Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Colossus of Maroussi

Henry Miller



  The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

  Aller Retour New York

  Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

  The Books in My Life

  The Colossus of Maroussi

  The Cosmological Eye

  A Devil in Paradise

  From Your Capricorn Friend

  Henry Miller on Writing

  The Henry Miller Reader

  Into the Heart of Life

  Just Wild About Henry

  Letters to Emil

  The Nightmare Notebook


  The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder

  Stand Still Like the Hummingbird

  The Time of the Assassins

  The Wisdom of the Heart



  Introduction by Will Self

  Afterword by Ian S. MacNiven


  Copyright © 1941 by Henry Miller

  Introduction copyright © Will Self 2010

  Afterword copyright © Ian S. MacNiven 2010

  All rights reserved. Except for brief passages quoted in a newspaper, magazine, radio, television, or website review, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Publisher.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data

  Miller, Henry, 1891-1980.

  The colossus of Maroussi / Henry Miller; introduction by Will Self; afterword by Ian S. MacNiven.

  p. cm.

  ISBN: 978-0-8112-1915-0

  1. Greece--Description and travel. I. Title.

  DF726.M63 2010



  New Directions Books are published for James Laughlin

  by New Directions Publishing Corporation

  80 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10011


  Introduction by Will Self

  The Colossus of Maroussi

  Afterword by Ian S. MacNiven


  by Will Self

  I FIRST WENT TO GREECE IN THE SUMMER OF MY SEVENTEENTH year. In the 1970s flying was an expensive option, so we took the bus from London to Athens. It cost £40 round-trip, and took four days each way. In The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller writes of his first-ever experience of flight: “I felt foolish sitting in the sky with my hands folded…We were probably making a hundred miles an hour, but since we passed nothing but clouds I had the impression of not moving. In short, it was unrelievedly dull and pointless.”

  I can’t imagine that Miller would’ve found the four-day grind across England, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Yugoslavia (as it was then) any less unrelievedly dull; as I recall it, the national distinctions were meted out in lavatorial styles—from Helvetian spotlessness to Italian maculate to the active middens of the Balkans—until we ground down through Macedonia and reached the Greek peninsula. Miller, who had a pithy line in aphorisms when he wanted to, subsumes air travel to his aggressive primitivism: “Mechanical devices have nothing to do with man’s real nature—they are merely traps which nature has baited for him.”

  Not that the writer flew to Greece—his plane trip was from Athens to Crete—but while water was his preferred traveling element, and Colossus contains memorable descriptions of his wave-tossed crossing of the Aegean and small boats near foundering in the Adriatic, Miller is no snob—inverted or otherwise—when it comes to getting around. He’ll take the fancy Packard if it’s on offer, and if not make do with bus or train; he has an omnivorous attitude, seeking—like some monstrous bivalve—to suck up everything. Besides: “The wheel was the great discovery; men have since lost themselves in a maze of petty inventions which are merely accessory to the great pristine fact of revolution itself.”

  No, the year in which I first went to Greece was almost midway between Miller’s voyage and the present day; and with the benefit of so much hindsight—and so many plane flights—it seems an appropriate homage to acknowledge that Miller was right, by 1977 we were gorging on the bait: massed phalanxes of European youth sleeping on the rooftops of Athens, cluttering up Syntagma Square, tramping down the Acropolis, then shipping out to fart around the Cyclades on rented motorcycles or to get drunk in open air discotheques. I remember coming back from Paros on a rusty ferry—the sparkling wine light flickering across red vinyl banquettes in the saloon; the Dutch girls in a lesbian phase, wearing denim overalls and sporting pendants in the shape of double-headed battleaxes, who sat on the deck rolling cigarettes. I scampered up and down, wired on amphetamines, and when we reached the Piraeus the crowds thronging the quayside were all reading newspapers blazoned with the face of the King Rat. It was August the 17th and Elvis was dead.

  Now, of course, in 2009, the trap has been sprung. Although he was in his late forties in 1939, the Miller of Colossus is the companion I would’ve wished for my own fiery baptism in the crucible of Western European culture—sort of. Here, as in the pre-war phantasmagoria, he is a relentless fabulist who advances murderous solipsism to the status of one of the fine arts. But to this he adds other talents, becoming a compulsive expositor and a deranged didact, the alpha and omega of whose teaching is: “The Gods humanized the Greeks.” A decade before the Denver days of Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, when gay poet and car thief, fueled by Benzedrine, sat cross-legged opposite one another to indulge in marathon rap sessions, spinning the word web from which the hairy spider of “the beats” would crawl forth, Henry Miller went in search of his own beatitude. Back in those Parisian days as grey as slops slung against stone steps, he had wished for this breakthrough as he wrote in Tropic of Cancer, “…all my life I had been looking forward to something happening, some intrinsic event that would alter my life.” And so, ground down by typing and poverty and the failure of the world to see his incandescent genius, Miller was drawn towards Greece as a moth might be drawn to a votive statue of a moth god, were it a creature subject to the deceptive bends of self-consciousness.

