Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit
by peter bien
princeton university press, 318 pages, $29.95 

By the time he died in 1957, the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis had established himself as one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century. His extension of the Homerian epic. The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, was widely hailed as a masterpiece of poetic narrative; when it appeared in English translation in 1958 John Ciardi called it “a monument of the age.” Kazantzakis’ most famous work—later made into a highly successful movie starring Anthony Quinn—was Zorba the Greek, a book which presented one of the great, memorable characters in modern literature. In this and other writings the style was earthy, colorful, passionate, poetic, and philosophical. A latecomer to the novelist’s art, Kazantzakis was considered for the Nobel prize in literature in 1957, reportedly losing by one vote to Albert Camus.

Yet for all his fame, Kazantzakis was—and remains—a highly controversial figure. In his political commitments he was wildly irresponsible, embracing extremism on both the left and the right, sometimes simultaneously. In religion he was a heretic who was condemned and nearly excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church. In his novel The Greek Passion Kazantzakis reenacted Christ’s passion in the setting of a Greek village under Turkish occupation, with the persecution and crucifixion being accomplished through the collaboration of Turkish administration, popular hysteria, and priestly corruption. A later novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, restored the passion to its original locale but added novel (and disturbing) elements to the gospel account, such as sexual desire on the part of Jesus himself. That work was condemned not only by the Greek Orthodox Church but also by the Roman Catholic Church, which put it on the Index of forbidden books. In 1988, thirty-one years after his death, Kazantzakis’ reputation again became a source of controversy, as a kind of sidebar to the public uproar caused by Martin Scorcese’s film version of The Last Temptation of Christ. 

A new book that sheds considerable light on this complex and contradictory man is Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit, the first installment of a two-volume “intellectual biography” by Peter Bien, a professor of English at Dartmouth and the translator of three Kazantzakis works (The Last Temptation of Christ, Saint Francis, and Report to Greco). This is a decidedly academic treatment that will interest mainly those who are already dedicated Kazantzakophiles, since it concentrates exclusively on the author’s intellectual evolution and conveys little sense of the affection and enthusiasm that Kazantzakis usually inspires. Nevertheless, it does make several points of general interest.

Bien explains Kazantzakis’ political commitments and literary intentions as reflecting a highly idiosyncratic personal philosophy, worked out in the course of the author’s intellectual and spiritual struggles. Born in Turkish-occupied Crete in 1883, Kazantzakis studied and traveled throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. In his early manhood he developed a worldview that blended elements of Nietzsche, Bergson, and William James—along with Jesus, Genghis Khan, Lenin, Buddha, Odysseus, St. Francis, Darwin, Rosa Luxemburg, Don Quixote, and Oswald Spengler! By normal standards this is a strange and unstable brew, but in Kazantzakis’ mind, at least, there was a coherence to the whole.

Professor Bien has set out, by careful and patient analysis, to show how the various elements interact, or—to switch metaphors—how the various spiritual and intellectual strands are interwoven in Kazantzakis’ own thought. In brief, Kazantzakis saw life as a struggle in which the creative force in man (basically, the elan vital of Bergson) seeks constantly to overcome its limitations until it becomes divine. He repeatedly spoke of a process (taken largely from Bergson’s notion of “creative evolution”) by which “matter is transubstantiated into spirit.” This struggle involves a series of violent clashes between opposing forces in the soul: mind and matter, spirit and flesh, instinct and reason, vitality and form, action and contemplation. On the social and historical level, Kazantzakis saw this evolutionary process as requiring terrible, bloody, and catastrophic upheavals.

According to Bien, Kazantzakis understood the modern era as a “transitional age” in which the human race was poised between the decadence of the old civilization and the fulfillment of a new, authentic, vital, and liberating order. Like Nietzsche, he utterly despised liberal, bourgeois civilization, which he saw as being dominated by technology, materialism, and a suffocating comfort that worshipped security above all else. Also like Nietzsche, Kazantzakis was a bookish, reflective person who admired men of energy and action. He proposed a restoration of pagan vitality and freedom over bourgeois inertia and self-restraint. He was quite willing, even eager, to see bourgeois society swept away in a great cleansing tidal wave of violence and destruction. He supported whatever political movement seemed at the moment to display the passion and furious energy necessary to effect the transition. As a consequence, Kazantzakis was at various times a nationalist, a fascist (or at least proto-fascist), a communist, and a socialist. He was all of them and yet none of them since each was, to his mind, merely a vehicle for advancing a more primary spiritual and cultural agenda. He tried them on, found them wanting, and threw them off as recklessly as he had originally embraced them.

