“Woe to him who has slaked his thirst!”: Nikos Kazantzakis and the Greek Spirit

“Grandfather,” he said, seizing the old man’s hands, “I hear that you have lived like a great oak tree. You have breathed storms, suffered, triumphed, struggled, labored for a hundred years. How has life seemed to you during those hundred years, Grandfather?”
“Like a glass of cool water, my child,” replied the old man.
“And are you still thirsty, Grandfather?”
The graybeard raised his hand, so that the wide sleeve of his shirt fell back and revealed the bony, furrowed arm as far as the shoulder.
“Woe to him,” he cried in a loud voice, as though he were pronouncing a curse, “woe to him who has slaked his thirst!”

– Nikos Kazantzakis, Freedom and Death
Trans. Jonathan Griffin

The fact that I wound up in Greece, after initially applying for a Fulbright grant to teach English in Turkey, seems like nothing less than serendipity. Greece wasn’t accepting applications for ETAs at the time, and after an excruciating waiting process, I was selected as an alternate for Turkey. However, I was immediately called up and asked if I’d like to switch my application over to the new program in Greece. I then had to prepare a whole new application essay within a very short span of time, but I was visiting the grad program at CU Boulder when I got the call–so I came running back into my friend Caitlin’s house, rushed to my laptop, and began typing away furiously! It was while I was sitting at my laptop that day that it hit me: I had a side research project for Greece in the bag, and it was one that was very dear to me indeed.

image from http://www.stigmes.gr/gr/grpages/articles/kazantzakis.html

Nikos Kazantzakis

It was in the single most fascinating course of my college career that I had to read Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek. The course was entitled “Ultimate Questions in Literature,” and examined various approaches to life’s big questions through several different works, from The Book of Job to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I loved everything we read that semester, but Zorba shook me down to the core, and I decided to write my undergraduate thesis on it.

What began as a cool opportunity to find out more about the book and its quirky author quickly turned into a totally life-consuming project that had me reading and writing every night, up to my neck in incredibly difficult philosophical and theological theory, and thinking about what I was learning all day long… and loving it! I practically ate, slept and breathed that paper, and I was totally hooked. It was the ultimate thesis experience, and it slowly trickled into every area of my life until I was critically examining my own lifestyle from a Zorba point of view. This has only become more true as I continue the work I began while at Linfield. 

In essence, Kazantzakis believed (largely from his studies with philosopher Henri Bergson) that there are two central, driving forces in human life. One of these forces strives upward, and can best be described as pure energy. The other force struggles downward and represents everything that frustrates the upward force, namely stagnation and homogeneity. Kazantzakis believed that we must do all we can to follow the upward force–that is, act in a way that favors motion, creativity, art, sex, progress and all other manifestations of energy–so that, eventually, we live so hard we burn out. That is death for Kazantzakis. It isn’t annihilation. It is fulfillment. In fact, the epitaph on Kazantzakis’ grave reads, “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.” (I could go on about this for hours, so if you want to hear more, please feel free to shoot me an e-mail at kathleen.peterson@fulbrightmail.org!)

image from http://www.hellenica.de/Griechenland/ModerneLiteratur/GR/NikosKazantzakis.html

The epitaph on Kazantzakis' grave.

That’s what my thesis at Linfield was about, and now, I’m reading his other works to see how this philosophy manifests itself in them as well. Since arriving in Greece, I’ve tackled The Greek Passion and Freedom and Death, both of which (especially the latter) were totally, immensely intense, as reading experiences go. I’ve joked to friends that Freedom and Death is like the Cretan Gone With the Wind, but it goes much deeper than that, to a level which is even more shocking, heart-wrenching, epic and utterly earnest. I’ve just started At the Palaces of Knossos, and on the list for the rest of the year are The Saviors of God, The Fratricides, The Last Temptation of Christ, and, of course, Report to Greco.

image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captain_Michalis

The cover for "Freedom and Death," or "Captain Michalis," as it is called in the original Greek.

