Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Colossus of Maroussi

Raconteur, beggar, censored novelist and occasional pornographer; Henry Miller's name came up of over pints of Newcastle with Trumanwater last night. Trumanwater is the only person I've ever met, besides myself, who's (nearly) read Miller's "Rosy Crucifixion" trilogy. I can't believe it's been almost 30 years since Miller died.

Henry Miller was an inspiration to me as a younger man, appealing strongly to my sense of romantic adventure, and portraying the life of the literary artist as funny, sacred, sexy, desperate and very much worth pursuing. No writer has made books, writers and writing seem so vitally important, so invested with the well-lived life. A generation ago, Miller was caught in the crossfire of the PC wars, and his reputation has suffered; many now see him simply as a sexist fool, but this is a grievously unfair caricature: while he does, without apology, embody the working class sexual attitudes of his milieu, there is far more to him as an artist.

What follows are the opening pages of Miller's lyrical and in some ways profound Greek travelogue The Colossus of Maroussi

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 wander-
ings 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
story teller, this girl, but she is an artist of some sort be-
cause nobody has ever given me the ambiance of a place
so thoroughly as she did Greece. Long afterwards I dis-
covered 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 re-
ceiving letters from Greece from my friend Lawrence
Durrell who had practically made Corfu his home. His
letters were marvellous 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 sun up, 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, mys-
terious 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 para-
dise 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 Amer-
icans; 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 voy-
age 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 con-
versation 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 gen-
erosity. 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.

The next day I opened conversation with the others--a
Turk, a Syrian, some students from Lebanon, an Argen-
tine man of Italian extraction. The Turk aroused my an-
tipathies almost at once. He had a mania for logic which
infuriated me. It was bad logic too. And like the others,
all of whom I violently disagreed with, I found in him
an expression of the American spirit at its worst. Progress
was their obsession. More machines, more efficiency, more
capital, more comforts--that was their whole talk. I asked
them if they had heard of the millions who were unem-
ployed in America. They ignored the question. I asked
them if they realized how empty, restless and miserable
the American people were with all their machine-made
luxuries and comforts. They were impervious to my sar-
casm. What they wanted was success--money, power, a
place in the sun. None of them wanted to return to their
own country; for some reason they had all of them been
obliged to return against their will. They said there was
no life for them in their own country. When would life
begin? I wanted to know. When they had all the things
which America had, or Germany, or France. Life was
made up of things, of machines mainly, from what I
could gather. Life without money was an impossibility:
one had to have clothes, a good home, a radio, a car, a
tennis racquet, and so on. I told them I had none of those
things and that I was happy without them, that I had
turned my back on America precisely because these things
meant nothing to me. They said I was the strangest Amer-
ican they had ever met. But they liked me. They stuck to
me throughout the voyage, plying me with all sorts of
questions which I answered in vain. Evenings I would get
together with the Greek. We understood one another
better, much better, despite his adoration for Germany
and the German régime. He too, of course, wanted to go
to America some day. Every Greek dreams of going to
America and making a nest egg. I didn't try to dissuade
him; I gave him a picture of America as I knew it, as I
had seen it and experienced it. That seemed to frighten
him a little: he admitted he had never heard anything
like that about America before. "You go," I said, "and
see for yourself. I may be wrong. I am only telling you
what I know from my own experience.""Remember," I
added, "Knut Hamsun didn't have such a wonderful time
of it there, nor your beloved Edgar Allan Poe. . . ."

There was a French archaeologist returning to Greece
who sat opposite me at the table; he could have told me a
lot of things about Greece but I never gave him a chance;
I disliked him from the time I first laid eyes on him. The
chap I really liked most during the voyage was the Ital-
ian from the Argentine. He was about the most ignorant
fellow I have ever met and charming at the same time.
At Naples we went ashore together to have a good meal
and to visit Pompeii which he had never even heard of.
Despite the overpowering heat I enjoyed the trip to
Pompeii; if I had gone with an archaeologist I would
have been bored stiff. At Piraeus he came ashore with me
to visit the Acropolis. The heat was even worse than at
Pompeii, which was pretty bad. At nine in the morning
it must have been 120 degrees in the sun. We had hardly
gotten through the gate at the dock when we fell into the
hands of a wily Greek guide who spoke a little English
and French and who promised to show us everything of
interest for a modest sum. We tried to find out what he
wanted for his services but in vain. It was too hot to dis-
cuss prices; we fell into a taxi and told him to steer us
straight to the Acropolis. I had changed my francs into
drachmas on the boat; it seemed like a tremendous wad
that I had stuffed into my pocket and I felt that I could
meet the bill no matter how exorbitant it might be. I
knew we were going to be gypped and I looked forward to
it with relish. The only thing that was solidly fixed in my
mind about the Greeks was that you couldn't trust them;
I would have been disappointed if our guide had turned
out to be magnanimous and chivalrous. My companion
on the other hand was somewhat worried about the situa-
tion. He was going on to Beyrout. I could actually hear
him making mental calculations as we rode along in the
suffocating dust and heat.