Thus, Bien concludes, Kazantzakis was not a truly political thinker at all, in that he did not involve himself in the practical aspects of politics, e.g., weighing and balancing various claims and rights, considering the requirements and limitations of justice in specific and concrete situations. Rather, Kazantzakis was basically a religious and spiritual figure with an “eschatological mentality” that could not rest content with anything less than a “metapolitical” enterprise. Of course, eschatological mentalities do try to incarnate their aspirations in politics”much to the unhappiness of the world. What distinguishes Kazantzakis from other artists and philosophers is that he fell into so many different eschatological follies.

During the public controversy over the film version of The Last Temptation, a conservative commentator snarled that Kazantzakis, in addition to being a disseminator of heresy, was “hard left.” True, he was hard left, but he was also hard right”and sometimes both at the same time, as in the 1920s when he admired Lenin and Mussolini, and in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War when he admired both the Communists and the Francoists. In sum, it is hard to find a single pejorative that does justice to Kazantzakis’ politics. The sheer comprehensiveness of his political error recalls the old joke about the bigot who denies any specific form of racial or ethnic bias. “I’m not prejudiced,” he says, “I hate everybody.”

Though he never abandoned political concerns altogether, Kazantzakis did come to recognize, as Bien explains, “that freedom in his case had to be sought in the imaginative realm of artistic creation rather than in the practical realm of politics.” In imaginative writing Kazantzakis’ peculiar genius found an outlet that was creative rather than destructive for society, and fulfilling rather than frustrating for himself. Although Bien does not pursue this matter at length, one hopes that he will do so in his second volume. The exasperating, often unlikable subject of this biography also happens to be a beloved author to many readers—precisely because his self-expression in art avoids the worst monstrosities and absurdities of his politics and philosophy.

In politics and philosophy the need for coherence may sometimes produce false and premature resolutions of life’s contradictions and tensions. In art, by contrast—especially in narrative art—there is some relaxation of the requirement to make coherence out of life’s diverse moods, tendencies, and impulses. Indeed, the truest witness to life as it is experienced often involves giving testimony to the unresolved tensions and loose ends of human existence. Frequently only a partial and tentative integration is possible.

Zorba the Greek, Kazantzakis’ best-known and possibly his best work, is full of unresolved tensions, particularly the tension between Dionysian vitality, sensuality, spontaneity, and exuberance (represented by Zorba) and Apollonian rationality, restraint, and contemplativeness (represented by “Boss,” the narrator-protagonist). When, in stories, Kazantzakis presents life as it is experienced, his worldview appears less ruthless than in his politics or philosophy. The fierce tension and the spiritual and intellectual power remain”but one also feels in his novels a humanity and largeness, as in Zorba, for instance, when the narrator recalls:

When I was still at school, I had organized a Friendly Society”that was the name we gave it”and, locked in my bedroom, we swore that, all our life, we would devote ourselves to the fighting of injustice. Great tears ran down our faces when, with hand on heart, we took the oath . . . . Puerile ideals! But woe betide whoever laughs when he hears them.

Kazantzakis’ appalling tolerance (even endorsement) of political violence assumes, in his novel, a softening skepticism and irony, as when Zorba remarks:

It’s a mystery . . . a great mystery! So, if we want liberty in this bad world, we’ve got to have all those murders, all those lousy tricks, have we? . . . And yet, the result of all that, what’s it been? Liberty! Instead of wiping us out with a thunderbolt, God gives us liberty! I just don’t understand!

Of course, a wise philosopher or theologian might explain that the “cunning of history” or the providence of God may sometimes bring good out of evil—but he would be quick to add that this truth provides no justification, before the fact, for treachery and murder. It was that great, mystical philosopher-statesman, Abraham Lincoln, who brought this insight into political discourse by quoting from Scripture: “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh.” Kazantzakis was incapable of such wisdom in political or philosophical terms, but in his narrative and story-telling he approaches the same insight.

In yet another instance, it is in the novelistic form rather than in politics or philosophy that Kazantzakis succeeds in stating an important and perennial tension of life: on the one hand spiritual transcendence above worldly cares and desires, and on the other hand full immersion in human passion and longing. In the course of describing lived experience, Kazantzakis is able to give an account of both tendencies without being dishonest to either and without making implausible or monstrous coherences. Early on in Zorba, for instance, the narrator-protagonist finds himself

seized with compassion. A Buddhist compassion, as cold as the conclusion of a metaphysical syllogism. A compassion not only for men but for all life which struggles, cries, weeps, hopes, and does not perceive that everything is a phantasmagoria of nothingness.

And yet there is in this expression of nihilism and resignation a note of protest. The reader is led to feel that everything is not a “phantasmagoria of nothingness.” Only a few paragraphs earlier this same narrator-protagonist exults not in oblivion as the goal of life, but in a creation that is so good it seems to point toward a fulfillment beyond itself.

The sea, autumn mildness, islands bathed in light, fine rain spreading a diaphanous veil over the immortal nakedness of Greece. Happy is the man, I thought, who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean Sea. Many are the joys of this world—women, fruit, ideas. But to cleave that sea in the gentle autumnal season, murmuring the name of each islet, is to my mind the joy most apt to transport the heart of man into paradise.