But on top of basking in the enormous glow of his literary work, I must confess I see a lot of truth in his philosophy, as well. When given the opportunity to speak about my Fulbright experience here at the Farm School, I chose to center my speech on Kazantzakis and how my own life philosophy, particularly as a traveler, has been influenced by his writings. I had hoped to have a video of this speech, but instead, here’s the text:

“At this point, it’s strange to think back to May of last year, when I first found out I had been accepted for a Fulbright position. Actually, it’s a good thing I was sitting down when I found out, because otherwise, I probably would have fallen over out of shock and happiness. I was so excited after months and months of waiting, and while I knew adventures were in store for me, I had no idea what an incredibly rich, thrilling and significant experience this would be in the course of my life.

Part of that significance has come from the research I’ve been given the opportunity to do while here, on Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis. As the author of Zorba the Greek and many other important works, he was the subject of my dissertation in college; but getting the chance to read his work while in the home country he loved is nothing short of a literary nerd’s dream come true. And I must say, working up close and personal with Kazantzakis like this has given me a whole new perspective on what a joy and honor it is to be the recipient of a Fulbright grant.

Kazantzakis believed that, above all, human beings must work to avoid stagnation; that is, that we must never remain in the same place in our lives, even when staying in that same place gives us comfort. To Kazantzakis, the worst thing we can do is stay put, whether that means spending our days indoors, never doing anything outside our comfort zone, or simply letting ourselves slip into a life that is easy to lead. He believed that the greatest good we can achieve is found when we are completing hard manual labor, engaging in deep intellectual or introspective pursuits, or, as Zorba so famously puts it, enjoying the pilaf when it is in front of us—that’s to say, living in the moment, fully, intensely and radiantly. These are the moments when we are not only personally progressing and growing the most we can, but also when we are manifesting the incredible force of life within us to its maximum. According to Kazantzakis’ philosophy, we must grow, learn, try, sweat, struggle, fail miserably, and create: anything we can do to avoid stagnation.

Well, folks, I can say without a shadow of doubt that as an American living in Greece, there is absolutely no stagnation in my life these days. Whether I’m thinking on my feet in the classroom, summoning what little Greek I know in order to complete everyday tasks like buying stamps or depositing a check, or simply out for a walk in Thessaloniki, my whole world has been tossed into the air; and the truth is, I have little to no idea where it will land at any given moment, which has led to some very interesting adventures.

I’ve traveled all over the country on solo trips, run the 5k at the Athens marathon, and probably already eaten my weight in spanekopita. I’ve made snowmen with sprigs of rosemary for arms. On the list of the things I’ve accidentally said in Greek are “I hope your sheep is doing well!” to a friend and, “Are you a bathroom?” instead of “Do you have a bathroom?” to an ice cream salesman in Halkidiki. I’ve gone to see a play in Greek, and found out only after I had taken my seat in the front row that the male actor would be completely nude for the entire show. And, for a lesson on American Thanksgiving, I’ve instructed Greek high schoolers to do an interpretive dance of the settlers learning to grow corn.

Sound strange? You bet. But from Kazantzakis’ perspective, this is the most vital, exciting, and constructive time I’ve ever had in my life, and I have to agree with him. There is so much to be said for living a spontaneous, challenging and dynamic life, and being granted a Fulbright scholarship has given me the opportunity to really try and do so, with the full support of those who can help me achieve it.

On top of the chance to come to Greece and teach for the year, Fulbright has given me amazing opportunities again and again; it has published my writing and sent it all over the world, it has introduced me to some of my greatest role models and friends, and it has simply served as a constant reminder to both be a good ambassador for my country and learn all I can about this wonderful new country, Greece, which I have fallen in love with again and again.

I cannot think of a better place than this, the American Farm School in Thessaloniki, to call home while I am here, and I cannot think of better people with whom to share this experience than all of you. I want to extend my heartiest thanks to the Fulbright Greece Foundation and its staff, Board of Directors, and supporters, to the Hellenic College, and I want to thank all of you at the Farm School for the wonderful hospitality you have shown me thus far. If you have any questions about Fulbright or studying in the States, please don’t hesitate to ask me.

And lastly, I want to let you know that if you have ever wanted to do something extraordinary, I cannot recommend anything more highly than applying for a Fulbright grant. Thank you, good evening, and good luck!”

So, if you’re looking for a good read, I highly recommend Zorba the Greek. It’s my favorite book, and for a chronic bookworm like me, that’s no small statement. Happy reading and stay thirsty!

Στην υγεια σας,



About wrap me in phyllo dough

travel addict. greece-obsessed. grad student. bottomless pit.
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