This man is famous. You may know a lot about him, a little, or nothing at all. But once you discover how he viewed life and lived his own, I doubt you will ever forget him. Read but a few of his paragraphs and you can see why. And if you can’t tell this that soon, then he’s not a writer meant for you — at least not until you’ve lived a little more.
There are people whose effect on others is nothing short of striking. It may be due to their physical appearance, their reputation and what they’ve done or accomplished, their way of bearing themselves, or even, as in our case, a mixture of all these; but the net effect is the same: they seize our attention in a way that won’t let it go. Nikos Kazantzakis was such a person. This was demonstrably true while he lived and has continued in the nearly two generations since his death October 26, 1957. That alone makes him an arresting figure, but when you add to it the unusual nature of his works, it shifts the spotlight to the life of the man behind the writing — turning attention into peaked interest and elevating it into something more.
Why the striking impact? A natural question to ask but a folly for anyone to attempt to answer, given the myriad reasons people have for turning to books, and the conflicted and contradictory results they find in reading them. Yet a sweeping generalization can safely be given here nonetheless: rather than diversion, entertainment, or the acknowledged advantages of fantasy and escape, what any book of Nikos Kazantzakis offers runs in precisely the opposite direction — into mounting intensity, relentless emotional involvement, and costly, high-stakes moral and personal confrontation.
His writings are known for their rare intensity. Not to experience the “ratcheting up” that runs throughout all his works is — as Goethe once phrased it in making another comparison — “to read the words but miss the book.”
His boldly original works gather up such admittedly grand and universal themes as — Truth, Life & Death, Chaos, Cosmos, the Sacred & Profane, Earth-Air-Water and Fire — in Land-Sky-Sea and Flame, the dance of Man & Woman, breaking the chains of Slavery, the Cry of the Times, the great whore Hope, Justice & Freedom, the continuing ascent of the Soul, Brotherhood, radical Divine-Human combat and encounters, the Abyss, Epiphanies & Resurrections, the temple-cracking, chest-bursting cries of the Spirit, Deliverance, and . . . “the flame that consumes human beings” — approaching all these and others, as he does, through the ancient and abiding forms and human endeavor (art, philosophy, religion, politics & economics, science, and history), manifested and developed in their many classic manifestations the world over, on page after page of his oeuvre, as the French call it, his entire “body of works” . . . which is filled to overflowing with vivid story-telling, poetry of epic scale, pointed philosophical inquiry, gripping autobiographical adventure, rigorous ascetic discipline coupled with authentic religious pilgrimage, ardent and copious artistic achievement, passionate pursuit of political reform, interspersed with numerous completed theater works. Only those whose reach is broad enough to embrace all of this can rightly say that they have begun to grasp the fullness of what his writings open up and explore.
None of this is treated in the abstract but as powerful ever-present realities — which, like animals let out of their cages, go prowling about wherever they please, free to range the whole world over every night and day.
Incredibly, this all-embracing meme can be packed into a tiny word — one of our basic four-letter Old English (Anglo-Saxon, German, Frisian, Old Norse, and Scandinavian) ones always nested there within our deepest language roots — ‘life’. The only word of ours big enough to take what we have, what we do, what we are, bead them together on one string (our DNA), and fashion them all into a single, organic, living whole. Life is what, for us humans, everything significant and lasting begins and ends with. No surprise, then, that for Kazantzakis, life is what matters most, what our existence is comprised of, and what all his works revolve around.
His Character & Person
To come to terms with life, to really deal with it first hand, one must learn to see, know, and handle these two things: quality and movement. The first is a distinguishing characteristic of something; the second is the ongoing motion of something. Without the first, some quality, you miss its identity; without the second you miss its activity. Every living thing is a specific something, and any living thing is moving, even when just sitting there. These are the two primary aspects of anything alive. To give a name to the quality andd to the movement of something is to begin to know it — to start to grasp and take in the full reality of the person (or thing) that is standing there before you.
To come up with names for the specific qualities and movements we see, we each draw on whatever is found in the store of our own experience. For those qualities I see in Kazantzakis, I have come up with some specific names and then matched each of these with certain characteristics. In your own reading of his books, you will of course be doing the same, constructing your own picture of him by drawing names from whatever is there in your own experience. And so it goes with human understanding. Here is what I see:
Nikos Kazantzakis has . . .
