Nikos Kazantzakis

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Nikos Kazantzakis World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

There is no more typical event in Kazantzakis’s life than his attempt, while living in Vladimir Ilych Lenin’s Russia in 1922, to unite and reconcile the political activism and materialism of communism with the asceticism and spirituality of Buddhism, an effort discussed in his philosophical book Salvatores Dei: Asketike (1927; The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, 1960). Judged from outside Kazantzakis’s worldview, such an endeavor seems hopeless, pointless, and doomed to failure from the outset. Yet the effort to yoke the extremes of human experience appears over and over in Kazantzakis’s work. Odysseus in his The Odyssey is both a sacker of cities and a seeker after spiritual peace. The protagonist of The Greek Passion, chosen to portray Jesus in a Passion play, begins to assume that role in life and becomes not a man of peace but a revolutionary. Finally, Christ himself in The Last Temptation of Christ is unsure whether he should lead a religious revolt or abandon the struggle for an ordinary life with a home and family; beset by doubts, he is still trying to understand the nature of his mission even as he hangs on the Cross.

The inversion of everyday logic and human behavior that is basic to Kazantzakis’s thinking appears even in the titles of his books. God is not the Savior of humanity, men and women are the saviors of God (in The Saviors of God). Kazantzakis thought of all creation, all existence, as a divine project in which the Holy Spirit, residing in the hearts and minds of humanity, must fight to overcome the resistance of the flesh, which always wants to take the easy way out, give in to its appetites, and surrender in the face of egotistic greed and oppression. God cannot save humankind, for it is the embodiment, the incarnation, of the Spirit of God. It is for humanity to speak and act in terms of that Spirit and thereby save God. The British title of Kazantzakis’s novel about Cretan rebellion against the Turks, Freedom or Death, is Freedom and Death, a pairing more appropriate for the writer’s viewpoint. The doomed Cretans fight against impossible odds because that is the only way to assert the divine spirit of freedom and the unity of all life. Few are willing to undertake such a struggle, so their effort is bound to end in death. In that death, they reach the zenith of their exercise of freedom, so the appropriate title is not freedom or death, which implies that humanity has a choice between these conditions, but freedom and death, which grimly acknowledges the inevitable conclusion of such an attempt. For Kazantzakis, relationships are never stated in “either/or” terms, such as “either politics or religion” or “either the world or God,” but in “and/and” terms. In order to understand, for example, politics or religion, the modern human must try to act upon the truths of each at the same time. To act as if only one side of the pair exists is to act on only partial knowledge and therefore really to be blind. The true answer is not “politics or religion” but “politics and religion,” and, one should add, everything else, too. Kazantzakis tried to include as much experience in his life and literary works as he could possibly gather. To those who disagree with his philosophy, Kazantzakis was a madman racing over the globe in search of impossible fulfillment; to his admirers, he lived and wrote a quest for a new definition of the relationships between humans and fellow humans and between humankind and God.

Zorba the Greek

First published: Vios kai politela tou Alexe Zormpa, 1946 (English translation, 1952)

Type of work: Novel

A shy and unassertive scholar meets a lusty peasant who renews the scholar’s faith in humanity and transforms his life.

Zorba the Greek is based on Kazantzakis’s friendship with a real person, George Zorba, who helped the author in an ill-fated scheme to mine lignite in Greece. In the novel, the first-person narrator, known as “The Boss” (a title that Zorba gives him),...

(The entire section is 1,605 words.)