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Quotes: Emerson and Miller on Greece

Henry Miller’s best book is The Colossus of Maroussi. When I first found out that it was a travelogue, an account of Miller’s eight months in Greece, I was put off. Travel is, for me, something that becomes increasingly unattractive the more I do it. While visiting the Parthenon in Athens a month ago, I couldn’t help thinking about Emerson’s thoughts on travel (in his amazing essay Self-Reliance):

It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth. In manly hours, we feel that duty is our place. The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

The last line, about one’s “giant” is remarkably similar to the adage “wherever you go there you are”. Travel is basically unimportant – nevertheless, it is interesting that Greece appears to be the cause of Miller’s exuberant writing. Miller raves about how fantastic Greece is, from the people to the culture, everything is perfect – and therefore the exact opposite of America. A few times in the book, Miller gets upset with people who extol America’s virtues and denigrate Greece, although the irony seems to be lost on Miller. I reread The Colossus before flying to Greece, and Miller’s astute observations did serve as cues for things that I otherwise would not have noticed. For example, Miller writes at length about how the Greeks are in love with water; there are jugs and glasses of water everywhere. This is in fact true, the Greeks do love their water and it is probably something that I never would have picked up on without the book. Travel might be near-meaningless, but at least for Miller, Greece is what allowed his writing to shine most brightly.