419. Abundance (VIII)
Zorba the Greek (1946), by Nikos Kazantzakis, constitutes an alchemical work—hence it is a novel and film that often changes lives. This is because it contains at its heart the coincidence of opposites described in my last post but one; and this is a means to know the divine. Kazantzakis, under Nietzsche’s influence, took the Apollonian and Dionysian and embodied each principle in two men: the narrator (“the boss”), a rather priggish poet and intellectual in his thirties; and the titular Zorba, an unlettered and exuberant older man whose worldly wisdom is really superior to the narrator’s rigid book-learning. So we have in the relationship between the two men dark and light, Yin and Yang, Apollonian coolness and Dionysian drunkenness—and, indeed, masculine and feminine. Their conflict—sometimes friendly and sometimes sharp, yet always complementary—leads to wholeness, to Jung’s enantiodromia.
The narrator is a poet and intellectual who decides to run a lignite mine on a Greek island; he meets Zorba, an itinerant knockabout, and the latter inveigles his way into the narrator’s confidence and becomes his foreman. The narrator is preoccupied with “big ideas”, namely Greek nationalism and Buddhism; and in the background lies an old friend who has gone on a romantic nationalist quest to rescue his Greek compatriots from Turkish depredations.
Zorba, for his part, has killed enough Turks and raped enough women; he professes—somewhat insincerely—bemusement at the whole game; for the most part he indulges in food and wine and women. The narrator remains aloof—still with his Buddhistic purity—and occasionally puts his foot in it with misguided attempts to improve conditions among the mine workers. “Don’t be kind to a man,” Zorba warns the boss, “he’ll only come to hate you. A man wants to be knocked about, else he’ll think you’re soft and slit your throat. Don’t give them ideas, boss. It’ll only make them unhappy.”
As the Dionysian element, Zorba blithely works his way across Greece; he drinks, takes women where he pleases, and shrugs his shoulders at the latest catastrophe. “It’s beyond me, boss,” he inveighs, while the narrator tries to fit everything into an intellectual schema. Above all, Zorba plays the santouri—aka “the dulcimer”, the sweet instrument—and dances to the cosmic rhythm. Zorba has mastered the santouri but he cannot play at will; he can only play when the instrument calls to him to play—nothing can be forced if you want to hear the cosmic harmony. You must wait for the spirit to move you. Nietzsche said objects call to us; and, as with Zorba, that a day without dance is a day wasted.
The Dionysian Zorba is a foe to the monks on the island—stuffy hypocrites and closeted homosexuals. The narrator wants to make his own ascetic monastery for a new Buddhistic religion—Zorba swears to smuggle wine, women, and music into the monastery to keep it real. Zorba knows, whereas the monks have faith—so they are enemies. The lignite mine fails; it is a catastrophe—a joyful catastrophe. The two men sadly separate and do not speak for many years, until the narrator receives a letter from the aged Zorba; he has found a green stone that the narrator must come and see—yet the narrator puts it off with his usual intellectual procrastination. In alchemical terms, Zorba’s green stone is the philosopher’s stone; the green lion that consumes the Sun—the emerald tablet. The next he hears Zorba has died: he dies standing up, his hands gripping the windowsill to face the Sun—an ancient pagan way to die, one followed by Evola.
While I read this novel I had a few interesting synchronicities with Guénon’s works on symbolism and, it should be noted, Kazantzakis later produced his own Odyssey with 33,333 verses—a highly significant number, for those who gno. Throughout Zorba, the narrator consults his Dante—the Divine Comedy—and this is because Zorba is, as with Dante, a Hermetic initiatory text.