Henry Miller Goes Into the Nightlife

(Page numbers refer to the edition of Henry Miller’s Black Spring published by Alma Classics in 2012)

There’s a chapter in Henry Miller’s Black Spring called “Into the Nightlife. . .” It’s about “this mad thing called sleep”, and describes a dream. (118) To begin with, the succession of strange images seems merely random: a catalogue of images from a man’s dream. But slowly things start to make sense, and you can discover a message of “fertilising wisdom” at the heart of the dream. (114)

In the image-world of the dream, it’s from the graves in a cemetery that the wisdom comes. And shadows of death throughout – glimpses of the graveyard, and visions of heaven and hell: “Over the foot of the bed is the shadow of the cross”, the dream begins. (97)

The scene is “desolate” for the most part, empty, and even when a man pokes a hole in Miller’s side there is no blood. (98, 100) Lifeless and bloodless, the dreamer has only memories of life: “Life is written down in headlines twelve feet high with periods, commas and semicolons.” (100)

There are smells in this dream: “the air is full of chopped onions and sizzling hamburgers” – and these smells keep coming back to him. (103) But the human beings in this dream are not alive, they don’t respond to the sights and smells. Instead they wait on the beach, “human clams waiting for someone to pry their shells apart.” (103) Or they’ve already disappeared in “the white chalk breath of Plymouth” so that only a “non-human tranquillity” remains. (104) Or they are locked into their own private rituals, like the man who “is reading aloud in a monotonous voice from a huge iron book” with “his head . . . thrown back in ecstasy”. Miller’s metaphor here sums up the inhuman appearance of this man: “He looks like a broken street lamp gleaming in a wet fog.” (108)

And finally we get to the cemetery. “The whole cemetery is singing with its rich fat produce. Singing through the blades of wheat, the corn, the oats, the rye, the barley. The cemetery is bursting with things to eat . . . The whole street is now living off the cemetery grounds.” (113) It’s an amazing sight to the dreamer: “Who would have dreamt that the poor dead flat-chested buggers rotting under the stone slabs contained such fertilising wisdom?” (113-114) Of course, it’s Henry Miller who is dreaming. It’s Miller who dreams that this is where wisdom is found, in the sleep of death.

When you sleep, some of this wisdom opens up to you, if you know how to look. The wisdom of the dead, that you can glimpse even before it’s your time to die. In the next chapter, Miller writes: “I believe, as I walk through the horror of the present, that only those who have the courage to close their eyes, only those whose permanent absence from the condition known as reality can affect our fate.” (124) Absent from reality: like the sleeping and the dead. Miller’s dream tells him that wisdom is found in peace and silence.

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