. . . the zeal and drive of Kierkegaard
. . . the intellectual honesty and integrity of Pascal
. . . the artistic appetite and creativity of Goethe
. . . the passion for social justice of a Biblical prophet
. . . the treasured regard for language of Czeslaw Milosz
. . . the depth of love and fellow-feeling of Saint Francis
. . . the outdoorsy earthiness of Walt Whitman
. . . the dedication to task of Albert Schweitzer
. . . the assault on assumed reality of a Don Quixote
. . . the opposition to idolatry of Friedrich Nietzsche
. . . the modest optimism of Albert Camus
. . . the lasting loyalty of Brother Leo or Sancho Panza
. . . and the zest for living of Alexis Giorghos Zorba.
That is what I find in his writing. Look and let me know what you see there.
When you gather these qualities and put them together, a vivid whole emerges . . . of Kazantzakis’s characteristics as the distinct individual he was. This, then, is the first dimension or aspect of a life: its shape. To see the second aspect or dimension, you must then turn to also look into the movement of his life as it stretches across time: its span. This second one is harder to see and takes much more time to discern, but it’s there just as much as the first one is. The challenge in really knowing and understanding any human being is to come to see both aspects — the shape and the span — of that life as a single form, as the living whole it truly is. This can be done. But if you don’t take time to do that, then “you will never get Humpty Dumpty together again.”
So, with Nikos Kazantzakis, to complete our task we must now look at the way his life moved as it stretched across time. Fortunately, he set this down for us in the account he gave near the end of his life — a unique testimony dictated to his wife Eleni, and the closest thing to an autobiography he ever wrote. It is called Report To Greco.
The Span Of His Life
When Kazantzakis was born, the old midwife brought him close to the light and examined him with great care. Then, as if seeing some mystic sign on him, she lifted him high up and said, “Mark my words: One day this child will become a bishop.” Later, when he learned of this prophecy, Kazantzakis believed it because it matched his most secret yearnings. So from then on he set out to do only what he thought a bishop might do — until the day he came to see what bishops really do and changed his mind. “Thenceforth, in order to deserve the sainthood I so craved, I wished to avoid all things that bishops do.” And he did. Throughout his life he would reject anything not big enough to be lived — and the power of life within him would batter and smash against whatever wasn’t. And how would he know what was big enough to allow spirit the breathing room without which it will surely die? There was really only one way—risky, but sure; and he set out doing it about as soon as he learned to walk.
One day in school we read in our primer that a child fell down a well and found himself in a fabulous city with gilded churches, flowering orchards, and shops full of cakes . . . My mind caught fire. Running home, I tossed my satchel in the yard and threw myself upon the brim of the well so that I could fall inside and enter the fabulous city. My mother…uttered a cry, ran, and seized me by the smock just as I was kicking the ground in order to hurl myself headforemost into the well.
All his life, when there was no one to protect or stop him, Kazantzakis would hurl himself into the deepest wells of humankind: Art, Religion, Politics, Philosophy … to find out where it led or drown. He did not calculate shrewdly or bargain like Faust, holding out until the terms were right; instead, he simply handed over his whole existence— body, mind, soul, and spirit—to trying the way of those who have pointed the way for humankind, to see if their paths indeed led to life: Homer, Moses, St. Theresa, Buddha, Dante, Christ, Nietzsche, Muhammed, Genghis Khan, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, Lenin, El Greco, and others. Kazantzakis struggled in his spirit to meet theirs in a no-holds-barred confrontation. Each encounter left a mark on his soul, giving to him and taking from him something, so that he’d never be the same again.
Few humans treading this earth ever risk the total abandonment a true pilgrimage requires, let alone undergo the dangerous disintegration of a journey so vast in scope as that undertaken by Kazantzakis. Few who set out on such a journey persist to the end, and of these, only a handful produce anything that transcends their personal search and passes on something that others can use to advance further still. Had he been a man of thought or a man of action, he might have chosen to walk either path to distinction—as thousands of other genuinely outstanding people have done. But both strivings were in him, as they are to a degree in everyone, and they turned up early in his life, when he was still a schoolboy. His response hinted even then that he was one who would choose to live them both.
