Authors: Nikos Kazantzakis

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Greek poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, philospher, and nine-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

February 18, 1883

Iraklion, Crete, Ottoman Empire (now Greece)

October 26, 1957

Freiburg, West Germany (now Germany)

Biography

Nikos Kazantzakis is the best-known and most successful Greek poet and novelist of the twentieth century, although his theoretical and linguistic principles have alienated him from many Greek critics and intellectuals. His achievements in fiction and poetry are impressive and substantial, and the reaction to his work by the Greek intelligentsia may say more about the divided conscience of that country than about the quality of his writing.

Kazantzakis was born on the island of Crete on February 18, 1883, the son of a small farmer and dealer in feeds. His early life brought him into close contact with the farmers, shepherds, fishermen, peddlers, merchants, and rural characters that populate his books. It also bonded him to the land, weather, and sea of the Mediterranean region, providing images that reverberate throughout his writing. In 1897 a conflict erupted on the island between native Cretans and the Turkish overlords. To keep him out of danger, Kazantzakis’s father sent him to Naxos, where he entered a school operated by Franciscan monks. This introduction to the intellectual traditions of Western civilization intoxicated him; he was fascinated by ideas of spiritual development, especially those associated with asceticism.

Nikos Kazantzakis.

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By Μουσείο N. Καζαντζάκη / Kazantzakis Museum, CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Kazantzakis’s life from that point on may be defined as an incessant spiritual quest, one punctuated by a series of spiritual role models. He continued his formal education at the University of Athens; after graduation, he went to Paris to study philosophy under Henri Bergson, where he developed a fascination with Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler. Early in his career he published Greek translations of Nietzsche's Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872; The Birth of Tragedy, 1909) and Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–91; Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896) and Bergson's Le rire: Essai sur la signification du comique (1900; Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, 1911).

After leaving France, Kazantzakis embarked on an ascetic experiment: he retired to a monastery on Mount Athos in Macedonia, where he meditated in an isolated cell for six months. When this failed to bring him into direct spiritual contact with God, he adopted Nietzsche as his first spiritual mentor, projecting that philosopher’s ideal of one transforming himself into a superman by spiritual striving, by actualizing spiritual energy. Nietzsche was to be the first in a series of such mentors; later mentors would include Buddha, Vladimir Lenin, Dante, Odysseus, and finally Jesus Christ.

This early idolization of Nietzsche not only reinforced Kazantzakis’s previous decision to pursue the Dionysian ideal of ecstatic action, of losing oneself in a cause, as opposed to the Apollonian ideal of restraint and contemplation; it also inspired him to identify with a series of movements promising to realize the liberation of the oppressed. He first considered joining the Cretan revolutionaries, but when the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, it fired his imagination, though he was not able to join it immediately. Instead, he served in a variety of offices in the Greek government. In one of these he participated in a Peloponnesian mining operation with an activist named George Zorbas, who struck him as an incarnation of the Nietzschean ideal. That impression would later be transformed into the hero of his novel Vios kai politeia tou Alexē Zormpa (1946; Zorba the Greek, 1952).

Although inspired by the ideal of action during this time, Kazantzakis occupied himself primarily by writing a number of verse plays and by translating the works of Bergson, Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, Johann Eckermann, William James, Maurice Maeterlinck, Plato, and Dante Alighieri. In 1922 he took up residence in Vienna, where he encountered the teachings of Buddha, whose doctrine of renunciation appealed to him during the desolate period after World War I. In that spirit, he began writing his credo; his writings eventually resulted in Salvatores Dei: Askētikē (1927; The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, 1960), though the energy celebrated in that book is a far cry from Buddhist values. This work contains the spiritual kernel that would grow into the later great works of his maturity. In the meantime, he seized several opportunities to travel to Russia, where he temporarily chose Lenin as a new savior and vowed to promote the Leninist cause. Close contact, however, brought disillusionment; while traveling through Russia to develop materials for the Leninists, he found his imagination fixed on the character of Odysseus.

For the next ten years, he worked and reworked what would become Odyseia (1938; The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, 1958). This modern epic—33,333 lines in an obscure and difficult verse form—is really a monumental verse narrative, ostensibly setting forth the experiences and reflections of Odysseus following his return to Ithaca after the Trojan War but actually more concerned with defining Kazantzakis’s ideal of purposive action, of spiritual energy projected toward a goal. His political beliefs, centered on the liberation of the common man, caused him to choose specific formal and linguistic patterns, so that his treatment is finally quite un-Homeric. Although he did not intend to imitate Homer—in fact, he claimed to transcend him—the liberties he took with Homeric materials and characters, with history, and with the literary language puzzled and irritated both traditional and revisionist Greeks. As a result, the work has not enjoyed widespread acceptance among the Greeks, though Kazantzakis’s eye for accurate historical detail alone would seem to compel recognition. It may be one of the few great works of literature appreciated better in translation than in the original.

