Nikos Kazantzakis Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: The best-known, most successful, and most controversial Greek writer of the twentieth century, Kazantzakis has written several of the most absorbing and enduring works of his time.

Early Life

On February 18, 1883, Nikos Kazantzakis was born on the island of Crete, the son of a poor farmer and feed supplier. His early life, spent in rural surroundings, brought him into close contact with the common people who feature so largely in his books. At this time he also developed a fascination with the land, weather, and sea of the Mediterranean region, the images of which resonate and take on a mystical intensity in his writing. When Kazantzakis was fourteen, native Cretans rose in rebellion against their Turkish rulers. To keep Kazantzakis away from the fighting, his father sent him to the island of Naxos, where there was a private school operated by Franciscan monks. For the first time, the young Kazantzakis encountered the intellectual traditions of Western civilization, and he was fascinated. The concept of spiritual development, especially in its mystical and ascetic aspects, gripped him.

This fascination never left him. From this point his life became a quest for the ideal spiritual role model, which led him from one great historical figure to another. After high school, he won a scholarship to the University of Athens, where he studied philosophy. Following graduation, he traveled to Paris to study with the philosopher Henri Bergson, at that time developing his central theme of creative intelligence as the means of man’s liberation from the bondage of matter. Under Bergson’s direction, Kazantzakis came to admire the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler, both of whom viewed history as dominated and directed by great spiritual principles. Leaving France, Kazantzakis attempted a spiritual experiment: He retreated to a Greek Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos in Macedonia, where he lived and meditated in an isolated cell for six months. Solitary meditation proved not the secret for him; he felt further removed from God at the end. Instead, he decided to follow the doctrine of Nietzsche, who taught that man elevated himself by spiritual struggle. According to Nietzsche, man had the capacity to transform himself into a superman by actualizing spiritual energy. This could be accomplished by fusing the opposed principles of reason and passion, embodied in the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. Nietzsche became the first of a series of spiritual guides for Kazantzakis, each of whom incorporated the values of earlier members.

Life’s Work

At this point in his life, Kazantzakis decided to pursue one pole of the Nietzschean opposition: the Dionysian ideal of ecstatic action, of losing oneself enthusiastically in a cause, as opposed to the Apollonian ideal of restrained, detached contemplation. Because of this ideology of action, he identified with and supported a series of revolutionary movements promising to liberate the oppressed. He was first moved by the Cretan and Greek nationalist revolutionaries, but the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917 when he was on the point of leaving for Greece. This inflamed his imagination, for he instinctively found his own aspirations reflected in the spectacle of the common man seizing power by sheer force of numbers. Still, he found himself unable to join the revolution immediately and felt committed to Greece. There, far from joining in a revolution, he was appointed to a succession of offices by the government. As part of his duties, he took part in a Peloponnesian mining operation with an activist named George Zorbas, who struck him as the embodiment of his concept of the Nietzschean ideal. That impression remained with him. Later he would transform it into the image of the superhero in his novel Vios Kai politela tou Alexe Zormpa (1946; Zorba the Greek, 1953).

Around 1920 Kazantzakis modified his ideal, or reinterpreted Nietzsche. Now he became convinced that struggle was the important element rather than attainment; man realized himself by tension, by harboring opposites. Suddenly he felt compelled to project this theme in literature. He began writing and producing a series of verse plays that focused on his developing image of the hero. He also translated works by Bergson, Charles Darwin, Johann Peter Eckermann, William James, Maurice Maeterlinck, Nietzsche, Plato, and Dante, all of whom seemed to him to reconcile the opposed principles of contemplation and action. Eventually he developed his ideal of what he called the “Cretan glance,” which focuses the conflicting forces in a tense crucible.

In 1922, Kazantzakis moved to Vienna, where he encountered the teaching of Buddha, whose doctrine of renunciation helped him reconcile himself to the desolation and loss of the desperate post-World War I period. Following that inspiration, he began to compose an integrated statement of his beliefs, which after several revisions became Salvatores Dei: Asketike (1927; The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, 1960). By that time he had grown far beyond the Buddhist origins of his ideas; few Buddhists would find such a celebration of creative energy congenial. The work does, however, embody the basic values developed in his later works. For the next few years, Kazantzakis took advantage of several opportunities to travel to the Soviet Union, where for a while he identified Vladimir Ilich Lenin as a new savior and vowed to promote the Leninist system. After close exposure to the practice rather than the theory of Leninism, however, he became disillusioned. While traveling through Russia, supposedly to gather materials for publicizing Leninism, he found himself repeatedly preoccupied with the figure of Odysseus and with the values he seemed to incarnate.

