Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Pursuing Zorba's Secret

All the problems we find so complicated or insoluble he cut through as if with a sword…it is difficult for him to miss, because his two feet are held firmly planted on the ground by the weight of his whole body. (from Zorba the Greek)

My home office looks like a used bookstore that specializes in self-improvement, spiritual, and philosophical books.  It has been a passion for thirty years.  While preparing for a recent trip, I decided to break this habit.  The programs, theories, and concepts had blended into the labyrinth of the Minotaur who could not .  Wanting to read about a life well lived and fully expressed, I decided to read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, which was appropriately set on the same island of the Minotaur, Crete.   There wasn’t time to order it from Amazon, checking my public library and several used bookstores, inquiries to literary friends were all futile.  Caving to the chain, I went to Barnes and Noble.  Upon handing my $25 gift certificate to the cashier, I got a strange response.  “Sir, our lines are down for gift cards.  I can only take cash or credit.”  Frustrated, I declined to buy it and walked out.  

But he did not even look round.  How could he possibly have talked at that moment to a bookworm who, instead of wielding a pick, held in his hand a miserable stump of pencil?   He was busy, he did not wish to speak (Zorba the Greek)

On the way to the car, it hit me:  I am done reading about life.  Life is to be lived right now in the present, like Zorba.  No more reading about Zorbas but living like Zorba with zest, vitality, energy, purpose, passion, and in the body.  My self-improvement zeitgeist had become a solipsistic merry-go-round.   Round and round and round.   Being a good student and a graduate of a career in public education, I always believed the answers were in books and classes.  Study was my teacher, not living.  Finally tired of preparation, I wanted to just do it.  For the recent retiree it may be even more poignant, since the sands in the hour glass are running out.  

Salem, Mass
Ultimately, I chanced upon a used bookstore in Salem, MA.  Hidden in between the shops selling witch costumes and broomsticks, it was the most crowded bookstore ever.  The proprietor only had a ten inch space to peer out.  I asked for Zorba the Greek.  He said “Sure.  Right away.”  He picked it out of one of the ten foot tall stacks.   It’s protagonist sounded like me.  He is a writer and a student of life—in books.  He encounters Zorba, who is a working man who lives full out; dancing, singing, making love, fighting wars, and traveling to many countries.  Zorba is a thoughtful man also and ponders questions such as the meaning of life, but his solution is not reading but dancing to get the answers. Drawn to this totally different and liberated soul, the narrator realizes he must stop living in his head and allow the soul and body to lead.

Inspired by the book, I now wanted to see the 1964 movie.   It too proved elusive.  I mentioned my interest to a friend and he called to tell me that it would be on TV on a certain day. I planned to record it but then forgot.  Thinking that a vintage, classic movie would not be hard to find, I put in a hold request at the library.   I waited for several weeks and the tracking report said it was in transit, meaning that it was turned in and on its way to my branch.  After another week or so, I went in to the library and inquired and they reported that it had been in transit for six months and was obviously lost.  Chalking up that outlet, I dropped into my local indie video rental store.  They looked it up.  Nope, checked out.  Surprised but into the hunt, I went home and joined Netflix streaming because now I really wanted to see it immediately.  Turned out it is not available on streaming, only on DVD.  Chastened but not quitting, I put it on the back burner.  The next day stuffing the mail box was a notice from my public library, ‘sorry we couldn’t get the it but we will do an inter-library loan for free.’    Here I was again, unable to procure a simulation of living.

The Dance:  Anthony Quinn & Alan Bates
Finally, I ordered from Netflix and viewed the film.  Cloaked in the patina of a black and white, the film portrayed the key events from the novel, but not the inner quest.  Although the brilliant performance by Anthony Quinn was nominated for an Oscar, the film barely scratches the surface of Kazantzakis’ spiritual inquiry.  Zorba comes off as a wild man who chases his passions, without the reflection explored in the book.

That is what a real man is like, I thought, envying Zorba’ 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. (Zorba the Greek)

My quest for this book demonstrated to me that living fully can be studied in a movie or a book but doesn’t replace action.  It is especially relevant these days when virtual experiences are considered normal.   People walk down a beautiful street or park looking at their screens.  Zorba says, 'look up and see what is obvious.'   Some things can’t be answered with an Internet search, I suggest at times pull a Zorba; dance, sing, and play music.  Study, analyze, and think and then muster the courage to live life.

You don’t want any trouble!” Zorba exclaimed.  “And pray, what do you want, then?  Life is trouble.  Death no. To live do you know what that means.  To undo your belt and look for trouble. (Zorba the Greek)