1.The posthumous destiny
Sixty years after his death, Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) remains the most popular and the most internationally renowned writer to come out of Greece during the last twenty centuries. His novels are the only works of modern Greek prose included in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon and Zorba the Greek continues to sell thousands of copies every year. With the poet C.P. Cavafy, he has ‘branded’ a whole country and its cultural perception, defining an expectation about things Greek through his personal aesthetics and constructing images that are considered ‘quintessentially’ Greek.
The achievement is not negligible given the peripheral state of Greek literature but, for many, his success remains inexplicable. Some critics feel that Kazantzakis was an invention of the publishing industry during the post-war period as an antidote to the melancholy and nihilism of French existentialism. Zorba the novel (1946) and film (1964) both offered a necessary epicurean release to the emotional repression of the period by de-normalising Mediterranean masculinity and exoticizing the Greek landscape – thus encouraging mass tourism to the Aegean islands for summer adventures and euphoric holidays.
For the very few critics who approached him as a writer, Kazantzakis was deemed to belong to a previous era: he was already a parochial writer, pre-modernist or indeed anti-modernist in a cultural world that was transitioning rapidly to the conceptual schemes and the imaginative patterns of a post-modern literary worldview and practice. With his usual venom and unfairness, Vladimir Nabokov called Kazantzakis ‘second-rate, ephemeral, puffed-up’; Gore Vidal quipped that one of his best novels, The Last Temptation of Christ, was ‘a marvellously dead landscape of a book in which not even a weed could grow.’
Nevertheless, all his works, even his clumsiest aestheticist juvenilia, like the Serpent and the Lily (1906) and novels for adolescents, have been translated into English. His magnum opus, the epic poem Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, of 33,333 verses, found a refined trans-creator with Kimon Friar in 1959. Recently even the young writer’s failed postgraduate thesis on Friedrich Nietzsche has appeared in English and offered a new understanding of the German philosopher’s presence in his work, especially during its formative years. Finally, the huge correspondence of Kazantzakis was translated recently by one of the most avid readers and interpreters of his work, Peter Bien, who also gave us recently the first complete and accurate translation of his most popular novel.
Zorba the Greek is the only Greek novel included in a list of the best thousand novels that, according to The Guardian, one must read. His provocative re-writing of the Gospels in The Last Temptation of Christ became an international cause célèbre, after it was banned by the Vatican. Riots followed its rather inadequate adaptation for the screen by Martin Scorsese. For a while there, during the sixties and seventies, Kazantzakis became a counter-cultural cult figure. The notorious guru Rajneesh (Osho) even had the brilliant entrepreneurial idea of establishing a number of discos under the name Zorba the Buddha. The hippies worshipped his presumably rebellious ideas and New Age followers never miss the opportunity to salute his status as ‘the outsider’, following Colin Wilson. Indeed, Kazantzakis became such a part of popular culture that he even appeared in a Steven Spielberg film as a philosopher in the Greek monasteries, tutoring the young Indiana Jones on the essence of causality.
Zorba attained global fame after the Greek director Michael Cacoyannis adapted the novel for the big screen. That film created a completely new image and iconography of contemporary Greek culture. The music by Mikis Theodorakis, the so-called Zorba dance, has become the unofficial Greek national anthem, evoking perpetual fun and uninhibited sensuality; it’s a vital soundtrack to a tourist industry that presents art as titillating entertainment. Zorba is not simply a literary invention, or an imaginative character – it also underwrites an industry based on ethnic identity and its presumed symbolism – very few cities around the planet do not have a restaurant called Zorba!
In Greece, reading Kazantzakis’ novels is a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood, as with the novels of Herman Hesse. However, literary critics in the country haven’t been favourable or even kind to Kazantzakis. Many reject his ‘militant vernacular’, his gigantic heroism, his grandiloquence and the excessive rhetoric of emotional plethorism. And so the work rests in a constant limbo as readers fall for its charms and critics repudiate its merits. For all this, Kazantzakis’ work has become fertile territory for university theses and research papers, as scholars investigate his influences, from Plato to Henri Bergson, from Sufi mystics to Nietzsche, and from Buddhism to Martin Heidegger. In a way his work is more complicated than it initially looks and his personality as a writer much more confusing than the popular perception has it.
