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Ascent: A Profile of Nikos Kazantzakis

by Lee Congdon
 


f the late work of his fellow Cretan Domenicos Theotocopoulos, called El Greco ("The Greek"), Nikos Kazantzakis wrote that "the human soul has become a sword removed from its sheath, the body. And as the Cretan advanced in age, he dared even this: Man, both soul and body, becomes entirely sword. The body grows more and more ethereal, outstretched, transparent, shining, other-worldly--like a soul." From Henri Bergson, with whom he had studied in Paris, Kazantzakis had adopted the idea of an ‚lan vital, a vital impetus that transubstantiates flesh into spirit, that is "God" in its ascent toward a realm of pure spirit and freedom--even from freedom itself. This idea posed a direct challenge to the Greek Orthodoxy of his forebears and inspired some of the most powerful and controversial religious fiction of the twentieth century.
photo info: 
Nikos Kazantzakis at his house on Aegina, 1931.
Historical Museum of Crete
Nikos Kazantzakis at his house on Aegina, 1931.
Historical Museum of Crete

        Kazantzakis was born on February 18 (by the Julian calendar), 1883, in what is now Ir klion, Crete, but was then still under Ottoman rule. His homeland's subjugation created in him a yearning for freedom, from the Turk first but ultimately "from idols, all of them, even the most revered and beloved." But his soul also hungered for salvation, in search of which he studied the lives of saints and formed a lifelong attachment, of a kind, to the person of Jesus. Given to solitude and introspection, he might, had he not become a doubter, have chosen the monastic life; in 1914, in fact, he and the poet Angelos Sikelian—s made a pilgrimage to Mount Athos to seek an ancient wisdom. If Kazantzakis' autobiographical, but somewhat fictionalized, Report to Greco can be believed, he learned about the via dolorosa from one of the hermits on the holy mountain: "Ascent. To climb a series of steps. From the full stomach to hunger, from the slaked throat to thirst, from joy to suffering. God sits at the summit of hunger, thirst, and suffering."
        By the time he received these words, his soul "had been thrown into a ferment" by a teacher who had dutifully informed him that the earth was not the center of the universe and that Homo sapiens were the chance products of natural selection. These "wounds," as Kazantzakis called them, never healed. In "The Sickness of the Age," an essay of 1906, he wrote that science had dragged men "toward the infinite sorrow that all souls understand when they perceive that after death there is nothing, absolutely nothing." It was in that frame of mind and spirit that he began graduate studies in Paris in the fall of 1907. Pursuing interests that went beyond the merely academic, he, like so many of his generation, discovered Nietzsche, on whose philosophy he chose to write his dissertation.

From Henri Bergson, with whom he had studied in Paris, Kazantzakis had adopted the idea of an ‚lan vital, a vital impetus that transubstantiates flesh into spirit, that is "God" in its ascent toward a realm of pure spirit and freedom--even from freedom itself.


        It was the brooding German who proclaimed that God was dead, by which he meant that He had ceased to play a meaningful role in the lives of most modern people. As a result, men and women found themselves on the edge of the abyss. "What I relate is the history of the next two centuries," Nietzsche wrote in 1887. "I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism." By nihilism he did not mean the conviction that there is no afterlife and that life in the world is without purpose or goal; he meant the despair and existential anguish that accompany that conviction. Some--Nietzsche called them †bermenschen ("overmen")--were able to overcome nihilism by the analytically simple, if existentially difficult, expedient of saying yes to existence as it is, by gazing into the abyss with joy rather than sorrow. In so doing, they declared their freedom.
        To these ideas Kazantzakis felt an immediate attraction. "The man," he wrote in Report to Greco, "who either hopes for heaven or fears hell cannot be free." Determined not to fashion "an imaginary paradise out of na•vet‚ and cowardice--in order to cover the abyss," he credited Nietzsche with pointing him to the most courageous, and dangerous, way. "That is the one I want! Where is the abyss? That is where I am headed. What is the most valiant joy? To assume complete responsibility!"
        It is well to remember that Kazantzakis began his Report to Greco in 1956, the year before he died. When he first encountered Nietzsche's writings, he was impressed above all by the philosopher's proudly proclaimed disbelief in any design or purpose in the universe; not yet a fully mature †bermensch, he looked to his teacher, Bergson, for some ray of hope and found it in the life force that, as he conceived of it, shed matter in its upward trajectory.

