“Once again I reassured myself that happiness is something simple and self-restrained — a glass of wine, a chestnut, a paltry brazier, the sea’s rumble, nothing else. The only requirement for one to sense that all this is happiness is to possess a heart that is also simple and self-restrained.”
I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis for the first time in high school. I remember it being a beautiful book, with lots of noteworthy passages. I had a quote from it taped above my desk in college:
“As I watched the seagulls I thought: That is the road to take; find the absolute rhythm and follow it with absolute trust.”
I loved that quote. But it’s basically all I remember.
I had an old copy of it lying around, and the book has been called “one of the greatest life-affirming novels of our time.” So I decided to give it another go.
Basic plot: the narrator, a 35 year old brooding intellectual is sitting in a cafe moping about a past relationship when he meets Alexis Zorba, a spirited, exuberant older man. The narrator, enraptured by Zorba’s spirit, invites Zorba to join him as a business partner on the island of Crete where he is re-opening a lignite mine. The book is the story of their time together living in a small, rural Greek town.
I didn’t remember much of the plot from my first go-round and to be honest, I now realize why. The story was kind of strange. Scenes felt contrived and choppy, inserted into the plot to expose certain philosophies as opposed to carry the storyline. The narrator seemed whiny, and Zorba, the hero of the novel, came across as shallow, selfish, and outright crazy. Everything seemed a little melodramatic.
Another thing I did not remember is the role of women in the story. The way the men use them, and the way they refer to them (a few examples: brazen bitch, brood mare, slut, whore, hussy, wench, “having no brains”…)
I thought maybe it was just me, that I was being a little hypersensitive because we were mid-election and there was all sorts of talk coming from our country’s leaders about grabbing body parts and blood coming out of wherever. But really:
(Describing a Russian man dance):
“I watched his hands, feet, chest, eyes, and understood everything: how they had entered Novorossiysk, killed the bosses, looted the shops, entered homes and grabbed the women, who at first wept, scratched at their own faces, scratched the men’s faces, but grew tame over time, the hussies, shut their eyes, and squealed with pleasure. Women, after all!”
I understand that this was written in 1950s about rural Greek society. Still.
I finished this book thinking, wtf. Of all the books out there, THIS is consistently on the “Top 100 Books of All Time” list?
But I finished it. And a few days later I sat there thinking about the fact that in spite of the above, I kept reading. Because intertwined in this story of a twisted society with imperfect, ugly people and barbaric, unpalatable scenes, are beautiful, poetic prose about that same world:
“It had begun to grow dark. The western sky had acquired great sweetness: somberly violet beneath small, scattered clouds with golden edges weaving gently in and out of hte evening light and incessantly changing form — sometimes boats, sometimes swans, sometimes fantastic wild beasts made of cotton and frayed silk.”
And I thought: Maybe that’s the point. That these passages, sprinkled amongst the disturbing plot twists and character interactions, were what kept me coming back to a world that, on the surface, turned me off in so many ways.
Maybe this book is way more meta then I initially thought.
Kafka said: “Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”
People are cruel, the world is ugly, society is barbaric, and often times there isn’t much you can do to stop or change that. This is as true today as it was then. But mixed in with all of that is a beauty in the things we do and experience every day. But to see it we have to get out, we have to engage, which means exposing ourselves to the not-so-beautiful as well.
So maybe Zorba’s heroism lies not the fact that he is callous or dismissive of the ugliness surrounding him, but that unlike the narrator he is able to move through the world without shouldering the burden of everything bad. He may seem insensitive and irresponsible at times (because he is), but his strength is in that he manages to revel in the good, which keeps him young and alive.
This book is about contradictions. It’s about how to live, and about humanity. Zorba wasn’t a perfect person. But his vigor and successful quest for happiness made him a hero nonetheless.
“God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises.”
…or maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe I just need more sleep.
As I was sitting there pondering these deep, deep thoughts (aka zoning out), my three year old came marching over to me, naked, with a gross old baby blanket draped around her neck like a cape:
“Mommy, can you play some music please?”
“Uh, sure I can…where are your clothes?”
“No, I’m wearing my dress because I need to dance. Isn’t my dress sooooooooo beautiful?”
Yes, yes it is.
“…there is only one life for all men…there is no other…all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here.”