Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Observation from Zorba the Greek (Not Required)

We’ve talked a little bit in class about 1) how contemporary Greek society has been … hmmm … not so good for the 180 or so years that Greece has been an independent country, and 2) how we seem to be a little too forgiving towards Greece because … you know … the Greeks get a pass because guys like Plato and Socrates lived there once upon a time.

So I watched a movie called Zorba the Greek this past weekend. This is a movie that people of my parents’ generation used to talk about when I was a kid. My wife thought the same thing, and she hit record on our DVR. I had dim memories of having seen it, but I now think I was wrong. Anyway, I watched it in full. I don’t especially recommend it, but if you’re a movie buff, it did win 3 Oscars, and I can see why … in a sort of generation after World War II, continental European, existentialist, magical realism sort of way.

One scene in the movie though, has relevance to our discussions of Greece’s ongoing problems: wanting to join the big kids club of the EU, lying to get in, finding out the hard way that they may not meet the required standard, and then acting petulant and uncooperative when attempts to rectify their advantage-taking is made by others.

The movie is set in a remote village on the Grecian isle of Crete. The movie was made in 1964, from a novel written in 1946, broadly about a real guy who died of old age in 1941, that the author met between the world wars. It’s not clear what the era portrayed in the movie (or book) is supposed to be, but since there are cars and record players, but no mention of the Nazi’s invading and occupying … I’m thinking it’s supposed to be the 1930’s. 

So this one scene involves the death of an old French woman, who had been some sort of performer and/or courtesan around the eastern Mediterranean*, and who had retired to rural Crete with some evident material wealth.

And the villagers know that she’s 1) rich, and 2) has no family locally. So they start stealing her stuff before she actually dies, and the thievery gets positively orgiastic when she does die. Within the afternoon her house is stripped of everything but her body laying where she died in her bed.

The movie makes very clearly that the villagers do this because, without heirs, “the state” will come and take all her possessions for itself.

Thus, the Greece of 4 generations ago was one in which the unethical rapaciousness of the government was a fixture of reality featured in popular movies.

Flash forward to the last decade, and we have the Greek government unable to pay its own bills, and with a citizenry unwilling to loan it much money, that when given entre into mainstream Europe goes borrowing, and within several years can’t pay the money back, can’t establish where it all went, and then somewhat successfully portrays itself as the victim … because … you know … Aristotle used to live there.


How does this compare to the culture and government that is Cedar City? This is a true story that happened about 10 years ago. There was a lot that was an eyesore in the 600 block of North Main. The building on it was full, but locked up, and abandoned. The city wanted to do something about it, and researched the case. It turned out the guy who’d owned it free and clear, and run a repair shop out of it, had died without heirs. And everyone had left it alone in case someone showed up to claim it. The thing is, he’d died in 1964, and everyone who remembered why the city had left the property alone was long gone.

So in Cedar City, the government is so unrapacious that they’ll let a property sit idle for 4 decades in the hopes that it can stay in private hands, and in Greece the government was so rapacious that the locals would strip a property to keep its chattel in private hands within about 4 hours. It may not be fair, but I’ll point out that taking those cardinal numbers seriously suggests that the Greek government is 85,000 times worse than the one in Cedar City.

* She does make a reference to how popular she’d been in Beirut, which speaks to the setting being somewhat later, since Beirut didn’t begin to thrive as a cultural center until well after being made a provincial capital in 1888, being helped along by the French taking it over in 1923.

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