fter he completed his studies, Kazantzakis returned to Greece, where he met and married the writer Galatea Alexˇou. His spiritual restlessness, however, made it impossible for him to put down roots; in 1919 he led a mission to repatriate 150,000 Greeks who were trapped in the Caucasus during the Russian Civil War, and in 1922, after signing a contract to prepare a series of school textbooks, he traveled, alone, to Vienna. In a city struggling to survive the loss of an empire, he began to explore non-Christian religions; of particular interest to him was Buddhism, probably as a result of his passive personality. But that passivity also troubled him, not least because he was following with interest the "experiment" then under way in Russia; should he not, he asked himself, be where the human spirit was clearly ascending? Should he not transform himself from a yogi into a commissar? He knew, of course, that Russia was wracked by violence and suffering, but the hermit on Mount Athos had taught him that a "red line" of suffering marked the spirit as it ascended. In 1925, therefore, he went to the Soviet Union as a newspaper correspondent; he returned on two subsequent occasions, during which he traveled extensively and came under Lenin's spell.
photo info: 
Kazantzakis with Eleni at the New Athos Monastery in Batoum, 1928.
Kazantzakis with Eleni at the New Athos Monastery in Batoum, 1928.

        Kazantzakis left Russia for the last time in the spring of 1929 and sought solitude in the mountains of Czechoslovakia, where he set to work on Toda Raba, a "confession in the form of a novel"; though generally regarded as a minor work, the novel, written in French, is valuable for its insight into communism's appeal to those who had turned away from Christianity. As it opens, Geranos (Kazantzakis) is in a monastery; alerted to the fact that he is a seeker, we are not surprised when he leaves for Moscow to attend an Oriental Congress, one of the propaganda spectaculars that the Soviets regularly organized for foreign intellectuals in search of a substitute religion. There he meets many true believers but also some, like Azad the Armenian, who are beginning to have doubts. Once a member of the feared Cheka--the secret police--Azad had murdered in the name of the party, but he has begun to think that communism can triumph only if it offers men "a faith superior to economic forecasts."
        Geranos agrees and therefore does not believe that communism represents a new spiritual beginning. Instead, he views it as the culmination of Western civilization's materialistic conception of life, an end rather than a beginning. Its mission, as he sees it, is to destroy what little remains of the West by forcing materialism to its logical and barren conclusion. To happiness, justice, and virtue--the things that lure others to the cause--he remains indifferent, even contemptuous. He seeks in Russia "the red line that pierces and passes through men like a rosary of skulls." There the vital force is ascending to a higher plane, bringing men, through suffering, closer to the summit where there is neither hope nor fear.
        In the novel's pivotal section, Geranos' conscience accuses him of being ready to become a Communist Party activist, of clinging to illusory hope. He denies the charge: "During this funeral procession that we call life," he replies, "you renounce everything, you empty your entrails, and cry, 'No! No!' while I--I see, I hear, I listen, I feel and I touch everything avidly. I say 'Yes' to life and to death." Although he does feel the pull of commitment, he recalls the story of the Hindu who struggled to keep his boat from being carried to a cataract by the current--until he recognized that his efforts were futile. He then crossed his oars and began to sing: "I have ceased to hope, I have ceased to fear, I am free!" (Kazantzakis later chose these words for his epitaph.)
        In a letter of May 26, 1928, Kazantzakis had written of his struggles to his lover (later his wife) El‚ni Samˇou (he had divorced Galatea): "I've definitely decided to remain aloof from any ephemeral action, however valuable it might be, and not to betray my great guide, Ulysses-Buddha." In Toda Raba he has Geranos write to his son that he is before all else one of Ulysses' sailors. And so he was. In 1925, he had already begun the work that he regarded as his major contribution to world literature: The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. After preparing seven drafts, he published his 24-book, 33,333-line epic in 1938.