So audacious did my mind become, that one day I made the harum-scarum decision that next to every word in the French dictionary I would write the Greek equivalent. This labor took me months…and when I finally finished…I took it and proudly showed it to Père Lau rent, the school’s director, a learned Catholic priest. “What you have done, my young Cretan, shows that one day you will become an important man. You are fortunate in having found your road while so young. Scholarship—that is your road. God bless you.”
Filled with pride, I ran as well to the assistant director, Père Lèlievre, a well-fed, fun-loving monk with playful eyes. “Shame on you!” he screamed. “Are you a boy or a doddering old graybeard? Out of my sight! Take it from me that if you follow this road, you’ll never amount to anything—never! You’ll become some miserable round-shouldered little teacher with spectacles. If you’re really a Cretan, burn this damnable dictionary and bring me the ashes. Then I’ll give you my blessing. Think it over and act. Away with you.”
I went away completely confused. Who was right, what was I to do? Which of the two roads was correct? This question tortured me for years, and when I finally discovered which road was the correct one, my hair had turned gray.
This happened when Kazantzakis was still a boy; but holding fast to both strivings, he wandered the world and became a man. When one striving persisted, content in being tended to and followed, then discontent and at times even disease would drive the other one into a resounding lament that soon swelled into a piercing temple-cracking cry that would make him turn and follow it.
Thought and action taunted him like two seductive sirens. Untied to any mast, he took the cotton from his ears, and then followed, living the torment of conflicting lures and screams—until he found, amidst the swell of rage and clamor, the still small voice of his own soul. At times the tension nearly tore his life apart. To ease the wrenching pain, most people would let one of these mighty strivings go, and lob it out of awareness, holding from then on with both hands fixed firmly to the other. But Kazantzakis didn’t. Like a man trying to tame two steeds, each lunging in a different direction, Kazantzakis held onto both. This guaranteed that his life would thus become a pilgrimage, for that is what a pilgrimage is: a journey combining thought with action, a sustained living of both. He undertook this pilgrimage, persisted in it to the very end, and in so doing created the unfolding journey of his life.
And journey he did, starting with . . . Greece —“the filter which, with great struggle, refines brute into man, eastern servitude into liberty, barbaric intoxication into sober rationality”—where, “The spirit has trodden upon the stones…for many, many years; no matter where you go, you discover its divine traces”; Italy and Assisi—where “For the entire extent of this honeymoon with my soul I felt, to a greater degree then ever again in my life, that body, mind, and soul are fashioned of the same clay. Only when a person ages or falls into the grips of illness or misfortune do they separate and oppose one another”; Mount Athos— “…since I myself could not become either a saint or a hero, I was attempting by means of writing to find some consolation for my incapacity”—where he and his poet friend, thinking they were a team of oxen, yoked together and plowing the earth, “plowed the air” in youth’s needful Quixotic assault upon life; Jerusalem—“the sun-baked land where once upon a time a flame had bounded out of a poor cottage in Nazareth, a flame which burned and renewed man’s heart”—the place on the voyage to which, “The ship’s hold seemed like a new catacomb in which slaves had assembled once more—today’s slaves—to conspire to blow the world up all over again…High up in first class, the carefree faithless talked politics…while here below, deep down in the hold, we were carrying as a terrifying gift the seed of a new, dangerous, and as yet unformed cosmogony”; The Desert and Sinai—where an old monk, about to die, entrusts him with the fruit of the monk’s apprenticeship in life to flesh and spirit…“You are rendering up the flame of your entire life. Will I be able to carry it still further and turn it into light?”; Crete— where his father, unsatisfied with his only and wandering son, said, bidding him farewell at the waterfront, “I think you’re like your grandfather…I don’t mean your mother’s father, but mine, the pirate. But he rammed ships…What ships are you ramming?”; Paris—where he studied under the philosopher Bergson, and dove into that martyr to truth, Nietzsche; Vienna—where he discovered Buddha, and was also afflicted by a tormenting illness that swelled his face so that his eyes shut almost completely, which the renowned Freudian, Wilhelm Stekel, diagnosed as “ascetic’s disease,” common in the Middle Ages but almost unheard of in modern times…“because what body today, obeys its soul?”…and which cleared, as Stekel said it would, as soon as Kazantzakis left behind both Vienna and the woman he had met there; Berlin—where his Buddhism was punctured by the great misery of human suffering, hunger, oppression…shaming him into a responsibility which linked him from then on with all the rest of humankind—and where he first met Albert Schweitzer; Russia—Lenin, Marx, and the Slavic soul and land where the awesome bloody experiment was taking place…“Miracle butts against reality, makes a hole, and enters” The Caucasus—where he moved completely into action in taking, as he was asked to, the directorship of Greece’s Ministry of Social Welfare, in order to rescue 100,000 Greeks endangered by the Bolsheviks on the north and the Kurds on the south…“The moment was ripe to test whether action, by slicing its sword through the insoluble knots of speculation, was alone capable of giving an answer”; Crete— returning home…“Having just returned from Russia, I too wished to make this microscopic attempt to emerge from my ivory tower and work with human beings.” And then…“as if fate was in a mood to play games”…he met Giorghos Zorba…“this dancer and warrior, the broadest soul, surest body, freest cry I ever knew in my life.” (The account of this pilgrimage, filled with rare and truly magnificent discoveries, is laid out before the reader in the 495 pages of Kazantzakis’s Report to Greco; New York: Bantam, 1966.)
