Pico Iyer Journeys

Henry Miller

Miller was perhaps never more American—and further from the deft and witty demolitions of many a British traveler—than in the fact that he is 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 their ideas of a New World utopia as he is eager to assure them 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, even while his ear picks up the very sounds and cadences you will hear in many a 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”—he is leaning past the empirical truth towards a windy denunciation.

What holds one, reading Miller, is that he is (sometimes more than Lawrence) fluent, clear and readable even when his content is flying off into the ether. Seventy years on, The Colossus can be an invaluable handbook to many of the ironies of idealistic travel and its interaction with the world. 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. “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 us so anxious to replace his official fathers (German, American, bourgeois, comfortable) with the ones he has chosen, the men 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 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 Miler’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 stance out of his mystical principles. “Let the world have its bath of blood,” he writes here, “I will cling to Poros.” 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”). Greece is effectively his Walden Pond, and the place where he will consciously turn his back on external events and find solace, peace and sustenance within. 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 making 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 convict’s cabin on the remote Central Coast of California, and there began to live the essential, 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 conveyed 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.”

The Colossus, not surprisingly, doesn’t begin to tell us very much about Greece and is merely one specimen among millions 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 Miller and his friends, drinking wine, eating large meals and sharing wild stories about Tibet and Dostoevsky. He is, in the Lawrentian way, human, more than living, excessive, exasperating, self-enclosed and hard to forget. The book that arose from these broad and rhapsodic talks and travels together 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, therefore, almost in spite of its best intentions.

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