In his introduction to the novel Zorba Kazantzakis wrote: ‘In my life, the greatest benefactors were travels and dreams; from humans, living or dead, very few helped my struggled. However, if I wanted to distinguish which people left their traces deeper in my soul, perhaps I would indicate three or four: Homer, Bergson, Nietzsche and Zorba.’ His pantheon also includes Buddha, Lenin and St Francis of Assisi, complicating the interpretation of his work or the understaning of his personality. However such research risks missing the point of his most significant achievement: the construction of texts full of incongruous conceptual paradigms and conflicting semantic frameworks.
Kazantzakis was a writer in constant conflict with his verbal idiom and in structural collision with language itself. Whoever reads his novels is impressed (or annoyed) by the gothic grandiosity of his rhetoric, the romantic extremism of his contradictions, the quest for a certain redemption that never comes and finally, his relentless efforts to construct a literary work that would fuse genres, forms and styles. And here exactly lies his significance as a writer and, what can be called, his confusing modernism: from his own Greek tradition which was always bookish and centred around the grand unifying mythos of Greek language, he was one of the first writers who realised the limits and limitations of linguistic representation and tried to confabulate by re-writing or even re-configuring the great stories of the literary tradition that started with Homer. Kazantzakis is a re-writer, a revisionist mythographer who produced endless variations around well known themes and their probable reinterpretations. Kazantzakis produced more stories than any other Greek writer since the time of the ancient Athenian tragedians. He invented, re-invented and re-re-invented so many traditional myths in his novels, plays and poems that it remains somehow bewildering to find him a writer of such overwhelming ambition, versatility and titanic will.
2. The context
Kazantzakis’ intellectual development is reflected in the very heterogeneity of his works. As the most famous example of his exclusion from the modern Greek literary canon, we can simply mention here Konstantinos Demaras’ influential History of Greek Literature (1949) in which Kazantzakis’ work is completely stripped of any literary value and Kazantzakis himself is relegated to the field of pedagogy, being classified as a ‘pedagogue to the nation’. The suspicion of his works by literary purists remains strong to this day.
Even his most dedicated disciple, Pandelis Prevelakis, overwhelmed by the complexity of his intellect and the diversity of his writing styles, had extremely mixed feelings about him; ‘I have loved him,’ he wrote, ‘I denied him and finally loved him again!’ His resuscitated love however, after Kazantzakis’ death, revealed a profound ambivalence towards his work and his personality. In his ambitious trilogy, The Ways of Creation, especially in the last novel The Bread of Angels (1965) Louizos Damolinos, a thinly veiled stand in for Kazantzakis, dies of internal blood poisoning and his body rots from within as a metaphysical punishment for what Prevelakis charged his intellectual master of: the contamination of Greek tradition with what he termed ‘the invasion of foreign temporality’.
Prevelakis’ magisterial trilogy is an intellectual tour de force. He explores the intellectual challenges that Kazantzakis laid down for Greek culture, the challenges that could undermine the foundations of the Christian Orthodox tradition, based, according to Prevelakis at least, on folk culture, the demotic language and liturgical spirituality. As an epigone to an undaunted and dangerous generation that experienced the horrors of the Great War, the Asia Minor Catastrophe as well as the Russian and German revolutions, Prevelakis became terrified by the dangerous and titanic vision of an integrated individuality, certain or deluded that was in control of its destiny and will, as expressed by Kazantzakis, especially in his epic poem The Odyssey. Kazantzakis represented that generation of extremes and extremists, like Knut Hamsun, Ernst Junger, T.E. Lawrence, Andre Malraux and Gabrielle D’Annunzio, who experienced a disturbing spiritual and political implosion in their own societies and tried to reclaim new social spaces for the individual. In Kazantzakis’ case the result of his personal crisis after the Great War was probably his most challenging and valuable little book, Ascetics, or The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises as translated by Kimon Friar.
Unfortunately, Prevelakis and other conservatives of the period, like the Nobel Prize-winning poet George Seferis, focused the discussion on Kazantzakis’ ‘Greekness’ or the absence of it. In reality, they could not find a place within the imaginary edifice of their own transcendental Hellenism for a thinker who brought into Greek culture the architectural asymmetries of Western modernity Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche and Henry Bergson together with Buddha, Sufi mysticism, Jewish Kabala and proto-existentialism. Some of these strands of thought, Kazantzakis didn’t have to transplant. His vast knowledge of Greek intellectual traditions, from the pre-Socratics to the Trotskyist movement of his times, shows that he revived and converged ‘underground currents’ from heterogenous trajectories, while always remaining open to cultural otherness by avoiding defensive identities and phobic self-definitions that have dominated mainstream Greek cultural production.