azantzakis' Odyssey is a Nietzschean affirmation of life as a suffering ascent toward annihilation, the shedding of everything until only depersonalized spirit remains. "Odysseus," the Cretan once told an interviewer, "is the man who has freed himself from everything--religions, philosophies, political systems--one who has cut away all the strings." He picks up the story as Odysseus, having returned to Ithaca, is about to wash away the blood of his wife Penelope's suitors. Although he intends to settle down, his journeys have created in him a profound restlessness, and he soon decides to leave his homeland forever. Like Kazantzakis himself, Odysseus is a wanderer in search of a "god" with whom, or with which, he can unite in order to save--for it is man who must save God--by stripping himself of all ties to material existence and becoming free. For him, God is not a distinct and transcendent being; it is a force present in all things and beings that have resulted from an ever-ascending evolution.

Odysseus confesses that he has been moved by the lad's words of love and peace but insists that "he who still has hope puts his great soul to shame."


        In Egypt, Odysseus encounters "Nile," the type of Lenin who is plotting a revolution to establish justice on earth. Odysseus expresses solidarity but concedes that he is ambivalent concerning the wisdom of such a project. "You're welcome on your own terms to our just revolt," Nile tells him, "whether from love or raging fury or search for God." But the revolutionary leader is clearly contemptuous of those who are not fully committed to the cause: "What shame to waste such strength ... trying to find God!" Odysseus knows that he cannot live for bread and material comfort; unlike Nile, he is alive not when he is fighting for a better world, but when he feels the purifying flame (the vital impulse) burning within him.
        Continuing on his journey to the southern tip of Africa, Odysseus gains a reputation as an ascetic, even a savior. "I'm the great savior of the world where no salvation lies," he tells a blind hermit in self mockery. But his fame continues to spread and he receives a visit from "Prince Motherth," the type of the Buddha who mistakes Odysseus' recognition of the hopeless and annihilating abyss of death for a via negativa, a condition of terminal despair. He does not understand that for Odysseus, life is a joyful tragedy.
        After several more months, Odysseus reaches the ocean and, nearing death, builds a skiff that is to be his coffin. Before setting out on his voyage into the sea of annihilation, he encounters the "Negro fisher-lad," the type of Christ who speaks of a loving Father in heaven even as an older fisherman shouts that "the good still starve on whorish earth, the evil thrive." Such words wound the lad's heart, but he remains faithful to his mission of love, telling the others that even if struck in the face they must turn the other cheek. Upon hearing this, Odysseus deals the lad a blow and looks on in disbelief as the latter practices what he preaches.
        The two then sit on the beach, deep in thought. Odysseus confesses that he has been moved by the lad's words of love and peace but insists that "he who still has hope puts his great soul to shame." And when the lad says that God and man must become One, Odysseus replies that "this One is also empty air." He thanks the lad for making his last hours on earth blessed but says that he must follow a different path; "our meeting was most good, and good your words, but better still this parting which will last forever." And so it does. Odysseus sails toward the South Pole and death, which he welcomes with joy and in the knowledge that his spirit will soon be stripped of everything--including freedom itself--that has slowed its ascent, postponed its appointment with Nothingness.

ollowing convention, I wrote that the Negro fisher-lad was "the type of Christ"; I should have written "the type of Jesus" because Kazantzakis could not bring himself to pray as the Orthodox do to "Christ our God." To him, Jesus was only a man, albeit a fascinating man who delivered a largely ignored message of love and a shameful, because cowardly, message of hope. In two remarkable novels, he attempted to rescue Jesus from the Orthodox Church and to present him as he was, or rather as he ought to have been. In The Greek Passion (Christ Recrucified in the original Greek) he showed readers the face of a savage Jesus. Every seven years, in a small Greek village under Turkish rule, carefully chosen villagers reenact the Passion of Christ; the role of Christ falls to the shepherd Manolios (Emmanuel).

The wrongheadedness of a liberation theology is a minor theme in The Last Temptation of Christ, a novel in which Kazantzakis recast Jesus in his own image.


