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Report To Greco

May 4, 2012

Man reading, Chania, Crete, 1962 (Costa Manos/Magnum Photos)

Click the image above to go to the recent post titled “Do We Need Stories?” in the blog site of the New York Review of Books.  It starts out:

Let’s tackle one of the literary set’s favorite orthodoxies head on: that the world “needs stories.” There is an enormous need,” Jonathan Franzen declares in an interview with Corriere della Sera (there’s no escape these days), “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.”

If you are literarily inclined you have likely already seen that quote and some of the discussion it generated.  I am not interested in that.  The mix of the image chosen for that post, combined with the stance Franzen takes on the importance of stories, brings to mind a theme I have had on my mind for some time, and in celebration of 26 years of marriage today it seems a perfect time to get on with it.  So here goes.

I could start with the picture in several ways.  First, it is a location very important to my marriage.  I was with my (now) wife in that spot just minutes after I first kissed her in 1983.  And that was just days after I had first met her, waiting next to each other in line for a delayed flight in JFK airport.  But those are stories for another day, or not at all.  This is not a romance novelette; rather a comment on the importance of stories and who we share them with, and how.

The location, and the recent kiss, are important points: on our boat journey from Athens to Chania I had told her of how my mother’s mother hailed from Crete and that I was on a kind of pilgrimage to finally know that place, if briefly.  I explained that I had recently read this amazing book by a favored author, and that it was the stories in that book that got me to take leave of my studies and my work and here we were; and by telling that to this person I had only recently met it seemed in large part what had earned me that kiss.

Yes, stories are important.

But this is not about how to get a first kiss or find a bride.  It is a personal account about the bonds that stories create.  Report to Greco was in 1983 the most recent (and the last) of the books by Nikos Kazantzakis that I had read.  Ever since the first book of his that I read as a teenager, Zorba The Greek, I knew I would make my way to Crete.

Kazantzakis was relevant to me not only because of my trace of Greco-Cretan heritage, but because he had ideals and heroes I could understand; they were tempered by a realism that I could relate to. In Report to Greco it is clear that he is influenced by the life stories found in a four-dimensional pantheon including Jesus (those good deeds), Buddha (the good way), Lenin (tireless utopian) and Odysseus (always wandering home)–all characters that I, as a 21 year old, was at minimum familiar with and in some cases obsessed with.

What I appreciated most in that book was that for none of these four characters is it their doctrine, per se, that moves Kazantzakis. It is each man’s devotion to his goal that matters in the stories in that book, instructing and tempering my youthful exuberance: no matter what temptations and obstructive forces you face, do not make excuses and do not stop working toward those ideals.

Somewhere, at least once in that book, is a reference to the painter, wanderer and idealist known as El Greco and one painting in particular:

View Of Toledo, c. 1610, El Greco, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Some of the passages in that book, underlined, that my 21 year old self seems to have especially appreciated:

…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…

…As I pore over this ancient diary now in my old age and see our quixotic campaigns of that time — the ramshackle lance, worm-eaten shield, tin helmet, the mind filled with nobility and wind — I am unable to smile. Happy the youth who believes that his duty is to remake the world and bring it more in accord with virtue and justice, more in accord with his own heart. Woe to whoever commences his life without lunacy…

…I vowed never to shut myself up inside four walls of an office, never to come to terms with the good life, never to sign an agreement with necessity…

So we work.  We travel.  We meet.  We try to understand.  We search for home.  Stories animate each of these efforts, and they also allow us to leave a trail for those that follow.

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