It was winter 1973. I was young and living in Paris. I had fallen for a French girl and run away from a dull job in London. After a few months she had left me, and I was stranded alone in the cold grey heart of Europe.
Paris was bone-grey and lonely, and I hated it. But there was no way back. This was a new life, beyond the social and intellectual straitjacket of parochial England, its tribal politics, drab cities and smothering politeness. After 15 years’ toiling in English educational factories, bunged up with textbooks, manners, literature and theory, I wanted neither work nor authority figures – I was burning for expression, experience, ideas and meaning.
Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi was tinder for the blaze to come. I had found a dog-eared copy and, I devoured it. Written in 1939 as all Europe prepared for inevitable war, it was superficially a travelogue and a character study of the great Greek poet George Katsimbalis. In fact it was acelebration of friendship, spirit and life.
I saw parallels in our situations. We were both on the road, poor as tramps, living in a foreign country with no possessions, responsibilities or certain future. We both suspected that the man with the fewest needs was the happiest. Miller had gone to Greece to escape the war clouds, and there I was living with Chileans fleeing a military junta and Vietnam draft dodgers. The cold war was raging, Middle East conflict was brewing, the price of oil was quadrupling, and nuclear conflagration seemed entirely possible. Students were rioting, hippies were rampant and there was a sense of social disorder and deep generational divide.
Into this heady political and social mix came Miller’s hilarious and breathtaking demolition of the stupidity, greed and hypocrisy of those who had wrought continuing poverty, war and despair on Europe and the world. His emotional investigation of the wild Greek spirit was not just a spit in the eye of the European establishment but a giant gob in the face of all that was curmudgeonly and mean.
Newspapers got short shrift for spreading lies, hatred, greed, envy and malice; lawyers, technologies, capitalism, communism and Catholicism were all excoriated. He denounced America for its obsessions with wealth and power. His passions burst at the seams, his prose streamed in long paragraphs, words falling over themselves in their haste to be read.
But it was Miller the poet and peacemaker who, I now think, made me reflect most. It was not enough to overthrow governments or masters; total revolution of thought was needed: “Every war is a defeat to the human spirit, as long as we refuse to think in terms of world good … Life demands that we offer spirit, soul, intelligence, goodwill. As long as we refuse to think in terms of world good and world order we shall murder and betray one another … till the crack of doom. Man kills through fear; once we start slaying there is no end of it.”
I had entered a new realm. I had confirmed that my responsibilities were not just to myself, or to little England, but to the imagination and to something far greater than my present parlous condition. My immediate miserableness and loneliness were as nothing.
I walked one day in the Jardin du Luxembourg and passed two middle-aged women wrapped in furs and with lapdogs on leads. One of the women spat at my feet and muttered, “gauchiste!” I could not remember being so pleased. Happy as a kite, I echoed Miller, shouting back: “Je m’enfou de votre civilisation!” I strode on, laughed and never looked back. A few days later, I took the train to Greece.
Excerpted from ‘A book that changed me: How Henry Miller’s anti-establishment rant liberated me from little England’