BORN: 1883, Heraklion, Crete
DIED: 1957, Freiburg, West Germany
GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry
Zorba the Greek (1946)
The Greek Passion (1948)
Captain Michalis (1950)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1951)
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 Heraklion, 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 Collège 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 well-being 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.
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.
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 Mac-Arthur 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.
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).
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 élan 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.
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.
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 Christ's presentation of Christ's humanity, the Greek Orthodox Church branded Kazantzakis 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
The Greek author, journalist, and statesman Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) is considered the foremost figure in modern Greek literature. His work is marked by his search for God and immortality.
Nikos Kazantzakis was born on Feb. 18, 1883, in the town of Hērákleion, Crete, where he received his elementary and secondary education. His father was a primitive peasant, unsociable and uncommunicative, and his mother a sweet, submissive, and saintly woman. Nikos studied law in Athens (1902-1906) and graduated with honors. Before he left for Paris, where he studied philosophy (1907-1909), he had already made an appearance in Greek letters. His first work, an essay entitled "The Disease of the Century," was published by Picture Gallery Magazine and was followed by his first novel, The Serpent and the Lily (both 1906). Both works were under the pseudonym Carma Nirvani, one of the many he used the first years of his writing. His first play, Daybreak, was staged several months later at the Athenian Theater in Athens.
While in Paris, Kazantzakis served as journalist for various Greek magazines. By 1910 he had completed a trilogy—Broken Souls, The Empress Zoe, and God-Man; a drama, The Master Mason (which won an award); and another play, The Comedy. The last two were published under the pseudonym Petros Psiloritis. In 1911, after a stormy relationship, he married Galatea Alexiou, a writer, and together they continued their writing in a small apartment in Athens.
During the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) Kazantzakis volunteered but served noncombatively with Special Services in the Premier's office. By 1916 he had written two more plays, Hercules and Theofano (he later developed the latter into Nikiforos Phocas), and mapped out three more. The Master Mason was staged as a musical drama at the Municipal Theater in Athens. By now his interest in Friedrich Nietzsche was at its peak, and he set off on a pilgrimage to Switzerland, visiting and studying the places associated with this philosopher. By 1920 Kazantzakis, now 37 years of age, was still undecided about his destiny. He felt he was an Odysseus who would never reach his Ithaca.
The years 1922-1924 were critical for Kazantzakis. He carried his inner struggles to Vienna and later Berlin. In Vienna he began to write the theatrical work Buddha (which after many revisions and additions was published in Athens in 1956) and completed the final draft of his romantic novel A Year of Loneliness (unpublished). In Berlin he drafted Saviours of God, a philosophic work into which he poured his longing for immortality and his belief that man's dedication to creative activity alone can save God.
In 1924 Kazantzakis completed Buddha and began Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. That summer he met Helen Samiou, a young Greek journalist, who later became his second wife. In November 1925 he went to the Soviet Union as a foreign correspondent for the Athenian newspaper Free Speech. Here he was greatly influenced by the new Russian movement. He then undertook new journeys—to Palestine and Cyprus (April-May 1926); Spain (August-September 1926); Italy (October 1926); where he had an audience with Mussolini; Egypt and Sinai (December 1926-January 1927). His journalistic interest in political events was a concession to the newspaper organizations which provided him with travel funds. In 1927 he settled for a short while on the island of Aegina to arrange selections from his travelogs into volumes that were later to appear as Travels— Spain, Italy, and so on.
In April 1928 Kazantzakis left again for the Soviet Union, where he wrote a screenplay for a Russian film entitled The Red Kerchief. (Its theme was the Greek Revolution of 1821.) Helen Samiou joined him, and together they toured the northern Soviet Union. From then on the couple were never separated except for short periods. Kazantzakis claimed that he owed his happiness to Helen and that without her he would have died many years sooner. She dedicated her life to him, acting as wife, secretary, nurse, companion, friend. In 1930 he worked on his History of Russian Literature. By 1932 he completed the manuscripts of Buddha, Don Quixote, Muhammed, The Ten Days, and the first draft of his Greek translation of Dante's Divine Comedy.
In 1936 Kazantzakis wrote two novels in French: The Rock Gardenand Mon Père. (The latter was incorporated 14 years later in Freedom or Death. ) By 1937 he had completed the seventh rewrite of his Odyssey; a new play, Melissa; and three cantas: Alexander the Great Christ, and Grandfather-Father-Grandson. He spent all of 1938 working on the final draft of the Odyssey, and in December of that year it was finally published in Athens. In 1941 he began his famous novel Zorba the Greek. In 1943 he completed Zorba and three plays, the Prometheus Trilogy: Prometheus the Firebearer, Prometheus Bound, and Prometheus Freed. Despite the hardships of the German occupation of Greece, his writing was not affected. He and Helen spent the occupation years on the island of Aegina, where he wrote feverishly. He completed a modern translation of Homer's Iliad and began his modern Greek translation of Homer's Odyssey. He brought all his manuscripts up to date and in 1944 he wrote the plays Kapodistria and Constantine Paleologos. When the German occupation ended, he returned to Athens and became active in various socialist groups. In August he was made president of the Socialist Workers Union and married Helen Samiou in the Greek Orthodox Church. A few months later he was appointed a minister in the Sofouli government of Greece and served until his resignation in 1946. Soon afterward, he and his wife took up residence in Paris. This was the beginning of their self-exile from Greece; Kazantzakis believed that his country had denied him too many times; he would continue his work on foreign shores.
In 1948 Kazantzakis wrote the play Sodom and Gomorrha. In July he began his famous novel Christ Recrucified, titled The Greek Passion in the English translation. By September the novel was completed, but, as was his custom, he did a full rewrite of the book by December. In 1949 he wrote The Fratricides. In April he wrote the play Theseus, which was published as Kouros From May to July he wrote the play Christopher Columbus, and the next 2 months were spent rewriting Constantine Paleologos. In December he began Freedom or Death and completed the second rewrite by July 1950. He completed The Last Temptation of Christ by July 1951. In 1953, although in poor health, he completed St. Francis of Assisi. The Vatican issued an edict against The Last Temptation of Christ in April 1954. Kazantzakis replied with a telegram, quoting Tertullian: "In Your Courtroom, Lord, I Appeal." Among his last works was his spiritual semiautobiography, Report to Greco (1955).
Kazantzakis died on Oct. 26, 1957. He was buried in the town of his birth. A plain wooden cross marks his grave with the epitaph he had requested: "I have nothing … I fear nothing … I am free."
Two studies of Kazantzakis are Pandelis Prevelakis, Nikos Kazantzakis and His Odyssey: A Study of the Poet and thePoem (trans. 1961), and Helen Kazantzakis, Nikos Kazantzakis: A Biography Based on His Letters (1968).