Nikos Kazantzakis Essay - Nikos Kazantzakis Long Fiction Analysis

Nikos Kazantzakis Long Fiction Analysis

The reader interested in understanding any of the works of Nikos Kazantzakis would do well to begin by reading Salvatores Dei: Asketike (1927; The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, 1960). In this short philosophical expostulation, Kazantzakis expresses succinctly his strange mixture of Nietzschean nihilism and Bergsonian optimism. For Kazantzakis, God is not dead, as Nietzsche proclaimed; rather, God is waiting to be created by people who think they need him. The search for God becomes one of the ways in which existential people seek to create meaning for their lives. Hence Kazantzakis’s heroes are often dramatizations of existential people trying to face up to the fact that God, as he has traditionally been conceived, does not exist. Rather than being overwhelmed by such knowledge, however, the hero simply posits the existence of God—one created more in his own image than in the traditional Judeo-Christian image. For example, in The Odyssey, Kazantzakis’s Odysseus carves a harsh-looking mask that serves as the image of God, which the people who follow Odysseus revere. Odysseus, of course, knows who created the image, and he lives with the knowledge that this “god” is merely representative of his own imagination; yet he acts as if God is real, and this God is both friend and antagonist to the hero as he struggles to assert his identity and stake his claim to fame.

The actions of Odysseus in Kazantzakis’s The Odyssey are repeated in a variety of ways by the heroes of his novels and plays. Indeed, the heavy emphasis on philosophy, and especially metaphysics, is often cause for artistic heavy-handedness in terms of plot and narration: The story is sometimes lost in the symbology, to the point where the reader not familiar with the whole of Kazantzakis’s work, and especially with his nonfiction, may come away confused about the author’s use of the techniques of realism to explore highly abstract philosophical issues. Indeed, his early works are often thinly disguised attempts to cloak philosophical discussion in the garb of imaginative literature.

Zorba the Greek

What is surprising is that Kazantzakis’s most famous novel, Zorba the Greek, represents an apparent reversal of the author’s position that people must abandon pleasures of the flesh to achieve spiritual self-fulfillment. In this novel, the reader is forced to recognize the attractiveness of the hero Alexis Zorba, whose whole life is devoted to sensual gratification. Zorba is anti-intellectual and antireligious, having thrown off the shackles of paralyzing intellectualism that have bound the narrator, the Boss, within himself and caused him to be ineffectual in dealing with others except as “intelligences.” The Boss is the consummate ascetic, a follower of Buddha who renounces the pleasures of the flesh because he believes that closeness to others only leads to pain. Zorba, on the other hand, is the epitome of Bergsonian élan vital. The Boss withdraws from commitment; Zorba seeks it.

The mining venture in which the two men engage is Kazantzakis’s way of representing symbolically the vast differences between them and hence between the lifestyles they represent. Mining, the act of taking from the earth the materials one needs to survive, is hard work, but Zorba relishes it, getting dirty along with his fellow workers, taking chances with them, even risking his life when necessary; the Boss’s involvement is that of the dilettante who occasionally pokes his nose in to see how things are going but who actually remains aloof from the work itself. Their different approaches to the mining operation characterize their approaches to other forms of involvement as well: Zorba is a great womanizer because he believes that only through such lovemaking can man be fulfilled (and besides, he tells the Boss, all women want a man to love them); the Boss is paralyzed by contact with women. The Boss’s affection for books is paralleled by Zorba’s penchant for dancing, playing the santiri, and womanizing; where one learns of life secondhand through the writings of others, the other experiences it fully and directly.

Zorba’s power to act, even in the face of overwhelming odds and with the knowledge that his actions will be of little real value, marks him as the kind of hero whom Kazantzakis admires. Failure does not deter him from action. When his elaborate scheme to bring down timber from the top of the mountain collapses (literally as well as figuratively), he shrugs off the experience and goes on to another venture. The death of the old whore Hortense, whom Zorba has promised to marry, disturbs him only momentarily: Death is the way of the world, and Zorba understands it. By the end of the novel, the Boss, too, has come to understand the inevitability of death and the need to live vigorously in the face of that knowledge. When he receives word that his good friend Stavridakis is dead, he accepts the information stoically; when he learns that Zorba, too, has died, he chooses not to mourn but instead to turn his own talent for writing to good use by composing the story of his experiences with Zorba.

In the novels following Zorba the Greek, Kazantzakis moves from studying the contrast of opposing lifestyles to concentrating on the figure of the hero himself. Freedom or Death, based on the Cretan revolt of the 1880’s, focuses on Captain Mihalis, who is torn between self-satisfaction and service to country. Kazantzakis was always fascinated by the heroes of history and literature; often his novels and plays are attempts to retell the stories of heroes whom he has met in other works, to reinterpret their struggles in the light of his own theory of positive nihilism. It is not surprising, then, to find that he chooses for his subjects Odysseus, Faust, Christopher Columbus, Saint Francis, and even Jesus Christ.

The Christ story held a special fascination for Kazantzakis. In the early 1950’s, he recast the account of Christ’s Passion in a contemporary setting in Christ Recrucified, a novel in which the hero, a Greek peasant named Manolios, is invested with Christlike characteristics. That particular rendition apparently did not satisfy him, however, for in 1955, he returned to the subject and this time confronted the hero in his own milieu. The result is a novel that surely ranks as Kazantzakis’s most controversial, The Last Temptation of Christ.

The Last Temptation of Christ

In The Last Temptation of...

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