His next major work, Zorba the Greek, is the one work by Kazantzakis acclaimed both at home and abroad, its celebrity expanded by the very successful 1964 motion picture of the same name. Like all of his work, however, it seems best appreciated for elements which he did not intend to be central. The novel is a brilliant example of the technical function of point of view. The events presented are narrated by an anonymous observer because they inspired him to move from despair over the possibility of significant human action to acceptance of the human situation; that is, the narrator is raised to serene indifference, though once again able to act, in the end, and this is the objective at which Kazantzakis aimed. The frame narrative then supersedes the enclosed narrative. The novel is usually extolled because of the active, dynamic energy of the title character, whose zest for life is so infectious that it persists even in disaster.

The other work for which Kazantzakis is best known, Ho teleutaios peirasmos (1955; The Last Temptation of Christ, 1960), represents the final stage in the evolution of his hero. Kazantzakis’s concept of the heroic Christ is so entirely heterodox that the work's publication resulted in his excommunication from the Greek Orthodox church in 1961. A generation later, in 1988, a filmed version provoked widespread boycotts and threats of reprisal from conservative Christian churches. In both cases, these reactions seem misunderstood, for the image of Christ presented in this book is truly heroic, truly human, truly admirable and inspiring. Kazantzakis presents him as frail, imperfect, only gradually discovering the godhead immanent in himself and—as the title indicates—susceptible to temptation, as is the biblical Christ. Theology aside, this compelling, riveting novel is full of brilliantly imaginative solutions to the problems facing anyone attempting to realize the sketchy—and implausible—narrative of the Bible. Kazantzakis’s mastery of historical and local detail also makes life in Roman Palestine more vivid and identifiable than the pallid portraits of piety usually given.

Kazantzakis certainly identified with this ideal of self-actualization. At the age of seventy-four, suffering from leukemia, he seized an opportunity to visit China. There he developed an infection from a smallpox inoculation, and he died shortly after his return, on October 26, 1957. The Greek church prevented a hero’s burial.

