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 set foot in Greece that he hardly stopped to take in the everyday details of the country, let alone the oncoming war. Where the Brits tended to travel, implicitly, as rulers, surveying their terrain and in command of history and a sense of ancient cultures, Miller was coming as a supplicant of sorts, eager to see what the older world could teach him, as he tried to refashion himself for the future. In his mind, he might almost have been completing a project that Lawrence had begun, putting a full-throated exclamation mark at the end. For us today his book suggests the moment when America began to eclipse Britain in the world’s imagination and, simultaneously, travel became unsponsored, democratic, and driven by a fascination not with the actual but with the inner source of the Nile.
On Bastille Day in 1939 Miller boarded the Théophile Gautier in Marseilles to visit his young English admirer and fellow writer Lawrence Durrell in Corfu. He had, with characteristic exuberance (and, some would say, indifference to the world), mapped out for Durrell a huge list of the places he wanted to visit as the impending war was propelling him out of France, including, among many other points, Killarney, New Orleans, Baghdad, Tehran, Jerusalem, Fez, and almost everywhere on the way to and in India, China, and Tibet. He had decided to take a short break from writing, to read only spiritual and occult literature, and, as his somewhat frowning biographer Mary Dearborn has written, to enjoy “the only true vacation he would ever take.”1
What followed was a wild, determinedly subjective series of flights, cries of liberation, rants, and set pieces, a great unchaptered outburst of epiphanies and Whitmanic catalogs. Miller babbles about Sherwood Anderson to some dazed Greek writers and pantomimes life on the New York Stock Exchange for a tailor and a vice-consul. He riffs wildly on “a Boogie Woogie man whose name was Agamemnon.” He travels to such sacred sites as Epidaurus, Crete, and Delphi and by page 15 is reporting, “I had entered a new realm as a free man.” He leavens and grounds all this by frequently telling us that the one word he uses for everything he sees—“crazy”—perhaps best applies to himself.
For Miller, “Greece is the home of the gods” and the gods are of “human proportion”—himself, in other words, only more so. “In Greece,” he announces, not untypically, “one is ever filled with the sense of eternality which is expressed in the here and now.” So alert is he for “eternality” that his night porter in one hotel, he notes, is called Socrates and he is invited to Delphi by a man named Pericles. In Europe he feels “Diana the huntress in the background and the Sphinx waiting for you at a bend in the road.”
In part, therefore, the book is a torrent of superlatives that even the Greek Tourist Board would be hard-pressed to match, a giddy if not always reciprocated love letter. “Everywhere you go in Greece,” we’re told, “the atmosphere is pregnant with heroic deeds.” In Greece, we read, “one has the conviction that genius is the norm.” Wherever you go in Greece, Miller also assures us, “the people open up like flowers,” though this may be less true for those unprepared to mime scenes on a Wall Street trading floor. “The Greeks,” he has decided, before he arrives in Greece, “are an enthusiastic, curious-minded, passionate people. Passion—it was something I had long missed in France.”
What you quickly see—since relatively few concrete details or individuals interrupt the eulogies—is that Miller is less interested in Greece than in the flights and transports it arouses in him; again, like a kind of counter-Victorian, he evinces little interest in the topography, customs, or data of the place, and huge fascination with the way it can serve as a catalyst to the awakening of an ancient god within. Yet true to his preoccupation with the inner landscape, he redeems himself (at least for me) by always making the case against himself seconds before the reader can do the same. “Along the Sacred Way, from Daphni to the sea,” he confesses, “I was on the point of madness several times.” At another point, he recalls a friend trying to sell him on Rudolf Steiner in Paris and, just as “he was getting on to group souls and the exact nature of the difference between a cow and a mineral,” the two are interrupted by a chorus girl and “a dwarf who ran a string of whorehouses.”
This element of clownishness is perhaps the one thing that could balance the flights into rebirth (and serve as an inspiration to later fellow travelers in the Lawrentian vein, like Norman Mailer, who likewise lurch between talk of devils and angels and disarming confessions that they are just fools—though foolishness can open doors that wisdom leaves untouched). If in British travel writing the object of humor is often the native or just the zaniness of travel itself and all that is lost in translation, here the source of comedy is only and always the author, who cheerfully calls his effusions “juvenile and ecstatic.”