Kazantzakis’ central literary endeavour was not to define or re-define his Greekness or a certain perception of national identity. He systematically problematised his personal and literary identity; he didn’t take it as a foundational essence of his existence but as a fluid and mutable project. Identity for Kazantzakis was not a given but a future and ultimate achievement through writing, the final consummation of a life’s trajectory. What was not reducible to the circumstances of its creation was for him at the heart of the identity as framed by writing. Like many other writers of European modernism, D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac, Georges Bernanos and Thomas Mann, he saw the writer’s task as the constant and persistent re-vision and re-imagining of the tradition at hand, religious or secular.
Consequently, Kazantzakis’ work is so dense that it can be misleading and is often misunderstood. Despite the gripping plots of his best novels and the visionary amplitude of his long poem, it is not always clear what he is trying to say. For the conservatives, he was non-Greek or even anti-Greek; for the Orthodox Church, an atheist; for the Marxists, a confused liberal; for the aesthetes, a formless regurgitator of alien ideas.
Their approach delineates a very strong characteristic of his work, his philosophical and aesthetical eclecticism. In his early period, Kazantzakis wrote passionate and florid lyrical prose following the aestheticism of D’Annunzio, Oscar Wilde, Stephane Mallarme and even Charles Baudelaire. Before conversing with philosophers like Nietzsche and Bergson, his philosophical credo was expressed by Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, about which he wrote a very interesting essay in 1912. After he moved to Paris, he read Nietzsche and Bergson, when later went to Vienna and Berlin after the War he studied Marx and Freud. In the early twenties he travelled to Moscow where he found the revolutionary passions burning still high. He was soon to experience the frustration and disillusion with Communism and by 1925 became one of the very first European intellectuals to envision a ‘post-communist’ era.
All of these influences came together in his Ascetics, (the title must be read as in mathematics). Friar’s translation gives voice to a flowing and forceful literary idiom, deprived of the deep theological and metaphysical connotations that we find in the original (something that characterises the translations of his work in general.) What is striking about this book is its peculiar hybrid character; textually it is something between a lyric poem, philosophical treatise, visionary literature, and theological credo. Written around the same period as Martin Buber’s I and Thou (1923) and D.H. Lawrence’s Apocalypse (1930) it resonates with the same eschatological anxiety that permeated the artistic messianism of the Weimar republic and the foreboding of an imminent collapse – the atmosphere which culminated in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) or the films of German cinematic expressionism. Kazantzakis wrote:
Spiritual Exercises was written in Germany in 1923 in order to express the spiritual agony and the hopes of a communist circle of Germans, Poles and Russians who could not breathe easily within the narrow, backward, materialistic perception of the Communist Idea. Let Spiritual Exercises be thought of as the first lyrical attempt, the first outcry of a post-communist CREDO.
And this will remain one of the foundational statements of Kazantzakis literary quest. The book starts: ‘We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life.’ It ends with an equally grand pronouncement:
And thrice blessed be those who bear on their shoulders and do not buckle under this great, sublime and terrifying secret: That even this one does not exist!
Throughout the text, modelled around Ignatius Loyola’ Spiritual Exercises (hence the English title), Kazantzakis elaborates a mystical vision of interiority, analogous to those of Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme. It articulates a strange but highly inspiring and challenging vision of deity:
My God is not All-Holy. He is full of cruelty and savage justice, and he chooses the best mercilessly. He is without compassion; he does not trouble himself about men or animals; nor does he care for virtues and ideas, he loves all these things for moment, then smashes them eternally and passes on.