        Manolios identifies so completely with Jesus that he breaks off his engagement, conquers his lust for the village widow (a type of Mary Magdalene), and seeks martyrdom. Having, so to say, become Jesus, he looks with a sad but angry eye upon the grasping and gluttonous villagers and their corrupt priest, Grigoris. When homeless Christians, led by a priest with a social conscience, wander into the village, they are shown no charity and turned away. Manolios joins them and demands justice with such eloquence that the son of a wealthy village leader offers to make a gift of land he has inherited. Priest Fotis, the shepherd of the refugees, rejoices that "we now have lands and trees, and we will all work them together and enjoy them together. None of us will be rich, none will be poor. We will form a united family. God grant we may show how men ought to live together and how justice can reign on earth."
        The villagers, however, have other ideas. The villagers consider Manolios and the priest Bolsheviks, and resolve to prevent their followers from occupying the land that has been given them. The desperate men and women, in turn, decide to defend their newly acquired property, by violent means if necessary. The once pacific Manolios carves a savage mask of Jesus and gives his blessing to the shedding of blood. Enraged, Priest Grigoris excommunicates Manolios and calls the villagers to arms. They wreak a terrible vengeance on the refugees and, at Grigoris' word, murder Manolios, the Christ recrucified.
        It might seem that The Greek Passion is a literary brief for a revolutionary social gospel, but in fact Kazantzakis wanted his readers to understand that a politically radical Jesus, however justified in condemning the rich and powerful, was doomed to fail. Bending over the martyred Manolios, Priest Fotis gives voice to his despair: "In vain, Manolios, in vain will you have sacrificed yourself. ... In vain, my Christ, in vain; two thousand years have gone by and men crucify You still." Social revolutionaries may have right on their side, but they offer a false and unmanly hope. The Greek Passion is a tract written against what later became known as "liberation theology."
        The wrongheadedness of a liberation theology is a minor theme in The Last Temptation of Christ, a novel in which Kazantzakis recast Jesus in his own image. In the recasting, Jesus is a carpenter who builds crosses on which the condemned are crucified. Far from being the incarnate Son of God, he is the timid and sinful "son of Mary." He has a special affection for Mary Magdalene, with whom he had a prepubescent physical experience. He wants nothing more than to marry Mary and raise a family--this is, in fact, his greatest temptation because God, or rather a force within him, calls him to a special mission: the suffering ascent to pure spirit. Only in this way will he and "God" become one, an imperative that he has always felt deeply. "Even when I was tiny," he tells a rabbi, "I shouted to myself--oh, what impudence! what impudence!--'God, make me God!' "
        As he matures, Jesus begins to preach a gospel of love. There is no more to it than that, but one of his disciples, Matthew, concocts stories because of a wish to make it appear that his master's words and deeds fulfill ancient prophecies. When Jesus discovers these deceptions, he flies into a rage: "Lies! Lies! Lies! ... I was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem; I've never even set foot in Bethlehem, and I don't remember any Magi. I never in my life went to Egypt; and what you write about the dove saying 'This is my beloved son' to me as I was being baptized--who revealed that to you?"
        Another disciple, Judas, is a political revolutionary who cannot persuade Jesus to lead the struggle against Rome. In the mistaken belief that it might be a secret plan of action, the red-bearded zealot gives in when Jesus' insists on being betrayed to the authorities. Jesus knows that he must suffer death on the cross, but he does not for a moment believe that he will be raised from the dead. For Kazantzakis, the death of Jesus is simply a dramatic instance of a universal fate--all must die. "This," he wrote in his prologue to the novel, "was the ascent taken by Christ, the ascent which he invites us to take as well, following in his bloody tracks."

Nailed to the cross, Jesus has a dream, his last temptation. He dreams that he has taken the coward's way out by refusing to travel the Via Dolorosa, adopting an assumed name, marrying Mary (not Magdalene) and Martha, and fathering a houseful of children.


