Flying back to China recently, I watched Zorba the Greek as one of the in-flight options. Have you seen it?

Man… I had completely the wrong idea about that film. I always thought.. I dunno… I supposed it was some feel-good movie, something about happy rural people living a carefree life in contrast to us stressed urban types.

Wow, was I wrong.

It’s bleak. It’s a story about people living without choices. People doing what they do because they have no other option. People living every day right next to people who’ve hurt and insulted them – or worse than that – and who have to keep on living with them because there’s no other choice. People who are violently proud because they have nothing but their pride. People who hate anybody who is different, because they know they will never get the chance to be different.

It’s a story about how life will cut you down and take everything away from you, because there is no fairness in life.

And then there’s Zorba. A man who understands all of that and laughs in defiance. A man who has to be respected because he represents all the virtues his society expects of him, and who can throw it away and laugh as he does it.

And because he knows that there is nothing but fleeting pleasures, he takes pleasure when it presents itself.

There’s a famous dance in the movie. It comes right at the end, when everything is lost and all hope is gone. The protagonist considers the ruin of all his dreams, and says to Zorba: Teach me to dance. There’s nothing at all left to them, but they can at least dance, and defy fate, and seize the joy of the moment.

That’s the famous dance sequence, and it’s the only one from the movie on YouTube, but there’s a better one earlier on. Zorba has faced the collapse of his hopes, and has thought about it, and has seen a way to recover everything. He’s filled with inspiration, and excitement, and hope, and pride in his own resourcefulness, and he’s so full of it all that all he can do is dance.He dances like a man possessed, he dances like a man on fire. Some local musicians are present and, seeing him wildly dance, they launch into a wild, improvised accompaniment; they understand that what they are seeing is the raw force of life flowing uncontrollably through a mere man.

What a film. What a film.

Cossack culture is the same. In Cossack life, death is ever-present. You know it’s there, waiting for you, because everyone dies. Death is there because everyone dies, and all you can do is live honourably and do your duty. And after all, if you’ve lived honourably, and done your duty… who really needs fear death? So, dance! Live, live fully, while you are alive.

There’s a scene in the great Cossack movie Kotschoubey where the lead character is abducted by his opponents, and barely rescued from a moving train by his men. What does he do once he’s standing on the ground again, weapons lost, knowing he’s been betrayed..? He’s alive so he dances! Of course!

Though all is against us, though all hope may be lost we can at least sing. And dance. And fight.

Image credits: Xpicta_Zorba the Greek by SeRGioSVoX on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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