Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2460
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.
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.
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 Odysseia (1938; The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, 1958). This modern epic continuation of Homer’s poem runs to 33,333 lines in an obscure and difficult verse form and incorporates extensive research into ancient Greek history and archaeology. This monumental verse narrative, ostensibly setting forth the experiences and reflections of Odysseus after his return to Ithaca from the Trojan War, actually centers on projecting Kazantzakis’ ideal of purposive action, of a spiritually informed energy directed toward a goal.
Kazantzakis’ political beliefs, motivated primarily by a desire to liberate the common man, caused him to select certain specific formal and linguistic patterns—thus the extensive number symbolism, the elaborate verse, and the use of demotic (common) rather than formal Greek. As a result, his work is finally quite un-Homeric, and his Odysseus rather different from the original. Still, Kazantzakis did not intend to imitate Homer; in fact, he claimed to transcend him. The liberties he took with the Homeric materials and characters, with history and with the literary language, antagonized and irritated both traditional and modernist Greeks. For these reasons, the book has not been well received in its native culture, though the energy and art of the narrative, the audacity of the ideas, and the accuracy of antiquarian details would seem to compel recognition. This work may be one of the few great works of world literature appreciated better in translation than in its original language.
His next major work, Zorba the Greek, is the single work by Kazantzakis to gain critical recognition both at home and abroad; it also was adapted successfully to the screen, becoming an extremely successful motion picture. Yet, like all of his work, it seems appreciated most for qualities that he did not intend, or did not intend to be central. The novel is particularly remarkable for an innovative use of technical point of view. What happens is related by an anonymous observer, precisely because experiencing the events moved him from a state of despair to one of acceptance, from believing that significant human action was impossible to acting with serenity. The narrator enters a state of calm indifference, though again able to act, in the end; this state is what Kazantzakis intended to induce. He creates a novel in which the enclosing frame finally takes precedence over the enclosed narrative. The novel, however, is usually praised because of the dynamic energy of the main character, whose zest for life is so infectious that it persists even in disaster. In this image of self-realization through action, Kazantzakis carries further his concept of the Cretan glance, of resolution by fusion of opposites. Zorba begins at the lowest point of despair but comes to discover that he must still act in defiance of despair, which is what being human means.
The work by which Kazantzakis is best known today, Ho teleutaios peirasmos (1955; The Last Temptation of Christ, 1960), represents a further stage in the evolution of his hero. That stage is incarnate in the figure of Jesus Christ, depicted as a man tormented by the fear that God has singled him out to be the Messiah. This concept of the heroic Christ is entirely heterodox; the writer makes him subject to temptations of the flesh as well as obsessed with ungodlike fears. The book’s publication resulted in Kazantzakis’ excommunication from the Greek Orthodox church in 1961; a generation later, in 1988, a filmed version by Martin Scorsese provoked a widespread boycott and threats of reprisal from conservative Christian churches.
In both cases these reactions seem based on misunderstanding, for the image of Christ presented in this book is truly heroic, truly human, truly admirable and inspiring. It is the humanity with which Kazantzakis endows him that causes the problem: He displays a Christ who is frail, imperfect, only gradually discovering the godhead immanent in himself, and—as the title indicates—susceptible to temptation, as indeed the biblical Christ seems to have been. Theology aside, this is a compelling, riveting novel, full of brilliantly imaginative solutions to the problems facing anyone attempting to realize the sketchy narrative of the Gospels.
Kazantzakis himself certainly identified with this ideal of self-actualization. Following The Last Temptation of Christ, he continued to add depth and dimensions to his image of the hero. In Ho phtochoules tou Theou (1956; Saint Francis, 1962), he showed how a Christian mystic and ascetic could recapitulate the self-sacrificial experience of Christ in his own person. The following year, though suffering from leukemia, he seized the opportunity to visit China. There he developed an infection from a smallpox inoculation, and he died shortly after his return on October 26, 1957. The Greek church interfered with plans to bury him with the honors due a hero; as a banned writer he was refused burial in consecrated ground.
