Thursday, April 12, 2012

ON THE AVENUES: Miller's Colossus, now and then.

ON THE AVENUES: Miller's Colossus, now and then.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

The iconic American writer Henry Miller spent the last years of his long, active life portraying a theatrical version of himself, offering entertaining vignettes for an ever-eager media, and brazenly enjoying his late-blooming notoriety as only an ex-bowery urchin could.

Just before his death, wizened but with a twinkle of naughtiness still flashing in his ancient eyes, Miller appeared on camera as historical “witness” in Warren Beatty’s film “Reds”, observing that while clueless moderns had trouble believing that old rascals like him ever had sex, they most certainly did, and a lot of it, too.

For someone as renowned for his bawdiness as Miller to pen an entire book with nary an explicit mention of the horizontal arts will come as a surprise to some, but “The Colossus of Maroussi” is just that volume. Written and published as World War II made ready to welcome the United States as participating/liberating belligerent, it recounts Miller’s months-long holiday in Greece in 1939, a respite coming at the conclusion of his Depression-era tenure as Parisian urban expatriate par excellence, and immediately prior to his relocation and reinvention as tree-hugging primitive in California’s Big Sur.

Ostensibly, “Colossus” is a travelogue about Greece as a country caught in the middle in the mid-20th century, with one collective foot in the grubby present and the other very much rooted in an epic (and generally exaggerated) past. Much of the narrative focuses on a larger-than-life Greek poet and raconteur named George Katsimbalis, and therein hides a significant clue, because as readers have understood virtually since release, the book actually is all about Miller.

Miller describes Katsimbalis with a mirror’s eye view, and he imbues the entire Greek nation with his own quirky prejudices and eccentricities. Like so many Western tourists before and since, he experiences an exotic but impoverished country and rather smugly concludes that in poverty resides inner beauty and universal wisdom, when all the locals really want are dependable electricity, flush toilets and access to pre-sliced, mass-market white bread.

On the more positive side, Miller offers some of his best pure writing in Colossus, describing Greek pastoral scenes and the country’s colorful people joyfully and without guile, his trademark glee in sensuousness and eroticism deployed not to titillate readers with sex, but to provide them with the imagined means to smell the flowers, taste the moussaka and feel the ocean breeze. He thought it was his best book, and in the sense of descriptive imagery, he may have been right.

When it comes to politics, economics and mankind’s “larger” issues, Miller might safely be described as a non-participating Luddite libertarian. He has no time for society’s persistent and petty constraints on human expression, and little use whatever for “ –isms” of any sort, and yet he inhabits a time and place in which these considerations are the dominant daily theme. As such, Greece is his necessary escape, and he seems to find in it the perfect milieu to absorb his own point of view as reflected back at him.

Yet, perhaps even Miller recognizes his own exaggerations and glibness. He presciently decamps from his personalized Hellenic dream just before awakening, thus avoiding the multitudinous Greek nightmares to follow: Wartime horrors, post-war ideological battles, coups, squabbles and the wrenching upheavals and dislocations familiar to those world cultures eager to join the “modern” world he so detested.

Miller died a few years before Greece joined the European Union, its entry symbolizing the country’s belated arrival at the continent’s pageant. Michael Lewis, author of “Boomerang” (as excerpted in Vanity Fair), tells us how this particular scene is playing out in today’s Greece:

On the face of it, defaulting on their debts and walking away would seem a mad act … but the place (Greece) does not behave as a collective … it behaves as a collection of atomized particles, each of which has grown accustomed to pursuing its own interest at the expense of the common good. There’s no question that the government is resolved to at least try to re-create Greek civic life. The only question is: Can such a thing, once lost, ever be re-created?

For all its flaws, "The Colossus of Maroussi" remains essential and compelling reading. I cannot underestimate its profound influence on me while planning my first European excursion during the early 1980’s. The Greek tourist office in New York mailed a huge package of brochures and maps, and as I read Miller’s account, I plotted his progress with their assistance.

I well knew the intervening decades would render dated descriptions unlikely, and this much was true; so many things had changed, but happily there were times of timelessness when the pre-war mood still jibed, and when not unlike the writer, I stood at Mycenae, Epidaurus and Delphi, brushed off the dust from the journey by bus, and felt the weight of millennia … when I’d hear a bell and see a shepherd’s profile on a hillside, and later devour tomatoes, cucumber and feta doused with oil, kick back a cool beer or tumbler of Retsina … watch the grizzled old men nursing their cloudy drams of ouzo at breakfast … and then be reminded that back at the hotel, one was officiously instructed to keep toilet paper out of the commode lest the too-narrow sewage pipes get clogged.

Like Henry Miller, I’ve not returned to Greece since that very first visit. I wonder why I haven't?

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