Nikos Kazantzakis

  • by  Colin Wilson

Five of Kazantzakis's major works have been translated in England, and even more in America, and yet his name remains almost totally unknown to the majority of readers. This is a curious situation, which may be due in part to the fact that Kazantzakis wrote in Greek, and that modern readers do not expect to come upon a great Greek writer; even his name has a foreign and discouraging sound. If he had written in Russian and been called Kazantzovsky, his works would no doubt be as universally known and admired as Sholokov's.

There is something of tragedy in this — even though Kazantzakis has been dead since 1958. Readers who are familiar with his life and works have no doubt that here is a writer who can stand with the nineteenth century giants, with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche (with all of whom he has affinities). And yet he made very little money from his writing, and the Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature does not even bother to mention him.

When writing about Kazantzakis, it is difficult to avoid the over-coloured words associated with Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, 'suffering giant', 'spiritual torment', etc. They were appropriate enough in the nineteenth century, but seem out of place in our own. Yet the truth is that Kazantzakis was a man of the nineteenth century; he is too much the primitive for the age of Freud and Joyce. A typical story illustrates this. In May 1922, when he was thirty-nine, Kazantzakis was living in Vienna. He had passed through two important periods: an early period of total romanticism, strongly influenced by D'Annunzio and Nietzsche, and then a period of Christian ascetiscism, when Christ became his ideal symbol. Finally, he discovered the Buddha, and began to practise total renunciation, at the same time writing an immense drama on Gautama. (This was eventually published in 1956.) One evening in the theatre, Kazantzakis fell into conversation with a most attractive woman who sat next to him. They left the theatre together and walked the streets until late, discussing ideas; finally, Kazantzakis invited her back to his room. She explained that she could not come immediately, but would come the following evening. The next morning, Kazantzakis woke, and found that his lips had swelled, and the flesh of his face was becoming bloated. He wrote to the woman, putting her off and asking her to come the next day instead. However, his flesh was even more swelled on the next day, and his lower lip began to run with a yellow liquid. The meeting had to be indefinitely postponed. Some weeks later, Kazantzakis attended the theatre, his face swathed in bandages, when he was approached by a man who asked him if he would mind answering a question. Kazantzakis agreed. The man asked what role eroticism played in Kazantzakis's life. Kazantzakis was shocked; the man then introduced himself as Wilhelm Stekel, the psychiatrist, and asked Kazantzakis to call and see him the next day. He did so, and ended by telling Stekel the story of the woman in the theatre. Stekel was delighted, and told Kazantzakis that he was suffering from 'Saint's disease', a malady common in the Middle Ages, but almost totally unknown today. When the desert ascetics of the Middle Ages felt that they could no longer fight the temptations of sex, they would walk towards the cities. But very often, their bodies would break out in horrible running sores, the faces became bloated, and a yellow liquid dropped from the sores. This was the subconscious resistance to sin (which the saints supposed to be a punishment from God). Kazantzakis had also been obsessed for years by the idea of total asceticism, and had left his wife for this reason. As soon as Kazantzakis left Vienna, the sores disappeared.

This anecdote tells a great deal about Kazantzakis, his strength and his weakness, and the impressions are verified by his works. In the primitive simplicity of his approach to life and 'salvation', he was not a man of our time. Photographs show a heavily built man with a Nietzsche moustache and sensuous lips. He fought tremendous battles with himself. But one cannot help feeling sometimes that he was like an impatient man trying to open a door the wrong way under the impression that it is jammed. All his work creates an impression of seething, violent torment; and yet one wonders whether he was not doing things the hard way out of ignorance. He was a non-stop traveller, rushing from one end of the world to the other as if possessed. In the same way, he was a non-stop 'mental traveller' (and the violent and bloody images of Blake's poem of that title fit in singularly well with the whole mood of Kazantzakis). From German romanticism, through Christian asceticism (he spent six months alone in a monastery, trying to see 'the vision of God', but gave it up), through Buddhism and Communism, to the final phase (which lasted a quarter of a century) of great artistic creation, with such works as his Odyssey (a 700 page epic poem), Zorba the Greek, Christ Recrucified, Freedom after Death and The Last Temptation.

