Would Zorba the Greek Have Written a Blog?

Alexis Zorba would never have been a blogger. Alexis Zorba would never have had a cell phone. And Alexia Zorba would have been a global nobody like the rest of us – and happy about it.

It’s possible, just possible, that some of you reading this article have never heard of Alexis Zorba, especially if you’re part of the generation that has always had more access to “media” than those of us who remember having to actually walk to libraries and take books of shelves rather than tap “Nikos Kazantzakis” into a Kindle search box. There’s nothing wrong with having fingertip access to books, games, TV shows, YouTube, magazines, Facebook, Amazon, music, and the whole catastrophe that is accessible media, it’s just that too much of a good thing can easily end up making choices more difficult, not simpler [1].

Zorba the Greek book cover

Zorba the Greek cover

Of course, yearning for “simpler times” is a symptom of old age and often biased in favor of an imagined “Golden Age,” where we remember all the great things about when we were younger and forget all the bad stuff. The rose-tinted spectacles of retrospection along with the bias of hindsight often make the past look brighter than it was. But the sin of living in the past can be compounded by the iniquity of failing to live in the present. At what stage does our opportunity to engage in a world of seemingly endless media offerings become an escape from a more visceral experience of existence?

The Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) created his most famous character, Alexis Zorba, in order to examine this – and many other issues – in his classic 1946 novel, Zorba the Greek. Don’t be put off by the age of the book because the character and themes are as relevent today as they were in those post-war days when Europe was struggling back from a four-year period of horrific death and destruction.

If you have never read the book, then it’s one of the few “wastes of time” that will turn out not to have been a waste of time. If you have read the book, what on earth are you doing reading this article?

You see, in an almost post-modernist twist, one of the fundamental messages you get from reading the book is that you shouldn’t be reading the book! The mere act of enjoying the narrative is paradoxically counter to what the character of Alexis Zorba stands for; the celebration of an earthy, gritty, hands-on kind of life. Consider this quote from Zorba;

All those who actually live the mysteries of life haven’t the time to write, and all those who have the time don’t live them! D’you see?

All of us who spend time writing really need to think about the implications of this comment. Kazantzakis himself was a prolific writer and constantly searching for spiritual meaning, whether through Buddhism, Communism, Christianity, or pagan beliefs. All of his writings at some level reflect his troubled struggle for understanding of what life is about. Yet Zorba could have told him that easily;

Live is trouble,” Zorba continued. ‘Death, no. To live—do you know what I mean? To undo your belt and look for trouble!”

This isn’t to say that life has to be a quest for “trouble.” There’s no suggestion that we need to go rock climbing, sky diving, getting into drunken fights after a night at the pub, or any other potentially self-injurious behaviors, rather that the everyday events of life can bring us trouble in many forms – and that is the norm, not the exception.

Zorba’s world-view is contrasted with that of the book’s narrator, who is an unnamed academic intent of reviving an old lignite mine on the island of Crete. The narrator represents the rational, ordered, Apollonian perspective on life whereas Zorba makes the case for the spontaneous, chaotic, free-wheeling, Dionysian view [2]. Throughout the novel, Zorba expounds his philosophy of life and it’s no exaggeration to say that there are quotable aphorisms on almost every page. For example, one of my favorites is always worth considering when things are not going to plan:

When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all-powerful enemy—some call him God, others the Devil, seem to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed.

By the end of the book, it’s not difficult to side with Zorba and realize that “doing” is better than “thinking about doing,” and that being the best, the top dog, the winner, the most famous, or most successful is not what it’s all about.

This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right and to realize of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.

It’s also a very spiritual book although not necessarily “godly.” You can read Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ or St. Francis for a more intense religious discussion but Zorba appeals to theists and atheists alike. In fact, it’s probably true to say that I find the works of Kazantzakis as a whole spiritually interesting – even though I am a devote atheist. And the reason for this is that he is able to talk about religion as a deeply psychological phenomenon, and as such, it is of importance and interest to anyone.

Zorba movie poster

1964 movie poster

For those who are still unconvinced that the book is worth reading, then you might want to consider getting hold of the 1964 film version starring Anthony Quinn [3] and Alan Bates. Quinn plays the role of the eponymous hero so well that many critics have considered it his best performance. He was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor but lost out to Rex Harrison, which, in retrospect, seems a little unfair. Bates plays the narrator but is cast as an English writer rather than the anonymous Greek intellectual. It’s a wonderful adaptation of the book although not really a substitute.

Yet should you decide neither read the book nor watch the movie but rather go out and spend a riotous night with friends, visit your family across the country, hang glide from a mountain top, or just ride your motorcycle with no particular destination in mind, that’s perhaps a better idea. As Zorba said;

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.

[1] Barry Schwarz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (2005) discusses how the growth of the present consumer market has reached a point where there is too much choice, which in turn makes life more difficult and not easier. At one time, the most complicated choice to make when ordering a cup of coffee was whether to add cream or sugar. Now, a trip to Starbucks practically requires a degree in Italian and the ability to handle hundreds of potential combinations of ingredients. And the biggest problem in the current tablet-orientated world isn’t the availability of apps but the difficulty of choosing the right one when every app seller says theirs is the best!

[2] For a more detailed, and entertaining, exposition of the Dionysian versus the Apollonian, a reader could do worse than grabbing a copy of Camille Paglia’s 1991 Sexual Persona: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. It’s a rollicking romp through Art and Sexuality that draws heavily from psychoanalysis and popular culture. With examples from such diverse writers as Shakespeare, Coleridge, Henry James, and even the Marquis de Sade, Paglia explains how sexuality remains a powerful force in cultural development. At over 750 pages, it’s not a quick read, but it is splendidly entertaining and one of a kind.

[3] When reading Zorba, I admit to having the image of Anthony Quinn in my head. I hear his voice as I scan the text, and I inevitably associate him with “Greekness.” So it came as a shock to me many years ago to discover that Quinn was, in fact, not Greek but Mexican, having been born in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1915. The choice of Quinn to play Zorba turned out to be ideal because his real life was very much in the style of that character. At one point, Quinn himself admitted, “I am Zorba.”


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