In many occasions, his vision is close to that of Spinoza, Einstein and Whitehead as he challenges directly both the Judeo-Christian perception of divine transcendence and pure goodness (‘He begets them, loves them and destroys them’) and the Islamic perception of the merciful and omnipotent god (‘God is imperilled, He is not almighty, that we may cross our hands, waiting for certain victory. He is not all-holy, that he may wait trustingly for him to pity and to save us.’) This is a unique religious vision in the intellectual history of both the West and the East. Despite its relentless and occasionally histrionic style, Kazantzakis manages to articulate something which will be discussed time and again: the identification of being and thinking, or in eschatological terms, of God and matter. Irrespective, of Kazantzakis’s position in the literary canon, this is a booklet that goes beyond the literaliness of its articulation: it is a mystical treatise in the style of works like Pseudo-Dionysius’ Mystical Theology, the anonymous writer of The Dark Cloud of Unknowing, John of the Cross’ The Dark Night of the Soul and from modern times, Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation.
Kazantzakis, however, was well aware of the suspicion and the reservation that his style would create. In his most accomplished novel, Christ Recrucified, he simplified his message to the point of the proverbial brevity:
Manolios place his hand on the knee of father Fotis, who, absorbed in his meditations, said nothing.
‘How ought we to love God, Father?’ he asked in a whisper.
‘By loving men, my son.’
‘And how ought we to love men?’
‘By trying to guide them along the right path.’
‘And what is the right path?’
‘The one that rises.”
Jonathan Griffin’s translation fails to capture the original word aniforos, the uphill way, the way of moving upwards, but the meaning is clear: this dialogue in elliptical sentences encapsulates the central theme of Kazantzakis work which is found in Dante’s Inferno: ‘m’insegnavate come l’uom s’etterna: You taught me how the man may eternal grow’. But this is raises questions of translation which should be discussed elsewhere.
3. The Works
Kazantzakis was one of the few Greeks who left the insular and introverted culture of their motherland and joined the group of cosmopolitan and exiled writers we find throughout the inter-war period. He seems almost untouched by the most traumatic event of the decade, the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922 that then permeated the mood and the atmosphere of literary and artistic production in his country. This can be seen in his travel books, which contain his most interesting inter-cultural observations and showcase his amazing ability to point out strange details. In the most sardonic of them, on England, he never misses an opportunity to put down contemporary English people because they have betrayed the English people created by Shakespeare. ‘There is no human type,’ he writes, ‘so different from the Shakespearean hero as the contemporary Englishman.’ Of the Peloponnese he has only negative questions: ‘How are we so debased as a race?,’ he asks again and again. His answers reveal some of his best prose: ‘…it is also curiosity, the insatiability of the Greek to learn, not to miss anything, to possess, to taste. Such curiosity is the lightest form of theft and piracy, as kissing is the lightest form of cannibalism.’ The explorations of Patrick Leigh Fermor in his two books Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966) are informed by Kazantzakis’ unorthodox vision of his motherland.
Kazantzakis is indeed a rather uneven writer: not because of his austere vernacular language, or for his bombastic rhetoric or his superhuman heroes. His writing frames a style in process, one that was being constantly exposed to the experimentation of the period. The reader can feel the gradual changes in register, form and ultimately voice that permeate each individual work as if the end of the work came with the penultimate exhaustion of its writing potential. This is obvious in his two experiments with modernist novel-writing, Toda Raba and The Garden of Rocks, both written in French. These are novels which look more like cinematic scenarios and exercises in verbal montage closer to Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dozhenko than to the realism of D.H. Lawrence or Thomas Mann or indeed to the Greek writers of the period.
In order to achieve such an open scriptibility, Kazantzakis made the act of writing itself a transparent and open-ended process, exploring within the work itself not simply semantic variations but transformations of style. His novels began as long essays – without plot, character and developing story-lines. Yet, but by the end of his life, Kazantzakis was the only Greek writer who managed to invent not only as convincing and complete a character as Zorba but also a fascinating plot, in Christ Recrucified, an enthralling story as in Freedom and Death and finally the almost Augustinian account of the formation of a writer’s self-conflicting subjectivity as in his autobiography, Report to Greco.
Through his development one can clearly see that he was in a constant and relentless conflict with language — and not simply with his native language. During the years of formation Kazantzakis experienced the traumas of constant warfare in his native island of Crete. As he states, writing, the pen, was a substitute for fighting, the sword. Yet during his upbringing, with the duality of influences, maternal transcendence versus paternal violence, Kazantzakis felt divided between elemental tendencies that were foundational blocks of his personality. The fear and admiration in front of a colossal father, holding a gun over his head, in order to kill the whole family, before falling in the hands of the Turkish mob, represents the existential ground of his whole writing and defined the horizon of his symbolic world.
