mad in pursuit journal


Quest for Zorba

Last night we watched the first half of "Zorba the Greek." The movie came out in 1964, when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, but I don't think I ever saw it. But, later -- it had to be a summer break between 1965 and 1968 -- I read the book and other works by Nikos Kazantzakis. His writing changed the way I look at the world.

I read Zorba, his travelogue on Spain, The Last Temptation of Christ, and whatever else I could lay my hands on.

Zorba made me aware of how restrained I was -- quiet in voice, immobile in physical expressiveness -- like Zorba's anglicized "boss" Basil. But if there was hope for Basil -- if Basil had found his Zorba -- I was not alone. As I look back on it, my life turned into a low-key but tireless search for Zorba. My friends all wound up being a little Zorba-like, helping to free me up from my shyness and to unleash a little craziness.

Finding my inner Zorba was important -- an escape from brainy blandness.

Kazanzakis also changed my attitude about God. I was a product of Catholic schools. I accepted all the orthodoxies. They were part of my dull life. But Kazanzakis, like Zorba, challenged everything. God was a chaotic spirit who put us on earth to help him figure it all out. Our lives gave God the answers. I loved this poetic reversal, this dynamic interaction. God needed us as much as we needed him. That perspective stuck in my imagination all through college.

A glance at the internet now tells me Kazantakis was an athiest and a follower of Nietzsche. Oops.

Since his youth, Kazantzakis was spiritually restless. Tortured by metaphysical and existential concerns, he sought relief in knowledge, in travelling, in contact with a diverse set of people, in every kind of experience. The influence of Friedrich Nietzsche on his work is evident, especially by his atheism and the presence of the superman (Übermensch) concept. However, religious concerns also haunted him. To attain a union with God, Kazantzakis entered a monastary for a brief stay of six months.

The figure of Jesus is ever present in his thoughts, from his youth to his last years. But as presented in "The Last Temptation of Christ" it is a Christ tortured by the same metaphysical and existential concerns, seeking answers to haunting questions and often torn between his sense of duty and cause on one side and his own human needs to enjoy life, to love and to be loved, to have a family. A tragic figure who at the end sacrifices his own human hopes for a wider cause, Kazantzakis' Christ is not an infallible, passionless deity but rather a passionate and emotional human being who has been assigned a mission, with a meaning that he is struggling to understand and that often requires him to face his conscience and his emotions and ultimately to sacrifice his own life for its fulfilment. He is subject to doubts, fears and even guilt. In the end he is the Son of Man, a man whose internal struggle represents that of humanity.

Many conservative religious figures in Greece tend to condemn his work. He has been excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church. Religious organisations banned the Last Temptation movie from Greek theatres.

Oh well, struggles are always more interesting than catechism pap. My quest for Zorba continues.


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