of sex and into philosophical realms. Nevertheless, when I say sex, I do not mean obscenity. Miller's writing is dotted with sex, but not sex for sex's value alone; it is sex that is a part of the story, not the other way around.
Unlike his other books, Black Spring stands alone, covering a period of Miller's life not often discussed in his other works - his early years. It is also, undoubtedly, his most surreal work. By surreal I mean that not only it touches on the principles of surrealism, but that it is a work riddled with surreal imagery. In Black Spring, this imagery is Miller's greatest asset.
The Fourteenth Ward is the opening chapter of Black Spring, an opening chapter into the intimate life of Henry Miller. This is the chapter where he talks about his childhood, his friends, the people and the streets he grew up with. It is a painful place, yet a safe haven. The following is a fine example from this chapter:
"And then one day, as if suddenly the flesh came undone and the blood beneath the flesh had coalesced with the air, suddenly the whole world roars again and the very skeleton of the body melts like wax. Such a day it may be when you first encounter Dostoevski. You remember the smell of the tablecloth on which the book rests; you look at the clock and it is only five minutes from eternity; you count the objects on the mantelpiece because the sound of numbers is a totally new sound in your mouth, because everything new and old, or touched and forgotten, is a fire and mesmerism. Now every door of the cage is open and whichever way you walk is a straight line toward infinity, a straight, mad line over which the breakers roar and the great rocs of marble and indigo swoop to lower their fevered eggs. Out of the waves beating phosphorescent step proud and prancing the enameled horses that marched with Alexander, their tight-proud bellies glowing with calcium, their nostrils dipped in laudanum. Now it is all snow and lice, with the great band of Orion slung around the ocean's crotch."
Third or Fourth Day of Spring, the second chapter in Black Spring, fluctuates between his childhood home and his current place in Clichy.
"The third room was an alcove where I contracted the measles, chicken pox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, et cetera: all the lovely diseases of childhood which make time stretch out in everlasting bliss and agony, especially when Providence has provided a window over the bed with bars and ogres to claw at them and sweat as thick as carbuncles, rapid as a river and sprouting, sprouting as if it were always spring and tropics, with thick tenderloin steaks for hands and feet heavier than led or light as snow, feet and hands separated by oceans of time or incalculable latitudes of light, the little knob of the brain hidden away like a grain of sand and the toenails rotting blissfully under the ruins of Athens."
Where this chapter opens with the description of his home, it shifts to his obsession with the way humanity destroys itself, the never-ending list of wrongs he sees.
"I am thinking of that age to come when God is born again, when men will fight and kill for God as now and for a long time to come men are going to fight for food."
One could argue that Miller was a pessimist. I disagree. Miller, for the most part, enjoyed life to its fullest. Perhaps he foresaw what was in store around the corner, perhaps he foresaw the destruction WWII brought upon Europe, which I will touch upon later in this review.
"I am dazzled by the glorious collapse of the world."
A Saturday Afternoon, the third chapter, is a wonderful praise to France. Spending the day on his bicycle, Miller joyfully explores everything French, and sings his amorous hymns to the French people, his newly-found countrymen. He finds joy in the simple pleasure of pissing in an open urinal (and he recounts quite a few of them), or visiting a toilet with a book.
"No harm, I say, can ever be done a great book by taking it with you to the toilet. Only the little books suffer thereby. Only the little books make ass wipers."
It is a chapter about French countryside, toilets, and great literature. Not an easy combination to pull off, but he did. Enough said.
The Angel is my Watermark, the fourth chapter in Black Spring. This is a stand-alone piece, which chronicles Miller's attempt at a watercolor painting. Those of you not familiar with Miller may not know this about him, but he was a prolific, and pretty good, watercolor artist. I believe it originally started as a way to make money, but later it was done purely out of joy. In later years, when Miller settled in Big Sur, he used to wrap books in his watercolors and sent the books to his fans and supporters. Since then, some of his watercolors sold for insane amounts of money, and later there was a limited run of hand-signed serigraphs. Being a sucker for Miller, I own one of them - Really, the Blues. The nice thing about the serigraphs, aside from being limited edition and hand signed, is that each one of them is unique in color composition.
