Wisdom and knowledge are entirely different things. In fact, they need not have much in common. Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, Zorba the Greek, is a kind of trailblazer for those who seek wisdom.
Zorba is a 65-year-old man whose heart is still in the twenties. He refuses to grow old by celebrating life to its fullest. Old age is scary, he says. “Death is nothing,” he says – “just pff! and the candle is snuffed out. But old age is disgrace.”
The narrator of the novel is a 35-year-old man who loves books and knowledge. Right now he is on a different quest, on an adventure undertaken in order to escape that bookworm tag which his friends have attached to him. He encounters Zorba on the way and takes him on as a staff. A friend, rather. Zorba is a kind of Buddha, quite a different kind though.
Life is a celebration for Zorba. He is always happy, come what may. What is his secret? “My joys here are great,” he says, “because they are very simple and spring from the everlasting elements: the pure air, the sun, the sea and the wheaten loaf.” Of course, those may not be enough for happiness. “This is true happiness,” he says elsewhere, “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.”
People are not a source of happiness. Love is. Love is an attitude of openness and acceptance to the whole cosmos. But you should learn to keep people at a safe distance. They are stupid and wicked. Let them be, that is Zorba’s advice. Don’t even dare to open their eyes. “Suppose you did, what’d they see? Their misery! Leave their eyes closed, boss, and let them go on dreaming!”
Even their gods let them do that. “God makes them deaf or blind, and they say: ‘God be praised.’ They feel at home in their misery.” In the “chequered, incoherent, indifferent, perverse (and) pitiless” affair called life, illusions and delusions have their roles to play. Zorba has a brother, he says, who is a sensible person who goes to church regularly and lends money at cutthroat rates for a job. He is a hypocrite, but “a real pillar of society”. Most people are like that brother: hypocrites and real pillars of society. Let them be.
Let their religion be too. It won’t make sense to people like Zorba and probably the narrator too. Religion teaches them wrong things like opposition between the spirit and the flesh. Zorba gives the example of Father Lavrentio, a monk whom he met on Mount Athos. This monk believed that there was a devil inside him and he gave him the name Hodja. “Hodja wants to eat meat on Good Friday!” The monk would lament. “Hodja wants to sleep with a woman. Hodja wants to kill the Abbot. It’s Hodja, Hodja, it isn’t me!” Having narrated the story of Father Lavrentio, Zorba says, “I’ve a kind of devil inside me too, boss, and I call him Zorba!”
Accepting the good and the bad, the spirit and the flesh, is necessary if you want to be happy, if you want enlightenment. You are not your flesh, you are not your spirit, you are both of them. Zorba goes to the extent of saying: “God and the devil are one and the same thing?” It all depends on you, on your perception. Zeus, says Zorba, loved women. Whenever he saw a woman in distress because she wanted a man, Zeus came down to her in whatever form the woman had imagined her man and made love to her. And there were too many women in distress. Zeus overworked himself. Finally the women emptied him. He started vomiting, became paralysed and died. That’s when his heir, Christ, arrived. He understood the misery and said, “Beware of women!” And women who were good for Zeus became evil for Christ.
“God be praised!” That’s all what the people know to say, be it God Zeus or God Christ. If you want real wisdom, you’d as well make a heap of all your books and set fire to them. All your knowledge won’t help, Zorba tells the narrator. “You understand, and that’s why you’ll never have any peace. If you didn’t understand, you’d be happy!” Life is a mystery that has to be lived, be experienced, not be understood. One of the biggest ironies of life is that “All those who actually live the mysteries of life haven’t the time to write (about them), and all those who have the time don’t live them!” The highest point you can reach in life is not knowledge, virtue, goodness… but “Sacred Awe”.
Zorba is a personification of that Awe. The novel shows how.
PS. This is the last part of the BlogchatterA2Z series for which I have been writing in the whole of April. The other parts are listed below. I take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to the Blogchatter Team that went out of its way to make this challenge an interesting and engaging one. My heart goes out in gratitude to my fellow bloggers who helped me make this Challenge a celebration.
The previous posts in this series can be accessed below:
3. The Castle
10. Jude the Obscure
14. No Exit
16. The Plague
18. The Rebel