The Colossus of Maroussi, by Henry Miller
Reviewed by Rick Skwiot
Some critics call The Colossus of Maroussi—Henry Miller‘s account of his trip to Greece on the eve of World War II—the greatest travel book ever. But, like all great travel books, it’s much more than mere depiction of beautiful landscapes, missed connections, bad weather, and surly waiters—though Miller recounts those as well. Rather, the book stands as a compelling paean to the Greek spirit, to liberty, and to life—as well as a barbaric yawp prefiguring the coming cataclysm.
The Canadian critic Northrop Frye once said that the “story of the loss and regaining of identity…is the framework of all literature.” That certainly applies well to travel literature, where the journey often occurs within the narrator as well as over the Earth, and in particular to The Colossus of Maroussi. At its core lies Miller’s spiritual transformation through welcomed encounters with warm-hearted, generous, high-spirited Greeks, particularly the “colossus” Katsimbalis.
“I love these men, each and every one,” writes Miller, “for having revealed to me the true proportions of the human being…the goodness, the integrity, the charity which they emanated. They brought me face to face with myself, they cleansed me of hatred and jealousy and envy.”
Like most of Miller’s writing, from the joyous novel Tropic of Cancer to his trenchant essays, this book succeeds thanks to his freewheeling iconoclasm, his divine madness, and his inimitable language:
“…Out of the corner of my eye I caught the full devastating beauty of the great plain of Thebes which we were approaching and, unable to control myself, I burst into tears. Why had no one prepared me for this? I cried out…We were amidst the low mounds and hummocks which had been stunned motionless by the swift messengers of light. We were in the dead center of that soft silence which absorbs even the breathing of gods…Through the thick pores of the earth the dreams of men long dead still bubbled and burst, their diaphanous filament carried skyward by flocks of startled birds.”
Here, as always, we see Miller as primitive shaman, awed and humbled by nature and humanity, disdainful of modernity and materialism: “Mechanical devices have nothing to do with man’s real nature—they are merely traps which Death has baited for him.”
He underscores this view of us, as animals caught in a steel maze of our own making, by his frequent metaphoric mixing of nature’s fecundity and manmade tawdriness, as when he describes the approach to Delphi:
“This is an invisible corridor of time, a vast, breathless parenthesis which swells like the uterus and having bowelled forth its anguish relapses like a run-down clock.”
No, this is not your grandmother’s travel writing, with its propriety, politeness, and “realistic” depictions, but word-pictures of an emotional landscape. That’s the essence Miller strives to show: his subjective, experiential, inner reality. The subject here is Henry Miller, and what matters most is how these objects—the world—affect him.
As a result, this 1941 literary bombshell, ostensibly about Greece, documents Miller’s memories of New York inspired by a view of Athens, provides a lengthy disquisition on jazz when he’s confronted by a French woman who disdains the chaos of Greece, and paints a disquieting, mad, and ominous picture of Saturn when he climbs to an observatory and views it through a telescope. He tells us his dreams and daydreams and what he wished he would have said. Everything is fair game; the seeming digressions frequent and fabulous.
This is still nonfiction, but Miller’s imaginative life at the time of his travels is real, and thus an important part of his narrative. In the end it all hangs together like a sumptuous tapestry woven by an inspired madman—which perhaps it is. We come away understanding more about the taste of Greek water, the quality of Greek light, and the magnificence of the Greek spirit than from reading all the objective reporting on Greece in the Library of Congress. He captures it all as it arrests him.
Traveling at times with Katsimbalis, the poet Seferiades, and/or Lawrence Durrell, Miller moves from Athens and Corfu to Knossus and Delphi as if in search of dead Greek gods—and finds them reincarnate.
We are lucky enough to travel with him, enduring treacherous seas, precipitous mountain passes, and heroic debauches, as well as feasting on the simple food, viewing the sublime beauty, and feeling the brotherhood and humanity that come to Miller like beneficent Peloponnesian sun wherever he turns. It is a trip I will make over and over again.