Kazantzakis always stressed that the position of Crete was not simply between Europe and Asia, but between Europe, Asia and Africa. In his personal mythology even the fact that his family came from a village called the Barbarians indicated the problematic origin of his own existence. His synthesising mission, as he saw it, was a collective cultural project not only a personal choice. The success of his books in the Arab world and in Israel, in India and in Japan point to the narrative and symbolic amalgam that we find in his work, the fusion of Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist mysticism within a pre-Socratic hylozoism, a materialistic panentheism celebrated by many great thinkers. The relocation of the sacred from the transcendental god within the material reality, and the unexpected reformations that such transposition created is explored in his most mature work.
His Odyssey, a poem that deserves closer reading, is punctuated by ruptures, involutions and twists that essentially give to its narrative thrust and mythographic language a sense of unpredictability and surprise. As in his novels however, Kazantzakis seems to misrecognise his own narrative skills: he never misses an opportunity to give us a sermon, a philosophical treatise or a diatribe about his beliefs which dilutes and ultimately destroys his own intentions. The narrative art is gripping and the story enthralling but the long interruptions, which in themselves are really interesting lyrical interludes, distract the reader from the adventures of Ulysses.
For example, the wild and harsh beginning of the poem is indicative of his ability to tell a fascinating story:
And when in his wide courtyards Odysseus had cute down
The insolent youths, he hung on high his sated bow
And strode to the warm bath to cleanse his bloodstained body.
Two slaves prepared his bath, but when they saw their lord
They shrieked with terror, for his loins and belly steamed
And thick black blood dripped down from both his murderous palms… (I, 1-6)
This opening is ingeniously magisterial, starting in media res, with a conjunction, giving the reader a prehistory and situating the poem in response to Homer’s Odyssey. The English translation, in its best parts, recreates the extreme sensation of pure bodily reactions that we encounter when we read the original text, structured around polysyllabic words, compound adjectives and an extended dactylic hexameter. Friar reimagines the poem in monosyllabic verbs and almost Gothic imagery, echoing, perhaps, the anti-epic sensibility of T.S. Eliot. In his best lyrical passages, Friar, a refined poet himself, trans-creates a new text:
O Virtue, precious and light-sleeping daughter of man
How you rejoice when, all alone, biting your lips,
Poor, persecuted, thrust into the desolate wastes,
You find no friend on whom to cling, no straw to clutch,
For there are no souls crowd round to marvel at your grace,
No gods are there for whose dear sake you fling your lance,
Yet upright, silent, you fight in the wild wastes and know
You’ll never win, but battle only for your own sake.
Rise high, O Virtue, gaze now on that white-haired head
With its despairing brilliant brain that sails and plays
Its gleaming tentacles like a frail nautilus… (XXII,1-10)
Overall, the translation approaches the original through T.S. Eliot’s anti-Homeric presumptions: it discovers Virgil’s sophistication where Homer’s primitivism is dominant. Instead of reading Kazantzakis’ poem as what C.S. Lewis called ‘a secondary epic,’ in the way we read Milton’s Paradise Lost, Camoes’ Lusiads or even Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Friar understood it as a series of interconnected yet independent lyrical and narrative passages. The purely narrative parts of the poem however have the passionate symbolic force of Melville’s Moby Dick but the constant lyrical interruptions dilute their impression upon the reader.
A careful reading of the original shows that Kazantzakis mastered the poetry of his language during the process of actually writing the poem: the first rhapsodies are harsh, aggressive almost uncouth. But as he was writing and rewriting it, he managed to take control of the story and story-telling: the last rhapsodies display a suggestive and evocative dramatic lyricism, full of tranquillity and simplicity.
All the great body of the world-roamer turned to mist,
And slowly his snow-ship, his memory, fruit, and friends
Drifted like fog far down the sea, vanished like dew.
Then flesh dissolved, glances congealed, the heart’s pulse stopped,
And the great mind leapt to the peak of its holy freedom… (XXIV, 1387-1393)
Kazantzakis planned to write a second part to his Odyssey as well as a third Faust. He never finished these titanic projects although the dilemmas and dead-ends of western individualism continued to loom on his intellectual and aesthetic horizon. He dealt them in his novels – starting with the Zorba the Greek, written during the German Occupation. If the Odyssey can be read as the last spasm of the limitless freedom promised by the grand hopes of the European Belle Epoque, Zorba is the first mournful elegy to the gathering storm over the collapsing projects of renewal.
