World Literature

Nikos Kazantzakis

 

BORN: 1883, Heraklion, Crete

DIED: 1957, Freiburg, West Germany

NATIONALITY: Greek

GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

Zorba the Greek (1946)

The Greek Passion (1948)

Captain Michalis (1950)

The Last Temptation of Christ (1951)

 

 

Nikos Kazantzakis. © Roger-Viollet / The Image Works

 

Overview

Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis is best remembered as the author of Zorba the Greek (1946), The Last Temptation of Christ (1951), and other philosophical novels in which he explored the spiritual and intellectual anguish of modern humanity. Throughout his life, he espoused then rejected many beliefs, and he ultimately developed a personal philosophy that drew heavily on the ideas of philosophers Henri Bergson and Friedrich Nietzsche, viewing existence as a constant struggle of opposing forces while affirming the progressive nature of human development. Kazantzakis’s philosophy also included elements of Christianity tempered in later years by the skepticism characteristic of modern thought, and his unorthodox treatment of religious subjects and themes has often evoked censure from representatives of established religions.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Turbulent Homeland. Born in Heraklion, a port city on the northern coast of the island of Crete, Kazantzakis grew up during a particularly turbulent period in Cretan history, when nationalist rebels were struggling to overthrow their Turkish rulers and return the island to Greek control. In 1897, rebel insurrections led to open warfare between Greece and the Ottoman Empire (which included Turkey), forcing the Kazantzakis family to seek refuge on Naxos, a small Greek island that was unaffected by the fighting. Crete became an autonomous state under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire in 1898, and the family returned to Crete in 1899.

After completing his secondary education in Hera- klion, Kazantzakis enrolled in the school of law at the University of Athens. He began to write fiction and dramas during this period, and he published his first work, the romantic novella Serpent and Lily (1906), shortly after receiving his law degree. The following year, Kazantzakis went to Paris to study law at the Sorbonne and to work on his doctoral thesis, in which he examined the influence of Nietzsche on the philosophy of law. While in Paris, he attended Henri Bergson’s lectures at the College de France; greatly impressed with the French philosopher’s ideas, he thereafter considered himself a disciple of Bergson.

Fully Launched Literary Career. Returning to Greece in 1909, Kazantzakis began to write verse dramas and to translate works by Bergson, Nietzsche, William James, and Charles Darwin, among others. Three years later, he was appointed to the cabinet of the future King George II of Greece, and he subsequently served the Greek government in a variety of official and semiofficial capacities. However, he spent most of the next three decades traveling in Europe, Asia, and Africa and writing articles about his excursions.

During a 1922 sojourn in Berlin, Kazantzakis became interested in the political philosophy of Karl Marx and participated in leftist discussion groups. (Marx promoted the idea of a social system where everyone would be equal and no one would be poor. Though his views were banned from many countries, Marxism inspired the 1917 Russian Revolution and is the basis of many socialist and communist governments.) Soon afterward, Kazantzakis began promoting Marxism in his travels throughout Europe, chronicling his activities in the autobiographical novel Toda-Raba (1934).

Disillusioned with Marxism. In 1925, Kazantzakis visited the Soviet Union to witness firsthand the benefits of Marxism, and two years later he returned to Moscow to participate in the celebration marking the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. (The October Revolution is another name for part of the greater Russian Revolution, referring to the time in October 1917 when Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik followers wrested control of the nation away from the provisional government of Aleksandr Kerensky.) However, Kazantzakis became disenchanted with Marxism, and in fact with all existing ideological systems, in light of the worsening political and economic situation of Europe in the 1930s. During the 1930s, leaders like Germany’s Adolf Hitler came to power. The fascist leader of Nazi Germany, Hitler imbued his country with territorial ambitions and greatly expanded its military. Such tensions eventually led to World War II.

As the decade progressed, Kazantzakis began to concentrate his energies on the completion of his most ambitious work, the massive verse epic The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1938). Having created the first version of the poem between 1924 and 1927, he completely rewrote it four times in the next eleven years, altering the content to reflect his own disillusionment with political solutions as well as his increasing concern for the spiritual wellbeing of modern humanity.

Popular Success. The Odyssey drew little attention upon its publication, and it was not until the final decade of his life that Kazantzakis published the novels for which he is remembered today. Already well known as a political activist, cultural ambassador, and translator, Kazantzakis gained popular success as a novelist with the publication of Zorba the Greek in 1946. Kazantzakis wrote the autobiographical work during the early part of the decade as a tribute to his close friend George Zorba, with whom he had undertaken a mining venture in Crete in 1917. The author, as quoted by George T. Karnezis in the Carnegie Series in English: A Modern Miscellany, professed a deep admiration for Zorba, whom he felt ‘‘possessed ‘the broadest soul, the soundest body, and the freest cry I have known in my life.’’’ The novel’s narrator is accepted by critics as Kazantzakis’s self-portrait as an artist and philosopher.

