Wednesday, October 19, 2022


This is Greece

Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), Report to Greco, tr. P.A. Bien (1965; rpt. London: Faber & Faber, 1972), pp. 134-138:
I used to get up at dawn. The morning star would be dripping onto the earth, a light mist hovering over Hymettus. A cool breeze icicled my face. Larks ascended songfully into the air and vanished in the light. One Sunday in springtime I remember seeing two or three blossoming cherry trees in a red, recently ploughed field. Happiness filled my heart. At that very moment the sun rose, gleaming as on the day it first emerged from God’s hands. The Saronic Gulf beamed; Aegina, in the distance, filled with roses in the morning light. Two crows, their wings vibrating like bowstrings, flew by on my right—a good omen.

On one side, white-maned waves like Homeric horses, long-sweeping, refreshing verses of Homer; on the other, Athena’s oil-and light-filled olive, and Apollo’s laurel, and Dionysus’s wonderworking grape all wine and song. And the dry, frugal earth, its stones tinted rose-red by the sun, the mountains flapping bluishly in mid-air, steaming in the light, peacefully, restfully sunning themselves, all naked, like athletes.

I marched, and as I marched, I felt that the entire earth and sky were journeying with me. All the surrounding miracles penetrated me. I blossomed, laughed, vibrated in my turn like a bowstring. How my soul vanished on that Sunday, faded songfully into the morning light, just like the lark!

I climbed to the top of a hill and gazed out over the narrow rose-colored beaches, the sea, the faintly outlined islands. What joy that was! Greece with her virgin body, how she swims through the waves and lifts herself above them, the sun falling upon her like a bridegroom! How she has tamed stones and water, rid herself of matter’s inertia and coarseness, and conserved only the essence!

I was roaming in order to become acquainted with Attica, or so I thought. But I was really roaming in order to become acquainted with my soul. I wished to find it and come to know it in trees, mountains, and solitude—but in vain. My heart did not bound with joy, a sure sign that I had not found what I was seeking.

Only once, one day at noon, did I believe I found it. I had journeyed all alone to Sounion. It was summer already, and the resin flowed from the slit bark of the pine trees, filling the air with balm. A grasshopper landed on my shoulder and sat there; for some time we traveled together. My whole body smelled like a pine, I had become a pine. Then, as I emerged from the pine forest, I saw the white columns of the temple of Poseidon, and between them the hallowed sea, a deep scintillating blue. My knees gave way beneath me; I halted. This is beauty, I thought to myself. This is the Wingless Victory, the summit of joy; man can reach no higher. This is Greece.

So great was my joy that for a moment, viewing Greece’s beauty, I believed that my two wounds had healed and that this world, even though ephemeral—precisely because ephemeral—possessed value. I believed I was wrong in my attempt to divine the future crone behind the young girl’s face; rather, I should re-create and resurrect in the face of the crone the freshness and youth of the girl who no longer existed.

The Attic landscape is truly fascinating in an inexpressible, penetrating way. Here in Attica one feels that everything is subordinated to a rhythm which is simple, sure, and balanced. Everything here possesses an aristocratic grace and ease: the frugal, arid land, the graceful curves of Hymettus and Pentelicus, the silver-leafed olive trees, the slender ascetic cypresses, the playful glare of rocks in the sun, and above all the buoyant, diaphanous, completely spiritual light which dresses and undresses all things.

The Attic landscape determines the lineaments of the ideal man: handsomely well built, taciturn, freed from superfluous wealth; powerful, but capable on the other hand of restraining his power and imposing limits on his imagination. Sometimes the Attic landscape reaches the borders of austerity. But it does not cross them; it stops at a cheerful, good-natured seriousness. Its grace does not degenerate into romanticism, nor, by the same token, its power into asperity. All is finely balanced and measured. Even its virtues do not run to excess, do not break the human mean, but stop at a point beyond which, if they proceeded further, they would become either cruelly inhuman, or divine. The Attic landscape does not swagger, does not indulge in rhetoric, does not degenerate into fits of melodramatic swooning; it says what it has to say with a calm, virile forcefulness. By the simplest means possible it formulates the essential.