The admirer of Tropic of Cancer will pounce on both the saving moments of humor and the unlofty vernacular here with gratitude: “I knew we were going to be gypped,” Miller says, nine pages in, “and I looked forward to it with relish.” Both the attitude and the word “gypped” give us what is most engaging about the man at his best. In the middle of one mad flight, he throws in a parenthesis—“(This is a Brooklyn lad talking. Not a word of truth in it, until the gods bring forth the evidence.)”—and it becomes hard to get too exasperated at his raptures about light and the god within. “An American myself,” as he once wrote to a friend, “not just a hundred percent, but a hundred and one percent,” he replaces the wry self- deprecation of the classic Brit abroad with a much more zesty sense of himself as a “gentle idiot.”
More than that, Miller is never quite so simple as he likes to pretend. His description of Epidaurus is indeed so luminous and mystical that it may carry some readers up through “the road of creation,” even as it leaves others grumpily and unpersuadedly on the ground. But he never forgets that the Oresteia is as much a part of the soil as Apollo, and that “the ancient Greek was a murderer.” Herakleion for him is “a sore spot which one rubs like a horse while asleep on four legs.” Towns in the Balkans come “to an end abruptly, as though the monarch who had designed the weird creation had suddenly become demented, leaving the great gate swinging on one hinge.”
Miller was perhaps never more American than in the fact that he was much better suited to affirmations than to the curses that fill The Colossus of Maroussi. Again and again in the book he meets either Americans on his travels, or Greeks returned from Coney Island or Chicago, and is as withering about Greek ideas of a utopia in America as he is eager to assure Greeks that their country is paradise. His tirades against “this benighted scientific age” are as unhinged as Lawrence’s, and it is characteristic of him that his ear picks up the very sounds you will hear from many an ex–New York cabbie today—“In America you work like a son of a bitch—but you get paid for it. Here you work and work and work and what you got? Nothing”—but quickly disregards such remarks for a generality.
What holds one, reading Miller, is that he is (sometimes more than Lawrence) fluent, clear, and readable even when his thoughts are flying off into the ether. Seventy years on, The Colossus can be an invaluable handbook to some of the ironies of idealistic travel. The Frenchman, Miller assures us, “puts walls about his talk, as he does about his garden: he puts limits about everything in order to feel at home. At bottom he lacks confidence in his fellow man.” This may be true, but it’s hard to see if or how it’s any less true of the Greek. “The Englishman in Greece,” we are told three pages later, “is a farce and an eye-sore: he isn’t worth the dirt between a poor Greek’s toes.” Miller is, of course, in Greece to visit an English friend.
More to the point, the one thing the man in flight from America (and what he perceives as its hopeless materialism) cannot accept about Europe is that for so many people there, America is “the hope of the world.” In 1939, of course, this was much truer than he could see. How could Europeans not wish to flee a continent entering its second war in twenty-five years for a place associated with freedom and reinvention? Especially when the Americans they meet are as hopeful and almost crazily unmaterialistic as Henry Miller?
“Some German sauerkrauts, disguised as human beings, are sitting at a table under another tree,” he writes at a restaurant run by a man called Agamemnon. “They look frightfully learned and repulsive; they are swollen like toads.” It’s hard not to recall that Miller was the son of a German tailor—grandson of two more—and when his imprecations grow most furious (as with many an unholier-than-thou vagabond even today), it is only because he is so anxious to replace his official fathers (German, American, bourgeois, comfortable) with the ones he has chosen, the writers responsible for Leaves of Grass and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
It is always interesting to read George Orwell on Miller, whom he famously called “the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past.” Orwell was himself in flight from the sense of entitlement of many of his British classmates, of course, and his Down and Out in Paris and London might almost have been a Miller title, as well as exercise. In his essay “Inside the Whale,” Orwell notes that Miller’s jubilant acceptance of the world and everything in it includes “concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs.” Tropic of Cancer for him is “a very remarkable book,” but, as a man pledged to engagement, the English writer could not condone, or even understand, Miller’s American lack of interest in making discriminations.