The ride from Piraeus to Athens is a good introduction
to Greece. There is nothing inviting about it. It makes
you wonder why you decided to come to Greece. There is
something not only arid and desolate about the scene, but
something terrifying too. You feel stripped and plun-
dered, almost annihilated. The driver was like an animal
who had been miraculously taught to operate a crazy
machine: our guide was constantly directing him to go to
the right or the left, as though they had never made the
journey before. I felt an enormous sympathy for the
driver whom I knew would be gypped also. I had the
feeling that he could not count beyond a hundred; I had
also the feeling that he would drive into a ditch if he
were directed to. When we got to the Acropolis--it was
an insane idea to go there immediately--there were sev-
eral hundred people ahead of us storming the gate. By this
time the heat was so terrific that all I thought of was
where to sit down and enjoy a bit of shade. I found my-
self a fairly cool spot and I waited there while the Ar-
gentine chap got his money's worth. Our guide had re-
mained at the entrance with the taxi driver after turning
us over to one of the official guides. He was going to
escort us to the Temple of Jupiter and the Thesion and
other places as soon as we had had our fill of the Acropo-
lis. We never went to these places, of course. We told him
to drive into town, find a cool spot and order some ice
cream. It was about ten thirty when we parked ourselves
on the terrace of a cafe. Everybody looked fagged out
from the heat, even the Greeks. We ate the ice cream,
drank the iced water, then more ice cream and more iced
water. After that I called for some hot tea, because I sud-
denly remembered somebody telling me once that hot
tea cools you off.

The taxi was standing at the curb with the motor run-
ning. Our guide seemed to be the only one who didn't
mind the heat. I suppose he thought we would cool off a
bit and then start trotting around again in the sun looking
at ruins and monuments. We told him finally that we
wanted to dispense with his services. He said there was
no hurry, he had nothing special to do, and was happy
to keep us company. We told him we had had enough for
the day and would like to settle up. He called the waiter
and paid the check out of his own pocket. We kept prod-
ding him to tell us how much. He seemed reluctant as hell
to tell us. He wanted to know how much we thought his
services were worth. We said we didn't know--we would
leave it to him to decide. Whereupon, after a long pause,
after looking us over from head to foot, scratching him-
self, tilting his hat back, mopping his brow, and so on, he
blandly announced that he thought 2500 drachmas would
square the account. I gave my companion a look and told
him to open fire. The Greek of course was thoroughly
prepared for our reaction. And it's this, I must confess,
that I really like about the Greeks, when they are wily
and cunning. Almost at once he said, "well, all right, if
you don't think my price is fair then you make me a
price." So we did. We made him one as ridiculously low
as his was high. It seemed to make him feel good, this
crude bargaining. As a matter of fact, we all felt good
about it. It was making service into something tangible
and real like a commodity. We weighed it and appraised
it, we juggled it like a ripe tomato or an ear of corn. And
finally we agreed, not on a fair price, because that would
have been an insult to our guide's ability, but we agreed
that for this unique occasion, because of the heat, because
we had not seen everything, and so on and so forth, that
we would fix on thus and such a sum and part good friends.
One of the little items we haggled about a long time was
the amount paid by our guide to the official guide at the
Acropolis. He swore he had given the man 150 drachmas.
I had seen the transaction with my own eyes, and I knew
he had given only fifty drachmas. He maintained that I
had not seen well. We smoothed it out by pretending that
he had inadvertently handed the man a hundred drach-
mas more than he intended to, a piece of casuistry so
thoroughly un-Greek that had he then and there decided
to rob us of all we possessed he would have been justified
and the courts of Greece would have upheld him.

An hour later I said good-bye to my companion, found
myself a room in a small hotel at double the usual price,
stripped down and lay on the bed naked in a pool of
sweat until nine that evening. I looked for a restaurant,
tried to eat, but after taking a few mouthfuls gave it up.
I have never been so hot in all my life. To sit near an
electric light was torture. After a few cold drinks I got
up from the terrace where I was sitting and headed for
the park. I should say it was about eleven o'clock. People
were swarming in all directions to the park. It reminded
me of New York on a sweltering night in August. It was
the herd again, something I had never felt in Paris, ex-
cept during the aborted revolution. I sauntered slowly
through the park towards the Temple of Jupiter. There
were little tables along the dusty paths set out in an
absent-minded way: couples were sitting there quietly in
the dark, talking in low voices, over glasses of water. The
glass of water. . . everywhere I saw the glass of water.
It became obsessional. I began to think of water as a new
thing, a new vital element of life. Earth, air, fire, water.
Right now water had become the cardinal element. See-
ing lovers sitting there in the dark drinking water, sitting
there in peace and quiet and talking in low tones, gave me
a wonderful feeling about the Greek character. The dust,
the heat, the poverty, the bareness, the containedness of
the people, and the water everywhere in little tumblers
standing between the quiet, peaceful couples, gave me the
feeling that there was something holy about the place,
something nourishing and sustaining. I walked about en-
chanted on this first night in the Zapion. It remains in my
memory like no other park I have known. It is the quin-
tessence of park, the thing one feels sometimes in looking
at a canvas or dreaming of a place you'd like to be in and
never find. It is lovely in the morning, too, as I was to dis-
cover. But at night, coming upon it from nowhere, feel-
ing the hard dirt under your feet and hearing a buzz of
language which is altogether unfamiliar to you, it is mag-
ical--and it is more magical to me perhaps because I think
of it as filled with the poorest people in the world, and
the gentlest. I am glad I arrived in Athens during that
incredible heat wave, glad I saw it under the worst condi-
tions. I felt the naked strength of the people, their purity,
their nobility, their resignation. I saw their children, a
sight which warmed me, because coming from France it
was as if children were missing from the world, as if they
were not being born any more. I saw people in rags, and
that was cleansing too. The Greek knows how to live with
his rags: they don't utterly degrade and befoul him as in
other countries I have visited.

