“exCerpt du jour” is a new series
all about… excerpts!
Excerpts from books, magazine and newspaper articles,
songs, poems, even excerpts from my personal journals.
So whenever I feel like sharing something that stirs me in some way,
I’ll have a “special box” to put it in.
The book jacket describes it as being “part biography, part memoir, part critical study, part exploration of sexual politics in our times.” But for me it’s the story of a beautiful friendship, one that began in 1974 when Erica Jong, then the author of a relatively obscure first novel called Fear of Flying, received an enthusiastic fan letter from Henry Miller, then an old man of eighty-three. The friendship would last until Miller’s death in 1980.
I first read Devil at Large in May 1995 (jotted the date inside the book). Back then, having previously struggled through Miller’s infamous Tropic of Cancer and, of course, knowing full well his reputation as a misogynist and writer of smut, I was surprised to learn that he was actually a spiritual man. His “aha! moment” came in 1939 when he left Paris and settled in Greece, hoping to wait out the war there. Aged forty-seven, Henry was about to be transformed.
And so it is that Miller found in Greece the inspiration for his book The Colossus of Maroussi which brought about many discussions. Here’s what Jong has to say about Miller’s transition from lewdness to light:
Mary Dearborn acknowledges the beauty of Maroussi‘s prose, but she dismisses the book in a few lines: “His recounting of one spiritual experience after another tends to bore readers who are not taken up with mysticism.”
Of course, “mysticism” — the very word has become pejorative — is always boring to those who believe only in materialism. “Boring” is in itself a codeword for fear — as any psychoanalyst can tell you. There is a whole school of journalists and critics who will dismiss as “New Age claptrap” everything from Maroussi to Walden to the Tao Te Ching to Shirley MacLaine’s bestsellers as if there were no difference in quality or in kind.
Probably the fear of enlightenment is greater in some people than the attraction toward it, but some of us are drawn to it, while others stubbornly turn their backs, claiming the light does not exist. One cannot argue about the possibility of enlightenment any more than one can argue about the existence of god and goddess. It requires a leap of faith, an act of amazing grace. Miller made that leap of faith in Greece. Many of his chroniclers cannot follow him.
Even Robert Ferguson, who is a somewhat less grudging and bitter critic of Henry than Mary Dearborn, says of Maroussi that “a second rebirth, coming so soon after the first one in Paris with Tropic of Cancer, might seem like one rebirth too many.” But spiritual experiences are cumulative. They gather like waves and result in breakthroughs. Creative life does not proceed by accumulating anthills of “facts.” Rather there is a slow accretion of experience, of learning one’s craft, of growing spiritually, until suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, one soars to a new level. If you’ve experienced it, you believe it. If you haven’t, you disbelieve.
Of all Henry’s biographers, Jay Martin best comprehends Miller’s mission to free his readers. He records the sense of liberation and ease Miller felt in Greece. After the frenzy of the Paris years, where he wrote and wrote to empty himself of the bitterness of his past, he was finally able to draw a long breath of life and light. He returned to America a new person. In a sense, his soul had been shriven.
Perhaps Maroussi is played down by Miller’s biographers because it is “a book without sex,” as one of his Greek friends predicted. It doesn’t fit the Miller stereotype, so it is safer to ignore it than to acknowledge that Miller was multifaceted, both as a human being and as a writer. In this age of electronic sound bites and media stereotyping, few public figures are allowed complexity, compli- cation, or chiaroscuro (1). Miller is seen as the antic goat, nothing more. How can we notice that his central book is full of sea and sun, not slime and sperm? It would make our precious point of view seem wrong! The truth is that Miller was on a spiritual journey his whole life — and Greece was at the heart of it.
Henry turned serene, almost seraphic in Greece, and all his friends noticed the change. He began his lifelong romance with the wisdom of the ages — yoga, Zen, the I Ching. His friend Ghika (whom he called Giks), the painter from Hydra, predicted that Greece would change Henry: “If you came to Greece as a Parisian bohemian, you have become a pilgrim,” he said. “Henceforth your writing must be different.” Maroussi was to prove Ghika right.
(1) Chiaroscuro: here’s the meaning… just in case you don’t know.
I sure didn’t!
Now off to the library I go…
to fetch The Colossus of Maroussi.