Going Mad for Greece

The Colossus of Maroussi

by Henry Miller, with an introduction by Will Self and an afterword by Ian S. MacNiven
New Directions, 223 pp., $12.95 (paper)
Henry Miller and ‘the Colossus’ George Katsimbalis, Greece, 1939

The last major story that D.H. Lawrence published, six months before his death, was set in the ancient world and, characteristically, preoccupied with resurrection. “The Man Who Died” is a typically wild and visionary piece, sensual and impenitent, about the risen Jesus meeting a priestess of Isis and, true to his Chatterley origins, feeling that he can at last complete himself, as a fully living human being, only by joining her pagan rites and having semi- sacramental sex with her. The story is set in a tenderly described Mediterranean world (an early title for Lady Chatterley’s Lover was Tenderness) and when it came out, under its original title—“The Escaped Cock”—it was published by his friends Caresse and Harry Crosby (he the nephew of J.P. Morgan).

It’s tempting to think back on that story when you pick up The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller’s ecstatic ramble through Greece in 1939 (recently reissued by New Directions); Miller was a lifelong devotee of Lawrence and spent years planning, collecting notes for, and finally completing an epic and rather chaotic work on his master. And never does he seem more Lawrentian than when writing of his own resurrection, as here, and, by extension, that of the wider world. The Colossus marks the moment when Miller, then forty-seven, quit the cheap cafés and after-midnight streets of Paris and began reconstructing himself, without apology, as a latter-day Transcendentalist. Gone are most of the earthy adventures and carnal excitements that made his early books both legendary and long unpublishable; in their place, as he moved toward a new home in Big Sur, are rapturous pronouncements, by way of Emerson, Whitman, and surely Lawrence, about the divinity in man and the possibility of an inner renaissance.

Miller had decided to write a “joyous book of the mystic” before he even touched ground in Greece and, as war began to close in on Europe, he longed to chronicle a “voyage into the light” toward “the heaven beyond heaven.” For any reader who appreciates the grittiness and physical hunger of a forty-five-year-old boy loose on the backstreets of Paris, The Colossus represents the end of a golden age, precisely as Miller begins to announce, more and more insistently, the coming of a Golden Age. But for anyone who feels that the classic travel writing of Europe was nearing its end, Miller’s book can be seen as a new kind of travel—suggestible, radiant, and distinctly forward- looking—that has today become almost a cottage industry.

Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Peter Fleming, and others were journeying to Mexico, Abyssinia, and Tibet at much the same time, after all, and most of them, classically educated, a bit detached, and taking off for no compelling reason they will admit to, seemed determined to come back untransformed. Miller, by comparison, was so poised for lift-off when he…

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