Then he stopped to catch his breath from the grueling pace of the spiritual marathon he had been on for forty years. The air he now breathed in blew like wind across a field of grain, and it shook loose the seed of his soul, which fell to the ground within him, took root, and began to sprout. For years he had had a definite aim.
My aim is not Art for Art’s sake, but to find and express a new sense of life…In the process of writing I feel increasingly relieved. And yet I know that this is by no means enough. To attain my aim, I must make a leap. As soon as this leap is accomplished (which can only be an example of life and not one of Art and writing), I shall find the expression of my soul…
Now that aim took shape. As he began to find his soul, a living form emerged, an actual man . . . Zorba . . .
“Giorghos Zorba …this dancer and warrior, the broadest soul, surest body, freest cry I ever knew in my life.”
. . . whom he then used to refashion an ancient form into a figure big enough to pour his forty years of thought and action into, which was “…Odysseus; he was the mold I was carving out so that the man of the future might flow in.” In this act and work, his “Obra,” a remarkable metamorphosis occurred: what he was struggling to create now began to actualize itself within him. In the fourteen years he was metamorphosing Odysseus from the issue and happenings of the past, his own substance was transubstantiating itself into the stuff of the future. Sitting down to write out of the odyssey he had lived, he commenced to live the odyssey of which he wrote—and arose a different man.
If he had allotted fourteen years to model his Odysseus, the “future man,” Odysseus, in his turn, had allotted fourteen years to model the future Kazantzakis. And when the umbilical cord was cut, there were two men—mature, serene, walking hand in hand along the rim of the abyss. The osmosis of life and death took place gently, “admirably,” open-eyed. (Helen Kazantzakis, Nikos Kazantzakis, New York: Simon and Schuster: 1968, p. 384.)
Two Lightning Bolts That Cracked Open My Soul To Nikos Kazantzakis
I had never heard of him. I was twenty-seven, a graduating senior sitting in class in an Episcopal seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, listening as one of our favorite professors expounded on theological matters, scriptural studies, and massive Biblical commentaries. It was 1962. My classmates and I were all getting ready to return to our dioceses in the various states we’d come from. A fellow student had just asked what the single best book on the life of Christ was that we should start saving our money to eventually buy it for our fledgling personal libraries. A tall, angular, quietly intense, always-thinking man with the easy-flowing Mississippi accent, you could see the many wheels of his lifetime of teaching turning as we all waited for his answer. Fifteen, twenty, thirty seconds — only silence. Finally, “Really, there’s been no truly significant life of Christ written in the last half-century. You’d have to go back as far as Ernest Renan’s life of . . . and from the very back of the room came a shout. “Nikos Kazantzakis!” We looked around, then back at the professor, who smiled as he nodded. “I stand corrected. You’re absolutely right. Nikos Kazantzakis has written the most significant life of Christ written in the last fifty years.” It was like a clap of thunder, the first time I ever heard his name. I forgot all about it. Returning to my home diocese in Florida, I was ordained at the Cathedral in Jacksonville, Florida with three men coming from other seminaries, and we were all sent out with our budding young families to the small congregations of our respective churches to begin our ministries.
