Back Shelf Review: The Colossus of Maroussi

March 20, 2009

The Colossus of Maroussi

040315_colossus1By Henry Miller

Published 1941, reprinted June 1975

New Directions

244 pp.

ISBN 0-811-20109-0

Reviewed March 19, 2009

To paraphrase Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, in his essay on Led Zeppelin and heavy metal: modern literature would not exist without Henry Miller, and if it did, it would suck. With novels such as “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn,” Miller was perhaps more than any other author responsible for the development of autobiographical work, mixing self-study and philosophy with surrealism and often graphically honest depictions of sex. His writing became a cornerstone of the censorship debate in America – copies actually had to be smuggled into the country until 1964 – and inspired authors from William S. Burroughs to Harvey Pekar.

“Cancer” and “Capricorn” are surely Miller’s most influential works, but also have the consequence of making Miller seem like a seedy character, dwelling on his poverty and random sexual encounters. He may have lived in such conditions, but as a writer he was capable of depicting so much more, as is evident in his novel “The Colossus of Maroussi.” Published in 1941 – seven years after “Cancer” and two after “Capricorn” – “Maroussui” is less a memoir than it is a celebration, both of the beauty of Greece and the personal revelations he undergoes.

At first glance, the book could be seen as a travel book on the Grecian experience. Unemployed and living off the kindness of a variety of friends, Miller crosses the Mediterranean nation with stops at historical sites such as the ruined city of Knossos and the purported burial site of Agamemnon at Mycenae. Along the way he meets a variety of expatriates and Greek writers, enjoying many nights of wine and conversation and determining his travel plans based on convenience and how long his travel visa will last.

But Miller quickly shatters any traditional travel format, characterizing Greece right away as a “sacred precinct” under God’s personal protection. The overall experience of Greece seems to be as much an awakening for him as mescaline was for Aldous Huxley in “The Doors of Perception,” as he feels he is tapping into a primordial mood and is determined to express all the feelings stirred in him by the location. Every section of the book praises Greece, from the late-night walks in little villages to the brilliant conversation inspired by the Greek writers Katsimbalis and Seferiades.

The tonal shift between these and the Tropics books is a noticeable one – no sex scenes, no dwelling on the dirtiness of his condition beyond passing words on his hotel room and no scraping for money to pay expenses. Miller himself characterizes the difference in settings as a motivation, with Athens “a violet-blue reality which envelops you with a caress” and New York “a trop-hammer vitality which drives you insane with restlessness.” There is a constant sense of stopping to take a breath here, and in doing so the air is found cleaner and cheaper to breathe.

Miller is also helped along in his writing by current events. At the time of writing, World War II was wracking the majority of the European continent, but Greece was neither a battleground nor a major participant, filling it with expatriates and a sense of security. In this context Miller gets to view it as an oasis, visiting the ancient sites of Knossos and Mycenae and looking upon them as areas that will feel the same long after the war is over and all involved have turned to dust. He’s putting the country on a pedestal, an Ionic column that will keep the country stable through any man-made calamity.

His celebration and description are enough to motivate any traveler, but it is when he gets into a contemplative mood that there is a true soul to “Colossus.” Many of his revelations would work as philosophy essays, musing on human nature and how a visit to Greece would do all some good. When walking through a village and hearing radio news of the war from various points, he sees the folly of the industrial world bringing death where there should be celebration; and at Agamemnon’s tomb he touches the idea of becoming a spiritual nomad, free of the “spawn of cultured souls.” The best of these passages comes at the amphitheatre of Epidaurus, when he realizes what humanity is truly in need of is a revolution – not of government and war but a worldwide revolution of internal thought, realizing the inexhaustibility of the human spirit and eradicating its darker side.

The only real issue in the book comes up in that Miller’s love for Greece is so overwhelmingly positive, his feelings tend to overwhelm at times. He seems incapable of criticizing the country and its people, only marking against them when they keep expressing a desire to go to America he gently tries to dissuade them from. Quick to dismiss the other expatriates he meets as vulgar and unrefined, he even goes so far as to hope the Englishmen he met there will “consider me an enemy of their kind” after reading the book.

“Colossus” should certainly not be read as a guide to touring in Greece or Greek landmarks – there are plenty of locations mentioned, but a more formal guidebook would need to be paired with it to make sense of them. Instead, it is a book to read for the emotional side of the country, an example of just what can be experienced when you take a moment and take in exactly where you are. It is a well-crafted book filled with a sense of joy, and that sense makes it one of Miller’s most worthy efforts.