Religious Themes. The controversy regarding Kazantzakis’s heterodox Christianity began with the publication of his next novel, The Greek Passion (1954), in which the modern Christian church is depicted as an ossified institution that has ceased to embody the teachings of Christ. Kazantzakis further developed this theme with The Last Temptation of Christ (1955), a psychological study of Jesus. A surrealistic fictional biography of Christ, whom Kazantzakis considered to be the supreme embodiment of man’s battle to overcome his sensual desires in pursuit of a spiritual existence, the novel focuses on what Kazantzakis imagines as the psychological aspects of Jesus’s character and how Christ overcomes his human limitations to unite with God.

Despite harsh criticism of his theological viewpoint, Kazantzakis enjoyed popular and critical acclaim throughout this latter portion of his career, and in 1957, the year of his death from complications of lymphoma, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Kazantzakis's famous contemporaries include:

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948): Called "Mahatma," meaning ''great soul,'' Gandhi was the central political and spiritual leader of the Indian Independence Movement in the twentieth century. His policies of nonviolent resistance were both effective in his homeland and an inspiration for other movements around the world.

Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964): One of the greatest and most controversial generals in American history, MacArthur made a name for himself as an officer in World War I, then became a national hero for his leadership in the Pacific during World War II. In 1951, President Truman removed MacArthur from command of the United Nations forces fighting in Korea after MacArthur publicly criticized Truman's policies.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973): Chilean poet and Nobel laureate, Neruda was a committed communist and one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964): An American marine biologist whose book Silent Spring (1962) is credited with sparking the environmentalist movement.

Albert Camus (1913-1960): Novelist, poet, and playwright, Albert Camus was a well-known and widely read French existentialist. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, and his books include The Rebel (1951).

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Other works that attempt to address the dualities of life, as Kazantzakis's so often did, include:

Full Metal Jacket (1987), a film directed by Stanley Kubrick. Ostensibly about the Vietnam War, Full Metal Jacket focuses on the polar extremes of human existence: the warmth of humanity and the cold brutality of war.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. One of Stevenson's best-known works, this novella examines how one man can encompass both good and evil within the same personality.

Crime and Punishment (1866), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. One of the central themes of Dostoyevsky's masterpiece is that humans possess a duality that manifests as both external and internal conflicts. The inner conflict between the two sides of central character Raskolnikov's dual nature drives most of the novel.

 

Works in Literary Context

Kazantzakis’s writing is often appraised as a single body that reveals the author’s philosophical and spiritual values. Most critics agree that his writings are at least partially autobiographical. But although Kazantzakis’s works seek to reconcile the dualities of human nature—mind and body, affirmation and despair, even life and death—some critics have suggested that the author’s ultimate concern lies more in striving to overcome inherent human conflicts than in resolving them.

Nietzsche and Bergson. Critics suggest that philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson strongly influenced Kazantzakis’s thought. The author was especially interested in the concepts Nietzsche outlined in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), wherein Nietzsche postulated that the primary tension in human nature exists between man’s physical drives and his intellectual and spiritual impulses; this idea is central to Kazantzakis’s themes. The author was also profoundly interested in Bergson’s concept of progressive spiritual development as man’s attempt to escape the constraints of his physical and social existence and unite with what Bergson termed the elan vital, the universal creative force. Both Serpent and Lily, which focused on a young man’s struggle to balance the physical and spiritual elements of his love for a woman, and The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises (1927), an essay in which the author explains his early philosophical concerns, display these influences, as do many of Kazantzakis’s subsequent works.

Spiritual Plight of Mankind. Late in his career, Kazantzakis explored the spiritual plight of mankind. This concern is most explicitly manifested in Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. In the former, Kazantzakis presented two characters who exemplify the poles of the conflict, Zorba representing a sensual figure, while the man known as ‘‘the boss’’ embodies more high-minded traits. In The Last Temptation of Christ, the conflict is portrayed as the essential dilemma of Christ, who is torn between his wish to serve God and his physical appetites. Characteristically, Kazantzakis does not attempt to present a resolution to the sensual-spiritual conflict in these novels. Zorba and his boss learn from their exchange of ideas but part essentially unchanged, while Christ, even as he is sacrificing himself on the cross, dreams of leading the sensually satisfying life of an ordinary man.

 

Works in Critical Context

While Kazantzakis’s stature as a unique voice in modern literature is uncontested, critical opinion about the literary quality of his individual works is frequently divided. Many hold the view that Kazantzakis subordinated his artistic concerns to the philosophical ideas he wanted to express. While some critics admire what they consider the passionate poetic voice with which the author communicates with his readers, others appreciate the realistic descriptions, metaphors, and profuse imagery that comprise Kazantzakis’s writing style.

Importance of Later Novels. Although Kazantzakis regarded The Odyssey as his masterpiece, critics generally consider Kazantzakis’s later novels more significant as illustrations of both his literary aims and his philosophy, praising the profound understanding of the human condition displayed in these works and commending Kazantzakis’s affirmations of the value of human existence. In addition, many suggest that Kazantzakis’s use of modern demotic Greek, rather than the accepted literary language, represents a significant advancement in the development of Greek literature. Long popular in his native country, his novels have been widely translated, and three of them—Zorba the Greek, The Greek Passion, and The Last Temptation of Christ—have served as the basis for films. As a result, Kazantzakis remains an important and much-discussed figure in world literature, reflecting the traditional culture of his native Crete while exemplifying the philosophical concerns of the modern European intellectual community.

