Thursday, October 17, 2013

Nikos Kazantzakis: The Greek Passion

Nikos Kazantzakis:  The Greek Passion
Simon and Schuster
Trans.  by Jonathan Griffen

Lycovrissi is a small Greek village that is under Turkish control.  Every seven years, the villagers put on the Passion Play, the story of the last days of Christ.  Six villagers are selected by the village  Elders to play the parts of Christ, Mary Magdalen,  the Apostles Peter, John, James, and Judas in next year's Play.  The story, then, depicts the changes undergone by these six villagers in the ensuing year,  as a result of being chosen for a part in the Passion Play.  And, they change in surprising, unpredictable, and disturbing ways.

The characters in the novel are numerous and come from all the various social and economic classes in the village.  They range from the Agha, the Turkish ruler of the small village, and his household,  to the village Elders to the small shopkeepers and farmers.  Also present, a thorn in the side of the Elders, are the Wanderers, the survivors of a small village destroyed in the ongoing conflict between the Turkish overlords and Greek freedom fighters.  They have been searching for some place to stay. But, led by Gregoris, the village priest, the Elders attempt to force the Wanderers to move on, in spite of their obvious physical weaknesses caused by months of wandering the countryside.

However, three of the villagers selected for the Passion Play--Manolios, Yannakos, and Kostandis, who play Christ, Peter, and James--defy  Grigoris and direct the wanderers to a place where they may at least rest for awhile, and perhaps attempt to rebuild their lives.  Other villagers give food and clothing.  This is the first of numerous incidents in which Manolios, Yannakos, and Kostandis openly challenge the village priest and the Elders as they attempt to act in accordance with the teachings of Christ.  In other words, they ask themselves, "What would Christ do in this situation?" 

The roles that the six villagers are to play in the Passion Play begin to affect them as they attempt to become worthy of the roles they were selected to play.  Unfortunately this also includes Panayotaros. who was chosen to be Judas because of his wild and uncontrolled behavior.   Irate, he decides that if they want a Judas, he will be one.  Actually he's closer to Satan as he goes about the village, spreading lies, creating dissension, and betraying confidences where and when it will do the most harm.

This novel may be disturbing to some readers.  At one point, one of the villagers chosen to be an Apostle, who is the son of one of the richest (and stingiest) men in the village, decides to take some of his father's surplus food and give it to the wanderers.  This suggests a frightening idea--those who have more than they need should share it with those who have less than they need.  The suggestion that Christ and the Apostles should think this way would seem to be heretical to many. 

Part way into the novel, it became clear that this was going to end tragically.  This is not a comfortable novel to read. 

 Overall Rating:  Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Joseph Wood Krutch on specialists and amateurs, Pt. 2

More from Joseph Wood Krutch on specialists and amateurs.  He's found a kindred soul among the specialists.

"The late William Morton Wheeler, one of the the most competent of specialists in a highly specialized field, spoke closer to my own condition when he wrote, not only sympathetically but even enviously, of those who like me have assumed no responsibility:

Our intellects will never be equal to exhausting biological reality.  Why animals and plants are as they are, we shall never know; of how they have come to be what they are, our knowledge will always be extremely fragmentary, because we are dealing only with the recent phases of an immense and complicated history, most of the records of which are lost beyond all chance of recovery; but that organisms are as they are, that apart from the members of our own species, they are our only companions in an infinite and unsympathetic waste of electrons, planets, nebulae and suns, is a perennial joy and consolation.  We shall all be happier if we were less completely obsessed by problems and somewhat more accessible to the aesthetic and emotional appeal of our materials, and it is doubtful whether, in the end, the growth of biological science would be appreciably retarded.  It quite saddens me to think that when I cross the Styx, I may find myself among so many professional biologists, condemned to keep on trying to solve problems, and that Pluto, or whoever is in charge down there now, may condemn me to sit forever trying to identify specimens from my own specific and generic diagnoses, while the amateur entomologists, who have not been damned professors, are permitted to roam at will among the fragrant asphodels of the Elysian meadows, netting gorgeous, ghostly butterflies until the end of time. 

I felt the same way when I was teaching various introductory literature courses.  While the prescribed works were excellent and noteworthy, I felt that I was missing out on be able to read other works not included in the curriculum.   Now, having retired, I am frustrated because I can read only one book at a time.   Happiness is good health, a bad memory, and a long TBR list. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Joseph Wood Krutch: on specialists and amateurs, Pt 1

"Many specialists are very contemptuous of such activities as mine--but not all of them are.  Some steal time from their exacting pursuits to be amateurs at something else or even, like me, of things in general.  Thus they recapture some of the spirit of the old naturalists who, whether they were professionals like Linnaeus or hobbyists like Gilbert White, lived at at time when there seemed nothing absurd about taking all nature as one's province.  And there are even some, eminent in their specialty, who experience a certain nostalgia for the days when the burden of accumulated knowledge was less heavy.  "The road," said Cervantes, "is always better than the inn" and discovering is more fun than catching up with what has been discovered.

Your amateur is delightfully if perhaps almost sinfully free of responsibility and can spread himself as thin as he likes over the vast field of nature.  There are few places not covered with concrete or trod into dust where he does not find something to look at.  Best of all, perhaps, is the fact that he feels no pressing obligation to "add something to the sum of human knowledge."  He is quite satisfied when he adds something to his knowledge.  And if he keeps his field wide enough he will remain so ignorant that he may do exactly that at intervals very gratifyingly short."

-- Joseph Wood Krutch --
from Baja California and the Geography of Hope

Is Krutch saying that specialists aren't necessary or that they are wasting their time?  Who is more useful--the specialist or the amateur--to humanity?   It seems at first glance that the specialist is obviously the most important or useful for they "add something to the sum of human knowledge."  What does an amateur like Joseph Wood Krutch provide that is comparable? 

What is the difference between the specialist and the amateur?  Are both important?

I had a friend who was an amateur railroader.  He built everything he could from raw materials--wood, metal, paint.  He would buy the plans for railroad cars and equipment and buildings and painstaking cut and and sanded and painted.  He worked on a huge model train layout in his basement.  One day he decided to turn his hobby into gainful employment.  He solicited work from architects to build models for the jobs they were trying to get.  He opened up a small shop in which he constructed various small objects such as models for display.  He prospered and eventually had to hire someone to work in the shop.  Shortly after he began this enterprise, he stopped work on the layout in his basement.  I lost track of him years later, and now I wonder if he ever went back to it.  What happened to his hobby?

Is this something like what happens to someone who is fascinated by nature, wanders about fields, forests, ponds,  marshes or beaches, who eventually studies it in school, and becomes a specialist, but no longer wanders those fields and forests and wet places that fascinated him long ago?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Carl Sandburg: Happiness


I asked professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me
     what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of
     thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though
     I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the
     Deplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their
     women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.

--  Carl Sandburg --
from Harvest Poems

Much too simple an answer, isn't it?  At least, I guess, for the 21st century--family, friends, a keg, and making their own music.