4. The Confabulator
Kazantzakis wrote novels with the belief that they could still change the life of their readers. His great models were Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. In his pioneering History of Russian Literature (1930), Kazantzakis defined the problematic of the novel, long before the famous study by George Steiner, as divided by the opposite world-views determined by the great Russian writers:
Sin, lustfulness, passion, the ‘demon’ in Tolstoy’s work is simplistic, natural, and deep down rather unterrifying; a strong man can fight with it and defeat it. However, in Dostoevsky, this ‘demon’ is an invincible, obscure, mysterious force, identical not only with our body but also with our soul – perhaps identical with God himself. Harmony is the need of human reason; but God is above reason, above harmony. Maybe the deepest distinction that can be made between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is the following: Tolstoy was the prophet of such harmony; Dostoevsky, the prophet of such God.
With this deep desire to fuse Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and their ‘god’, Kazantzakis embarked on the writing of the novels which made him so famous and controversial. Zorba is his most popular and most misunderstood work. Written under the German Occupation, Zorba is a story within a story within a story, all wrapped around the writing of the novel which is about all these stories. It is so over-plotted that it looks plotless and fragmentary. The novel frames an atmosphere of tense recollection, stoic endurance and nostalgic surrender. Its characteristic tone of voice is that of stoic self-irony, which in the film was re-interpreted as epicurean exuberance. The book, together with a play, is the last one that Kazantzakis wrote in his country. In 1945, he was forced to leave Greece, never to return. He continued writing as an exile and soon as an outcast, and the inflated remembered past became dominant in his writings of the fifties. There are some stunning achievements from the period; especially his novels Christ Recrucified (1948), Freedom and Death (1950), The Last Temptation of Christ (1955) and finally his most accomplished yet incomplete work, the autobiography Report to Greco (1961).
Report to Greco is a long letter to the modern prototype of exilic artists, El Greco, with whom Kazantzakis progressively identified. In its analysis of the self, the book is a mixture of Augustine’s and Rousseau’s Confessions but in its content, unexpectedly, it reads like Jean Paul Sartre’s Words, which appeared two years later in 1963 ‘My purpose in writing,’ Kazantzakis wrote, ‘was not beauty, it was deliverance.’ It fuses poetry, drama, newspaper reports, his dream book and letters in order to incorporate the life of the writer within the act of writing. The Report ends with the completion of his ultimate book, the Odyssey.
Kazantzakis wrote novels when their reading contributed to self-determination, class awareness or spiritual awakening. For him, the novel was the narrative expression of all modernist self-founding and self-articulation, a perception that goes back the inventor of modern novel, and one of Kazantzakis’ literary heroes, Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Even though Kazantzakis’ novels were written before the transformation of the novel into fragmented narratives, he understood the narrative anxiety and the transition towards anti-narrative forms of writing. And so throughout his novels, there is a tense antagonism between the narrator and the narrative itself, between a single and singular voice and a multifocal unfolding narrative. Who is the narrator in Zorba, or in Freedom and Death or Christ Recrucified? A careful reading shows a number of narrative voices all converging on the page that each maintain a different function within the plot and have a different significance within the story.
In Freedom and Death, for example, the narrator is Kazantzakis as a child – which means Kazantzakis is writing about himself as a child remembering events that he hasn’t experienced yet. And through such complex lines, the narration moves from one place to another, taking snapshots of everything in front of it: the love between lepers in a secluded island, the meeting of a man and woman in Vienna, the flight of a honey-bee between bald heads, the reminiscences of the streets of fire in Mecca by a man whose gender changed after the experience of the divine presence, the ectoplasmic ghost of the ancestor who punches violently the Jewish wife of Captain Michaels’ son so that the blasphemous child of their union won’t be born. The narrative multifocality in this novel is truly astounding, reminiscent of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Homer’s Iliad. Narrative voices emerge from everywhere even from inanimate objects and speechless animals, in an incredible experiment with the limits of verbal communication.
