What do Alexis Zorba and Haruhi Suzumiya have in common?
No, this isn’t the setup for a dreadful joke.
I find I have to write it, this great comparison that I noticed about four years ago, because to this day no one on the internet or anyone I know in person seems to have noticed that The Life and Politics of Alexis Zorba and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya are almost exactly the same story.
Take the central characters into account and it becomes obvious why.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a series of light novels by one Nagaru Tanigawa about a high school student (of course) known only as Kyon, who despite his desire for a quiet and unremarkable existence is continually badgered by a girl with supernatural abilities and superhuman enthusiasm for the paranormal; Haruhi Suzumiya. They contrast one another almost exactly.
Zorba the Greek, or The Life and Politics of Alexis Zorba, is Nikos Kazantzakis’ most famous story, about an unnamed man of English-Greek ancestry in the early 20th century who returns to Greece knowing very little about the place, with plans to operate a lignite mine on Crete. He is quickly taken under the wing of a man with superhuman zest for life and unschooled, old-worldly wisdom; Alexis Zorba. They contrast one another almost exactly.
And the central theme is identical too: thought vs action.
Kyon and the unnamed character from Zorba, who I will henceforth refer to as Boss, are the same person. Obsessed with passivity and reading, they contrast perfectly with their active, comparatively-illiterate counterparts. Suzumiya and Zorba are vehicles for the idea of action for its own sake; they run and dash and dance around with no real goals from the start to the end of their stories. Despite that, they’re both definitely characters, not just excuses for arguments to fly from the author’s brain, inflicted on an unsuspecting audience.
Kyon, though he may not be overtly occupied with a search for meaning like Boss, is surprisingly erudite. He’s able to quote Epicurus, for example, and has some understanding of several higher-order philosophical and mathematical concepts. He’s usually overshadowed by the characters around him in that regard, but only as a result of his temperament, which is one that’s not inclined to share. To say the least.
I have begun to think that Kyon might be autistic. His constant silence is meant to represent a stoic attitude, and the internal commentary belies his external behaviour, but it’s still a slightly mad case.
Both books represent the archetypal duality of the universe. The masculine and the feminine, the active and the passive. Order and chaos. Central duality is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time; it’s a striking image for the human mind, because it’s part of how our brains classify things, and so it’s naturally become a huge part of our art. Basic duality is to be found everywhere, obviously, and it’s because of that that I could draw parallels between the Peloponnesian War and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood, for example, which would have served as just as good an introduction to this idea as Suzumiya and Zorba.
The first stage of the Peloponnesian War was fought by the kings Pericles (Athenian) and Archidamus II (Spartan). Personality-wise, they were exact opposites of one another, and had been raised in contexts that also contrasted their personalities perfectly – Archidamus, thanks to his friendship with Pericles, initially tried to avoid war, but was forced to attack in response to the rapidly escalating situation in Megara.
In JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood, a young aristocratic boy named Jonathan Joestar is contrasted with a firebrand who grew up in an English slum, Dio Brando. The good twin and the evil twin, essentially.
It’s the same idea, all throughout, chaos and order, reflected in our lives again and again. Elves and dwarves. Dog and cat, sun and moon. Batman and the Joker. Black and white. Jyggalag and Sheogorath, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And so on and so on.
Dr Jordan Peterson has already analysed the most archetypal of all archetypal narratives in his Biblical lectures, in the Mesopotamian creation myth. Tiamat, the primordial sea goddess, is killed by Marduk, who then uses her body to create the world. In other words, nature is chaos, creative and essentially feminine, which is tempered by order, that which is essentially masculine. (Not necessarily male, but masculine, before the feminists go insane, although God knows that would help my internet traffic.)
It’s also reflected in the principles of Yin and Yang.
In the archetypal creation myth, order comes into contact with chaos and draws something out of it – the happy median which we call the universe. It’s the same as the story of St George and the dragon. The dragon is chaos, St George is order; he destroys the malevolent offspring of chaos and extracts wisdom from it – the maiden. It’s what’s reflected in Ivan’s story in the Brothers Karamazov – when the Devil is talking to Ivan and says, basically, if I were allowed to admit I agreed with God the entire universe would end right there. There would be no contrast. Since things can only be said to be detectable and definable in opposition, in contrast, to other things, this is Dostoevsky’s answer to the problem of evil. Evil must exist in order for it to be possible for good to exist.
Like Kyon and the Boss, who have much to learn from Suzumiya and Zorba even though they both very much hate to admit it, everyone requires some of both traits. This is the central lesson of any story which deals in these archetypal absolutes.
Here’s the issue, though. Except in all but the most basic archetypal stories, it’s just a framework, so it’s not good to blindly apply it to every situation without considering all the relevant factors. Let’s go back to Haruhi Suzumiya again. In Haruhi Suzumiya, there’s a character named Koizumi. He’s a long-haired pretty-boy who makes Kyon slightly uncomfortable, and who happens to have an even more sound understanding of philosophy and an even stronger penchant for board games than our poorly-named hero. When Kyon becomes stressed, he remains calm; when Kyon stumbles, he lightly steps over obstacles with finesse. In contrast to Koizumi, Kyon is essentially an element of chaos. But in contrast to Haruhi, he’s the embodiment of order.
Presenting your characters only as contrasts to one another is a very easy way to let an audience understand a minor character, because you don’t have to go to the trouble of explicitly characterising them if you can define them by opposition like a fictional Bill Shorten. But it’s not a good idea for your major characters to be defined by this alone – hence why Bill Shorten is not, as of the time of writing, the Australian prime minister. Luckily, Kazantzakis and Tanigawa are good enough writers that the characters aren’t just one-note caricatures, so Zorba and Haruhi are actually good. But it’s a very easy trap to fall into.
The annoying thing about everything I’ve just said is that it’s all so painfully obvious – but people don’t take it further and think about how fragile the framework is.