Nikos Kazantnakis on slow writing, slow creation, and war of art

There was a nice discussion on Twitter  about how “slow professors” are privileged professors.  Absolutely, we should never lose sight of power and privilege in the academy. And yet, I am bothered by, and very much saddened, by the idea that only the very privileged are allowed to create silence around themselves, savor the work and the ideas, and make space for themselves in the world. We can’t allow that to happen to ourselves, even as the institutions around us try to become even more extractive and viscous.  The way US higher treats adjuncts is unconscionable, and I hope USC’s model catches on. I love our long-term contracts and promotions for NTT faculty.  I deplore our use of contracts for security and hospitality staff. (No benefits). The institution still demands far too much work from everybody, but all workers should hold out and support each other in retaining a human pace. 

I learned this pretty young from Zorba the Greek. (I still too often fell into overwork and overworry, and in turn made myself very ill at various points, and neglected my health entirely. I regret this very much.) 

I remembered something Zorba once said: “I always act as though I were immortal.” This is God’s method, but we mortals should follow it too, not from megalomania and impudence, but from the soul’s invincible yearning for what is above. The attempt to imitate God is our only means to surpass human boundaries, be it only by a hair, be it only for an instant (remember the flying fish). As long as we are imprisoned in our bodies, as long as we are chrysalises, the most precious orders given us by God are: Be patient, meditate, trust.

Every person, whether they are a university president or serving food on a lunch line, has honorable work to do. But both of them deserve to know themselves in whatever quiet they can steal from the demands of the world. 

When I told people I was going to Crete for a vacation with my husband, I got a lot of questions about why Crete. For one,  Crete is a fascinating place: it doesn’t really matter what era of history you are interested in, it’s interesting: from the Minoans to WWII to today, Cretans are a fascinating group.  Second, Nikos Kazantnakis.  I remember when Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ came out, to massive pearl-clutching from all my super-religious fellow Iowans.  The movie didn’t show up in any theaters near where I grew up (none did) and I had no money for movies anyway, so I didn’t get to see the movie. But I did manage to check the book out of the University of Iowa library when I got to college. 

And Kazantnakis, probably Greece’s most famous novelist internationally,  is fully and proudly Cretan. In preparation for this trip, I re-read the book everybody has heard of, Zorba the Greek (done well as a movie, really) and his memoir and reflections, Report to El Greco.  The latter has quite a bit of lovely prose, as we would expect, and some wonderful insights on the creative struggle. 

I am carrying just my iPad, and I miss reading from a real book so much! Anyway, here are some of the gems for my fellow academics and writers who are wrestling away: 

THE ENTIRE TIME a person creates, he has the morning sickness of the woman nourishing a son with her vitals. I found it impossible to see anyone. The slightest noise made my entire body quake; it was as though Apollo had flayed me and my exposed nerves were being wounded by mere contact with the air.

For some of us, this work is very hard at times. Don’t beat yourself up, please, as sometimes it feels yucky. It is like this for many of us. Worse, though, is not creating. That, too, is agony.

Had nothing gone to waste, then? Considered separately, each of my intellectual ramblings and sidewise tacks seemed wasted time, the product of an unjelled, disordered mind. But now I saw that considered all together they constituted a straight and unerring line which knew full well that only by sidewise tacks could it advance over this uneven earth. And my infidelities toward the great ideas—I had abandoned them after being successively fascinated and disillusioned—taken all together these infidelities constituted an unshakable faith in the essence. It seemed that luck (how shall we call it? not luck, but destiny) had eyes and compassion; it had taken me by the hand and guided me. Only now did I understand where it had guided me and what it expected me to do. It expected me to hear the Cry of the future, to exert every effort to divine what that Cry wanted, why it was calling, and where it invited us to go.

It takes a long time to find what you are trying to say, and what you mean to say.  I think students the first few years of PhD programs feel this especially acutely as the scatter, reading things.  In interdisciplinary things like planning, there just isn’t one reading list you must master to be an expert on the existing research. So there are many false starts, many dead ends. All of them are parts of you becoming you, and you are an important part of your research, even though social scientists like to fib to themselves that they are doing objective work. 

A rabbi of ancient times, Rabbi Nahman, had taught me years before how to know when the hour had come for me to open my mouth and speak, take up my pen and write. He was a simple, cheerful, sainted man who used to advise his disciples
How they too could become simple, cheerful, and sainted. But one day they fell at his feet and complained: “Dear Rabbi, why don’t you talk like Rabbi Zadig, why don’t you sort out great ideas and construct great theories, so that people will listen to you in a transport, their mouths agape? Can’t you do anything but speak with simple words like an old grandmother, and tell tales?” The good rabbi smiled. It was quite some time before he replied. Finally he opened his mouth. “One day the nettles asked the rosebush, ‘Madam Rosebush, won’t you teach us your secret? How do you make the rose?’ And the rosebush answered, ‘My secret is extremely simple, Sister Nettles. All winter long I work the soil patiently, trustfully, lovingly, and have one thing in mind: the rose. The rains lash me, the winds strip off my leaves, the snows crush me, but I have only one thing in mind: the rose. That, Sister Nettles, is my secret!” “We don’t understand, Master,” said the disciples. The rabbi laughed. “I don’t understand very well myself.” “Well then, Master?” “I think I wanted to say something like this: When I have an idea, I work it for a long time, silently, patiently, trustfully, lovingly. And when I open my mouth (what a mystery this is, my children!), when I open my mouth, the idea comes out as a tale.” He laughed once more. “We humans call it a tale,” he said, “the rosebush calls it a rose.”

Any discussion of this one blunts its meaning. 

Once realism begins to reign, civilization declines. Thus we arrive at the realistic, magniloquent, and faithless Helleuistic era, which was devoid of suprapersonal ideals. From chaos to the Parthenon, then from the Parthenon back to chaos—the great merciless rhythm.The great artist looks beneath the flux of everyday reality and sees eternal, unchanging symbols. Behind the spasmodic, frequently inconsistent activities of living men, he plainly distinguishes the great currents which sweep away the human soul.

In the US, what have we done with ourselves in terms of art, education, and ideas? It doesn’t feel promising to me. 

Every man has a cry, his cry, to sling into the air before he dies; let us waste no time, therefore, lest we be caught short. It is true that this cry may scatter ineffectually in the air, that there may be no ear either below on earth or above in heaven to hear it. No matter. You are not a sheep, you are a man, and that means a thing which is unsettled and shouts. Well then—shout!

Everybody deserves to shout, whether it’s by crocheting nice things or writing poems or dancing or tidying or cooking or writing. Art is in us, and we are entitled to do it at the pace at which it comes to us, snatching back whatever we can from the powers that demand more and more and more of us, lest we have nothing left. Fight that, both on your behalf and on the behalf of others who don’t have your privilege.