Between ancient and modern times
“I am now inside what can be considered as a comfortable little room of a modern hotel, which offers all the typical commodities. The bed is soft and clean; the shower works perfectly; the toilet seat has been disinfected… Yet I am depressed, depressed beyond any known limit. If I were to occupy this room for some time, I would surely go mad or do away with myself. The spirit of this place, the spirit of the men who have turned this into the horrendous city it is, oozes from the walls themselves. Crime is in the air. It’s suffocating.” It is 1939 and the horrendous city that Miller speaks of is New York, to which he has just returned from Greece, having left on Boxing Day. The starting point for this journey had been Paris, where he had lived for about ten years. He had then reached Corfù, so as to visit his friend Lawrence Durrell, who had settled on the island with his wife.
Hydra, Spetses, Nauplia, Dafni, Mycenae, Epidaurus... the ideas and impressions that the journey casts into his mind are then gathered in a notebook. The line of continuity in this process is dictated entirely by his movements and little else. His jottings and notes are a tribute to Greece, its people and its culture and are sometimes spontaneous, sometimes meditative. Rather than being descriptions, they tend to be digressions or reflect explosions in the author’s mood.
From Heraklion, Miller embarks on a ship for Chania, situated on the island of Crete, where he then visits Knossos and Phaestos. He soaks up the atmosphere of these timeless places and retransmits their intensity and vibrations on paper. For entire days, he lies on the ground in the sunshine in silence, keeping his mind empty. He has never read the works of Homer, Aeschylus or Pindar, has no notions of the history or art of ancient Greece and is not interested in the theories of archeologists, but in the wake of the beauties left by the Hellenic civilization his imagination is brought to life.
The things he witnesses induce him to thoughts and considerations and with the purity only a neophyte can muster; he breathes life back into both ancient and everyday Greece. He has a love for naïve and unsophisticated people and when he meets them by chance he makes them his own and brings them to life in his stories. By portraying the emigrants returning from America, he criticises the mechanization of his homeland, where modernity reveals the more ominous facets of its character. He vents his rage against these machines which he deems responsible for the dehumanization of Mankind and within the Hellenic world he finds a source of confirmation for this disdain for the civilization which has spawned this evil. “The oldest building of Heraklion shall survive the most modern of American buildings,” he states in The Colossus of Maroussi, his masterpiece, of which the seeds are contained in these notes.
His intuition on the subjects of religion and civilization lead him to consider Greece as the land of origin, the place containing the true meaning of life. His head is filled with pagan and Dionysian exaltation. “Here the Gods – he says – live in the ground, the rocks and the trees which bathe in the light”
He later entrusted these notes to the poet Ghiorgos Seferis, Nobel Prize winner for Poetry in 1963, who in turn in 1971, shortly before dying, left the manuscript to his wife Maro Seferiades. The scripts were probably not destined to be released and never before have they been published in Italy until now.