Four years later, in 1966, our family of five was living in Gainesville, Florida, where I’d gone to college before seminary. The journal I’d started keeping when I began my ministry in 1962, which I was now keeping religiously, reflected on its pages an increasing arc of unrest over concerns within me and proliferating cultural foment and tumult everywhere without. It seemed to be coalescing into something that had no agreed upon name as of yet but was about to be given the one that finally stuck (“the Sixties”) — perhaps because over the few prior years it was given so many that hadn’t. There was cacophonous talk of Future Shock, The Greening of America, The Age of Aquarius, The Problem That Had No Name, The Making of a Counter Culture, over a gaggle of movements, demonstrations, protests, “happenings,” sit ins, bus ins, wade ins, kneel ins, teach ins, older “Beatniks” alongside an younger new-fangled breed called “Hippies”; there was black power, red power, and, of course, the inevitable white power getting into the fray; there was “do your own thing” mixed in with “tune in, turn on, and drop out” — much of which was simplified in a popular poster of the day: Push, or Pull, or Get Out Of The Way. It got thicker and bigger and moved faster and farther than any who were for, against, or smack dab in the middle of either saw clearly or ever knew just what to do with.
And, while not overly affected by any piece of it, I was unmistakably surrounded by it in every direction. I took myself, with no particular agenda, to the smaller cinema I frequented most because of its array of more interesting films. Whether I’d known anything of what I was about to see, I honestly don’t recall. But after getting my popcorn and taking my seat three-fourths of the way back, I saw that the film’s title was “Zorba The Greek.” I had no idea what was in store.
A great story exists only in being told. If one doesn’t tell the tale but only tries to say what it is about, it disappears and there is nothing there. I wouldn’t have attempted to tell it at all. But I didn’t need to, because the story never left and stayed in me anyway. It went on rearranging the furniture of where I lived inside, moving attitudes around and shoving my opinions about that I wanted left right where they belonged. To be sure, I went on busily attending to my other chores, lists of things to do, and round of professional and personal activities — but that rearranging inside never stopped even though I wasn’t “thinking about it.”
Browsing the aisles of my favorite bookstore a few days later, I spent a half-hour looking for a book or two to add to my list ones to read at a later time. In putting back the one I’d just looked at, I noticed the back of the one next to it — attracted by its strong colors, with a look of stone and blood mixed together, I skimmed a couple of quote-ads on the back of it, which lured me inside to the book’s starting pages, where my eyes saw this in capital letters standing on a page all by themselves:
THREE KINDS OF SOULS, THREE PRAYERS:
1] I AM A BOW IN YOUR HANDS, LORD, DRAW ME, LEST I ROT.
2] DO NOT OVERDRAW ME, LORD. I SHALL BREAK.
3] OVERDRAW ME, LORD, AND WHO CARES IF I BREAK!
Stunned at being so startled, I whipped the book over to its cover, my eyes landed on this: “By the author of Zorba The Greek.” I read no more. Securing the book in my hand’s full grasp, I spun around on my heel and headed straight to the counter to buy the book, then swooshed out the door and into my car, and lost no time heading straight for home. Once there, with no intervening ado whatsoever, I plopped myself down in the large, green reclining chair in our living room (a recent birthday gift from my wife), opened the book and dove headlong into its pages. I must’ve read for at least four straight hours. When I finally got back up on my feet to stretch and stir a little, my life was not what it was before I sat down . . . and has never been since.
Debate, conflict, and bitter controversy has surrounded his life from when he died clear on up to today, and it probably always will. (Witness the bitter seven years war in the courts over his literary legacy, decided only last year in favor of his wife Eleni’s case and that of her adopted son Patroclus Stavros.) But Kazantzakis’s real legacy is so boundless and undeniably transcendent that it can never be reduced to or constrained by the merely legal limits of his literary legacy. From birth to death he always lived above such matters anyway, and any who think otherwise are grossly mistaken.
Those who would bend or distort his writings, his oeuvre, to serve their lesser causes and own purposes — and they are legion — will always be contradicted by the works themselves. And the people all over the world whose lives were changed by them, and those yet to come whose lives certainly will be, it is for them that the works were written, and they are the ones to whom they all truly belong. For far more than just being “affected” by his works, those people are the ones whose very lives were deeply changed by the one that was his, and which he unceasingly wrote of right up to his very last breath.