But now and again in the midst of this seriousness there is a smile—two or three silver-branched olive trees on a completely arid slope, some refreshingly green pines, oleanders at the edge of a dry, brilliantly white riverbed, a tuft of wild violets between blazing blue-black stones. All opposites join together, mix, and are reconciled here, creating the supreme miracle, harmony.

How did this miracle happen? Where did the grace find so much seriousness, the seriousness so much grace? How was the power able to avoid abusing its force? All this must constitute the Greek miracle.

There came moments, as I roamed through Attica, when I had a premonition that this land could become the highest lesson in civility, nobility, and strength.

After each of my wanderings through the Attic countryside, at first without knowing why, I climbed the Acropolis to view and review the Parthenon. This temple is a mystery to me. I can never see it the same way twice; it seems to change constantly, come to life, undulate while remaining motionless, play games with light and the human eye. But when, after longing to see it for so many years, I confronted it for the very first time, it appeared immobile to me, the skeleton of a primordial beast, and my heart did not bound like a young calf. (Throughout my life this has served me as the infallible sign. When I encounter a sunrise, a painting, a woman, or an idea that makes my heart bound like a young calf, then I know I am standing in front of happiness.) The first time I stood in front of the Parthenon, my heart did not bound. The building seemed a feat of the intellect—of numbers, geometry—a faultless thought enmarbled, a sublime achievement of the mind, possessing every virtue—every virtue except one, the most precious and beloved: it failed to touch the human heart.

I felt that the Parthenon was an even number such as two or four. Even numbers run contrary to my heart; I want nothing to do with them. Their lives are too comfortably arranged, they stand on their feet much too solidly and have not the slightest desire to change location. They are satisfied, conservative, without anxieties; they have solved every problem, translated every desire into reality, and grown calm. It is the odd number which conforms to the rhythm of my heart. The life of the odd number is not at all comfortably arranged. The odd number does not like this world the way it finds it, but wishes to change it, add to it, push it further. It stands on one foot, holds the other ready in the air, and wants to depart. Where to? To the following even number, in order to halt for an instant, catch its breath, and work up fresh momentum.

This sober enmarbled rationality was unpleasing to youth’s rebellious heart, which wants to crush everything old and remake the world anew. An excessively prudent dotard it was, who desired with his counsels to give excessively short rein to the heart’s impulsion. Turning my back on the Parthenon, I submerged myself in the superb view which extended as far as the sea. The sun stood at the zenith; it was noontime, the culminant hour, devoid of shadows or any play of light; austere, sublime, perfect. I looked at the blazing, brilliantly white city, the hallowed sea sparkling around Salamis, the surrounding mountains which were sunning themselves, bare and contented. Submerged in this vision, I forgot the Parthenon which stood behind me.

But after each new return from Attica’s olive groves and the Saronic Gulf, the hidden harmony, casting aside its veils one by one, slowly, gradually revealed itself to my mind. Each time I climbed the Acropolis again, the Parthenon seemed to be swaying slightly, as in a motionless dance—swaying and breathing.

This initiation lasted for months, perhaps years. I do not remember the exact day when I stood completely initiated before the Parthenon and my heart bounded like a young calf. This temple that towered before me, what a trophy it was, what a collaboration between mind and heart, what a supreme fruit of human effort! Space had been conquered; distinctions between small and large had vanished. Infinity entered this narrow, magical parallelogram carved out by man, entered leisurely and took its repose there. Time had been conquered as well; the lofty moment had been transformed into eternity.

I allowed my gaze to creep over the warm, sun-nourished marble. It touched the stones and rummaged through them like a hand, uncovering the hidden mysteries; it clung to them and refused to depart. I saw the seemingly parallel columns imperceptibly incline their capitals one toward the other so that concertedly, with tenderness and strength, they might sustain the sacred pediments entrusted to them. Never have undulations created lines so irreproachably straight. Never have numbers and music coupled with such understanding, such love.

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