Back to the story at hand. After waking up and feeling like creating something, Miller is 'attacked' by a muse. He calls it dictation, a process where words and sentences come to him so fast he has a hard time keeping up and writing it down. This lasts for many hours during which he attempts to take a break, goes out, and eats something. But the dictation continues, he writes on the tablecloth, goes home, and it still continues. By the time it is over with, he is tired and worn out. Then, seeing a pamphlet with paintings by inmates in an insane-asylum, he realizes that this whole time he really wanted to create a painting.
"I'm very eager to start in. Just the same, I'm at loss for ideas. The dictation has ceased. I have a half mind to copy one of these illustrations. But then I'm a little ashamed of myself—to copy the work of a lunatic is the worst form of plagiarism."
And so he begins, with a horse of all things. Not having any picture of a horse, he draws from memory. Here, he shows his playful nature:
"To put meat on the hoof is a delicate task, extremely delicate. And to make the legs join the body naturally, not as if they were stuck on with glue. My horse already has five legs: the easiest thing to do is to transform one of them into a phallus erectus. No sooner said than done. And how he is standing just like a terra cotta figure of the sixth century B.C. The tail isn't in yet, but I've left an opening just above the asshole."
and in the next paragraph: "During the leg experiments the stomach has become dilapidated. I patch it as best I can—until it looks like a hammock. Let it go at that. If it doesn't look like a horse when I'm through I can always turn it into a hammock."
and one paragraph later: "At this point, I admit frankly, I am completely disgusted with my prowess. I have a mind to erase and begin all over again. But I detest the eraser. I would rather convert the horse into a dynamo or a grand piano than erase my work completely."
The more he works at it, the worse it becomes. Here he says: "However, when I get into a predicament of this sort I know that I can extricate myself later when it comes time to apply the color. The drawing is simply the excuse for color. The color is the toccata: drawing belongs to the realm of idea."
He continues with the drawing, making it more and more elaborate, throwing things in there that have no place in the original idea. A bridge, a man, trees, houses, a mountain..."What's a mountain? It's a pile of dirt which never wears away, at least, not in historical time. A mountain's too easy. I want a volcano I want a reason for my horse to be snorting and prancing. Logic, logic! "Le fou montre un souci constant de logique!" (Les Frances aussi.) Well, I'm not a fou, especially a French fou I can take a few liberties, particularly with the work of an imbecile."
Thus he starts on the volcano. "When I'm all through, I have a shirt on my hands. A shirt, precisely!"..."One thing, however, stands out unmistakably, clear and clean, and that is the bridge. It's strange, but if you can draw an arch the rest of the bridge follows naturally. Only an engineer can ruin a bridge."
This last line is rather important. It is subtle, but it points to a larger issue Miller seemed to have, and that is the issue with progress, advancement, especially the modern way of things changing fast while destroying old habits, familiar places, picturesque views. This is why I think he loved France and Greece so much, but disliked America. The old world held onto the old, the familiar. The new world kept building and rebuilding. No attachment.
Here he inserts an angel above his horse. "It's a sad angel with a fallen stomach, and the wings are supported by umbrella ribs."
Inspiration for this is explained here: "Have you ever sat at a railway station and watched people killing time? Do they not sit a little like crestfallen angels—with their broken arches and their fallen stomachs? Those eternal few minutes in which they are condemned to be alone with themselves—does it not put umbrella ribs in their wings?
All angels in religious art are false. If you want to see angels you must go to the Grand Central Depot, or to the Gare St. Lazare. Especially the Gare St.Lazare—Salle des Pas Perdus."
The piece eventually evolves into something entirely different than Miller's original intention. And so does the story. It is no longer about painting, about horses, or about anything that might be on the canvas (and there were many, many things taking appearance only to be transformed or covered entirely). It is now about Miller, about humanity, about angels.
"My whole life seems to be wrapped up in that dirty handkerchief, the Bowery, which I walked through day after day, year in and year out—a dose of smallpox whose scars never disappear. If I had a name then it was Cimex Lectularius. If I had a home it was a slide trombone. If I had a passion, it was to wash myself clean."
After ruining the painting, he decides to wash it in a sink, scrub it, and lay it on his desk. Here the story takes a completely different turn and Miller shines in his surreal monologue for three pages. In the end, this is as much about the painting as it is about Miller himself. It is a story of imbalance, of internal struggle; and as such it is beautiful.
The Tailor Shop is the fifth chapter, and here we are offered a glimpse into his early adult years.
