Saturday, October 6, 2012

Henry Miller’s tale of soulful redemption

The Colossus of Maroussi, a travelogue by Henry Miller (originally published in 1941), Penguin Books.

If ever a book sprang fourth impulsively and viscerally from an author’s imagination, it was The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller (1891 – 1980). This rambling, discursive travelogue describes a brief holiday the author took to Greece in the months leading up to the Second World War.

Although much of The Colossus is imaginative, the object of Miller’s escapades is deeply rooted in Greece’s past. He visits Corfu, Crete, Corinth, Delphi, the Acropolis and other mythic places throughout the Greek Isles, and describes these hallowed grounds with humility and awe.

With Miller, if something or someone captures his imagination, he will spend several paragraphs (or pages) describing the object of his affection. Early on in his travels, the author is introduced to a Renaissance man named Katsimbalis (for whom this book is dedicated) and he is immediately smitten. Miller writes:
“…I listened spellbound, enchanted by every phrase he let drop. I saw that he was made for the monologue, like Cendrars, like Moricand the astrologer. I like the monologue even more than the duet, when it is good. It’s like watching a man write a book expressly for you: he writes it, reads it aloud, acts it, revises it, savours it, enjoys it, enjoys your enjoyment of it, and then tears up and throws it to the winds.”
Miller has said that Colossus was his favourite book to write. If I had to guess why, it’s probably because he imposed no limitations on his subject matter. Although the book’s tone is quite confessional, Miller combines the fiery eloquence of a preacher with the solemn revelations of a monk. His language is colourful, luminous and riveting. In his journey, and in the re-telling of it, Miller gives his imagination free reign to wander down abandoned roads and pathways in search of enlightenment and beauty.

For Miller, this journey was a kind of soulful redemption, as well as a personal indictment against the world powers that were girding for war, against big corporations that had co-opted man’s soul in the pursuit of profits, and against the many false Gods, religions and edifices that man has chosen to blindly worship.

In Colossus, Miller is attempting to find his inner self. He is a man desperately trying to understand the world around him and figure out his place in that world. In seeking answers to life’s big questions, it’s interesting that he chose to focus on Greece, a diminished power on the world stage, a country that lives more in myth and legend than it does in the modern world. 

But in casting his gaze on small places and people, Miller arrives at some big truths. Near the end of his tale, Miller sums up what he has learned while in Greece:
“I became deflated, restored to proper human proportions, ready to accept my lot and prepared to give of all that I have received…I give this record of my journey not as a contribution to human knowledge, because my knowledge is small and of little account, but as a contribution to human experience.” 
My final take on The Colossus of Maroussi is that it's a wildly entertaining tale that belongs in the pantheon of great travel literature.