Monday, April 15, 2013

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis


I first saw the excellent (reel-to-reel) movie adaptation in a high school film study class. I read the outstanding book in undergraduate school, again in graduate school, and most recently. Though I have always wanted to live life like Zorba, I knew it would be impossible “to obey the divine and savage clamor within me.”


“The human soul is heavy, clumsy, held in the mud of the flesh. Its perceptions are still coarse and brutish. It can divine nothing clearly, nothing with certainty…

“At times I was seized with compassion. A Buddhist compassion, as cold as the conclusion of a metaphysical syllogism. A compassion not only for men but for all life which struggles, cries, weeps, hopes and does not perceive that everything is a phantasmagoria of nothingness…

 “Free yourself from one passion to be dominated by another and nobler one. But is not that, too, a form of slavery? To sacrifice oneself to an idea, to a race, to God...? ‘My son, I carry on as if I should never die… And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute…’

 “While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize—sometimes with astonishment—how happy we had been…

“’Do you dance?’ he asked me intensely. ‘Do you dance?’ ‘No.’ “No?’… He made a leap, rushed out of the hut, cast off his shoes, his coat, his vest, rolled his trousers up to his knees, and started dancing… He threw himself into the dance, clapping his hands, leaping and pirouetting in the air, falling on to his knees, leaping again with his legs tucked up—it was as if he were made of rubber…

“The longer I live, the more I rebel. I’m not going to give in; I want to conquer the world!...

“How simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And all that is required to feel that here and now is a simple, frugal heart… ‘Life is trouble,’ Zorba continued. ‘Death, no. To live—do you know what that means?’…

“I went over my whole life, which appeared vapid, incoherent and hesitating, dreamlike. I contemplated it despairingly. Like a fleecy cloud attacked by the winds from the heights, my life constantly changed shape…

“I remembered one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree, just as the butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited a while, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened; the butterfly started slowly crawling out, and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled. The wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath. In vain. It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear, all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand…

“The human element is brutish, uncouth, impure—it is composed of love, the flesh and a cry of distress. Let it be sublimated into an abstract idea, and, in the crucible of the spirit, by various processes of alchemy, let it be rarefied and evaporate…

“I have always been consumed with one desire: to touch and see as much as possible of the earth and the sea before I die… Once more there sounded within me, together with the crane’s cry, the terrible warning that there is only one life for all… that there is no other, and that all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here. In eternity no other chance will be given us. A mind hearing this pitiless warning—a warning which, at the same time, is so compassionate—would decide to conquer its weakness and meanness, its laziness and vain hopes and cling with all its power to every second which flies away forever… I knew that eternity is each minute that passes… ‘Woe to him who does not feel that this life and the next are but one!’…

“God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises. At one moment he is a glass of fresh water, the next your son bouncing on your knees or an enchanting woman, or perhaps merely a morning walk…

“What is this world? I wondered. What is its aim and in what way can we help to attain it during our ephemeral lives? The aim of man and matter is to create joy, according to Zorba—others would say ‘to create spirit,’ but that comes to the same thing on another plane…

“I stood up. ‘Come on, Zorba,’ I cried, ‘teach me to dance!’ Zorba leaped to his feet, his face sparkling. ‘To dance, boss? To dance? Fine! Come on!’… We threw ourselves into the dance. Zorba instructed me, corrected me gravely, patiently, and with great gentleness. I grew bold and felt my heart on the wing of a bird…

“One night on a snow-covered Macedonian mountain a terrible wind rose. It shook the little hut where I had sheltered and tried to tip it over. But I had shored it up and strengthened it. I was sitting alone by the fire, laughing and taunting the wind. ‘You won’t get my little hut, brother! I shan’t open the door for you. You won’t put my fire out; you won’t tip my hut over!’ In these few words of Zorba’s I had understood how men should behave and what tone they should adopt when addressing powerful but blind necessity…

(1946)

Kazantzakis, Nikos. Zorba the Greek. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.

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