        Nailed to the cross, Jesus has a dream, his last temptation. He dreams that he has taken the coward's way out by refusing to travel the Via Dolorosa, adopting an assumed name, marrying Mary (not Magdalene) and Martha, and fathering a houseful of children. One day, many years later, he happens to hear someone--it is the Apostle Paul--preaching a risen Christ. Outraged, he shouts so that all might hear: "Liar! Liar! I am Jesus of Nazareth and I was never crucified, never resurrected. I am the son of Mary and of Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth. I am not the son of God, I am the son of man--like everyone else."
        All of this transpires in a single instant on the cross, a literary device that Kazantzakis first experimented with in Toda Raba when the African shaman Toda Raba loses himself in dance and, wearing a mask of Lenin, dreams of setting the world ablaze. More important, however, it provided Kazantzakis with an opportunity to make clear his disbelief in Christ and his belief in a Jesus who was merely a more perfect version of himself, a man marked by the red line of suffering as he ascends to "God," the summit of immateriality. hat Christians were shocked and offended by The Last Temptation cannot have surprised Kazantzakis. On January 12, 1954, the Vatican placed the book on the Index of Forbidden Books. Greek Orthodox hierarchs sought to arraign its author on charges of heresy, eliciting a characteristic response: "You gave me your curse, holy Fathers," Kazantzakis said. "I give you a blessing: May you be as moral and religious as I am." Unlike Tolstoy, he was never excommunicated, but when he died in October 1957, the Orthodox Church in Athens refused to allow his body to lie in state, though it was viewed in the cathedral church of Ir klion. One wonders whether or not Kazantzakis himself would have approved.
        Kazantzakis' attempt in The Last Temptation to fashion a new Jesus was as unconvincing as it was offensive, so bound up was it with a spiritualized and murky metaphysics. He was always at his best when he wrote as a straightforward Nietzschean or life celebrant. No better proof of this may be offered than the novel that, thanks in part to the brilliant screen performance of Anthony Quinn, was probably his most famous: Zorba the Greek. Kazantzakis modeled Zorba after GeZorb s, whom he had hired in 1917 to help mine lignite in the Peloponnese (probably in an effort to avoid conscription). "Of all those I loved in my life," Kazantzakis wrote of this unusual man, "I loved him most." Zorb s taught him to love life and have no fear of death--in a word, to be free. He was to Kazantzakis a "spiritual father"--in Orthodoxy, a person who assumes responsibility for your soul, who stands in for Christ. In that sense, it is someone who knows what you should or should not do, but who respects your free will.
        As the novel opens, a young writer (Kazantzakis) is on his way to Crete, where he intends to extract lignite and fling himself into a life of action. Although he is writing a book about Buddha, he has become convinced that he is too much of a "bookworm"; he wants to stop thinking about life and begin to live it. While still en route to Crete, he meets and takes into his employ Alexis Zorba, a free spirit who makes it clear that he will be a hard and loyal worker, but a free man. Zorba quickly recognizes that his "boss" is too much the intellectual and hence incapable of action. Although, for example, the village widow, whom men desire and therefore hate, has eyes only for the boss, he refuses to go to her. Zorba insists that such a refusal is the one sin that God will not forgive.
photo info: 
Kazantzakis in his study in Antibes, 1956.
Kazantzakis in his study in Antibes, 1956.

        Of course, Zorba neither believes in God nor troubles himself about spiritual matters. He is an "overman" in whom the life force can scarcely be contained. Kazantzakis makes this clear by having Zorba dance whenever words seem to complicate and take the joy out of life. Such Dionysian celebrations are contagious, and the boss finally appeals to him: "Teach me," he says, "to dance." The boss, however, never quite abandons himself completely; for better or worse, his is the life of the mind. On his deathbed in a Serbian village, therefore, Zorba sends a last message: "Tell him," he instructs a local schoolmaster, "I hope he is well and that it's about time he showed a bit of sense."
        Kazantzakis was here talking to himself, but it is unlikely that he ever seriously considered sacrificing his writing on a pagan altar. Words were for him the only means of dulling life's pain and of continuing the ascent. "Words! Words!" he wrote in Report to Greco. "For me, alas, there was no other salvation." Salvation? What, one wonders, could Kazantzakis have meant, he who always insisted that there was no salvation? Could it be that at the last he remembered the Negro fisher-lad's departing words to Odysseus? "God is compassionate and great, and he can save at the last hour that soul that does not want salvation."


Lee Congdon writes regularly on modern literature. He is professor of history at James Madison University

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