In which I explain why Zorba The Greek must be read

I’m in love with Zorba The Greek. He’s a character (in a novel), a real man (Nikos Kazantzakis based the character on someone he met in the 1920s), and he’s every Greek I’ve ever loved, for he distills all that I have in my heart, waiting to be expressed in full, in stunning exclamations that cut Right To All Of It:

“It doesn’t matter a damn if you have no head, you must wear the right sort of hat! It’s a crazy world!” 

Not read Zorba? It’s a story of a love affair between two nomads – strangers – who meet at Pireus port as the ferry to Crete pulls in. It’s about a friendship that goes to the molten core of our burning affection for fellow humanity. The book is ostensibly about Zorba, a wild, pure spirit. But I think it’s a more telling tale about the narrator, referred to as “Boss”. Boss is a writer, a “pen pusher”. He observes Zorba through the lens of his analytical mind. He wishes to abandon his head and his studies of Buddhism and the rest, but he is trapped in the mind:

That is what a real man is like, I thought, envying Zorba’s sorrow. A man with warm blood and solid bones, who lets real tears run down his cheeks when he is suffering; and when he is happy he does not spoil the freshness of his joy by running it through the fine sieve of metaphysics.

At times he grasps Zorba’s kind of joy, pulled in by Zorba’s ability to go straight to awe, bypassing, or blinkering out knowledge and understanding and metaphysics.

Spring arrives in Crete one morning. The Boss rises early and feels an uneasy, tentative joy. Zorba, too, rises and comes outside to experience the same sight:

“What is that?” he asked stupefied. “That miracle over there, boss, that moving blue, what do they call it? Sea? Sea? And what’s that wearing a flowered green apron? Earth? Who was the artist who did it? It’s the first time I’ve seen that, boss, I swear!’ His eyes were brimming over.

“Don’t you see? There’s magic behind all that, boss.”  He rushed outside, began dancing and rolling in the grass like a foal in spring.   The sun appeared and I held out my palms to the warmth. Rising sap … the swelling breast… and the soul also blossoming like a tree; you could feel that body and soul were kneaded from the same material.

Why is the Boss uneasy? Why are all of us uneasy in the face of simple and inevitable beauty and “is-ness”?

I think it’s because we know it will never be understood with the mind. As we stand before the sunset, we search for the impressive words to sum it for friends later. We try to capture the flicker of recognition in a baby’s eye with a photo. We walk in the Old Town of an ancient village seeing it all through a Go-Pro lens. We grasp, we collate, we try to hold on to it, to record it, so…we can enjoy it later. Ha!

Then we meet someone like Zorba – a “life natural” who sees a flower bloom and finds it awe-some, but doesn’t need to pull the mechanics of it apart. He flips everything on its head and we’re reminded of this truth: Life and understanding and god and eternity is right now. We better be quick, too. Because it’s fleeting. The Boss captures this in another lament over the passing of Winter:

The unfailing rhythm of the seasons, the ever-turning wheel of life, the four facets of the earth which are lit in turn by the sun, the passing of life – all these filled me once more with a feeling of oppression. Once more there sounded within me…the terrible warning that there is only one life for all men, that there is no other, and that all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here. In eternity no other chance will be given to us.

We are uneasy because we feel we got it all wrong and time is running out. Yes?

I don’t know if I have a salve for this particular affliction. Except to acknowledge that folk like the Boss and me (and possibly you) derive incredible joy in this lifetime from observing the Zorbas of the world. This in itself is an awesome thing. (Which is why I come to Greece.)

PS I hope you don’t mind. I’m on a roll. More Zorba lessons to come…

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