Yet Orwell was honest enough to acknowledge that Miller was sincere, irrepressibly straightforward in his appetites, and through them had managed to avoid much of the doubt or sense of alienation and isolation that could hover over the English voice of undeludedness. For Miller, after all, as for the Stoics (not to mention the Transcendentalists), you change the world by changing the way you look at it, and man is not inevitably hostage to, or powerless before, his circumstances. Miller, as Orwell strikingly puts it, is determined “to drag the real-politik of the inner mind into the open” and for him the only way to pursue real peace will be by cultivating an inner peace.
It is central to Miller’s project and character, in fact, that he was declaring this at full volume even as Europe was collapsing around him, making a consciously provocative position out of his mystical principles. “Let the world have its bath of blood,” he writes here, “I will cling to Poros,” the island he was visiting at the time. Others might see him as self-absorbed, he might have been saying, but the self was the only part of experience over which he could exert any control. The Colossus explicitly aims to be prophecy, pamphlet, and polemic—a call to inner arms, you could say—and so Miller all but challenges the reader to write him off (“I was more concerned about the interruption of my blissful vacation,” he writes early on, “than about the dangers of the impending war”). In his final pages, he goes so far as to acknowledge that every friend he meets will be someone different when next they converse, because of the war, and so finds even in global catastrophe (as Lawrence might have done, or Thoreau) the makings of a “new world.”
For all his excited plans of completing a passage to India and the Himalayas, Miller found himself boarding the Exocharda just after Christmas in 1939 and heading back to New York (by that point, it was hard even to wire money across Europe). He wrote The Colossus in the following year, largely in an apartment on East 54th Street lent him by—to extend the Lawrence connection—Caresse Crosby. When more than ten publishers (including New Directions) rejected it, he accepted a commission to drive across the land he’d been so eager to avoid, while also writing dollar-a-word pornography for an Okalahoma oil millionaire.
The book that came out of that American journey—its notes written in a printer’s dummy of an edition of Leaves of Grass—was so grim and counter to Miller’s natural gifts for enthusiasm and appreciation that he withdrew it from publication for a while and returned his advance. The Air- Conditioned Nightmare is as crude and unqualified as its title. The Colossus, by contrast, was the book of his he liked most, and after a small publisher in San Francisco, Colt Press, acquired it in 1941, he followed the logic of his Greek trip to a former convict’s cabin on the remote central coast of California and began to live the out-of-time life he’d so admired around the Mediterranean. There was no running water or electricity in the secluded community there; he had to carry supplies up steep slopes, as a Greek fisherman might; and he could look out across the great blue expanse of the Pacific and dream of India and Tibet, while dilating on the light within.
It says much about Miller, though, that the Colossus of his title turns out, unexpectedly, to refer to no ancient ruin or god-filled temple but, in fact, to a larger-than-life monologuist and overweening storyteller, George Katsimbalis. “He was a vital, powerful man,” Miller writes, just after meeting the Greek writer, “capable of brutal gestures and rough words, yet somehow conveying a sense of warmth which was soft and feminine.” He goes on:
He was extremely sympathetic and at the same time ruthless as a boor. He seemed to be talking about himself all the time, but never egotistically. He talked about himself because he himself was the most interesting person he knew.
And then the flash of disarming self-knowledge that comes so close to self-irony it can save the day: “I liked that quality very much—I have a little of it myself.”
Katsimbalis, not surprisingly, doesn’t begin to tell us very much about Greece and is merely one specimen among thousands of others. But he does give us a vivid and often exhilarating Greece of the mind, as he sits for long hours around a table with his friends, drinking wine, eating large meals, and sharing wild stories about Tibet and Dostoevsky. He is, in the Lawrentian way, human, excessive, exasperating, self-enclosed, and hard to forget. The book that arose from these broad and rhapsodic talks and travels is the rare account of a foreign culture that can make you want to rush to the nearest plane (or, better, boat) to go to the sites so infectiously described, if only to see if all the author is recording can possibly be true. It sometimes seems a classic almost in spite of its best intentions.
December 23, 2010