For the next ten years—during which he published two novels, both written in French—Kazantzakis worked and reworked what would eventually become...

(The entire section is 2460 words.)

Nikos Kazantzakis Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Nikos Kazantzakis was born in 1883, in a land that had for centuries been the site of bitter struggles for independence from the Turks. One of his first memories was of a night when, at the age of six, while with his family hiding from the Turks, his father made him swear to help kill the women of their family rather than let the marauders have their way with them. Fortunately, Kazantzakis did not have to carry out the promise.

In 1902, Kazantzakis left Crete to study at the University of Athens. Upon graduation in 1906, he departed for Paris, where he was introduced to the works of Nietzsche and Bergson. Kazantzakis returned to Athens, where he presented his dissertation on Nietzsche to the faculty of the university to gain a teaching position there. A proponent of “positive nihilism,” Kazantzakis saw himself as a prophet who would use his art to “save” the world. Until 1921, he remained in Greece, writing (primarily plays) and taking an active part in business and government. For a brief period, he was a member of the Greek government under prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, but when Venizelos fell from power, Kazantzakis, disillusioned, left for Paris.

Kazantzakis spent much of the remainder of his life in restless travel. Even during the periods when he was relatively settled on the island of Aegina, he was often away, either to the mainland of Greece or to other parts of Europe. His 1907 marriage to Galatea Alexiou lasted only briefly, and he enjoyed a succession of female companions in the various places he visited. His relationship with Helen Samiou, which began in 1924, finally culminated in marriage in 1945.

In the mid-1920’s, Kazantzakis traveled in France, Germany, Austria, and Italy, and later to the Middle East and Egypt, living on the scant revenues from works submitted to Greek magazines. His professed Communism caused him some trouble at home but secured for him an invitaton to the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution in Moscow in 1927. His experiences there provided the material for a book in which he explained his theory of “metacommunism.”

During the 1920’s, Kazantzakis decided to...

(The entire section is 890 words.)

Nikos Kazantzakis Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Nikos Kazantzakis once described himself as a follower of Odysseus, and his life bears out his claim. Always a Cretan at heart, he nevertheless spent the better part of his adult years wandering the European continent, traveling to Asia and the Far East, storing up experiences that made their way into the many works that seemed to pour from his pen.

He was born in 1883 in Iraklion, Crete, an island strife-torn for years by a bloody war of independence. His father was a freedom fighter against the Turkish forces that ruled by might over the Greek population; Nikos himself was introduced to the struggle as a young boy when Turkish marauders invaded his village in 1889, threatening the safety and the lives of his immediate...

(The entire section is 1003 words.)

Nikos Kazantzakis Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Nikos Kazantzakis (kah-zuhn-TZAH-kees) was born in Iraklion on the Greek island of Crete on February 18, 1883, at a time when that island was under the control of the Ottoman Turks. Rebels fought against the Turks during Kazantzakis’s childhood, and they were finally successful in 1898. Once Kazantzakis’s family fled to Greece for safety in the midst of the violence of revolution, and as a teenager Kazantzakis was sent to the island of Naxos for the purposes of both schooling and personal safety. Thus, Kazantzakis was born into a world of struggle and movement; struggle became the dominant theme of his writing and movement the theme of his life.

In 1902, young Kazantzakis moved from Crete to Athens to study law, but...

(The entire section is 1200 words.)

Nikos Kazantzakis Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Nikos Kazantzakis created works of art not as a sterile aesthetic exercise but as part of a lifelong effort to unify God, humanity, and the physical world. His works are important for those seeking to find a new viewpoint that will free humanity from the greed and selfishness that have characterized past centuries.

(The entire section is 53 words.)

Nikos Kazantzakis Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Nikos Kazantzakis (kah-zahnt-ZAH-kees) is the best-known and most successful Greek poet and novelist of the twentieth century, although his theoretical and linguistic principles have alienated him from many Greek critics and intellectuals. His achievements in fiction and poetry are impressive and substantial, and the reaction to his work by the Greek intelligentsia may say more about the divided conscience of that country than about the quality of his writing.

Kazantzakis was born on the island of Crete on February 18, 1883, the son of a small farmer and dealer in feeds. His early life brought him into close contact with the farmers, shepherds, fishermen, peddlers, merchants, and rural characters that populate his...

(The entire section is 1203 words.)