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.)