Shortly after the Vienna phase of 1922, Kazantzakis went to Berlin, where he wrote a 'credo' called The Saviours of God (sub-titled 'ascetic exercises'), and fell in with a group of young communists. He studied Lenin, and conceived a great admiration for his personality; typically, this was his way of becoming a communist. Later, he attended a cultural congress in Moscow, and then journeyed from end to end of the Soviet Union on a free railway ticket provided by the communists. But in his usual protean way, he was outgrowing Lenin as his ideal figure. His basic philosophy was always closer to Gide's: the necessity of never being attached to any external 'truth', of continually contradicting oneself and returning over one's tracks. Although this philosophy never led Kazantzakis to the same lengths of weakness and fickleness for its own sake as with Gide, it also produced a certain inner-confusion in his greatest work. Having abandoned Nietzsche, Christ, St Francis, Gautama and Lenin, Kazantzakis now turned to Odysseus, and began his greatest work, the epic poem in which Odysseus leaves Ithaca for the second time (like Tennyson's Ulysses) and goes in search of 'God' or a meaning for human existence. Like all books about men who travel in search of meaning — Hesse's novels, for example — his Odyssey, A Modern Sequel, is ultimately unsatisfactory. But its sheer creative greatness cannot be denied. The goal may be a failure, but the journey is probably the greatest in modern literature. It is impossible to offer an adequate summary of the poem here. (There is an excellent book about it by the author's friend Prevelakis, Kazantzakis and His Odyssey, which has been published in America and which, one hopes, will be published eventually in England.) It begins when Ulysses re-sheathes his sword after killing the suitors. But he finds life in Ithaca a bore, and decides to set out again on his travels. He renounces human happiness in the form of Nausicaa, but marries her to his son Telemachus, and then leaves Ithaca for the last time. He takes five companions, with such curious names as Captain Clam, Hardihood, Kentaur, Orpheus and Granite, selecting them for their different qualities. He sails to Sparta and steals Helen of Troy again from Menelaus; the violation of hospitality (which involves killing a guard) symbolizes his Nietzschean rejection of 'morality'. In Crete (the home of Kazantzakis) he takes part in a sexual orgy, and ends by setting fire to the palace. He deserts Helen and goes on to Egypt. There he takes part in a worker revolt, and comes close to being executed; however, he dances in front of the king wearing a horrible wooden god-mask, and Pharoah sets him free. He now decides to found the ideal city-state at the source of the Nile. After battles with a negro tribe, Odysseus has a vision of God on a mountain, and then they build their Ideal City. It is only just completed when an earthquake destroys it. Odysseus experiences total despair at the destruction of all his companions, but now feels that he is fully aware of the illusory nature of the world. But he rejects the temptation to suicide and travels on. In subsequent books he meets figures who are thinly disguised versions of Gautama, Don Quixote and Christ. In Don Quixote he 'salutes a madness equal to my own', but rejects his vision as he has rejected Gautama's. Odysseus is ultimately the life-affirmer, the lover of the earth. He makes his last voyage towards the South Pole in a boat, and the last three books are occupied with a description of this voyage, ending with an impressive evocation of the snowy wastes (for which Kazantzakis drew on his memories of Russia's tundra regions). Odysseus climbs on to an iceberg, where the spirit of his old companions join him, and he finally dies. The ending is as noisy as the end of a Wagner opera and as rhetorical as the last scene of Faust, but it does not give one the impression that Odysseus has found what he set out to find.

Such a summary can do no justice to the poem (which has been superbly translated by Kimon Friar), but it may give some idea of the sheer excitement of its wide sweep. It produces the 'effect like music' that someone once described as the effect of War and Peace.

The Odyssey is the most important work by Kazantzakis; eventually, his reputation must stand or fall by it. It is hard to believe that such a work could be written in the twentieth century, when Eliot has talked so convincingly about the difficulty of finding an 'objective correlative' for the artist. Kazantzakis has ignored all the objections — particularly the objection that he comes too long after Homer, a member of a self-divided, analytical culture, and therefore cannot write a convincing epic.

The lesson is an interesting one. So many modern writers declare that their honesty compels them to write about defeat and futility, and to focus their attention on a pool of tea on a tabletop. 'Modern life being what it is . . .' Kazantzakis makes one aware that it is not a question of modern life, but of the artist himself.

The Odyssey was written seven times between 1924 and Christmas 1938, when it finally appeared in Greece in a limited edition. The critics were puzzled. The poem was immense — 33,333 lines long. The spelling was peculiar — Kazantzakis was like Shaw in his desire for a reform of the alphabet — and Kazantzakis dispensed with most of the Greek accentuation. The seventeen syllable lines were not easy to grasp on a first reading. It would be near the truth to say that the poem was a flop. (Kazantzakis was already known as a poet for his translations of The Divine Comedy and Faust.) Undismayed, Kazantzakis went on to write his series of great novels. Captain Michalis (translated as Freedom and Death in England and Freedom or Death in the US) was begun in 1936, Zorba the Greek was written in 1942 (published 1946), Christ Recrucified in 1948, The Last Temptation in 1951, and The Poor Man of God in 1953. There is also an unpublished novel with the curious title: 'He says he wants freedom, kill him', and an early novel about Russia, Toda Raba. The 'ascetic exercises', The Savours of God, are also of considerable importance.

