"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." Edgar Degas

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Collossus




In 1939, as the followers of Hitler and Mussolini were spreading their cancer across Europe, Henry Miller left his adopted home of Paris to visit a friend in Greece. He wrote The Colosssus of Maroussi in an attempt to translate his Greek experiences into words.

Tonic
Reading Henry Miller is a tonic for everything that makes me sick. It cleanses my mind and spirit the way cayenne tea washes the accumulated waste from my intestines and intoxicating liquor cleans out the accumulated drudgery of quotidian life. In a way that only a committed drunk can understand, Miller understands:

“He had drunk a lot of rezina in his time: he said it was good for one, good for the kidneys, good for the liver, good for the lungs, good for the bowels and for the mind, good for everything. Everything he took into his system was good, whether it was poison or ambrosia. He didn’t believe in moderation nor good sense nor anything that was inhibitory. He believed in going the whole hog and then taking your punishment. There were a lot of things he couldn’t do anymore – the war had bunged him up a bit. But despite the bad arm, the dislocated knee, the damaged eye, the disorganized liver, the rheumatic twinges, the arthritic disturbances, the migraine, the dizziness and God knows what, what was left of the catastrophe was alive and flourishing like a smoking dung-heap. He could galvanize the dead with his talk.”
 
Like a flash of lighting, Miller’s writing illuminates the world as far as my eye can see, but only for an instant. I re-read lines but they’re never as clarifying as they were on initial impact. The second read is like looking at a photo of a painting.

This book is loaded with transcendent insights, candles fighting the darkness like Japanese lanterns floating on water into the land of the dead. One precarious road to the salvation of our hopelessly mortal species winds its path over the paving stones of words like these:

The Colossus of Rhodes
“When you’re right with yourself if doesn’t matter what flag is flying over your head or who owns what or whether you speak English or Monongahela. The absence of newspapers, the absence of news about what men are doing in different parts of the world to make life more livable or unlivable is the greatest single boon. If we could just eliminate newspapers a great advance would be made, I am sure of it. Newspapers engender lies, hatred, greed, envy, suspicion, fear, malice. We don’t need the truth as it is dished up to us in the daily papers. We need peace and solitude and idleness. If we could all go on strike and honestly disavow all interest in what our neighbor is doing we might get a new lease of life. We might learn to do without telephones and radios and newspapers, without machines of any kind, without factories, without mills, without mines, without explosives, without battleships, without politicians, without lawyers, without canned goods, without gadgets, without razor blades even or cellophane or cigarettes or money. This is a pipe dream, I know. People only go on strike for better working conditions, better wages, better opportunities to become something other than they are.”

Like a lot of great writers, Miller’s books blur into each other and an isolated passage in one could have come from any of them. His numerous stories are pieces of one transcendent tale: his attempt to make sense of a confounding world. For those of us who are just as confused but nowhere near as eloquent it is a great relief to find words capable of expressing both our bewilderment and our belief in a better way forward.

 “We must abandon the hard-fought trenches we have dug ourselves into and come out into the open, surrender our arms, our possessions, our rights as individuals, classes, nations, peoples. A billion men seeking peace cannot be enslaved. We have enslaved ourselves, by our own petty, circumscribed view of life.”

It's hard to imagine the sensation of the undertow that pulled the human race into the second world war but I sometimes get the feeling I’m living in a time that is becoming so primitive that if I engage too closely with it I risk being sucked backwards - toward violence, toward anger and hate, toward the caveman – and every minute I spend on things like working a meaningless job to pay a pile of worthless bills is an obstruction, a hurdle to overcome that stands between me and reality.

“There is every reason to be sad at this moment: all the premonitions which I have had for ten years are coming true. This is one of the lowest moments in the history of the human race. There is no sign of hope on the horizon. The whole world is involved in slaughter and bloodshed.”
Murdered carcasses

“Such was Europe before the present debacle. Such is America to-day. And such will it be to-morrow when the smoke has cleared away. And as long as human beings can sit and watch with hands folded while their fellow men are tortured and butchered so long will civilization be a hollow mockery, a wordy phantom suspended like a mirage above a swelling sea of murdered carcasses.”

“The present way of life, which is America’s, is doomed as surely as is that of Europe. No nation on earth can possibly give birth to a new order of life until a world view is established. We have learned through bitter mistakes that all the peoples of the earth are vitally connected, but we have not made use of that knowledge in an intelligent way.”

Henry Miller found something in Greece that he carried around with him everywhere he travelled, the way a lover carries his yearning. The war that was roiling the world as he wrote Collussus came to an end as all wars do. If the vision of Miller, and the others who share his dream, is ever realized, one fortunate generation will see the end not of a war but of war.

“No people in the world are as in need of what Greece has to offer as the American people. Greece is not merely the antithesis of America, but more, the solution to the ills which plague us. Economically it may seem unimportant, but spiritually Greece is still the mother of nations, the fountainhead of wisdom and inspiration.”
 
Peace is not the opposite of war
“Peace is not the opposite of war any more than death is the opposite of life. The poverty of language, which is to say the poverty of man’s imagination or the poverty of his inner life, has created an ambivalence which is absolutely false. I am talking of course of the peace which passeth all understanding. There is no other kind. The peace which most of us know is merely a cessation of hostilities, a truce, an interregnum, a lull, a respite, which is negative. The peace of the heart is positive and invincible, demanding no conditions, requiring no protection. It just is. If it is a victory it is a peculiar one because it is based on surrender, a voluntary surrender, to be sure.”

“To be free, as I then knew myself to be, is to realize that all conquest is in vain, even the conquest of self, which is the last act of egotism. To be joyous is to carry the ego to its last summit and to delivery it triumphantly. To know peace is total: it is the moment after, when the surrender is complete, when there is no longer even the consciousness of surrender. Peace is at the center and when it is attained the voice issues forth in praise and benediction. Then the voice carries far and wide, to the outermost limits of the universe. Then it heals, because it brings light and the warmth of compassion.”