This reverence for created nature in Kazantzakis sometimes spills over into a kind of crude, paganistic pantheism, but in its finest expressions it achieves a sublime, sacramental character. In his novel Saint Francis, Kazantzakis’ prose overflows with gratitude to God for the beauties of Creation: green meadows, grape vineyards, fig trees and olive trees, pine groves, fields of poppies and daisies, freshly mown hay, the fragrance of the soil in the clean air after a rain. Describing a moment of bliss on a summer’s day: “A warm breeze was blowing, the kind that induces buds to open. It reached right down into my heart and made it open too.”

In this novel, as in others, Kazantzakis invites the reader to take in the sight and smell and taste and feel of nature, to look at Creation anew with awe, wonder, and gratitude—to drink it in deep draughts. Many Kazantzakis readers come to feel a kinship and gratitude to this author, much like the feeling that the character of Boss has for his alter-ego Zorba:

I felt, as I listened to Zorba, that the world was recovering its pristine freshness. All the dulled daily things regained the brightness they had in the beginning, when we came out of the hands of God.

The reader of literature who is not overly concerned about every philosophical influence behind a story, or the remote implications of all its ideas, often comes away from Kazantzakis feeling revitalized and refreshed, more awake and alive, reminded of primal longings and intense passions, and rededicated to seeking that fullness and abundance of life which the God of the Bible has willed for us. The recurring theme of dance and music in Zorba is part of Kazantzakis’ effort to recover the intuitive, the passionate, and the primitive.

Besides his attunement to the glory and sacramental character of Creation, Kazantzakis displays another important saving grace: humor. Ruthless philosophizing and monstrous politics cannot maintain themselves in the face of humor” which is in most cases a matter of irony, the lethal enemy of fanatical certainty and inhuman coherence. The element of humor in Kazantzakis is probably most prominent in Zorba the Greek, and it was well exploited by Anthony Quinn in Michael Cacoyannis’ cinematic version of the story. Zorba declares, “I’m not joking, boss. I think of God as being exactly like me. Only bigger, stronger, crazier. And immortal, into the bargain.”

Much of the humor derives from the way that Zorba’s natural spontaneity, impulsiveness, and coarseness is used to contrast with, and render ridiculous, the effete, delicate, and over-intellectualized life of Boss (as well as the author himself). Zorba chides the narrator-protagonist for always thinking too much, for weighing everything like a grocer. “Come on, friend, make up your mind. Take the plunge!” A man needs a bit of folly, he says later on” otherwise he can never cut the string and be free. As a kind of benign Nietzsche, Zorba exhorts his overly intellectual comrade not to seek a painless, danger-free existence; to live, he says, is to undo your belt and look for trouble. It may perhaps be conceded that Kazantzakis’ Dionysian, Nietzschean approach to life might not be the best influence for an already impetuous and irresponsibly impulsive person; but for bookish types like Boss, who read and think too much, it provides a thoroughly wholesome antidote.

There remains some question as to whether Kazantzakis was ultimately a pagan or a Christian. For a time he had considered himself a pure atheist. Under the spell of Nietzsche, he had wanted to destroy the whole Christian project. But he never totally shook off his religious impulses, and in an early philosophical work, The Saviors of God (1927), Kazantzakis was already writing in theological (if heretical) terms. By the time he wrote The Last Temptation of Christ he had come a long way back in the direction of Christian spirituality. To be sure, his Christ is in key respects more a Nietzschean “superman” than the Christ of the gospels. (Michael Novak, writing in Commonweal in 1960, summed up the problem of the book: “Perhaps it is wiser to read Kazantzakis’ novel not as an image of Christ, but as an image of Kazantzakis’ own struggle of spirit with flesh.”) Nevertheless, many readers sympathetic to the gospel account still managed to find Kazantzakis compelling and provocative in other respects”particularly his evocation of Jesus’ time and place. Bien points out that Kazantzakis never, not even in his final period, returned to being a Christian in the sense of accepting all the orthodox doctrines, such as the resurrection and the life to come. But he notes that Kazantzakis had begun to deal with religious and spiritual issues in an increasingly Christian way—in his sense of a suffering that hallows the soul, in his affirmation of spirit over matter, and in his assertion that true freedom transcends the political.

To the end, Kazantzakis remained a heretic and a blasphemer, and he was usually an exasperating rather than a lovable eccentric, as Bien’s biography reminds us. Nevertheless, Kazantzakis probably should be judged for his literary achievement rather than his philosophy, politics, or personal life. Therein lies his true legacy: strong emotions and heartfelt responses expressed through a great and unforgettable literary art, an inspiring affirmation of life despite tragedy and death, and an infectious love for God’s Creation, and for the vital energy He has implanted in the human spirit.

Matthew Berke is Managing Editor of First Things.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift