Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1297

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Two world figures as dissimilar as Thomas Mann and Albert Schweitzer spoke up in public praise of Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek novelist introduced to U.S. readers by Zorba the Greek in 1952. One wonders, however, whether their admiration sprang from his earlier picaresque novel, the lively account of a pantheistic and pagan spirit adrift in the modern world, or from the quite different story of savage emotions and primitive religious feeling that he told in The Greek Passion, which was also published in 1954 as Christ Recrucified. These two novels make it clear that Kazantzakis is capable of widely varied effects in his fiction, although each creates a haunting, poetic atmosphere and a depth of serious insight into human necessities and motives.

After Greece was liberated from the Turks in 1919, Kazantzakis was appointed director general of the ministry of public welfare. His task was to rescue the Greek minorities of the Caucasus and Transcaucasus from persecution by Kurds and Bolsheviks, who replaced Turks in massacring Greeks. During one year of his tenure, Kazantzakis rescued more than 100,000 Greeks. This experience provided material for The Greek Passion. Between 1942 and 1951, he was absorbed with Jesus as a literary subject. The Greek Passion was written in two months in 1948.

The story is simple and traditional. One who knows the New Testament can follow the plot easily. On the level of symbolism, Kazantzakis has kept fairly close to the spirit, if not the actual events, of the New Testament story. His one great departure is the scene of violence that gives the novel its grim climax. Perhaps the author is implying that in a disordered world, there is no place for a Christ of compassion and love.

The Passion Play is one of the most colorful and spiritually uplifting events of each year in Lycovrissi. Before, during, and after the Passion Play, there is always mass catharsis. Many miracles take place and many sinners repent. The selection process is straightforward. The characters of the biblical personages usually match those of the respective actors. The widow Katerina, a kindhearted prostitute, plays the role of Mary Magdalene. Panayotaros, a bearded, gorillalike man spotted from smallpox, is selected to play Judas. Manolios, the handsome shepherd, is chosen to play Christ.

Dreams play a vital role in The Greek Passion, as they do in most of Kazantzakis’s major works. Fantasy, dream, and reality become interchangeable. Christianity as an elaborate dream motif runs throughout the novel. Reality and dream become fluid.

The boy Youssoufaki sings the agha’s favorite “Amane,” a melancholy song. He sings, “World and dream are but one, aman, aman.” The agha, bloated by rich food and raki, secure in his inherited position, surrounded by servants and pretty boys, has difficulty distinguishing “dream” from “world.” The agonizing truth about his beloved Youssoufaki, who is butchered in his bed, gives him but a glimmer of a nightmare, the agonizing vision of reality.

Once the suffering is over, the agha goes back to the good dream again. Phrases such as “It is written” or “It is willed” fill the air like the smoke of opium, giving the world a hazy, impressionist quality. When the actor who is to play Christ falsely confesses that the devil urged him to murder Youssoufaki, the agha knows the shepherd is innocent but follows the dreamlike rituals and hands the actor over to the crucifiers.

The notion of dream-world fluidity and interchangeability is demonstrated by most of the novel’s characters. The quintessential example of this phenomenon is Manolios. He matches the role well, because, it is said, he suffers from a paranoid inability to distinguish between hallucination and reality. Perhaps that is why he is one of the most intense and endearing characters in this novel. The dynamism of the story begins to show itself when Manolios decides to purify himself by remaining chaste, leaving behind his fiancé, rejecting all the sensuality of life. The Manolios who leads the attack on the village is no longer the meek shepherd he was at the beginning of the novel. However, the change is accounted for in the visions that came to him in his solitary retreat. In a dream, he sees Christ descending the mountain, his sad, angry face turned toward Lycovrissi, and carrying a can of petrol instead of a cross.

Kazantzakis pays close attention to Manolios’s obsessions, mental predicaments, and other traits. Manolios was brought up with the monks from early childhood, and his teachers recalled that he was “a wee bit crazy.” Since early childhood, he has wanted this role in the Passion Play. His destiny is finally fulfilled. Kazantzakis here examines the psyche of a person wanting to become a Christ. Having gone through similar experiences, he was interested in the process of transformation from a mere man to a Christlike figure.

Twenty years before Kazantzakis wrote The Greek Passion, he broke out with a strange affliction. His face puffed up, and his swollen lips drooped, oozing yellowish fluid. No physician could diagnose it. One of Sigmund Freud’s great prodigies, Wilhelm Stekel, examined Kazantzakis and told him that his affliction resulted from sex-related guilt feelings. Manolios’s face is similarly afflicted with disfiguring pustules, because he feels miserably guilty about dreaming of Katerina, the kindhearted prostitute.

The novel concerns the hero’s four transformations. The first is his acceptance of the role and the beginning of piety and chastity. In this period, he simply wants to be worthy of the role. The second transformation begins when, despite his efforts, he still dreams about the prostitute. Because of this lapse, his face is swollen and disfigured. This transformation occurs when Manolios decides to give his life and be a martyr.

The third transformation occurs when he realizes that Christ, who appears in his dreams every night, no longer carries a cross. Instead, he carries guns and a can of gasoline. The new Christ preaches revolution. The last transformation occurs when Manolios realizes that any injustice has to be met with force. Thus, he leads Father Fotis’s refugee band in the raid.

The first two transformations are spiritual. The later two are sociopolitical. All, in one way or another, parallel Kazantzakis’s own intellectual and spiritual journey.

Manolios knows about the injustice in Lycovrissi. The town is full of people who devote their lives to the senses. The novel details the lives of these licentious and gluttonous people—the agha, Priest Grigoris, Captain Fortunas, and others. Kazantzakis presents these Turkish and Greek men as brothers-in-pleasure. Just as the historic Christ lost his battle with the Pharisees and the scribes, the actor-Christ struggles for power but loses it to Priest Grigoris, who represents the institutional church. Kazantzakis ensures that the underdogs of any religious group, Islam or Christian, always lose to the malevolent church hierarchy.

Kazantzakis struggles to discover the primitive Christian values of love, brotherhood, humility, and self-abnegation. He painstakingly points out these missing qualities in the church of his day. Whether he is advocating reformation or renouncing the church altogether is not clear. What is clear is that he believes that Christianity has lost its original purpose and is no longer Christ’s church.

Kazantzakis melds together the old and new, sacred and profane, mythology and theology. He imbues Manolios with a primitive martyr’s passion, seeking Christianity side by side with his Marxist revolutionary desires. He is aware of man’s power of myth-making and self-delusion. Mircea Iliade’s Sacred and the Profane (1959) and Rudolf Otto’s Das Heilige: Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen (1917; The Idea of the Holy, 1923) point out this urge to divide the world into neat, manageable theological-mythological parts. Kazantzakis demonstrates that humankind would give its all for the illusion of certitude.