Sunday, 7 December 2008

Kazantzakis on Greece and Japan

In my recent post, Angelopoulos, Takeshi Kitano, Cacoyiannis, I mention that Greek and Japanese civilisations have some striking similarities. In his book, Travels in China & Japan, recording his impressions of imperial Japan and revolutionary China in the 1930s, Nikos Kazantzakis explains what I mean:

‘There is no country in the world that reminds me more than Japan of what ancient Greece might have been in its most shining moments. As in ancient Greece, so in old Japan and here in whatever of it still lives, even the smallest thing that comes from the hands of man and is used in his everyday life is a work of art, made with love and grace. Everything comes out of agile, dexterous hands, which crave beauty, simplicity and grace – what the Japanese call in one word: shibui (“tastefully bare”). 

‘Beauty in everyday life. And many other similarities: both peoples had given to their religion a cheerful aspect and had placed God and man in goodhearted contact. They both had the same simplicity and grace in dress, food and abode. They had similar celebrations devoted to the worship of nature, the anthesteria and sakura; and also from the same root (the dance) they produced the same sacred fruit, the tragedy. Both peoples had tried to give to physical exercises an intellectual aim… 

‘The ancient Greeks received the first elements of their civilisation from the Orient and from Egypt, but they succeeded in transforming them and in freeing the sacred silhouette of man from monstrous gods by giving human nobility to the monsters of mythology, theology and fear. In exactly the same way, the Japanese took their religion from India and the first elements of their civilisation from China and Korea, but they, also, succeeded in humanising the physical and the monstrous and in creating an original civilisation – religion, art, action – adapted to the stature of man.’

8 comments:

Margaret said...

A while ago Stavros posted some YouTube clips of Japanese music on his blog. They reminded me of Greek music, and I discovered that wasn't surprising because they used the same scale.

If what you say about the similarities of Greek and Japaneses culture is true (and I have no reason to doubt you, never having been to Japan)then perhaps the musical similarities are not surprising since music grows out of culture and reflects its preoccupations.

john akritas said...

Hello Margaret
Both Greek and Japanese music strike me as vast and diverse and I don't know that much about musical theory, so it's hard for me to say how similar Greek and Japanese music really are; though certainly classical Greek and classical Japanese music are close, and listening to someone on the sanshin is somewhat like listening to early rembetika. But Greek music – some of it anyway, the tradition is so vast that generalisations are impossible and the term 'Greek music' is entirely inadequate and often misleading – has connections with Middle Eastern, Iranian and Indian music, and this wouldn't want to make me equate Greek with Persian, Indian or Arab cultures – that would be superficial. Thus, the similarities that are interesting in Greek and Japanese civilisations are those that Kazantzakis refers to: love of beauty, respect for nature – on a religious level too – and, most importantly, I think, a tragic sense of life. The contrasts between Greek and Japanese civilisations are huge too and mostly connected to the much more sophisticated and radical ways Greeks did philosophy and politics compared to how it was done in east Asia, which brought forth quite different societies and individuals.

adifferentvoice said...

I should have been more precise. This is what I meant:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentatonic

The sound of music written in a pentatonic scale is very easily identified and is very different from music written in the heptatonic scale more usual in Western classical music. Quite why people as diverse as the Celts, the Greeks and the Japanese should have chosen the five note scale is intriguing. I imagine that this music more closely reflected their emotions, their voices. I'd love to find out more.

Hermes said...

With all due respect I have been to Japan and worked with Japanese people and they hardly resemble Greeks. They are timid, quiet, slavish, unpolitical etc. Greeks were not, and are not, none of these things. Even ancient Greece hardly resembled Japan. They produced no political systems, no philosophy of any quality, evolving religious thought, striking figurative art or sculpture - and their architectures a worlds apart. Sure there are some similarities here and there, which Yukio Mishima rightly pointed out, but Greece has some similarities with almost all cultures. Nikos Kazantzakis was a very talented man of letters, one of the best of the 20th century, but he was susceptible to some extraordinary flights of fancy with hardly any scientific basis. One has only to read Report to Greco to understand his weaknesses.

As for the Pentatonic scale, many cultures have derived their music from this scale. Again, you are drawing a very long straw here.

john akritas said...

To be fair, H; Kazantzakis is specific in saying that it is 'old Japan' – whatever is left of it in the Japan he saw in the 1930s (so, I imagine there's even less of it left nowadays) – that reminds him of what ancient Greece might have been like; and he mentions tragedy, love of beauty, elaborate religious ceremonies devoted to nature, and giving intellectual aims to physical pursuits, as similarities. Then you've got the hetaires and the geishas, martial sports, the warrior codes of the Samurai and the Spartans and so on. BUT, this last comparison between the Samurai and the Spartans starts to draw our attention to the vast differences between Greece and Japan; since the Samurai texts explicitly and repeatedly state that the primary duty of the Samurai is to unquestioningly serve his master. Greeks refused masters – Alexander provoked rebellion by toying with the proskynesis – their outlook was much more individualistic and they strove for autonomy. What these differences relate to, as you say, is the fact the Japanese had no politics – outside court and dynastic intrigues – or philosophy, outside of quasi-religious, moral philosophy, and, as I said to M., this absence of politics and philosophy in the end produced quite different societies and individuals.

Of course, the modern Japanese and the modern Greeks are poles apart in temperament and attitudes; though both have suffered badly from American colonisation of their cultures. I'd have more sympathy for our revolting youth if they weren't all wearing Megadeth and Metallica t-shirts.

Hermes said...

What an absoloutely atrocious article!!!

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article5312519.ece

john akritas said...

I know; Greece's revolting youth has given the opportunity for all the idiot, anti-Greek Anglo-American ex pats and so-called journalists to rear their heads and give vent to their prejudices regarding Greece and expound their ignorant theories. I came across this John Carr bloke when I lived in Athens and he's just another twisted Englishman with personal problems whose self-loathing manifests itself as loathing for Greeks. I think his mother might be Greek, but I'm not sure. He's a contemptible little worm of a man anyway, who's been writing stupid anti-Greek pieces for years. That his garbage can appear in what purports to be a serious newspaper reveals more about them than it does us.

Anonymous said...

Just read the Times Online article that Hermes provided the link to. What a completely clueless idiotic troll the writer is.

It is immensely sad to see people who are as clueless as he is actually being paid to right such completely uniformed crap. If I were completely clueless about geography -- indeed, if I still thought the world is flat -- would I be asked to write a column on geographic issues? I guess at the Times I would.

Apostolos