It is possible to offer only the briefest comments on these works in the present essay. Captain Michalis is important to a full understanding of Kazantzakis. Its original title was My Father, and it deals with the unsuccessful rebellion of the Cretans against the Turks in 1889. Kazantzakis was old enough to remember this clearly, as well as the final rebellion of 1896, when the Turks were finally expelled. Crete had been oppressed by the Turks for a hundred years, and there had been many bloody uprisings and endless violence. On one occasion, a monastery was besieged by Turks; as they rushed into the courtyard, a young fighter fired his rifle into the open powder-barrels in the basement. Six hundred women and children were hiding there; the monastery and everyone in it was blown to atoms. In these risings, both sides were completely merciless; women would be raped and murdered, children bayoneted, the men often tortured to death.

The novel is a huge, leisurely affair that reminds one sometimes of War and Peace, sometimes of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood in its detailed and amusing description of the private lives of the people of Megalocastro. Its hero is the 'wild beast' Captain Michalis (Kazantzakis's father was also Captain Michalis, and was also known as 'the wild beast'; but he was not, like the hero of the novel, killed in 1889.) He is a typical Kazantzakis figure, of immense physical strength, taciturn, brooding, completely brave. He is obsessed by a beautiful Circassian girl, the wife of his blood brother Nuri Bey, a Turk; but, being a self-divided man, he never gets around to sleeping with her, although she would have been happy enough. The novel is full of seductions, sex and slaughter; it would be very easy to parody it in the manner of Cold Comfort Farm, with its strong, silent men and sensual women. But one only has to read fifty pages of it to realize that, whatever Kazantzakis's faults as a man he was the greatest European artist since Tolstoy. But in one respect he falls below Tolstoy. He never seems to question whether all this slaughter is worthwhile, or whether his heroic men are only hot-headed fools. His power as a writer is so great that the reader is not aware of this while he actually reads the book. But at the end, when Michalis and his followers allow themselves to be slaughtered merely because they are too proud to surrender, one feels that there was something seriously lacking in Kazantzakis if he didn't feel the futility of the whole thing. Shaw said: 'When the shooting starts, I get under the bed'; one wishes Kazantzakis's heroes had half as much sense.

This brings up another point about Kazantzakis. He was all his life ashamed of being a 'pen pusher', and hankered after the life of action. This again reveals a curious immaturity. In the novel, Michalis's nephew is also a poet and a 'pen pusher' who lives abroad; he returns to Crete at the end of the novel, and dies with his uncle in the final stupid act of resistance. One suspects that Kazantzakis saw himself as the nephew, and was somehow trying to propitiate his father's ghost.

This same self-division is apparent in the other novels. Zorba the Greek is the most amusing of these; it is told in the first person by Kazantzakis, who meets Zorba in a waterfront café in Piraeus, and agrees to take him to Crete. Most of the book is taken up with the adventures of Zorba, a lesser Ulysses, healthy, happy, roguish, loving women, wine and food, completely lacking in self-division, while Kazantzakis struggles with an epic about the Buddha and renunciation. Again, Kazantzakis reveals a kind of naïveté, like Whitman's praise of the placidness of cows. He is the unhappy intellectual, who never makes the effort to heal his own self-division and become reconciled to the 'original sin' that makes him at once greater and less happy than Zorba. In Man and Superman, Shaw makes Don Juan say: 'Were I not possessed with a purpose beyond my own, I had better be a ploughman than a philosopher; for the ploughman lives as long as the philosopher, eats more, sleeps better, and rejoices in the wife of his bosom with less misgiving.' But Shaw had no secret longing to be a ploughman, and the 'purpose' is stated explicitly in the third act of Man and Superman. Kazantzakis never reached this stage, although he declared (in The Saviours of God) that 'God' is saved by the men who dare to be creative, and wrote in a letter: 'If we are to set a purpose, it is this: to transubstantiate matter and turn it into spirit.' This is certainly Shaw's conception. But there was also a streak of Nietzsche in Kazantzakis. Just as Nietzsche could create his conception of the Superman, and then invalidate it by 'Eternal recurrence', so Kazantzakis expresses his gospel of struggle and creation in The Saviours of God but ends: 'Blessed are all those who free you and become united with you, Lord, and who say: "You and I are one". And thrice blessed be those who bear on their shoulders and do not bend under this great, sublime and terrifying secret: That even this one does not exist.' There can hardly be a better example in all philosophy of what the logical positivists call 'nonsense', a statement that invalidates itself by destroying its own meaning.

There is this taint of nonsense about all Kazantzakis's work; but he is far too big and impressive to be invalidated by it. To some extent, one suspects that he creates his own strife out of a perverse love of strife. But then, the same might be said of Dostoevsky. The 'Outsider' easily becomes the neurotic; the self-disciplinarian easily becomes the masochist. Kazantzakis's dissatisfaction was partly frustrated Messianism and partly ordinary 'itchy feet' lack of self-discipline.