The Odyssey. Critics assert that The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel functions at an allegorical as well as autobiographical level. As explained by John Ciardi in the Saturday Review, each episode in the poem is ‘‘an allegory of a stage of the soul, and all are threaded together on a series of mythic themes.’’ Odysseus progresses, according to the reviewer, through seven stages of ‘‘Bestiality, Battle-Hunger, Lust, Pure Intellect, Despair, Detachment, and, finally, Pure Soul.’’ Critics disagree, however, in their interpretations of the poem’s ending. Some regard Odysseus’s solitary death as Kazantzakis’s comment on life’s ultimate meaninglessness, while others construe Odysseus’s withdrawal as the triumph of man’s soul over both his physical existence and the random disasters that endanger it.

Although critics in Greece reportedly reacted negatively to Kazantzakis’s use of demotic language, reception of the work in English translation was generally favorable, with some reviewers admiring the quality of the poetry itself. ‘‘The literary achievement of Kazantzakis’s Odyssey lies in his rich and sonorous language and vivid and original imagery,’’ asserted C. A. Trypanis, for example, in the Manchester Guardian. But some critics found the poem outdated and unoriginal. ‘‘There is something oddly old-fashioned about this poem.... Not a new departure nor a daring experiment, but simply a kind of nostalgia for the days of the grand style and the picaresque epic,’’ noted Poetry contributor L. O. Coxe. Still other reviewers were highly enthusiastic in their praise, hailing the epic as a masterpiece. Adonis Decavalles, for instance, in another Poetry review, lauded The Odyssey as ‘‘undoubtedly the greatest long poem of our time, a colossal achievement in art and substance. It is the mature product of Kazantzakis’s deep familiarity with the best in world literature and thought, of intense living, traveling, and thinking.’’

The Last Temptation of Christ. Angered by The Last Temptation of Christs presentation of Christ’s humanity, the Greek Orthodox Church branded Kazant- zakis a heretic and threatened to excommunicate him. The book was also placed on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books, most probably because of its depiction of Jesus’s desire to marry and beget children. Criticism of the English translation ranged from the disapproving to the highly laudatory. The Christian Century's Kyle Haselden expressed disappointment with Christ's characterization, maintaining that Kazantzakis ‘‘writes divinely of that which is human.... But in depicting that which is divine the novelist is reduced to the human touch.’’

Atlantic contributor Phoebe Adams assessed The Last Temptation's Jesus as a literary figure, noting that ‘‘this Jesus is not the assured son of God following a preaccepted path, but a man who, in God's service, ... assumes something of the character of those epic heroes who choose their deaths—Achilles sailing for Troy under the shadow of the prophecy, or Cuchulainn riding on to battle when he knows his magical luck has left him.’’ More impressed was Nancie Matthews in the New York Times Book Review, who described The Last Temptation of Christ as a ‘‘mosaic of all the highlights of the Gospel story, vividly colored by... extravagant imagery, which is always richly overflowing but at times is distasteful, too.’’ She concluded, ‘‘If the book can be read without prejudice, this will be found a powerfully moving story of a great spiritual victory.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. The theme of the struggle between spirit and flesh predominates in Kazantzakis’s writings. Read at least one work by the author and write a paper in which you explain how this theme affects the work you have chosen.

2. There is a marked contrast between Zorba and the narrator in Zorba the Greek. Create a presentation in which you display these differences for the class.

3. How does Kazantzakis portray Jesus Christ’s psychological struggles in The Last Temptation of Christ? What are some of the criticisms that have been leveled against this portrayal? Write a paper in which you outline your opinions on the matter.

4. How does Kazantzakis relate New Testament events to the modern political conflict between Greece and Turkey in The Greek Passion? With a partner, create a visual presentation of your findings.

5. Critics have claimed that Odysseus in Kazantzakis’s The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel is an autobiographical figure. Why did Kazantzakis cast himself as a wanderer? Discuss the significance of travel in Kazantzakis's life in a paper.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Dombrowski, Daniel A. Kazantzakis and God. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Middleton, Darren J. N., and Peter Bien. God's Struggler: Religion in the Writings of Nikos Kazantzakis. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1996.

Prevalakis, Pandelis. Nikos Kazantzakis and His Odyssey: A Study of the Poet and the Poem. Trans. Philip Sherrard. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.

Periodicals

New Republic, Reviews. April 27, 1953; January 25, 1954; December 19, 1964; September 24, 1990.

New York Times Book Review, Reviews. August 7, 1960; June 10, 1962; June 16, 1963; August 15, 1965; May 5, 1985; September 22, 1985.

Saturday Review, Reviews. January 23, 1954; December 13, 1958; August 6, 1960; February 6, 1965; August 14, 1965.

Times Literary Supplement, Reviews. December 16, 1965; February 25, 1972.