5. Anecdote v. Image

The Angel is My Watermark

In "The Angel is My Watermark" in Black Spring, Miller produces his own version of narrative in quest of symbolic meaning. Parodying both surrealist painting and mythic method, he describes an attempt to invest his own painting with psychological "depth" and "extra-temporal history." Like Bloom through the streets of Dublin, Miller wanders through the world of canvas and brush a bit uncertain as to what, if anything, it all means, but letting no detail pass unremarked. Potentially mythic meanings accumulate; fragmentary images, chanced upon, are "shored" up. But the process, from narrative beginning to contemplative end, is a comedy of errors, rationalizations, and strained interpretations:

Well, begin! That's the thing. Begin with a horse! I have vaguely in mind the Etruscan horses I saw in the Louvre. (Note: in all the great periods of art the horse was very close to man!) I begin to draw. I begin naturally with the easiest part of the animal--the horse's ass. A little opening for the tail which can be stuck in afterwards. Hardly have I begun to do the trunk when I notice at once that it is too elongated. Remember, you are drawing a horse--not a liverwurst! Vaguely, vaguely it seems to me that some of those Ionian horses I saw on the black vases had elongated trunks; and the legs began inside the body, delineated by a fine stenciled line which you could look at or not look at according to your anatomical instincts. With this in mind I decided on an Ionian horse. But now fresh difficulties ensue. It's the legs. The shape of a horse's leg is baffling when you have only your memory to rely on. I can recall only about as much as from the fetlock down, which is to say, the hoof. 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 transform one of them into a phallus erectus. No sooner said than done. And now he's standing just like a terra cotta figure of the sixth century B.C.[....]
During the leg experiments the stomach has become dilapidated. I patch it up 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. (Weren't there people sleeping in a horse's stomach on one of the vases I saw?)[65]

Just as in the anecdote of Boris and Mr. and Mrs. Wren in Tropic of Cancer, Miller's burlesque reduces symbolism's depth of insight to mere pretension.[66] Depth, myth, epiphany are the products of a superficial repetition with meaning only for the squinting eye of the beholder.

By the time Miller has finished painting--adding, transforming, and defacing a long series of culturally overdetermined symbols--there is nothing left to see. The belabored effort to beat tradition into shape, to build an equally ancient and modern myth, has destroyed whatever integrity the artist's materials might once have had:

My masterpiece! It's like a splinter under the nail. I ask you, now that you are looking at it, do you see in it the lakes beyond the Urals? [...] do you see the arch of Trajan breaking through the smoke of Asia? [...] do you see the bursting eyes of Alexander, or the grief that inspired it? [....]
No, I'm afraid you don't. [....] But you see an angel, and you see a horse's ass. And you may keep them: they are for you![67]

If there is a tragedy of meaning here, a drama of the modern emptied before the plenitude of the past, the synecdochic (w)hole that is Miller's masterpiece is best understood, not through the eyes of a Tiresias seeking the "substance of the poem," but through the experience of the street, as modern as it is ancient, which interprets contextual chains of events to recognize a "con" or a Trojan Horse when it's coming. The meaning of Miller's painting is accessible only through the story of its painting, through its mocking gestures at the art it could have been. It cannot be seen. It cannot be repeated. It can, however, be related:

The object of these pages is to relate the genesis of a masterpiece. The masterpiece is hanging on the wall in front of me; it is dry now. I am putting this down to remember the process, because I shall probably never do another like it.[68]

The "thing flows"--the masterpiece is not the "dry" thing hanging on the wall, but the narration of its step by step, anecdote by anecdote, wet "genesis."

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