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The Messianism appears strongly in the later novels. Christ Recrucified tells how Manolias, a fair-haired timid young man, is chosen to play Christ in a Passion play. He wants to avoid the burden; but, having accepted it, he becomes steadily more Christ-like. Crowds of dispossessed Greeks come to live outside the village, and the villagers hate them; the boy Manolias takes their part. Eventually, Manolias is ritually murdered by his own villagers; the 'dispossessed' villagers have to move on. Manolias is Kazantzakis's version of Prince Myshkin. Kazantzakis works out his parallel with Christ in some detail, the Turkish Aga being Pilate, the village 'pope' Caiaphas, etc. Again the power of the book lies in the breadth of its canvas, its hundreds of characters, all made to live. It caused Kazantzakis some trouble; the Greek church wanted to excommunicate him. When he died, the Greek archbishop refused to allow his body to lie in a church; he was later given a hero's burial in Crete. (Although he had irritated the Cretans with Captain Michalis, which was regarded as a libel on the Cretan character.)

Having got into trouble with Christ Recrucified, Kazantzakis promptly repeated the offence with The Last Temptation, this being an immense novel on the life of Christ. Unlike other novelists who have dealt with Jesus, Kazantzakis was not intent on creating a sinless godman. He wanted to create Christ in his own image — tormented by everlasting temptation, a Promethean Jesus, learning, step by step, to cast off the fetters of the family, the body, the ego, etc. On the cross, the devil sends him a final temptation: he imagines that he had chosen the easier road of men, had become a respected and happy old man, with his family about him. He thrusts aside this temptation to approve the human road, and dies with the sense that he has accomplished his mission, taught men that there are greater values than mere 'living'. The novel is an amazing achievement, simply as a piece of historical re-creation. Whether Kazantzakis's Christ is convincing is another matter. He is rather like Frank Harris's Jesus — a wish-fulfilment aspect of his creator. Kazantzakis wanted to convince himself that all his own sufferings and temptations had somehow been justified: he may have suspected that, after all, he had made rather heavy-weather of being a promethean godman, flagellated himself a little too vigorously. Perhaps even his master Nietzsche might have dismissed him as another conscience-ridden self-torturer who needed some of Zarathustra's lightness of spirit. One is too aware that his Jesus is a piece of self-defence, an apologia. To be convinced by this Jesus would be to regard Kazantzakis himself as a kind of superman.

Perhaps the nearest literary-relative of Kazantzakis in English-speaking countries is, surprisingly enough, W. B. Yeats. Yeats had the same admiration of the 'pen pusher' for men of action, the same mystique of the wanderer, the same self-division, the same obsession with 'fire and blood' and sex. Yeats also had this idea of the man of genius as a self-consuming flame, and the longing for a mystic vision that would destroy the hunger of the flesh. And Yeats, like Kazantzakis, was no thinker; he expended enormous efforts on feeling at home in the 'realms of intellect', but was never entirely at home there. Kazantzakis had studied under Bergson, but his novels are novels of passion and sensuality, with none of the Dostoevskian dialectic that one might expect from the author of The Saviours of God.

In the years before his death, recognition had begun to come to Kazantzakis. His books were translated into many languages, but were not widely read (although Captain Michalis became something of a best-seller in Holland). Schweitzer, Thomas Mann and Camus hailed him as one of the greatest European writers. In 1953 he contracted leukemia, and dictated parts of his St Francis novel when in great suffering. In 1956, he was awarded the Soviet Peace Prize (although most of his books were banned in Russia, and he had never been a Communist Party member). It was his incorrigible need to travel that finally brought about his death at seventy-four. He accepted an invitation to visit China, and was accidentally given a smallpox vaccination in Canton. He died in Germany (where Schweitzer came to visit him in hospital).

The final criticism against Kazantzakis is his defeatism, a kind of ultimate nihilism. 'What Purpose?' he asks, in a letter, 'What do we care? Don't ask, fight on! Let us set ourselves a purpose . . .' 'We must conquer the last, the greatest of temptations — that of hope.' 'We sing even though we know that no ear exists to hear us; we toil though there is no employer to pay us our wages when night falls. We are despairing, serene and free. This is true heroism . . .' At the end of the Odyssey, Ulysses' mind makes a last leap from 'its last cage, that of freedom'. Kazantzakis is a nineteenth-century figure, the religious philosopher crucified on the cross of metaphysics. On Kazantzakis's tomb in Crete are engraved the typical words: 'I do not hope for anything. I do not fear anything. I am free.' It is significant that his epitaph should be a Buddhistic expression of nihilism.




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