Author Works Long Fiction: Toda-Raba, 1929 (Toda Raba, 1964) De tuin der Rotsen, 1939 (The Rock Garden,1963) Vios kai politeia tou Alexē Zormpa, 1946 (Zorba the Greek, 1952) Ho Christos xanastaurōnetai, 1948 (The Greek Passion, 1953; known in the UK as Christ Recrucified) Ho kapetan Michalēs, 1953 (Freedom or Death, 1956; known in the UK as Freedom and Death) Ho teleutaios peirasmos, 1955 (The Last Temptation of Christ, 1960) Ho phtōchoulēs tou Theou, 1956 (Saint Francis, 1962; known in the UK as God’s Pauper: St. Francis of Assisi) Aderphophades, 1963 (The Fratricides, 1964) Drama: Xēmerōnei, pr. 1907 Ho prōtomastoras, pb. 1910 Nikēphoros Phōkas, pb. 1927 Christos, pb. 1928 Odysseas, pb. 1928 Melissa, pb. 1939, pr. 1962 Ioulianos ho paravetēs, pb. 1945, pr. 1948 Kapodistrias, pb. 1946 Theatro: Tragōdies, 1955–56 (3 volumes; includes Christophoros Kolomvos, Kōnstantinos ho Palaiologos, Kouros, Promētheas trilogy, Sodoma kai Gomorra, Voudas) Ho Othellos xanagyrizei, pb. 1962 Three Plays, pb. 1969 (Athena Gianakas-Dallas, translator; contains Christopher Columbus, Melissa, and Kouros) Nonfiction: Salvatores Dei: Askētikē, 1927 (The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, 1960) Taxideuontas, 1927 (Journeying: Travels in Italy, Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem and Cyprus, 1975) Ti eida stē Rousia, 1928 (2 volumes; reprinted as Taxideuontas: Rousia, 1956; Russia: A Chronicle of Three Journeys in the Aftermath of the Revolution, 1989) Ho Morias, 1937 (serial; Journey to the Morea, 1965; also known as Travels in Greece, 1966) Taxideuontas: Hispania, 1937 (Spain, 1963) Taxideuontas: Iaponia, Kina, 1938 (Japan, China, 1963; also known as Travels in China and Japan, 1964) Taxideuontas: Anglia, 1941 (England: A Travel Journal, 1965) Epistoles pros tē Galateia, 1958 (correspondence; The Suffering God: Selected Letters to Galateia and to Papastephanou, 1979) Anaphora ston Gkreko: Mythistorema, 1961 (autobiography; Report to Greco, 1965) Taxideuontas: Italia, Aigyptos, Sina, Ierusalēm, Kypros, ho Morias, 1961 (collects Taxideuontas and Ho Moria) Tetrakosia grammata tou Kazantzakē ston Prevelakē, 1965 (correspondence) The Selected Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis, 2012 (correspondence; Peter Bien, editor and translator) Translations: Hē theōria tēs synkinēseōs, 1911 (of William James’s La théorie de l’émotion, French translation of articles originally in English) Alkiviadēs, Alkiviadēs II, 1912 (of Plato's Alcibiades and Alcibiades II) Hē genesē tēs tragōdias, 1912 (of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie) Dēmodokos, Sisyphos, Kleitophōn, Iōn, Minōs, 1912 (of Plato's Demodocus, Sisyphus, Clitophon, Ion, and Minos) Hē agōgē, 1913 (of C. A. Laisant’s L’éducation fondée sur la science) Ho thēsauros tōn tapeinōn, 1913 (of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Le trésor des humbles) Synomiliai Ekkerman me ton Gkaite, 1913 (of Johann Peter Eckermann and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Goethes Gespräche mit J. P. Eckermann) Tade ephē Zaratoustras, 1913 (of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra) Dynamis kai hylē, 1915 (of Ludwig Büchner’s Kraft und Stoff: Empirisch-naturphilosophische studien) Peri tēs geneseōs tōn eidōn, 1915 (of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) To gelio, 1915 (of Henri Bergson’s Le rire: Essai sur la signification du comique) Hē theia kōmōdia: Hē kolasē, 1934 (of Dante Alighieri's Divina comedia) Iliada, 1955 (of Homer’s Iliad; with Ioannis Kakridis) Odysseia, 1965 (of Homer’s Odyssey; with Ioannis Kakridis) Poetry: Odyseia, 1938 (The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, 1958) Bibliography Bien, Peter. Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit. Princeton UP, 1989–2007. 2 vols. Focuses on the evolution of Kazantzakis’s personal philosophy and its reflection in his work. Properly documented, with a rich international bibliography, a detailed chronology, and an index of names and titles. Bien, Peter. Nikos Kazantzakis. Columbia UP, 1972. A reliable scholarly introduction to Kazantzakis’s life and work, with a useful bibliography. Bien, Peter. Nikos Kazantzakis, Novelist. Bristol Classical Press, 1989. A good study of the Greek author. Contains a bibliography. Dillistone, F. W. The Novelist and the Passion Story. Sheed & Ward, 1960. A survey of fictional works featuring representations of the passion of Christ, covering up to the 1950s. Includes a discussion of Kazantzakis’s work. Dombrowski, Daniel A. Kazantzakis and God. State U of New York P, 1997. Contains chapters on the Bergsonian background, transubstantiation, eating and spiritual exercise, the new Middle Ages, theism, mysticism, method and purpose, and panexperientialism and death. Has an appendix on Friedrich Nietzsche’s place in Kazantzakis’s thought. Includes notes, bibliography, and an index of names. Kazantzakis, Helen. Nikos Kazantzakis: A Biography Based on His Letters. Translated by Amy Mims, Simon & Schuster, 1968. A valuable collection of letters and photographs, arranged chronologically. The letters are only lightly annotated and should be read in conjunction with Lea (below). Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Suffering God: Selected Letters to Galatea and to Papastephanou. Translated by Philip Ramp and Katerina Anghelaki Rooke, Caratzas Brothers, 1979. Provides valuable biographical material, plus an introduction containing a reliable guide to the author’s life and work. Includes useful annotations to the letters. Lea, James F. Kazantzakis: The Politics of Salvation. U of Alabama P, 1979. Presents an overview of the writer’s career; closely examines his use of language; studies his poetry, prophetic style, and political philosophy; and discusses his search for order in chaos. Chapter 5 concludes with his vision of freedom and hope. With detailed notes and bibliography. Middleton, Darren J. N., and Peter Bien, editors. God’s Struggler: Religion in the Writings of Nikos Kazantzakis. Mercer UP, 1996. A collection of essays exploring the theme of religion in Kazantzakis’s works. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Newton, Rick M. “Homer and the Death of Kazantzakis’ Odysseus.” Classical and Modern Literature, vol. 9, no. 4, 1989, pp. 327–38. Contrasts Homer’s Odysseus with Kazantzakis’s more extensive treatment of the hero’s voyage. Provides insights into Kazantzakis’s poetics. Reece, Andrew S. “Kazantzakis’ St. Francis and the Cynics.” Classical and Modern Literature, vol. 18, no. 1, 1997, pp. 71–77. A study of Kazantzakis’s debt to ancient writings on Cynicism for his concept of perfect asceticism, personified by Saint Francis of Assisi. Stanford, William Bedell. The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero. 2nd ed., Basil Blackwell, 1963. Contains some valuable insights into Kazantzakis’s poem, particularly with reference to his concept of the hero. Only some twenty pages are given to his work, however, mostly in comparison with Joyce.

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