The following day I decided to take the boat to Corfu
where my friend Durrell was waiting for me. We pulled
out of Piraeus about five in the afternoon, the sun still
burning like a furnace. I had made the mistake of buying
a second class ticket. When I saw the animals coming
aboard, the bedding, all the crazy paraphernalia which
the Greeks drag with them on their voyages, I promptly
changed to first class, which was only a trifle more expen-
sive than second. I had never travelled first class before
on anything, except the Metro in Paris--it seemed like a
genuine luxury to me. The waiter was continuously circu-
lating about with a tray filled with glasses of water. It was
the first Greek word I learned: nero (water) and a beau-
tiful word it is. Night was coming on and the islands were
looming up in the distance, always floating above the
water, not resting on it. The stars came out with magnifi-
cent brilliance and the wind was soft and cooling. I began
to get the feel of it at once, what Greece was, what it had
been, what it will always be even should it meet with the
misfortune of being overrun by American tourists. When
the steward asked me what I would like for dinner, when
I gathered what it was we were going to have for dinner,
I almost broke down and wept. The meals on a Greek
boat are staggering. I like a good Greek meal better than
a good French meal, even though it be heresy to admit it.
There was lots to eat and lots to drink: there was the air
outside and the sky full of stars. I had promised myself
on leaving Paris not to do a stroke of work for a year. It
was my first real vacation in twenty years and I was ready
for it. Everything seemed right to me. There was no time
any more, just me drifting along in a slow boat ready to
meet all comers and take whatever came along. Out of
the sea, as if Homer himself had arranged it for me, the
islands bobbed up, lonely, deserted, mysterious in the
fading light. I couldn't ask for more, nor did I want any-
thing more. I had everything a man could desire, and I
knew it. I knew too that I might never have it again. I
felt the war coming on--it was getting closer and closer
every day. For a little while yet there would be peace
and men might still behave like human beings.

We didn't go through the Corinth canal because there had
been a landslide: we practically circumnavigated the Pelo-
ponnesus. The second night out we pulled into Patras
opposite Missolonghi. I have come into this port several
times since, always about the same hour, and always I ex-
perienced the same fascination. You ride straight into a
big headland, like an arrow burying itself in the side of
a mountain. The electric lights strung along the water-
front create a Japanese effect; there is something im-
promptu about the lighting in all Greek ports, something
which gives the impression of an impending festival. As
you pull into port the little boats come out to meet you:
they are filled with passengers and luggage and livestock
and bedding and furniture. The men row standing up,
pushing instead of pulling. They seem absolutely tire-
less, moving their heavy burdens about at will with deft
and almost imperceptible movements of the wrist. As
they draw alongside a pandemonium sets in. Everybody
goes the wrong way, everything is confused, chaotic, dis-
orderly. But nobody is ever lost or hurt, nothing is stolen,
no blows are exchanged. It is a kind of ferment which is
created by reason of the fact that for a Greek every event,
no matter how stale, is always unique. He is always doing
the same thing for the first time: he is curious, avidly
curious, and experimental. He experiments for the sake
of experimenting, not to establish a better or more effi-
cient way of doing things. He likes to do things with his
hands, with his whole body, with his soul, I might as well
say. Thus Homer lives on. Though I've never read a
line of Homer I believe the Greek of to-day is essentially
unchanged. If anything he is more Greek than he ever
was. And here I must make a parenthesis to say a word
about my friend Mayo, the painter, whom I knew in
Paris. Malliarakis was his real name and I think he came
originally from Crete. Anyway, pulling into Patras I got
to thinking about him violently. I remembered asking
him in Paris to tell me something about Greece and sud-
denly, as we were coming into the port of Patras, I under-
stood everything he had been trying to tell me that night
and I felt bad that he was not alongside me to share my
enjoyment. I remembered how he had said with quiet,
steady conviction, after describing the country for me as
best he could--" Miller, you will like Greece, I am sure of
it." Somehow those words impressed me more than any-
thing he had said about Greece. You will like it. . . .
that stuck in my crop. "By God, yes, I like it," I was say-
ing to myself over and over as I stood at the rail taking in
the movement and the hubbub. I leaned back and looked
up at the sky. I had never seen a sky like this before. It
was magnificent. I felt completely detached from Eu-
rope. I had entered a new realm as a free man--every-
thing had conjoined to make the experience unique and
fructifying. Christ, I was happy...

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