At first, Miller sets the scene: His father's tailor shop, grumpy customers, half-wit brother, and his mother who does not have a clue. He spends a quite a bit of time on his father's customers, often using them not only for background, but also to express his disagreement with advancement.
I really liked this simple description: "Of the three brothers I liked Albert the best. He had arrived at that ripe age when the bones become as brittle as glass. His spine had the natural curvature of old age, as though he were preparing to fold up and return to the womb."
He was writing Black Spring in France, and his disdain with America was already apparent: "Yes, all the silk-lined duffers I knew well—we had the best families in America on our roster. And what a pus and filth when they opened their dirty traps!"
His sentiment about the changes in society, his surroundings, and the world in general are pretty clear here: "As the old 'uns died off they were replaced by young blood. Young blood! That was the war cry all along the Avenue, wherever there were silk-lined suits for sale. A fine bloody crew they were, the young bloods. Gamblers, racetrack touts, stockbrokers, ham actors, prize fighters, etc. Rich one day, poor the next. No honor, no loyalty, no sense of responsibility. A fine bunch of gangrened syphilics they were, most of 'em. Came back from Paris or Monte Carlo with dirty postcards and a string of big blue rocks in their groin. Some of them with balls as big as a lamb's fry."
Miller is clearly showing affection for the less fortunate, as he has done in most of his books. While he thrashes the rich and powerful, he embraces the everyday men.
"The men my father loved were weak and lovable. They went out, each and every one of them, like brilliant stars before the sun. They went out quietly and catastrophically. No shred of them remained—nothing but the memory of their blaze and glory. They flow inside me now like a vast river choked with falling stars. They form the black flowing river which keeps the axis of my world in constant revolution. Out of this black, endless, ever-expanding girdle of nigh springs the continuous morning which is wasted in creation. Each morning the river overflows its banks, leaving the sleeves and buttonholes and all the rinds of a dead universe strewn along the beach where I stand contemplating the ocean of the morning of creation."
And his surreal imagery pours forth as the story goes on, once again changing the course from its beginning to the larger issues Miller sees with the world:
"It's staggeringly beautiful at this hour when every one seems to be going his own private way. Love and murder, they're still a few hours apart. Love and murder, I feel it coming with the dusk: new babies coming out of the womb, soft, pink flesh to get tangled up in barbed wire and scream all night long and rot like dead bone a thousand miles from nowhere. Crazy virgins with ice-cold jazz in their veins egging men on to erect new buildings and men with dog collars around their necks wading through the muck up to the eyes so that the czar of electricity will rule the waves. What's in the seed scares the living piss out of me: a brand new world is coming out of the egg and no matter how fast I write the old world doesn't die fast enough. I hear the new machine guns and the millions of bones splintered at once; I see dogs running mad and pigeons dropping with letters tied to their ankles."
In France, Miller found his peace. He found understanding, and a society that he could embrace. His tormented view of self in America has finally cleared, and he truly enjoyed life. His writing here is much more calm, much more picturesque. In France he found pleasure in observing its people, their habits, their ways. Whereas here he saw himself as an individual, in America he saw himself as part of a machine, a machine he had no desire to be a part of.
"Swimming in the crowd, a digit with the rest. Tailored and re-tailored. The lights are twinkling—on and off, on and off. Sometimes it's a rubber tire, sometimes it's a piece of chewing gum. The tragedy of it is that nobody sees the look of desperation on my face. Thousands and thousands of us, and we are passing one another without a look of recognition. The lights jigging like electric needles. The atoms going crazy with light and heat. A conflagration going on behind the glass and nothing burns away. Men breaking their backs, men bursting their brains, to invent a machine which a child will manipulate. If I could only find the hypothetical child who's to run this machine I'd put a hammer in its hands and say: Smash it! Smash it!"
Jabberwhorl Cronstadt the sixth chapter is a rather eccentric, imagery-rich piece with very surreal settings. Since most of the story itself is comprised of a dialogue, it is impossible to quote a single paragraph without taking it out of context. This piece, nevertheless, is thought-provoking in its own way. Jabberwhorl is an eccentric artist, or perhaps he only serves as a metaphor for one of Miller's alter egos. In the end, he is laid to rest, which could also mean Miller's own departure from one period of his life into another.
Part Two Follows: