Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Magdala. Home of Mary Magdalene, the prostitute whom Jesus saves from stoning, located about ten miles northeast of Nazareth. Nikos Kazantzakis describes her home in suggestive detail. In the courtyard grow three trees, a pomegranate laden with fruit and two cypresses, one a male with a phallic trunk and the other a female, its branches spread wide. Seen through Jesus’ eyes, as he wrestles with temptation, the trees suggest Jesus’ all-too-human desire for love, sex, and progeny. Four merchants, each awaiting his turn with Mary Magdalene inside the house, suggest sin and corruption. Inside, Jesus finds Mary naked after her day’s “work”—a powerful temptation. However, he also finds a night’s peace as he sleeps there alone by the fire. At dawn he rises, and finds Mary, who is feigning sleep in her own bed, an even greater temptation, as he imagines not sex but marriage, a new life in a distant village, where Mary’s past is not known. For Kazantzakis’s Jesus, home and hearth, the joys of an ordinary life, are the greatest of earthly temptations. In Jesus’ delirium on the cross, he returns to Mary Magdalene.
Lazarus’s house. Home of Lazarus, located in Bethany, a village between Jerusalem and the northern tip of the Dead Sea. Lazarus shares his home with his beautiful unmarried sisters, Mary and Martha. There, Jesus rests and refreshes himself after his most famous...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Virtually every fictional account of Christ's life has met with controversy among readers; hence, Kazantzakis's choice of a hero for his novel is bound to generate passionate discussion among readers regardless of their religious background. For those who adhere closely to Biblical accounts, the humanizing of the Son of God may seem sacrilegious; others will find in Kazantzakis's handling of the psychological dimensions of Christ's struggle to redeem humanity a scintillating example of self-sacrifice. Readers versed in modern philosophy, especially existentialism, will find in the work a complex analysis of the plight of all men struggling to make sense of life where science and philosophy have made it hard to cling to traditional religious values.
1. In the Prologue of the novel, Kazantzakis says his aim is to present the incessant struggle between "the flesh and the spirit." How does the format of the novel permit him to do so in a way that traditional Biblical narratives do not?
2. At various times during the novel, Christ experiences what might best be described as psychological fantasies. Why does Kazantzakis use this technique to explain his hero's attitudes and motivations?
3. Like the title character in The Last Temptation of Christ, the hero of Kazantzakis's The Greek Passion is also a Christ-figure, and the story of that novel is borrowed from the Passion narratives of the Bible. In what ways are the two...
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Techniques / Literary Precedents
Kazantzakis combines scenes of graphic realism with descriptions of surrealistic dreams and psychodrama to create this portrait of Christ as existential hero. The realism is often as disturbing as the nonrealistic scenes are confusing.
Readers may find it uncomfortable to encounter Christ being actually seduced by a voluptuous Mary Magdalen; yet it is through such scenes that Kazantzakis is able to vivify the notion of temptation, making it clear what it means to be tempted and to give up everything for a higher cause.
The highly metaphorical nature of the dream scenes also takes some getting used to; fortunately, Kazantzakis uses traditional images (for example, the spirit represented as a bird) to make his points. The jar to one's sensibilities comes once again, though, when one discovers that images of God and those of the devil are the same.
Such daring use of imagery, grounded in a radical philosophy, gives the work its special impact — one that is likely to leave the reader astounded or repulsed, but hardly unmoved.
Unquestionably, the primary source for Kazantzakis's story and characterizations is the Bible. From it he takes his general outline, and several specific scenes upon which he builds his philosophical framework. He does expand several scenes, continuing beyond the Biblical text and often modifying the moral lesson of the gospels. He also invents on occasion, but seldom strays far from the general...
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Almost all of Kazantzakis's works deal in some way with questions of religion, but several share close affinities with The Last Temptation of Christ both in subject and technique. The Greek Passion (1953), set in contemporary Crete, tells the story of a shepherd boy who is to play Christ in a re-enactment of the Passion; in preparing for the part he becomes another Christ in his actions and his sufferings. Saint Francis (1956) deals with the same temptations and sufferings as Kazantzakis dramatizes in The Last Temptation of Christ, and contains much of the same kind of dream-language and highly metaphoric description.
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The Last Temptation of Christ was made into a very controversial motion picture in 1988. Director Martin Scorsese overdoes the sexual aspect of the novel, but manages to present a strong portrayal of Christ's struggle to accept or reject His own divinity. Church groups throughout Europe and the United States protested against the motion picture even while it was still in production, tried to prevent the motion picture's release before even seeing it, and picketed theaters where it was shown. The presentation of Christ as a man with self-doubts and sexual desires was and is seen as heretical and downright blasphemous by many people. It stars Willem Dafoe as Christ, with Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie, Verna Bloom, and Andre Gregory in supporting roles. The screenplay is by Paul Schrader.
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Bibliography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Bien, Peter. Nikos Kazantzakis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972. An excellent starting point. Contains limited commentary on The Last Temptation of Christ.
Bien, Peter. Nikos Kazantzakis, Novelist. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1989. An excellent introduction to Kazantzakis. Includes an appraisal of Kazantzakis’ importance as a novelist and his worldview, plus an analysis of The Last Temptation of Christ and other major novels.
Chilson, Richard W. “The Christ of Nikos Kazantzakis,” in Thought: A Review of Culture and Ideas. XLVII (1972), pp. 69-89.
Friar, Kimon. The Spiritual Odyssey of Nikos Kazantzakis: A Talk. Edited with an introduction by Theofanis G. Stavrou. St. Paul, Minn.: North Central Publishing, 1979. Explains Kazantzakis’ return to Catholicism, an essential point in understanding The Last Temptation of Christ.
Kazantzakis, Helen. Nikos Kazantzakis: A Biography Based on His Letters. Translated by Amy Mims. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968. A loving portrait of the author by his second wife. Provides insights into Kazantzakis’ often turbulent mind during the writing of his greatest works.
Hoffman, Frederick J. The Imagination’s New Beginning: Theology and Modern Literature, 1967.
Levitt, Morton P. The Cretan Glance: The World and Art of Nikos Kazantzakis. Columbus:...
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