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Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis
  Frankly, I found the famous"Last Temptation" unconvincing: I wasn't offended, I just didn't find the sudden conversion of Jesus to be realistic, or the other characters to be engaging. And, by the way, there is not one word in the Bible that says Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.

But, "Last Temptation" is illustrative, in another way, of who Kazantzakis is, and how the church and world chose to react to him. The church was horrified by him, and eventually the Orthodox Church expelled him. Typical, sad, and wrong. In fact, while Kazantzakis not your ordinary Christian, he is very religious. His books are filled with characters and incidents of spirituality and the quest for the authentic destiny of humans. He is consumed with "struggle" and "ascent" and how it is that frail humans, who must die, are given this ache for transcendence. That is the Christian quest.

I admire his writing. It is my goal some day to lay flowers on his grave in Crete, God willing.

Here are short reviews of some of his best books.

The Greek Passion
Nikos Kazantzakis
Translated by Jonathan Griffin
Simon and Schuster, New York, 1953

Far, far, better than "Last Temptation," in my view, is Kazantzakis' comparatively unremarked work: "The Greek Passion." (Published outside the US as "Christ Recrucified") The novel is set in a little Greek village during the time of the Turkish occupation. Starting with the assignment of roles of villagers to play in the annual passion play, the novel turns into a real passion play.
The village elders, a dismal lot of overfed, oppressive, back- biting types, pick various villagers to play roles in the once- every-seven-years passion play. However, Manolios (chosen to be Christ for his gentle looks) and three friends, chosen as apostles, are humbled by the honor and inspired to begin to struggle with God's will. The crisis is provided by a band of refugees from another village. Run out by the Turks, they seek sanctuary in this village only to be refused both land and food by the village elders who fear their corrupting influence and the loss of revenue. The contradiction between the words of Christ, and the actions of those who claim leadership of the church and the village lead Manolios and his friends to ask dangerous questions. The elders, as elders tend to do, are reluctant to give up any power, and not inclined to accept theological analysis from those who they command. Eventually, the passion is acted out for real, with Manolios accused of treason and the sleepy Turkish overlord acting the part of Pilate to perfection.

Liberation Theology is a term we associate with the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, but I would suggest that this work, dating from 1953, has anticipated the movement in amazing detail. Such standard concepts of Liberation Theology as "the preferential option for the poor," "base communities," reading the Bible out of experience rather than theology, and so forth, are portrayed here as Manolios and his friends struggle with what God has to say to them.

Report to Greco
Translated by P. A. Bien
Simon and Schuster, New York, 1965

"Report to Greco" is Kazantzakis "autobiography" although even his widow in the introduction admits both that the book is a mixture of "fact and fiction" and that there are some "small modifications" when he speaks about his own adventures. So, think of it as another novel, or philosophical tract.

The work begins with some of the most profound and true words about death I have ever read: "I collect my tools: sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, intellect. Night has fallen, the day's work is done. I return like a mole to my home, the ground. Not because I am tired and cannot work. I am not tired. But the sun has set."

The book is full of sayings and brief passages like this, revealing at every turn the familiar Kazantzakis struggle for "ascent": growth, unity, passion. "It is our duty to set ourselves an end beyond our individual concerns, beyond our convenient, agreeable habits, higher than our own selves, and disdaining laughter, hunger, even death, to toil night and day to attain that end. No, not to attain it. The self-respecting soul, as soon as he reaches his goal, places it still farther away. Not to attain it, but never to halt in the ascent. Only thus does life acquire nobility and oneness." (p. 80)

In this quest for ascent, Kazantzakis is led into both a journey of ideas and to physical travel. The book abounds with accounts of his adventures in Israel, Mt. Athos and throughout Europe in addition to his encounters with the great ideas.

It is the significance of the stories that captivate me, as I remain suspicious of the biographical value of the material. He speaks of the "balance" of the ancients as not effortless but difficulty won against the forces of chaos that triumphed before and after the magic moments of the 5th century. As he describes the decline: belief in the country replaced by individual self- sufficiency; the arts shifting their attention to glorification of the indulgences of the wealthy; and to ever more "realistic" descriptions of degradation (p. 170); he could be describing our time as well. Other striking stories of original sin (p.25) or an encounter with a monk who found the one true joy of his life not in worship but in illicit sex (p. 225), his warning of the dangers of the "minor virtues" (p. 142, 213) are worthy of reflection and study.

His struggle for oneness, to unite passion and discipline, the Dionysian and Apollonian sides of the Greek heritage (p. 323-4), remains our struggle. Or at least it should be the struggle of those who wish Christianity to speak to the full person, not just to the self-flagellating ascetic.

 

Zorba The Greek
Translated by Carl Wildman
Simon and Schuster, New York, 1952

Ah, Zorba, what shall we say? To call this a philosophical analysis of the divide between the Apollonian and Dionysian strands of Hellenistic culture is accurate but misses all the juice of the book. But that is what its about: contemplative vs. active; think or do? Zorba is alive, in all the ways a book reader envies, but pays the price of it, though Kazantzakis' sympathies are with him.

Kazantzakis Links
When I first posted this page there was not much on the net about him; I am delighted to see that more material is being put up about this remarkable man. He has an official home page maintained by the Historical Museum of Crete. (Up 4/25/06; posted 3/27/04)

the Kazantzakis museum in Varvaroi outside of Herakleion, Crete. (Up 4/25/06) also The Hellenic Ministry of Culture describes (Up 4/25/06; posted 3/27/04)

Interkriti has a short bio with analysis and reviews of movies made from his books. (Up 4/25/06; posted 3/27/04)

The Philosopher's Magazine had him as philosopher of the month in 2003. "Kazantzakis's work is linguistically challenging, at times conceptually disarming, but ultimately existentially inspiring."

Jos Schoonen has some translations and analysis. The discussion of Report to Greko is very good. (Up 4/25/06; posted 8/22/04)

Nick Nicholas has a tribute. (Up 4/25/06; posted 3/3/01)

Hey! We need a Greek author's web site.

Last modified 4/25/06; posted 12/1998. © 2006 John P. Nordin