Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1046

Freedom or Death is a colorful story full of symbolic motifs. In it, Nikos Kazantzakis depicts his own experiences as a child in Meghalo Kastro. He recalled that in 1889 Christians in his village killed a prominent Turkish dignitary, which triggered a new Turkish massacre of Cretan civilians. “My mother, my sister, and I sat glued to one another,” Kazantzakis said, “barricaded within our house.” Turks outside cursed, broke down doors, and slaughtered Christians. His father, standing with a loaded musket and his long knife unsheathed, told the family he planned to slaughter them before they fell into Turkish hands.

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Kazantzakis altered much of his personal history, yet many characters and episodes match real persons and events, and the character of Kosmas embodies Kazantzakis’s politics and experiences as an expatriate. Kosmas, like Kazantzakis, studies in Germany, travels throughout Russia, and marries a Russian-Jewish girl. Kosmas, like Kazantzakis, is a follower of Henri-Louis Bergson and Friedrich Nietzsche and has Marxist tendencies.

Kazantzakis’s central plot is derived from a famous Cretan folk song about a 1770 revolt led by a teacher named Dhaskaloyannis. With a band of eight hundred Sphakians, the hero held off twenty-five thousand Turkish regulars for several weeks. Both in the 1770 revolt and in the revolt of 1889 chronicled in Freedom or Death, the Russians promised assistance that they never delivered. Dhashkaloyannis surrendered but refused to sign a truce, stoically accepting torture and death.

In Freedom or Death, past and present, fact and fiction, art and life, and dream and reality are often indistinguishable. This is a reflection of both the Cretan sense of history and Kazantzakis’s own interest in Freudian and Jungian conceptions of the interrelationship between the conscious and the unconscious. Characters in the novel may seem exaggerated, scenes overly dramatic, and people and events inflated, unreal, and larger than life. In this, the work reflects Cretan sensibility, a synthesis of mythology and reality. Greek mythology by its nature is a colorful and fantastic reflection of Greek views of humans, God, nature, and death. These are the primitive forces that generate mythology to inspire hope and relieve anxiety. Kazantzakis’s Freedom or Death was created within that tradition.

Anthropomorphic and metaphorical characterization, including animal imagery, is dominant in the novel. Michales is referred to as wild boar, dragon, lion, bull, and minotaur. Kazantzakis describes various characters and situations in naturalistic terms, giving them animal vitality and raw qualities. Spring “leaps” onto the village like a man falling onto a woman, allowing no sleep. Michales is like an “earthquake” or “hard, knotty tree.” His father Sefakas is like a “great oak tree.” Kosmas is like a Cretan “rock.”

A Christ metaphor appears, with Crete being crucified like Christ. The return of Christ is intimately associated with the prospect of a Crete free of Turkish domination. There are visions of the Greek king’s son coming by sea to free Crete, like Christ coming on a cloud to establish his rule on earth. Michales on the mountaintop calls out to his few remaining followers that whoever dies for Immortal Crete is dying for Christ and will return with Christ to regenerate the island.

Kazantzakis presents a genre of sacrifice and martyrdom that does not come out of Marxist dialectics or intellectual inspiration but out of vital, sensual forces similar to the Christian faith. Kosmas, a socialist, dies not for an intellectually reasoned purpose but for a raw and visceral prompting of his soul, for the mythical Crete. Michales scorns the education of his nephew and brother. However, this anti-intellectualism is not an idiosyncratic characteristic; rather, it is a Cretan resentment of any activity that might diminish or call into question the individual’s love affair with Crete.

By offering a visceral philosophy of action, Kazantzakis in a sophisticated manner leans toward a naturalistic free will as opposed to the Turk’s Islamic fatalism. The pasha tells Michales to surrender because everything that happens in a war is already predestined. Michales, however, believes that human beings always win over fate if they persist to the death. Even when defeated they are ennobled, not degraded.

Michales is an individualistic, primitive, culture-bound, and primitively Christian being. Kazantzakis was able to blend such an odd number of sensibilities into one unified character because he was influenced by a variety of Western and Eastern philosophies, among them Marxism, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, and Buddha’s Nothing.

Dreams play an important part in Freedom or Death in shaping the reality of the townsfolk of Meghalo Kastro. Dreams are a means of justification for their personal beliefs, aspirations, and actions. The tavern keeper Vendusos dreams of the wine goddess who turns out to be the Virgin Mary. Efendina, a devout Muslim, dreams of pork and wine. Michales dreams of Eminé, the liberation of Crete, and his father.

Kosmas’s dead father appears in his dreams to chastise, advise, and uplift his spirits, as well as to order him to take revenge on the Turks. Noemi, Kosmas’s pregnant wife, dreams that grandfather Sefakas does not want her to have the baby; he kicks her in the stomach and she wakes up in a pool of blood after suffering a miscarriage. Indeed, there is a dreamlike quality to the novel. Dreams and harsh realities imperceptibly mingle. Ultimately, all dreams seem to originate from one spiritual source, the Cretan slogan of “Freedom or Death.”

The similarity of dreams among the Cretans suggests the influence on Kazantzakis of Jung’s belief in the collective unconscious underlying the history of struggle and oppression. Primitive ancestors, with all of their beastlike grandeur, stir within Michales and Kosmas and goad them to extraordinary sacrifices. The Cretan martyrs of past revolutions whisper in Cretan ears and recruit a fresh army of superhumans.

Cretans can easily become heroes, but these are not such antiheroes as James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, Franz Kafka’s K., or Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp. Kazantzakis’s insignificant characters become heroes because they are intoxicated with an ideology and play out their madness to its ultimate degree. They are not ruled by history or fate. They may die but are never defeated. These heroes possess the qualities of positive humanism. They are quintessentially free because they believe in a myth.

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