Nikos Kazantzakis is a curiosity among twentieth century writers. During his lifetime, he rarely received the kind of critical reception that he deserved, particularly among his own countrymen. Yet in many respects he deserves to be ranked with the accepted giants of twentieth century literature: D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann, for example, all provide illuminating parallels. In fact, not even his detractors have ever denied the power of his creations, or his capacity to irritate nonreaders with his radical or innovative theories.
To an extent the success of Kazantzakis’ ideas—or his fidelity to them—may have brought about his failure with literary critics. Like Rudyard Kipling, Hermann Hesse, and Lawrence, Kazantzakis believed that writers were primarily moralists, obligated to mold and motivate the beliefs and behavior of their readers. His writings are consciously didactic; this in turn means that his characters and plots are highly predetermined and controlled. This approach runs counter to the prevailing temper of twentieth century fiction, which has tended to follow the more objective, independent approach typified by Joyce. Further, readers who for whatever reason find Kazantzakis’ ideas uncongenial are likely to notice only the artifice and believe that he is attempting to manipulate them. In truth, some of his books fail to integrate his visions with his technique, and in these the seams show. At his best, however, his visions are realized as brilliantly as any in literature.
Bien, Peter. Afterword to The Last Temptation of Christ, by Nikos Kazantzakis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960. This eight-page note surveys the life, ideas, and works of Kazantzakis more clearly and effectively than any other single source.
Bien, Peter. “Kazantzakis and Politics.” In The Politics of Twentieth Century Novelists, edited by George A. Panikas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971. In this twenty-page article, Bien explores an interesting question: What connection might there be between Kazantzakis’ political activities—he held several offices—and his evolving image of the hero?
Bien, Peter. Kazantzakis and the Linguistic Revolution in Greek Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. This is the single major scholarly work on Kazantzakis in English, but it focuses primarily on his use of language. Still, this has the most detailed account of his leading themes to be found and has the best bibliography available.
Bien, Peter. Nikos Kazantzakis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972. Part of the Columbia Essays on Modern Writers series, this short book is the best general introduction to Kazantzakis’ work available in English. It focuses primarily on the leading themes and provides relatively little information about his life. The bibliography is good.
Dillistone, F. W. The Novelist and the Passion Story. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1960. This is a useful survey of works published up to the late 1950’s of representations of the passion of Christ in fiction, a surprisingly popular topic in the first half of the century. The discussion of Kazantzakis’ work in this context is quite interesting.
Friar, Kimon. Introduction to The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, by Nikos Kazantzakis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958. In much more than the standard introduction, Friar presents a thirty-page survey of Kazantzakis’ work and ideas, with particular reference to the The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel.
Journal of Modern Literature 2, no. 2 (Winter, 1971-1972). This issue, devoted entirely to Kazantzakis, collects a number of useful essays, including efforts by Peter Bien (on the influence of Nietzsche), Adele Black (on Kazantzakis’ use of masks), Joseph C. Flay (on erotic stoicism), Morton P. Levitt (on the influence of Cretan culture), and others.
Kazantzakis, Helen. Nikos Kazantzakis: A Biography Based on His Letters. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968. An extraordinary assemblage of letters edited to shed light on different periods of Kazantzakis’ life and aspects of his character, this work by his second wife presents that life as unusually consonant with his ideas. It calls for a more balanced, objective account.
Kazantzakis, Nikos. Report to Greco. Translated by Peter A. Bien. Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1965. This posthumously published autobiography offers the author’s own insights into his life. Some sections are fascinating, but it is fragmentary and incomplete.
Stanford, W. B. The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero. 2d ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963. This book contains some valuable insights into Kazantzakis’ poem, particularly with reference to his concept of the hero. Only some twenty pages are given to his work, however, mostly in comparison with Joyce.