Nikos Kazantzakis’s prolific career included the publication of several novels, for which he is best known; close to two dozen dramas, most of them in poetic form; and three philosophical studies, one on Friedrich Nietzsche, one on Henri Bergson, and one on his own vision of life. In addition to these, Kazantzakis published travel books on Spain, Greece, England, China, Japan, Israel, and Russia, hundreds of articles for newspapers and encyclopedias, dozens of books for the public schools of Greece, and several translations, including Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.) and Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872; The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, 1909), Bergson’s Le Rire: Essai sur la signification du comique (1900; Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, 1911), and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). Kazantzakis also published two books of poetry. It was The Odyssey that Kazantzakis considered his masterpiece, or, in Morton P. Levitt’s phrase, “the central document of his life.”
The Odyssey is, according to Levitt, “one of the great encyclopedic works of our time,” embracing the major themes of Western civilization. It consists of twenty-four books or cantos (one for every letter of the Greek alphabet), comprising 33,333 lines—almost three times the length of the original Odyssey. These are in an extremely unusual seventeen-syllable unrhymed iambic measure of eight beats. The poem employs a form of simplified spelling and syntax, eschews the accentual marks that have been part of the Greek language since Byzantine times, and relies upon an idiomatic diction that, at the time of its publication in December, 1938, was more familiar to the shepherds and fishermen throughout the islands and villages of Greece than to Greek scholars. Greatly influenced by the author’s work on language reform as it is, The Odyssey is by no means an academic work. Pandelis Prevelakis, Kazantzakis’s first biographer, said that if the book is “read with the attention it deserves, it is capable of changing the reader’s soul.”
As much as it is a journey through exotic lands and moments of intense experience, The Odyssey is a passionate exploration of ideas, with Odysseus threading a path through philosophies of life, adapting and discarding, by turn, sensuality, political engagement, and ascetic detachment. Each new phase provides him with a new perspective from which he can examine life, and, given new insights, re-create himself accordingly. Although each successive phase of his journey rises out of the destruction of the previous one, the whole of Odysseus’s journey constitutes a continuum: a single evolutionary flight toward freedom.
Odysseus flees Ithaca to escape the harsh restrictions of a meaningless existence, going off in what Peter Bien describes as “the attempt to gain happiness through sensual gratification.” Odysseus becomes an aesthete. Through successive encounters with social injustice—in Sparta, Crete, and Egypt—Odysseus gains an understanding that the aesthetic attitude can lead only to surfeit and indifference, perpetuating misery and human suffering. Recoiling from the isolation of the ego, Odysseus reaches toward an ethical theory that is responsive to a humanitarian concern for the future of the human race. This culminates in his attempt to postulate the Ideal City.
The sudden, unimaginable desolation of the Ideal City plunges Odysseus into despair, from which he emerges as an ascetic. In essence, Kazantzakis exposes the limitations of an ethical self as one dependent upon false polarities of being. In his new state, Odysseus views the inevitable destruction of every human endeavor not as a tragic fact or fate, but as an incentive toward spiritual growth. The struggle between good and evil, or life and death, becomes apparent as a form of disguised...
(The entire section is 1,018 words.)