Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A brief intro to Nikos Kazantzakis

This article by Lewis Owens was published in the Philosopher's Magazine in January 2003.

Nikos Kazantzakis: a snapshot

Lewis Owens

Although many may be familiar with the novels Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, both of which have been adapted into films, few are as familiar with their author, Nikos Kazantzakis. Although Kazantzakis has a large following in the United States, and is becoming more and more accepted in his homeland of Greece, he has, as yet, failed to achieve the recognition elsewhere that he so richly deserves. Novelist, dramatist, poet and journalist, Kazantzakis's philosophy consist largely in a pioneering attempt to retain a spiritual world-view whilst heeding Nietzsche's devastating attack on metaphysiscs.

Kazantzakis was born in Iraklion, Crete, in 1883. He studied law in Athens before moving to Paris to study under the influential French philosopher Henri Bergson. In Paris he also developed a deep appreciation of Nietzsche, and soon afterwards became heavily interested in the teaching of the Buddha. He also composed travel books about his journalistic visits to Europe and the Far East. His magnum opus, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel consists of a monumental 33,333 verses and was completed in 1938.

In the latter part of his life he concentrated on his novels. One of these, The Last Temptation of Christ, was placed on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books by the Pope in 1954. Due primarily to the condemnation of Kazantzakis's portrayal of Christ, permission was refused for his body to lie in state in Athens after his death on October 26, 1957. It was finally transferred to Crete and his humble grave now overlooks his beloved Iraklion.

He narrowly missed out on the Nobel Prize for literature by one vote in 1956 and remains one of the most highly respected writers of his time. Albert Camus, recipient of the Prize in 1957, claimed that Kazantzakis deserved the honour "a hundred times more" than himself. Other strong admirers included Thomas Mann and Albert Schweitzer.

Kazantzakis's work is linguistically challenging, at times conceptually disarming, but ultimately existentially inspiring. Many commentators have labelled Kazantzakis's work nihilistic and pessimistic, particularly in the light of his 1927 book The Saviours of God: Spiritual Exercises, which remained the philosophical backbone to all his subsequent poetry and prose. This work ends with the assertion that one must stand on the edge of the abyss and proclaim the terrifying secret: "Even this 'One' does not exist!" On the surface, the ending of the Spiritual Exercises implies that Kazantzakis has no religious priorities - the non-existence of God is to be heroically accepted with Nietzschean strength of will. However, in correspondence subsequent to its publication, Kazantzakis was at pains to emphasise its deeply spiritual content, resulting largely from his profound interest in the theory of "creative evolution" espoused by Bergson.

Central to Bergson's theory, from which Kazantzakis develops his concept of "God", is the notion of the élan vi tal, a pre-existent life-force that wills to become alive and ascend to higher levels of self-sconsciousness. Yet to become alive it must collaborate with matter, which it then seeks to "unmake" in a perpetually dialectical system. In this sense, therefore, the "abyss" or "Silence" is, for Kazantzakis, symbolic of a non-material "womb" from whence Bergson's élan vital (Kazantzakis's "God") can re-enter the material world and resume its evolutionary ascent. As self-consciousness is the prime channel through which this spirit flows, Kazantzakis asserts that we all have a duty to "save God" by preventing our own spiritual stasis.

Kazantzakis believed that his was a transitional age in which one civilisation was collapsing and another raw, untamed civilisation was emerging. In every age, he claimed, it is our responsibility to seek out and work with the most vibrant ideological movement that enables life's élan to ascend. The dominant aim in every society in every age is thus to further creative evolution.

This dialectic of destruction ("unmaking") and creation ("renewed manifestation") runs throughout Kazantzakis's cosmology, existentialism and politics - in sum, his "world-view". Kazantzakis predominately used the novel genre to formulate his philosophical world-view, whilst at the same time challenging elements of a religious, Christian tradition in which he was immersed but which, he felt, no longer spoke to humanity's existential concerns.

Kazantzakis seeks answers to the most profound questions that impinge upon our individual existence, whilst recognising the importance of the process of questioning itself. His work challenges the individual to act authentically in this "brief lightning flash" of life. We are called upon to 'save God' by overcoming spiritual lethagy. Moreover, it is our existential duty to do so.

Suggested reading
Zorba the Greek (Faber and Faber)
The Last Temptation (Faber and Faber)


Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Thanks a lot for the article Kathryn. Confession, I have a copy of The Last Temptation..lying around somewhere, but I just haven't gotten down to reading it.

1:35 am  
Blogger kathryn said...

No prob. I find it interesting that there's more interest in K in the US than here. Supposedly, when he was up for the Nobel (the year Camus won) the Greek govt. were totally against him and rallied against him winning calling him an anti-hellene. Or something like that.

7:59 am  
Anonymous Geoff said...

Have just returned from the Safranier "free community"in Vieil Antibes France.
Discovered an old hang out and fantastic memorial to Kazantzakis. The house he lived in was across the street from the one we rented.Drank lots of wine, swam in the sea and celebrated a happy coincidence.
The sky was blue as it was in Lesvos earlier in the year.YAMAS!

12:21 am  

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