  For that’s Henry Miller: he may present Colossus as a portrait of the Athenian homme de lettres George Katsimbalis, but his description of magniloquence is surely a self portrait; to read this book is to feel yourself trapped in a confined place—a plane flight, perhaps, or a four-day bus ride—and simultaneously assaulted and enthralled by a brilliant monologist, incapable of leaving anything out. Miller is confident you will be as interested in his bowel movements as you are in the state of his clothes, or the emptiness of his wallet; he mixes then matches the sublime and the ridiculous. He is cocksure: no matter that he is ignorant of Greek history, nor that he has never read “a word” of Homer, his opinions have a validity by virtue of the fact that he is a man—a mensch one might even say.

  Reading Colossus, I was insistently reminded of Julian Jaynes’s masterfully wacky The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes theorized that the Homeric Greeks who composed the earliest verses of the Iliad were functioning schizoids, not yet possessed of a unitary mind, so that when their right lobe spake unto their left, they experienced this as the voices of the gods. By the time the Odyssey was being declaimed, the first inklings of the thinking “I” were glimmering, and so the corpus callosum fused the brain, while the gods disappeared in a puff of evolutionary psychology. Miller remains rived: his ego cloven in two by Elysian ecstasy and corybantic abandon. Left lobe Miller closely observes the crazy antics of right lobe Miller—then writes it all down, convinced of its

  The declarative essentialism you would expect such a throw-back to produce is everywhere in Colossus: “Every single thing that exists, whether made by God or man, whether fortuitous or planned, stands out like a nut in an aureole of light, of time and of space.” Miller is the tourist in a drip-dry hat that thrusts his camera into your hand and demands you take his picture while he poses with quiddity. There’s an odd selflessness about such self-absorption—and we are carried forward by the great discovery, that just as history repeats itself—for without, presumably, having read a word of any of them, Miller is a disciple of Spengler and Vico—so the successive revolutions of his frenzied sub-clauses, ranking up until they form sentences fifty, a hundred, two hundred words long—become an incantation, an om mani padme hum. “Imagine what it would be like to find two businessmen and a stenographer on Easter Island! Imagine how a typewriter would sound in that Oceanic silence!”

  Sad to relate, I have found two businessmen and a stenographer on Easter Island—or, at any rate, their third-millennial equivalents.

  Miller, scuttling along the Mediterranean littoral under the scudding cloud of the coming world war, sees the landscape about him lit up by divine light then plunged into the darkness of the American century. For him, there is no phenotype that cannot be stereotyped: “The French…know neither how to give nor to ask for favors…It’s the wall again. A Greek has no walls around him; he gives and takes without stint.” Whereas: “The Englishman in Greece is a farce and an eyesore: he isn’t worth the dirt between a poor Greek’s toes.” And again: ‘For centuries the Greeks have had the cruelest enemy a people could have—the Turks.”

  This is no mere braggadocio—Miller has seen the future, and it is Dubya, Dick Cheney and the Neocons. “The present way of life, which is America’s, is doomed as surely as that of Europe. No nation on earth can possibly give birth to a new order of life until a world view is established.” Naturally, the establishment of any such “world view” is, for Miller, as impossible as going back to the future. For students of the writer’s development, you can see here in Colossus, with its furious denunciations of the “go-getting” American century (I can’t stand this idea, which is rooted in the minds of little peoples, that America is the hope of the world—and even more fierce condemnations of the pernicious and corrupting influence of the USA on returning Greek economic migrants), the shape of Miller’s coming anti-American jeremiad The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, for an essentialist can never be beaten to the punch; given that he seeks esoteric knowledge that lies outside of space and time, he must already know the given shape of any bruise.

  But if Colossus is politically prescient, it is culturally as well. In shaping the contours of what has come to be known as multiculturalism (even if this entails riffs of a fruity primitivism such that would make a Henry Moore bronze blush), Miller is sans pareil. He loves peoples in so far as they exemplify themselves—loathes them in as much as they betray that essentialism. In Greece, and in particular at her ancient sites, he finds the long golden thread of cultural transmission lying in the dust; so, Minotaur that he is, he doesn’t simply follow it—but yanks hard. Like I said, I could have done with him for a companion when I was first smitten by the aching cerulean of the Attic sky, when I first glugged the wood-smoky retsina and lugged on a Karelia cigarette.

  I could’ve done with Miller by my side when my tour bus jolted into Delphi, and the polyglot cultural sheep were herded off to be deracinated. I tried my best, and when the site closed for the night, hid among the jumble of temples, waiting to have the place to myself so I could run races in the gymnasium, drink from the Castalian spring and consult the sibyl. No dice. Forty years of rising disposable income and a concomitant Malthusian population explosion had done their work: scores of guards with flashlights fanned out among the ruins, so I took to the scrubby mountainside and spent the night, shivering and mosquito plagued, stuck on a ledge. The following day my eyes were so swollen I could barely see Antinous, let alone conceive of him—as Miller had—as the last of the gods.