The Way He Manifested It
Kazantzakis found his vitality in a form he thought he was unsuited for and not able to handle: the novel. But a torrent of novels then rushed forth. Still, true to his abiding aim, his primary thrust in this venture of body, mind, and soul was not artistic but religious—but genuinely religious. As Martin Buber defined it: “The realer religion is, so much the more it means its own overcoming. It wills to cease to be the special domain ‘Religion’ and wills to become life” (The Eclipse of God, New York: Harper & Row, 1952). Instead of using life’s power to create expressive forms, he came at it the other way around, seeking to find expressive forms that the power of life might use. While art is a movement of life into form, religion is a movement of form into life. In the first, spirit becomes matter, and in the second, matter becomes spirit. He was after a way to extend spirit, to stretch it in order that life could have the breathing room in which to form him and all humankind anew, thereby lifting man higher and planting him with both feet on the new ground of the age just dawning.
I used to believe that there must be a great difference between vital literary work and action. A genuine novelist can live only in his own time, and by living this reality he acquires consciousness of his own responsibility and assumes the duty of helping his fellowmen to envisage and solve, as far as possible, the crucial problems of his era. If he acquires consciousness of his mission, the novelist endeavors to compel the reality that is flowing formlessly to take on the form he regards as most worthy of man….
As Kazantzakis labored in the vineyard of this unfamiliar genre, thought and action joined and produced offspring. Each novel was a furthering step in his pain-filled yet joyous ascent, and meant another trip to the rim of the abyss, to look into it unflinchingly and leap, so that he would have to sprout wings to keep from perishing. Each new novel was thus a stretching of his outermost boundaries, a making of still more of his soul into spirit; so each one, a little odyssey in itself, drained more of his life from him. Eleni could plainly see the exhaustion hollowing out the face of her companion as he continued along his chosen path:
I’ve struggled, that’s true, throughout my life. And I’m still struggling to keep my soul from dying. I know how the mortal becomes immortal. And this is precisely the great torment of my life. For it is not enough that you know. You must also become…
Finally, on Saturday, October 26, 1967, sick with fever, while Eleni was at his side, he made his final leap into the abyss and rendered the last bit of his life into spirit.
Confronting death as he had lived, he had just given up his soul. “Like a king who had taken part in the festivity, then risen, opened the door and, without turning back, crossed the threshold.
“I had been struggling for a lifetime to stretch my mind until it creaked at the breaking point in order to bring forth a great idea able to give a new meaning to life, a new meaning to death, and comfort to men.”
“My purpose in writing was not beauty, it was deliverance.” –Nikos Kazantzakis
What he had been struggling to do in his lifetime, Nikos Kazantzakis achieved. Faith is that upon which one is willing to act. “We call ‘nonexistent’ whatever we have not desired with sufficient strength.” Early in his life he had wanted to found a new religion. He failed in that, yet succeeded in doing something far more. Because greater than that which brings in the new, is something able to make even the old new once more. The tremendous might of his spirit broke through the crust of what so much religion had hardened into for centuries, exposing again the bread it held underneath, so it could be eaten and nourish the hungry souls of the world to new life once more. And the far-reaching effects of his achievement showed in what happened at his funeral on the island of Crete, which both the church and the state sought, unsuccessfully, to suppress.
They were here from every village and city…50,000 of them, to pay final homage to the writer who had wandered the earth and always returned home to squeeze a clod of Cretan soil in his palm and draw strength from it…
Everything went as planned—the tributes, the placing of flowers— until it came time to lower the coffin into the grave. Then a giant of a man, a veritable Zorba, stepped out of the crowd…Captain Mamousakas…his mustache was large, sweeping, ferocious…“Such a man as this,” he rumbled, “must be put into his grave by heroes.” So saying, he picked up the head of the coffin by himself. His three friends took hold of the other end. Together they lowered Nikos Kazantzakis into his personal abyss. (Frank Riley, “A Cross In Heraklion,” Saturday Review, October 14, 1967, pp. 47-48.)
His life — already turned into spirit — was stirring the lives here just as it was elsewhere around the world. And that same spirit is found in that flame his life and works still kindle in the souls of men and women today.