When is it Life? Part 2: Miller at Epidaurus

A day for relaxation, spent reading The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller. I’m in a pleasant, empty bar where I can drink wheat beer as I sink into a comfortable chair, absorbed.

“The road to Epidaurus is like the road to creation. One stops searching. One grows silent, stilled by the hush of mysterious beginnings. If one could speak one would become melodious. There is nothing to be seized or treasured or cornered off here: there is only a breaking down of the walls which lock the spirit in.”

And so Henry Miller rides in silence as he experiences “the great peace” of Epidaurus, “the peace of the heart, which comes with surrender. I never knew the meaning of peace until I arrived at Epidaurus.”

I pause and sip, shift in my seat as I try to contemplate this peace. Absolute peace, Asclepius’s cure for all disease. And what does it consist of? Nothing, an absence. Absence of walls and absence of modern progress. Absence of the tall buildings crazy lights struggle of civilisation.

Even in New York and Paris, there had been moments in Miller’s life when he felt he’d found peace. But he realises now that this ordinary peace is a “counterfeit”. The real thing is what he is sensing now, for the first time in the spaces of Epidaurus.

I wonder at the little peaceful space I’ve created for myself in this moment, sunk into this chair, in this quiet bar cool beneath street level. It feels peaceful, calming, to sit and sip and contemplate absolute peace. Peaceful because I can take my time. Peaceful because no pressure. But this isn’t peace, Miller tells me:

“Peace is not the opposite of war any more than death is the opposite of life.” And this peace I have made for myself is an opposite: a break from work, which it opposes. This peace is valuable to me because it’s the opposite of stress and anxiety, the opposite of struggle.

You do not accept life in its immediacy, and you do not know peace, and so you keep on searching. You keep asking questions, and the answers become more and more complex, the confusing flickering light of the spectacle . . .

When I was reading Miller’s description of Broadway in Tropic of Capricorn I thought: it’s a representation only. A spectacle. I was thinking of Guy Debord: “All of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

Nothing is experienced directly. Everything is a reflection of everything else. This is where I seem to be stuck. This is where Miller was stuck as he slunk and scowled on Broadway, as he wept into his meatballs.

Hordes of bodies, identical, move along Broadway: “The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.”

How many of these people in the crowd felt happy and peaceful on that day on Broadway? Miller didn’t notice, he could only see the ants, the swarm – he was blind to the individual souls in the crowd. Ask the crowd and any answer you get will be contradictory. Any attempt to understand will end in contradiction. The spectacle dazzles and runs back over itself, we howl with laughter as we drink and recall previous drunken nights, all under the same lights, reflecting in the same dead bright beer-shining eyes. In that moment of peace we don’t see the mess, the hypocrisy, that Miller sees as he looks in from the street. In our joyful counterfeit peace, our respite, we feel whole and one. Excitement and conversation and light has the power to cure people, to grant a kind of peace, peace enough to go on, and this is what’s behind the craze for drink (and crazed we are). Drunkenness the slumber of the soul, sublime, lifting us from stress and care, making us of the body, alive – while our eyes dim and our spirits sleep. And Miller sees ants, ghosts, hungry mouths yawning above the foaming beer . . .

“I am talking of course of the peace which passeth all understanding. There is no other kind. The peace which most of us know is merely a cessation of hostilities, a truce, an interregnum, a lull, a respite, which is negative.” And so my contemplation, sipping and thinking, comes to nothing. My understanding won’t get me there, to Epidaurus. For now I have only my counterfeit peace, my respite from work and struggle.

“Why do you go on living the way you do?” Miller wanted to ask of those on Broadway. Questioning everything, even if only in his own mind, he has not yet found peace. On Broadway, Miller is still seeking understanding . . . It will take him a decade or longer to find the answer, in the peace of Epidaurus, when the answer, the final answer, will strike him once and forever:

“The peace of the heart is positive and invincible, demanding no conditions, requiring no protection.”

Broadway’s light stretches so far: Broadway encompasses the furthest reaches, and the tallest structures . . . And this mortal is mortal, locked between the buildings, hindered by his own questioning, sometimes desperate and angry, and yet perhaps there is some power of healing even now in his beginnings, his bald potential . . .

And as I finish my beer I’m left with a feeling of hope, that one day I will discover the meaning of this peace “requiring no protection”, ancient jewel: the setting sun, a thick wooded valley and beyond it a wide open space for the spirit to dwell in.

(The Guy Debord quotations are from the Black & Red translation of Society of the Spectacle.)

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