Revisiting Zorba the Greek


Albert Camus was reported to have said that Nikos Kazantzakis deserved the Nobel Prize "a hundred times more" than himself. I like Camus, but he was completely correct.

Kazantzakis leaves an impression few authors do. He struggled passionately with how to reconcile the world of the flesh with the world of the spirit, and the energy and passion of this struggle bursts through in Zorba the Greek and his far greater The Last Temptation of Christ. Kazantzakis was a skeptic and philosophical cynic, but even so, the great questions of his life were molded by the Greek Orthodoxy of his childhood, wtih a healthy mix of Nietzsche and the Buddha.

Some day I will have the words to do Kazantzakis justice. But I was revisiting Zorba the Greek today and came across a passage that seems resonant with what I've been writing about lately.

At heart, Zorba is about the friendship between the bookish, intellectual protagonist and the eponymous Zorba, whose zeal for wine, women, and work break some of the protagonist's shackles and start him down the path to truly engaging with life. Zorba is clearly a sympathetic character, and from what I remember, the novel doesn't deeply examine or criticize his way of life. It's partly for this reason that I consider The Last Temptation of Christ to be a much richer novel.

Even so, this passage from Zorba gets to the heart of it. Zorba and the narrator are having a discussion, and Zorba speaks:

"The string you're tied to is perhaps no longer than other people's. That's all. You're on a long piece of string, boss; you come and go, and think you're free, but you never cut the string in two. And when people don't cut that string ..."

'I'll cut it some day!" I said defiantly, because Zorba's words had touched an open wound in me and hurt.

"It's difficult, boss, very difficult. You need a touch of folly to do that; folly, d'you see? You have to risk everything! But you've got such a strong head, it'll always get the better of you. A man's head is like a grocer; it keeps accounts: I've paid so much and earned so much and that means a profit of this much or a loss of that much! The head's a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string. Ah no! It hangs on tight to it, the bastard! If the string slips out of its grasp, the head, poor devil, is lost, fininshed ! But if a man doesn't break the string, tell me, what flavor is left in life? The flavor of camomile, weak camomile tea! Nothing like rum—that makes you see life inside out!"

May your life, too, have a healthy dose of folly!