Yet the experiment with language was only one of the central aspects of his endeavour. The main question of his aesthetic and spiritual metaphysics, constantly raised by Kazantzakis throughout his work, is what gives unity to this world of incongruous experiences and antithetical paradigms. Indeed in Freedom and Death the only unifying thread is the novel’s linguistic homogeneity, Kazantzakis’ Doric, austere and paradoxical language. This anxiety for unity can be found in all his works.
A new myth for the self in an era of fallen mythologies was probably the most promethean and flawed project of his own literary endeavour. He both failed and succeeded to give new stories about the self at the moment that the death of the author was proclaimed and the domination of writing was declared. But he didn’t have time for such extravagant distinctions. In his autobiography he states: ‘…I was setting words as traps, setting them with all the cunning I possessed, so that I could capture the uncapturable Cry which kept advancing in front of me.’
In his novels Kazantzakis presents aggressive masculine characters who devour and kill all feminine presence that interrupts their phallic conspiracies. All the women in his novels are slaughtered and exterminated which has made many readers suspect him of misogyny. Another interpretation is that Kazantzakis portrays the assassination of emotions which are considered feminine within patriarchal society, namely empathy, affection and tenderness. While on the surface Freedom or Death is about a patriotic struggle, the psychodynamic of the novel is of a crypto-homosexual romance, the implosion of patriarchy and the emergence of a new dimension of masculine sociability. The whole world collapses at the moment that a Greek and Turk realise their libidinal attraction and kill all the women between them because they cannot desire each other. In one of his least studied plays Kouros, the homosexual desire takes on the symbolic representation of the Minotaur: man, and beast ‘copulate’ and a new creature emerges, the ‘ideal Ephebe’ the pristine homoerotic desire for male reunion as read in Plato’s Symposium.
Kazantzakis novels, like those by Naguib Mahfouz, V.S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, Tahar Ben Jelloun, J.M. Coetzee and Amos Oz, explore the emergence of modern temporality within traditional societies and the tensions, conflicts and hopes, created within such liminal transitional situations. In Christopher Columbus Kazantzakis defined the condition of his transitional positionality in the following verses: ‘Only two separate things exist perhaps / completely distinct, in the world? / Truth and Falsehood?/ Or maybe there is something else too/ whose face flows like water,/ flows and reshapes itself / and it is not falsehood any more and not yet truth?/ I don’t know how to present it, / I don’t have a name…/ It doesn’t exist…It doesn’t exist, old man, it is a becoming…’
The literary and philosophical quest of Kazantzakis was precisely about this unnamed, or even unnameable, becoming, about the contemporary multifocal subjectivity, fluid and liquid, beyond national, social and psychological determinations. The question is what kind of being or kind of theory of such being we might have – to which we have no answer. He pushed language to its limits in his attempt to name the unpredictable flow of history and the indeterminate character of its subject but he failed to produce the name or the code that could ‘…find a new, harsher, richer style to express modern life.’ In his failure lies the significance and the nobility of his writing, poised halfway between the certainties of the traditional novel and the uncertainties of postmodernity.
In the complete translation of Zorba, the English reader can find some gems of narrative precision and clarity:
I was asleep. The moon, trickling in through the open window, mountains, icicle-covered fir trees, and the dark-blue night entered my sleeping mind, I felt indescribable bliss in my sleep as though slumber were a deep, calm, pellucid sea and I were lying as its bottom, happy, motionless, my bliss so great that a ship passing on the water’s surface, thousands of fathoms above me, would have engraved a line on my body.
Probably a fresh re-evaluation of the work of Nikos Kazantzakis is needed, based on new translations. This will allow new generations of readers to see his importance as a global writer. The transparency and the lucidity of his writing style deserve such attention.
Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, the Books and Schools of Ages, New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994
Dante, the Divine Comedy, trans. By Lawrence Binyon in The Portable Dante, ed. By Paolo Milano, Penguin Books, 1985
Nikos Kazantzakis, Christ Recrucified, translated by Jonathan Griffith, Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1954.
–The Odyssey; A modern Sequel, translated by Kimon Friar, London: Secker and Warburg, 1959
– The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, translated by Kimon Friar, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1960.
–England, Travel Journal by Nikos Kazantzakis, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.
–Travelling: Morias, Athens: Helen Kazantzakis Publications, 2011.
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