  “Greece is the home of the gods; they may have died but their presence still makes itself felt. The gods were of human proportion: they were created out of the human spirit.” Nowadays, alas, while the presence of the gods may still be felt in Greece, I wonder if there’s anyone much who can feel it. That may be, but if you believe in the brand of sympathetic literary magic that Henry Miller purveys, perhaps you will take his existential leap, go there yourself—and feel it anew. That’s what he would have wanted.

  True avant-garde—still had torsion. Delphi. The rest is noise.

  LONDON, 2009



  I WOULD NEVER HAVE GONE TO GREECE HAD IT NOT been for a girl named Betty Ryan who lived in the same house with me in Paris. One evening, over a glass of white wine, she began to talk of her experiences in roaming about the world. I always listened to her with great attention, not only because her experiences were strange but because when she talked about her wanderings she seemed to paint them: everything she described remained in my head like finished canvases by a master. It was a peculiar conversation that evening: we began by talking about China and the Chinese language which she had begun to study. Soon we were in North Africa, in the desert, among peoples I had never heard of before. And then suddenly she was all alone, walking beside a river, and the light was intense and I was following her as best I could in the blinding sun but she got lost and I found myself wandering about in a strange land listening to a language I had never heard before. She is not exactly a storyteller, this girl, but she is an artist of some sort because nobody has ever given me the ambiance of a place so thoroughly as she did Greece. Long afterwards I discovered that it was near Olympia that she had gone astray and I with her, but at the time it was just Greece to me, a world of light such as I had never dreamed of and never hoped to see.

  For months prior to this conversation I had been receiving letters from Greece from my friend Lawrence Durrell who had practically made Corfu his home. His letters were marvelous too, and yet a bit unreal to me. Durrell is a poet and his letters were poetic: they caused a certain confusion in me owing to the fact that the dream and the reality, the historical and the mythological, were so artfully blended. Later I was to discover for myself that this confusion is real and not due entirely to the poetic faculty. But at the time I thought he was laying it on, that it was his way of coaxing me to accept his repeated invitations to come and stay with him.

  A few months before the war broke out I decided to take a long vacation. I had long wanted to visit the valley of the Dordogne, for one thing. So I packed my valise and took the train for Rocamadour where I arrived early one morning about sunup, the moon still gleaming brightly. It was a stroke of genius on my part to make the tour of the Dordogne region before plunging into the bright and hoary world of Greece. Just to glimpse the black, mysterious river at Dômme from the beautiful bluff at the edge of the town is something to be grateful for all one’s life. To me this river, this country, belong to the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. It is not French, not Austrian, not European even: it is the country of enchantment which the poets have staked out and which they alone may lay claim to. It is the nearest thing to Paradise this side of Greece. Let us call it the Frenchman’s paradise, by way of making a concession. Actually it must have been a paradise for many thousands of years. I believe it must have been so for the Cro-Magnon man, despite the fossilized evidences of the great caves which point to a condition of life rather bewildering and terrifying. I believe that the Cro-Magnon man settled here because he was extremely intelligent and had a highly developed sense of beauty. I believe that in him the religious sense was already highly developed and that it flourished here even if he lived like an animal in the depths of the caves. I believe that this great peaceful region of France will always be a sacred spot for man and that when the cities have killed off the poets this will be the refuge and the cradle of
the poets to come. I repeat, it was most important for me to have seen the Dordogne: it gives me hope for the future of the race, for the future of the earth itself. France may one day exist no more, but the Dordogne will live on just as dreams live on and nourish the souls of men.

  At Marseilles I took the boat for Piraeus. My friend Durrell was to meet me in Athens and take me to Corfu. On the boat there were many people from the Levant. I singled them out immediately, in preference to the Americans, the French, the English. I had a strong desire to talk to Arabs and Turks and Syrians and such like. I was curious to know how they looked at the world. The voyage lasted four or five days, giving me ample time to make acquaintance with those whom I was eager to know more about. Quite by accident the first friend I made was a Greek medical student returning from Paris. We spoke French together. The first evening we talked until three or four in the morning, mostly about Knut Hamsun, whom I discovered the Greeks were passionate about. It seemed strange at first to be talking about this genius of the North whilst sailing into warm waters. But that conversation taught me immediately that the Greeks are an enthusiastic, curious-minded, passionate people. Passion—it was something I had long missed in France. Not only passion, but contradictoriness, confusion, chaos—all these sterling human qualities I rediscovered and cherished again in the person of my new-found friend. And generosity. I had almost thought it had perished from the earth. There we were, a Greek and an American, with something in common, yet two vastly different beings. It was a splendid introduction to that world which was about to open before my eyes. I was already enamored of Greece, and the Greeks, before catching sight of the country. I could see in advance that they were a friendly, hospitable people, easy to reach, easy to deal with.