This is about peace — “the peace that passes all understanding.” But first, a bit of background.
When I was growing up, Henry Miller was known for “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn,” a pair of racy novels that were banned in the United States until the ’60s. Except for a cult of Beat Generation admirers, Miller wasn’t considered in the top rank of contemporary American literature.
Some years ago, a bibliophile whose taste I respect extolled Miller’s “The Colossus of Marousi.” I opened the book skeptically, but soon fell under its spell. Miller turned out to be one of those writers who engages the reader as a companion rather than a pedagogue. He’s intelligent and observant without coming across as a condescending know-it-all. Above all, he’s fun to be around. George Orwell referred to him as a rare specimen — a happy man. Reading Miller is like tagging along on a joyful quest for adventure and wisdom.
In the early days of World War II, Miller decided he needed a vacation, not an unusual whim for a man who seemed to be on vacation most of his life. He wound up in Greece. “The Colossus of Maroussi,” recounts his experiences there.
It features comic, hedonistic episodes and passages of lyrical prose. When Miller arrives at Epidaurus, home of Asclepius, the god of healing, he has a spiritual awakening. Describing this experience, he unleashes a diatribe against the mechanization of life and the blind pursuit of wealth that builds to an ecstatic meditation on the meaning of peace.
“Peace is not the opposite of war any more than death is the opposite of life,” he writes. “Man doesn’t begin to live through triumphing over his enemy nor does he begin to acquire health through endless cures. The joy of life comes through peace … and without joy there is no life, even if you have a dozen cars, six butlers, a castle, a private chapel and a bomb-proof vault.”
These words have an uncanny relevance to the economic woes we’ve brought upon ourselves and the violence we perpetuate in pursuit of “peace.” Peace is not something which can be “pounced upon and devoured, as with wolves fighting over a carcass,” Miller writes. We talk about peace while our faces are distorted with anger and hatred. The cure Miller discovered is “to give up, to relinquish, to surrender, so that our little heart may beat in unison with the great heart of the world.”
Such lofty pronouncements must be taken with a grain of salt, of course. Most of us aren’t suited for the kind of bohemian life Miller led. Responsibilities command us to punch the clock. “Surrender” implies a flight from reason. And ego-driven competition plays a part in great discoveries and works of art. Nevertheless, Miller’s words have a cathartic, uplifting power that’s welcome in a time of ideological polarization. Reading him is a way of stepping off the treadmill and appreciating existence for its own sake.
“The world is both young and old,” he writes. “Like the individual, it renews itself in death and ages through infinite births. At every stage there is the possibility of fulfillment. Peace lies at any point on the line … The mastery of great things comes with the doing of trifles … Voyages are accomplished inwardly, and the most hazardous ones … are made without moving from the spot.”
Those words seem a fitting farewell to this Christmas season and a fair outlook for the coming year.